Modern History Sourcebook:
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
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
. . .
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
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,
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(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997