The Objects

22nd Apr 1815

acte additionnel.jpg
Source: gallica.bnf.fr, with permission of the Bibliothèque nationale de France

The Acte Additionnel to the French Constitution

Contributed by: David A. Bell

In early 1814, as the First Empire, was crumbling, Benjamin Constant published a stinging attack on Napoleon as a despot besotted by anachronistic visions of conquest. A year later, however, Constant could not resist the Emperor’s invitation to draw up a new French constitution. Napoleon knew that to rally support after returning from Elba, he needed to embrace the revolutionary heritage, and pose as the defender of liberty against the Bourbons and the crowned heads of Europe.

Constant’s document, although purportedly a simple “addition” to the earlier imperial constitutions, in fact constituted a blueprint for a liberal constitutional monarchy. Unlike its Napoleonic predecessors, it contained a declaration of rights, with guarantees for press and religious freedom. It also ruled out any reversal of revolutionary land reform, attributed real power to an elected Chamber of Representatives, and allowed for an extension of the suffrage.

Napoleon signed the acte additionnel on 22 April 1815 and submitted the constitution, quickly nicknamed “la benjamine” after its author, to a plebiscite. Scarcely twenty percent of those eligible actually voted, but the government nonetheless hailed its approval. The re-restored Louis XVIII (“Louis deux fois neuf”) abolished it after Waterloo, but it served as an inspiration for later French constitutions, especially that of 1830.

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