The University Bookman


Spring 2017

An Adaptable Conservative

book cover imageGermaine de Staël: A Political Portrait
by Biancamaria Fontana.
Princeton UP, 2016.
Hardcover, 296 pages, $35.

Forfare Davis

“You want to repeal Obamacare? I thought you believed in, you know, conserving things.” “I just want to make marriage more relevant to twenty-first-century society. I guess that makes me the conservative, doesn’t it?” “That’s not conservatism—it’s reactionary!”

We all know these lines. Critics are incessantly defining conservative philosophy for us. If we’re lucky, they mean it to be a sort of reflexive centrism; worse, though, is the charge that conservatism is just a form of intellectual timidity—of a privileged caste trying (and largely failing) to come to terms with a changing world.

By the first definition at least, Madame de Staël is a fairly solid conservative. A constitutionalist by conviction, she nonetheless made peace quite easily first with the absolute monarchy, then the republic, then the consulate, then the empire, and then again with the restored absolute monarchy. Her only persistent aim was to moderate the regimes that took power in rapid succession in the early years of the nineteenth century.

We needn’t take that as abuse. It would be too much to ask any man (or woman) to have worked out the proper course for France in the 1780s and keep to that path through four of history’s most violent and anarchic decades. Originally a political Anglophile, she followed Montesquieu in looking to the United Kingdom for a model of constitutional monarchy. Once the Bourbons were soundly whipped, however, de Staël (quite naturally) pivoted Stateside. She embraced an American-style constitutional republicanism instead, complete with a “natural aristocracy,” and repeatedly warned of the threat posed to liberty by pure, mob-rule democracy.

Particularly fascinating (especially to American conservatives) is her recommendation on how France—until the Revolution the pinnacle of civilized refinement—might avoid “democratic stagnation” as a newly-minted republic. These were, Fontana says,

the adoption of high standards of public morality, the promotion of intellectual and artistic excellence, the emergence of men capable of conferring on the republic a distinctive grandeur, able to match and surpass that of the old monarchy.

Sound advice for any republic, really.

Likewise her simple but keen observation that men who hold a “monopoly on fame” are well on their way to becoming despots. To again quote Fontana, de Staël

describes how, on her return to Paris on the eve of the coup of Brumaire, she heard the people everywhere repeating a single name—that of Bonaparte—whereas before they had referred only to impersonal entities such as the assembly, the people, or the Convention.… This observation is generally cited as the recognition on Staël’s part of the beginning of tyranny in the form of personal rule.

Watch and wait to see if our countrymen cease complaining about Congress or “the establishment” and only speak the name of Trump.

Little wonder de Staël counted among her friends such disparate eminences as Charles Fox, Thomas Jefferson, and Joseph Bonaparte. For all her fickleness, de Staël was neither a coward nor a mercenary. Indeed, our main gripe with her changing loyalties may be that, had she asserted herself and gotten her way, France—and the world—might have been spared its terrible labor-pains.  

Forfare Davis is a writer and has contributed to First Things, National Review, and The Imaginative Conservative. You can follow Mr. Davis on Twitter at @Pseudoplotinus.

Posted: March 26, 2017

Did you see this one? book cover

Why the Exorcist Endures
Mark Judge
Fall 2014

The ... conservative is concerned, first of all, for the regeneration of spirit and character—with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding, and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded. This is conservatism at its highest.

Russell Kirk


Subscribe & Follow


More from the Bookman!

book cover book cover book cover

Literature as Counterculture
Allen Mendenhall

The Enigma of the Black Republican
Kareim Oliphant

One Hundred Years of Communism
Francis P. Sempa

The Ambitious Intellectual
Ann-Michele Sproviero

Edwards: From the Beginning of the Right
George H. Nash

The Catholic Novel in an Age of Political Correctness
Trevor C. Merrill

book cover book cover book cover

Bookman Contributors Elsewhere

John Lukacs —the great contemporary historian has pieces in both Chronicles (on being surrounded by books) and First Things (on a displaced pianist).

Joseph Bottom on fraud, American-style.

Andrew Bacevich on the end of endism.

Helen Andrews on the moon landing and the 1970s. Helen (a 2017 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow) wrote one of our most popular pieces, a consideration of the anti-suffragettes.


We are pleased to announce the release of The University Bookman on Edmund Burke, now available for Kindle. Collecting 21 reviews, essays, and interviews from the Bookman on the life and thought of Edmund Burke, this book is only $2.99, and purchases support our ongoing work to provide an imaginative defense of the Permanent Things. (3 Mar 2015)

Other Sites of Interest

Publisher Sites


Copyright © 2007–2017 The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal