The World's Famous Orations/Volume 7/Against Setting Up an Emperor




Born In 1753, died in 1823; elected to the Assembly in 1791, to the Convention in 1792; a member of the Directory in 1795, serving until 1797; a Tribune from 1802 to 1807; because of his success as War Minister from 1793 to 1795, called the "organizer of victory"; Minister of the Interior under Napoleon in 1815.

Among the orators who have preceded me, and who have touched on the motion of our colleag, Curée, several, anticipating the objections that might be made, have responded with as much talent as amenity. They have given an example of a moderation which I shall endeavor to imitate.

I am far from desiring to diminish the praises accorded the first consul; if we owed him only the civil code, his name would worthily be immortalized. But whatever the services a citizen has rendered, he must expect honors only to the extent of the national recognition. If the citizen has restored liberty, if he has been a benefactor, would it be a proper recompense to offer him the sacrifice of that liberty? Nay! would it not be an annulment of his own work if we were to convert that country into his private patrimony?

From the very moment when it was proposed to the French people to make the consulate an office for life, each easily saw there was a mental reservation with an ulterior purpose and end to the proposal. In effect, there was to be seen in rapid succession a series of institutions evidently monarchical; but at each move anxiety was shown to reassure disturbed and inquiring spirits on the score of liberty, that these new institutions were conceived only to procure the highest protection desired for liberty.

To-day is uncovered and developed in the most positive manner the meaning of so many of these preliminary measures. We are asked to act upon a formal proposition to reestablish the monarchical system, and to confer an imperial and hereditary dignity on the first consul.

At that time I voted against a life consulate; I shall vote now against any reestablishment of a monarchy, as I believe it to be my duty to do. But this was done with no desire to evoke partizanship; without personal feeling, without any sentiment save a passion for the public good, which impels me to the defense of the popular cause.

I fully submit to existing laws, even when they are most displeasing. More than once I have been a victim of my devotion to law, and I shall not begin to retrograde to-day. I declare, therefore, that while I combat this proposition, just so from the moment that a new order of things shall have been established, after having received the assent of the mass of our citizens, I shall be first to conform my actions to it; to give to the supreme authority all the marks of deference commanded by the constitutional oligarchy. Can every member of society record a vow as sincere and disinterested?

I shall not force into the discussion my preference for the general merits of any one system of government over another. On these subjects there are numberless volumes written. I shall charge myself with examining in few words, and in the simplest terms, the particular case in which present circumstances place us. All the arguments thus far made for the reestablishment of monarchy in France are reduced to the statement that it is the only method of assuring the stability of the government and public tranquillity, the only escape from internal disorder, the sole bond of union against external enemies. We are told that the republican system has been vainly tried in all possible manners, and that from these efforts only anarchy has come. A prolonged and ceaseless revolution has reawakened perpetual fear of new disorders, and consequently a deep and universal desire to see reestablished the old hereditary government, changing only the dynasty. To this we must make reply.

I remark here that the government of a single person is no assurance of a stable and tranquil government. The duration of the Roman Empire was no longer than that of the Roman Republic; while internecine troubles became greater, crimes more multiplied. The pride of republicanism, the heroism, and the masculine virtues were replaced by the most ridiculous vanity, the vilest adulation, the boldest cupidity, the most absolute indifference to national prosperity. Where was found any remedy in the heredity of the throne? Was it not regarded as the legitimate heritage of the house of Augustus? Was a Domitian not the son of Vespasian, a Caligula the son of Germanicus, a Commodus the son of Marcus Aurelius?

In France, it is true, the last dynasty maintained itself for eight hundred years, but were the people any the less oppressed? What were not the internal dissensions? What the foreign wars undertaken for pretensions and rights of succession, and which gave birth to the alliances of this dynasty with foreign nations? From the moment that a nation espouses the particular interests of one family, she is compelled to intervene in a multitude of matters which but for this would be to her a matter of utmost indifference. We have hardly succeeded in establishing a Republic among us, notwithstanding that we have tried it under various forms, more or less democratic.

After the Peace of Amiens, Napoleon had choice between the republican and monarchical systems; he could do as he pleased, and he would have met only the slightest opposition. The citadel of liberty was confided to him; he swore to defend it; and, holding his promise, he should have fulfilled the desire of the nation which judged him alone capable of solving the great problem of public liberty in its vast extent. He might have covered himself with incomparable glory. Instead of that, what is being done to-day? They propose to make over to him the absolute and hereditary property of a great power of which he was made the administrator. Is this the real desire and to the real interest of the first consul himself? I do not believe it.

It is true the State was falling into a state of dissolution, and that absolutism pulled it from the edge of the abyss. But what do we conclude from that? What all the world knows — that political bodies are subject to affections which can be cured only by violent remedies; that sometimes a dictator for a moment is necessary to save liberty. The Romans, who were so jealous of it, recognized the necessity of this supreme power at intervals. But because a violent remedy has saved a patient, must there be a daily administration of violent remedies? Fabius, Cincinnatus, Camillus saved Rome by the exercise of absolute power, but they relinquished this power as soon as practicable; they would have killed Rome had they continued to wield it. Caesar was the first who desired to keep this power. He became its victim, and liberty was lost for futurity. Thus everything that has ever been said up to this day on absolute government proves only the necessity for temporary dictatorships in crises of the state, not the establishment of a permanent and irresponsible power.

It is not from the character of their government that great republics have lacked stability; it is because, having been born in the breasts of storms, it was always in a state of exaltation that they were established. One only was the labor of philosophy, and was organized calmly. That republic, the United States of America, full of wisdom and of strength, exhibits this phenomenon, and each day their prosperity shows an increase which astonishes other nations. Thus it was reserved for the New World to teach the Old that existence is possible and peaceable under the rule of liberty and equality. I state this proposition: that when a new order of things can be established without fearing partizan influences, as the first consul has done, principally after the peace of Amiens, and as he can still do, it becomes much easier to form a republic without anarchy than a monarchy without despotism. For how can we conceive a limitation which would not be illusory in a government of which the chief had all the executive power in his hand and all the places to bestow on whom he chose?

They have spoken of institutions to produce all these good effects. But before we propose to establish a monarchy, should we not first assure ourselves and demonstrate to those who are to vote on the question, that these institutions are in the order of possible things, and not metaphysical obstructions, which have been held a reproach to the opposite system? Up to this moment nothing has been successfully invented to curb supreme power except what are called intermediary bodies or privileges. Is it, then, of a new nobility you would speak when you allude to institutions? But such remedies — are they not worse than the disease? For the absolute power of a monarch takes only our liberty, while the institution of privileged classes robs us at the same time of our liberty and our equality. And if even at the beginning dignities and ranks were only personal, we know they would end always as the fiefs of other times ended — in becoming hereditary.

Is it hoped, in raising this new dynasty, to hasten the period of general peace? Will it not rather be a new obstacle? Are we assured that the other great powers of Europe will assent? And if they do not, must we take up arms to constrain them? Or after having sunk the title of first consul in that of emperor, will Napoleon be content to remain first consul to the rest of Europe while he is emperor only to Frenchmen, or shall we compromise by a vain title the security and prosperity of the entire nation?

It appears, therefore, infinitely doubtful if the new order of things can give us the stability of the present state. There is for the government one method of consolidation and strength. It is to make it just. Let no favoritism or bias be of avail to influence its services. Let there be a guarantee against robbery and fraud. It is far from me to desire to make any particular application of my language or to criticize the conduct of the government. It is against arbitrary power itself I appeal, and not against those in whose hands this power may reside. Has liberty, then, been shown to man in France, in order that he may never enjoy it? Shall it always be held up to his gaze as a fruit that when he extends the hand to grasp it he must be stricken with death? And Nature, which has made liberty such a pressing need to us, does she really desire to betray our confidence ? No ! I shall never believe that this human good, so universally preferred to all others — and without which all others are nothing — is a simple illusion. My heart tells me that liberty is possible, that its regime is easier and more stable than any arbitrary government, than any oligarchy.

  1. Delivered in Paris in 1802. After the Empire was proclaimed Carnot went into retirement, spending much of his time at the French Institute. An old translation revised for this collection.
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