A Popular History of France from the Earliest Times Volume VI Part 26

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The preparatory labors had been conducted without combination, the elections could not be simultaneous; no powerful and dominant mind directed that bewildered ma.s.s of ignorant electors, exercising for the first time, under such critical circ.u.mstances, a right of which they did not know the extent and did not foresee the purport. "The people has more need to be governed and subjected to a protective authority than it has fitness to govern," M. Malouet had said in his speech to the a.s.sembly of the three orders in the bailiwick of Riom. The day, however, was coming when the conviction was to be forced upon this people, so impotent and incompetent in the opinion of its most trusty friends, that the sovereign authority rested in its hands, without direction and without control.

"The elective a.s.sembly of Riom was not the most stormy," says M. Malouet, who, like M. Mounier at Gren.o.ble, had been elected by acclamation head of the deputies of his own order at Riom, "but it was sufficiently so to verify all my conjectures and cause me to truly regret that I had come to it and had obtained the deputys.h.i.+p. I was on the point of giving in my resignation, when I found some petty burgesses, lawyers, advocates without any information about public affairs, quoting the _Contrat social,_ declaiming vehemently against tyranny, abuses, and proposing a const.i.tution apiece. I pictured to myself all the disastrous consequences which might be produced upon a larger stage by such outrageousness, and I arrived at Paris very dissatisfied with myself, with my fellow-citizens, and with the ministers who were hurrying us into this abyss."

The king had received all the memorials; on some few points the three orders had commingled their wishes in one single memorial. M. Malouet had failed to get this done in Auvergne. "The clergy insist upon putting theology into their memorials," he wrote to M. de Montmorin, on the 24th of March, 1789, "and the n.o.blesse compensations for pecuniary sacrifice.

I have exhausted my lungs and have no hope that we shall succeed completely on all points, but the differences of opinion between the n.o.blesse and the third estate are not embarra.s.sing. There is rather more pigheadedness amongst the clergy as to their debt, which they decline to pay, and as to some points of discipline which, after all, are matters of indifference to us; we shall have, all told, three memorials of which the essential articles are pretty similar to those of the third estate. We shall end as we began, peaceably."

"The memorials of 1789," says M. de Tocqueville [_L'ancien regime et la Revolution,_ p. 211], "will remain as it were the will and testament of the old French social system, the last expression of its desires, the authentic manifesto of its latest wishes. In its totality and on many points it likewise contained in the germ the principles of new France. I read attentively the memorials drawn up by the three orders before meeting in 1789,--I say the three orders, those of the n.o.blesse and clergy as well as those of the third estate,--and when I come to put together all these several wishes, I perceive with a sort of terror that what is demanded is the simultaneous and systematic abolition of all the laws and all the usages having currency in the country, and I see at a glance that there is about to be enacted one of the most vast and most dangerous revolutions ever seen in the world. Those who will to-morrow be its victims have no idea of it, they believe that the total and sudden transformation of so complicated and so old a social system can take effect without any shock by the help of reason and its power, alone.

Poor souls! They have forgotten even that maxim which their fathers expressed four hundred years before in the simple and forcible language of those times: 'By quest of too great franchise and liberties, getteth one into too great serf.a.ge.'"

However terrible and radical it may have been in its principles and its results, the French Revolution did not destroy the past and its usages, it did not break with tradition so completely as was demanded, in 1789, by the memorials of the three orders, those of the n.o.blesse and the clergy, as well as those of the third estate.

One inst.i.tution, however, was nowhere attacked or discussed. It is not true," says M. Malouet, "that we were sent to const.i.tute the kings.h.i.+p, but undoubtedly to regulate the exercise of powers conformably with our instructions. Was not the kings.h.i.+p const.i.tuted in law and in fact? Were we not charged to respect it, to maintain it on all its bases?" Less than a year after the Revolution had begun, Mirabeau wrote privately to the king: "Compare the new state of things with the old regimen, there is the source of consolations and hopes. A portion of the acts of the National a.s.sembly, and the most considerable too, is clearly favorable to monarchical government. Is it nothing, pray, to be without Parliaments, without states-districts, without bodies of clergy, of privileged, of n.o.blesse? The idea of forming but one single cla.s.s of citizens would have delighted Richelieu. This even surface facilitates the exercise of power. Many years of absolute government could not have done so much as this single year of revolution for the kingly authority."

Genius has lights which cannot be obscured by either mental bias or irregularities of life. Rejected by the n.o.blesse, dreaded by the third estate, even when it was under his influence, Mirabeau constantly sought alliance between the kings.h.i.+p and liberty. "What is most true and n.o.body can believe," he wrote to the Duke of Lauzun on the 24th of December, 1788, "is that, in the National a.s.sembly, I shall be a most zealous monarchist, because I feel most deeply how much need we have to slay ministerial despotism and resuscitate the kingly authority." The States- general were scarcely a.s.sembled when the fiery orator went to call upon M. Malouet. The latter was already supposed to be hostile to the revolution. "Sir," said Mirabean, "I come to you because of your reputation; and your opinions, which are nearer my own than you suppose, determine this step on my part. You are, I know, one of liberty's discreet friends, and so am I; you are scared by the tempests gathering, and I no less; there are amongst us more than one hot head, more than one dangerous man; in the two upper orders all that have brains have not common sense, and amongst the fools I know several capable of setting fire to the magazine. The question, then, is to know whether the monarchy and the monarch will survive the storm which is a-brewing, or whether the faults committed and those which will not fail to be still committed will ingulf us all."

M. Malouet listened, not clearly seeing the speaker's drift. Mirabeau resumed: "What I have to add is very simple I know that you are a friend of M. Necker's and of M. de Montmorin's, who form pretty nearly all the king's council; I don't like either of them, and I don't suppose that they have much liking for me. But it matters little whether we like one another, if we can come to an understanding. I desire, then, to know their intentions. I apply to you to get me a conference. They would be very culpable or very narrow-minded, the king himself would be inexcusable, if he aspired to reduce the States-general to the same limits and the same results as all the others have had. That will not do, they must have a plan of adhesion or opposition to certain principles. If that plan is reasonable under the monarchical system, I pledge myself to support it and employ all my means, all my influence, to prevent that invasion of the democracy which is coming upon us."

This was M. Malouet's advice, incessantly repeated to the ministers for months past; he reported to them what Mirabeau had said; both had a bad opinion of the man and some experience of his want of scruple.

"M. Necker looked at the ceiling after his fas.h.i.+on; he was persuaded that Mirabeau had not and could not have any influence." He was in want of money, it was said. M. Necker at last consented to the interview.

Malouet was not present as he should have been. Deprived of this sensible and well-disposed intermediary, the Genevese stiffness and the Provencal ardor were not likely to hit it off. Mirabeau entered. They saluted one another silently and remained for a moment looking at one another. "Sir," said Mirabeau, "M. de Malouet has a.s.sured me that you understood and approved of the grounds for the explanation I desire to have with you." "Sir," replied M. Necker, "M. Malouet has told me that you had proposals to make to me; what are they?" Mirabeau, hurt at the cold, interrogative tone of the minister and the sense he attached to the word proposals, jumps up in a rage and says: "My proposal is to wish you good day." Then, running all the way and fuming all the while, Mirabeau arrives at the sessions-hall. "He crossed, all scarlet with rage, over to my side," says M. Malouet, and, as he put his leg over one of our benches, he said to me, 'Your man is a fool, he shall hear of me.'"

When the expiring kings.h.i.+p recalled Mirabeau to its aid, it was too late for him and for it. He had already struck fatal blows at the cause which he should have served, and already death was threatening himself with its finis.h.i.+ng stroke. "He was on the point of rendering great services to the state," said Malouet: "shall I tell you how? By confessing to you his faults and pointing out your own, by preserving to you all that was pure in the Revolution and by energetically pointing out to you all its excesses and the danger of those excesses, by making the people affrighted at their blindness and the factions at their intrigues. He died ere this great work was accomplished; he had hardly given an inkling of it."

Timidity and maladdress do not r.e.t.a.r.d perils by ignoring them. The day of meeting of the States-general was at hand. Almost everywhere the elections had been quiet and the electors less numerous than had been antic.i.p.ated. We know what indifference and la.s.situde may attach to the exercise of rights which would not be willingly renounced; ignorance and inexperience kept away from the primary a.s.semblies many working-men and peasants; the middle cla.s.s alone proceeded in ma.s.s to the elections. The irregular slowness of the preparatory operations had r.e.t.a.r.ded the convocations; for three months, the agitation attendant upon successive a.s.semblies kept France in suspense. Paris was still voting on the 28th of April, 1789, the mob thronged the streets; all at once the rumor ran that an attack was being made on the house of an ornamental paper-maker in the faubourg St. Antoine, named Reveillon. Starting as a simple journeyman, this man had honestly made his fortune; he was kind to those who worked in his shops: he was accused, nevertheless, amongst the populace, of having declared that a journeyman could live on fifteen sous a day. The day before, threats had been levelled at him; he had asked for protection from the police, thirty men had been sent to him. The madmen who were swarming against his house and stores soon got the better of so weak a guard, everything was destroyed; the rioters rushed to the archbishop's, there was voting going on there; they expected to find Reveillon there, whom they wanted to murder. They were repulsed by the battalions of the French and Swiss guards. More than two hundred were killed. Money was found in their pockets. The Parliament suspended its prosecutions against the ringleaders of so many crimes. The government, impotent and disarmed, as timid in presence of this riot as in presence of opposing parties, at last came before the States-general, but blown about by the contrary winds of excited pa.s.sions, without any guide and without fixed resolves, without any firm and compact nucleus in the midst of a new and unknown a.s.sembly, without confidence in the troops, who were looked upon, however, as a possible and last resort.

The States-general were presented to the king on the 2d of May, 1789. It seemed as if the two upper orders, by a prophetic instinct of their ruin, wanted, for the last time, to make a parade of their privileges.

Introduced without delay to the king, they left, in front of the palace, the deputies of the third estate to wait in the rain. The latter were getting angry and already beginning to clamor, when the gates were opened to them. In the magnificent procession on the 4th, when the three orders accompanied the king to the church of St. Louis at Versailles, the laced coats and decorations of the n.o.bles, the superb vestments of the prelates, easily eclipsed the modest ca.s.socks of the country priests as well as the sombre costume imposed by ceremonial upon the deputies of the third estate; the Bishop of Nancy, M. de la Fare, maintained the traditional distinctions even in the sermon he delivered before the king.

"Sir," said he, "accept the homage of the clergy, the respects of the n.o.blesse, and the most humble supplications of the third estate." The untimely applause which greeted the bishop's words were excited by the picture he drew of the misery in the country-places exhausted by the rapacity of the fiscal agents. At this striking solemnity, set off with all the pomp of the past, animated with all the hopes of the future, the eyes of the public sought out, amidst the sombre ma.s.s of deputies of the third (estate), those whom their deeds, good or evil, had already made celebrated: Malouet, Mounier, Mirabeau, the last greeted with a murmur which was for a long while yet to accompany his name. "When the summons by name per bailiwick took place," writes an eye-witness, "there were cheers for certain deputies who were known, but at the name of Mirabeau there was a noise of a very different sort. He had wanted to speak on two or three occasions, but a general murmur had prevented him from making himself heard. I could easily see how grieved he was, and I observed some tears of vexation standing in his bloodshot eyes "

[_Souvenirs de Dumont,_ p. 47].

Three great questions were already propounded before the a.s.sembly entered into session; those of verification of powers, of deliberation by the three orders in common, and of vote by poll. The wise men had desired that the king should himself see to the verification of the powers of the deputies, and that they should come to the a.s.sembly confirmed in their mandates. People likewise expected to find, in the speech from the throne or in the minister's report, an expression of the royal opinions on the two other points in dispute. In a letter drawn up by M. Mounier and addressed to the king, the estates of Dauphiny had referred, the year before, to the ancient custom of the States-general. "Before the States held at Orleans in 1569," said this doc.u.ment, "the orders deliberated most frequently together, and, when they broke up, they afterwards met to concert their deliberations; they usually chose only one president, only one speaker for all the orders, generally amongst the members of the clergy. The States of Orleans had the imprudence not to follow the forms previously observed, and the orders broke up. The clergy in vain invited them to have but one common memorial and to choose one single speaker, but they were careful to protest that this innovation would not interfere with the unity and integrity of the body of the States. The clergy's speaker said in his address that the three estates, as heretofore, had but one mouth, one heart, and one spirit. In spite of these protests, the fatal example set by the States of Orleans was followed by those of Blois and those of 1614. Should it be again imitated, we fear that the States-general will be powerless to do anything for the happiness of the kingdom and the glory of the throne, and that Europe will hear with surprise that the French know neither how to bear servitude nor how to deserve freedom."

An honest but useless appeal to the memories of the far past! Times were changed; whereas the munic.i.p.al officers representing the third estate used to find themselves powerless in presence of the upper orders combined, the third (estate); now equal to the privileged by extension of its representation, counted numerous adherents amongst the clergy, amongst the country parsons, and even in the ranks of the n.o.blesse.

Deliberation in common and vote by poll delivered the two upper orders into its hands; this was easily forgotten by the partisans of a reunion which was desirable and even necessary, but which could not be forced upon the clergy or n.o.blesse, and which they could only effect with a view to the public good and in the wise hope of preserving their influence by giving up their power. All that preparatory labor characteristic of the free, prudent and bold, frank and discreet government, had been neglected by the feebleness or inexperience of the ministers. "This poor government was at grips with all kinds of perils, and the man who had shown his superiority under other difficult circ.u.mstances flinched beneath the weight of these. His talents were distempered, his lights danced about, he was, sustained only by the rect.i.tude of his intentions and by vanity born of his hopes, for he had ever in reserve that perspective of confidence and esteem with which he believed the third estate to be impressed towards him; but the promoters of the revolution, those who wanted it complete and subversive of the old government, those men who were so small a matter at the outset, either in weight or in number, had too much interest in annihilating M. Necker not to represent as pieces of perfidy his hesitations, his tenderness towards the two upper orders, and his air of restraint towards the commons" [_Memoires de Malouet,_ t. i. p. 236].

It was in this state of feeble indecision as regarded the great questions, and with this minuteness of detail in secondary matters, that M. Necker presented himself on the 5th of May before the three orders at the opening of the session in the palace of Versailles by King Louis XVI.

The royal procession had been saluted by the crowd with repeated and organized shouts of "Hurrah for the Duke of Orleans!" which had disturbed and agitated the queen. "The king," says Marmontel, "appeared with simple dignity, without pride, without timidity, wearing on his features the impress of the goodness which he had in his heart, a little affected by the spectacle and by the feelings with which the deputies of a faithful nation ought to inspire in its king." His speech was short, dignified, affectionate, and without political purport. With more of pomp and detail, the minister confined himself within the same limits.

"Aid his Majesty," said he, "to establish the prosperity of the kingdom on solid bases, seek for them, point them out to your sovereign, and you will find on his part the most generous a.s.sistance." The mode of action corresponded with this insufficient language. Crushed beneath the burden of past defaults and errors, the government tendered its abdication, in advance, into the hands of that mightily bewildered a.s.sembly it had just convoked. The king had left the verification of powers to the States- general themselves. M. Necker confined himself to pointing out the possibility of common action between the three orders, recommending the deputies to examine those questions discreetly. "The king is anxious about your first deliberations," said the minister, throwing away at haphazard upon leaders as yet unknown the direction of those discussions which he with good reason dreaded. "Never did political a.s.sembly combine so great a number of remarkable men," says M. Malouet, "without there being a single one whose superiority was decided and could command the respect of the others. Such abundance of stars rendered this a.s.sembly unmanageable, as they will always be in France when there is no man conspicuous in authority and in force of character to seize the helm of affairs or to have the direction spontaneously surrendered to him.

Fancy, then, the state of a meeting of impa.s.sioned men, without rule or bridle, equally dangerous from their bad and their good qualities, because they nearly all lacked experience and a just appreciation of the gravity of the circ.u.mstances under which they were placed; insomuch that the good could do no good, and the bad, from levity, from violence, did nearly always more harm than they intended."

It was amidst such a chaos of pa.s.sions, wills, and desires, legitimate or culpable, patriotic or selfish, that there was, first of all, propounded the question of verification of powers. Prompt and peremptory on the part of the n.o.blesse, hesitating and cautions on the part of the clergy, the opposition of the two upper orders to any common action irritated the third estate; its appeals had ended in nothing but conferences broken off, then resumed at the king's desire, and evidently and painfully to no purpose. "By an inconceivable oversight on the part of M. Necker in the local apportionment of the building appointed for the a.s.sembly of the States-general, there was the throne-room or room of the three orders, a room for the n.o.blesse, one for the clergy, and none for the commons, who remained, quite naturally, established in the states-room, the largest, the most ornate, and all fitted up with tribunes for the spectators who took possession of the public boxes (_loges communes_) in the room. When it was perceived that this crowd of strangers and their plaudits only excited the audacity of the more violent speakers, all the consequences of this installation were felt. Would anybody believe," continues M.

Malouet, "that M. Necker had an idea of inventing a ground-slip, a falling-in of the cellars of the Menus, and of throwing down during the night the carpentry of the grand room, in order to remove and install the three orders separately? It was to me myself that he spoke of it, and I had great difficulty in dissuading him from the notion, by pointing out to him all the danger of it." The want of foresight and the nervous hesitation of the ministers had placed the third estate in a novel and a strong situation. Installed officially in the statesroom, it seemed to be at once master of the position, waiting for the two upper orders to come to it. Mirabeau saw this with that rapid insight into effects and consequences which const.i.tutes, to a considerable extent, the orator's genius. The third estate had taken possession, none could henceforth dispute with it its privileges, and it was the defence of a right that had been won which was to inspire the fiery orator with his mighty audacity, when on the 23d of June, towards evening, after the miserable affair of the royal session, the Marquis of Dreux-Breze came back into the room to beg the deputies of the third estate to withdraw. The king's order was express, but already certain n.o.bles and a large number of ecclesiastics had joined the deputies of the commons; their definitive victory on the 27th of June, and the fusion of the three orders, were foreshadowed; Mirabeau rose at the entrance of the grand-master of the ceremonies. "Go," he shouted, "and tell those who send you, that we are here by the will of the people, and that we shall not budge save at the point of the bayonet." This was the beginning of revolutionary violence.

On the 12th of June the battle began; the calling over of the bailiwicks took place in the states-room. The third estate sat alone. At each province, each chief place, each roll (_proces-verbal_), the secretaries repeated in a loud voice, "Gentlemen of the clergy? None present.

Gentlemen of the n.o.blesse? None present." Certain parish priests alone had the courage to separate from their order and submit their powers for verification. All the deputies of the third (estate) at once gave them precedence. The day of persecution was not yet come.

Legality still stood; the third estate maintained a proud moderation, the border was easily pa.s.sed, a name was sufficient.

The t.i.tle of States-general was oppressive to the new a.s.sembly, it recalled the distinction between the orders as well as the humble posture of the third estate heretofore. "This is the only true name," exclaimed Abbe Sieyes; "a.s.sembly of acknowledged and verified representatives of the nation." This was a contemptuous repudiation of the two upper orders. Mounier replied with another definition "legitimate a.s.sembly of the majority amongst the deputies of the nation, deliberating in the absence of the duly invited minority." The subtleties of metaphysics and politics are powerless to take the popular fancy. Mirabeau felt it.

"Let us call ourselves representatives of the people!" he shouted. For this ever fatal name he claimed the kingly sanction. "I hold the king's veto so necessary," said the great orator, "that, if he had it not, I would rather live at Constantinople than in France. Yes, I protest, I know of nothing more terrible than a sovereign aristocracy of six hundred persons, who, having the power to declare themselves to-morrow irremovable and the next day hereditary, would end, like the aristocracies of all countries in the world, by swooping down upon everything."

An obscure deputy here suggested during the discussion the name of National a.s.sembly, often heretofore employed to designate the States- general; Sieyes took it up, rejecting the subtle and carefully prepared definitions. "I am for the amendment of M. Legrand," said he, "and I propose the t.i.tle of National a.s.sembly." Four hundred and ninety-one voices against ninety adopted this simple and superb t.i.tle. In contempt of the two upper orders of the state, the national a.s.sembly was const.i.tuted. The decisive step was taken towards the French Revolution.

During the early days, in the heat of a violent discussion, Barrere had exclaimed, "You are summoned to recommence history." It was an arrogant mistake. For more than eighty years modern France has been prosecuting laboriously and in open day the work which had been slowly forming within the dark womb of olden France. In the almighty hands of eternal G.o.d a people's history is interrupted and recommenced never.

A Popular History of France from the Earliest Times Volume VI Part 26

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A Popular History of France from the Earliest Times Volume VI Part 26 summary

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