Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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FAITS ACCOMPLIS. These words have become a usual phrase in political language, and require no explanation. By faits accomplis are meant questions decided by events, and which are or may or should be considered as ended. There is nothing so indestructible, nothing so immutable, as the past. But when it is said that a thing is a fait accompli, it is ordinarily meant that it is of such a character as to be accepted or submitted to, and that the idea is abandoned of doing away with its immediate results, or effacing its most direct consequences. It is believed that the expression began to have this precise sense in practice, after having been employed by Odilon Barrot in a circumstance of considerable importance in the parliamentary history of the French monarchy of 1830. In the session of March 24, 1836, the cabinet formed by Molé, the month be fore, having announced a policy of conciliation, Barrot said: "I was glad to make note of the words of the new ministry, which invited us to take thought only for the future of the country without wrangling over the past. We have accepted faits accomplis, that is to say, that without renouncing our convictions, without abandoning our political religion, in the presence of a majority whose honor and whose dignity itself were pledged to the measures which have been adopted, we consented not to renew in vain, and at the great risk of endangering the peace of the country, questions for which we could not expect, at present, a solution in accordance with our convictions." These words have become the commentary which on almost any occasion may be given on the doctrine of faits accomplis. Since that time the expression has passed into use to describe facts the discussion of which is abandoned, at least temporarily, and concerning which it is considered sufficient to appeal to history or the future. We see that the idea expressed by these two words is analogous in politics to what is known in law as prescription. Both suppose that time, by its influence alone, legalizes certain acts or certain results to such a degree that it may become allowable, wise or prudent to admit them as beyond question, whatever, in other regards, be the judgment which should be passed on them. This is sometimes a concession demanded by necessity, and sometimes a sacrifice made in the interest of the public good.


—Is it possible to determine, in a general manner, the cases and conditions in which the doctrine of faits accomplis is legitimately applicable? The solution of this question depends on the circumstances. This doctrine is indeed appealed to, according to circumstances, either to sanction obedience to necessity, the surrender of one's claims in the interest of all, or the yielding to force and coming to terms with tyranny. It may serve as an argument to reason or as a pretext to weakness. Like prescription in law it may either support a right or shield its violation It may be the expression of a clever policy which distinguishes in time the possible from the impossible, or a cowardly egotism which prostrates itself before fortune. Sometimes destined to bring peace to a divided nation, it may authorize it to grant what Tacitus calls grande patientiœ documentum. It may in turn be the shame or the salvation of a country.


—In times when the frequent recurrence of revolutions tests the energy and faithfulness of men's characters too severely, the doctrine of faits accomplis should be held rather in distrust than made an habitual rule of conduct. At these times the power of events is such that acquiescence is more common and more to be feared than resistance. Men are but too ready to accept the irrevocable, and this even when there are no calculations of personal interest; the indifference and scepticism, produced by the frequent destruction of hopes, opinions and systems, induce us only too frequently to accept the despotism of facts, that is to say, the idolatry of success. Therefore it is perhaps from the nature of the sentiments which determine us to bend before facts, rather than from the nature of the facts themselves, that we must judge whether we are right or wrong in submitting to them. Conscience is more capable of distinguishing whether we yield through weakness of heart or mind than is reason to pronounce whether the results of events are finally decisive or not; and it is easier to recognize what is worthier than what is more certain. It is nevertheless true that a proper appreciation of circumstances, no matter how difficult it may be, is necessary in order wisely to apply the doctrine of faits accomplis in practice. It can not even be laid down as a principle that the mistakes of the past should never be sanctioned, and that all rights are forever imprescriptible. It is an absolute rule that no injustice should be committed, no right violated. But when the evil is really irreparable, the impossible should not be attempted. There should be no struggle against necessity, when one is intrusted with public interests. The simplest and clearest example is that of war; if victory has pronounced against the right in a just war, it is heroic to resist to the death; but it is not criminal in the conquered to acknowledge his own helplessness, and conclude a peace with the conqueror which will secure the triumph of iniquity. There are circumstances under which the state and the country can not be sacrificed even to right. The last resort of a Brutus and a Cato is no more permitted to nations than to individuals. But civilized nations, devoted to the enjoyments of art and industry, have to guard themselves rather against the inclination to tolerate than the desire to repress injustice. We see, therefore, that the question of the possible and the impossible is always involved in such affairs with the question of right, and that before undertaking to act against injustice itself we must know certainly whether it can be repaired. And still it may be beautiful to ignore this. It is the glory of Poland never to have accepted faits accomplis.


—Of principles of which certain facts may be the violation, examination will unable us to decide which are really sacred, since they are eternal, and which are not essentially inviolable, since they are conventional, and concerning which compromise may be admitted. Thus the persons called legitimists in France consider that in a monarchy the right of the dynasty is of such a character that it should be exempt from the attack of events and remain unmoved in the midst of revolutions. Nevertheless if the countess of Albany had not died without posterity, would there still be a Jacobite party? Without any doubt, the rights of the Stuarts would be buried in oblivion, and no one would dream of reacting against the event of 1688. The right of dynasties therefore, is not proof against time. Suppose, on the other hand, that the edict which revoked the edict of Nantes was still in force in France with the legislation consequent on it, no prescription would have been sufficient to shield this attack on the liberty of conscience, and it would be the duty of citizens to force governments to decree the abolition of these laws condemned by an eternal truth. In such a case submission to the faits accomplis would be a continual complicity.


—When Great Britain, under the influence of a celebrated ministry, abolished the corn laws in 1845 and at the same time effected a great economic revolution, one of its best guarantees against all political revolutions, the cabinet which was the author of these important measures was not able to stand long. Its successors, who followed the same course, soon saw the end of their power; the parliamentary movement restored the enemies of reform to office in 1852. The ministry formed by Lord Derby announced, soon after, the dissolution of parliament. It had not ceased to oppose the recent changes in all commercial legislation, and this question continued to be agitated during the elections But after the votes of the nation had decided it once more, the reforms being thus definitely sanctioned by public opinion, the ministry and its party submitted; they looked on the reforms as faits accomplis, and said no more about them. And while they profited by this, their adversaries had no idea of reproaching them for it. It was reasonable and politic to abandon a cause lost beyond recovery, and which was not one of those which deserved an eternal protest.


—Of all faits accomplis. the most important, and those which give rise to the most difficult questions of this century, are the changes of government. Setting aside the merits of a new government, the forms which it receives, and the principles which it professes, it appears that its existence, when the national consent is not refused to it, is a fact forced on good citizens, and that they have not the right to separate themselves from their country and deny what it recognizes. The more frequent the changes of government are, the more the identity and perpetuity of the state and the country become the only objects of civic duty, and alone command an unchanging fidelity. But this doctrine of a government de facto which is very similar to that of faits accomplis, although justified by the interests of public peace, is not very favorable to the dignity either of nations or of individuals. It aids and encourages too much that readiness to honor the conqueror, to serve the stronger, who hides under the mask of patriotic duty slavish calculations of cupidity or ambition. Hence the evident necessity for those who wish to escape the degrading effects of frequent revolutions, to remind governments that they should bring into esteem the forms and the principles which belong to them. Never have these principles and forms had such need of being present to the mind of an honorable man, as in times which called them in question every moment. Whoever has formed fixed principles, and has identified them with certain constitutional and legal forms, has found that immovable point of support for politics, that inconcussum quid which Descartes looked for for philosophy; he will pass judgment on faits accomplis, even when he shall feel his powerlessness to modify or oppose them, and in the condemnation of that which he is forced to endure he will save his independence of character and dignity of mind. The firmness of individuals is never of higher value than amidst the instability of institutions. Happy are the nations which are only composed of citizens capable of controlling facts by principles.


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