book cover imageGermaine de Staël: A Political Portrait
by Biancamaria Fontana.
Princeton UP, 2016.
Hardcover, 296 pages, $35.

“You want to repeal Obamacare? I thought you believed in, you know, conserving things.” “I just want to make marriage more relevant to twenty-first-century society. I guess that makes me the conservative, doesn’t it?” “That’s not conservatism—it’s reactionary!”

We all know these lines. Critics are incessantly defining conservative philosophy for us. If we’re lucky, they mean it to be a sort of reflexive centrism; worse, though, is the charge that conservatism is just a form of intellectual timidity—of a privileged caste trying (and largely failing) to come to terms with a changing world.

By the first definition at least, Madame de Staël is a fairly solid conservative. A constitutionalist by conviction, she nonetheless made peace quite easily first with the absolute monarchy, then the republic, then the consulate, then the empire, and then again with the restored absolute monarchy. Her only persistent aim was to moderate the regimes that took power in rapid succession in the early years of the nineteenth century.

We needn’t take that as abuse. It would be too much to ask any man (or woman) to have worked out the proper course for France in the 1780s and keep to that path through four of history’s most violent and anarchic decades. Originally a political Anglophile, she followed Montesquieu in looking to the United Kingdom for a model of constitutional monarchy. Once the Bourbons were soundly whipped, however, de Staël (quite naturally) pivoted Stateside. She embraced an American-style constitutional republicanism instead, complete with a “natural aristocracy,” and repeatedly warned of the threat posed to liberty by pure, mob-rule democracy.

Particularly fascinating (especially to American conservatives) is her recommendation on how France—until the Revolution the pinnacle ofcivilized refinement—might avoid “democratic stagnation” as a newly-minted republic. These were, Fontana says,

the adoption of high standards of public morality, the promotion of intellectual and artistic excellence, the emergence of men capable of conferring on the republic a distinctive grandeur, able to match and surpass that of the old monarchy.

Sound advice for any republic, really.

Likewise her simple but keen observation that men who hold a “monopoly on fame” are well on their way to becoming despots. To again quote Fontana, de Staël

describes how, on her return to Paris on the eve of the coup of Brumaire, she heard the people everywhere repeating a single name—that of Bonaparte—whereas before they had referred only to impersonal entities such as the assembly, the people, or the Convention.… This observation is generally cited as the recognition on Staël’s part of the beginning of tyranny in the form of personal rule.

Watch and wait to see if our countrymen cease complaining about Congress or “the establishment” and only speak the name of Trump.

Little wonder de Staël counted among her friends such disparate eminences as Charles Fox, Thomas Jefferson, and Joseph Bonaparte. For all her fickleness, de Staël was neither a coward nor a mercenary. Indeed, our main gripe with her changing loyalties may be that, had she asserted herself and gotten her way, France—and the world—might have been spared its terrible labor-pains.  

Forfare Davis is a writer and has contributed to First Things, National Review, and The Imaginative Conservative. You can follow Mr. Davis on Twitter at @Pseudoplotinus.