No. 64.
Mr. Hitt to Mr. Fish.

No. 1271.]

Sir: To-day the President received the diplomatic corps at the Palais de l’Elysée. This formality, which in the days of the Emperor’s personal government was watched with the deepest solicitude for the intimations of the executive will, has, by the events of the last few years, lost its interest, and there was nothing of special significance to day. Perhaps Lord Lyons was greeted with a little more than usual attention by some members of the diplomatic corps, in consequence of the recent acquisition by England of the Suez Canal shares. Generally, the occasion was one of mere customary new-year greetings.

At six o’clock last evening the National Assembly closed its session with the year. Such an adjournment in the days of the empire was scarce more than a formality, and excited little interest. Now it is of the first importance. Political power has been transferred from the executive to the legislature. The people have watched earnestly all the acts of the Assembly until it expired last evening. The campaign will now open for the election of the members of the new Assembly; and for the next seven weeks there will be a general political excitement.

The Assembly had lived its full measure of days, and reached a great old age for a parliamentary body—five years. It met on the 8th of February, 1871, and adjourned December 31, 1875. Its principal work has been to frame a constitution, the most important parts of which were promulgated on the 25th of last February. This constitution is not, like that of the United States, a single document, giving a clear outline of the frame of government; it is found in a body of constitutional [Page 105] laws containing provisions of an organic nature, and then long details of legislation.

The last few weeks have been devoted to measures having in view the approaching elections. The press law has been modified so as to diminish its severity; the state of siege has been abolished in all the departments except four, where are situated Paris, Lyons, Marseilles, and Versailles.

The provisions in regard to the elections will be made clearer by a word in reference to the new frame of government. According to the constitution of the 25th of February, France is to be governed by a National Assembly, composed of a Senate of 300 members, and a Chamber of Deputies of 532. Of the senators, 75 hold their offices for life, and have already been chosen by this Assembly, but whenever vacancies occur in their number hereafter the Senate will itself fill them. The remaining 225 senators, who will hold their seats for nine years, are to be elected by a body partly composed of delegates, who are themselves to be chosen specially for this duty by the municipal councils of the departments. The theory is analogous to that of our electoral colleges for the choice of the President of the United States. The election of these delegates by the councils is fixed for the 16th of this month; then the delegates will choose the 225 senators on the 30th.

The Chamber of Deputies will contain 528 members for France and 4 for the colonies. They are to be elected in “arrondissements,” similar to our congressional districts, by universal suffrage, (except the army and navy in active service,) and to hold office for four years. The general election of deputies will take place on the 20th of February, and the new Assembly will meet at Versailles on the 8th of March. The Senate and Chamber of Deputies, when sitting in joint convention, will have the power to adopt amendments to the constitution which have been previously adopted by the two houses separately, and these amendments become part of the constitution without being submitted to the people. The action of the Assembly is final. It can change the government to a monarchy. Even the restrictions thrown around the amending power, slight as they are, can be changed by the next Assembly as easily as they have been established by the last one.

The enormous powers vested in the Assembly become still more striking by glancing at the functions of the executive. The President, whose term is for seven years, is elected by the Assembly. He may dissolve the Chamber of Deputies, but only with the consent of the Senate. He has the nominal power of making appointments, but his cabinet, which really governs, instead of being only responsible to him, is, like the English ministry, responsible to the Assembly, in which all the ministers have the right to speak and are liable to be questioned. Thus the ministry is scarce more than the instrument of the will of the Assembly. By an express provision of the constitutional laws, the President is himself made responsible to the Assembly. The origin of this unique republican system is remarkable. It is the result, not of design, but of events. The members of the Assembly were elected in a sudden manner, at a time when the nation was very near despair. The only question then considered was how to make peace. A large part of the members were legitimists. A decided majority were monarchists of one sort or another. The empire had just perished; it was odious, and there were few Bonapartists elected. One of its first acts was to solemnly declare the forfeiture and fall of the empire. When peace had been made, the ransom paid, and the territory liberated from the German army, the [Page 106] Assembly, which had gradually assumed all the powers of the government, took upon itself the functions of a constitutional convention, but its progress was slow.

The majority was monarchical, but so divided between dynasties that it was impossible to found any monarchy. The republicans, though a minority, were strong and embraced the ablest men in the body. They, too, were broken into several groups. Most of the members were men who were unknown to the world when elected, and learned to legislate by experience. Some of them felt that with the adjournment of the Assembly they would drop back into obscurity. These causes have delayed the completion of the constitution for years, and prolonged the provisional state of the government which each hoped to ultimately control. Out of these discordant elements was framed, or rather, grew, the constitution of the French republic of to-day. If the institutions thus founded prove lasting, this monarchical Assembly, which has established a republic, will take a high place in history, if judged by the results of its work; it will receive a very different regard, if judged by its intentions. Circumstances have been wiser and stronger than these politicians. The part of the machinery first to be set up was the Senate, the conservative balance-wheel; but of the 75 life-senators which the Assembly reserved to itself to elect, the republicans, by a secret combination with a handful of dissatisfied royalists, carried nearly the whole number. Thus at the first skirmish the monarchists have lost the key of the position. The elections in a few days will test still further the work of the Assembly.

I have, &c.,