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own late fears, were not sorry that fear had changed
sides. ^^ If you were powerful enough to be feared
by the people, you would be sufficiently so to be
feared by us I" Such was the feeling prevalent
among what was called the cote gauche. It was the
reaction of fear.

I must not omit that, at this period, not only the
general opinion in France, but that of all Europe,
was in favour of the democratic party in the assem-
bly. A feeling of pleasure was generally enter-
tained at a revolution which had overthrown the
ancient government of France.

It may be said, with truth, that throughout Eu-
rope, all who were not patricians, had trembled for
the fate of the commons, and had considered their
delivery as a service rendered to the human race in
general. It was the cause of mankind against the


powers usurped by the exclusive and privileged
classes. The unhappy events which debased the
revolution, throw at the present day a sinister shade
even upon its very cradle. We are ashamed of hav-
ing admiredj at its birth, a cause which, during its
progress, we were forced to abhor. But let the im-
partial historian recollect, that when the French
revolution first broke out, there was a general excite-
ment, a sort of intoxication of hope ; and that the
enthusiasm raised by the grandeur of the object,
generated a degree of insensibility to its first ex-
cesses, which were considered merely as unfortunate
accidents occurring during the ceremony of a na-
tional triumph. Surely, every part of a ruined and
antiquated edifice could not fall to the ground with-
out crushing some of the mistaken individuals who
persevered in their endeavours to prop it up. Such
was the opinion of the master minds of Europe, of
the soundest philosophers, the greatest philanthro-
pists, and the dearest friends of freedom. If it
were an error, it was a universal one. England, as
the noblest and most free, declared her opinions in a
more marked manner than other states ; and in that
kingdom, the news of the fall of the Bastille was re-
ceived with the most joyful acclamations. If the
British government did not allow that event to be re-
presented on the stage, it was only from personal
respect for the king of France. The whole nation


felt the strongest sympathy towards the French peo-
ple, with whom they sincerely rejoiced at the over-
throw of despotism.

This enthusiasm was maintained almost throughout
the existence of the first national assembly. It
diminished after the events of the 5th and 6th of
. October. Many admirers cooled in their praise, and
many influential men began to think that the French
people were treating, with too great indignity, a king
who had done so much for them ; and to fear that the
national character was too impetuous, and too violent
for the rational enjoyment of freedom. So small, how-
ever, was the number of individuals who disapprov-
ed, that their opinion made but a slight impression.
The first decisive blow struck at the enthusiasm in
favour of the revolution, was that famous production
of Burke's, in which alone he grappled with the gi-
gantic strength of the assembly, and represented
these new legislators, in the full enjoyment of power
and honours, as so many maniacs, who could destroy,
but who were unable to replace. This work, res-
plendent with genius and eloquence, though written
in an age when imagination was on the decline, led
to the formation of two parties in England. How-
ever the arguments of Burke may seem to have been
justified by posterior events, it yet remains to be
shown, that the war cry then raised against France
did not greatly contribute to the violence which


characterised that period. It is possible, that had
he merely roused the attention of the governments
and wealthy classes to the dangers of this new poli-
tical creed, he might have proved the saviour of Eu-
rope ; but he made such exaggerated statements, and
used arguments so alarming to freedom, that on many
points, he was not only plausibly, but victoriously
refuted. Be that as it may, this publication of
Burke's, which was a manifesto against the assembly,
had a prodigious success in England. The Ger-
mans, who more than any other people, had winced
under the yoke of the nobles, persevered in their
admiration of the French legislators.

The united national assembly commenced their
proceedings with the famous declaration on the rights
of man. The idea was American, and there was
scarcely a member who did not consider such a de-
claration an indispensable preliminary. I well re-
member the long debate on the subject, which lasted
several weeks, as a period of mortal ennui. There
were silly disputes about words, much metaphysical
trash, and dreadfully tedious prosing. The assem-
bly had converted itself into a Sorbonne, and each
apprentice in the art of legislation was trying his
yet unfledged wings upon such puerilities. After
the rejection of several models, a committee of five
members was appointed to present a new one. Mira-
beau, one of the five, undertook the work with his


usual generosity, but imposed its execution upon his
friends. He set about the task, and there were he,
Duroverai, Claviere, and I, writing, disputing, add-
ing, striking out, and exhausting both time and
patience upon this ridiculous subject. At length
we produced our piece of patchwork, our mosaic of
pretended natural rights which never existed. Dur-
ing the progress of this stupid compilation, I made
some reflections, which had never struck me before.
I felt the inconsistency and ridicule of a work,
which was only a puerile fiction. A declaration of
rights could be made only after the framing of the
constitution, and as one of its consequences; for
rights exist in virtue of laws, and therefore do not
precede them. The maxims sanctioned by this de-
claration ; that is to say, the principles intended to be
established by it, are dangerous in themselves, for
legislators should not be tied down to general propo-
sitions which they are afterwards obliged to alter or
modify ; — above all, they must not be cramped by
false maxims. Men are born free and equal! that is
not true. They are not born free , on the contrary,
they are born in a state of weakness and necessary
dependence. .E^^^wa/.Miow are they so? or how caw
they be so? if by equality is understood equality of
fortune, of talents, of virtue, of industry, or of rank,
then the falsehood is manifest. It would require
volumes of argument to give any reasonable meaning


to that equality proclaimed without exception. In
a word, my opinion against the declaration of the
rights of man was so strongly formed, that this time
it influenced that of our little committee. Mirabeau,
on presenting the project, even ventured to make
some objections to it, and proposed to defer the decla-
ration of rights until the constitution should be com-
pleted. "I can safely predict/^ said he, in his bold
and energetic style, <* that any declaration of rights
anterior to the constitution, will prove but the al-
manac of a single year .'"

Mirabeau, generally satisfied with a happy turn
of expression, never gave himself the trouble of
studying a subject sufficiently to be able to discuss it,
and patiently maintain the opinion he had advanced.
He seized every thing with marvellous facility, but
developed nothing. He wanted the practice of refu-
tation. This great art, so indispensable to a politi-
cal orator, was unknown to him. His opinion on the
declaration surprised the assembly, because, when the
question was previously discussed, he had argued in
favour of its necessity. The most violent reproaches
were addressed to him at this sudden change of senti-
ment. ^^What manner of man is this," cried some
one, "who uses his ascendency here to make the
assembly adopt by turns both sides of a question ?
Shall we condescend to be the sport of his perpe-
tual tergiversation ?" Mirabeau had on this occasion


SO many good reasons to urge in favor of his propo-
sition, that he would no doubt have triumphed had he
known how to make use of them, but he withdrew
his motion at the instant when several deputies had
come over to his way of thinking. The eternal bab-
ble had then full range, and at last gave birth to the
unfortunate declaration of the rights of man. I have
now a complete refutation of it, clause by clause,
from the pen of a great master who has exposed, in
the clearest manner, the contradictions, absurdities
and dangers of this programme of sedition, which
proved alone sufficient to overthrow the constitution
of which it formed part. It may be compared to a
powder magazine placed under an edifice, which it
might overthrow by an explosion produced by the
smallest spark.*

But if the assembly wasted much time in discuss-
ions on the rights of man, this was amply compensa-
ted in the nocturnal sitting of the 4th of August.
Never was so much work done in so short a space of
time. That which would have required twelve
months of careful examination, was proposed, dis-
cussed, put to the vote, and passed by general accla-
mation. I know not how many laws were decreed;
— the abolition of feudal rights, tithes, and provincial
privileges — three questions embracing a whole system
of jurisprudence and politics — were, with ten or

* Vide Tactique des MssemhUes deliherantes, vol. 2.


twelve others, disposed of in less time than the English
parliament would decide upon the j&rst reading of any
bill of consequence. The assembly resembled a
dying man who had made his will in a hurry ; or to
speak more plainly, each member gave away what
did not belong to him, and prided himself upon his
generosity at the expense of others.

I was present at this extraordinary and unexpected
scene, which occurred on a day when Sieyes, Mira-
beau and several other leading deputies were absent.

The proceedings commenced with a report on the
excesses in the provinces, the burning of chateaus, and
the bands of banditti who attacked the nobles and
laid waste the country. The Dukes of Aiguillon
and Noailles and several other members of the mi-
nority of the nobles, after a vivid description of the
disasters, declared that it was by a great act of gen-
erosity alone that tranquillity and confidence could
be restored ; that it was, therefore, time to forego
odious privileges, and make the people feel the bene-
fits of the revolution. It is impossible to describe
the eifervescence which burst forth in the assembly
at this declaration. There was no longer calmness
or reflection. Each came forward with a sacrifice —
each laid a fresh offering upon the altar of his country
— each despoiled himself or despoiled others. There
was no time taken for consideration, or for objection ;
a sentimental contagion seemed to drag every heart


into one general torrent. This renunciation of all
privileges, this abandonment of so many rights bur-
thensome to the people, these multiplied sacrifices,
bore a stamp of magnanimity which covered with its
splendour the indecent haste and precipitation, so ill-
suited to legislators, with which they were made.
On this night I saw good and brave deputies shed
tears of joy on perceiving their work of political
regeneration advance so rapidly, and on finding them-
selves borne on the wings of enthusiasm even beyond
their most sanguine hopes. It is true that all were
not actuated by the same feeling. He who found
himself ruined by a proposition unanimously agreed
to, moved another from spite, and because he
would not suifer alone. But the assembly were not
in the secret of the principal movers of these mea-
sures, and the latter took advantage of the general
enthusiasm to carry their point. The renunciation
of the provincial privileges was made by the depu-
ties of the respective provinces. The deputies from
Brittany, who had promised to maintain theirs, were
much more embarrassed ; but they came forward in
a body and declared that they would exert their
utmost influence with their constituents to obtain a
ratification of this abandonment of their privileges.
This great and magnanimous measure was necessary
to restore political unity in a kingdom formed by a
successive aggregation of several smaller states, each


of which had preserved certain antiquated rights and
particular privileges which it was now necessary to
destroy? in order to form a social body susceptible of
receiving one general constitution.

The following day brought reflection, and with it
discontent. Mirabeau and Sieyes, each, however,
from personal motives, very strongly reprobated the
madness of such enthusiasm. " This is just the cha-
racter of our Frenchmen," said the former, '^ they
are three months disputing about syllables, and in a
single night they overturn the whole venerable edi-
fice of the monarchy." Sieyes was more annoyed
at the abolition of tithes than at all the rest. It was
hoped that in a subsequent sitting the most impru-
dent clauses of these precipitate decrees might be
amended ; but it was not easy to recall concessions
which the people already looked upon as an indispu-
table right. Sieyes made a speech full of force and
logic, in which he showed that to abolish tithes
without an indemnity, was spoliating the clergy to
enrich the land owners ; for each having purchased
his property with the burthen of tithes upon it, would
on a sudden find himself richer by one tenth part,
which would be a gratuitous present. This speech,
impossible to be refuted, he concluded with the fa-
mous saying : " They would be free, and know not
how to be just!". ..The prejudice was so strong
that even Sieyes was not listened to. He was looked



upon as an ecclesiastic unable to forego his personal
interest, and who was paying the tribute of error to
his gown. A little more, and he would have been
hooted and hissed. I beheld him next day full of
bitter resentment and profound indignation against
the injustice and folly of the assembly, whom he never
pardoned. He gave vent to his irritated feelings
in a conversation with Mirabeau, when the latter
said to him : " My dear abbe, you have let loose
the bull and you now complain that he gores you!'^
These two men had always a very contemptible
opinion of the national assembly. They were well
qualified to appreciate its faults, yet neither of them
granted it his esteem but on condition that his own
opinion should always prevail. If either was ap-
plauded, he discovered that the majority had good
sense when left to their own judgment ; if either re-
ceived marks of disapprobation, he then discovered
that the assembly was composed of fools under the
influence of a few seditious members. I have often
seen Mirabeau graduate his opinion by this kind of
thermometer ; and assuredly he was not the only one.
The contempt of Sieyes might have been thought
sincere, because he did not lay himself out for ap-
plause, and always preserved a disdainful silence;
but Mirabeau was infected with the speaking mania,
and no one could for a moment believe that he was
indifferent to applause. Both felt that a single


legislative assembly was insufficient, because' there
was nothing to controul it ; and the occurrences of the
4th of August proved to what extent the contagion
of enthusiasm and eloquence could influence its pro-
ceedingSj and make it adopt the most absurd mea-

Far from having put a stop to violence and bri-
gandage, the decrees of the 4th of August showed the
people their strength, and convinced them that the
most monstrous attacks upon the nobility would be
overlooked, if they did not even elicit a recompense.
I repeat, that what is granted through fear, never
satisfies; and they whom you think your concessions
will disarm, acquire tenfold confidence and audacity.



Soon after the discussion on the decrees of the 4th
of August, constitutional questions were introduced,
and one of the most important was that of the
veto. It must not be supposed that this subject
underwent a regular debate similar to those in the
English house of commons. A list of speakers for
and against was made out ; each appeared,- manu-
script in hand, and read a dissertation unconnected
with any thing that had been urged by preceding
orators. I can imagine nothing more disgustingly
tedious than this species of academic lecture, — the
reading of those heavy pamphlets teeming with repe-
titions and devoid of any continued chain of argu-
ment. The form of a debate in which each speaks
either to reply or attack, stimulates all the faculties
and keeps up the attention; but those prepared
speeches refuted objections which had never been
urged, and did not refute those which had been ur-
ged. The proceedings were always in the same stage ;


each speaker opened the question as if no other
had preceded him, and nothing but the fanaticism
attendant upon public events could have resisted the
mortal ennui of these sittings. Mirabeau had deter-
mined to support the absolute veto^ considered of
vital importance to the monarchy ; but with regard
to the manner of treating this question, he had
placed himself under the tuition of the Marquis de
Caseaux, author of an unintelligible book on the me-
chanism of human societies, and of another entitled
'' Simplicity of the Idea of a Constitution" which no
one had been able to read or understand. I believe
that, for once, Mirabeau was not sorry to proceed
without us. He therefore concealed from us his
alliance with his apocalyptic friend, and merely in-r
formed us he was prepared and had made a few notes,
which he should develope in the tribune. After
being forced to listen to so many execrable speeches.
Mirabeau's appearance in the tribune delighted every
body; but scarcely had he begun when I recognized
the. style and doctrines of Caseaux. The embarrassed
constructions, the singularity of the words, the
lengthy periods and the obscurity of the reasoning,
soon cooled the attention of the assembly. It was at
length made out that he supported the absolute veto,
and this excited much disapprobation. Mirabeau,
who had scarcely looked at this trash before he left
home, threw himself immediately into digressions,


inveighed against despotism, and by some smart
things, which he had always at command, obtained
the applause of the galleries ; but the moment he
reverted to his fatal manuscript, the tumult again com-
menced, and he had much difficulty in getting to the
end of his speech, although on such occasions his
courage never deserted him. By supporting the
absolute veto, Mirabeau gave great offence to the
popular party ; but his speech was so obscure, that
the galleries nCver found out what side of the ques-
tion he had taken, and the Palais Royal, who were
in a frenzy against the supporters of the absolute veto,
did not cease to consider Mirabeau as one of its most
zealous opponents. That which would have de-
stroyed the popularity of any other, seemed to have
no power over his. The cote gauche thought that
he had affected obscurity on this occasion in order to
be able to turn to any side of the question ; so that
the nonsense of Caseaux was imputed to a profound
politician, and pure machiavelism was traced in every
part of a writing which no one could understand. I
never saw Mirabeau out of countenance but this
once. He confessed to me that as he proceeded with
the manuscript, which he had not before read, he
felt himself in a cold perspiration ; and that he had
omitted one half of it without being able to substitute
any thing in its stead, having, in his over confidence
in Caseaux, neglected to study the subject. We cor-


reeled this speech a little before we published it in
the Cuurrier de Provence; but the original fantastic
style and obscurity could not be entirely effaced. It
is thus the most important matters in legislation were
treated j ex ungue leonem. This was tlie first con-
stitutional question in which the people took a strong
interest; and it may be readily supposed that it was
a question which they little understood. The veto,
in their eyes, assumed every possible form — it was a
monster that would devour them all. I shall never
forget that in going to Paris with Mirabeau, either
on that day or the next, there were many people
congregated on the outside of Madame le Jay's shop,
waiting for him. They ran to him and conjured him,
with tears in their eyes, not to suffer the king to have
the absolute veto. ^^ Monsieur le Comte, you are
the father of the people; you must save us, you
must defend us against those who want to deliver us
up to despotism. If the king is to have the veto,
there will be no further occasion for a national as-
sembly ; all will be lost and we shall be slaves !" A
thousand such absurdities were uttered, and all pro-
ceeded from the most earnest dread of a thing they
had not the slightest idea of. On these occasions
Mirabeau always displayed great dignity and con-
descension; he managed to appease them with vague
answers, and dismissed them with a politeness some-
what patrician.


Mirabeau did not vote upon the question, and
that is the reason why he was not upon the list,
taken to the Palais Royal, of those who had support-
ed the absolute veto. Surely this conduct was pu-
sillanimous, but he covered it with the mask of his
soi-disant contempt for the assembly. The proceed-
ings on this question proved the absurdity of voting
separately upon constitutional laws ; for it is evident
that they must be compared with each other to try
whether they perfectly coincide. The law which
might be very good when combined with some
other, might produce a very bad effect if taken
alone. Nothing but presumption and inexperience
could have induced the national assembly to proceed
in any other way, and daily issue unconnected con-
stitutional decrees, without having previously deter-
mined upon the plan of a constitution, so as to have
a whole before them. In the veto, for instance ; —
before they decided upon the question, they should
have determined whether the legislation were to
consist of two chambers or of only one. The settle-
ment of the latter point was an indispensable prelim-
inary; for if the legislature were not divided, the
absolute veto became positively necessary to prevent
the single chamber from usurping the supreme
power. At the same time, the king would have
been too weak to exercise the absolute veto against
the strong and unanimous wish of the national a«sem-


bly. It would not be good policy in a sovereign,
under such circumstances, to oppose the wish of the
whole nation. If the legislature were divided into
two sections, then the absolute veto would become
less necessary, because there was not even a proba-
bility that the two sections would go hand in hand
upon every question. One might, therefore, oppose
the other. Thus the decision of one question de-
pending upon another, both ought to be considered
in coming to a conclusion. The greatest fault the
assembly committed, was to work upon detached
parts ; for thus it is that an irregular edifice was con-
structed without proportion or correctness. Some
parts were too strong, others too weak. There
were incoherent masses which could not sustain the
slightest shock, a gigantic elevation, and foundations
which gave way under the weight of the fabric.
But these defects originated in an extreme ambition
to shine, and in an eager anxiety, in making a motion,
to anticipate that of some other member. There
was nothing concerted, nothing prepared. Each de-
lighted in pilfering the propositions of another, in
smuggling in an article out of its place, and in sur-
prising the assembly by something unexpected. A
constitution committee had been appointed, but this
committee, a prey to jealousy and quarrels, could
come to no understanding, nor direct their labours
to a common object. It was a miniature likeness of
u ■


the assembly ; composed of the same elements^ the
same prejudices, the same desire of shining exclu-
sively and the same struggle of self-love. Each, in
short, took upon himself to introduce matters accord-
ing to his own judgment, and often for no earthly
reason than to be beforehand with the others. Study

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Online LibraryEtienne DumontRecollections of Mirabeau → online text (page 8 of 22)