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Modern History Sourcebook:
Joseph DeMaistre:
The Divine Origins of Constitutions, 1810

Although Liberalism dominated in the 19th century, conservatism also had its theorists. The French nobleman Joseph de Maistre (1754-1821) emphasized the importance of religious ideas for the philosophy and politics of conservatism. In this essay, de Maistre addresses the question of constitutions; in 1819, in another essay, he insists on the role of the pope in preserving international stability.

From Joseph de Maistre. Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions (1810)

The more we examine the influence of human agency in the formation of political constitutions, the greater will be our conviction that it enters there only in a manner infinitely subordinate, or as a simple instrument; and I do not believe there remains the least doubt of the incontestable truth of the following propositions: -

1. That the fundamental principles of political constitutions exist before all written law.

2. That a constitutional law is, and can only be, the development or sanction of an unwritten pre-existing right.

3. That which is most essential, most intrinsically constitutional, and truly fundamental, is never written, and could not be, without endangering the state.

4. That the weakness and fragility of a constitution are actually in direct proportion to the multiplicity of written constitutional articles.

. . .

To this general rule, that no constitution can be made or written, à priori, we know of but one single exception; that is, the legislation of Moses. This alone was cast, so to speak, like a statue, and written out, even to its minutest details, by a wonderful man, who said, Fiat! without his work ever having need of being corrected, improved, or in any way modified, by himself or others. This, alone, has set time at defiance, because it owed nothing to time, and expected nothing from it; this alone has lived fifteen hundred years; and even after eighteen new centuries have passed over it, since the great anathema which smote it on the fated day, we see it, enjoying, if I may say so, a second life, binding still, by I know not what mysterious bond, which has no human name, the different families of a people, which remain dispersed without being disunited. So that, like attraction, and by the same power, it acts at a distance, and makes one whole, of many parts widely separated from each other. Thus, this legislation lies evidently, for every intelligent conscience, beyond the circle traced around human power; and this magnificent exception to a general law, which has only yielded once, and yielded only to its Author, alone demonstrates the Divine mission of the great Hebrew Lawgiver....

But, since every constitution is divine in its principle, it follows, that man can do nothing in this way, unless he reposes himself upon God, whose instrument he then becomes. Now, this is a truth, to which the whole human race in a body have ever rendered the most signal testimony. Examine history, which is experimental politics, and we shall there invariably find the cradle of nations surrounded by priests, and the Divinity constantly invoked to the aid of human weakness....

Man in relation with his Creator is sublime, and his action is creative: on the contrary, so soon as he separates himself from God, and acts alone, he does not cease to be powerful, for this is a privilege of his nature; but his action is negative, and tends only to destroy....

There is not in the history of all ages a single fact which contradicts these maxims. No human institution can endure unless supported by the Hand which supports all; that is to say, if it is not especially consecrated to Him at its origin. The more it is penetrated with the Divine principle, the more durable it will be.

From M. Le Comte Joseph de Maistre, Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions (Boston: Little, Brown, 1847), pp. 41-42, 93-95, 129-130,


This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997
halsall@murray.fordham.edu