Laurence Gronlund.

Ça ira! : or, Danton in the French revolution, a study online

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Nearly the whole historic period of man is filled up with
two long, ai/nost stationary periods, — organic periods, we
can, with Saint-Simon, properly call them ; periods in which
mankind secretes a kind of hard, thick shell around itself.
The first of these "organic " periods begins with the dawn
of history, and ends with the Roman republic ; the second
takes us through another thousand years, from the ascend-
ency of Christianity to the Reformation. The former consti-
tutes the Ancient World, with its golden age of Greece and
Rome ; the latter, the Middle Age, which also has its golden
age : that period in which Dante lived, which Carlyle is
perfectly right in calling, " with its Feudal body and Catho-
lic soul, the highest ideal yet realized by man."

The stationary condition, then, is the rule, is the normal
condition of the race : and mark, it is in that condition that
mankind enjoys the fruits of its struggles and martyrdoms ;
it is then that the arts and literature flourish ; it is then we
find high ideals, corporate responsibility, and public spirit ;
it is then men sacrifice their lives for the common weal as a


matter of course. That condition, finally, is marked by
unity, by system, — precisely what makes these periods so
durable, lasting, organic.

Thus, of historic times there remain two shorter periods,
— that from the Roman republic to the establishment of
Christianity ; and another, not yet closed, from Luther to
our days. John Morley has observed that these two short
periods, each lasting about four hundred years, somehow
correspond to each other ; and both are periods of changes,
transition states, critical periods, again to call them after
Saint-Simon. The bond tliat hitherto united men — the
collective conception of the world — has, both then and
now, been broken, and every one is left to seek truth in
his own way : that is to say, while hitherto there has been
systematic unity, now every thing is planless, orderless ;
everywhere perfect anarchy reigns, — in beliefs, in morals,
in politics, in social relations, and, worst of all, in industrial
relations. While before things were nearly stationary, now
things are evidently in motion. But this motion is far from
being regular. First it is slow, very slow ; then it becomes
(juicker and quicker ; then it moves with railroad speed —
look at our century ! Lastly, the final change to the new
organic order — the revolution, in fact — may be accom-
plished so swiftly that the living generation can hardly re-
cover its breath.

But there is constant progress, — progress along a certain
line, not a straight nor a curved, but a spiral line, like
unto a winding staircase. Each of these periods, critical as
well as organic, is really on a higher plane than any of its

There is a constant gro7oth in co-operation. Our whole
civilization may be called a lesson in co-operation ; and note,
that it is around the working-classes that the battle of prog-
ress has constantly been waged.


In the fust organic period, in ancient Greece and Rome, we
find coiiipidsoyy co-operation in its harshest form, — slavery.

In the second organic period, tlie Middle Ages, we find
a milder, ranch more humane form, also of compiilso7y
co-operation, — serfdom.

In the transition period in which we are living we have
attained to 7'c7///;^Az;j co-operation for those who have means,
for the well-off middle classes, and a still milder form of
covtpiilsory co-operation for those who have no property, —
wagedom. Compulsory? Yes, they are compelled

by their daily wants.

What the French Revolution was to do was, to introduce
into France, primarily, this transition period, this critical
period, with its propertied middle classes and its wage sys-
tem. And that was to be done, first, by putting an end to
the feudal. Catholic system of the Middle Ages ; and next, by
placing the middle classes into supreme power. What im-
portant function they were charged with, and how they have
performed it in France, we shall afterwards see.
* * *

This very change, however, which now was to be worked
out in France, had already been accomplished in England in
all essential respects. Instead of having to do something
ittiique, as the French revolutionists fancied, they needed
simply to copy the model they had in England ; and that is
what, after all, they virtually did. We know that both king
and patriots anxiously studied the histories of Charles the
First and James the Second ; and their instincts did not mis-
lead them, for the " Commonwealth " of 1649 and the revo-
lution of 168S form together, in truth, England's "French
Revolution." These did for Great Britain what the French
Revolution did for France, — overthrew the divine right of
kings, absolutism, and invested the plutocracy with political


As this part of British history was nothing less than a
precedent for France, we ought to dwell on it a little.

The English plutocrats had obtained dominion in the
towns as early as the fourteenth century. That dominion
had gone on increasing to such an extent, that two centuries
later a statute had to he passed to protect small masters
against rich ones. This statute (2d and 3d, Phil, and Mary)
recited that " rich clothiers do oppress the weavers by pay-
ing less wages than formerly ; by engrossing the looms, and
letting them out at unreasonable rents ; by employing unskil-
ful journeymen, etc." During the reign of Charles a series
of technical discoveries throw manufactures altogether into
the hands of large capitalists. They carry the trade to places
free from the control of the craft-guilds, like Birmingham and
Manchester, until the guilds gradually die out before this
rising great industry.

And now events run on precisely as we find they do one
hundred and fifty years later in France. The King needs
money, and calls on the rich middle classes for it. The
Long Parliament corresponds to the French National Assem-
bly, even to the extent that it, too, clears landed property of
many inconvenient and oppressive feudal burdens, for the
benefit of capitalists. Jolni Pym, like Sieyes later, initiates
the political revolution in England by insisting that " the
House of Commons is the essential part of Parliament," and
by telling the lords that " the Commons are ready to save
the kingdom alone." When at length the physical struggle
commences, London and the middle classes side with Sir
Harry Vane and the Commonwealth men, as Paris later on
does with Danton and the Mountain. Finally, on Jan. 4,
1649, the Rump Parliament declares that " the Commons
of England, being chosen by and representing the people,
half e the supreme power in this nation; " and this declaration
foreshadows the action of the French Convention.


Ucsidcs these essential correspondences, there are many
curious coincidences. Naseby of 1645 coincides with
"Aug. 10;" Pride's Purge, applauded by Sir Harry, with
what I shall call the suspension of the Girondins, con-
tributed to by Danton. In both revolutions the reigning
kings were executed, — and, by the way, it is almost comi-
cal, when we think of the fate of their own royal family, to
recall the reproaches and contumely which P'renchmen of
the age of Louis XIV. heaped on the English for their " bru-
tality " and '• disloyalty " in their treatment of Charles and
James. Both crises ended in the supremacy of successful,
selfish soldiers ; in both countries this supremacy was fol-
lowed by a restoration ; in one, as in the other, the restored
monarch was followed by his brother ; and lastly, in one as
in the other, this brother was exiled, and gave way to a con-
stitutional, middle-class king. But there was this essential
and never-to-be-forgotten difference, because it augurs well
for the Coming Revolution in Great Britain : that the foreign
potentates did not attempt to save their crowned English
brother, while they did interfere in the French Revolution,
and thereby raised ujd — the Terror.

// is, however, in tJic region of ideas that the connecting
link between the two revolutions is to be found.

Our acts are always under the empire of our ideas, con-
sciously or unconsciously. More particularly is this so with
social revolutions ; i.e., changes from one social order to
another, even if only to a transitional order. These always
start in the region of ideas, and first of all in those ideas
that have the most powerful dominion over men, — their
rehgious conceptions, their views of the universe and their
own place in it. Naturally this change first shows itself in
the form of scej^ticism, religious anarchy ; then the anarchy
filters down to tliose ideas that relate to our fellow-men, to
society, to our moral and political notions ; finally the anar-


chy roaclics economics, the basis of society. There the real
revolution, the real change, takes place ; and there, on the
new basis, our new political, moral, and religious ideas are

Accordingly the English Revolution commenced with the
loosening of religious authority by Wickliffe, the father of
the Reformation. We know for certain that this movement
in religion caused the movement in political ideas, because
Ilobbes tells us that "the enemies of King Charley were
Presbyterians, Independents, Anabaptists, Fifth-Monarchy
men," and that their opposition "arose from the private
interpretation of Scriptures in the mother-tongue." Now,
it was one of the striking peculiarities of Protestantism, that
it set people to study admiringly the history of the Hebrew
nation, " the most rebellious people on the face of the earth,"
and thus made the Hebrew example an incentive to them
to change the form of their own government, and the Old
Testament a basis for their political si^eculations. But note
this peculiarity in the English Revolution : that the political
philosophy which justifies it was not elaborated he/ore the
political innovation, but only years afterwards, for the good
and sufficient reason that printing was as yet but little
developed. "^

It was from and after the year 1700 that the two eminent
English philosophers Hobbes and Locke, to ease their con-
sciences, made known their new revolutionary political
speculations. Hobbes' celebrated theory was, that a cove-
nant between man and man created " that great leviathan
called the Commonwealth." In other words, he taught the
nation, first, that the basis of society is contract, or that
the origin of all power is in the people ; next, that the end of
government is the weal of the Commonwealth, or the peo-
ple's good : and he very soon made these ideas generally
accepted, which forever put an end to the old patriarchal


theory of society. lA)cke then appeared, ami added the
lesson of the right of resistance to bad rulers.

Now the " sacred torch " passes over from England to
France ; that is to say, these English revolutionary princi-
ples are transplanted into French soil, are adopted and
elaborated by French writers. It is from the date of the
first French book embodying them that we ought truly to
date the French Revolution. It is from the date 1 748 that
France commences her glorious career, which for many
years places her in advance of other nations ; and that glory
is thus due to the fact, that, unlike their successors, her
writers were then willing to learn from other nations.
* * *

These writers were Montesquieu, Diderot, Rousseau.
These three men made the French Revolution, as far as any
individuals can be said to have made it.

A "revolution," in its narrower sense, is the sweeping, the
decisive change, which all progress passes through at some
point in its career. It only takes a minute to bring into the
world the infant whose preparation has required nine months
in the mother's womb. Birth is a revolution.

So it took only a few minutes, on a certain June day in
the year ^ 7S9, for the French Revolution to be born ; but its
preparation, its making, lasted forty years. It was made by
the above writers in the brains of Danton and his fellows
of the generation born after 1748.

And // was made by books, because printing had now so
far advanced, that they who were to be emancipated could
all read. And, by the way, the Coming Revolution,

in like manner, will, first and foremost, be a mental revolu-
tion, and be made by books ; for now all can read.

The book of Alontesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, appeared
1748, eleven years before Danton's birth. Nobody reads
the book now for information's sake. It is extremely shallow,


l)Olh in knowledge and thoughts. But when it appeared, it
took the whole public, especially the middle classes, by
storm. It colored the whole literature of France for the
rest of the century : and no wonder, as it introduced just
the ideas that were then needed ; it gave working answers
to the burning political questions.

Montesquieu passes in review all the laws and political
institutions of the various countries, and compares their
excellences and defects. At length he reaches Great Britain,
before whose institutions he remains standing in unbounded
admiration, almost adoration ; and he inoculates the whole
French nation with the same feeling. Anglomania becomes,
from that moment, the dominant passion of Frenchmen.
Of course, what Montesquieu found so excellent was the lib-
erty and consideration enjoyed in England by the common
citizens of properly, but he did not analyze either his feel-
ings or their object. As a matter of fact, neither he nor
his contemporaries had any idea of the true nature of human
societies. His own leading doctrine was, " It is government
and institutions which make men what they are." He found
that the principal among British institutions was the British
Constitution, and as a principal feature in that constitution
a division of powers, one checking the other. This, then,
he thinks, must be the secret spring that causes British well-
being. Go to work, then, France, and copy faithfully this
constitution, and particularly this division of powers !

This, in fact, gives rise to the two leading principles of his
book, to wit :

" In order that there may not be an abuse of power, things
should be so arranged that one poiver checks another ; " and

" The problem is, not to destroy authority, but to render
it impotent."

These are splendid " principles " for a transit/on state,
such a one as was about to be introduced into France.


No wonder he awoke the pohtical passions of the middle
classes. They saw in him their true legislator, since he so
charmingly disarmed the authority under which they were
fretting, and gave so many guaranties to the individualism,
the license, for which they were sighing. No wonder, that,
as soon as the Revolution was an accomplished fact, he be-
came the inspirer of the political labors of the middle classes,
of the Constituent Assembly, and then of the Girondin
party !

Next, Diderot, the inspirer of the Dantonists, in particu-
lar; this giant, whose importance to the Revolution the
French at last have recognized by erecting a statue to him
in Paris on the spot where his house formerly stood. He
shall be here considered only as the chief of that band of
writers who created the Encyclopccdia, " that monumental
ruin of thirty stout volumes," which now are still less read
than The Spirit of Laws. Yet what influence they once

The EncyclopcEdia is the gospel of labor, a glorification
of productive industry, for which it inspired its readers with
an earnest enthusiasm as the true basis of the new era.
" To turn over volume after volume is like watching a splen-
did panorama of the busy life of the time," says Morley.
Its significance precisely consists in this, — that it laid down,
with a fearlessness that was risky at the time, the necessary
economic conditions for the coming middle-class rule, and
demanded unlimited freedom in all relations of industrial
life. It was no small merit that it anticipated all the essen-
tial propositions laid down by Adam Smith in his Wealth of
Nations, which appeared several years later. Indeed, it was
the Encyclopaedists who first made the name " political
economy," as well as the thing itself, popular. We have the
testimony of Voltaire for the latter fact : " The nation, tired
of verses, tragedies, comedies, operas, romances, moral


rfllections, and theological disputes, finally commenced
talking about corn. They forgot all about wine, in order to
talk of wheat. They wrote useful things about agriculture,
which every one read except agriculturists."

The Encyclopaedists first claimed the abolition of guilds.
"These," they said, "are supposed to be established to
guarantee capacity and integrity in artisans and manufac-
turers : they at present do nothing of the kind ; they have
become monopolies, hurtful to the national interests. The
rich and the great have laid hands not only on the land, the
fields, and the buildings, but through tliese guilds they have
interdicted the industrious and skilful the use of their labors.
They must be uprooted, and perfect liberty be established in
all the trades and professions."

France was at that time divided into provinces, each witli
its custom-houses. The Encyclopaedists demanded their
abolition, as " they paralyze commerce."

In many respects they write just as an orthodox economist
of to-day. They find interest perfectly legitimate ; they want
it not only legalized, but the rate of interest left to the lender
and borrower to settle. Capital is, according to them, legiti-
mately entitled to its profits. " Just as corn, when sowed in
the earth, reproduces with advantage, so the capitalist sows
in commerce his and his ancestors' industry." They wish
to bring on competition, " which will lower prices." It should
be steadily borne in mind that such ideas were at the time
absolutely new.

Another quotation, from the pen of Diderot himself, will
show how suited to the middle classes their other ideas
were : " It is property which makes the citizen. Every man
who has possessions in the .State is interested in the State ;
it is by means of his possessions that he acquires a right of
having himself represented." In their eyes, then, tlie first
of " the rights of man " was midiUc-class right to property.


But understand that they were eminently noble men, with
noble hearts. They had an undivided love for all their fel-
low-men, a steadfast faith in human nature, and firm aspira-
tions after justice and progress. They really fancied that
the liberty and equality — i.e., equality before the law —
after which they strove would make this world into a para-
dise. Liberty was to them a young, beautiful, promising
maiden ; they had no idea that she could ever, by remaining
unniated, become an old hag.


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Online LibraryLaurence GronlundÇa ira! : or, Danton in the French revolution, a study → online text (page 2 of 21)