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Caroline Warman

29. Rabaut Saint-Étienne (1743-1793), ‘No Man Should Be Harassed for His Opinions nor Troubled in the Practice of His Religion’, 17891

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  • 1 Rabaut de Saint-Étienne, ‘Opinion de M. Rabaut de Saint-Étienne sur la motion suivante de M. le Cte (...)

1Rabaut Saint-Etienne, a deputy representing the Third Estate and himself the son of a Protestant pastor, looks at the flaws in the so-called ‘edict of tolerance’ promulgated by Louis XVI in 1787: the ‘non-Catholics’ (Protestants and Jews) continue to be discriminated against. He argues that complete liberty should be enjoyed by all.

2The only thing that non-Catholics gained in the edict of November 1787 (and some of you, gentlemen, may not be aware of this), was what could not be refused them. Yes, what could not be refused them; I do not repeat this without shame, but it is not an empty accusation, these are the edict’s own terms. This law, more famous than fair, lays down the ways in which their births, marriages, and deaths should be recorded; it thereby makes it possible for them to be recognised in civil law, and to exercise their professions… and that’s all it does.

3And this, gentlemen, is how, in France and in the eighteenth century, we continue to apply that axiom of the dark ages and divide our nation into two castes, one favoured, and one excluded; and how we have viewed as a great stride forward for legislation that French people, who have been deprived of their civil rights for a hundred years should now be allowed to exercise their professions, that is to say, to exist, and for their children no longer be regarded as illegitimate. Moreover what the law requires of them to gain even this much is difficult and fraught with obstacles, while the execution of its mercy has brought about chaos and suffering in those provinces where Protestants live. […]

4And so it is, gentlemen, that Protestants do everything for their country, while their country treats them with ingratitude. They serve it as citizens, yet it treats them like outlaws; they serve it like men who have been liberated by you, and yet are treated like slaves. But we do finally have a French nation, and it is on behalf of two million useful citizens who demand their rights as Frenchmen that I make my appeal today. I am not so unjust to my nation as to suppose that she could utter the word intolerance; it is banished from our language or will only exist as one of those barbarous outmoded terms which we no longer use because the idea it represents no longer exists. But Gentlemen, it is not even tolerance which I demand: it is liberty. Tolerance! Support! Pardon! Mercy! All ideas which are overwhelmingly unjust to all dissenters for as long as it is true that difference in religion or opinion is not a crime. Tolerance! I demand that the very word be banished; and it will be, this unfair word, which presents us only as citizens deserving of pity, as criminals to be pardoned, those people whom chance, mainly, and upbringing have impelled to think differently from us. Error, gentlemen, is not a crime: the person who has fallen into it takes it as the truth; it is the truth for him; he is obliged to believe in it, and no man or society has any right to prevent him.

5Well, gentlemen, in the general carving up of error and truth which men hand out, hand on, or fight over, who amongst us will be so bold as to claim that he has never been in the wrong, that truth has always been on his side, and error always elsewhere?

6And thus I demand, gentlemen, for all French Protestants, for all the non-Catholics in the kingdom, the same that you demand for yourselves: liberty and equal rights. I demand it for that people uprooted from Asia, endlessly wandering, endlessly banished, endlessly persecuted over the course of nearly eighteen centuries, and which would adopt our customs and ways if our laws made it one with us, and whose morals we have no right to criticise, given that they are the result of our cruelty and of the humiliations we have unjustly inflicted on it.

7I demand, Gentlemen, everything you demand for yourselves: I demand that all French non-Catholics be given the same status as all other citizens in every respect and without the slightest reservation, because they are citizens too, and because law and liberty are impartial and do not share out unequally the rigorous acts of their exact justice.

Read the free original text online (facsimile), 1789 edition:​books?id=MypCAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA1


1 Rabaut de Saint-Étienne, ‘Opinion de M. Rabaut de Saint-Étienne sur la motion suivante de M. le Cte de Castellane: Nul homme ne peut être inquiété pour ses opinions, ni troublé dans l’exercice de sa religion’, Versailles: Baudouin, 1789, pp. 6-7.


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