Charter of 1814
The French Charter of 1814 was a constitution granted by King Louis XVIII of France shortly after his restoration. The Congress of Vienna demanded that Louis bring in a constitution of some form before he was restored.
Public Law of the French
The opening twelve articles of the Charter are analogous to a 'Bill of Rights'. They contained such measures as a declaration of equality before the law, due process rights, religious toleration, freedom of the press, protection of private property, abolition of conscription. These principles, together with the retention of the Napoleonic Code, represent some of the permanent gains of the French Revolution.
Nevertheless, the concept of the judicial review of the constitutionality of legislation was undeveloped, and it was the responsibility of the legislature, not the courts, to defend these rights. Freedom of the press, in particular, was subsequently restricted by harsh press censorship laws, which were deemed to violate the spirit of the charter.
The King and his Ministers
The King occupied a central position under the Charter of 1814.
The Charter declared that the king was Head of State and chief executive: the King appointed public officials, issued the ordinances and regulations necessary 'for the execution of the laws and the security of the state', commanded the army and navy, declared war, and made 'treaties of peace, alliance and commerce' (Articles 13 and 14).
In addition, the King had great influence over the legislative power, since he possessed the sole right to present draft laws to Parliament (Article 16), and the right to grant or withhold assent to laws passed by the Parliament (Article 20). The King summoned and prorogued Parliament and had the right to dissolve the Chamber of Deputies and call new elections (Article 50) . The King also appointed the members of the House of Peers (Article 27).
In the judicial field, the King appointed judges (Article 57) and had the power of pardon (Article 67).
The Chamber of Deputies was elected, but with a high tax qualification. The election took place in two stages, with voters choosing members of Electoral Colleges, who in turn elected Deputies. Members of Electoral Colleges had to pay 300 Francs a year in direct taxes (Article 40), while Deputies themselves had to pay a direct tax of 1000 Francs a year. As taxes were mainly levied on landed wealth, this restricted the Chamber of Deputies to a very small percentage of the richest landowners. The representative basis of the French parliament under the Charter was thus much narrower than that which had been used to elect the Estates-General under the ancient regime. Moreover, the Presidents of the Electoral Colleges were appointed by the King, giving the government the ability to influence the outcome of elections.
The Chamber of Peers was appointed by the King, and could consist of both hereditary aristocrats and life peers ennobled in recognition of public service (Article 27). The number of peers was unlimited, meaning that the King could, at any time, add to their number. In addition to its legislative and deliberative role, the Chamber of Peers also acted as a special court for the trial of impeachments (Article 55) and for cases of 'high treason and attacks against the security of the state' (Article 33).
The members of the two Chambers enjoyed certain parliamentary privileges, including immunity from arrest (Articles 34 and 52). The President (Speaker) of the Chamber of Deputies was appointed by the King from a list of five members presented by the Chamber (Article 43), while the Chamber of Peers was presided over by the Chancellor of France, an official appointed by the King (Article 29).
The consent of both Chambers was necessary for the passage of a law. There was no provision for joint sessions or other constitutional means of resolving differences between the Chambers. Proposed laws (bills) could be initiated by the King in either Chamber, except for laws concerning taxes, which had to be initiated in the Chamber of Deputies (Article 17).
A Constitutional, but not Parliamentary, Monarchy
The King's powers were for the most part exercised by his Ministers. The Ministers were chosen by the King. Article 13 stated open-endedly that 'Ministers are responsible', but the nature of this responsibility was ambiguous and its extent limited. Articles 55 and 56 restricted this responsibility to 'acts of treason and peculation'. Moreover, responsibility could only be enforced by impeachment - arraignment by the Chamber of Deputies and trial by the Chamber of Peers. Thus, the Charter gave no recognition to the principle of modern parliamentary government, namely that the Ministers are not just legally, but also politically, responsible to Parliament, and that Parliament can remove Ministers by a simple vote of no-confidence, without having to bring impeachment proceedings.
In this respect, the Charter was not dissimilar to other constitutional documents of its time (even in Britain, where the responsibility of Ministers to Parliament had been established in the eighteenth century, it remained on a purely conventional basis). The challenge for the liberal elements of French politics during the Restoration era, therefore, was to develop a convention of parliamentary government, according to which: (i) King would act only on the advice of his Ministers, and (ii) the Ministers, although formally appointed by the King, would be drawn from amongst the leaders of the majority in Parliament, and would be required to resign if they lost the confidence of Parliament. Owing to the narrow franchise, the dominance of the reactionary Ultra party, and the personal intervention of the King, these conventions did not develop during the period from 1814-1830. Thus, although monarchy under the charter was constitutional, it never evolved into a truly parliamentary system of government.
Status and Amendment
The Charter was presented as a gift from the King to the people, not as a constituent act of the people. It ended with the words "Given at Paris, in the year of grace 1814, and of our reign the nineteenth", this commitment to the principles of 'legitimism' would put the reign of Louis XVIII beginning in June 1795, after the death of Louis XVII, the youngest son of Louis XVIII's brother Louis XVI. The King and his successors were bound to swear an oath (Article 74) to maintain the Charter. The Charter contained no provision for future amendment. According to one reading, this made the Charter a truly fundamental law, binding on the King, the Chambers, and the people alike. However, the 1830 revolution established the principle that the Charter, which was then reissued in amended form, could be changed, in the same way as an ordinary law, by the joint act of the King and the Chambers.
- Louis XVII of France
- Louis XVIII of France
- Charles X of France
- Congress of Vienna
- Bourbon Restoration
- Campbell, P. (1958), French Electoral Systems and Elections since 1789, London: Faber & Faber
- Cobban, A. (1961), A History of Modern France, Vol. 2. 1799-1945, Pelican Books
- Thornhill, C. (2011), A Sociology of Constitutions: Constitutions and State Legitimacy in Socio- Historical Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press