1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Constant de Rebecque, Henri Benjamin

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 6
Constant de Rebecque, Henri Benjamin

CONSTANT DE REBECQUE, HENRI BENJAMIN (1767–1830), French writer and politician, was born at Lausanne on the 25th of October 1767. His mother, Henriette de Chandieu, died at his birth; and his father, Juste Arnold de Constant, commanded a regiment in the Dutch service. After a good private education at Brussels, he was sent to Oxford, and thence to Erlangen; a subsequent residence at Edinburgh and the relations there formed with prominent Whigs profoundly influenced his political views. He returned to Switzerland in 1786, and in the next year visited Paris, where he met Madame de Charriére, a Dutchwoman who had married into a Swiss family with which his own was connected. Madame de Charriére, although twenty-seven years older than Constant, became his mistress, and the liaison, an affair possibly more of the intellect than of the heart, lasted until 1796, when Constant became intimate with Madame de Staël. After an escapade in England in 1787, he spent two months with her at Colombier before becoming, in deference to his father’s wishes, chamberlain at the court of Charles William, duke of Brunswick, where in 1789 he married one of the ladies-in-waiting, Wilhelmina, Baroness Chramm. The duke’s share in the coalition against France made his service incompatible with Constant’s political opinions, which were already definitely republican, and, on the dissolution of his marriage in 1794, he resigned his post. Meanwhile his father had been accused of malversation of the funds of his regiment; Benjamin helped him with his defence, with the result that he was finally exonerated and restored to the service with the rank of general. Constant, who had met Madame de Staël at Lausanne in 1794, followed her in the next year to Paris, where he rapidly became a personage in the moderate republican circle which met in her salon; and by 1796 he had established with her intimate relations, which, in spite of many storms, endured for ten years. In 1796 he published two pamphlets in defence of the Directory and against the counter-revolution, “De la force du gouvernement actuel et de la nécessité de se rallier” and “Des réactions politiques.” He was one of the promoters of the constitutional club of Salm, formed to counterbalance the royalist club of Clichy, and he supported Barras in 1797 and 1799 in the coups d’état of 18 Fructidor, and of 18 Brumaire. In December 1799, he was nominated a member of the Tribunate, where he showed from the outset an independence quite unacceptable to Napoleon, by whom he was removed in the “creaming” of that assembly in 1802. His incessant opposition was attributed partly to his association with Madame de Staël, whose salon was a centre for those disaffected from the Napoleonic régime, and in 1803 he followed her into exile. After M. de Staël’s death in 1802, there was no longer any obstacle to their marriage, but Madame de Staël was apparently unwilling to change her name. Much of Constant’s time was spent with her at Coppet; but he also made long sojourns at Weimar, where he mixed in the Goethe-Schiller circle, and accumulated material for the great work on religion which he had begun, so far back as 1787, at Colombier. His relations with Madame de Staël became more and more difficult, and in 1808 he secretly married Charlotte von Hardenberg, whom he had known at Brunswick, and whose divorce from her second husband, General Dutertre, he had secured. Even his marriage, which did not prove a happy one, was insufficient to cause an entire breach with Corinne, who insisted on his return to Coppet for a short time. In 1811, while residing with his wife’s relations at Hardenberg, near Göttingen, he was brought into contact with German mysticism, which considerably modified his earlier sceptical views on religion.

The Napoleonic reverses of 1813 brought him back to politics, and in November he published at Hanover his De l’esprit de conquête et de l’usurpation dans leurs rapports avec la civilisation européenne, directed against Napoleon. He also entered into relations with the crown prince of Sweden (Bernadotte), who conferred on him the order of the Polar Star. On his return to Paris, during its occupation by the allied sovereigns, he was well received by the emperor Alexander I. of Russia, and resumed his old place in the Liberal salon of Madame de Staël. In a series of pamphlets he advocated the principles of a Liberal monarchy and the freedom of the press. At this point began the second great attachment of his life, his unfortunate infatuation for Madame Récamier, under whose influence he committed the worst blunder of his political career. At the beginning of the Hundred Days he had violently asserted in the Journal des débats his resolution not to be a political turncoat, and had left Paris. Attracted by Madame Récamier, he soon returned, and after an interview with Napoleon on the 10th of April, he became a supporter of his government and drew up the Acte constitutionnel. The return of Louis XVIII. drove him into exile. In London in 1815 he published Adolphe, one of the earliest examples of the psychological novel. It had been written in 1807, and is intrinsically autobiographical; that Adolphe represents Constant himself there is no dispute, but Ellénore probably owes something both to Madame de Charriere and Madame de Staël. In 1816 he was again in Paris, advocating Liberal constitutional principles. He founded in 1818 with other Liberal journalists the Minerve française and in 1820 La Renommée. In 1819 he was returned to the Chamber of Deputies, and proved so formidable an opponent that the government made a vain attempt to exclude him from the Chamber on the ground of his Swiss birth. Perhaps the greatest service he rendered to his party was his consistent advocacy of the freedom of the press. At the outbreak of the revolution of 1830 he was absent from Paris, having undergone an operation, but he returned at the request of Lafayette to take his share in the elevation of Louis Philippe to the throne. On the 27th of August he was made president of the council of state, but he died on the 8th of December of the same year. During his later years he had been a cripple in consequence of a fall in the Chamber of Deputies, and he fought the last of his many duels sitting in a chair. After the death, in 1817, of Madame de Staël, whom he continued to visit daily until the end, he had ceased to go into society, giving himself up to his passion for play. To pay his gambling debts he accepted a gift of 200,000 francs from Louis Philippe, thus affording a ready handle to his enemies. The failure of his candidature for the Academy in 1830 is said to have been a shock to his enfeebled health.

Constant’s political career was spoiled by his liaison with Madame de Staël, and at the Restoration was further disturbed by his unreturned passion for Madame Récamier. His defects as a debater were not compensated entirely by the excellence of his set speeches; but his wide culture and powerful intellect were bound to leave their mark on affairs. His political inconsistencies were more apparent than real, for there was no break in his advocacy of Liberal principles. His best writing is to be found in his journalism and correspondence (only a small part of which has been published), rather than in his more pretentious political pamphlets.

In the most important of his writings, De la religion considérée dans sa source, ses formes, et ses développements (5 vols., 1825–1831), he traces the successive transformations of the religious sentiment imperishable under its varying forms. Besides Adolphe, in its way as important as Chateaubriand’s René, he left two other sketches of novels in MS., which are apparently lost. His political tracts were collected by himself as, Collection complete des ouvrages publiés sur . . . la France, formant une espèce de cours de politique constitutionnelle (4 vols., 1818–1820), as were his Discours à la Chambre des Députés (2 vols., 1827).

Authorities.—See Constant’s Cahier rouge, published first in 1907, containing his autobiography from 1767 to 1787; Journal intime (1804–1816), re-edited with the Lettres à sa famille by D. Melegari in 1895; the semi-autobiographical Adolphe; his letters to Madame de Charrière; to Madame Récamier, edited by Madame Lenormant in 1882. His ordinary diary has disappeared, with his letters to his wife and to Madame de Staël. See further an article by Loève-Veimars in the Revue des deux mondes (1st January 1833); H. Castille, B. Constant (1859); the Réminiscences of J. J. Coulmann (3 vols., 1862–1869); Éd. Herriot, Madame de Récamier et ses amis (1904); Sainte-Beuve in Derniers portraits littéraires (B. Constant and Madame de Charrière), Causeries du lundi (vol. xi.), Nouveaux lundis (vol. i.); É. Faguet, Politiques et moralistes du XIX e siècle (1ère série, 1891); P. Godet, Madame de Charrière et ses amis (Geneva, 1905); L. Michon, Le Gouvernement parlementaire sous la Restauration (1905), containing an analysis of the more important of Constant’s political writings; V. Glachant, Benjamin Constant sous l’œil ud guet (1906), containing an account of his relations with the police, also his correspondence with Fauriel; G. Rudler, La Jeunesse de B. Constant, and Bibliographie critique (1909).