No Revolution ever rises above the intellectual level of those who make it, and little is gained where one false notion supplants another. But we must some day, at last, and forever, cross the line between Nonsense and Common Sense. And on that day we shall pass from Class Paternalism, originally derived from fetish fiction in times of universal ignorance, to human brotherhood in accordance with the nature of things and our growing knowledge of it; from Political Government to Industrial Administration; from Competition in Individualism to Individuality in Co-operation; from War and Despotism, in any form, to Peace and Liberty - THOMAS CARLYLE.
The great series of events which form the First French Revolution are not to be covered by any one formula, although attempts to do so are often made. Politically the Revolution represented the triumph of the Third Estate - the Middle Class.
Economically the Revolution marks the fall of feudalism in France. Morally the Revolution was the tragedy of oligarchic prodigality and inefficiency, of class selfishness, and of mob madness begotten of age-long misgovernment. But it was a great deal more than even all these things. It is easier to say what the Revolution was not. It was neither a folly nor a crime, but, in the existing state of men’s minds, a natural, necessary, and salutary upheaval, of which crimes and follies were the inevitable accompaniment. A people, and especially the most lively people in the world, cannot be baited, robbed, imprisoned without trial or offence committed, cannot be starved, cannot be tortured, outraged, shot at sight, and still preserve through all the virtues of free, enlightened, and self-respecting citizenship.
A Royal Hypnotist.
Under Louis XIV. the tyranny of king and seigneur might be borne. There was that about the Grand Monarque which seemed to hypnotise his people into slavish submission, born of reverential awe. The contemporaries of Louis, for example, thought him tall, while in point of fact he was a little man. Even Voltaire repeatedly refers to Louis’ majestic stature. Cynical, outspoken St. Simon, the least courtly of all Louis’ courtiers, was astounded at the audacity of a statement by the royal Duke of Burgundy that in his opinion ‘kings should exist for the good of the people, and not the people for the good of kings.’ Delighted by the novelty and benevolence of this sentiment, St. Simon was nevertheless terrified by its boldness, and would not, he said, have dared to utter it in the court of the Grand Monarque.
Whilst this submissiveness outwardly continued under Louis XIV., some of the more intolerable privileges of the aristocracy were either legally abated or had fallen into desuetude. For one thing, Charolois, riding by, could no longer sportively snipe at the slater or plumber on the house roof, watching them fall, but must now content him with grouse and partridges. That kind of sport would be forbidden as merely wanton; but the actual Revolutionary period had arrived before Deputy Lapoule proposed the formal abrogation of the incredible law which allowed a seigneur, returning fatigued from the hunt, to kill not more than two serfs and refresh himself by putting his feet in their warm blood and bowels.
These and other preposterous privileges - among them the jus primæ noctis - if they ever really all of them were in operation, had fallen into abeyance by the end of Louis XV.’s reign. But still men and women starved - not here and there, but in millions.
Riding one morning in the Wood of Senart, the old king met a peasant carrying a coffin. Inquiring whose coffin it was, he was told it was for a poor slave his Majesty had noticed toiling in that part. ‘What did he die of ?’ ‘Of hunger!’ was the answer. The King, says Carlyle, ‘gave his horse the spur.’ Arthur Young, too, writing as late as 1788, describes how he overtook a woman who was staggering uphill under a burden too heavy for her famine-pinched, toil-stricken limbs. She looked sixty, but Arthur asking her age, she told him she was twenty-eight. She had seven children, a drudge husband, a cow, and a garron. There were rents and quit-rents ; hens to pay to this seigneur, oat-sacks to that, kings labour, Statute labour, church taxes, taxes enough. She had heard that somewhere, in some manner, something is to be done for the poor. ‘God send it soon,’ she says, ‘for the dues and taxes crush us down’ (nous écrasent). And the vehement, observant, sympathetic Englishman says: ‘The signs of a Grand Seigneur being landlord are wastes, landes, deserts, ling: go to his residence, you will find it in the middle of a forest, peopled with deer, wild boars, and wolves. The fields are scenes of pitiable management, as the houses are of misery. To see so many hands that would be industrious all idle and starving - Oh, if I were legislator of France for one day, I would make these great lords skip again!’
And skip they did, with urgency in the rear. In the Mâconnais and Beaujolais alone seventy-two chateaux were burned when the day of retribution at last arrived.
The Revolution was primarily a rising against hunger. All through the revolutionary period, in the city of Paris especially, the demand was for bread. Women stood for hours in queues at the bakers’ shops, a soldier on duty within to see that bread and flour were sold at no higher than a fixed price. The ragged legionaries of the Republic, officered by men promoted from the ranks, declared that with bread and steel they could go round the world, and on a hundred victorious fields made good the boast. It was hunger that prompted the drum-led march of the women of Paris through the mud and the rain to Versailles - a march in which amazonian market women, smart milliners, and grand dames compelled to dismount from their carriages, all took part. The fourth verse of ‘The Carmagnole’ - more popular than ‘The Marseillaise’ - runs
Que demande un republicain?
Du fer, du plomb, aussi du pain.
Du fer pour travailler,
Du plomb pour se’venger,
Et du pain pour ses frères,
Vive le son, vive le son,
Et du pain pour ses frères,
Vive le son du canon.
Or, as translated with freedom and spirit
O what is it the people need?
They ask for bread and iron and lead,
The iron to win our pay,
The lead our foes to slay,
The bread our friends to feed,
Vive le son, etc.
One of the popular cries was ‘Bread and the Constitution.’ Only people who were starved could have so much to say about the plain staff of life.
The Unteachable Aristocracy.
If we deplore and abhor the September massacres and the guillotinings of three years, do not let us forget the dragonnades, the oubliettes, the breakings on the wheel, the hanging of peaceful petitioners on ‘a new gallows, forty feet high,’ the systematic oppression that for centuries preceded and provoked the revolutionary reprisals. Do not let us forget the constant plotting against the Republic by a convicted and deposed ruling class, the dangers by which it was menaced without and harrassed within. The Bourbons learnt nothing and forgot nothing, and the same might be said of the French aristocracy as a whole. To this day, conspiracies against the Republic still occupy the time of royalists who cannot be reconciled to the idea that rank and privilege should be of no account in France.
Accustomed as the Anglo-Celtic people of Britain and America are to compromise, to give and take, to the acceptance of ‘new things that are good for the world’ even if they may be hurtful to us personally, we are at a loss to understand the inveterate obstinacy of the French aristocracy to receive measures of reform when proposed, or even to be reconciled to long-established salutary changes. The infatuation of the French nobility is without precedent in secular history. We have to go to the Pharaoh whose heart was ten times hardened against recognition of the inevitable.
An Impossible Task.
Turgot, saturated with liberal ideas, but a moderate and practical economist, would have saved the monarchy and averted a catastrophic revolution if anybody could. But his proposal to tax the noblesse and the clergy was received with indignant astonishment by the interested classes, and Turgot had to go. M. de Clugny, who succeeded, could suggest nothing better, and shortly gave way to Necker. That successful banker, who, like Turgot, was one of the Encyclopedists, promptly repeated what Turgot had proposed, and took, also, the practical, immediate step of suppressing over six hundred places about court, to the ‘great tristesse of the Œil-de Boeuf’ (literally, bull’s eye, a window in the palace at Versailles, but used here as a figurative term for the court party). Necker had to go. To him succeeded, for brief periods, Polignac, Coigny, Besenval, in turn. None of these had anything to suggest save that the rich should bear some slight share of the public burdens.
Calonne, polite and resourceful, kept floating for a time by raising loans, spending on the Stock Exchange £50,000 a-day in promoting his schemes of borrowing. But the embarrassment of the finances continuing, what could Calonne do but propose a land tax from which no landlord should be exempt? That was enough.
To Calonne succeeded, in turn, Fourqueux, Villedeuil, and, more notably, Cardinal Loménie de Brienne, Archbishop of Toulouse, sixty years of age and dissolute and worthless, who took the office of Controller-General of Finances, with the title of Prime Minister. Loménie’s first edicts are for creation of Provincial Assemblies to apportion the imposts, for suppression of corvées (or statute labour, as in the maintenance of the highways), and for alleviation of the gabelle (or salt tax).
Beginning of the Revolution.
These were popular concessions, and the placing of the onus of apportioning the imposts upon provincial assemblies was a shrewd method of enabling the Cardinal to escape responsibility for such proposals as had been made by Turgot, Necker, and the other cashiered controllers. Unfortunately for the Cardinal he had occasion presently (16th July, 1787) to ask the Parliament of Paris to register a Stamp Act. The Parliament - a corrupt body chiefly composed of lawyers who bought their places - instead of registering the Stamp Act as a matter of course, want to know what is the state of the expenditure and what reductions are to be made on it. This incident - the first formal refusal by a corporate body to register the behests of the court - may be said to mark the beginning of the Revolution. Its subsequent course is a matter of detail - picturesque, thrilling, sorrowful, but too voluminous for anything but the barest summary here. In the fourteen years 1774 to 1788 there were eleven changes of Premier.
The Treasury Insolvent.
On the 16th of August, 1788, a proclamation announces that Treasury payments shall henceforth be three-fifths in cash, two-fifths in paper, meaning practically that the Treasury is insolvent, Loménie is thereupon dismissed, amid popular rejoicing, and six days later Necker is recalled from Switzerland to resume his impossible task.
Assembly of the States-General.
In the beginning of May the long-wished-for States-General assembles at Versailles, where presently the Third Estate, strong in its own numbers and joined by a section of the nobility and clergy, becomes the National Assembly, entrusted with the duty of making a Constitution.
Fall of the Bastille.
On Sunday, the 12th of July, Necker is once more dismissed, and the Bastille, stormed by an infuriated mob and feebly defended, falls into the hands of the mob, who are assisted by the Gardes Françaises. The Marquis De Launay, governor of the Bastille, was to have blown up the magazine, but the hand which was to fire the magazine is gripped by one of the garrison, and a catastrophe averted. De Launay, borne through a threatening mob, is at last attacked. ‘Oh, friends, kill me fast,’ he says. The last seen of him is ‘his bloody hair-queue borne aloft in a bloody hand.’
With the razing of the Bastille, old secrets came to light, still further to inflame the revolutionists. Among many other papers, a fragment is found, bearing the signature of a prisoner, Quéret-Demery, unknown to history save by his pathetic appeal: ‘If for my consolation,’ wrote the heart-broken man, ‘Monseigneur would grant me for the sake of God and the Most Blessed Trinity, that I could have news of my dear wife, were it only her name on a card to show that she is alive, it were the greatest consolation I could receive; and I should forever bless the greatness of Monseigneur.’ ‘Poor prisoner,’ said Carlyle, ‘she is dead, that dear wife of thine, and thou art dead! ’Tis fifty years since thy breaking heart put this question; to be heard now first, and long heard, in the hearts of men.’
The March of the Menads.
On the 5th of October ‘some 1o,000 women’ march to Versailles, and bring back the Royal Family to Paris. This month the emigration of the nobles and princes of the blood begins.
On the 20th of June, 1791, the King takes flight, with the intention of co-operating with the outside enemies of France, who are preparing an invasion in the interests of reaction. Louis, held up at Varennes, is brought back a captive to Paris, any prestige he had gone from him for ever.
The 24th of July, 1792, witnesses the Prussian Declaration of War; and the Duke of Brunswick’s manifesto threatening France with military execution is dated Coblentz, July 27. On the 29th the Marseillese arrive in Paris, having marched in less than a month from the remote end of France in response to the call of Barbaroux for ‘five hundred men know who how to die.’ (In Felix Gras’ novel ‘The Reds of the Midi’ there is an admirably detailed and graphic description of this unique march, and of some of the notable incidents in Paris in which the Marseillese took part. The tale also gives, in the opening chapters, a striking view of the state of rural France in the immediate pre-Revolution stage.)
By the end of August the Prussians, with the emigrés, have invaded France. Under Dumouriez and Kellerman, the French, so far from flying, as was expected, give a very good account of themselves; and the Prussians, checked at all points, and harassed by rainy weather, dysentery, and famine, are obliged to retreat, the invasion begun with such terrible threats ending in discomfiture for Brunswick and his emigré advisers.
The Reign of Terror Begun.
After a five-days’ trial and two days’ voting on the sentence, Louis is executed on the 21st of January, 1792.
The King is no sooner out of the way than the Revolution begins to devour its own children. The stalwarts of the Mountain have the best of it in the struggle with the gentlemanly Girondins, thirty-two of whom are put under arrest in their own houses, from which they emerge to various adventures, ending at the guillotine, where they sing ‘The Marseillaise’ in chorus on the scaffold.
On the 16th of October, 1793, the hapless Marie Antoinette is executed. The following few months the guillotine is busy, the Reign of Terror having fully set in. The victims include d’Orleans and Madame Roland in November; Anacharsis Clootz in March, ’94; and Danton in April. Danton was probably the most single-minded man in the Revolution, as he was the most merciful in policy.
On the 28th of July, Robespierre, his jaw broken in an unsuccessful attempt at suicide with a pistol, is dragged with his confederates to the place of death. As the tumbril passes, gendarmes point their swords at the wretched figure, with its dirty and blood-stained linen bandages, to show the people the veritable object of their hatred. A woman springs on the low cart, and, waving one hand, exclaims: ‘The death of thee gladdens my indebted heart.’ Robespierre opens his eyes. ‘Scélérat, go down to Hell, with the curses of all wives and mothers!’ says the sibyl. It was the irony of fate. Robespierre was a theocratic (not to say religious) zealot, and but did his duty, as he perversely conceived it, in an impossible tangle of circumstances. His brother Augustin died for him. His poor landlord loved him.
With the death of Robespierre the Reign of Terror ended, and the Revolution rapidly shaded off in the downfall of Sansculottism, the victories of Napoleon, and the recrudescence of luxury, genteel sentiment, the Directory, and finally the First Empire.
But the Revolution was very far from having been abortive. The Frenchman of the towns may live in an insanitary half-flat; but in spite of the double drain of past wars and present militarism, with, of course, the conscription, his standard of comfort is in some respects superior to that of the British workman. He feeds much better. He works in a more leisurely fashion. If he wear a blouse, at least the family linen press would set up a moderate-sized napery establishment.
The Middle-Class View.
Writing in 1853, Richard Cobden said: ‘Tell the eight millions of landed proprietors in France that they shall exchange lots with the English people, where the labourer who cultivates the farm has no more proprietary interest in the soil than the horses he drives, and he will be stricken with horror.’ The French nation, instead of being ashamed of the Revolution, do in fact cling to the work of 1789 with thankfulness and tenacity. Men of the most opposite opinions on every other subject agree that to the Revolution in its normal phases France is indebted for a more rapid advance in civilization, wealth, and happiness than was ever previously made by any community of a similar extent in the same period of time. ‘No people,’ wrote Cobden, ‘have ever clung with more unshaken staunchness to the essential principles and main objects of a revolution than have the French. When you say that their new Emperor [Napoleon III.] is absolute and his will omnipotent, remember there are three things he dare not attempt to do. He dare not attempt to endow with land and tithes one sect as the exclusively paid religion of the State. He could not create a system of primogeniture and entail, and finally he could not impose a tax on succession to personal property and leave real property free. In England we have all three.’
The Actual Position.
Like all countries where capitalism is highly developed, France suffers from great economic inequalities and social contrasts. The Church lands were confiscated in 1789. Lands were surrendered to the State by patriotic seigneurs at the same time, and many patrimonies belonging to nobles guillotined during the Revolution, or of émigrés who died abroad or were killed during the Brunswick invasion, also reverted to the State, but unfortunately were resold. All this tended to break up large properties; and in 1899 no less than 71 per cent of the agricultural holdings in France were the property of the cultivators. But while peasant proprietary thus accounts for about three-fourths of the actual holdings, the nominal owner is often heavily in debt. One half of the three million properties are estimated to be under mortgage, poor men having entered upon them without the requisite capital for their successful working. The rural Frenchman is frugal and industrious, but taxes are still heavy. * The farmer’s wife cannot take a fowl to market without paying octroi duty upon it, and besides the heavy customs duties upon many articles imported, there is a house tax, a rent tax, a window tax, and a licence has to be taken out by all traders and professional men before starting in business. The people who ‘thrive’ in France are not the 8,000,000 engaged in forestry and agriculture, nor the 5,000,000 employed in manufacturing industries, but the comparative handful of coalowners, iron masters, army contractors, and stock-exchange people. There is still plenty of work for the social and economic reformer to do in France.
*British taxation is now much heavier, but more fairly distributed.
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