Madame de Staël; portrait by Jean-Baptiste Isabey, 1810

Louvre, Paris/Bridgeman Images

Madame de Staël; portrait by Jean-Baptiste Isabey, 1810

Two hundred years ago, Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker de Staël-Holstein put her finger on a phenomenon that is upsetting the American presidential race today. She called it “public opinion,” but she used that term in a new way to characterize the difficulty faced by a new breed of political leaders: How could they maintain the tie that bound them to the general public? Constitutions could be designed, electoral procedures devised, she said, but all kinds of representative government would founder if the political class failed to keep a grip on the “moral power” that connected it with the citizenry.

Mme de Staël did not present this problem as a matter of political philosophy. Although she frequented philosophers, notably Benjamin Constant, one of her many lovers, she was known primarily as a literary figure—a salon lioness, a romantic novelist, and the woman who defied Napoleon, preferring exile to subjection. Yet she grasped something that had eluded political theorists and that is still worth pondering. It was the importance of public opinion at the deepest level of political life—neither the shifting, short-term views of policies and politicians nor a preference that could be tallied in the form of votes, but rather a visceral, collective emotion that linked a people to its leaders.

Should that tie be broken, Staël maintained, the public could develop such a sense of estrangement that the political elite, whether royal ministers or elected officials, could no longer manage public affairs. This kind of disaffection ultimately explained the failure of the French Revolution, she argued, and she made the argument by working it into a full-scale history, Considérations sur les principaux événements de la révolution française (Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution), her last and most ambitious book, published posthumously in 1818.

It would be far-fetched to imagine professional politicians consulting a history of the French Revolution as a source of insight about electoral politics in 2016. But the US political class seems to be aware of a rupture in what Staël called “the link between the government and the governed.” William J. Bennett, a conservative pundit and secretary of education in the Reagan administration, recently told The Washington Post:

The party finds itself catching up to its base. Those very elegant papers it published and conferences it held may have been good and smart, but they didn’t really matter. Instead, everyone who’s been prominent for the last 15 to 20 years finds themselves getting pushed out.

In her history of the Revolution, Staël provided an account of how one faction pushed another out of power whenever it lost contact with the general public:

Public opinion always makes itself felt, even in the midst of the factions that oppress it. Only one revolution, that of 1789, was made by the force of that opinion; but since that year, almost none of the upheavals that have taken place in France have been willed by the nation.

To demonstrate that theme, she showed how political infighting, in case after case from 1789 to 1800, alienated the Revolution’s leaders from their popular base.

Staël studied this process up close, particularly during the early phase of the Revolution, when she followed the debates of the Constituent Assembly from a reserved seat in the gallery. Politics fascinated her, not only as the wife of the Swedish ambassador but especially as the daughter of Jacques Necker, the minister who attempted to steer the government through the final crisis of the ancien régime and who failed to stabilize it during the struggle to create a constitutional monarchy from 1789 to 1790. When she looked back on the entire course of the Revolution, she did not attribute great importance to its various constitutions. She concentrated on public opinion, which she also called “public spirit,” as the force that ultimately determined the outcome of events and that remained fundamentally the same, despite the vicissitudes of the political parties. Writing in 1816, she concluded: “True public opinion, that which soared above the factions, has been the same in France for twenty-seven years.”

Although it makes that point effectively, Considérations sur les principaux événements de la révolution française does not succeed very well as history. Part personal memoir, part philosophical reflection, and largely an apology for the author’s father (the king’s dismissal of Necker on July 11, 1789, helped precipitate the storming of the Bastille, and his political incapacity contributed greatly to the failure of the attempt to establish a viable constitutional monarchy), her book lacks a coherent narrative. But it is full of perceptive comments. How can they be combined, along with insights from Staël’s other writings, in a general account of her understanding of politics?


That is the challenge taken up by Biancamaria Fontana in her admirable study of Staël as a political thinker. Fontana does not contest the standard view that Staël deserves a place at the side, if not in the shadow, of Benjamin Constant, and that they both contributed to the birth of modern liberalism. But Constant did not set foot in revolutionary France until 1795, after the fall of Robespierre. Like many theoreticians with political ambitions, he occupied himself with designs for a constitutional order that would reconcile popular sovereignty with government by the propertied middle class. Staël shared his views (in fact, it is difficult to distinguish her ideas from his), but she had listened to revolutionary orators and witnessed violence in the streets. She had an ear for the rough and tumble of politics, while Constant remained tone-deaf. What made Staël original, Fontana contends, was her ability to stray “outside the field of political theory into the unexplored territories of mentalities, emotions, and social identities.”

The difficulty in doing justice to this aspect of Staël’s thought is that she never expressed it in systematic fashion. She showed acute powers of observation in her book De l’Allemagne (On Germany; 1810), but it was not explicitly a work of political history. She wove political ideas into various pamphlets, tracts, her history of the Revolution, and her most important theoretical work, Des circonstances actuelles qui peuvent terminer la révolution et des principes qui doivent fonder la république en France (The Present Circumstances That Can Put an End to the Revolution and the Principles That Must Found a Republic in France), written in 1798 but not published until 1906. Fontana traces the connecting threads from one work to the next, filling in the historical circumstances and drawing on what has survived from Staël’s extensive correspondence (her father destroyed most of it in order to protect her from the French forces when they invaded Switzerland in 1798).

Among the many philosophers who had developed different concepts of public opinion, the most likely to appeal to Staël was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. She devoted her first book to him: Lettres sur les écrits et le caractère de J.-J. Rousseau (Letters on the Writings and Character of J.-J. Rousseau), which she published at the age of twenty-two in late 1788. After effusing about the sublimity of his most familiar works, she produced a short chapter on his political writing. She endorsed his notion of the general will as the sole basis of legitimate authority, even in a monarchy, but she dissented from his distrust of representative government. After all, she proclaimed, the French nation was soon to express its will through its representatives in the Estates-General assembled under the direction of its “guardian angel,” Jacques Necker.

In fact, Rousseau had deprecated public opinion as a volatile and superficial phenomenon, not to be confused with the deeper will of the sovereign citizenry. It was Necker who inspired Staël’s view of public opinion, which he celebrated in De l’administration des finances de la France (1784) as “an invisible power, which, without treasures, without guards, without an army, gives laws to the capital, the court, and even the palace of the king.”1 How could such a force, the ultimate expression of popular sovereignty, be reconciled with the power exerted by politicians who claimed to speak for the people but promoted interests of their own?

Staël faced this question in her first political tract, whose title brought out its urgency: A quels signes peut-on connaître quelle est l’opinion de la majorité de la nation? (By What Signs Can One Know What Is the Opinion of the Majority of the Nation?), published in August 1791. At that time, although only twenty-five years old, she had come to know the most important leaders of the Revolution. Her father had resigned and withdrawn in disgrace to Switzerland. The Constituent Assembly had drafted a constitution, but Louis XVI had refused to accept it and had tried to flee from France, only to be arrested at Varennes and returned as a virtual captive of the Revolution. The politicians had turned on one another; violence was mounting in the streets; things were falling apart.

What was the will of the people? Staël thought she knew: to maintain what they had won in 1789—that is, the end of privilege in all its forms, liberty before the law, and careers open to talent, whatever constitutional arrangements might be devised. How did she know? By reading “signs.” This was not a matter of counting votes—the turnout was small in nearly all the elections and referendums throughout the Revolution—but rather a way of deciphering public opinion, a kind of political semiology.

Using what evidence has survived, pamphlet by pamphlet, letter by letter, Fontana reconstructs Staël’s reading of the revolutionary process. It is a masterful exegesis, and it points to the need for further reflection on the nature of public opinion. Despite a large literature in political science and the daily blasts from pollsters, the thing itself is hard to grasp. When Walter Lippmann tried to characterize public opinion, he, like Staël, emphasized the tenuous link between the governed and the governors. Public affairs are enormously complex, he insisted. The public can know them only imperfectly, at a great distance, and through the haze of collective views, which he described as a “pseudo-environment.” Intermediaries, especially in the press, intervene in this environment by translating the decisions made by public figures into stories that the public can consume as news. But this process is more a matter of manipulating symbols than of diffusing ideas, and in itself it can be manipulated by men in power. “In the crystallizing of a common will,” Lippmann concluded, “there is always an Alexander Hamilton at work.”2 A Hamilton or a Bonaparte.


Where to find the general will in the referendum that ostensibly confirmed Bonaparte’s power in 1804? It did not exist, Staël insisted. Nor had it existed under the Directory, which preceded Bonaparte’s coup on 18 Brumaire, Year VIII (November 9, 1799). In creating the Directory, the Convention, which had ruled France since 1792, produced a constitution and attached a decree requiring that two thirds of its members be elected to the new legislature. About 80 percent of the voters abstained from the referendum on the constitution, and 95 percent abstained from the vote on the two-thirds decree. “This decree,” Staël wrote, “produced a terrible effect upon opinion, and broke altogether the treaty silently signed between the Convention and honest people.”

The implicit contract between the people and their representatives went back to 1789, a time when the public spoke with one voice. After that, its will was muffled. Having achieved their basic goals, ordinary citizens went about their business, leaving politics to the politicians, who proceeded to tear the Revolution apart. Staël described this process as she had witnessed it: radical reactionaries pulled from the right, extreme Jacobins pulled from the left, and the moderates failed to find a common ground between the extremes. Instead of establishing a consensus, the men in the middle turned on one another, scratching and clawing in vain attempts to seize power.

None of them, Staël argued, could speak in the name of the people, except Necker (her devotion to her father never flagged) and perhaps Mirabeau—dramatic, daring, spectacularly ugly with a booming voice and a scandalous past that riveted the public’s attention. But Mirabeau lacked the depth of a true leader, and after his death the Revolution remained leaderless, careening endlessly off course. No one, as Fontana remarks, had the “capacity to fill the imaginative void left by the legacy of the old monarchy.”

Staël described this incapacity as a growing gap between the public and the politicians. She had discussed issues with the Revolution’s leaders personally behind the scenes from the moment the Estates-General opened in May 1789 until the fall of the monarchy in August and the massacres of September 1792, when she fled from France. But far from observing events at a philosophical distance, she became embroiled in them. She was a participant observer, and her participation implicated her in the process she described.

The descriptions, woven through her Considérations sur les principaux événements de la révolution française, underplay her own role, and they cannot be tested against much other evidence, because so much of her correspondence has disappeared. The weakest point in her narrative occurs in her account of the political crisis that led to the declaration of war against Austria on April 20, 1792. The decision to go to war was, in my opinion, the most fatal mistake in the entire course of the Revolution. Staël attended the debate in the Legislative Assembly when the declaration was passed, nearly unanimously (only seven of the 745 deputies voted against it), and she probably took part in the machinations that led to the vote, owing to her influence on the comte de Narbonne, her lover at that time.

Narbonne was minister of war until March 3 and was associated with the moderate (“Feuillant”) ministry, which the king dismissed on March 10 and replaced with ministers taken from the radicals (“Brissotins”) who favored war. Yet before he left the government, Narbonne had played into the hands of the war party by undercutting the foreign minister, Antoine-Nicolas Valdec Delessart, who favored peace. Although Fontana rightly dismisses the notion that Staël and Narbonne belonged to a conspiracy, linked with the Brissotins, to provoke the war, she accepts Staël’s attempt to gloss over their part in the crisis.

After leaving the ministry, Narbonne went on to organize France’s forces for an attack on the Austrian Netherlands (today’s Belgium), which turned into a disaster. He escaped to England, with Staël’s help, after the overthrow of the monarchy on August 10. Staël bore two children by him. I find it difficult to believe that she was not caught up with him in the factional intrigues, or l’esprit de parti (party spirit), that she deplored in her Considérations.

Although Staël refuses to take the reader behind the scenes when she herself played a part in them, her narrative comes to life during the most terrible moment of the Revolution, and of French history in general: the massacres of September 2–6, 1792. By the end of August, no effective central authority existed. Radical sans-culottes had overrun the Parisian sections—the administrative divisions of the city created in 1790—and the revolutionary Commune, clamoring for blood, and in the midst of the chaos elections were held for a national Convention, which finally abolished the monarchy but did not meet until September 20.

Meanwhile, the invading Austrian and Prussian armies had picked off the frontier fortresses. On September 2, when news arrived that the invaders had swept past Verdun and were descending on Paris, the tocsin sounded and the sections exploded. Wild rumors had spread about counterrevolutionaries in the prisons, who were believed to be plotting to join the foreign armies in exterminating the Revolution. The sans-culottes stormed the prisons and slaughtered more than a thousand innocent inmates in a five-day frenzy of bloodshed, which could not be contained by the leaders of the Commune in the Hôtel de Ville.

At first, Staël thought she was safe. Protected within the Swedish embassy, she did not make a likely target. She even intervened to save some of her friends by appealing to an official of the Commune, Pierre Manuel, a hack writer whose vanity was vulnerable to an entreaty by a great lady from the world of the salons. But that world was collapsing. Staël decided to escape to Switzerland by overwhelming the crowds in the streets with a display of her greatness. She set off in a grand coach pulled by six horses and attended by footmen in full livery.

Nothing could have been better calculated to provoke the anti-aristocratic fury of the common people. They surrounded the coach and hauled it off to the Hôtel de Ville, where she was delivered to the sans-culotte leaders. Fortunately, she encountered Manuel, who had her sent to his office. There, from a window overlooking the Place de Grève, she watched the septembriseurs (massacrers) come and go, covered with blood, for six hours. Manuel finally helped her escape under cover of night, while the streets still stank of blood.

In describing such scenes, Staël conveyed an aspect of politics that was lacking in the political theory of her contemporaries. She figures, along with Constant, among the founders of modern liberalism, but does she deserve a place in the history of political thought? The standard works on the subject ignore her.3 When she discussed forms of government, she advocated an unoriginal version of constitutional monarchy as practiced in Britain. It was best suited, she argued, to satisfy the deepest desires of the French people—what public opinion really required as opposed to the preferences tossed up by l’esprit de parti.

Staël’s own involvement in party disputes may have contradicted that basic insight, but her concern for the long-term, deep-seated outlook of the public also sharpened her understanding of a problem at the bottom of any system of representative government: How could an assembly of a few hundred deputies represent the will of more than twenty million citizens? How could the general will make itself known? Rousseau tried to dispatch that difficulty by conceiving of the general will as the expression of an organic whole, the people united in a body politic, which by its very nature desired only the common good. Governments, whether monarchical or republican, merely translated that will into particular measures, which had no legitimacy if they contravened the good of the citizenry as a whole.

Staël’s early enthusiasm for Rousseau may have persevered throughout the Revolution; but by the time she took up with Constant, she had shifted to his brand of liberalism. They shared a conviction that representative government could not function in large, commercial nations if it derived directly from the entire population. Politics should be left to the propertied classes, who could be relied upon to respect liberty as well as property—that is, “modern” liberty, which guaranteed the autonomy of individuals within the limits of the law and was not predicated on civic virtue as imagined by the ancients or collective authority as expounded by Rousseau.

This formulation has made Constant something of a hero to historians like Marcel Gauchet and François Furet, who take a philosophic view of the French Revolution.4 He does not figure prominently in standard histories of political thought published in Britain and the United States, as I have noted, and they do not mention Staël at all. Fontana would correct this neglect by bringing out the most original aspect of Staël’s thinking—not its liberal bias but its sensitivity to public opinion as an ingredient in modern politics.

Staël used “public opinion” in several ways, which extended from the negative effect of rabble-rousing to the positive results of philosophic debate. But above all, she invoked it to describe the passionate attachment of the general public to what it had won in 1789. She had seen that passion up close, and she intended to analyze it in the second volume of a treatise she published in 1796, De l’influence des passions sur le bonheur des individus et des nations (Of the Influence of Passions on the Happiness of Individuals and of Nations). That volume was to explore collective as opposed to individual passions, but Staël never completed it. Instead, she worked the affective ingredient of public life into her historical narrative of the Revolution.

History, not philosophy, served best to convey her understanding of a general political problem, which Fontana summarizes aptly:

While representative government was better adjusted than democracy to the needs of modern society, there was at least one respect in which the new system was at a disadvantage when compared to the old, namely, its far more problematic relation to public opinion.

Why problematic? “In modern nations public opinion—a different thing from the immediate presence of the citizens in the public square—emerged to occupy the space that separated the government from the people.” If too much space opened up between the governed and the governors, public opinion could turn against the political class, even against the system itself. That is why politicos today should take out time to study the history of the French Revolution.