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inspired him to commit one of the worst actions in his
tempestuous life.

While this calamity (no other word would be appro-
priate) was overtaking his private life, he was being more
and more drawn to public affairs. Proposals that he
should become a candidate for the States-General had
been made to him from Alsace. This may have been the
occasion of a letter which he wrote on August i6, 1788, to
Levrault, the Strasbourg bookseller. None of his writings
better indicates both his feeling about the political situa-
tion, his personal opinions and the incomparable clairvoy-
ance of his genius. He was well aware that the first
States-General "would do many foolish things," but his
confidence in a legal constitution remained unimpaired.
His view was that it would be a mistake to attempt too
much. His immediate programme was summed up under
three main heads — taxation by consent of the nation, civil
liberty, and periodical assemblies. His mottO' was, "No
quarter to privileges and the privileged." He repudiated
any violent revolution, and built hopes on education and
on a free press, which events after his death cruelly disap-
pointed. He advocated a numerous assembly, but thought
that five or six men of ability would be enough to "con-



trol the crowd." He may have foreseen his own destiny
and the judgment of history when he added, "Without
corruption (for those who can be corrupted are never
worth corrupting) the Government should make sure of
these five or six men." There can be no doubt that he
reckoned himself as one of them.

But who would open the doors of the States-General to
him ? Alsace "jilted" him, as he put it, and he turned his
thoughts to Provence, where his lawsuit had earned for
him a popular triumph not yet forgotten. Here, how-
ever, he required the support and countenance of his
father. What would the Marquis say and do ? For five
years all relations had been at an end between them, but
the old man had been following the career of his son,
whose talent he recognized, however much he deplored
his lack of character, judgment and honesty. During the
last few months, however, his views had been less severe.
He realized that events suited to his capacity were about
to give him a chance ; but what part was he to play ? " If
this gentleman," he wrote, "wished to make a figure in the
nation he would do well to return to his native province.
There, where he is well known, his labours and his talent
would give him weight as a member of the Assembly.
His father, whose one desire is peace and quietness, has
nothing to do with all this." The old Marquis was quite
right in the main, but he was mistaken about his own
influence on this decisive phase in his son's career. He
knew that Mirabeau was a friend of the Ministers and was
in close touch with M. de Lamoignon and M. de Mont-
morin. He had been vaguely sounded on the subject of
his relations with Mirabeau, but had given evasive answers.
In the name of M. de Montmorin, the Bishop of Blois,
M. de Themines, in due course made more definite over-
tures, and in order to secure his father's goodwill even
more completely, Mirabeau appealed to the Bailli. He
had behaved badly to his uncle after the Aix case, in

L 145


which he had been so much helped by his l^indness; but
the Bailli, with his usual goodness of heart, had forgiven
him. At the instance of the Bishop the Marquis was
already disposed to receive his son, but only "in order
that he might say that he had done so," and not to injure
his chances. The Marquis still refused to be told anything
about his son's plans and intentions. This was not much,
but it was enough ; and Mirabeau soon enlarged the narrow
opening before him. The dedication of the Monarchie
prussienne, with its respectful admiration, appealed to the
Marquis as a kind of amende honorable^ and though he
realized the defects of the huge book, he was astonished
by the great amount of labour and talent which it con-
tained. A long letter, dated October 4, completed the con-
quest. In it Mirabeau replied, point by point, to all his
father's reproaches, and defended himself above all against
the charge that his pen was venal. "When have I argued
on both sides of a case ? That is the essential character-
istic of a hireling pen." He explained his relations with
Calonne, the conditions of his mission to Berlin, and the
disinterested relations he had had with M. de Lamoignon.
These explanations were adroit, and to all appearance pre-
cise enough to produce a good impression on the Marquis.
But how much more must he have been touched by the
deference with which his son offered to retire in his favour
if his health permitted him to appear at the States-General ?
"You will make a great sensation there," insinuates Mira-
beau, "and your day of glory will be a day of pride for
our family." It is only if his father cannot come forward,
and in order that "estates so considerable as ours should
have their representative," that he solicits the honour of
election. This letter had its effect. The Marquis had retired
to Argenteuil, and was resting at a house to which he at
first refused access to his son, but he ended by summoning
him thither. The interview was ceremonious. The author
of the Ami des Homynes lectured the author of the Mori"


{From a drawing in the Paul Arband collection at Aix)


archie prussienne on the philosophical and anti-religious
affectations of his book. Mirabeau was deferential and
conciliatory. "You know well," wrote the Marquis to
the Bailli, "how good he is at agreeing with everything
one wants." On that day he agreed to everything with even
more docility than usual. He gained his point, and did
not think that his success was too dearly purchased at the
price of having to endure respectfully an economic sermon.
M. de Montmorin, in taking action with the Marquis
to facilitate a reconciliation, had done Mirabeau a great
service. It was enough to make him hope and ask for
more. It was thought probable that the rules of the elec-
tion would require that candidates should produce proof
of territorial status, and as he could not be sure that his
negotiations in Provence would succeed, Mirabeau had
acquired a small estate in Dauphine. The transaction
was a fictitious one, but it had cost a considerable sum,
and on November lo, in addition to the balance of the
price, he had tO' pay the expenses, which amounted to
4800 francs. Mirabeau, encouraged by the kindness of
the Due de Lauzun, begged him to do his best with the
Minister for Foreign Affairs. "M. de Montmorin," he
wrote, '"has often told me to regard him as my banker,
and since the small sum which you were good enough to
extort from him for me I have not had a sou of his money,
or any other money of any kind from the Government;
you will believe my word of honour rather than treacherous
and absurd gossip. ... It would be a great thing for me
if he could arrange to have this sum lent to me, and in
truth I think he might make a worse use of the King's
money." On the 14th he emphasized the extreme urgency
of the matter, and pointed out that it was his only chance
of becoming a member of the States-General. But, this
time at least, though he promised to be grateful, he reserved
with proper dignity his political liberty of action. "I
beg you," he wrote, "to make any engagements on my



behalf with M. de Montmorin which you would yourself
undertake in my position, and no others. I can promise
to spare individuals, but I cannot promise to respect or
conciliate any principles than my own." Two days later
Mirabeau reported a conversation he had had with M. de
Montmorin. The Minister, who seemed to have a "real
desire to see him in the States-General," and who had
decided "to take steps to get him some pecuniary assist-
ance in order to help him to enter the National Assembly,"
gave him an appointment for a date subsequent to the fatal
settling day. Of this settling day Mirabeau, "with a
delicacy which may or may not have been misplaced,"
had been unwilling to speak, and he again begged the
Due de Lauzun to do what he could for him. "Do me
this service, M. le Due," he wrote. "If to the 4800 francs
for the estate they could add 100 or 150 louis at least,
whether for my travelling expenses to the province where
my election will be carried on, or for the entertainment of
the electors, they will complete the load of obligation under
which they will place me. I have spoken of two or three
thousand crowns. Go further if you think it possible, M.
le Due. I confess that 500 louis would give me great
pleasure, but it is absolutely necessary that I should have
4800 francs for the 20th." What was the result of this
"trepan" (the word is Mirabeau's own) is not clear. It
does not seem that the Minister granted his request, as on
December 17 Mirabeau wrote, "If he really makes an effort
this time, let it be decisive and not abortive," and on the
23rd he was again urging M. de Lauzun to further
zealous and friendly activities. "If M. de Montmorin
knew half the trouble to which he is condemning me he
would arrange with his good friend Necker that some
crumbs from the Treasury might fall at the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs. . . . What a fatality it is that we who
are worth more than they should lack the one power which
is really decisive at the present moment — the power of



money ! Ah, Monsieur le Due, let us at any cost be in
the States-General; we shall lead them — and we shall do
great things, and have great joys worth more than the
playthings of a court ! "

Alas, it was indeed "at any cost" that Mirabeau wished
to be a member of the States-General. I have before me
the originals of these letters, which show that he was
bankrupt in another than the material sense. The writing
is clear, composed and without erasure. Must we believe
that his incessant need of money had obliterated in him
the moral sense to such a degree that he did not feel that
these obsequious appeals lowered his dignity and his
proper pride? For his honour one would be glad not to
know of these documents, but knowing them one cannot
suppress them without treachery to the truth of history.
They reveal once again, and not for the last time, the
secret vice, the incurable taint, the deplorable want of
conscience which characterized him. But is it Mirabeau
alone who stands condemned? On January i6 Chateau-
briand, on his way to Berlin as Louis XVIII's ambassador,
was amusing himself on the journey by re-reading the
Correspondance secrete, and from Mayence he wrote to
Mme. de Duras, "I have been struck with one thing, and
that is the frivolity and incapacity of a Government who
had under their eyes the correspondence of such a man
and could not guess what he was."

The publication of this Correspondence, which, accord-
ing to Chateaubriand, ought to have opened up a diplo-
matic career for Mirabeau, was deplorable, and imperilled
his chance of becoming a member of the States-General.
Under the title of Histoire secrete de la cour de Berlin,
Mirabeau 's letters to the Abbe de P^rigord in 1786 and
1787 appeared in two stout volumes in January 1789.
The scandal was increased by the fact that Prince Henry,
who was much mishandled in the book, was at the very
moment of publication the guest of the French Government.



"It is perhaps," says the Correspondence of Grimm and
Diderot, "the most inconceivable and audacious libel that
any one has ever dared to publish. We mention it here
only in order to hold it up to universal indignation." The
Berlin Government were offended and complained, and
the Minister, forced to act, reported the book to the Parle-
ment, by which on February lo it was ordered to be
destroyed as "a defamatory and calumnious libel as con-
trary to the respect due to a friendly Power as to the law
of nations and to public international law." The printing
and sale of the book were forbidden, and the sentence
ordered that an information should be laid against the
author, publisher and printer. The printer was repri-
manded, but the author was neither pursued nor disturbed.
Public opinion and the circumstances pointed to Mira-
beau. He was busy with his campaign in Provence; he
was astonished by the hue and cry which he had not
expected, and by the indignation aroused, the severity of
which was in sharp contrast to the manners of the period,
and was, in fact, surprising. He therefore jested and
argued about the publication, and even denied it in a series
of letters, public and private, which deceived no one. He
was, in truth, allowing the storm to pass, persuaded that "it
is rash to use, the words ' always ' and ' never ' with the
public, and especially with the French public." After
his triumphant return he thought himself invulnerable,
and took a higher tone ; but the gravity of the indiscretion
and his audacious and lying denials of it had struck a
serious blow at his credit.

It was bad enough to have published his Lettres a
Cerutti, in which Mirabeau renewed and aggravated his
violent attacks on Necker at the very time when he was
soliciting pecuniary assistance from the Government of
which Necker was the head. In that case he was making
use of a private correspondence in which the answers to
his letters, at least, were not his property. But the Berlin



correspondence had a totally different character, it was
diplomatic in essence and in origin ; it dealt with princes
and ambassadors, and was the exclusive property of the
Government to which it was addressed, and which had
deciphered it and paid for it. Its publication exposed
France to the risk of the gravest complications, and
involved responsibilities the nature and extent of which
Mirabeau knew better than any one. He has been accused
of having been paid by M. de Montmorin under the
double condition that he would not publish it and would
not present himself at the States-General. His letter to
the Due de Lauzun and the letters of M. de Montmorin
are sufficient to show that this is unfounded. The truth
is that, having "bill transactions" with the Lejay house-
hold, he was in pressing need of money. When he begged
the Due de Lauzun to extort something from M. de Mont-
morin he said to him, " If you succeed, you will be so kind
as to remit this sum to Messrs. Lejay, to whom I have given
directions about it?" This is almost a confession. On
the other hand, he required a large sum of money for
election purposes, and the Histoire secrete furnished what
he wanted. When Mme. de Nehra left him she observed,
"You are in execrable hands," and this observation was




Mirabeau, the Noblesse and the Tiers £itat : First manifestations ot
Mirabeau's oratorical powers — The disturbances at Marseilles and at
Aix : Mirabeau as peacemaker — The election at Aix.

Mirabeau, after a journey in the course of which he had
been able to appreciate the extent of the distress caused
by an exceptionally rigorous winter, arrived at Aix on
January 15, 1789. The Municipal Council of Aix in the
name of the ancient privilege of Provence had protested
against the terms of the convocation of the States. It had
been decided at a meeting called by the Council to petition
his Majesty very humbly, "to summon forthwith a general
assembly of the three orders of the country, both to deter-
mine the composition of the States of the province, the
number of deputies of each order, and the rules thereunto
relating, and to give these deputies the requisite in-
structions." The request for a general assembly of the
three orders dominated all the rest. The Tiers Etat of
Provence, which had declared in advance that it would
consider null and void all deliberations not held in this
form, was not associated with the petition.

Mirabeau, convoked by the syndics of the landed pro-
prietors, sat in the States of the Nobility where he had
already voted sixteen years before. Whether by policy
or from pride in his rank as a gentleman unwilling to
abdicate his rights and titles, it was to his own order that
he first addressed himself, without, however, losing sight of
the Tiers fitat, in which he felt that he would find his base
of operations, his influence and his power. The place he



took in the procession preceding the opening of the States
was significant. Portahs the younger records that he
walked in a manner between the nobiUty and the Tiers
Etat, and in the last rank of the nobility. The Tiers had
received him with lively enthusiasm, but on the other hand
he was made to feel that the Noblesse regarded him with
concealed hatred and distrust. "I do not trouble myself
about it," he wrote to his father, "but I let it be understood
that if I am not noble, I have made up my mind to be
bourgeois." On January 21, he combated energetically
but unsuccessfully the protest against the rules of 1788,
which was made by the nobility who were enraged by the
doubling of the Tiers Etat. Incidentally he alluded to the
vote by heads, the principle of which he admitted,
demanding whether Provence could evade what was the
common law of the realm.

On January 23, he spoke again. A rule of 1620 had
been cited in order to insist that any one claiming to sit
in the States' of the Nobility must be the possessor of a fief.
This meant the exclusion of Mirabeau, who at once began
to prepare himself for the emergency. He was skilful
enough not to seem to be on his guard, and took the line
of pleading the general cause of those nobles whom such
a decision would cast out of all the orders, and who could
be neither electors nor capable of being elected, neither
representatives nor represented. Those who violated the
principles of justice by proposing to act in this way "would
be acting against their own interests, for it was not for
those who set themselves up to resist the millions belong-
ing to the Tiers Etat to cut themselves off from their
equals." He was defeated as he had been before, but he
carried with him an important minority; and he was
justified in considering his defeat to be "a signal victory
in a servile assembly in which hitherto no speech had
been heard beyond the words ' I agree with Messieurs
les Syndics.' "



If he regarded the Noblesse "as an ignorant, rapacious
and insolent body " he was under no illusion as to the
energy to be expected of the Tiers Etat. Those who com-
posed it were connected with the administration by personal
ties which embarrassed and weakened their action. They
were without "enlightenment and without a plan," and
they made but a faint resistance to the intrigues and the
suggestions of the privileged classes. Mirabeau summed
up the situation in a profound and admirable saying,
borrowed from Tacitus, which he was fond of quoting :
"Voluntary servitude makes more tyrants than tyranny
itself makes involuntary slaves."

In the circumstances he determined to bring things to
a head by contesting the legality of the States of Provence
as then constituted. He did so in a moderate and precise
speech, the argument of which, while necessarily somewhat
theoretical and abstract, was full of life and power. He
could not admit that "the two orders who are not the
nation should prevail over the nation," and he demanded
a general convocation of the three orders as the Com-
munes of Provence in 1788 and the Municipal Council of
Aix had done.

In view of the disagreement which persisted in the States
and the agitation of public opinion which the discussion
was beginning to arouse, the King's commissaries sus-
pended the deliberations. This suspension prevented
Mirabeau from replying at a sitting of the States to the
protest which, on January 31, the orders of the clergy
and the nobility entered on the minutes against his speech.
This protest accused him of having prevented conciliation
and of having affirmed opinions "subversive of public
order and contrary to the authority of the King." He was
not a man to endure in silence such an unfair reproach.
On February 3 he printed his reply. It is more than
famous : it is immortal. He revealed his full stature and
came forward as the equal of the greatest orators of



antiquity. He had produced the first of his masterpieces
of political eloquence. There is nothing wanting in it
and nothing excessive. With extraordinary adroitness he
seized the opportunity so imprudently offered to him of
identifying his personal grievances with the public interest.
Against the insolence and awkwardness of the nobility,
against the attitude of the clergy, always too skilful in
protecting its privileges by appeals to the respect due to
God and the King, he came forward as the representative
of the indignant Tiers Etat. In him a new social order
raises its head, angry and threatening. The whole spirit
of the Revolution already appears in his language and his
attitude. He speaks in the name of the People "who
have but to stand still in order to be formidable to their
enemies." He questions the honour of those who have
attacked him : he summons them to explain themselves,
and beyond the boundaries of Provence, beyond even the
frontiers of France he takes to witness "an attentive

Remembering that he was a patrician, he borrowed from
history a scathing peroration which has lost nothing of its
force or brilliancy or of its incomparable beauty, "In
every country, in every age the aristocracy has implacably
persecuted the friends of the People ; and if, by I know not
what turn of fortune, such a friend has arisen from among
their own number they have struck at him before all others
in their longing to inspire terror by their choice of a
victim. Thus perished the last of the Gracchi at the hands
of the patricians ; but, though he received a mortal wound,
he rose to heaven from the dust, calling down the avenging
Gods. From this dust sprang Marius, Marius who was
less great as the conqueror of the Cimbri than as the
destroyer of the Roman aristocratic nobility." This
evocation of the past was followed by a terrible predic-
tion of the future. "Woe to the privileged orders, if
indeed it is better to be the friend of the people than the



friend of the nobility; for privileges will come to an end,
but the people is eternal ! " He seems to have foreseen
this decisive hour of his destiny. A few days after his
arrival in Provence he wrote to his sister: "These people
would make me Tribune of the People in spite of myself
if I did not hold myself in with all my might." It may
be doubted whether he really restrained himself as much
as he professed : in any case his tribunate began from the
date of his reply.

It may well be supposed that after such a declaration
of war, couched though it was in the form of a reply to a
provocation, the Noblesse decided that the time was come
and the pretext had arisen for the execution of the design
which they had cherished since the meeting of the States
began. On the proposition of the Marquis de La Fare,
first consul of Aix, they decided on February 8 that Mira-
beau, not having a title by reason of any property or
possessions in Provence, should cease to be present at their
sittings. It should be added that this decision was not
unanimous, and that even among the nobles there were
found wise and courageous men who denounced the
illegality and imprudence of such measures. Forced by
his "fatal destiny to be always obliged to do everything
in twenty-four hours," Mirabeau published on the nth
a Manifesto to the Provengal Nation. Though hastily
composed this piece has nothing of the air of an improvisa-
tion. For the exercise of his talent on general ideas Mira-
beau required stimulation and collaboration, but in all that
concerned himself, his life, his interests, his passions and
his mind his spontaneity was incomparable The Manifesto
has a movement, a logical cogency, an ironical quality which
still command attention, so true it is that "egotism which
belittles everything in private life has the power of giving
greatness to all things in public affairs." Mirabeau missed
none of the advantage given him by the self-contradiction
of the Noblesse who had excluded him after admitting him



and after deciding that his title was valid. He rallies

Online LibraryLouis BarthouMirabeau, from the French of Louis Barthou .. → online text (page 12 of 29)