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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: July 2011

11 - Constitutional liberalism in France

from II - Modern liberty and its defenders



When Madame de Staël wrote her Considérations sur la Révolution Française one of the central questions she raised was the following: ‘Did France possess a Constitution before the Revolution?’ (de Staël 2008, pp. 96–111). Her answer was that France had been ‘governed by custom, by caprice but never by laws’ and that of all modern monarchies France had undoubtedly been the one ‘whose political institutions had been the most arbitrary’. This is a portrayal that France's monarchs might have challenged – they certainly felt themselves to be constrained in their actions by a set of fundamental laws that they might not transgress – but the fact remained that by 1789 there existed a widespread demand for a written constitution that would set out clear limits to the actions of government and that would define the rights of all citizens. It was in this context that the meaning attributed to the idea of a constitution changed irrevocably, and with radical implications. Henceforth it was to be understood as the set of arrangements that were to determine the manner in which institutions of the state and of public authority operated. Moreover, given the descent of the monarchy into what was widely perceived to be despotism, the demand was increasingly made that these arrangements should correspond to the deliberate choice of the nation.