Adolphe Thiers.

The history of the French revolution (Volume 1) online

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I PURPOSE writing the history of a mémorable Revolution,
which has profoundly agitated the minds of men, and which
still continues to divide them. I disguise not from myself the
difficulties of the undertaking; for passions which were sup-
posed to have been stifled under the sway of military despotism
have recently revived. All at once men bowed down by age
and toil have felt resentments which, according to appearance,
were appeased, awaken within them, and they have communi-
cated them to us, their sons and heirs. But if we have to
uphold the same cause, we have not to defend their conduct,
for we can separate liberty from those who have rendered it
service or disservice ; whilst we possess the advantage of
having observed those veterans, who, still full of their recol-
lections,, still agitated by their impressions, reveal to us the
spirit and the character of parties, and teach us to com-
prehend them.* Perhaps the moment when the actors are
about to expire is the most proper for writing this history ;
we can collect their evidence without particij^ating in all their

Be this as it may, I have endeavoured to stifle within my
own bosom every feeling of animosity : I alternately figured
to myself that, born in a cottage, animated with a just ambi-
tion, I was resolved to acquire what the pride of the higher
classes had unjustly refused me ; or that, bred in palaces, the
heir to ancient privileges, it was painful to me to renounce a
possession which I regarded as a legitimate property. Thence-
forward I could not harbour enmity against either party ; I
pitied tlie combatants, and I indemnified myself by admiring-
generous deeds wherever I found them.

* "Thepeoi)lc never revolt from fickleness, or tlie mere desire of change. It is
the impatience of sulfering which alone has this effect." — Sully's Memoirs.


OOME years have elapsed since M. Thiers' " History of the
^ French Revolution " was first introduced to readers in an
English translation. The \'alue of such a work can only be
tested by time and popularity. The subject, although of the
deepest interest, had been so often touched upon by previous
writers, that novelty, either in fact or inference, was scarcely
to be expected. In France the book was received with enthu-
siasm, and adopted without hesitation as the standard authority.
This might have been looked for, from the impulsive character
of the people, the known abilities of the author, and his
political eminence. It was felt at once that he was able to
grapple with the question, and examine its minute details
with searching fidelity. His mind was practical more than
speculative. He was a man of business rather than a dream-
ing philosopher ; an adroit, keen, clear-headed, worldly states-
man, with no strong passions or prejudices to mislead his
judgment, and entirely uninfluenced by fanciful theories to
obscure his meaning. His history is a narrative of facts,
seldom interrupted by episodes or parenthetical reflections.
He has no tendency to enter into long investigations of causes,
which he leaves the reader to discover for himself. In his
delineations of character he seizes obvious points and promi-
nent features. In this he is directly contrasted with Mignet,
who refines with metaphysical nicety, and halts to dissect a
feeling when he should hasten on to relate an event. Mignet
is subtle, and frequently obscure. Thiers is frank, and always
intelligible. Hence the secret of his superior attraction ; and
on this ground, independent of others, his work has established
itself as a classic, and increases in estimation on repeated
perusal. It may justly be pronounced the best that has been


written on a, very momentous period : the safest, as well as
the most entertaining ; and when we refer to the long list
of eminent authors who have employed their pens in the
description of this gigantic moral earthquake, it is no slight
commendation to be placed at the head of the phalanx. We
have said why we prefer Thiers to Mignet — although in literary
composition their merits are equally balanced. In England
the reputation of ]\1. Thiers' History has increased gradually.
Received at first with caution, perhaps with disti'ust, it has
made its way by intrinsic weight, and obtains with each suc-
ceeding year a wider popularity. A new edition has therefore
become necessary, which we now present in a more convenient
form, and, as we trust, with some additional recommendations.
It has been objected that Thiers is a partial historian, and
writes with a natural bias in favour of his own country. If so.
a reasonable allowance must be made for a fault inseparable
from humanity. But this tendency, when it occurs, is com-
pensated for in this edition by a series of illustrative notes
from the most important authorities on the subject, so that the
reader is thereby enabled to balance conflicting opinions, and
regulate his own judgment on a comparison of evidence.

Lord Byron has said, " It has long been the fashion to
ascribe everything to the French Revolution, and the French
Revolution to everything but the real cause. That cause is
obvious. The government exacted more than the people could
bear, and the people neither could nor would bear any longer."
There is truth in this short summary ; but the question is too
complicated to be dismissed merely in a sentence. The storm
had long been brewing, and many agencies were concerned in
bringing it to a head. The catastrophe was foreseen and pre-
dicted, not only by profound thinkers, but by casual observers.
Many were the warning voices, but all were unheeded until
the explosion took place. The successive causes, immediate
and secondary, have been amply discussed ; but it is to be re-
gretted that an author so well versed in the annals of France
as M. Thiers has not entered more into detail in his intro-
ductory dissertation. After a few brief paragraphs, he breaks
at once into his subject, as if he took it for granted that all
his readers were as well accjnainted as himself with the origin


of that memorable event. Tlie climax was gradual of approach,
and long in preparation. What Dr. Johnson says in his tragedy
of " Irene " of the fall of Constantinople, applies strongly to
the destruction of tlie French monarchy : —

" A thousand horrid prodigies foretold it ;
A feeble government, eluded laws,
A factious populace, luxurious nobles,
And all the maladies of sinking states."

As in more recent times the decay of authority is accom-
panied by the outrages of anarchists and the tyranny of trades'
unions. Foremost in the list, the deficiency of the public
revenue, the preposterous salaries of the officers of the Crown,
and the unbridled speculations of the Encyclopaedists — brilliant
but dangerous sophists, who promulgated visionary doctrines,
utterly subversive of religion, law, policy, or morality — were
the most formidable pioneers of the Revolution. As soon as
they were listened to, the end became certain. They exposed
the wrongs and pointed out the privileges of all classes ;
but while they did this, they at the same time advocated
principles incompatible with the interests of civilized society.
The executive energy of Cromwell, and the financial ability
of Colbert, might even at a late hour have opposed an effec-
tual barrier ; but Bonaparte rose to power too late and Mira-
beau passed away before his career was completed. The
lesson was intended to be taught ; and well will it be for
future generations if they lay it to their hearts, and imbibe
wisdom from the study.

Foremost amongst those whose writings tended to inflame
and pervert the public mind were Voltaire and Rousseau.
The first of these had every possible requisite for such a
task. Shrewd, calculating, and cunning as a fox ; a wit
without heart, an innovator without conscience, an expert
handler of paradoxes, the light thin soil of whose mind could
not nourish the tree of knowledge ; acquainted with society
in all its grades, from the highest to the lowest ; a contemner,
less from sound conviction than from the instincts of over-
weening self-conceit, of all systems of religion, government,
and morals — this I'eady unprincipled satirist was just the


man to precipitate the great crisis of the Revohition. All
wlio read could understand him. There was no affected
mysticism in his manner ; he was uniformly concise, lucid,
and plausible, and set off his style by all the graces of
the most sparkling wit and cutting sarcasm. His favourite
mode of commencing an attack is by insinuation. He sneers
away a moral system in a sentence, and disturbs faith in
religion and humanity by a terse and sparkling allegory.
That he effected some good in his generation is unquestion-
able. He denounced the avarice and negligence of the higher
orders of the priesthood ; lashed the insane rage for war,
then so general on the continent ; exposed the vices and im-
becility of the noblesse ; and did not spare even the throne
itself. Had he stopped here, he would have deserved praise ;
but his restless intellect spurned all decent restraints, per-
versely confounding the distinctions between truth and false-
hood, absurdity and common-sense. C-ynical by nature, the
crimes and utter callousness which he observed amongst the
higher classes made him a sceptic to all generous emotions ;
as the corruption of the privileged clergy made him reject
all belief in Christianity. Hazlitt, who of all men in the
world was the least likely to underrate him, has well observed
that ''the poisoned wound he inflicted was so fine as scarcely
to be felt, until it rankled and festered in its mortal con-
sequences ; and he loved to reduce things below their level,
making them all alike seem worthless and hollow ! "

Of a far different order of intellect, but in his way equally
influential, was Voltaire's great rival, Rousseau. The object of
this insidious sentimentalist was — in politics, to bring about
republicanism ; in ethics, to subvert the entire framework
of society, and introduce universal licence ; in religion, to
do away with faith grounded on the convictions of reason,
and to substitute in its stead the cant of instinct and sensi-
bility. His specious, shallow, tinsel eloquence, which was
mistaken for the sterling ore of thought, turned tlie brain
of all France. Because his ideas were eccentric, they were
accounted profound ; and his studied indecency was received
as the prompting of a healtliy and impassioned temperament.
We wlin li\{' in more enlightened times, when the pul)lic


mind is able to dotoct tlio true from the false, aiul it' crazed
for a season In- some pet crotchet, never fails soon to right
itself, can scarcely imagine tlie effect which Voltaire and
Rousseau, assisted by the Encyclo])a3dists, produced in their
day. That a convulsion would have taken place, even without
their aid, is un((uestionable ; but equally certain is it that
they greatly contributed to hurry on the crisis. The eff'ects
of their writings may easily be traced in the wild specula-
tions of the unworldly Girondins, the republican cant of the
Dantonists, and the unblushing atlieism of the worshippers
of the Goddess of Eeason.

The radical defect of all Rousseau's writings was the substi-
tution of sentiment for principle. Never was man so glaringly
deficient in what may be called the moral sense. His mind
" wore motley,'' and was made up of inconsistencies. While
he professed to inculcate a system of the purest ethics, he
lived in avowed adultery with a woman old enough to be
his mother ; and wrote upon the duties owing by parents to
their children, while he sent his own to the Foundling
Hospital ! That he was actuated throughout his literary
career by no better feeling than a mere morbid craving for
notoriety, is evident from one of his published conversations
with Burke, wherein he observes, that finding that the
ordinary vehicle of literature was worn out, he took upon
himself the task of renewing the springs, repainting the
panels, and gilding the whole machine afresh. In other
words, he was solely anxious to create a sensation, no
matter how eccentric were the means which he employed
for that purpose.

Voltaire and Rousseau lived and wrote exclusively for
effect. Yet it has been urged by those who, seduced by
their talents, would fain make excuses for their sophistries,
that both acted from the best intentions. This is pure cant —
the plea urged by every knave for his offences against society.
The bar of the Old Bailey is filled every session with the
best intentions ; they figure unequivocally in the police-offices,
people the vast pasturages of Australia, and form — says the
quaint old Spanish proverb — the pavement of hell itself !

While these and other malign influences were at work.


the grand struggle for independence took place in America.
This event startled France like a thunder-clap. Adieu now to
all hojDe of escape from revolution ! The heather is on fire,
and nothing can check the j)rogress of the conflagration.
Within the precincts of the palace, in the salons of fashion,
and universally among the tiers-état, nothing is talked of
but the gallantry of the transatlantic patriots. Washington
is the hero — Franklin the philosopher of the day. Carried
away by the general enthusiasm, and glad, no doubt, of such
an opportunity of humbling the pride and increasing the
difficulties of England — although his private correspondence
would seem to show otherwise — Louis XYI. took the des-
perate resolution of supplying the revolted colonies with
funds and troops. It was the misfortune of this Prince,
who possessed many excellent private and public quali-
ties, to do everything with the best intentions, and to
succeed in nothing. "As for the King," says Mr. Carlyle,
in his eloquent analytical history of the Revolution, " he,
as usual, will go wavering cameleon-like, changing colour
and purpose with the C()lc)ur of his environment — good for
no kingly use." This is well observed of Louis. He was
as " infirm of purpose " as Macbeth, swayed now by the
counsels of the Queen, now by those of the Assembly, and
giving a tenacious adhesion to neither. In assisting the
American insurgents he took the most suicidal step that it
was possible for monarch, situated as he was, to take ; for
when his troops returned home — and they constituted the
flower of the young noblesse and the army — they brought
back with them opinions and feelings until then proscribed
in France ; talked loudly of the duty of resistance to de-
spotic authority ; and thus communicated an irreparable
shock to the tottering throne of Louis. The final blow,
however, was given by the collapse of the national fiiuxnces,
the annual deficit of which, amounting to above seven
millions sterling, compelled the reluctant monarch to summon
the States-general, and thus admit the necessity of a radical
change in the government — in other words, to sanction those
innovations which could not terminate otherwise than in


And now tlie work a])peared to be complete. The mon-
archy was abolished, the aristocracy annihilated ; religious
and moral responsibility was denounced as an em])ty chimera,
and the new system universally proclaimed, liut the ele-
ments of which it was compounded were discordant, and
already, like the armed men produced by the dragon's
teeth of Cadmus, they had begun to war on each other.
There was hope yet if the disciples of liberty and equality,
who refused to fraternize, had been left to themselves.
Nothing could give them streng-th and permanence but unity ;
and unity could only come by a pressure from without.
In evil hour that pressure was resorted to. The invasion
of France by the Duke of Brunswick, and subsequently by
the allied armies of Austria and England, under Prince
Cobourg. with the avowed objects of conquest and parti-
tion, settled the question definitively, and combined all
parties in one blended feeling of national patriotism. From
that moment the restoration of the monarchy became im-
possible, and the republic was firmly consolidated. A struggle
of twenty years was the consequence of this fatal mistake !


Born at Marseilles, April i 5, 1 797,

Educated at the Lycée at Marseilles,


Started the National Newspaper, January 1830,

Conseiller d'Etat,

Minister op the Interior,

Minister of Commerce and Public Works,

Minister of Foreign Affairs,

President of the Council,

President of the French Republic,


Died at Saint Germain,
September 3, 1877.



Attack on the Bastille

Portrait of the Due d'Orleans (Egalité)

Portrait of Mirabeau

Portrait op Lafayette

Orgies of the Gardes-du-Corps . . . .
Portrait of Marie Antoinette . . . .
Return of the Royal Family from Varennes

Portrait of Marat

The Mob at the Tuileries

Attack on the Tuileries


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Online LibraryAdolphe ThiersThe history of the French revolution (Volume 1) → online text (page 1 of 55)