Louis Barthou.

Mirabeau, from the French of Louis Barthou .. online

. (page 19 of 29)
Online LibraryLouis BarthouMirabeau, from the French of Louis Barthou .. → online text (page 19 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


La Fayette only saw in this letter "a clever trick to
ensnare his delicacy." It is to be regretted, but hardly
to be wondered at. Washington had well hit off the
character of his old comrade in arms when he wrote : "All
your worries come from an unusual sensibility when your
reputation is in question." Mirabeau's stormy youth, his
debts, the scandals associated with his name, his impetuous
familiarity, shocked La Fayette's sensibility and alarmed
his feeling for his reputation. Raised by extraordinary
circumstances to a unique position, which was out of pro-
portion to his merits and his services, La Fayette believed
himself to be equal to his destiny. He could not see how
Mirabeau's support could be useful to him. "I neither
like, nor esteem, nor fear the man," he said. As a matter
of fact he was less afraid of his antagonism than of his
collaboration. He felt that in Mirabeau's bold and mighty
hands his own glory would only be an instrument. Wish-
ing neither to compromise himself nor to suffer extinction,
he refused an alliance of which he perceived the dangers
more clearly than the advantages. In his line of thought
he was concerned only with himself. If he had considered
the public interest, must he not have thought otherwise ?

The Court was in a state of hesitation, ill-informed, ill-

232



RELATIONS WITH THE COURT

protected against the many dangers which threatened it,
and could not make up its mind to any definite step, or to
choose for its direction and protection an energetic in-
fluence in which it could repose confidence and gain and
give support. Necker, admittedly, had failed. But the
King was warned and terrified by an experiment which had
provoked the 14th July, and dared not dismiss him. He
had asked La Fayette to explain his ideas of the royal
prerogative. Action having become impossible, the time
was filled up with consultations.

For some weeks past the "painful extremity " of turning
to Mirabeau had been accepted. M. de La Marck was
away. The Austrian ambassador, de Mercy-Argenteau,
sent for him. He told him that the King and Queen had
determined to seek the services of his friend, and counted
on him to act as intermediary and to sound the Tribune.
M. de La Mlarck was under no great illusion as to the
effects to be looked for from such tardy intervention, but
undertook to carry on the negotiations only on condition
that the ambassador would take part in them. He
arranged an interview at his own house between Mirabeau,
to whom he did not immediately tell the truth, and Comte
de Mercy. The conversation was frank and cordial, and
was concerned only with the general situation. Mirabeau
declared that there could be no improvement until the King
consented to leave, not France, but Paris. It was the idea
he had expressed in November in the memorandum read
by the Comte de Provence. After these preliminary pour-
parlers, of the real significance of which Mirabeau was
left in ignorance, M. de La Marck saw the King and
Queen. Marie Antoinette, who was still filled with horror
at the recollection of the events of October, wished to be
reassured as to Mirabeau's attitude. There was no one
in a better position than La Marck to deny his friend's par-
ticipation in those events. The King declared that the
negotiations should go on without reference to his

233



MIRABEAU

ministers and no objection could make him change
his mind. M. de La Marck was appalled by such danger-
ous obstinacy, seeing how infallibly it must lead to con-
flict, and he informed Mirabeau of the royal project.
Mirabeau embraced it with enthusiasm, as though his own
and the kingdom's destiny had been changed thereby.
In accordance with his promise to the King, M. de La
Marck asked him to state his ideas on the situation in
writing.

Mirabeau 's first note dated May lo, 1790, gave Louis
XVI and Marie Antoinette a satisfaction which they did not
attempt to conceal and expressed emphatically. The
Queen questioned M. de La Marck as to the best course
to take to win Mirabeau's approval of herself and the
King. M. de La Marck and M. de Mercy were of the
opinion that the first thing to be done was to pay the
Tribune's debts. Mirabeau drew up a list of them, the
sum-total being 208,000 francs, and they went back so
far as to include the price of his wedding clothes ! He could
not believe that such an enormous sum would be forth-
coming, and he asked for a guarantee of 100 louis a month.
When the King next saw M. de La Marck he gave him
back the original of the letter, and told him what a good
impression it had made on him : " Please keep it," he
added, "together with these four notes on my credit, of
250,000 livres each. If, as he promises, M. de Mirabeau
serves me well, you must send him these notes at the end
of the session of the National Assembly, and he will receive
a million. In the meanwhile I will see that his debts are
paid, and I will leave it to you to decide on the amount
necessary for him to have every month as a provision
against his immediate difficulties." The Comte de La
Marck suggested 6000 livres; the King made no objection.
M. de Fontanges, Archbishop of Toulouse, a protege of
the Queen, who had absolute confidence in him, was
charged with the liquidation of Mirabeau's debts.

234



RELATIONS WITH THE COURT

When he heard the news Mirabeau was "wild with joy,"
drunk with it; and so beside himself as to astonish even
M. de La Marck. Upon reflection M. de La Marck was
disposed to excuse his transports by attributing them to
Mirabeau's new-found satisfaction in finding an issue from
his adventurous existence, and to his pride in thinking that
he was at last being reckoned with. Being freed of the
burden of his past, he was in a position if not, in the terms
of his employment, to give his true measure, at least to
devote himself usefully to the service of his country.

Mirabeau's indiscreet and unconscionable delight adds
to the inevitable sadness which any impartial critic must
feel on thinking of the terms of such a contract. We
need not, it is true, condemn in principle his relations
with the Court. They cast no stain upon the political
probity or the private morality of the great orator.
He was a monarchist not only by tradition and principle,
but because he could not conceive of the maintenance and
development of the revolutionary conquests, in which he
had played so large a part, except under the safeguard and
in the setting of royalty. At the end of May 1789, a month
after the opening of the States-General, foreseeing the
gathering storm, he said to Malouet : "We cannot but
wonder whether monarchy and monarch will survive the
brewing tempest, or whether mistakes already committed
and mistakes that cannot fail to be committed will not
engulf us all." Unswervingly, obstinately, with a clear-
sightedness and a fidelity which had never for a moment
wavered, he had set himself, in his speeches and writings,
in his deeds and in his words, to reconcile the rights of
King and people, the guarantees of royalty with those of
liberty. The progress of anarchy, seconded by the weak-
ness of an irresolute and maladroit Ministry, had made him
feel with increasing force the necessity of restoring to the
royal power, which had been left to itself in the midst of
a tragic crisis, its natural initiative and its legitimate

235



MIRABEAU

prerogative. Irritated as he was by the counsellors who
had neither plan nor aim, neither programme nor method,
could he refuse to give the advice asked of him, when, four
months before the opening of the States-General, he had
proposed a Constitution to save the kingdom from the plot-
ting of the aristocracy and the excesses of the democracy ?
To refuse would have seemed to him an act of desertion,
and Mirabeau was not the kind of man to desert his cause.
He would indeed have preferred public action, open fight,
to carry the assault into the Assembly, to defy danger and
assume responsibility in the full light of day, to live amid
the clash of discussion and the reverberations of the national
tribune. Jealousy and fear had withheld this opportunity
from his genius. He did not despair of a return of for-
tune. Meanwhile, perhaps by way of preparing that
return, he consented to give advice secretly, and resigned
himself to the anonymous and irresponsible, though none
the less dangerous, control which the overtures of the
Court offered him. Already La Fayette, whose tendencies
were republican, had played a similar part. And later
on such a part was to prove not at all distasteful either to
the uncompromising severity of a man like Lameth, con-
cerned for the safety of the kingdom, or to the generosity
of Barnave moved by the spectacle of horrible misfortunes.
The wrong and, not to shrink from using the correct
word, the disgraceful part of it is to be sought elsewhere.
When Lucas de Montigny speaks in his Memoirs of "the
vague and doubtful question of money, which after all is
quite secondary, or even, in so serious a case, negligible,"
his is the action of a respectful son casting a cloak over
his father's error. History has other rights, other duties.
The admiration we may feel for Mirabeau's genius, the
extraordinary, irresistible quality of his intellectual power
and kindness of heart, even the pity we cannot but find
for so much unhappiness, should not stand in the way of
a judgment which must be severe.

236



RELATIONS WITH THE COURT

It might conceivably be possible to excuse, though not
to justify, the payment of the debts and the monthly allow-
ance. M. de Lomenie was not wrong in saying that "there
was no contravention of honour according to the ideas of
the ancien regime, and in the case of a gentleman in
distress, in having his debts paid and his necessities pro-
vided for by the King." Threatened by his creditors, whose
importunities were likely to be turned to the service of party
interest and hatred, Mirabeau was, indeed, only too vulner-
able. "Why should my enemies not be robbed of every
pretext against me," he wrote to La Fayette in April,
"and I be restored, not for my own sake, but for the
sake of my country now in danger, to the possession of
my true power ? It is only to that end that I wish my
debts to be paid." Men of unimpeachable reputation like
La Marck and Mercy had spontaneously come to this idea,
the realization of which, when entrusted to his care, had
in no way shocked the scruples of the worthy Archbishop
of Toulouse. In order freely to employ Mirabeau and to
help him to give of his best, it was necessary to release him
from the cares with which the follies of his youth had
burdened his maturity. But was it not also necessary,
since his time, his activity, his pen, and part of his life,
were being taken, to "assure the independence of his talents
and character," so that he might give more "development
and force " to his opinion ? In his justification of Mira-
beau's having received a monthly allowance from the
King, M. de La Marck, a royalist nobleman, anticipated
the judgment of the revolutionary Proudhon : "If we con-
sider Mirabeau only as a consulting lawyer, whose talent,
days, nights, secretaries, whose life and courage are
engaged and occupied, we should grant him the right to
a legitimate reward." It must be added, to complete the
facts, that Mirabeau was conducting an important corre-
spondence with the provinces through numerous agents.
And I am quite ready to admit that all these considerations

237



MIRABEAU

do up to a certain point make it possible to excuse him
for having received 6000 livres a month, a remuneration
for his trouble and expense in giving his services.

But I confess that I cannot say as much for the promised
million which historians on both sides have generally
considered with the rest. Do not the notes signed by the
King and entrusted to M. de La Marck and made con-
ditional on effective service, form, whatever we may like
to say, the unjustifiable and immoral element of the secret
contract which bound Mirabeau to the Court? Proudhon
does not recoil from the idea that the Revolution should
have voted a pension for Mirabeau to assure him rest and
security in return for his services. I fail to see how such
a pension could have harmonized with the terrible speech on
bankruptcy. But at least it is impossible to confuse a
national reward of that kind, openly voted, with a secret,
uncertain and prospective reward which depended upon the
value attached by the King to service given. Mirabeau
had delivered himself up to the mercies of Louis XVI,
who while he was "paying him very dearly," used to speak
of him contemptuously as of a "person undeserving of
esteem." Such a judgment is painfully humiliating, be-
cause it is impossible not to feel that it was deserved, and,
though Ave cannot refuse the great and unhappy Tribune the
human pity, of which, in spite of everything, he remains
worthy, conscience and history, like Michelet, answer the
question : "Was there corruption? " with a sorrowful and
uncompromising "Yes."

"When that has been said, let us turn away and fix our
attention on the reality of things, on the loftiness of the
man's aim and ideas" (Sainte-Beuve). For, if there was
corruption, there was no treachery. On that point,
happily, all the evidence, even the most partial, is unanim-
ous. M. de La Marck's declaration, heavily underlined :
"No, Mirabeau never sacrificed his principles to his pecu-
niary interests; he received money from the King, but it

238



RELATIONS WITH THE COURT

was in order to save the King," might, as coming from
a friend, be subject to caution. But is it possible to doubt
the opinion of La Fayette, whose hostile feelings are well
known, or that of Necker's daughter, Mme. de Stael ?
La Fayette said : "Mirabeau would not for any sum have
supported an opinion destructive of liberty or dishonour-
able to his mind." Mme. de Stael rather differently, but
no less categorically, said: "Whether Mirabeau did or
did not accept money from the Court, he was determined
to be the master and not the instrument of that Court."

Now let us see him at work. We know the interme-
diaries between him and the Court : the Comte de La
Marck received his notes, gave them to M. de Fontanges,
who transmitted them to the Queen, who had entrusted
him with "her every thought, her every word, her every
deed."

Last of all came the King and the place is only too well in
keeping with the character of the unhappy Louis XVL
Thought, decision, action must be undertaken for him.
But he was so slippery that there was never any certainty
that he would not escape. The loyalty of his intentions was
always betrayed by the weakness of his character. The
judgment passed by one of his brothers and his wife on
his irresolute nature is that of history. After the events
of October, the Comte de Provence made this famous
remark to M. de La Marck: "The King's indecision
passes all telling. To give you an idea of his character,
imagine yourself with two oiled ivory balls and trying to
keep them together." In August 1791 Marie Antoinette
wrote to M. de Mercy : "You know the kind of man with
whom I have to deal. Just when you think you have
convinced him, a word, an argument will make him change
without his having any idea of it : it is for that reason that
there are thousands of things which we simply cannot
attempt."

Only the Queen had any influence over this weak, un-

239



MIRABEAU

decided ruler. At the beginning of his reign he said :
"I have read a little history and I know that this State
has always been ruined by women — legitimate and illicit."
This was only too true, and there was a tragic prophecy
in the words. Louis XVI's virtue kept predatory women
at a distance : his timidity delivered him up to his wife.
The miserable Calvary which led Marie Antoinette to
death, her dignity in her prison, the pride which upheld
her in the face of infamous accusations, her heroism on the
scaffold cannot avert the judgment of history to which
as a Queen she belongs. M. de Segur in his impartial
and attractive book, Au couchant de la monarchie, has
said with much force: "Truth as well as pity has its
rights." Truth has served Marie Antoinette's memory by
justifying her against ignoble suspicions which, alas !
came too often from the Court which had encouraged, to
the swelling of so many filthy libels, her natural coquetry,
her taste for pleasure, and especially the indiscretions and
dissipations into which she was drawn by a deplorable set
of courtiers. But there is no reason why a sort of chival-
rous magnanimity should deprive posterity of its rights.
To deny Marie Antoinette's share in politics is to deny
the evidence. Hating Turgot, Malesherbes, Necker (after
his recall), before and at the beginning of the Revolution,
she served the interests, the passions and the spite of a
coterie whose influence was justified by neither their past,
their talents, nor their services. The events of October
5 and 6 had shown with bloody violence the contempt-
uous hostility and the passionate indignation of which
she was the object. She had faced the mob with a firm-
ness which showed her to be a true daughter of Maria
Theresa. But did she understand the lesson of the terrible
events that had been unfolded before her eyes? In the
Hotel de Ville she had with happy tact pronounced the
word "confidence" which had brought many over to her
side. Since that time Mirabeau believed that she had

240



RELATIONS WITH THE COURT

abandoned her interest in public affairs. "The Queen,"
he wrote on December 23, "remains in retirement: / do
not interfere." He undoubtedly never expected her to
issue from her retirement to appeal to him.

An attempt had been made to compromise her in the
Favras affair by fresh proceedings in the matter of the
necklace. By guiding and saving the Comte de Provence
Mirabeau had indirectly extricated her from her quan-
dary. She could not evidently be grateful to him for an
intervention which implied no sort of service- But perhaps
she appreciated the access of power given to the orator
whose irresistible force and whose skill in winding and
unwinding the most tangled intrigues she had felt to her
detriment. When she resigned herself to making an
appeal for his advice, she was still afraid of him. But,
unstable, inconsequent, incapable of any sustained thought
as she was, she fell, at any rate at the beginning, into the
contrary excess. The hopes she had built up on Mira-
beau 's services hid from her the danger of her situation.
M. de La Marck was struck by the Queen's careless
gaiety, her amiable and gracious humour, the ease with
which she escaped from the terrifying realities of the
present into recollections of the happy past. In the letter
of August 16, 1 79 1, of which I have already quoted a
passage, she spoke of news "so wild and absurd that it
could only have emanated from a French brain." Was she
really so absorbed in thought or so firm in project that she
could pass so severe a judgment on the country of which she
was Queen ? Had not Prince Xavier de Saxe cast the same
reproach at her? "She is very light-headed," he said,
"and absolutely Austrian." She remained light-headed,
even to the tragic hours which raised her courage so high.
And she did not cease to be an Austrian. Unhappy was
this woman, abandoned and a stranger in a strange land,
whose destiny did but tardily reveal to her her duty in
prison and at the price of death !
R 241



MIRABEAU

The letter that Mirabeau, still ignorant of the conditions
under which he was to lend his support, wrote on May lo,
1790, to King Louis XVI, is a profession of faith, noble,
generous and firm, which dominates, explains and prepares
his action. Being vowed, he says, to the silence of con-
tempt, he only abandons his project of retireiment to
attempt to save the kingdom from anarchy and to con-
tribute to "something other than a vast demolition." In
his first words he declares that "the re-establishment of
the legitimate authority of the King is the first need of
France, and the only means of saving the country." He
wishes to put the executive power in its right place, in
the Constitution and in the hands of the King, in order to
bring the whole public force of the country to bear on
securing respect for the law. But, if he deplores the ex-
cesses into which the Revolution had drifted, he twice
affirms his horror of a counter-revolution, which he avers to
be at once "dangerous and criminal." Guided by these
principles, he agrees to give his written opinion on events in
order to direct, to forestall, or to repair them. Without
guaranteeing success, which can never depend upon one
man, he promises everything in his power — his loyalty, his
zeal, his activity, his energy, and "a courage which perhaps
is not thoroughly estimated." Knowing the extent of his
pledge and his desire, he asks that his writings may be
placed in safe keeping, for, he says with a pride in which
tliCre is already something of his promised courage, "they
will remain for ever my condemnation or my justification."

Circumstances at once played into his hands. M. de
Montmorin had on Mlay 14 approached the National
Assembly with a demand for subsidies with which to arm
fourteen ships of the line against the preparations being
made by England. Alexandre de Lameth made use of
the incident to raise the question to whom belonged the
right of war and peace — the nation or the King ? Before
allowing the opening of a full-dress theoretical debate

242



RELATIONS WITH THE COURT

which was to occupy many sittings, Mirabeau's political
mind began to work at high pressure. Having gained the
admission that the right of armaments and the right to
take immediate steps would always belong to the supreme
executive of the national will, he procured a vote of thanks
to the King for having taken the necessary precautions for
the maintenance of peace.

The discussion brought into conflict two absolute and
extreme tendencies. Those on the Right wished to give
the King the sole right of war and peace; those on the
extreme Left claimed to reserve the exercise of that right
to the Assembly. In his first speech on May 20 Mirabeau
took up a position between the two contentions in favour
of a system which would give each of the two powers a
share, and would allow for action and purpose, execution
and deliberation. He stated as a principle that the right
to make war or peace belonged to the nation. Then he
delegated the exercise of that right concurrently to the
legislative and to the executive power. His scheme gave
the King the duty of watching over the external safety
of the kingdom, of maintaining good relations and con-
ducting negotiations abroad, of making preparations for
war, of distributing the land and sea forces, and, in case
of actual hostilities, of directing them. In the case of
imminent hostilities or an actual outbreak, or of having
to support an ally, or of being forced to confirm a right by
force of arms, the King was to advise or to convoke the
legislative body and ask it for the necessary supplies.
Thus informed the Assembly could approve or dis-
approve of the war, and in case of disapproval could
censure the King's Ministers and refuse the money. At
any point the legislative body could require the executive
power to negotiate for peace. The scheme reserved to the
executive the right to call out the National Guard if the
King were to wage war in person. Precautions were taken
to ensure the disbandment of the troops after the conclusion

243



MIRABEAU

of peace. Finally, the King was accorded the right to
sign treaties of peace, alliance, or commerce with foreign
Powers so long as they did not take effect without the
ratification of the legislative body.

The eleven articles of Mirabeau's scheme, drawn up, with
his approval, by Le Chapel ier, after a series of brilliant and
stormy debates, gained the almost unanimous assent of the
Assembly. They laid down the essential principles which
have passed into every subsequent constitution. Mirabeau
brought to the service of his thesis an altogether excep-
tional force of argument. His desire to placate public
opinion, which was ill-instructed and excited by intrigue,
constrained the use of certain awkward or obscure expres-
sions. But the whole thing is admirably clear and logical.
Truth shines through it with irresistible compelling power,
and fortifies the essential and permanent principles of
government against the sophistry of party.

No doubt Mirabeau proclaims that "the French nation



Online LibraryLouis BarthouMirabeau, from the French of Louis Barthou .. → online text (page 19 of 29)