Proclamation of the French Constitution of 1852

LOUIS NAPOLEON,
president of the republic. In the name of the French People.

Frenchmen! When, in my proclamation of the 2d of December, I stated to you in all sincerity what were, according to my ideas, the vital conditions of government in France, I had not the pretension, so common in our days, of substituting a personal theory for the experience of ages. On the contrary, I sought in the past what were the best examples to follow, what men had given them, and what benefit had resulted therefrom.

Having done so, I considered it only logical to prefer the precepts of genius to the specious doctrines of men of abstract ideas. I took as model the political institutions which already, at the beginning of the present century, in analogous circumstances, strengthened society when tottering, and raised France to a high degree of prosperity and grandeur.

I selected as model those institutions which, in place of disappearing at the first breath of popular agitations, were overturned only by all Europe being coalesced against us.

In a word, I said to myself, since France has existed for the last fifty years only in virtue of the administration, military, judicial, religious, and financial organization of the consulate and the empire, why should we not adopt likewise the political institutions of that period? As they were created by the same mind, they ought to bear in themselves the same character of nationality and practical utility.

In fact, as I stated in my proclamation, our present society, it is essential to declare, is nothing else than France regenerated by the revolution of ‘89 and organized by the emperor. Nothing remains of the old régime but great reminiscences and great benefits. But all that was then organized was destroyed by the revolution, and all that has been organized since the revolution, and which still exists, was done by Napoleon.

We have no longer either provinces, or pays d'état, or parliaments, or intendants, or farmers general, or feudal rights, or privileged classes in exclusive possession of civil and military employments, or different religious jurisdiction.

In so many things incompatible with itself had the revolution effected a radical reform, but without founding anything definitive. The first consul alone re-established the unity, the various ranks, and the veritable principles of government. They are still in vigor.

Thus, the administration of France was intrusted to prefects, sub-prefects, and mayors, who substituted unity for the commissions of the directory; and, on the contrary, the decision of business given to councils from the commune to the department. Thus, the magistracy was strengthened by the immovability of the judges, by the various ranks of the tribunals; justice was rendered more easy by the delimitation of attributions, from the justice of peace to the court of cassation. All that is still existing.

In the same way our admirable financial system, the bank of France, the establishment of budgets, the court of accounts, the organization of police, and our military regulations, date from the same period.

For fifty years it is the code Napoléon which had regulated the interests of citizens amongst themselves; and it is still the concordat which regulates the relations between the state and the church.

In fine, the greatest part of the measures which concern the progress of manufactures, commerce, letters, sciences, and the arts, from the regulations of the Théâtre Française to those of the Institute—from the institution of the prud’hommes to the creation of the legion of honor—were fixed by decrees of that time.

It may then be affirmed that the framework of our social edifice is the work of the emperor, and that it has resisted his fall and three revolutions.

Why, with the same origin, should not the political institutions have the same chances of success?

My conviction was long formed on the point, and it is on that account that I submit to your judgment the principal bases of a constitution, borrowed from that of the year 8. When approved by you, they will become the foundation of our political constitution.

Let us examine what the spirit of them is.

In our country, monarchical as it has been for eight hundred years, the central power has always gone on augmenting. The royalty destroyed the great vassals; the revolutions themselves swept away the obstacles which opposed the rapid and uniform exercise of authority. In this country of centralization, public opinion has unceasingly attributed to the head of the government benefits as well as evils. And so, to write at the head of a charter that that chief is irresponsible, is to be against the public feeling—is to want to establish a fiction, which has three times vanished at the noise of revolutions.

The present constitution, on the contrary, declares that the chief whom you have elected is responsible before you; and that he has always the right to appeal to your judgment, in order that, in solemn circumstances, you may continue to him your confidence, or withdraw it.

Being responsible, his action ought to be free and unshackled. Thence the obligation of his having ministers who may be the honored and puissant auxiliaries of his thought, but who no longer form a responsible council, composed of mutually responsible members, a daily obstacle to the particular impulse of the head of the state, the expression of a policy emanating from the chambers, and by that very circumstance exposed to frequent changes, which prevent all spirit of unity and all application of a regular system.

Nevertheless, the higher a man is placed the more independent he is, and the greater confidence the people have placed in him the more he has need of enlightened and conscientious councils. Thence the creation of a council of state, henceforward a veritable council of the government, first wheel in our organization, a collection of practical men, elaborating bills in special commissions, discussing them with closed doors, without oratorical ostentation in general assembly, and presenting them afterwards for acceptance to the legislative body.

Thus, the government is free in its movements and enlightened in what it does.

What is now to be the control exercised by the assemblies?

A chamber, which takes the title of legislative body, votes the laws and the taxes. It is elected by universal suffrage, without scrutin de liste. The people, selecting each candidate separately, can more easily appreciate the merits of each.

The chamber is not to be any longer composed of more than about 260 members. That is a first guaranty of the calm of the deliberations, for only too often the inconsistency and ardor of passions have been seen to increase in assemblies in proportion to their number.

The report of the sittings, which is intended to inform the nation of what is going on, is no longer, as formerly, delivered to the party spirit of each journal; an official publication, drawn up by the care of the president of the chamber, will be alone permitted.

The legislative body discusses freely each law, and adopts or rejects it. But it cannot introduce all of a sudden those amendments which often disarrange the whole economy of a system and the ensemble of the original project. Still more, it does not possess that parliamentary initiative which was the source of such grave abuses, and which allowed each deputy to substitute himself at every turn for the government, by presenting projects the least carefully studied and inquired into.

The chamber being no longer in presence of the ministers, and the various bills being supported by speakers belonging to the council of state, time is not lost in vain interpellations and passionate debates, the only object of which was to overturn the ministers, in order to place others in their stead.

Thus, then, the deliberations of the legislative body will be independent, but the causes of sterile agitations will have been suppressed, and proper time and deliberation given to each modification of the law. The representatives of the nation will, in fact, maturely perform their serious functions.

Another assembly takes the name of senate. It will be composed of the elements which, throughout the whole country, create legitimate influences—an illustrious name, fortune, talent, and services rendered.

The senate is no longer, like the chamber of peers, the pale reflection of the chamber of deputies, repeating, at some days' interval, the same discussion in another tone. It is the depository of the fundamental compact, and of the liberties compatible with the constitution; and it is only with respect to the grand principles on which our society is based that it examines all the laws, and proposes new ones to the executive power. It intervenes, whether to resolve every grave difficulty which might arise during the absence of the legislative body, or to explain the text of the constitution, or to insure what is necessary for its being acted on. It has the right to annul every arbitrary and illegal act, and, thus enjoying that consideration which belongs to a body exclusively occupied with the examination of great interests, or the application of grand principles, it occupies in the state the independent, salutary and conservative position of the ancient parliaments.

The senate will not be, like the chamber of peers, transformed into a court of justice; it will preserve its character of supreme moderator; for disfavor always reaches political bodies, when the sanctuary of the legislators become a criminal tribunal. The impartiality of the judge is often called in doubt, and he loses a portion of his prestige in public opinion, which sometimes goes the length of accusing him of being the instrument of passion or of hatred.

A high court of justice, chosen from amongst the higher magistrates, having for jurymen members of the councils-general throughout all France, will alone decide in cases of attentats against the head of the state and public safety.

The emperor used to say to the council of state: A constitution is the work of time; and too large a margin cannot be left to ameliorations. Consequently, the present constitution has fixed only what it was impossible to leave uncertain. It has not inclosed within an impassable circle the destinies of a great people; it has left to change a margin sufficiently wide to allow, in great crises, other means of safety to be employed than the disastrous expedient of revolutions.

The senate can, in concert with the government, modify all that is not fundamental in the constitution; but as to the modifications effected in its primary bases, sanctioned by your suffrages, they cannot become definitive until after they have received your ratification.

Thus the people remains always master of its destiny, as nothing fundamental can be effected independently of its will.

Such are the ideas and principles which you have authorized me to carry into application. May the constitution confer on our country calm and prosperous days! May it prevent the return of those intestine struggles, in which the victory, however legitimate it may be, is always dearly purchased! May the sanction, which you have bestowed on my efforts, receive the benediction of heaven! In that case, peace will be insured at home and abroad, my prayers will be granted, and my mission accomplished!

LOUIS NAPOLEON BONAPARTE.

Palace of the Tuileries,

January 14, 1852.

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