Laurence Gronlund.

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

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of property ; that is to say, men unth superfluities. The
"liberty" they had in mind was the liberty of men with
superfluities; the "equality" they meant, the equality of
men with superfluities.

Upon the whole, they were placed about in the same posi-
tion as the Constitutional Convention of the United States,
which had met a couple of years before, with Washington
for presiding officer : but their field of action was much
broader, and they had much freer hands ; and I should say
they did their work about equally well. It must be acknowl-
edged that in this sphere on which we now are entering
Mirabeau was the acknowledged leader, and his influence
and activity were pre-eminent.

First, then, they divided France into communes, districts,
and departments ; they made all magistrates elective ; they
instituted justices of the peace and juries ; they reformed,
much for the better, the civil and criminal laws, abolished
torture, and equalized punishments ; they suppressed all
religious orders, and abolished all titles of. nobility ; they
established unity of money, weights, and measures all over
France ; they reformed the army, making it truly national,
and every one of its functions open to all ; and most im-
portant, as absolutely essential to a capitalist er'a, they
established the legality of leuding money out on interest, —
a measure by which the operations of the money market
received their first legal sanction !

Well, now the Revolution is really complete.

For now the three great niidtlle-class principles are fully
established in the laws ; these, to wit, Free Competition,


Equalitv before the Law, and The Unity of the State.
These are three great principles, while " Liberty, Equality,
and Fraternity " are really but phrases. Moreover, these are
the great revolutionary principles which Frenchmen mean,
and are so proud of, when they talk of their "Revolution ;"
and these three principles have never been called in question,
from the Constituent Assembly to our days.

Certainly there cannot, then, be a doubt about this, — that
the French Revolution must be pronounced a success.

But they had other important things to do. They had
to save France from bankruptcy, to bring order into the
finances. They succeeded admirably in domg this, and
almost instantly. A sole measure did it, — the confiscation
of the landed property of the Church.

We already have seen the tithes confiscated for the benefit
of property-holders ; now the rest of the clergy's property,
representing an annual revenue of more than fifteen million
dollars, is — not " confiscated," for Mirabeau manages to sub-
stitute this phrase, '■'■placed at the disposition of the nation^
By the means of paper money, as signals, first issued April 16,
I 790, based on this ecclesiastical property, the new regime
was put on an excellent financial footing. As " compensa-
tion," the State took upon itself to pay, for the future, the
functionaries of the Church yearly salaries, and thereby
th(juglit to have accomphshed a second grand stroke of
policy, — that of having placed the Church under the civil

But, in truth, looked upon from the stand-point of their
own interests, this whole business was really a very poor

Because they thereby saved themselves the necessity of
going into their own pockets for the means of paying the pub-
lic debt, — and that was their leading motive for confiscating
the Cliurch property, — these " delcnders of property " had


not the least scruple of laying violent hands on the property
of a corporation that Voltaire and Diderot had taught them
to hate, — did so, indeed, with enthusiasm. They certainly
might have seen that they were attacking " property " in its
very origin. They taught others the lesson, that, as it is
society that sanctions property, society may, by its constituted
authorities, renwoe that sanction. Could they not see, that,
by the stroke they wielded, they fashioned a most powerful
precedent against themselves?

Lastly, they had to frame a new form of government.

Here they had an acknowledged master to teach them
what to do. Montesquieu had distinctly placed before them
the British Constitution as the one they had to copy. They
all agreed about that, and both he and they were undoubt-
edly right there. England had, many years before, travelled
the same road they were travelling, and had now successfully
accomplished her journey and her task. But what portions
of that constitution were they to copy ? That was the great,
bewildering question. Montesquieu, the great empiricist, had
particularly told them, it may be remembered, to copy the
division 0/ poxaers. Finally, they seem to have come to the
conclusion, led by Mirabeau and Lafayette, that they would
try to copy, like their American brethren, the whole thing,
from top to bottom, in every detail, as far as they could.

They tell a story of the Chinese to the effect that once
some wooden huts burned down, containing several hogs. A
Chinaman happened to taste these hogs, and his experience
introduced roast pork to the Chinese. They liked it ; but
for a long time after, they were under the impression, that
the only way of procuring the delicacy was to build wooden
huts, ])ut hogs into them, and then set fire to them.

That is really the way that the middle classes of Europe
and America have gone to work to secure the blessings of
the British Constitution to themselves.


Why was the British Constitution a good model for Amer-
ica and France ? Because it secured to the middle classes
unquestioned dominion. But what was it in the Constitution
that secured this end? The parliamentary system, and that
solely ; that part, then, it was they had to copy. But they go
on, and want, further, two chambers, a constitutional king,
— or something that looked as mucli as possible like a
king, — and, of course, the division of powers among three
departments, legislative, executive, and judicial ; though
these features in the British Constitution are merely the
outcome of the compromise which we saw was made between
the aristocracy and plutocracy.

Well, the United States went the whole length. We
adopted the two-chamber system, and have, in imitation of
tlie Chinese in the fable, carried it to the ridiculous length
that our subordinate " States " at the present day must also
each have its " lower " house and " upper " house, though
both are named by the same electors. We adopted the sys-
tem of three co-ordinate powers, so that daily laws are so
beautifully made in one spirit, executed in a second, and
interpreted in a third spirit ; but that gives " business " to
lawyers. Lastly, since we have no person of royal blood out
of whom to make a real king, we had to be satisfied with a
" dress-coat " imitation.

France, for the time being, was saved from the two-
chamber system and the worst effects of the division of
powers, mainly by the i)ressure exercised by the Parisians,
who, again, were mainly influenced by Danton, but only after
a hard struggle.

But the Assembly committed the great blunder of retain-
ing the monarchy, — or, at least, the blunder of retaining the
Bourbons on the throne, — though they at one time had a
splendid opportunity of ridding France of it. They evidently
wanted a king as a shield to protect them against the masses,


whom they coniiuenced lo fear. This feature, however, will
be left to the following pages, for it constitutes the principal
part of Danton's activity as agitator.

Yet the Constituent Assembly did the one essential thing :
they established one legislative body, with sovereign authority.
They took good care to secure to the middle classes exclu-
sive authority in and over that body, by deliberately dividing
the people into bourgeoisie and proletariat, into those with
and those without property, giving the right of voting and
sitting in the Legislature to the former class exclusively.
But they committed a folly in the names they gave to these
classes, in a country where words play such a great 7-dlc ; call-
ing the former " active " citizens, and the latter " passive "
citizens. Yet, remarkable enough, the poor citizens did not
at first seem to take offence. It required some efforts by
the journalists (all of them bourgeois, by the way), who sym-
pathized witli the masses, to teach them how odious it was
to be a " passive " citizen.

In fine, the National Assembly did pretty effectually what
it was sent to do : it freed from all shackles the man who
suffices himself, the man who is instructed and well off, —
the plutoerat.

And now it is time to return to Danton. I do not claim
for him any share whatever in the making of the Revolution,
and yet it is difficult to resist the conviction that the National
Assembly would hardly have gained and maintained its as-
cendency as easily as it did if it had not been for the sup-
port of Paris ; and Paris would hardly have been so revolu-
tionary-minded, if there had not arisen, at the right moment,
in the centre of old Paris, in the so-called district of the
Cordeliers (for a time called the district of the Th

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Online LibraryLaurence GronlundÇa ira! : or, Danton in the French revolution, a study → online text (page 5 of 21)