This is The Siècle, Episode 7: The Charter.
When Louis XVIII was restored to the French throne for the first time in 1814, he positioned himself as the continuation of the line of Bourbon French kings dating back centuries. But Louis did not actually restore the nominally absolutist monarchy that existed before the Revolution. Nor did he even restore the more representative institutions of the Estates General, the medieval proto-parliament whose revival in 1789 had kicked off that Revolution.1
Instead, Louis issued a constitution for France. It wasn’t necessarily what Louis would have preferred, but “it was the spirit of the age,” Louis said — or, leave his remark partially untranslated, “the spirit of our siècle.” Of course, Louis also had more cynical reasons for voluntarily issuing a constitution he wasn’t excited about. The people whose armies had actually won Louis his throne — the Allied powers of Britain, Austria, Russia and Prussia — insisted on some form of constitution because they thought it would help stabilize a country greatly transformed by a generation of revolution.2 And Louis could tell which way the winds were blowing. “It was always better,” Louis wrote at the time, “to give one than to have one imposed on you.”3
Louis called this constitution the Charte constitutionelle, or Constitutional Charter, though it’s generally referred to as the Charter of 1814 or just the Charter. It would be France’s constitution, with some modifications, for more than 30 years, and would inspire plenty of other 19th Century European constitutions.4 So I think it’s worth taking the time to talk in detail about this document and the system of government it set up. In some respects, the Charter was surprisingly liberal, while in others, it strikes us today as astonishingly retrograde.
But we shouldn’t be too surprised that the Charter contained contradictions. It was hastily written and hurriedly passed with little amendment. When Louis returned to France in late April 1814, he had no constitution prepared for the country he’d been waiting half a lifetime to lead. He issued a declaration on May 2 setting out some general principles, and then tasked an aide to write out a draft. That draft was finished in around two weeks, with input from Louis and others. It was then presented to a committee, which adopted it after just four meetings with almost no changes.5 The final document was announced on June 4 and swiftly ratified by the rump legislature left over from Napoleon. The entire process took a few weeks. The U.S. Constitution, in contrast, was crafted over three and a half months in 1789.
Why the rush? In 1814, the Allied powers that had occupied France, and that insisted on a constitution, wanted to send their expensive armies home.6 The Allied monarchs visiting Paris were scheduled to leave on June 5, so Louis had to present his constitution on June 4. This haste would have plenty of consequences.
The Senatorial Constitution
So why, you might ask as a follow-up, didn’t Louis get started earlier? He had, after all, been in exile for more than 20 years. In fact, the king had issued a number of declarations, manifestos and plans over this time, espousing a variety of different positions as Louis’s circumstances and beliefs evolved.7 The decline of Napoleon’s empire over 1813 and 1814 had been gradual, and for much of this time it was unclear if the Allied powers would back Louis as their choice for new king. And when he did finally arrive in France — delayed several weeks after Napoleon’s abdication by a very inopportune attack of gout — Louis had to deal with another obstacle: another constitution, written by the Napoleonic Senate under the leadership of Talleyrand and presented to Louis with the backing of the Russian Tsar Alexander.
This senatorial constitution went nowhere, so we won’t spend much time on it. Suffice it to say that it established a constitutional monarchy in which the parliament, and especially the Senate, was the driving force. The most remarkable part was Article 6, which guaranteed the members of the current Senate (that is, the ones writing this constitution) lifetime appointments and massive, hereditary pensions — pensions that would pointedly not be given to any future senators.8
But the most consequential parts were at the beginning and the end. It offered Louis the throne, not as a right of inheritance, but as a contract. Louis would become king only after the constitution was ratified by the French people, and after Louis swore an oath to obey the new constitution. As historian Guillaume de Bertier de Sauvigny notes, “That was a lot to ask of a descendant of Louis XIV,” especially one who had already been proclaiming himself king in exile for 19 years.9 Louis refused to agree to this constitution and, in those heady days we discussed in Episode 1, won his staredown with the Senate.
When the Charter finally came out, it was not a contract with the French people. Rather, as Louis wrote in his preamble, “We have voluntarily, and by the free exercise of our royal authority, accorded and do accord, grant and concede to our subjects, as well for us as for our successors forever, the constitutional charter which follows.”
It might seem like mere semantics, but whether the constitution was a contract with the nation, or was granted by the king, was an important distinction for people on both sides. At the root was the question of where France’s sovereignty lay: with the people, or with the monarch? Louis was prepared to make a lot of concessions to the new ideas of the Revolution, but he wasn’t about to concede his sovereignty, no matter how much his critics thought this dangerous and old-fashioned.
Let’s take a look at the broad outlines of the Charter, which took the form of 76 short articles in eight sections. You can visit thesiecle.com/episode7 — that’s t-h-e-s-i-e-c-l-e dot com slash episode7, with 7 as a numeral, for links to the full text of the Charter in both English and French.
The big picture
The Charte constitutionnelle du 4 juin 1814, French Archives nationales, public domain via Wikimedia.
The Charter set up a constitutional monarchy with a king, a two-chamber parliament and a judiciary, as well as a sort of bill of rights guaranteeing legal equality before the law for all French men regardless of rank or station, freedom of worship, and the “inviolability” of private property.
The two-chamber legislature, like much of the Charter, was modeled on the British system. The lower chamber, the Chamber of Deputies, was elected for five-year terms, with one-fifth of its members up for election every year. The upper chamber, the Chamber of Peers, was reserved for nobles appointed by the king. The Charter left it unresolved whether the Peers’ positions would be hereditary or merely lifetime appointments, leaving that decision up to the king.
The Chamber of Deputies had the power of the purse, which meant all bills to raise taxes had to begin there. The Chamber of Peers doubled as the country’s high court, with jurisdiction over all cases of high treason and national security.
Lower courts were all appointed entirely by the king, and the chambers had no power to impeach or otherwise remove judges. As the Charter declared in Article 57, “All justice emanates from the king.” This was absolutely not what we would think of as a fully independent judiciary, though the Charter did preserve certain rights such as jury trials.
The biggest structural difference from the kind of constitutions we’re familiar with today was the role of the executive, the king. The king’s powers were limited, but only to a degree. He was declared “the supreme head of the state.” In setting up a constitutional monarchy with a parliament, the Charter was broadly similar to the British system of government. But the Charter reserved a more sweeping set of powers for the French king than 19th Century British kings, whose powers had been gradually declining in favor of parliament for a very long time.10 For example, the French king was the sole executive authority — but unlike the American system of separation of powers, he also exercised a share of legislative authority.
The king, for example, had the right to veto laws, just like an American president. But the king’s veto could not overridden — he had an absolute veto contained in his exclusive power to sanction and promulgate laws. And the king didn’t just execute and approve laws — he also proposed them. In fact the king had the sole right to propose laws. The two chambers couldn’t even introduce their own legislation, but rather had to petition the king to introduce a bill they wanted to pass.
Here’s the key thing to take away from this structure, with so many powers reserved to the king. The Charter was not set up like today’s constitutional monarchies, where power is vested in parliament and the king often plays a minor or ceremonial role. Rather, the Charter set up a system where the king ruled — limited, to a certain degree, by the chambers. The chambers were in a distinctly subordinate role.
Or at least, that’s how the kings saw it. Members of the chambers would often find themselves seeing things quite differently once they inevitably had differences of opinion with the king. And they had some grounds for doing so, because of how sloppily written the Charter was.
For example, Article 13 of the Charter says the king’s ministers “are responsible” — but doesn’t say to whom they’re responsible. The king, who appointed them? Or the chambers, one of which they were required to sit in? If elections returned a majority to the Chamber of Deputies that disagreed with the king’s policies, did the king have to appoint a new ministry that was acceptable to the Chamber? Or did the king’s executive power give him the right to a government of his unfettered choosing? The Charter is silent on these issues — and we will see all of these questions arise over the next 15 years.
The most interesting aspect of the Charter, and one that would prove controversial for almost its entire existence, was the manner by which the Chamber of Deputies was elected. In order to serve in the Chamber, you had to be at least 40 years old — and you also had to be really rich. You could only serve if you paid direct taxes to the government of at least 1,000 francs per year — an astronomical sum that only a fraction of a percent of the country’s population met. And this only counted direct taxes, not indirect taxes you paid on wine, tobacco and other goods.
Meanwhile, this was absolutely not a system of universal suffrage. You had to be rich just to be able to vote for the Chamber of Deputies. To get the vote, you had to be 30 years old and pay at least 300 francs per year in direct taxes, which while lower was still a massive sum. Only around 1 percent of all French adult males met this threshold. In the modern-day U.S., that’s like if only people who earned at least $420,000 per year had the right to vote.11
This is worth unpacking. As I said, the idea that the right to vote was contingent on how rich you were seems bizarre to modern observers. But in early 19th Century Europe, it wasn’t that unusual. As one of the Charter’s drafters wrote, “Everyone started from the principle that it is property that provides the guarantee of the citizen to whom is entrusted the interests of the State.”12 This sentiment was widely held, even in countries with long histories of electoral government.
Great Britain, for example, which had been a constitutional monarchy governed by parliamentary majorities for over a century by this point, generally required voters to own significant amounts of property in order to vote for parliament.13
Even the United States, infamous among aristocratic Europeans for its supposedly untamed democracy, generally imposed widespread property requirements for voting. Almost every state imposed some type of property or taxpaying requirement for voters in the immediate aftermath of the American Revolution, such as Virginia’s requirement that voters own at least 25 or 50 acres of land depending on whether or not it was improved, while Delaware required 50 acres of land or £40 worth of personal property. These restrictions were often ignored and were gradually loosened across the country over the years between 1789 and 1814, but even then many states at least nominally denied the vote to anywhere between 10 and 50 percent of adult white males. 14
There was a widespread assumption among political elites at the time, even in the United States, that “voting was a privilege,” not a right, and that it should be reserved to people who were “tied to the community’s long-term welfare” — ties in the form of property.15 Even as U.S. states established universal suffrage for white adult males in the first decades of the 19th Century, many carved out exceptions barring so-called “paupers” — that is, people reliant on public welfare — from voting.16
Echoing the French sentiments I quoted earlier, historian Donald Ratcliffe says that in the United States of the early 19th Century, “the assumption that the poor, the idle, and the profligate had to be prevented from corrupting the electoral process remained strong.”17
But while France was not unusual in imposing some form of property requirement in 1814, it was unusual in how high that requirement was. Three hundred francs was a lot of money back then, and you had to own a lot more than 300 francs to pay that much in taxes. Overall, as I said before, there were perhaps 100,000 eligible French voters out of a population of 30 million, or around 1 percent of the adult male population. In Britain, the electorate was somewhat larger, about 440,000 voters out of 20 million people — perhaps 13 percent of adult males in England and Wales, and lower rates in Scotland and Ireland.18 Even the most restrictive American states let more than half, and sometimes almost all, their adult white males vote. (The disenfranchisement of black males in many states makes this picture somewhat less rosy but still far more democratic than Restoration France. Women were denied the vote pretty much everywhere, outside of rare and fleeting exceptions in a U.S. state or two where wealthy women could vote in the early years after the American Revolution.19)
Moreover, the Charter’s system of government was restrictive even by France’s own standards. Under the First Republic and Empire, various constitutions had given a wide swathe of adult males at least nominal votes on some issues, though the ability of poorer Frenchmen to actually affect political change was usually blunted or diluted through various mechanisms, and political rights had been increasingly restricted since the heady early days of the Revolution.20 Still, that history meant many adult Frenchmen had experience with having a right to vote that the new constitution denied them.
But at least at first, in 1814 and 1815, the Charter’s restriction of the vote to just 1 percent of the population didn’t spark much protest. There was a desire for order and stability after a generation of revolution and war, and a considerable lingering backlash against the more democratic aspects of the Republic. Even when people did criticize the Charter’s electoral rules in these days, it was usually with the aim of loosening those requirements to let middle-class Frenchmen vote, not to extend the vote to the poor (or, perish the thought, women). We’ll be talking a lot more in future episodes about the Charter’s voting restrictions in this period that some French historians call the “monarchy of limited suffrage.” Suffice it to say, if these restrictions were uncontroversial at first, they did not stay uncontroversial for long.
Much of the rest of the Charter was devoted to trying to smooth over the wounds of the Revolution, and find a common ground between the revolutionary legacy and the returning ancien régime. It’s in these sections, the first and last in the Charter, where that liberality that I mentioned above comes in.
For example, the very first article declares that “Frenchmen are equal before the law, whatever may be their titles and ranks.” This on the one hand is a sweeping gesture to the Revolution, which had abolished a whole set of privileges that nobles and clergy had possessed under the ancien régime. On the other hand, of course, it notes that titles and ranks still exist. Another article declares that “the old nobility resume their titles” and “the new retain theirs” — the “new” nobility being those people Napoleon had made counts and dukes and princes. The Charter was going to keep both of them, the ancient families and the military or bureaucratic parvenus, in an uneasy coexistence.
The Charter further emphasized this point by guaranteeing equal application of taxes — the ancient exemption from taxation that the nobility had enjoyed before the Revolution was gone for good — and that all civil and military jobs were theoretically open to anyone. That’s another change from the ancien régime, where, for example, senior posts in the military were reserved for the nobility. The stunning military successes of the post-Revolutionary meritocratic army had ensured that would remain a relic of the past.
In one controversial and hotly debated group of articles, the Charter guaranteed religious freedom — but also established the Catholic Church as the state church. Traditionalist Catholics were appalled by the idea of recognizing the rights of Protestants, in particular. Those same Protestants, as well as secular-minded people, opposed the idea of an established church. If one had to recognize Catholicism, they at least preferred the compromise language Napoleon had used: declaring Catholicism not the religion of the state, but “the religion of the great majority of Frenchmen.”21 But ultimately a compromise was struck: establish Catholicism, but guarantee freedom of worship and also pay Protestant pastors from state taxes, just as Catholic priests were.
The Charter guaranteed jury trials and personal liberty, and also the “right to publish and to have printed their opinions.” But in each case, it also left an exception: future laws could change or limit these rights. That was especially the case for freedom of the press, where laws “necessary to restrain abuses of that liberty” were explicitly allowed.
Louis, commonly accused of “forgetting nothing”22, also supported a few clauses designed to move France past the tumults of the past years. In Article 11, the Charter forbade “all investigations of opinions and votes given prior to the Restoration,” and required that both courts and citizens alike share in this amnesia. As a legal principle, that was fine (though easily circumvented, as during the purges of the Legal White Terror in 1815, when Louis exempted some people from an amnesty on the grounds of their votes to execute his brother, Louis XVI). But one could not simply order away the anger and resentment of the past generation.
Similarly, Article 9 guaranteed the inviolability of private property, and explicitly called out the so-called biens nationaux, those lands the Revolution had confiscated from nobles and the church and then re-sold. As we discussed in Episode 1, owners of these biens nationaux were afraid that the Restoration meant to take away these lands, and the Charter’s guarantee didn’t change that. It didn’t help that various priests and nobles, deprived of the ability to legally compel the return of their former lands, tried to get them back through social and financial pressure.
We’ll close by discussing what would prove to be perhaps the most important of these articles, though not quite yet. Article 14 is the one that declared the king the “supreme head of the state,” made him commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and gave him full right to enter into treaties and alliances. But it also included a fateful clause: the king “makes the necessary regulations and ordinances for the execution of the laws and the security of the state.”
What exactly does that mean? French people at the time, to their eventual great cost, did not agree. On the one hand, it’s plausible to read that as simply a version of the U.S. Constitution’s “necessary and proper” clause — letting the king do a range of tasks not explicitly granted by other articles of the Charter.
On the other hand, Article 14 was also open to a much more expansive interpretation. On this reading, it was sort of an emergency clause — the king could do absolutely whatever was necessary for the security of the state, even in contradiction of other elements of the Charter.
We won’t talk about Article 14 again for a while yet, but remember it. This is the most consequential of all those ambiguities and contradictions arising from the Charter’s hasty drafting. People will fight and die over the proper interpretation of Article 14.
Take it from the Bourbons: never file your first draft.
In a different world, this would be the perfect moment for me to segue to an advertisement for Grammarly or some other proofreading software, but alas, The Siècle has too few listeners so far to monetize like that. I’m actually losing money producing it, due to hosting fees, let alone the costs of books. Fortunately, a few generous listeners are kicking in a few dollars a month on Patreon to help offset my expenses and time, and others have bought me French history books from an Amazon wishlist I’ve set up. If you like the show and have the means to help support it, I’d be very grateful. You can find out how at thesiecle.com/support. But even if you can’t — and let’s be honest, I also listen to lots of podcasts I don’t contribute to, as well as some I do — you can help the show by spreading the word, or rating and reviewing it on iTunes. All that helps me get more listeners, which in turn can help me attract advertisers to offset my costs.
For now, we’re going to transition from the Charter in theory to the Charter in practice. In 1815, even as the White Terror raged on, that restricted number of French voters will go to the polls — and the outcome will surprise just about everyone. Join me in two weeks for Episode 8: The Unexpected Chamber.
Philip Mansel, Paris Between Empires: Monarchy and Revolution, 1814-1852 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001), 113-4. Often those other constitutions translated clauses directly from the French Charter. ↩
Munro Price, The Perilous Crown: France between Revolutions (London: Macmillan, 2007), 59, 390n. The exact degree to which the British monarchy’s powers had declined is the subject of considerable scholarly debate, and the British monarch remained much more politically potent in 1814 than it would become over future decades, let alone today. ↩
Estelle Sommeiller and Mark Price, “The new gilded age: Income inequality in the U.S. by state, metropolitan area, and county” (Economic Policy Institute, 2018). ↩
Mansel, Louis XVIII, 183-4. The speaker was Antoine François Claude, comte Ferrand. The other two primary drafters of the Charter were Jacques Claude, comte de Beugnot, and Abbé François-Xavier-Marc-Antoine de Montesquiou-Fézensac, better known as the Abbé de Montesquiou, the most important of the three who largely wrote the Charter’s first draft which was adopted with minimal revisions. ↩
John A. Phillips and Charles Wetherell, “The Great Reform Act of 1832 and the Political Modernization of England,” The American Historical Review, 100, no. 2 (April 1995). ↩
Donald Ratcliffe, “The Right to Vote and the Rise of Democracy, 1787—1828,” Journal of the Early Republic, 33, no. 2 (Summer 2013), 222-37. Stanley L. Engerman and Kenneth L. Sokoloff, “The Evolution of Suffrage Institutions in the New World,” The Journal of Economic History, 65, no. 4 (December 2005),898. ↩
Robert J. Steinfeld, “Property and Suffrage in the Early American Republic,” Stanford Law Review, 41, no. 2 (January 1989). ↩