Policing the Moral Limits
Public Spirit, Surveillance, and the Remaking of mœurs
Such is the kind of revolution still needed: that of mœurs.
Jean-Marie Roland, Lettre du ministre de l’Intérieur
à la Convention nationale, September 30, 1792
Quid leges sine moribus vanae proficiunt?
(How useless and vain are the laws without mœurs?)
Horace, the Third Ode of Carmina, cited by François-Xavier Lanthenas,
Bases fondamentales de l’instruction publique, 1793
Without public spirit, no mœurs.
Dieudonné Thiébault, Traité sur l’esprit public, 1797
In the two and a half weeks between the time her father was fired and the time he was recalled and returned from Bâle, France, wrote Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker, fell apart. The future Madame de Staël, in her letter to the Emperor of Sweden of August 1789, recounted, “My father [Jacques Necker, First Minister of Finances] returned on July 27 to find authorities destroyed or confused with new ones… an old nation fallen into a state of infancy rather than youth, a corrupt people clamoring for American institutions, insisting on freedom before establishing public spirit.”1 In a letter eight months earlier, de Staël described France to be in a state of “great agitation” over the upcoming Estates-General. She thought that with the mass of conflicting interests, establishing public spirit would be treacherous. “The French want to establish public spirit amid a thousand particular interests. They believe a Constitution will be born from the clash of competing parties. I hope this will happen, but I tremble for the navigator who tries to guide them through so many obstacles.”2