This letter was written by the Abbe Guillaume-Thomas-Francois Raynal, author
of the Philosophical and Political History of… the East and West Indies.
After the French royalty figured out that this book was a thinly veiled attack
on monarchy in general, M. Raynal wisely left France for ten years. He returned
to Paris in 1790, reopened his house, and attended various salons, which were
evening discussion groups held in private homes. He then wrote a letter to the
National Assembly of France, which was also called the Constituent Assembly. M.
Raynal wisely arranged for a friend who was in his 30s to read his letter to the
300+ delegates, on May 31, 1791. See Age of Napoleon, pg. 144, by Will
and Ariel Durant. They were so pleased to hear M. Raynal’s criticisms that some
of them called for Raynal, who was present, to be sent to the guillotine.
However, after they calmed down a bit, they decided to merely confiscate his
townhouse, without any compensation. M. Raynal died in poverty in 1796.
This letter was printed, in French, in a book in 1791. The Library of
Congress has a copy of this book. A British scholar, Elizabeth Ryves, translated
it the same year, and an English book containing this was published in 1791. The
British Library has a copy, and kindly sent me scans of the text of Raynal’s
letter, charging me only $40. I have amended the 1791 spelling. The letter
I returned to this capital, after a long absence, with my heart and my
attention attached to you; and you would now see me at the feet of your august
assembly, if my age and infirmities would permit me; if I could speak to you
without being too much affected by the great things which you have achieved, and
those which still remain for you to achieve, before you can establish, in this
agitated country, the peace, the liberty, the happiness, which you hope to
procure for us.
Do not imagine, Gentlemen, that I am one of those who are insensible to the
indefatigable zeal, the talents, the knowledge,
and the courage which you have displayed in the course of your immense
labors: but a sufficient number of pens have been already employed on this
subject, and the title to the esteem of the nation has been sufficiently
impressed upon men’s minds. As for me, whether I am considered in the light of a
citizen using a citizen’s right of petitioning, or whether, giving free scope to
my gratitude, you will permit an old friend of liberty to make the return due to
you for the protection with which he has been honored, I entreat you not to
reject important truths. I had the fortitude long ago to talk to kings of their
duty; allow me now to talk to the people of their errors; and to the people’s
representatives of the danger with which all are threatened.
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I am deeply concerned, and I avow my concern to you, at the disorders and the
crimes which have spread affliction over this empire. Alas! Is it then possible
that I must reflect with horror upon my having been one of those who, by showing
a generous indignation against arbitrary power, have perhaps furnished arms to
the hands of licentiousness? and shall religion, law, royal authority, and
public order, call upon philosophy and reason to restore the bonds which united
them to the great society of the French nation-as if our efforts to reform
abuses, and restore the rights of the people, and the duty of the prince, had
broken these bonds of union?
No, they were never broken by us: we never held up the bold con-ceptions of
philosophy as rigorous rules to direct the acts of the legislature; neither can
you attribute to any error on our part, what has refuted from a false
interpretation of our principles. And yet, ready as I now am to descend into the
darkness of the tomb, and to quit this immense family, whose welfare I have so
ardently desired, with what do I see myself surrounded? With religious troubles,
civil dissensions; contention in some, audacity and fury in others; a government
enslaved by popular tyranny; the sanctuary of the law environed by turbulent
men, who now dictate to, and now brave, legislation; soldiers without
discipline; chiefs without authority; ministers without means; a king, the first
friend of his people, plunged into the bitterness of anguish; outraged, menaced,
stripped of all authority; and the public power existing only in clubs2,
where coarse and ignorant men presume to decide on all political questions.
Such, Gentlemen, be assured of it, such is the true situation of France; and
I am perhaps the only man who would dare to tell you the unwelcome truth; but I
dare, because I feel it to be my duty; because I verge upon my eightieth year;
because I shall never be accused of regretting the ancient system; because of
the sighs I breathe for the desolation of the Gallic church, will never be
sup-posed to come from the heart of a fanatical priest; because, while I regard
the re-establishment of legal authority as our only means of salvation, I shall
never be thought of as a partisan of despotism-never be thought to crouch and
expect favors from it; and because, when I arraign before you those writers who
have set the kingdom
in a flame, and perverted the minds of the people, I shall never be accused
as not knowing the freedom of the press.
Alas! I was full of hope and joy when I beheld you laying the foundation of
public felicity, pursuing all abuses-proclaiming all our rights-and subjecting
to the same laws, to one uniform system, all
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the different parts of this empire. My eyes were filled with tears when I
perceived the vilest and most profligate men employed as instruments of an
expedient revolution; when I saw the holy affection of patriotism prostituted to
iniquity, and Licentiousness marching in triumph under the ensigns of liberty.
Terror was mingled with my just concern, when I found all the springs which
constitute the grand machine of government broken and shivered; and impotent
barriers substituted for the necessity of an active and restraining force.
Every where I have sought for the traces of that central authority which a
great nation deposits in the hands of its monarch for its own security; but no
where is any part of that authority to be found. I have sought for the
principles that protect all kinds of property, and I have seen no shadow of them
any where. I have sought to discover under what habit reposes personal security,
the liberty of the indi-vidual; I have only seen the still increasing audacity
of the multi-tude, expecting, demanding, the signal of destruction, which the
factious are ready to give; and the lovers of innovation, no less dangerous than
I have attended, Gentlemen, to those insidious voices which inspire false
apprehensions in order to draw your attention from
real danger; and whose endeavor is, by instilling the most fatal suspicions,
to make you pull down, one after another, every pillar of monarchial government.
Above all I have trembled when, observing in their regenerated life this
people that desire to be free, I have seen them not only disregard the social
virtues, humanity and justice, the only basis of true liberty, but even receive
with avidity new buds of corruption, and suffer new causes of slavery to spring
up around them.
Oh, Gentlemen, what concern do I feel at seeing in the midst of the capital,
in the very focal point of all knowledge, a seduced people receiving the most
criminal proposals with ferocious joy; smiling at accounts of assassination;
stupidly provoking enemies to the revolution; sullying it by their complaisance;
shutting their eyes to all the evils with which it is replete. For they know
not, unhappy people! They know not that in one single crime lie hidden the seeds
of infinite calamities; they laugh and dance over the ruins of their own
morality, on the very brink of the abyss in which their hopes may soon by
swallowed up. Such a spectacle of joy excites my deepest emotion.
Your indifference, Gentlemen, to this horrid perversion of the public mind,
is the first, perhaps the only, cause of that change of sentiments which has
taken place with respect to you; and which has made the pure homage paid to your
first labors give way to the adulations of corruption, and to murmurs stifled
only by fear.
But with whatever fortitude the approach of my last hour may inspire me;
whatever duty may be imposed upon me by the love of
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liberty which I avowed before you existed; I still experience, while
addressing you, a degree of respect, a kind of awe, of which no man can divest
himself when holding an immediate intercourse with the representatives of a
Ought I to conclude here? Or shall I proceed, and speak to you as posterity
will speak of you? Yes, Gentlemen, I believe you worthy of being addressed in
such a style.
I have meditated all my life on those ideas which you adopted
in the regeneration of the kingdom. I reflected upon them at a time when,
opposed by all the social institutions, by all the interests, and by all the
prejudices of my country, my system appeared to me under the seducing form of a
harbor where alone I could find consolation. I was not then called upon by any
motive to weigh the difficulty of reducing it to practice; or the dreadful
to such abstractions, when invested with that power necessary to command both
men and things; and when the passions of men,
and the resistance of things, are the elements which it is necessary to
Those consequences which it was neither necessary or possible that I should
foresee, under the circumstances and at the time in which I wrote, the
circumstances and the time in which you acted commanded you to consider
and provide for; and this I think it my duty to say you have not sufficiently
By this single but continual fault, you have vitiated all your labors; and
have reduced yourselves to such a situation, that inevitable ruin can perhaps
only be prevented by returning through the same paths by which you have
advanced, or at least by advising such a retrograde course to your successors.
Are you afraid, Gentlemen, of drawing upon yourselves alone all that hate
which is now directed upon the altar of liberty? Such a heroic sacrifice,
believe me, would not be less grateful to your minds, from the recollection that
it might have been avoided.
How exalted are those men, who, leaving their country to enjoy all the good
they can procure it, take and assert to themselves alone the reproaches merited
for real serious evils, but for which evils they have only circumstances to
accuse! I believe you worthy, Gentle-men, of this honorable fate; and the belief
that you are so, induces me without reserve to bring before you in review, the
defects which you have mixed in the French constitution.
Called upon to be the regenerators of France, you should have considered what
parts of the ancient system could be usefully preserved; and more particularly
what parts on no terms to be abandoned.
France was a monarchy. Its extent, its wants, its manners, and its national
spirit, were so many invincible obstacles which must for ever prevent the
admission of the republican form of government, without a total dissolution of
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The monarchical power was become vitiated from two causes: the one was, its
basis being surrounded with prejudices; and the other, its limits being only
marked by partial resistance.
To purify the principles of this power by establishing the throne on its
proper foundation, the sovereignty of the people; and to fix the bounds of its
authority, by placing them in the national repre-sentation; was the task you had
to perform; and you believe that you have accomplished it.
The energy and the continuance of the constitution depend on the equilibrium
of these two powers; in the organization of them, you should have guarded
against the bent of popular opinions; you ought not to have been influenced by
the prevailing opinion, that
the power of the Monarch should be repressed, and the rights of
the people extended. By weakening, in a disproportionate degree, that which
tends to annihilation; and strengthening, beyond due measure, that which will
naturally increase, you must expect to experience the dreadful result of a
king without authority, and a people without a curb.
In suffering yourselves to be led astray, by wild opinions,
you have favored the influence of the populace, and multiplied,
to infinitude, the number of popular elections. Have you forgot, Gentlemen,
that the frequency of elections and the short continuance of power in the hands
of the same men, must relax the springs of government? Have you forgot that the
force of government ought to be in proportion to the number of those whom it has
to quiet and protect?
You have preserved the name of king: but, in the constitution you have
framed, a king is not only useless, but dangerous; for you have reduced his
influence to the share he can obtain by corruption. You have, as it were,
invited him to contend with a constitution, which continually reminds him of
what he is not, and of what he
This, Gentlemen, is a vice inherent in your constitution: a vice which must
speedily destroy the whole system, if you and your successors do not hasten to
I shall not say any thing to you concerning those faults in the new
establishment, which may result from accidental circumstances; you must
yourselves discover them. But why will you suffer an evil to exist which may
destroy you? Why, after proclaiming universal liber-ty of conscience, will you
permit the priests to be overwhelmed with persecutions, because they will not
obey your religious opinions?
How can you allow, after consecrating the principles of personal liberty, an
inquisition to exist within your bosom, which serves as a model and a pretext
for all the inferior inquisitions, which a factious inquietude has disseminated
though every part of the empire?
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How can you remain unalarmed at the audacity and the success of those writers
who profane the name of patriotism; who, more powerful than your own decrees,
destroy continually what you have erected? You are desirous of having a
monarchical government; these writers are unremittedly employed in rendering it
odious: you seek to establish the liberty of the people; they aim at making them
the most ferocious tyrants; you endeavor to regenerate public manners; they
proclaim the triumph of vice, and impunity to the blackest offences.
I shall not say any thing, Gentlemen, concerning your plan of finance; God
forbid that I should augment the inquietudes, or diminish the hopes of the
nation: the public fortune in entirely in your hands; but be assured that there
will be neither taxes, credit, certain receipts, or a fixed expenditure, where
the government is not powerful or respectable.
But what form of government could bear up against the new domination of the
clubs? You have destroyed all the corporations3;
And these most collossean and most formidable of all aggregations are
towering above your heads, and destroying all power but their own.
All France is, at this time, divided into two classes. The good men, the men
of moderation, are dispersed, mute, petrified with consternation; while men of
violent spirits rush into close contact, electrify each other, and form those
tremendous volcanoes which vomit so much flaming lava.
You have made a declaration of rights; and that declaration, defective if you
meant to reconcile it with metaphysical abstractions, has diffused the seeds of
anarchy throughout the French empire.
Hesitating perpetually between the principles, which a false shame will not
allow you to modify, and the circumstances which force exceptions from you, you
always do too little for public utility, and too much according to your own
doctrine. You are frequently inconsequential and impolitic, when you endeavor
most to be neither the one or the other. Thus, though you have perpetuated the
slavery of the blacks, your decision, respecting persons of color, has given an
alarm to commerce, and endangered your colonies.
Believe it, Gentlemen, none of these observations escape the friends of
liberty. They demand back from you the deposit of the public opinion, of which
you are only the organs; organs that have no longer their true character.
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Europe regards you with astonishment. Europe, which may be shaken to its
foundations, by the propagation of your principles, is indignant at their
extravagance. The silence of her princes may be the silence of fear; but aspire
not, Gentlemen, at the fatal honor of rendering yourselves formidable, by
immoderate innovations, as dangerous to you as to your neighbors. Consult once
more the annals of the world: call to your assistance the wisdom of former ages,
and see how many empires have perished by anarchy; it is time to put an end to
that anarchy which is desolating our country; to stop the career of vengeance,
seditions, and insurrections; and to restore us to peace and confidence.
You have but one way of attaining this salutary end: revise your decrees;
reunite, and by that means, restore the powers enfeebled by disjunction; confide
to the king all the force, necessary for en-suring the power of the laws; and
above all, protect the liberty of the primary assemblies, from whence faction
has driven all wise and virtuous citizens.
Do not imagine, Gentlemen, that the re-establishment of the executive power
can be the work of your successors: no, they will come to the assembly, with
less strength than you possess; and they will have to subdue that popular
opinion, which you have established. It is therefore you, Gentlemen, who must
re-create what you have yourselves destroyed; or suffered others to destroy.
You have established the basis of liberty, as it is established in every
rational constitution, by ensuring to the people the right of making laws, and
of levying taxes; but anarchy will soon overwhelm these eminent rights, if you
do not place them under the protection of an active and vigorous government; and
despotism awaits us, if you renounce for ever the tutelary protection of royal
I have collected all my strength, Gentlemen, to speak to you in the austere
language of truth. Pardon, as the effect of my zeal and my patriotism, whatever
may appear too free in my remonstrances; and be assured of my ardent wishes for
your glory, as well as my profound respect.
WILLIAM THOMAS RAYNAL”
“Power dements even more than it corrupts, lowering
the guard of foresight, and raising the haste of action.”
- Will and Ariel Durant
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