Nonfiction > William Jennings Bryan, ed. > The World’s Famous Orations > Vol. VII. Continental Europe
See also: Antoine Pierre Joseph Marie Barnave Biography
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  The World’s Famous Orations.
Continental Europe (380–1906).  1906.
 
Against Majority Absolutism
 
Antoine Pierre Joseph Marie Barnave (1761–93)
 
(1791)
 
Born in 1761, died in 1793; elected a Deputy in 1789; President of the National Assembly in 1790; conducted the king on his return from Varennes in 1791; guillotined in 1792.
 
 
IT 1 is not enough that one should desire to be free—one must know how to be free. I shall speak briefly, for after the success of our deliberations, I await with confidence the spirit and action of this Assembly. I wish only to announce my opinions on a question, the rejection of which must sooner or later mean the loss of our liberties. This question should leave no doubt in the minds of those who reflect on governments and are guided by impartial judgments. Those who have combated the committee have made a fundamental error. They have confounded democratic government with representative government; they have confounded the rights of the people with the qualifications of an elector, which society dispenses for its well understood interest. Where the government, is representative, where there exists in intermediary degree of electors, society, which elects them, has essentially the right to determine the conditions of their eligibility. There is one right existing in our Constitution, that of the active citizen, but the function of an elector is not a right.  1
  I repeat, society has the right to determine its conditions. Those who misunderstand the nature as they do the advantages of representative government, remind us of the governments of Athens and Sparta, ignoring the differences that distinguish them from France, such as extent of territory, population, etc. Do they forget that those countries interdicted representative government? Have they forgotten that the Lacedæmonians had the right to vote in the assemblies only when they held helots? And only by sacrifice of individual rights did the Lacedæmonians, Athenians, and Romans possess any democratic governments! I ask those who remind us of them, if it is at such government that they would arrive? I ask those who profess metaphysical ideas, because they have no practical ones, those who envelop the question in clouds of theory, because they ignore entirely the fundamental facts of a positive government—I ask, is it forgotten that the democracy of a portion of a people could exist only by the entire enslavement of the other portion? A representative government has only one evil to fear, that of corruption. That such a government shall be good, there must be guaranteed the purity and incorruptibility of the electorate. This body needs the union of three eminent guarantees—first, the light of a fair education and broadened views; secondly, an interest in things, and still better will it be if each have a particular and considerable interest at stake to defend; thirdly, such condition of fortune as to place the elector above attack from corruption.  2
  These advantages I do not look for in the superior class of the rich, for they undoubtedly have too many special and individual interests, which they separate from the general interests. But if it is true that we must not look for the qualifications of the pure elector among the eminently rich, neither should we look for it among those whom lack of fortune has prevented from acquiring enlightenment. Among such who unceasingly feel the touches of want, corruption too easily can find its way.  3
  It is, then, in the middle class that we find the qualities and advantages I have cited. And, I ask, is it the demand that they contribute five to ten francs that causes the assertion that we seek to throw elections into the hands of the rich? You have established the usage that the electors receive nothing; if it were otherwise their great number would make an election most expensive. From the instant that the voter has not means enough to enable him to sacrifice a little time from his daily labor, one of two things would occur: The voter would absent himself, or insist on being paid by the State. Otherwise he would be rewarded by the one who wanted to obtain his suffrage. This does not occur when a comfortable condition is necessary to constitute an elector. As soon as the government is established, when the Constitution is guaranteed, there is only a common interest for those who live on their property, and those who toil honestly. Then can be distinguished those who desire a stable government from those who seek only revolution and change, since they increase in importance in the midst of trouble as vermin in the midst of corruption.  4
  If it be true, then, that under an established constitutional government all its well-wishers have the same interest, the power of the same must be placed in the hands of the enlightened who can have no interest pressing on them, greater than the common interest of all citizens. Depart from these principles and you fall into the abuses of representative government. You would have extreme poverty in the electorate and extreme opulence in the legislature. You would see soon in France what you see now in England—the purchase of voters in the boroughs not only with money, but with pots of beer. Thus incontestably are elected many parliamentary members. Good representation must not be sought in either extreme, but in the middle class. The committee have thus placed it by making it incumbent that the voter shall possess an accumulation the equivalent of, say, forty days of labor. This would unite the qualities needed to make the elector exercise his privilege with an interest in the same. It is necessary that he own from one hundred and twenty to two hundred and forty livres, either in property or chattels. I do not think it can seriously be said that this qualification is fixed too high, unless we would introduce among our electors men who would beg or seek improper recompense.  5
  If you would have liberty endure do not hesitate because of specious arguments which will be presented to you by those who, if they reflect, will recognize the purity of our intentions and the resultant advantages of our plans. I add to what I have already said that the system will diminish many existing inconveniences, and the proposed law will not have its full effect for two years.  6
  Some tell us we are taking from the citizen a right which elevated him by the only means through which he can acquire it. I reply that if it were to become an honor, the career which you will open for them will imprint them with character greater and more in conformity with true equality. Our opponents have not failed to magnify the inconveniences of changing the Constitution. Nor do I desire its change. For that reason we should not introduce imprudent discussions to create the necessity of a national convention. In one word, the advice and conclusions of the committee are the sole guarantees for the prosperity and peaceable condition of the nation.  7
 
Note 1. Delivered in the National Assembly on August 1, 1791. Abridged. An old translation revised for this collection. [back]
 

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