Louis Barthou.

Mirabeau, from the French of Louis Barthou .. online

. (page 15 of 29)
Online LibraryLouis BarthouMirabeau, from the French of Louis Barthou .. → online text (page 15 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


National Assembly was wiser than the calculated prudence
of Mirabeau. These two words by themselves made the
whole Revolution. From the decisive sitting of June 17
onwards there was hardly an important event in which
Mirabeau did not share, or a debate in which he did not
intervene. To follow his career is to write the history of
the Constituent Assembly, and it is difficult to choose
between a dry catalogue of his interventions and an
elaborate study of the deliberations and decisions of that
body. As it is absolutely impossible to be complete, I
must try at least to give some idea of the man himself, as
well as of his acts and his ideas, from the speeches which
he made.

Was there any unity behind the many contradictions
which we find, and was the diversity of the means he used
inconsistent with a fixed plan ? It will be remembered
with what firm self-confidence he had offered a plan of his
own contriving to M. de Montmorin, who showed him the

182



THE STATES-GENERAL

door, and how he wished to discuss it with Necker, who
gave him no encouragement. Before he reduced it to a
governmental programme he sketched it fragmentarily on
various occasions. To Malouet he declared that he did
not wish to shake the monarchy ; he wished for a free but
monarchical constitution. To the Comte de La Marck he
partially revealed his ideas, the decisive firmness of which
he contrasted with the indecision of Necker. "The lot of
France is decided, the watchwords of liberty of taxation
agreed to by the people have resounded through the king-
dom. We shall be content with nothing less than a
Government more or less like that of England." To Major
Mauvillon at the same time he appeared in a much more
decidedly revolutionary character. " Is it the French
People or the hundred thousand individuals who think
themselves a caste apart who are to give laws to France ? "
But he was also a prudent monarchist. "They are angry
with me for always suggesting moderate counsels. But
I am convinced that there is a great difference between
travelling on the map and on terra firma. The surest way
of making the Revolution abortive is to ask too much of
it." The whole man is seen in these contrasts, which are
not so much contradictions as different aspects of one
policy.

From this moment the general lines of this policy were
well defined in his mind. He knew how, where and how
far he wanted to go, and in the development of the Revolu-
tion he found an unhoped-for coincidence of his ideas and
his interests. Hitherto his life had been that of a kind of
adventurer, squandering in vain endeavours the resources
of his mind and the energy of his character. His dream
was to be a statesman, and to prove the quality of the
genius which distinguished him from other men. "The
time has come," he said, "when men are to be estimated
by what they carry in the little space under their foreheads
between their two eyebrows." Devoted to the interests of

183



MIRABEAU

the People, who "were all to him," and to whom he had
united his destinies, he found the only protection of their
rights, the sole guarantee of their sovereignty, in a
monarchy liberated and liberal, and it is not surprising
that as a convinced Royalist he should turn to the King,
whom he wished to deliver from the fatal influences which
surrounded him, and whose confidence he wished above all
things to gain. "The ship of State," he said, "is labouring
in a violent storm, and there is no one at the helm." He
had the strength to take the helm, but if it was too soon
to make him the pilot, could he not at least keep a watch ?
He said to the Comte de La Marck, "Take care that they
know at the palace that I am rather with them than against
them." These words date from the end of July, and came
close upon some of the boldest speeches on which Mira-
beau ever ventured. There was no duplicity in this ; at
most it was a piece of tactics. The help of the people and
that of the King were equally necessary to him, and
between the two he held the balance even, for if he was to
secure his object he could sacrifice the rights of neither
the one nor the other. His convictions and his designs
alike imposed this attitude upon him ; but in his deliberate
independence of party he exposed himself to the alternate
suspicions of both sides. His revolutionary poses discon-
certed the moderate element, while his prudence seemed
treason to the revolutionaries. Between the one party and
the other he manoeuvred, if not always with skill, at least
with a magnificent courage. He excelled at covering his
most hazardous moves with a coolness which nothing
could conquer. He gave himself up body and soul, with
all his admirable qualities and all his terrible defects, to
the critical game in which his own destiny and that of his
country were alike at stake. For four months he was in
the thick of the fight attentive, and indefatigable, in the
tribune, in the clubs, at his paper. His name and his
handiwork are inseparable from all the great scenes in

184



THE STATES-GENERAL

which the Revolution was consummated, with the excep-
tion of those of August 4. His insight, his audacity, his
burning words assured success. They have made him
immortal and are known to all.

On June 23, after the Royal sitting which had so
unpleasant a resemblance to a Bed of Justice, he hurled
at M. de Breze, who ordered the immovable Tiers to dis-
perse, the devastating reply, "We have heard the inten-
tions which have been suggested to the King, and you,
sir, who cannot be his mouthpiece in the National
Assembly, have neither a place nor a vote nor the right
to speak here. Go and tell them that sent you that we
are here by the will of the people, and that bayonets alone
shall drive us hence ! "

On July 15, when for the third time a deputation went
to request the King to send away the troops which
threatened the Assembly, he exclaimed in a burst of
indignation which shook the whole House, "Tell him that
the foreign hordes by whom we are invested were yester-
day visited by princes and princesses and by favourites
male and female, who loaded them with gifts and caresses
and exhortations. Tell him that all night long these
foreign satellites, gorged with gold and wine, sang ribald
songs predicting the enslavement of France, and that they
brutally clamoured for the destruction of the National
Assembly. Tell him that in his very palace the courtiers
themselves danced to the sound of this barbaric music, and
that such were the preliminaries of the Massacre of St.
Bartholomew ! "

These flaming words, never equalled in the Assembly,
made his popularity and created the legend that to-day
still surrounds his name. It would, however, be unjust to
his fame to attribute it to them alone. Other manifesta-
tions of his talent, of his political sense, have been for-
gotten, which deserve a better fate but which can be recalled
here only in broad outline.

185



MIRABEAU

Troops, foreign for the most part, had been concentrated
in the neighbourhood of Paris and Versailles. All passage
was blocked. Everywhere there were military pickets,
secret orders, preparations for war. Who was being
protected ? Who was being threatened ? The deputies of
the nation, wounded in their dignity and apprehensive for
their safety, could not view these provocative preparations
without emotion. At the sitting of July 8 Mirabeau made
himself their spokesman. He made a speech which was
measured as well as urgent, and the effect he produced
was great. Was it his own or must we, on the authority
of Dumont's Souvenirs, attribute the honour of its com-
position to him in collaboration with Duroveray ? There
is always a doubt as to the paternity of Mirabeau's
speeches, which I shall try to elucidate further on. It may,
however, be said at once that if the form of certain of his
orations is not entirely his, the inspiration of them comes
always from him and him alone. The political ideas, the
intentions and methods they affirm are also his. All the
sense of responsibility from which he never shrank is in
them, and there is therefore no danger of judging him
wrongly or of misunderstanding him. If he borrowed the
pen of a friend to express his sentiments, he none the less
said what he wished to say. When, in his speech of July 8,
he spared the King, praised his good heart and distin-
guished his generous intentions from the maladroitness of
his counsellors, he was expressing the opinion which was
the corner-stone of his policy. With extraordinary pre-
science he saw what dangerous consequences would arise
from the detestable policy of irritating the people by con-
flicts between foreign and national troops. "Have they
studied," he exclaimed, "in the history of every people
how revolutions commence and how they are carried out ?
Have they observed by what a fatal chain of circumstances
the wisest men are driven far beyond the limits of modera-
tion, and by what terrible impulses an enraged people is

i86



THE STATES-GENERAL

precipitated into excesses at the very thought of which
they would once have shuddered ? "

The impression produced by this prophetic utterance
was so profound that the Assembly charged Mirabeau
with the task of drawing up an address to the King,
requesting him to cancel measures so incompatible with
the dignity and the freedom of the National Assembly.
He read the address on the following day. It is inspired
by the same sentiments as the speech, and though it is
perhaps cast in a more pathetic form, it is not less respect-
ful to the royal authority nor less firm in indicating the
danger to which that authority was being exposed by
rash and foolish counsellors. "There is a contagion in
passionate movements. We are but human. Distrust of
ourselves, the fear of seeming to be weak, may carry us
beyond our purpose. We shall be besieged with violent
and extravagant counsels. The calmness of reason and
the tranquillity of prudence are silent amid tumult, dis-
order and faction. Great revolutions have arisen from
much less serious causes, and more than one enterprise
fatal to a nation has had a less formidable and sinister
commencement."

He could not have spoken with more dignity or force;
but his advice, dictated by care for the King's interests
and the public good, was not followed. The King pro-
posed that the Assembly should be removed to Noyon or
Soissons. Mirabeau persuaded them to refuse. "We did
not ask to be allowed to escape from the troops, but merely
that the troops should leave the capital." He insisted on
the public interest, but was neither heard nor understood.
The dismissal of Necker precipitated the events which he
had foreseen. Irritated, distrustful and driven to ex-
tremities by the maladroltness and the provocations of
the Court, the populace of Paris stormed the Bastille.
The very next day the King was compelled to concede to
rebellion what he had refused to good advice; he went in

187



MIRABEAU

person to the Assembly to announce the recall of the
troops. But unpopular Ministers remained in power.
Mirabeau, who definitely took the part of leader, proposed
an address to the King, demanding their dismissal. In
vehement terms which respected nobody he denounced
their policy, their hostility to the Assembly, the ill-starred
plan of dissolving it. "Should a Prince who is the friend
of his people be surrounded by the people's enemies ? "
The Ministers resigned of their own accord. Who was to
replace them ? The Assembly having expressed regret at
Necker's dismissal, desired his recall. Mounier contended
that in pronouncing either for or against the appointment
of Ministers the Assembly was usurping powers which
did not belong to them.

To this Mirabeau replied, appealed to the essential right
of the people, and for the first time laid down the principle
of Ministerial responsibility, "more important, if that were
possible, to the King than to his subjects." This short
sentence contains a whole political theory which Mirabeau
was to make one of the fundamental principles of his
policy: he regarded it as nothing less than "the sacred
guarantee of social peace."

Social peace unfortunately was every daly more im-
perilled. The murders occasioned by the events of July 14
were followed by others. Foulon and Berthier were
assassinated, and it became absolutely necessary to take
measures to re-establish and maintain public order. Lally
Tolendal on July 23 proposed that a proclamation should
be issued to the people, enjoining respect for the law, for
the peace and the loyalty due to the sovereign. Mirabeau
thought, and with reason, that it was useless to compromise
the dignity of the Assembly by half-measures. He saw
at once that the cause of the evil lay in the absence of "all
recognized authority," and in the confusion which had
committed the reins of government to the hands of electors
without a mandate. He urged the establishment of elected

188



THE STATES-GENERAL

municipalities on the basis of a fusion of the three orders,
with frequent changes in the Councils and the official
staff. It is, however, much to be regretted that, in spite
of Mounier's prudent warnings, his desire to gain
popularity in the districts of Paris should have led him
to sacrifice the superior and inalienable rights of the State
to the free and, indeed, anarchical organization of munici-
palities. Though his motion was not adopted, it was none
the less a germ from which deplorable results were before
long destined to spring.

As regards his view of the assassinations of July 22,
Number XIX of the letters to his constituents has been
severely criticized. Mirabeau has been reproached with
condoning the excesses of the populace. No one who has
read this letter properly can interpret it in this sense. It
explains rather than excuses the crimes which had been
committed; it certainly does not approve of them. The
writer refers to the excesses of the old regime, Vincennes,
the Bastille, the refinements of torture in the old punish-
ments, the threats uttered by the enemies of the Revolu-
tion, their eager preparations for civil war, and against
these he sets "the sudden and impetuous revenge of the
multitude." He adds that "the injustice of the upper classes
towards the people compels them to seek justice in
barbarity." This, no doubt, goes too far ; but the explana-
tions which may be thought to err on the side of leniency
are followed and compensated by a conclusion which
must be given in full. "The whole National Assembly
has keenly felt that the continuation of this arbitrary
dictatorship was threatening political freedom no less than
the plots of its enemies. Society would soon be
destroyed,^ if the multitude, grown accustomed to blood-
shed and disorder, placed itself above the magistrates and
defied the authority of the law. Instead of progressing
towards liberty, the people would soon cast themselves into

^ The italics are in the original.
189



MIRABEAU

an abyss of slavery; for it too often happens that pubHc
danger raUies men to despotism, and in the midst of
anarchy even a tyrant seems a saviour ! "

Mirabeau, moreover, had not awaited the disorders
which grew out of the July riots in order to warn the
people of the dangers of anarchy. On June 23 he had
appeared in the character of the impetuous tribune ; but
the very next day, in the address which he proposed that
the National Assembly should send to the electors, he
showed himself a true friend of the Government. It
seemed to him to be necessary to inform, reassure and
calm the nation, who were in danger of being seduced
into perilous and criminal follies. He warned them that
"agitations, tumults and excesses served none but the
enemies of liberty." He referred in severe terms to the
resistance of the aristocracy, which he contrasted with the
good intentions of the King ; but he insisted that those
who sought to achieve the public good in other ways
should not be treated as enemies. He advised them to
make allowance for the prejudices of upbringing, which
had been still further developed by fear of licence and of
exaggerated claims. His words bore witness to a modera-
tion, a courage, a political sense and insight which have
not received their due meed of praise. "All these men
deserve our consideration. Some are to be pitied; others
must be given time to come back to us. All must be
enlightened; and we must not allow to degenerate into
selfish or factious quarrels differences of opinion which are
inseparable from the weakness of human nature, which
result from the multitude of aspects presented by very
complicated affairs, and whose diversity is in itself good
and useful for the State. . . . We have already to con-
gratulate ourselves on several fortunate and peaceful
victories. Not a day passes on which some who at first
held aloof come over to our side. Not a day passes on
which the horizons of truth do not broaden, and the dawn

190



THE STATES -GENERAL

of reason does not come for some who have hitherto been
dazzled rather than enhghtened by its very radiance."

These fine words are stamped with an incomparable
wisdom, and in them Mirabeau appears to have fore-
seen the admirable impulse of enthusiasm which led the
two higher orders to complete the sacrifice of their
privileges on the night of August 4. Mirabeau's father
had died on July 10, and a family gathering prevented
him from being present at the immortal scene. M. de La
Marck asserts that he disapproved of it, and even described
it as "an orgy," and Dumont attributes to him a curious
observation on the subject. " How characteristic this is of
the French," he is said to have observed; "they spend a
whole month arguing about words, and in a single night
they overturn the whole ancient order of the monarchy."
The testimony of these witnesses agree too well not to
contain a certain amount of truth. But it is certainly
excessive to contend that Mirabeau regretted the abolition
of the feudal regime. His criticism was directed only to
the haste with which it was carried out. The suppression
of the old order was, in fact, rather proclaimed than
executed, and it left room both for repentance and for legal
difficulties. The Courrier de Provence, which had become
his organ, went no further than this, and if he himself, in
a letter which he afterwards wrote to the Bailli, deplored
the precipitation with which the step had been taken, he
defended the Assembly against the reproach of having
exceeded its powers.

For the rest he expressed his views in the tribune, and
on August 7 he opposed unsuccessfully an amendment of
Clermont-Tonnerre, which reserved the King's hunting
rights outside his domains.

On August 10 he spoke energetically in favour of the
abolition of tithes. It was on this occasion that he said
one of his most celebrated things. Speaking of the clergy,
he was observing that tithe was a subsidy paid by the

191



MIRABEAU

nation as wages to the guardians of morality and educa-
tion, when he was interrupted by murmurs in the House.
Without flinching he replied, "I hear much murmuring
at the word ' wages,' and one would think that it was an
insult to the priesthood. But, gentlemen, it is high time
in the course of this Revolution, which is bringing to
birth so many just and generous sentiments, that we
should abjure the prejudices of pride and ignorance which
despise the words ' wage ' and ' wage-earner.' I know
only three ways of living in society вАФ a man may beg, he
may steal, or he may earn. Is not the proprietor himself
the chief wage-earner of all ? "

Finally, on September i8, Mirabeau supported with
irresistible force of argument Le Chapelier's motion that
the decrees of August 4 should be promulgated. "To go
back on these articles," he said, "would be an act alike
irregular, impolitic and impossible." This view is clear
enough to show how impossible it is to maintain that
Mirabeau was against the decisions taken on that
memorable night.

With Mirabeau more than any other statesman it is a
mistake to confound his theory with his practice. His
sense of reality sometimes led him to subordinate the
former to the latter, and among many examples which
might be quoted, none is more interesting than his attitude
on the question of the Declaration of the Rights of Man.
Here, again, he has been curiously misconceived and mis-
construed by those who have studied him too hastily, and
perhaps without reference to original documents. It is
indeed a singular paradox which would separate him from
one of the most durable acts of the Constituent Assembly,
which was passed with practical unanimity, and the con-
sequences of which have had their effect on governments
which have nothing in common with the Revolution.

On July 12 La Fayette, full of the memories of his
glorious expedition to America, had submitted to the

192



THE STATES -GENERAL

Assembly a draft Declaration of Rights. Mirabeau's
nineteenth letter to his constituents described it as "bring-
ing the principles of liberty from the study of the philo-
sopher out of the domain of metaphysical abstractions in
order to bring them within the reach of the people, and
to consecrate them in their eyes by a national sanction."
The letter recognized all the great principles expressed in
the Declaration, but pointed out that the detached maxims
composing the draft, "in order tO' obtain their full force
should be linked together and developed as resulting from
a single truth." In his Addresse aux Bataves Mirabeau
had tried to link up and develop these principles precisely
in this way. He had concluded by giving a table of
rights which belong "to all men, and such that without
them it is impossible for the human race in any country
to preserve its dignity, to perfect itself or to enjoy in
tranquillity the gifts of nature." These rights he pro-
claimed as "anterior and superior to all conventions," and
"as inalienable and indefeasible." He declared that it was
absurd to subordinate them to a written code, and regarded
them as "the common and eternal basis of all political
association."

The state of mind revealed by these categorical affirma-
tions dominated the Constituent Assembly. All its mem-
bers felt the need, powerfully expressed by Mounier, of
substituting for "the scattered, doubtful and unstable
authority " of the old French constitution a new regirne
which should distribute power and regulate privileges. A
Committee of five members, including Mirabeau, who was
made reporter, were appointed to draw up a Declaration.
His earlier work and his opinions, which had prepared
him for the task, also warned him of the difficulties. A
little later, on the occasion of another debate, he recalled
the discussion to which the Declaration had given
rise, and observed, "We are not savages come from the
banks of the Orinoco to form a society. We are an old
o 193



MIRABEAU

nation, too old, indeed, for the age. We have a pre-
existing Government, a pre-existing King, pre-existing
prejudices. As far as is possible we must adjust all
these things to the Revolution, and avoid too sudden a
transition."

This reserve, which from the constitutional point of view
is so profoundly true, had not the same force in regard
to the rights "natural, inalienable, indefeasible," which
Mirabeau could not dream of refusing to Frenchmen after
having offered the same blessings to the Batavians. Never-
theless, a serious difficulty arose from the pre-existence
of "a body politic, old and almost decrepit." The Report
presented by Mirabeau in the name of the Committee at
the sitting of August 17, betrayed and even avowed real
embarrassment. Duroveray, Clavi^re, and Dumont had
collaborated in "this piece of marquetry," with which
Mirabeau was far from being satisfied. The draft, which
he offered with "extreme diffidence," contained nineteen
articles. The work had been too hastily done, and in it
there were things good, bad and indifferent, a mixture of
confusion and audacity, of Rousseau and Quesnay, but
nothing of the brevity and clearness which are indispens-
able in a Declaration of this kind. Nothing finally
survived of it but the preamble.

The Assembly did not give the proposed articles the
approval which the reporter himself hesitated to claim.
The discussion, which was uncertain and halting, sug-
gested to Mirabeau the idea which he expressed on his
own personal responsibility, to postpone drawing up the
Declaration of Rights until such time as the other portions
of the Constitution were entirely agreed upon and settled.



Online LibraryLouis BarthouMirabeau, from the French of Louis Barthou .. → online text (page 15 of 29)