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the friends and the admirers, whom you have left on the other side of the ocean. I am, &c.
FROM THE DUKE DE LA ROCHEFOUCAULD TO
Constitution of the United States. - Washington.
Political Condition of France.
Varennes, 12 July, 1788. MY DEAR FRIEND, I have heard from you indirectly, through M. le Veillard and the Abbé de la Roche, more recently than by the letter, which you were kind enough to write to me some time since. I learn from the former gentleman, that we may soon expect the Memoirs of your life, which you promised him so long ago. What a precious monument this memoir must be, written as it is by a true philosopher, whose genius has thrown light upon physical and political science, has taught us what lightning is, and how we may avoid it; what liberty is, and how we may acquire and preserve it; and who, uniting to rich intellectual gifts the kindest social feelings, has shown, that he knows the value of friendship, and how compatible it is with sentiments of respect and veneration; a philosopher, too, who can judge himself with the same impartiality, with which he would judge others. It will be a gift most dear to your friends, who will always pray, that the last chapter of a life so valuable to humanity may have the longest possible extent.
We see with pleasure, that your infirmities, though they do not leave you, still do not increase; and since
they have allowed you for the last three years to labor in public affairs, we hope that they will now allow you to enjoy for a long period the repose and tranquillity, which should close so great a career.
Eight States, then, have accepted the new federal constitution. Virginia is to be the ninth, so that it will presently go into operation, with a few modifications made upon the original plan adopted by the convention. There is one point, on which I have heard no objections, which yet seems to me liable to a great many. I mean the extent of the power granted to the President, and the possibility of his occupying the place for an indefinite period. I love to believe that Washington, your worthy companion in the great American revolution, will give to the world the example of a man, who has willingly set bounds to his own power; that, when placed by his fellow citizens in the highest office, he will point out to them the evils of too blind a confidence, and, directing it to a noble end, he will provide proper restraints upon his own power, and that of his successors less worthy than himself.
While you are busy in these great matters, France, whom you left talking zealously of liberty for other nations, begins to think, that a small portion of this same liberty would be a very good thing for herself. Good works for the last thirty years, and your good example for the last fourteen, have enlightened us much; while our ministers, sometimes despotic, and sometimes rapacious, have, by their attacks upon personal liberty or property, led men to the examination of great principles; an ignorance of which, sometimes real and sometimes conventional, left us in a state of calm, which was by no means happiness, though frivolous, unenlightened, and stupid people, who are the largest class, thought it was.
The excess of the evil awakened us at last. M. de Calonne made known the disastrous state of the finances; his successors employed violent means; the classes, which had been the zealous supporters of the royal authority, and often the passive or the ready instruments of ministerial despotism, for which, when they opposed it, they only substituted their own, which was still worse, these classes found their only means of resistance consisted in calling public opinion to their aid. They have made an appeal to the nation, and the States-General are demanded with one voice from one extremity of France to the other. The ministers, instead of skilfully yielding to this call, have shown a repugnance, and defer announcing their convocation, pretending that it is difficult to settle the forms, and that, before the assembly can be called, time should be given for the public mind to grow calm. This last reason is altogether futile; for the more repugnance they show, and the stronger their desire to avoid granting the general wish, the more it is to be feared that the exasperation will increase.
The first reason, however, is not without foundation. It is true, that the form of our States-General, which has undergone several variations, is very nearly determined by the different meetings, which have taken place from 1483 to 1624; but their constitution is a bad one. The distinction into three orders, of which the first, the clergy, ought not to be one; of which the second, the nobility, is a constitutional evil, and enjoys, with the first, privileges which are burdensome to the nation; of which the third, the Third Estate, which ought to be the only one, and should comprehend all holders of property, is still in a great measure composed of privileged persons; I repeat, this distinction into three orders is a great obstacle to the public
good, by the diversity of interests, which may render this assembly a system of three bodies inimical to each other, and no one of them truly friends to the nation.
If our well intentioned ministers had taken up the idea of convoking a National Assembly, they might have reformed this evil, and given us a form of representation founded upon principles of justice and good policy; but now that they call it in spite of themselves, they cannot help following the old form; and it is from an assembly, the composition of which is so exceptionable, that we are to expect a constitution. The light, which has lately been shed upon the science of political economy, is our only ground of hope and consolation; and perhaps it will be sufficient to triumph over ministers, orders, and political bodies, over their passions and their prejudices. Posterity must judge of this; but I much fear, that our first steps in the career of liberty will not be guided by that sound reason, which alone can lead us promptly and permanently to happiness.
You Americans were in a far more favorable position for the establishment of a good constitution. You had none of those distinctions of birth and place, with which superstition and the feudal system have cursed old Europe. It was partly to avoid the evil influence of these prejudices, that your forefathers left their country, and sought a retreat in the forests of America, which they soon converted into fertile fields. They had imbibed, with the milk of their British mothers, the love and the principles of liberty, which, sometimes forgotten by that nation, have never been extinct among them; and these principles and this love had taken deep root in the hearts of your countrymen. When the ministers and Parliament of England attempted to enslave you, they were resisted with an energy which
they had never expected; and, when you had acquired a rank among nations, you took, for the basis of your government and of your laws, personal liberty, liberty of property and consequently of trade, and religious liberty. You allowed men to enjoy all the rights, which they hold from nature, and of which everywhere else either legislators or circumstances have more or less deprived them.
But the pleasure of conversing with you has carried me beyond the proper limits of a letter. If I did not know your indulgence, I should ask your pardon ; but your friendship and the interest of the subject make me feel this to be unnecessary. Give your distant blessing to a nation, which, at least, has the merit of appreciating your worth, and which, by the enlightened men it has produced, is worthy that you should take an interest in its fate, though it has often been the last to profit by the lessons, which it has given to others.
I shall close my letter by offering you, on the part of the author and on mine, a Dissertation on Nyctalopia, a disease endemic in the neighbourhood of La Rocheguyon. You will find there the names of M. de Condorcet and the Abbé Rochon, who desire to add their affectionate compliments to those of all my family. Remember me to yours, and ever believe in the constant regard and affection of the
DUKE DE LA ROCHEFOUCAULD.