Hermann Lieb.

The foes of the French revolution online

. (page 3 of 25)
Online LibraryHermann LiebThe foes of the French revolution → online text (page 3 of 25)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

be declared without real necessity, and, on the oth'er, that
no possible concurrence of political results could counter-
balance, to France, the loss she would sustain, of the
advantages she might derive, with the capital wasted in
this contest."

It has been charged that France threw herself into this
war with England to gratify a feeling of revenge, and in
the hope of regaining her lost possessions in Canada.

It is more than probable that her sentiment of love
for America was slightly tinged with that of hate for
England ; but if hopes were entertained of retrieving
French losses in the New World by the aid of the American
Colonists, these hopes were based upon a tottering foun-


dation. The war news received from America was cer-
tainly not of the sort to encourage such hopes, and far
from being in a condition of seconding France in such a
venture, if reliance can be placed in the statement of an
eminent American, the condition of the colonists was all
but hopeless at this very time.

Marshall's Life of Washington, says :

" When the destinies of America were tottering on the
brink of destruction, the representations in France rela-
tive to the state of American affairs were most deplorable
and sufficient to repress the most determined zeal. The
army of Washington was represented 'as a mere rabble,
flying before thirty thousand British regulars. Nor was
this far from reality. The rout and carnage of Brook-
lyn and the subsequent evacuation of Long Island, had
given a gloomy aspect to the affairs of America. The
evacuation and capture of New York greatly dispirited
the American troops, and almost drove them to despair.
The militia were impatient to return home, and almost
totally disobedient to orders, deserting by half and even
by whole regiments. The battle of White Plains ; the
surrender of Fort Washington ; the evacuation of Fort
Lee ; the gradual dissolution of the American army ; the
ineffectual attempts to raise the militia; the indisposition
of the inhabitants to further resistance ; the retreat of
General Washington through New Jersey at the head of
less than three thousand men, badly armed and clad, dis-
pirited by losses and fatigue, retreating almost barefoot in
the cold of November and December, before a numerous,
well-appointed and victorious army through a desponding,
country ; the immense numbers that daily flocked to the
British standard for the purpose of making their peace
and obtaining protection ; the universal idea that the
contest wad approaching its termination, greatly supported
by the contrast between the splendid appearance of the


pursuing army and that made by the ragged Americans
who were fleeing before them, destitute of almost every
necessity — all these causes contributed, in Europe, almost
to extinguish the hope of a successful issue to the strug-
gles of America."

Such was the condition of the American cause, when,
notwithstanding these discouraging reports, France threw
her sword and her treasure into the fast-sinking scale.
The cost of this error to France has been computed at
one thousand four hundred million francs.

It was all loss to France ; it all enured to the benefit of
the United States.- The extraordinary expenditure con-
sequent upon this war, notwithstanding, Necker had suc-
ceeded in reducing the annual expenditures ten million
francs below the receipts in less than five years. In 1781
he published his Compte Rendu au Roi sur Us Finances
deVEtat, an exposure which aroused the enmity of the
courtiers, whose pensions and privileges had been abridged,
and displeased the prime minister, Maurepas. Necker,
desiring to vindicate his measures before the King, in-
sisted upon a seat in the royal cabinet, from which he
had been excluded on account of his religious persuasion.
His claim being disregarded, he sent in his resignation.
Two years were now criminally wasted in fruitless experi-
ments by inexperienced and obscure ministers, when the
intellectual but frivolous Cojonne was charged with the
duty of bringing order out of chaos. He started out with
the anomalistic theory, that to be able to borroAV liberally
one must spend munificently.

This was a man after the heart of the court. His
policy was carried out with such exactness that in 1787,
the public debt had increased four hundred million
francs. The historian, Taine, in speaking of this period,
says :

" Colonne^s ministry was the degradation of France.


It was the corrupt court daily dragging the monarchy and
itself to ruin. Fresh debts, fresh anticipations of reve-
nue, additional taxes, seemed to restore plenty to the
court, which plunged ever deeper in reckless amusements,
as if this hollow life would last forever. Early in his
reign Louis XVI. had given some hours every day to busi-
ness of State ; now all was swallowed up by court life,
hunting, dissipation. The Queen could bear no serious
people ; and the King gradually gave way to her humor,
becoming as careless and useless as the rest. At Marley,
amusements from dinner at one, till one the next morning.
At Versailles, three shows and two balls a week ; two
great suppers Tuesday and Thursday ; from time to time
a run into Paris for the opera. At Fontainebleau, three
plays a week, cards, supper and the rest. In winter the
Qaeen gave a weekly masked ball."

It fmally dawned upon Colonne that this sort of finan-
ciering was not liable to remedy things, and some other
method than spending munificently must be devised. The
laying of additional taxes upon the people, already grown
desperate under governmental exactions, being out of the
question, he suggested to the King to test the patriotism
and generosity of the privileged classes.

Accordingly the convocation of the ^'Assembly of
Notables" was determined upon. They met in 1787.
When approached by M. Colonne, however, with the prop-
osition that they come to the relief of the Government
and bear their share of its burdens, his suggestions were
declared impertinent and revolutionary, and rejected with
scorn. This arrogant and selfish conduct of the nobles
thoroughly roused the people, whereupon, the court
charged Colonne with unnecessarily stirring up the fac-
tious spirits of the country, and finally prevailed upon the
King to dismiss him. In revenge, Colonne made a savage
attack upon the notables, whom he charged witli avarice


and cupidity. Now the rogues began to fall out and M.
ISTecker was recalled.

One of the most significant events transpiring duriug
the session of the Assembly of Notables, and which, at
this date, seems to have been the magnetic chain between
the American and French revolutions, was the Parlia-
mentary encounter of General Lafayette with the Count
d'Artois, brother of the King and afterward Charles
X. — the foremost representative of the ancient feudal
regime. Lafayette was a member of this Assem^bly of
Notables, and with the spirit of American liberty in his
breast, he at once espoused the cause of the people. He
denounced the abuses of the Government ; proposed the
abolition of the Lettres de Cachet; the restoration of equal
citizenship to the Protestants, and first and foremost of
all, he demanded the convocation of the States General.

" What/' exclaimed Count D'Artois, " do you really
demand the assembling of the States General?"

" I do," replied the Marquis, significantly, " and some-
thing still better."

Hardly had this demand reached the outside world
when it was taken up by a member of the Parliament of
Paris, and a formal request made for the convocation of
the States General.

^'This demand," says Pontecoulant, ^'resounded like
a clap of thunder throughout France." It was accepted
by the whole country as the only solution of their difficul-
ties. Nevertheless, when the Paris Parliament ventured a
step farther and declared ^'that the States General alone
could legally vote taxes," its members were deemed rebel-
lious by the court, and by order of the King were banished
to Troyes.



In August^ 1788^ M. Necker had been recalled by the
King, as the only man whom he believed would be able
to avert the impending crisis. The revolutionary stream,
however, had risen beyond the control of any one man, and
an overflowing treasury could not now have stopped its
course. The financial embarrassment of the government
had rendered the call of the States General unavoidable;
the settlement of the finances, however, was a matter in
which the masses felt little concern. They knew that the
government had been taking all it could possibly take out
of them, and settlement or no settlement, it would con-
tinue to grasp all it could — no more, no less. ''We want a
change! We want something better." Lafayette had
expressed it: ^^we want a share in the government of our
country." This was the general sentiment of the French.

This state of feeling can well be understood, when the
fact is taken into consideration, that thousands of the offi-
cers and soldiers who, having fought with the Americans
to win liberty, had returned to France imbued with a
kindred spirit. In America they had seen a new and
happy nation, in which the pride of birth and the dis-
tinctions of rank were unnoticed; they saw, for the first
time, virtue, talent and courage rewarded; they saw with
surprise a sovereign people fighting, not for a master, but
for themselves; dispensing justice, and administering the
laws, by representatives of their own free choice.

On their return to their relations and friends, a com-
parison between their condition and the condiLion of


the Americans was but natural. The contrast could be
no less than odious and intolerable. At home they be-
held family relations, accidental birth and purchased po-
sitions, prefered to merit; political and social influence
to justice, and wealth to intrinsic worth. They began to
examine and study their own form of government; a form
in which the king was everything, and the peoj)le, the
formation of all power, merely ciphers. At home, in the
language of another, they found the people entirely des-
titute of redress or protection; the royal authority para-
mount and unbounded; the laws venal; the peasantry
oppressed, agriculture in a languishing state; commerce
considered as degrading; the revenues farmed out to greedy
financiers; the public money consumed by a court wal-
lowing in luxury, and every institution at variance with
justice, policy and reason.

It is but natural that these returned soldiers should
wish and pine for a change, and that their ardent long-
ings should be carried from hamlet to hamlet, and house
to house, throughout their unhappy country.

Seemingly, in conjunction with this proselyting of
American ideas of government, the intellectual field,
broken and prepared by the philosophers of the century,
was being actively worked by the so-called '' economists''
of the ''Quesnay" school of political economy. In 1758
Francois Quesnay, better known as the father of the agri-
cultural system of economy, published his famous work
entitled: '^ Tableau Economiq'ae et Maximes General du
Government Economique." Quesnay maintained that the
earth is |;he sole producer of wealth, and the cultivators
of the soil the only productive class. He believed that
perfect freedom of trade with all nations was the greatest
desideratum for agriculture, which should be encouraged
by every possible means. The explosion of John Law's
Mississippi bubble had most effectually cured Frenchmen


of the speculating disease^ and turned their attention to
land, as the best and safest investment in the end. In
consequence, the value of land soon took an upward turn.
Quesnay^s doctrine, therefore, that a nation's wealth must
be sought in agriculture, found adherents and disciples in
all classes of society. His economic views, that the world
and humanity are controlled by certain permanent phys-
ical and moral laws, which cannot be violated with impu-
nity, were taken up by the philosophers, and, in conjunc-
tion with their own writings, disseminated amidst all
classes of the population ; in fact, the fundamental idea
of Quesnay's system was also that of Voltaire and Dide-
rot — namely, that justice manifests itself in freedom of
property ; that is, in the right of every man to dispose of
his earnings as to him seems best ; to do what does not
injure the whole, and to acquire, possess and use all the
commodities, so far as this does not conflict with the
laws of nature and of social organization. These ideas,
published in books and pamphlets, were thrown broadcast
over Prance.

The erroneous impression seems to prevail that the
French tradesman and peasant were too illiterate to in-
dulge in this sort of literature. It is true, the system of
schools was but little developed; there was, however, the
village school in almost every town of France where the
children of the peasant learned, at least to read the cate-
chism, and while illiteracy had not disappeared, there were a
sufficient number of those who could read to impart useful
information to those who could not. The best evidence
that the peasant's mind had become imbued with the
doctrines of the philosophers and economists of that
century is the holy horror with which M. Bertin, Finance
Minister of Louis XV., relates to his master the method
of their dissemination among the rural population of France

''I had long since observed," he says, ''the different


sects of our philosophers, and although I had much to
reproach myself with as to the practice, I had at least pre-
served my principles of religion. I had little doubt of the
efforts of the philosophers to destroy it. I was sensible
they wished the direction of the free schools; they desired
his Majesty to allow them to establish these, and by that
means seize the education of the people, under the pretext
that the bishops and ecclesiastics, who had hitherto super-
intended them and their teachers, could not be competent
judges in subjects so little suited to clergymen.

^'I apprehended that their object was not so much to
give lessons of agriculture to the children of the husband-
men and trades-people, as to withdraw them from their
habitual instructions in their catechism or in their religion.

" I did not hesitate to declare to the King that the in-
tention of the philosophers was very different from his
*I know those conspirators,' I said, 'and beware, Sire, of
giving them your aid. Your kingdom is not deficient in
free schools, or schools nearly free; they are to be found in
every little town, and almost in every village; and perhaps
they are already tut too numerous. It is not books thai form
meclianics and ploughmen. The books and masters sent by
the philosophers will rather infuse system than industry
into the country people. I tremble lest they render them
idle, vain, and jealous; in a short time, discontented and
seditious, and at length, rehellious. I fear lest the whole
expense they seek to put your Majesty to should be grade
ually to obliterate from the hearts of the people the love
of their religion and of their Sovereign.

"'To these arguments I added whatever my mind could
suggest to dissuade his Majesty. I advised him ' instead
of paying those masters whom the philosophers had chosen,
to employ the same sums for multiplying the catechists
and in searching for good and patient masters whom his
Majesty, in concert with the bishops, should support, in


order to teach, the j)Oor peasantry the principles of religion
and to teach them by rote (that is by frequent repetition to
impress words upon the memory without an effort of the
understanding), as the rectors and curates do those children
who do not know how to read/ Louis XV. seemed to relish
my arguments, but the philosophers renewed their attacks;
they had people about his person who never ceased to urge
him, and the King could not persuade himself that his
Thinker (as he called Quesnay) and the other philosophers
were capable of such detestable views; he was so constantly
beset by these men that, during the last twenty years of his
reign, in the daily conversations with which he honored
me, I was perpetually employed in combatting the false
ideas he had imbued respecting the economists and their

" At length, determined to give the King positive proofs
that they imposed upon him, I sought to gain the confi-
dence of those peddlers who travel through the country
and expose their goods for sale in the villages and at the
gates of the country seats. I suspected those in particular
who dealt in books to be nothing less than the agents of the
philosophers to the good country folks. In my excur-
sions into the country, I fixed my attention above all on
the former; when they offered to me a book to buy, I ques-
tioned them, ^ What might be the books they had? Prob-
ably catechisms or prayer books?' Few others are read
in the villages. At these words I had seen many smile.
''Ho,' they answered; ^ those are not our works; we
make much more money from Voltaire, Diderot and other
philosophic writings.' 'What,' said I, 'the country
people buy Voltaire and Diderot! Where do they find
the money for such dear works?' Their constant an-
swer was, ' we have them at a much cheaper rate than
prayer books; we can sell them for ten sols (ten cents) a
volume, and have a pretty profit in the bargain.' Ques-


tioning them still further, many of them owned, 'that
those books cost them nothing ; that they received whole
bales of them, without knowing from whence they came,
but being simi^ly licensed to sell them in their journeys
at the lowest price/ '^

Not only through the latter part of the reign of Louis
XV., but all through that of Louis XVI., this silent, but
effective missionary work Avas in progress, and it is useless
to say, that when the Kevolution came, the rural popula-
tion were not prepared for a change. They cherished and
admired the model of free institutions which the Ameri-
can Colonists had set before them; they did not under-
stand its details, but they knew it was a government by
all the people, .managed by their representatives. They
did not, however, entertain the idea of so radical a trans-
formation — a change for the better was all they could
hope for.

The news that Louis XVI. had concluded to call
together the States- General was received with great satis-
faction; it was considered a step in the right direction,
as some of their most prominent men, at least, would here
lift their voices in their behalf. When, at the close of
the year 1788, it became known that an additional royal
decree had been issued, allowing to the commons double
the number of representatives of that of the other two
orders — the nobility and the clergy — the enthusiasm was

The excitement and confusion which prevailed in the
rural districts during this election is easy of explanation,
when it is considered, that not less than four million men,
who had never witnessed such a thing as a popular elec-
tion, with its appendages of primary meetings, presidents,
secretaries and ballots, were thus suddenly called to per-
form the duties of citizenship.

The government, however, had failed to issue definite


r -

-T, ' ■» W





instructions and directions concerning the methods of
holding tills election. The call of the King had not been
spontaneous in the first place ; as was well understood, it
lay not in the plan of the government to initiate the new
voter into all the details of an election nor raise him to the
least political power. The court and the ministry rested
in the innocence and modesty of the peasant, and in his
traditional attachment and respect for his "Seignior."
They recalled ''the good old times" when the "Third
Estate" elected as their representatives only noblemen
and members of the civil administration, and the latter,
expecting to become nobles themselves, sided, hat in
hand, with the nobility, and against the interests of those
who had elected them. Then they relied in the efficacy
of wealth in the hands of the privileged classes, which,
when placed where it would do the most good, was always
able to travesty universal suffrage into universal farce.
The result, however, proved the short-sightedness of such
expectations, and demonstrated the fact that while they
had endeavored to keep the people in ignorance, the people
had, in some way, become cognizant of the wrongs and
injustices to which they had been subjected; that the means
of redress had now been placed in their hands, and they
would neither be cajoled, intimidated nor bribed into
voting for candidates other than of their own choice.

It is true many could not read or write, but, as is the
case generally in such deficiency, many could talk. There
were men among them who could write, had read much,
and would act for them — the poorly-paid clergymen of.
the village, who had suffered and sympathized with them,
and who could be relied upon to formulate their demands;
these same clergymen themselves, in many places being
selected as electors. The cahiers, or platforms of the
electors, still extant, show the modest demands of these
newly-enfranchised voters. In the main, they were requests


for relief from abuses 3 from onerous and unequal taxa-
tion ; from tyrannical and often barborous treatment of
the landed aristocracy and royal tax-gatherer ; and for a
more equal and equitable dispensation of justice, and fo7'
a liouse of the people's Representatives.

It does not appear, however, that among all these
requests, a single one was made for a republican form of
government. As for the methods of obtaining, or mak-
ing these changes, few suggestions were made, nor had
the leaders a clear idea of what they proposed to do.
Both people and their leaders, however, distinctly per-
ceived the break-of-day for France.

Let us consider for an instant what were the most
crying evils from which the French people asked to be

The great infamy which had attended the Lettre de
Cachet system, and that of the Bastiles during the whole
reigns of both Louis XV. and Louis XVL, was one of the
most prominent features of royal despotism in France.
They not only were arbitrarily used by courtiers and the
mistresses of the king, and v/ith the abuse of which
Mme. de Maintenon made herself so unspeakably infam-
ous, but they Avere sold in blanks, to be filled up at the
pleasure of the purchaser, who was thus enabled, for the
gratification of private revenge, to tear a man from the
bosom of his family and to place him where he would be
forgotten and die unknown. They were sold to parents
to imprison their sons (as Mirabeau had been). They
were frequently presented to handsome women, tired of
their husbands. They had become so common, that the
clerks of departments, their mistresses and friends of
mistresses, obtained them as favors. And once in the
Bastile, the poor wretch was forgotten in this tomb of
the living. In 1775, there Avere about twenty such dun-
geons in the country, containing 3,000 prisoners. Voltaire,


himself, was imprisoned througli a Lettre de Cachet signed
by Louis XV. at the age of five.

This Lettre de Cachet system and these arbitrary
imprisonments were not, however, the principal causes of
discontent, as by these merely, the higher classes were

The real evils were those which oppressed the inhabi-
tants of the country, among which were the corvee or
compulsory labor on the highway, which yearly ruined
hundreds of agriculturists; the recruiting system, which
oppressed the poor exclusively; the capitainerie, or the
exclusive privilege of the Princes of Blood to the
game of certain districts; the odious disproportion and
severity of the penal code of revenue collections; the
dime, or the tenth of all the products, which was often
computed so as to amount to one-third, and often to one-
half of the total crop; the taxes " in kind,''' which had
been retained as a seigniorial right since the middle age,
by which the poor tenant had to contribute yearly a

Online LibraryHermann LiebThe foes of the French revolution → online text (page 3 of 25)