Benjamin Constant, Leader of French Liberal Opposition to Napoleon

Benjamin Constant (1767–1830) spent the early years of the French Revolution in a post at a minor German court. He moved to Paris in 1795 and became active in French politics (and became the lover of de Staël). He published pamphlets attacking Napoleon but later reconciled to him during the Hundred Days. He then joined the opposition to the restored Bourbon monarchy. The following comes from the fourth edition of The Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation (1814, thus before Constant’s reconciliation with Napoleon).


Surely, Bonaparte is a thousand times more guilty than those barbarous conquerors who, ruling over barbarians, were by no means at odds with their age. Unlike them, he has chosen barbarism; he has preferred it. In the midst of enlightenment, he has sought to bring back the night. He has chosen to transform into greedy and bloodthirsty nomads a mild and polite people: his crime lies in this premeditated intention, in his obstinate effort to rob us of the heritage of all the enlightened generations who have preceded us on this earth. But why have we given him the right to conceive such project?

When he first arrived here, alone, out of poverty and obscurity, and until he was twenty-four, his greedy gaze wandering over the country around him, why did we show him a country in which any religious idea was the object of irony? When he listened to what was professed in our circles, why did serious thinkers tell him that man had no other motivation than his own interest? If he discovered easily enough that all the subtle interpretations through which, once the principle had been stated, we sought to elude its implications, were illusory, it was because his instinct was sound and his judgment quick. As I never attributed to him virtues which he did not possess, I am not obliged to deny him the faculties which he did. If in the heart of man there is nothing but interest, tyranny has only to frighten or to seduce him in order to dominate him. If in the heart of man there is nothing but self-interest, it is not true that morality—that is, elevation, nobility, resistance to injustice—is in accord with real self-interest. Properly understood, self-interest, in this case, given the certainty of death, is nothing but enjoyment, combined, since life can be more or less long, with that prudence which grants to enjoyment a certain duration. Finally, when in a France torn apart, tired of suffering and lamenting, and demanding only a ruler, he offered to become that ruler, why did the multitude hasten to solicit from him enslavement? When the crowd is pleased to show its love for servitude, it would be too much for it to expect its master to insist on giving it liberty instead.

I know, the nation slandered herself, or let herself be slandered by unfaithful interpreters. Despite the wretched affectation which mimicked incredulity, not all religious sentiment had been destroyed. Despite the fatuity which proclaimed itself selfish, egoism did not reign alone; and whatever acclamations may sound in the air, the national desire was not for servitude. But Bonaparte must have deceived himself over this, he whose reason was not enlightened by sentiment, whose soul was incapable of being exalted by a generous whim. He judged France by her own words, and the world by France as he imagined her to be. Because immediate usurpation was easy, he believed it could be durable, and once he became a usurper, he did all that usurpation condemns a usurper to do in our century.

It was necessary to stifle inside the country all intellectual life: he banished discussion and proscribed the freedom of the press.

The nation might have been stunned by that silence: he provided, extorted, or paid for acclamation which sounded like the national voice.

Had France remained at peace, her peaceful citizens, her idle warriors would have observed the despot, would have judged him, and would have communicated their judgments to him. Truth would have passed through the ranks of the people. Usurpation would not have long withstood the influence of truth. Thus Bonaparte was compelled to distract public attention by bellicose enterprises. War flung onto distant shores that part of the French nation that still had some real energy. It prompted the police harassment of the timid, whom it could not force abroad. It struck terror into men's hearts, and left there a certain hope that chance would take responsibility for their deliverance: a hope agreeable to fear and convenient to inertia. How many times have I heard men who were pressed to resist tyranny postponing this, during wartime till the coming of peace, and in peacetime until war commences!

I am right therefore in claiming that a usurper's sole resource is uninterrupted war. Some object: what if Bonaparte had been pacific? Had he been pacific, he would never have lasted twelve years. Peace would have re-established communication among the different countries of Europe. These communications would have restored to thought its means of expression. Works published abroad would have been smuggled into the country. The French would have seen that they did not enjoy the approval of the majority of Europe: their prestige could not have been sustained. Bonaparte perceived this truth so well that he broke with England in order to escape the British newspapers. Yet even this was not enough. While a single country remained free, Bonaparte was never safe. Commerce, active, adroit, invisible, indefatigable, capable of overcoming any distance and of insinuating itself through a thousand roundabout means, would sooner or later have reintroduced into the empire those enemies whom it was so important to exile from it. Hence the Continental blockade and the war with Russia.

Source: Benjamin Constant, Political Writings, ed. and trans., Biancamaria Fontana (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 161–63. Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press.