Mirabeau : The French Revolution – Beacon Lights of History, Volume IX : European Statesmen

Beacon Lights of History, Volume IX : European Statesmen by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume IX : European Statesmen

Mirabeau : The French Revolution
Edmund Burke : Political Morality
Napoleon Bonaparte : The French Empire
Prince Metternich : Conservatism
Chateaubriand : The Restoration and Fall of the Bourbons
George IV : Toryism
The Greek Revolution
Louis Philippe : The Citizen King

Beacon Lights of History, Volume IX : European Statesmen
John Lord

Topics Covered
First act of the Revolution
Remote causes
Louis XVI
Derangement of finances
Assembly of notables
Mirabeau; his writings and extraordinary eloquence
Assembly of States-General
Usurpation of the Third Estate
Mirabeau’s ascendency
Paralysis of government
General disturbances; fall of the Bastille
Extraordinary reforms by the National Assembly
Mirabeau’s conservatism
Talleyrand, and confiscation of Church property
Death of Mirabeau; his characteristics
Revolutionary violence; the clubs
The Jacobin orators
The King arrested
The King tried, condemned, and executed
The Reign of Terror
Robespierre, Marat, Danton
The Directory
What the Revolution accomplished
What might have been done without it
True principles of reform
The guide of nations

Mirabeau : The French Revolution

A.D. 1749-1791.

Three events of pre-eminent importance have occurred in our modern times; these are the Protestant Reformation, the American War of Independence, and the French Revolution.

The most complicated and varied of these great movements is the French Revolution, on which thousands of volumes have been written, so that it is impossible even to classify the leading events and the ever-changing features of that rapid and exciting movement. The first act of that great drama was the attempt of reformers and patriots to destroy feudalism,–with its privileges and distinctions and injustices,–by unscrupulous and wild legislation, and to give a new constitution to the State.

The best representative of this movement was Mirabeau, and I accordingly select him as the subject of this lecture. I cannot describe the violence and anarchy which succeeded the Reign of Terror, ending in a Directory, and the usurpation of Napoleon. The subject is so vast that I must confine myself to a single point, in which, however, I would unfold the principles of the reformers and the logical results to which their principles led.

The remote causes of the French Revolution I have already glanced at, in a previous lecture. The most obvious of these, doubtless, was the misgovernment which began with Louis XIV. and continued so disgracefully under Louis XV.; which destroyed all reverence for the throne, even loyalty itself, the chief support of the monarchy. The next most powerful influence that created revolution was feudalism, which ground down the people by unequal laws, and irritated them by the haughtiness, insolence, and heartlessness of the aristocracy, and thus destroyed all respect for them, ending in bitter animosities. Closely connected with these two gigantic evils was the excessive taxation, which oppressed the nation and made it discontented and rebellious. The fourth most prominent cause of agitation was the writings of infidel philosophers and economists, whose unsound and sophistical theories held out fallacious hopes, and undermined those sentiments by which all governments and institutions are preserved. These will be incidentally presented, as thereby we shall be able to trace the career of the remarkable man who controlled the National Assembly, and who applied the torch to the edifice whose horrid and fearful fires he would afterwards have suppressed. It is easy to destroy; it is difficult to reconstruct. Nor is there any human force which can arrest a national conflagration when once it is kindled: only on its ashes can a new structure arise, and this only after long and laborious efforts and humiliating disappointments.

It might have been possible for the Government to contend successfully with the various elements of discontent among the people, intoxicated with those abstract theories of rights which Rousseau had so eloquently defended, if it had possessed a strong head and the sinews of war. But Louis XVI., a modest, timid, temperate, moral young man of twenty-three, by the death of his father and elder brothers had succeeded to the throne of his dissolute grandfather at just the wrong time. He was a gentleman, but no ruler. He had no personal power, and the powers of his kingdom had been dissipated by his reckless predecessors. Not only was the army demoralized, and inclined to fraternize with the people, but there was no money to pay the troops or provide for the ordinary expenses of the Court. There was an alarming annual deficit, and the finances were utterly disordered. Successive ministers had exhausted all ordinary resources and the most ingenious forms of taxation. They made promises, and resorted to every kind of expediency, which had only a temporary effect. The primal evils remained. The national treasury was empty. Calonne and Necker pursued each a different policy, and with the same results. The extravagance of the one and the economy of the other were alike fatal. Nobody would make sacrifices in a great national exigency. The nobles and the clergy adhered tenaciously to their privileges, and the Court would curtail none of its unnecessary expenses. Things went on from bad to worse, and the financiers were filled with alarm. National bankruptcy stared everybody in the face.

King Louis XVI of France and Navarre, painting by Joseph Siffred Duplessis

King Louis XVI of France and Navarre, painting by Joseph Siffred Duplessis

If the King had been a Richelieu, he would have dealt summarily with the nobles and rebellious mobs. He would have called to his aid the talents of the nation, appealed to its patriotism, compelled the Court to make sacrifices, and prevented the printing and circulation of seditious pamphlets. The Government should have allied itself with the people, granted their requests, and marched to victory under the name of patriotism. But Louis XVI. was weak, irresolute, vacillating, and uncertain. He was a worthy sort of man, with good intentions, and without the vices of his predecessors. But he was surrounded with incompetent ministers and bad advisers, who distrusted the people and had no sympathy with their wrongs. He would have made concessions, if his ministers had advised him. He was not ambitious, nor unpatriotic; he simply did not know what to do.

In his perplexity, he called together the principal heads of the nobility,–some hundred and twenty great seigneurs, called the Notables; but this assembly was dissolved without accomplishing anything. It was full of jealousies, and evinced no patriotism. It would not part with its privileges or usurpations.

It was at this crisis that Mirabeau first appeared upon the stage, as a pamphleteer, writing bitter and envenomed attacks on the government, and exposing with scorching and unsparing sarcasms the evils of the day, especially in the department of finance. He laid bare to the eyes of the nation the sores of the body politic,–the accumulated evils of centuries. He exposed all the shams and lies to which ministers had resorted. He was terrible in the fierceness and eloquence of his assaults, and in the lucidity of his statements. Without being learned, he contrived to make use of the learning of others, and made it burn with the brilliancy of his powerful and original genius. Everybody read his various essays and tracts, and was filled with admiration. But his moral character was bad,–Was even execrable, and notoriously outrageous. He was kind-hearted and generous, made friends and used them. No woman, it is said, could resist his marvellous fascination,–all the more remarkable since his face was as ugly as that of Wilkes, and was marked by the small-pox. The excesses of his private life, and his ungovernable passions, made him distrusted by the Court and the Government. He was both hated and admired.

Mirabeau belonged to a noble family of very high rank in Provence, of Italian descent. His father, Marquis Mirabeau, was a man of liberal sentiments,–not unknown to literary fame by his treatises on political economy,’–but was eccentric and violent. Although his oldest son, Count Mirabeau, the subject of this lecture, was precocious intellectually, and very bright, so that the father was proud of him, he was yet so ungovernable and violent in his temper, and got into so many disgraceful scrapes, that the Marquis was compelled to discipline him severely,–all to no purpose, inasmuch as he was injudicious in his treatment, and ultimately cruel. He procured lettres de cachet from the King, and shut up his disobedient and debauched son in various state-prisons. But the Count generally contrived to escape, only to get into fresh difficulties; so that he became a wanderer and an exile, compelled to support himself by his pen.

Mirabeau was in Berlin, in a sort of semi-diplomatic position, when the Assembly of Notables was convened. His keen prescience and profound sagacity induced him to return to his distracted country, where he knew his services would soon be required. Though debauched, extravagant, and unscrupulous, he was not unpatriotic. He had an intense hatred of feudalism, and saw in its varied inequalities the chief source of the national calamities. His detestation of feudal injustices was intensified by his personal sufferings in the various castles where he had been confined by arbitrary power. At this period, the whole tendency of his writings was towards the destruction of the ancien régime, He breathed defiance, scorn, and hatred against the very class to which he belonged. He was a Catiline,–an aristocratic demagogue, revolutionary in his spirit and aims; so that he was mistrusted, feared, and detested by the ruling powers, and by the aristocracy generally, while he was admired and flattered by the people, who were tolerant of his vices and imperious temper.

On the wretched failure of the Assembly of the Notables, the prime minister, Necker, advised the King to assemble the States-General,–the three orders of the State: the nobles, the clergy, and a representation of the people. It seemed to the Government impossible to proceed longer, amid universal distress and hopeless financial embarrassment, without the aid and advice of this body, which had not been summoned for one hundred and fifty years.

It became, of course, an object of ambition to Count Mirabeau to have a seat in this illustrious assembly. To secure this, he renounced his rank, became a plebeian, solicited the votes of the people, and was elected a deputy both from Marseilles and Aix. He chose Aix, and his great career began with the meeting of the States-General at Versailles, the 5th of May, 1789. It was composed of three hundred nobles, three hundred priests, and six hundred deputies of the third estate,–twelve hundred in all. It is generally conceded that these representatives of the three orders were on the whole a very respectable body of men, patriotic and incorruptible, but utterly deficient in political experience and in powers of debate. The deputies were largely composed of country lawyers, honest, but as conceited as they were inexperienced. The vanity of Frenchmen is so inordinate that nearly every man in the assembly felt quite competent to govern the nation or frame a constitution. Enthusiasm and hope animated the whole assembly, and everybody saw in this States-General the inauguration of a glorious future.

One of the most brilliant and impressive chapters in Carlyle’s “French Revolution”–that great prose poem–is devoted to the procession of the three orders from the church of St. Louis to the church of Notre Dame, to celebrate the Mass, parts of which I quote.

“Shouts rend the air; one shout, at which Grecian birds might drop dead. It is indeed a stately, solemn sight. The Elected of France and then the Court of France; they are marshalled, and march there, all in prescribed place and costume. Our Commons in plain black mantle and white cravat; Noblesse in gold-worked, bright-dyed cloaks of velvet, resplendent, rustling with laces, waving with plumes; the Clergy in rochet, alb, and other clerical insignia; lastly the King himself and household, in their brightest blaze of pomp,–their brightest and final one. Which of the six hundred individuals in plain white cravats that have come up to regenerate France might one guess would become their king? For a king or a leader they, as all bodies of men, must have. He with the thick locks, will it be? Through whose shaggy beetle-brows, and rough-hewn, seamed, carbuncled face, there look natural ugliness, small-pox, incontinence, bankruptcy,–and burning fire of genius? It is Gabriel Honoré Riquetti de Mirabeau; man-ruling deputy of Aix! Yes, that is the Type-Frenchman of this epoch; as Voltaire was of the last. He is French in his aspirations, acquisitions, in his virtues and vices. Mark him well. The National Assembly were all different without that one; nay, he might say with old Despot,–The National Assembly? I am that.

“Now, if Mirabeau is the greatest of these six hundred, who may be the meanest? Shall we say that anxious, slight, ineffectual-looking man, under thirty, in spectacles, his eyes troubled, careful; with upturned face, snuffing dimly the uncertain future time; complexion of a multiplex atrabilious color, the final shade of which may be pale sea-green? That greenish-colored individual is an advocate of Arras; his name is Maximilien Robespierre.

“Between which extremes of grandest and meanest, so many grand and mean, roll on towards their several destinies in that procession. There is experienced Mounier, whose presidential parliamentary experience the stream of things shall soon leave stranded. A Pétion has left his gown and briefs at Chartres for a stormier sort of pleading. A Protestant-clerical St. Etienne, a slender young eloquent and vehement Barnave, will help to regenerate France,

“And then there is worthy Doctor Guillotin, Bailly likewise, time-honored historian of astronomy, and the Abbé Sieyès, cold, but elastic, wiry, instinct with the pride of logic, passionless, or with but one passion, that of self-conceit. This is the Sieyès who shall be system-builder, constitutional-builder-general, and build constitutions which shall unfortunately fall before we get the scaffolding away.

“Among the nobles are Liancourt, and La Rochefoucauld, and pious Lally, and Lafayette, whom Mirabeau calls Grandison Cromwell, and the Viscount Mirabeau, called Barrel Mirabeau, on account of his rotundity, and the quantity of strong liquor he contains. Among the clergy is the Abbé Maury, who does not want for audacity, and the Curé Grégoire who shall be a bishop, and Talleyrand-Pericord, his reverence of Autun, with sardonic grimness, a man living in falsehood, and on falsehood, yet not wholly a false man.

“So, in stately procession, the elected of France pass on, some to honor, others to dishonor; not a few towards massacre, confusion, emigration, desperation.”

For several weeks this famous States-General remain inactive, unable to agree whether they shall deliberate in a single hall or in three separate chambers. The deputies, of course, wish to deliberate in a single chamber, since they equal in number both the clergy and nobles, and some few nobles had joined them, and more than a hundred of the clergy. But a large majority of both the clergy and the noblesse insist with pertinacity on the three separate chambers, since, united, they would neutralize the third estate. If the deputies prevailed, they would inaugurate reforms to which the other orders would never consent.

Long did these different bodies of the States-General deliberate, and stormy were the debates. The nobles showed themselves haughty and dogmatical; the deputies showed themselves aggressive and revolutionary. The King and the ministers looked on with impatience and disgust, but were irresolute. Had the King been a Cromwell, or a Napoleon, he would have dissolved the assemblies; but he was timid and hesitating. Necker, the prime minister, was for compromise; he would accept reforms, but only in a constitutional way.

The knot was at last cut by the Abbé Sieyès, a political priest, and one of the deputies for Paris,–the finest intellect in the body, next to Mirabeau, and at first more influential than he, since the Count was generally distrusted on account of his vices. Nor had he as yet exhibited his great powers. Sieyès said, for the Deputies alone, “We represent ninety-six per cent of the whole nation. The people is sovereign; we, therefore, as its representatives, constitute ourselves a national assembly.” His motion was passed by acclamation, on June 17, and the Third Estate assumed the right to act for France.

In a legal and constitutional point of view, this was a usurpation, if ever there was one. “It was,” says Von Sybel, the able German historian of the French Revolution, “a declaration of open war between arbitrary principles and existing rights.” It was as if the House of Representatives in the United States, or the House of Commons in England, should declare themselves the representatives of the nation, ignoring the Senate or the House of Lords. Its logical sequence was revolution.

The prodigious importance of this step cannot be overrated. It transferred the powers of the monarchy to the Third Estate. It would logically lead to other usurpations, the subversion of the throne, and the utter destruction of feudalism,–for this last was the aim of the reformers. Mirabeau himself at first shrank from this violent measure, but finally adopted it. He detested feudalism and the privileges of the clergy. He wanted radical reforms, but would have preferred to gain them in a constitutional way, like Pym, in the English Revolution. But if reforms could not be gained constitutionally, then he would accept revolution, as the lesser evil. Constitutionally, radical reforms were hopeless. The ministers and the King, doubtless, would have made some concessions, but not enough to satisfy the deputies. So these same deputies took the entire work of legislation into their own hands. They constituted themselves the sole representatives of the nation. The nobles and the clergy might indeed deliberate with them; they were not altogether ignored, but their interests and rights were to be disregarded. In that state of ferment and discontent which existed when the States-General was convened, the nobles and the clergy probably knew the spirit of the deputies, and therefore refused to sit with them. They knew, from the innumerable pamphlets and tracts which were issued from the press, that radical changes were desired, to which they themselves were opposed; and they had the moral support of the Government on their side.

The deputies of the Third Estate were bent on the destruction of feudalism, as the only way to remedy the national evils, which were so glaring and overwhelming. They probably knew that their proceedings were unconstitutional and illegal, but thought that their acts would be sanctioned by their patriotic intentions. They were resolved to secure what seemed to them rights, and thought little of duties. If these inestimable and vital rights should be granted without usurpation, they would be satisfied; if not, then they would resort to usurpation. To them their course seemed to be dictated by the “higher law.” What to them were legalities that perpetuated wrongs? The constitution was made for man, not man for the constitution.

Had the three orders deliberated together in one hall, although against precedent and legality, the course of revolution might have been directed into a different channel; or if an able and resolute king had been on the throne, he might have united with the people against the nobles, and secured all the reforms that were imperative, without invoking revolution; or he might have dispersed the deputies at the point of the bayonet, and raised taxes by arbitrary imposition, as able despots have ever done. We cannot penetrate the secrets of Providence. It may have been ordered in divine justice and wisdom that the French people should work out their own deliverance in their own way, in mistakes, in suffering, and in violence, and point the eternal moral that inexperience, vanity, and ignorance are fatal to sound legislation, and sure to lead to errors which prove disastrous; that national progress is incompatible with crime; that evils can only gradually be removed; that wickedness ends in violence.

A majority of the deputies meant well. They were earnest, patriotic, and enthusiastic. But they knew nothing of the science of government or of constitution-making, which demand the highest maturity of experience and wisdom. As I have said, nearly four hundred of them were country lawyers, as conceited as they were inexperienced. Both Mirabeau and Sieyès had a supreme contempt for them as a whole. They wanted what they called rights, and were determined to get them any way they could, disregarding obstacles, disregarding forms and precedents. And they were backed up and urged forward by ignorant mobs, and wicked demagogues who hated the throne, the clergy, and the nobles. Hence the deputies made mistakes. They could see nothing better than unscrupulous destruction. And they did not know how to reconstruct. They were bewildered and embarrassed, and listened to the orators of the Palais Royal.

The first thing of note which occurred when they resolved to call themselves the National Assembly and not the Third Estate, which they were only, was done by Mirabeau. He ascended the tribune, when Brézé, the master of ceremonies, came with a message from the King for them to join the other orders, and said in his voice of melodious thunder, “We are here by the command of the people, and will only disperse by the force of bayonets.” From that moment, till his death, he ruled the Assembly. The disconcerted messenger returned to his sovereign. What did the King say at this defiance of royal authority? Did he rise in wrath and indignation, and order his guards to disperse the rebels? No; the amiable King said meekly, “Well, let them remain there.” What a king for such stormy times! O shade of Richelieu, thy work has perished! Rousseau, a greater genius than thou wert, hath undermined the institutions and the despotism of two hundred years.

Mirabeau gravée par Hopwood d´après Raffet

Mirabeau gravée par Hopwood d´après Raffet

Only two courses were now open to the King,–this weak and kind-hearted Louis XVI., heir of a hundred years’ misrule,–if he would maintain his power. One was to join the reformers and co-operate in patriotic work, assisted by progressive ministers, whatever opposition might be raised by nobles and priests; and the second was to arm himself and put down the deputies. But how could this weak-minded sovereign co-operate with plebeians against the orders which sustained his throne? And if he used violence, he inaugurated civil war, which would destroy thousands where revolution destroyed hundreds. Moreover, the example of Charles I. was before him. He dared not run the risk. In such a torrent of revolutionary forces, when even regular troops fraternized with citizens, that experiment was dangerous. And then he was tender-hearted, and shrank from shedding innocent blood. His queen, Marie Antoinette, the intrepid daughter of Maria Theresa, with her Austrian proclivities, would have kept him firm and sustained him by her courageous counsels; but her influence was neutralized by popular ministers. Necker, the prosperous banker, the fortunate financier, advised half measures. Had he conciliated Mirabeau, who led the Assembly, then even the throne might have been saved. But he detested and mistrusted the mighty tribune of the people,–the aristocratic demagogue, who, in spite of his political rancor and incendiary tracts, was the only great statesman of the day. He refused the aid of the only man who could have staved off the violence of factions, and brought reason and talent to the support of reform and law.

At this period, after the triumph of the Third Estate,–now called the National Assembly,–and the paralysis of the Court, perplexed and uncertain whether or not to employ violence and disband the assembly by royal decree, a great agitation began among the people, not merely in Paris, but over the whole kingdom. There were meetings to promote insurrection, paid declaimers of human rights, speeches without end in the gardens of the Palais Royal, where Marat, Camille Desmoulins, and other popular orators harangued the excited crowds. There were insurrections at Versailles, which was filled with foreign soldiers. The French guards fraternized with the people whom they were to subdue. Necker in despair resigned, or was dismissed. None of the authorities could command obedience. The people were starving, and the bakers’ shops were pillaged. The crowds broke open the prisons, and released many who had been summarily confined. Troops were poured into Paris, and the old Duke of Broglie, one of the heroes of the Seven Years’ War, now war-minister, sought to overawe the city. The gun-shops were plundered, and the rabble armed themselves with whatever weapons they could lay their hands upon. The National Assembly decreed the formation of a national guard to quell disturbances, and placed Lafayette at the head of it. Besenval, who commanded the royal troops, was forced to withdraw from the capital. The city was completely in the hands of the insurgents, who were driven hither and thither by every passion which can sway the human soul. Patriotic zeal blended with envy, hatred, malice, revenge, and avarice. The mob at last attacked the Bastille, a formidable fortress where state-prisoners were arbitrarily confined. In spite of moats and walls and guns, this gloomy monument of royal tyranny was easily taken, for it was manned by only about one hundred and forty men, and had as provisions only two sacks of flour. No aid could possibly come to the rescue. Resistance was impossible, in its unprepared state for defence, although its guns, if properly manned, might have demolished the whole Faubourg Saint-Antoine.

The news of the fall of this fortress came like a thunder-clap over Europe. It announced the reign of anarchy in France, and the helplessness of the King. On hearing of the fall of the Bastille, the King is said to have exclaimed to his courtiers, “It is a revolt, then.” “Nay, sire,” said the Duke of Liancourt, “it is a revolution.” It was evident that even then the King did not comprehend the situation. But how few could comprehend it! Only one man saw the full tendency of things, and shuddered at the consequences,–and this man was Mirabeau.

The King, at last aroused, appeared in person in the National Assembly, and announced the withdrawal of the troops from Paris and the recall of Necker. But general mistrust was alive in every bosom, and disorders still continued to a frightful extent, even in the provinces. “In Brittany the towns appointed new municipalities, and armed a civic guard from the royal magazines. In Caen the people stormed the citadel and killed the officers of the salt-tax. Nowhere were royal intendants seen. The custom-houses, at the gates of the provincial cities, were demolished. In Franche-Comté a noble castle was burned every day. All kinds of property were exposed to the most shameful robbery.”

Then took place the emigration of the nobles, among whom were Condé, Polignac, Broglie, to organize resistance to the revolution which had already conquered the King.

Meanwhile, the triumphant Assembly, largely recruited by the liberal nobles and the clergy, continued its sessions, decreed its sittings permanent and its members inviolable. The sittings were stormy; for everybody made speeches, written or oral, yet few had any power of debate. Even Mirabeau himself, before whom all succumbed, was deficient in this talent. He could thunder; he could arouse or allay passions; he seemed able to grasp every subject, for he used other people’s brains; he was an incarnation of eloquence,–but he could not reply to opponents with much effect, like Pitt, Webster, and Gladstone. He was still the leading man in the kingdom; all eyes were directed towards him; and no one could compete with him, not even Sieyès. The Assembly wasted days in foolish debates. It had begun its proceedings with the famous declaration of the rights of man,–an abstract question, first mooted by Rousseau, and re-echoed by Jefferson. Mirabeau was appointed with a committee of five to draft the declaration,–in one sense, a puerile fiction, since men are not “born free,” but in a state of dependence and weakness; nor “equal,” either in regard to fortune, or talents, or virtue, or rank: but in another sense a great truth, so far as men are entitled by nature to equal privileges, and freedom of the person, and unrestricted liberty to get a living according to their choice.

The Assembly at last set itself in earnest to the work of legislation. In one night, the ever memorable 4th of August, it decreed the total abolition of feudalism. In one night it abolished tithes to the church, provincial privileges, feudal rights, serfdom, the law of primogeniture, seigniorial dues, and the gabelle, or tax on salt. Mirabeau was not present, being absent on his pleasures. These, however, seldom interfered with his labors, which were herculean, from seven in the morning till eleven at night. He had two sides to his character,–one exciting abhorrence and disgust, for his pleasures were miscellaneous and coarse; a man truly abandoned to the most violent passions: the other side pleasing, exciting admiration; a man with an enormous power of work, affable, dignified, with courtly manners, and enchanting conversation, making friends with everybody, out of real kindness of heart, because he really loved the people, and sought their highest good; a truly patriotic man, and as wise as he was enthusiastic. This great orator and statesman was outraged and alarmed at the indecent haste of the Assembly, and stigmatized its proceedings as “nocturnal orgies.” The Assembly on that memorable night swept away the whole feudal edifice, and in less time than the English Parliament would take to decide upon the first reading of any bill of importance.

The following day brought reflection and discontent. “That is just the character of our Frenchmen,” exclaimed Mirabeau; “they are three months disputing about syllables, and in a single night they overturn the whole venerable edifice of the monarchy.” Sieyès was equally disgusted, and made a speech of great force to show that to abolish tithes without an indemnity was spoliating the clergy to enrich the land-owners. He concluded, “You know how to be free; you do not know how to be just.” But he was regarded as an ecclesiastic, unable to forego his personal interests. He gave vent to his irritated feelings in a conversation with Mirabeau, when the latter said, “My dear Abbé, you have let loose the bull, and you now complain that he gores you.” It was this political priest who had made the first assault on the constitution, when he urged the Third Estate to decree itself the nation.

The National Assembly had destroyed feudal institutions; but it had not yet made a constitution, or restored order. Violence and anarchy still reigned. Then the clubs began to make themselves a power. “Come,” said the lawyer Danton to a friend, in the district of the Cordéliers, “come and howl with us; you will earn much money, and you can still choose your party afterwards.” But it was in the garden of the Palais Royal, and in the old church of the Jacobins that the most violent attacks were made on all existing institutions. “A Fourth Estate (of able editors) also springs up, increases, multiplies; irrepressible, incalculable.” Then from the lowest quarters of Paris surge up an insurrection of women, who march to Versailles in disorder, penetrate the Assembly, and invade the palace. On the 5th of October a mob joins them, of the lowest rabble, and succeed in forcing their way into the precincts of the palace. “The King to Paris!” was now the general cry, and Louis XVI. appears upon the balcony and announces by gestures his subjection to their will. A few hours after, the King is on his way to Paris, under the protection of the National Guard, really a prisoner in the hands of the people. In fourteen days the National Assembly also follows, to be now dictated to by the clubs.

In this state of anarchy and incipient violence, Mirabeau, whose power in the Assembly was still unimpaired, wished to halt. He foresaw the future. No man in France had such clear insight and sagacity as he. He saw the State drifting into dissolution, and put forth his hand and raised his voice to arrest the catastrophe which he lamented. “The mob of Paris,” said he, “will scourge the corpses of the King and Queen.” It was then that he gave but feeble support to the “Rights of Man,” and contended for the unlimited veto of the King on the proceedings of the Assembly. He also brought forward a motion to allow the King’s ministers to take part in the debates. “On the 7th of October he exhorted the Count de Marck to tell the King that his throne and kingdom were lost, if he did not immediately quit Paris.” And he did all he could to induce him, through the voice of his friends, to identify himself with the cause of reform, as the only means for the salvation of the throne. He warned him against fleeing to the frontier to join the emigrants, as the prelude of civil war. He advocated a new ministry, of more vigor and breadth. He wanted a government both popular and strong. He wished to retain the monarchy, but desired a constitutional monarchy like that of England. His hostility to all feudal institutions was intense, and he did not seek to have any of them restored. It was the abolition of feudal privileges which was really the permanent bequest of the French Revolution. They have never been revived. No succeeding government has even attempted to revive them.

On the removal of the National Assembly to Paris, Mirabeau took a large house and lived ostentatiously and at great expense until he died, from which it is supposed that he received pensions from England, Spain, and even the French Court. This is intimated by Dumont; and I think it probable. It will in part account for the conservative course he adopted to check the excesses of that revolution which he, more than any other man, invoked. He was doubtless patriotic, and uttered his warning protests with sincerity. Still it is easy to believe that so corrupt and extravagant a man in his private life was accessible to bribery. Such a man must have money, and he was willing to get it from any quarter. It is certain that he was regarded by the royal family, towards the close of his career, very differently from what they regarded him when the States-General was assembled. But if he was paid by different courts, it is true that he then gave his support to the cause of law and constitutional liberty, and doubtless loathed the excesses which took place in the name of liberty. He was the only man who could have saved the monarchy, if it were possible to save it; but no human force could probably have arrested the waves of revolutionary frenzy at this time.

On the removal of the Assembly to Paris, the all-absorbing questions related to finance. The State was bankrupt. It was difficult to raise money for the most pressing exigencies. Money must be had, or there would be universal anarchy and despair. How could it be raised? The credit of the country was gone, and all means of taxation were exhausted. No man in France had such a horror of bankruptcy as Mirabeau, and his eloquence was never more convincing and commanding than in his finance speeches. Nobody could reply to him. The Assembly was completely subjugated by his commanding talents. Nor was his influence ever greater than when he supported Necker’s proposal for a patriotic loan, a sort of income-tax, in a masterly speech which excited universal admiration. “Ah, Monsieur le Comte,” said a great actor to him on that occasion, “what a speech: and with what an accent did you deliver it! You have surely missed your vocation.”

But the finances were in a hopeless state. With credit gone, taxation exhausted, and a continually increasing floating debt, the situation was truly appalling to any statesman. It was at this juncture that Talleyrand, a priest of noble birth, as able as he was unscrupulous, brought forth his famous measure for the spoliation of the Church, to which body he belonged, and to which he was a disgrace. Talleyrand, as Bishop of Autun, had been one of the original representatives of the clergy on the first convocation of the States-General; he had advocated combining with the Third Estate when they pronounced themselves the National Assembly, had himself joined the Assembly, attracted notice by his speeches, been appointed to draw up a constitution, taken active part in the declaration of Rights, and made himself generally conspicuous and efficient. At the present apparently hopeless financial crisis, Talleyrand uncovered a new source of revenue, claimed that the property of the Church belonged to the nation, and that as the nation was on the brink of financial ruin, this confiscation was a supreme necessity. The Church lands represented a value of two thousand millions of francs,–an immense sum, which, if sold, would relieve, it was supposed, the necessities of the State. Mirabeau, although he was no friend of the clergy, shrank from such a monstrous injustice, and said that such a wound as this would prove the most poisonous which the country had received. But such was the urgent need of money, that the Assembly on the 2d of November, 1789, decreed that the property of the Church should be put at the disposal of the State. On the 19th of December it was decreed that these lands should be sold. The clergy raised the most piteous cries of grief and indignation. Vainly did the bishops offer four hundred millions as a gift to the nation. It was like the offer of Darius to Alexander, of one hundred thousand talents. “Your whole property is mine,” said the conqueror; “your kingdom is mine.”

So the offer of the bishops was rejected, and their whole property was taken. And it was taken under the sophistical plea that it belonged to the nation. It was really the gift of various benefactors in different ages to the Church, for pious purposes, and had been universally recognized as sacred. It was as sacred as any other rights of property. The spoliation was infinitely worse than the suppression of the monasteries by Henry VIII. He had some excuse, since they had become a scandal, had misused their wealth, and diverted it from the purposes originally intended. The only wholesale attack on property by the State which can be compared with it, was the abolition of slavery by a stroke of the pen in the American Rebellion. But this was a war measure, when the country was in most imminent peril; and it was also a moral measure in behalf of philanthropy. The spoliation of the clergy by the National Assembly was a great injustice, since it was not urged that the clergy had misused their wealth, or were neglectful of their duties, as the English monks were in the time of Henry VIII. This Church property had been held so sacred, that Louis XIV. in his greatest necessities never presumed to appropriate any part of it. The sophistry that it belonged to the nation, and therefore that the representatives of the nation had a right to take it, probably deceived nobody. It was necessary to give some excuse or reason for such a wholesale robbery, and this was the best which could be invented. The simple truth was that money at this juncture was a supreme necessity to the State, and this spoliation seemed the easiest way to meet the public wants. Like most of the legislation of the Assembly, it was defended on the Jesuit plea of expediency,–that the end justifies the means; the plea of unscrupulous and wicked politicians in all countries.

And this expediency, doubtless, relieved the government for a time, for the government was in the hands of the Assembly. Royal authority was a mere shadow. In reality, the King was a prisoner, guarded by Lafayette, in the palace of the Tuileries. And the Assembly itself was now in fear of the people as represented by the clubs. There were two hundred Jacobin clubs in Paris and other cities at this time, howling their vituperations not only on royalty but also on everything else which was not already destroyed.

The Assembly having provided for the wants of the government by the confiscation of two thousand millions,–which, however, when sold, did not realize half that sum,–issued their assignats, or bonds representing parcels of land assigned to redeem them. These were mostly 100-franc notes, though there were also issues of ten and even five francs. The national credit was thus patched up by legislators who took a constitution in hand,–to quote Burke–“as savages would a looking-glass.” Then they proceeded to other reforms, and abolished the parliaments, and instituted the election of judges by the people, thus stripping the King of his few remaining powers.

In the mean time Mirabeau died, worn out with labors and passions, and some say by poison. Even this Hercules could not resist the consequences of violated natural law. The Assembly decreed a magnificent public funeral, and buried him with great pomp. He was the first to be interred in the Pantheon. For nearly two years he was the leading man in France, and he retained his influence in the Assembly to the end. Nor did he lose his popularity with the people. It is not probable that his intrigues to save the monarchy were known, except to a few confidential friends. He died at the right time for his fame, in April, 1791. Had he lived, he could not have arrested the tide of revolutionary excesses and the reign of demagogues, and probably would have been one of the victims of the guillotine.

As an author Mirabeau does not rank high. His fame rests on his speeches. His eloquence was transcendent, so far as it was rendered vivid by passion. He knew how to move men; he understood human nature. No orator ever did so much by a single word, by felicitous expressions. In the tribune he was immovable. His self-possession never left him in the greatest disorders. He was always master of himself. His voice was full, manly, and sonorous, and pleased the ear; always powerful, yet flexible, it could be as distinctly heard when he lowered it as when he raised it. His knowledge was not remarkable, but he had an almost miraculous faculty of appropriating whatever he heard. He paid the greatest attention to his dress, and wore an enormous quantity of hair dressed in the fashion of the day. “When I shake my terrible locks,” said he, “no one dares interrupt me.” Though he received pensions, he was too proud to be dishonest, in the ordinary sense. He received large sums, but died insolvent. He had, like most Frenchmen, an inordinate vanity, and loved incense from all ranks and conditions. Although he was the first to support the Assembly against the King, he was essentially in favor of monarchy, and maintained the necessity of the absolute veto. He would have given a constitution to his country as nearly resembling that of England as local circumstances would permit. Had he lived, the destinies of France might have been different.

But his death gave courage to all the factions, and violence and crime were consummated by the Reign of Terror. With the death of Mirabeau, closed the first epoch of the Revolution. Thus far it had been earnest, but unscrupulous in the violation of rights and in the destruction of ancient abuses. Yet if inexperienced and rash, it was not marked by deeds of blood. In this first form it was marked by enthusiasm and hope and patriotic zeal; not, as afterwards, by fears and cruelty and usurpations.

Henceforth, the Revolution took another turn. It was directed, not by men of genius, not by reformers seeking to rule by wisdom, but by demagogues and Jacobin clubs, and the mobs of the city of Paris. What was called the “Left,” in the meetings of the Assembly,–made up of fanatics whom Mirabeau despised and detested,–gained a complete ascendency and adopted the extremest measures. Under their guidance, the destruction of the monarchy was complete. Feudalism and the Church property had been swept away, and the royal authority now received its final blow; nay, the King himself was slain, under the influence of fear, it is true, but accompanied by acts of cruelty and madness which shocked the whole civilized world and gave an eternal stain to the Revolution itself.

It was not now reform, but unscrupulous destruction and violence which marked the Assembly, controlled as it was by Jacobin orators and infidel demagogues. A frenzy seized the nation. It feared reactionary movements and the interference of foreign powers. When the Bastille had fallen, it was by the hands of half-starved people clamoring for bread; but when the monarchy was attacked, it was from sentiments of fear among those who had the direction of affairs. The King, at last, alarmed for his own safety, contrived to escape from the Tuileries, where he was virtually under arrest, for his power was gone; but he was recaptured, and brought back to Paris, a prisoner. Robespierre called upon the Assembly to bring the King and Queen to trial. Marat proposed a military dictatorship, to act more summarily, which proposal produced a temporary reaction in favor of royalty. Lafayette, as commander of the National Guard, declared, “If you kill the King to-day, I will place the Dauphin on the throne to-morrow.” But the republican party, now in fear of a reaction, was increasing rapidly. Its leaders were at this time the Girondists, bent on the suppression of royalty, and headed by Brissot, who agitated France by his writings in favor of a republic, while Madame Roland opened her salons for intrigues and cabals,–a bright woman, “who dreamed of Spartan severity, Roman virtue, and Plutarch heroes.”

The National Assembly dissolved itself in September, and appealed to the country for the election of a National Convention; for, the King having been formally suspended Aug. 10, there was no government. The first act of the Convention was to proclaim the Republic. Then occurred the more complete organization of the Jacobin club, to control the National Convention; and this was followed by the rapid depreciation of the assignats, bread-riots, and all sorts of disturbances. Added to these evils, foreign governments were arming to suppress the Revolution, and war had been declared by the Girondist ministry, of which Dumouriez was war-minister. At this crisis, Danton, of the club of the Cordéliers, who found the Jacobins too respectable, became a power,–a coarse, vulgar man, but of indefatigable energy and activity, who wished to do away with all order and responsibility. He attacked the Gironde as not sufficiently violent.

It was now war between the different sections of the revolutionists themselves. Lafayette resolved to suppress the dangerous radicals by force, but found it no easy thing, for the Convention was controlled by men of violence, who filled the country with alarm, not of their unscrupulous measures, but of the military and of foreign enemies. He even narrowly escaped impeachment at the hands of the National Convention.

The Convention is now overawed and controlled by the Commune and the clubs. Lafayette flies. The mob rules Paris. The revolutionary tribunal is decreed. Robespierre, Marat, and Danton form a triumvirate of power. The September massacres take place. The Girondists become conservative, and attempt to stay the progress of further excesses,–all to no purpose, for the King himself is now impeached, and the Jacobins control everything. The King is led to the bar of the Convention. He is condemned by a majority only of one, and immured in the Temple. On the 20th of January, 1793, he was condemned, and the next day he mounted the scaffold. “We have burned our ships,” said Marat when the tragedy was consummated.

Murder of Marat by Charlotte Corday, painting by J. Weerts

Murder of Marat by Charlotte Corday, painting by J. Weerts

With the death of the King, I bring this lecture to a close. It would be interesting to speculate on what might have been averted, had Mirabeau lived. But probably nothing could have saved the monarchy except civil war, to which Louis XVI. was averse.

Nor can I dwell on the second part of the Revolution, when the government was in the hands of those fiends and fanatics who turned France into one vast slaughter-house of butchery and blood. I have only to say, that the same unseen hand which humiliated the nobles, impoverished the clergy, and destroyed the King, also visited with retribution those monsters who had a leading hand in the work of destruction. Marat, the infidel journalist, was stabbed by Charlotte Corday. Danton, the minister of justice and orator of the revolutionary clubs, was executed on the scaffold he had erected for so many innocent men. Robespierre, the sentimental murderer and arch-conspirator, also expiated his crimes on the scaffold; as did Saint-Just, Lebas, Couthon, Henriot, and other legalized assassins. As the Girondists sacrificed the royal family, so did the Jacobins sacrifice the Girondists; and the Convention, filled with consternation, again sacrificed the Jacobins.

After the work of destruction was consummated, and there was nothing more to destroy, and starvation was imminent at Paris, and general detestation began to prevail, in view of the atrocities committed in the name of liberty, the crushing fact became apparent that the nations of Europe were arming to put down the Revolution and restore the monarchy. In a generous paroxysm of patriotism, the whole nation armed to resist the invaders and defend the ideas of the Revolution. The Convention also perceived, too late, that anything was better than anarchy and license. It put down the clubs, restored religious worship, destroyed the busts of the monsters who had disgraced their cause and country, intrusted supreme power to five Directors, able and patriotic, and dissolved itself.

Under the Directory, the third act of the drama of revolution opened with the gallant resistance which France made to the invaders of her soil and the enemies of her liberties. This resistance brought out the marvellous military genius of Napoleon, who intoxicated the nation by his victories, and who, in reward of his extraordinary services, was made First Consul, with dictatorial powers. The abuse of these powers, his usurpation of imperial dignity, the wars into which he was drawn to maintain his ascendency, and his final defeat at Waterloo, constitute the most brilliant chapter in the history of modern times. The Revolution was succeeded by military despotism. Inexperience led to fatal mistakes, and these mistakes made the strong government of a single man a necessity. The Revolution began in noble aspirations, but for lack of political wisdom and sound principles in religion and government, it ended in anarchy and crime, and was again followed by the tyranny of a monarch. This is the sequence of all revolutions which defy eternal justice and human experience. There are few evils which are absolutely unendurable, and permanent reforms are only obtained by patience and wisdom. Violence is ever succeeded by usurpation. The terrible wars through which France passed, to aggrandize an ambitious and selfish egotist, were attended with far greater evils than those which the nation sought to abolish when the States-General first met at Versailles.

But the experiment of liberty, though it failed, was not altogether thrown away. Lessons of political wisdom were learned, which no nation will ever forget. Some great rights of immense value were secured, and many grievous privileges passed away forever. Neither Louis XVIII., nor Charles X., nor Louis Philippe, nor Louis Napoleon, ever attempted to restore feudalism, or unequal privileges, or arbitrary taxation. The legislative power never again completely succumbed to the decrees of royal and imperial tyrants. The sovereignty of the people was established as one of the fixed ideas of the nineteenth century, and the representatives of the people are now the supreme rulers of the land. A man can now rise in France above the condition in which he was born, and can aspire to any office and position which are bestowed on talents and genius. Bastilles and lettres de cachet have become an impossibility. Religious toleration is as free there as in England or the United States. Education is open to the poor, and is encouraged by the Government. Constitutional government seems to be established, under whatever name the executive may be called. France is again one of the most prosperous and contented countries of Europe; and the only great drawback to her national prosperity is that which also prevents other Continental powers from developing their resources,–the large standing army which she feels it imperative to sustain.

In view of the inexperience and fanaticism of the revolutionists, and the dreadful evils which took place after the fall of the monarchy, we should say that the Revolution was premature, and that substantial reforms might have been gained without violence. But this is a mere speculation. One thing we do know,–that the Revolution was a national uprising against injustice and oppression. When the torch is applied to a venerable edifice, we cannot determine the extent of the conflagration, or the course which it will take. The French Revolution was plainly one of the developments of a nation’s progress. To conservative and reverential minds it was a horrid form for progress to take, since it was visionary and infidel. But all nations are in the hands of God, who is above all second causes. And I know of no modern movement to which the words of Carlyle, when he was an optimist, when he wrote the most original and profound of his works, the “Sartor Resartus,” apply with more force: “When the Phoenix is fanning her funeral pyre, will there not be sparks flying? Alas! some millions of men have been sucked into that high eddying flame, and like moths consumed. In the burning of the world-Phoenix, destruction and creation proceed together; and as the ashes of the old are blown about do new forces mysteriously spin themselves, and melodious death-songs are succeeded by more melodious birth-songs.”

Yet all progress is slow, especially in government and morals. And how forcibly are we impressed, in surveying the varied phases of the French Revolution, that nothing but justice and right should guide men in their reforms; that robbery and injustice in the name of liberty and progress are still robbery and injustice, to be visited with righteous retribution; and that those rulers and legislators who cannot make passions and interests subservient to reason, are not fit for the work assigned to them. It is miserable hypocrisy and cant to talk of a revolutionary necessity for violating the first principles of human society. Ah! it is Reason, Intelligence, and Duty, calm as the voices of angels, soothing as the “music of the spheres,” which alone should guide nations, in all crises and difficulties, to the attainment of those rights and privileges on which all true progress is based.


Dumont’s Recollections of Mirabeau; Carlyle’s French Revolution; Carlyle’s article on Mirabeau in his Miscellanies; Von Sybel’s French Revolution; Thiers’ French Revolution; Mignet’s French Revolution; Croker’s Essays on the French Revolution; Life of Lafayette; Loustalot’s Révolution de Paris; Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution; Carlyle’s article on Danton; Mallet du Pau’s Considérations sur la Révolution Française; Biographie Universelle; A. Lameth’s Histoire de l’Assemblée Constituante; Alison’s History of the French Revolution; Lamartine’s History of the Girondists; Lacretelle’s History of France; Montigny’s Mémoires sur Mirabeau; Peuchet’s Mémoires sur Mirabeau; Madame de Staël’s Considérations sur la Révolution Française; Macaulay’s Essay on Dumont’s Recollections of Mirabeau.

Edmund Burke : Political Morality

Beacon Lights of History, Volume IX : European Statesmen