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Libertarian women’s history month: Madame de Stael

11 Mar

Anne Louise Germaine de Staël (France, 1766–1817) was raised to participate in her wealthy family’s salons, meeting many intellectuals and writers as a child.  The combination of wealth, and of having rights to own property as a woman and a social license to travel, earn an income, and have affairs, in the secular and libertine culture after the French Revolution, allowed her to be an early liberated woman.

A negotiated marriage to an older husband gave her a position in the French court as a diplomat’s wife, which she used to meet the intellectuals and activists of her day, eventually including classical liberal writer Benjamin Constant, with whom she had a lengthy romantic relationship.  She was a critic of Emperor Napolean and an abolitionist, owned property in the United States and several European countries, and traveled through Eastern Europe.

In an essay on Constant at Libertarianism.org, Jim Powell writes of what de Stael and Constant saw in revolutionary France:

One of Madame de Stael’s friends, Jean Lambert Tallien, launched the political attack on Maximilien Robespierre which brought his overthrow and execution on July 27, 1794, ending the Reign of Terror. The following year, Constant and Stael ventured to Paris and witnessed the ruins of revolution amidst runaway inflation. There was unrest because of high taxes, forced loans, military conscription and the seizure of gold, silver and art works. Poor people resented greedy government officials who seized their crops and their sons. There were price controls, chronic shortages and endless lines for the simplest things like bread. In once-prosperous Lyons, an estimated 13,000 out of 15,000 shopkeepers were driven out of business. The government responded by ordering dissidents arrested, suppressing newspapers and deporting editors. On November 9, 1799, the bold and resourceful general Napoleon Bonaparte seized power and proceeded to establish a police state.

Both her activities and her writings have received little scholarly attention by libertarians or by historians generally, though I’ve heard her mentioned by Tom Palmer and others since the 1980s.  On Academia.edu, research on de Stael has only a handful of followers.  Amazon does reveal a number of titles both by de Stael and about her, including her novels and her writings on Napolean and the French Revolution.

She and her fellows of the time were heavily influence by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his critique of convention and civilization, which I suspect is not useful for a libertarian political philosophy.  It may be that her ideas are not original, or separate from her general republican constitutionalist colleagues, and on the surface I don’t see any articulation of feminism (except in practice, as she freely got rid of husbands and lovers and replaced them).  de Stael seems deserving of more attention by libertarian scholars, at least to identify exactly what her practical or theoretical contributions were.






Besides novels and plays including SophieDelphine and Jeanne Grey, her political works included:

  • De l’influence des passions sur le bonheur des individus et des nations, 1796
  • Des circonstances actuelles qui peuvent terminer la Révolution et des principes qui doivent fonder la république en France, 1798
  • Considérations sur les principaux événements de la révolution française, 1813
  • Appel aux souverains réunis à Paris pour en obtenir l’abolition de la traite des nègres, 1814