Louis Barthou.

Mirabeau, from the French of Louis Barthou .. online

. (page 20 of 29)
Online LibraryLouis BarthouMirabeau, from the French of Louis Barthou .. → online text (page 20 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

renounces all idea of conquest, and will never use its power
against the liberty of any people." But he had too much
practical good sense to believe in the establishment of per-
petual peace through the percolation of such disinterested-
ness, and to leave France unarmed against Europe in
arms: "Shall we ever be so fortunate as suddenly to see
the miracle to which we owe our liberty repeated bril-
liantly in the two hemispheres ? " Against the exclusive
right to make war delegated to an assembly of a thousand
men he has urgent objections expressed in the happiest
form : "While one member may be proposing deliberation,
the war may be demanded by the public with no uncertain
voice. You will see yourselves surrounded with an army
of citizens. You wish to avoid being deceived by Minis-
ters : will you never deceive yourselves ? " History, which
he had studied, gives ample support to his contention.
Have not the free nations always been distinguished by
the most barbarous and ambitious wars ? Has it not



always been under the "spell of passion" that political
assemblies have declared war ? " We must not import
republican forms into a government which is both repre-
sentative and monarchical."

With such words Mirabeau transcended the debate,
generalized the discussion, raised the particular question to
the level of a constitutional problem. He warned the
Assembly against the danger of "projecting the alarms of
the moment into the future," of exaggerating fear to the
point of making the cure worse than the evil, of dividing
the citizens of the country into two parties always ready
to conspire against each other, instead of uniting them in
the cause of liberty. He attached their inalienable value
to the legitimate rights of the executive power and of the
monarch : "See to it," he says, "that the King has nothing
to regret but what the law cannot allow, and do not fear,
lest a rebel King, himself abdicating his throne, should
run the risk of being hurried from victory to the scaffold."
The Right murmured, and d'Espremesnil protested in the
name of the inviolability of the royal person. Unper-
turbed, Mirabeau dismissed the accusation of bad faith.
"You have all understood," he said, "my supposition of a
deposed king in revolt coming with an army of Frenchmen
to conquer a position of tyranny : such a king, in such a
case, is no longer a king."

This ardent, luminous, passionate and wise speech, in
which the feeling for reality skilfully frustrates sophistry
and victoriously destroys chimerical visions, was answered
by Barnave. Uplifted by the greatness of the debate,
by emulation, by the passions of the people, swept out
of himself, he made a profound impression. His system,
which sees in the King the supreme depositary of the
executive power, reserves the right to declare war and
peace exclusively to the legislative body. The Assembly,
moved less by the arguments than by its fear of giving
a King in whom it had no trust the means of crushing by



means of war the liberties which had been conquered with
so much difficulty, wished to put it to the vote. Mirabeau
scented danger: "Either," he said, "M. Barnave's friends
believe that his speech will triumph over every reply to it,
or they do not believe it. If they believe it, it seems to
me reasonable to expect them in the generosity of their
admiration not to dread a reply, and that they will give
us leave to make a reply ; if they do not believe it, it is
their duty to seek further information." The Opposition
yielded grudgingly. Mirabeau was given the right to

Only a short while before he had declared himself to
be "crushed by the weight of work beyond his power."
That was the orator's coquetry. Now in the tribune he
was more supple, more powerful, more eloquent than ever.
His self-possession was disturbed neither by the popular
excitement which had brought a crowd of fifty thousand
men to the hall, nor by the plots and intrigues of his
enemies, nor by Freron's threats, nor by the violence and
frenzy of the pamphlets distributed at the door, nor by the
fierce antagonism of the hostile tribunes, nor by the fevered
turmoil of an assembly still warm from the triumph it had
given Barnave. With his very first words, with absolute
self-mastery, with weighty deliberateness, calm and digni-
fied, as though he were not staking his whole genius,
perhaps his very existence, he set aside all passion, hatred,
the irascibility of wounded vanity: "It would seem," he
declared, "that it is impossible, without committing a
crime, to have two opinions on one of the most delicate
and difficult questions of social organization ! " Then,
suddenly, with a swift allusion to the popular suspicions,
to Barnave's success, to the vengeance with which he had
himself been threatened, he changed his tone, and com-
pelled the attention of the Assembly, which his self-
possession, absolutely dominating the tumult, had reduced
to silence : " I also, a few days ago, came near to being



borne in triumph ! And now they cry in the streets : The
High Treason of the Comte de Mirabeau." It is impossible
to summarize what follows. If there is in the whole of
French oratory a passage which, for loftiness of tone,
nobility of inspiration, restrained force of indignation and
scorn, for largeness of movement and marvellous choice
of words, is to be set against the oratory of the ancients,
none other could be chosen, for none could be found in
which there is such a perfect blend of lasting humanity
and actual tingling life.

This magnificent exordium overshadows the whole of
the rest of the speech, the precision and dialectic of which
deserve almost equal admiration. Mirabeau had been
reproached with having taken refuge in subtleties. He
endeavours to reply with a directness great enough to
enable him to say to Barnave : " If it rests with me, this
day will lay bare the secret of our respective loyalties."
The structure of his eloquent opponent's argument rested
on a sophism, which confused the legislative body with
the legislative power. The legislative body resided in the
Assembly, but the legislative power belonged both to the
Assembly, which deliberated and voted, and to the King,
who ratified and acted. To attribute the right of war and
peace solely to the legislative body, was, in the most
terrible crisis, to suppress an organ which, in ordinary
legislation, in the name of the Constitution, exercised
rights which were formally acknowledged. Must we,
because monarchy has its dangers, renounce its advantages,
and because fire burns, deprive ourselves of the warmth
and light that we get from it? "Everything can stand
except inconsequence : let us say that we do not need a
King : let us not say that we only need an impotent and
useless King." In order to show that governments some-
times try to evade their responsibilities by making war,
Barnave had cited the example of Pericles, who, when he
was unable to meet his liabilities, began the Peloponnesiah



war. Was he a king or a despotic minister ? " Pericles
was a man who, having the art to flatter popular passion,
and to secure applause as he left the tribune, by his own or
his friends' munificence, forced into the Peloponnesian
war^ вАФ whom ? The National Assembly of Athens." The
National Assembly of France felt the sting of this shaft.

One by one Mirabeau then took the articles of his
scheme, dissected them, justified them, and ended with a
nobly generous peroration in which, calling to mind his ser-
vices, he set them against the virulent libels then current,
"the yelping of envious mediocrity." It was a triumph!

Scornful though he was of insult and calumny, he could
not remain insensible to the atrocious campaign in which
his adversaries (Barnave must be excepted) tried to
diminish the effect of his success. Victorious in the
Assembly, he tried to bring the question before the country.
It is to be regretted that in order to cover up certain
small concessions which the discussion had induced him
to make, he made modifications in his first speech which
party hatred endeavoured to turn to profit. But the letter
which he addressed to the departments remains an unfor-
gettable testimony of the determined frankness with which
he affirmed the necessity of "passing from a state of legiti-
mate insurrection to the lasting peace of a real social
state." It was the language of a statesman. In one of
his speeches he had not been afraid to say that "wisdom
dwells not in extremes," and that the desire to destroy
should not impede the desire to reconstruct. It is clear
that he did not reserve the expression of his ideas for the
King alone in the form of secret advice. He addressed
sovereign and people in the same energetic language to
their common edification and profit.

On this question of the right of war and peace La Fayette
had voted with Mirabeau. With some political sagacity
the King tried to bring them together. This desire led
Mirabeau on June i to approach the General once more.



But the tone of his letter gave indications of the change
that had come over the situation. Side by side with incon-
trovertible truths were passages which in their irreverent
irony could not but exasperate and irritate La Fayette's
susceptibilities. When Mirabeau said to him: "Your
great qualities need my impulse; my impulse needs your
great qualities," he was speaking and seeing with indis-
putable exactitude. He was no less right in declaring
that decision was the first need and the only means of
salvation. But he lacked tact or prudence, just though the
reproach might be, in reminding the General of "the small
men who, for small considerations and by petty man-
oeuvres, short-sightedly " were trying to alienate them.
La Fayette thought the proposal calculated in tone "to
join them on a footing very different from that of their
previous acquaintance." He withdrew. Mirabeau was
offering to be his Pere Joseph, but, after all, would he go on
for long being satisfied with a merely shadowy eminence,
and was he not led by his ambition, which was thoroughly
justified by his genius, to hope to play the part of Richelieu
to a new Louis XHI ? Besides, he had so little faith in the
result of his advances, that, on the very day when he made
them, he devoted almost the whole of his first note to the
Court to a demonstration of the necessity of weakening
La Fayette's authority. He has been accused of duplicity.
That is going too far. There is a lack of kindliness in his
portrait of La Fayette, which is rather overdrawn. But
there is a good deal of truth in what he says about that
"irresponsible Minister" who was obeyed by responsible
Ministers. The position that circumstances had given La
Fayette was false, uncertain and dangerous. Though he
was incapable of facing the dangers and assuming the
duties of government, he could not easily bring himself
to allow others to play the part for which he was unfitted.
From this point of view Mirabeau was not wrong in taxing
him with his pliability and weakness : " In the frightful



storm which is about to break over us, let him choose skil-
ful pilots, capable of saving us from shipwreck, and I will
say nothing, or rather I will applaud him." The occasion
for such applause never came.

Almost all Mirabeau's notes to the Court at this early
period return insistently to the same point. He is always
denouncing, especially on the eve of the Federation, La
Fayette's "ambitious incapacity," his intention of having
himself appointed General, and his designs on the dictator-
ship. His attacks gain in poignancy from the fact that his
genuine anxiety for the public safety was mingled with
the bitterness of personal spite. Mirabeau foresaw the
brilliancy of the celebrations with which the Federation
festivities would be attended, and he desired to figure in
them as President of the Assembly. The choice lay with
La Fayette, who, desiring a "virtuous patriot," rejected
Mirabeau. Such cruel words are not easily forgiven.

In his very first note Mirabeau spoke of the decree which
forbade deputies to be Ministers, and of the necessity for
rescinding it. Meanwhile he would have liked to have
a faithful man on the Council who should "watch the
current of events and give methodical advice." The King
did not understand.

At the outset of his relations with the Court, Mirabeau
had defined his attitude in one sentence : " I shall be what
I have always been : the defender of the monarchical power
regulated by the laws, and the apostle of liberty guaranteed
by the monarchical power." The note of July 3, his
eighth, strongly accentuated his position, re-established a
comparison between the royal authority as it was under the
ancien regime and what it had become since the summon-
ing of the States-General. Under the old order the King
had no absolute power, since he had to accommodate the
nobility, the clergy, the parlements and the Court. His
authority was "incomplete, because it had no legal
foundation; insufficient, because it relied more on public




power than on public opinion ; uncertain, because a revolu-
tion, such as might break out at any moment, could over-
throw it." The Constitution gives the King powers which
are certainly insufficient, but are at any rate preferable to
such precariousness. It liberates him from the subjection
which for centuries had weighed on the monarchy : " Is
it nothing to be without parlements, without States, with-
out clergy, privilege, nobility ? " The essential is to ad-
minister. "To administer is to govern; to govern is to
reign ; that is the whole thing in little." The Assembly
had usurped that power : it must be taken from it. Thus
the King was interested in the Constitution which pro-
cured him real advantages. He ought, therefore, to sup-
port it, develop the good in it, and correct its weaknesses.
In order to amend administrative bodies, which had grown
too complicated, to reconstitute the army, to establish
taxes on a new basis, it was necessary to act on public
opinion, which was the sovereign of all legislators.
Mirabeau makes his appeal for an agreement between public
opinion and that of the King, so that "the national party,
constituted of the factious and the malcontent, would
become the party of the King." When there were thirty-
six millions to be employed solely in maintaining the
splendour of the throne, when the support of the influence
and power of a great National Assembly were to be looked
to, there could be, according to him, no other excuse for
failure but that of being ill advised and ill served.

Mirabeau, for his part, was determined to give useful
advice and loyal service. But of what value were the
notes without the animation of his voice, his intonation,
his gestures ? What could be the use of written com-
munications between men who did not know each other
and had never seen each other? The "unhoped-for
favours" which the King showered on Mirabeau through
the intermediation of the Comte de La Marck had raised
his courage. His dignity, his need of confidence, and



perhaps his curiosity desired more. He let it be under-
stood that a secret interview with the King or the Queen
would be useful to his plans and their interests. M. de
La Marck communicated that idea to M. de Mercy, who
in his turn told the Queen. The interview took place on
July 3, 1790, at Saint Cloud.

Since the beginning of his negotiations with the Court,
Mirabeau had sought rather to come to an understanding
with the Queen than with the King. The first lines of
his first note were singularly characteristic: "I professed
monarchical principles even when I could see only the
weakness of the Court, and, knowing nothing of the soul
or the mind of the daughter of Maria Theresa, could not
count on that august auxiliary." That august auxiliary
had been invoked by him to act with regard to La Fayette,
and invoked in strange terms ! "The King has only one
man, his wife. There is no security for her but in the re-
establishment of the royal authority. I like to think that
she would not wish to live without the crown ; but I am
very sure that she will not preserve her life if she does not
preserve her crown. The moment will come, and soon,
when it will be necessary to see what a woman and a child
can do in an exodus on horseback ; it is a method not
unknown in her family ! "

Meanwhile, as it was impossible to "find a way out of
an extraordinary crisis with the aid of ordinary rules and
ordinary means," Mirabeau, once a prisoner in the Chateau
d'lf, the fort of Jbux, and the Keep of Vincennes, com-
mitted for debt, sentenced for rape and seduction, Mira-
beau, the elect of the Tiers, the orator of the Revolution,
went, on aflfairs of State, to see King Louis XVI and
Queen Marie Antoinette !

As he drove along on the morning of July 3 to Saint
Cloud, did he remember the words he had used on June 17,
1783, before the Parlement of Aix in his action against
his wife? On that day, attracted by the sensational case



and by his name, already famous, the Archduke Ferdinand
of Austria, governor of the Milanais, and the Archduchess
were present. The Archduke was Marie Antoinette's
brother. Mirabeau did not let slip the opportunity for
words of homage : " Which of us," he said, " if he wished
to find the hallowed image of justice and to embellish it
with all the charm of beauty, would not set up the august
image of our Queen ? "

Almost at the same moment his father, the old Marquis,
was, in contrast, writing these curious sentences : " Louis
XIV would be greatly astonished if he were to see the
wife of his successor in peasant's garb and apron, un-
attended by pages or any one, running about the palace
and the terraces, asking the nearest lackey to give her
his hand, and going hand in hand with him down the
stairs. Other times, other cares ! " Other times, other
cares ! Rudely dragged back to Paris, guarded, a prisoner,
the shepherdess of Trianon was thinking how she could
save her family and the kingdom, her crown, her children,
her life. Would the man she was expecting, the man she
had despised, the man who had treated her with scant
respect, be able to point out the way to deliverance and lead
her to salvation ? The scenes of October 6 when her
guards were cut down, her palace was invaded, her person
threatened, the mob let loose and howling, rose before her
eyes. She could neither rid herself of the memory nor,
in spite of everything she had been told, dissociate it from
the name of Mirabeau. When she saw him she was filled
with horror and terror. She mastered herself, however, and
as she talked to him and he, in his caressing voice, told
her of his loyalty and respect, his mistakes and his remorse,
his intentions and his hopes, she began to discern a gener-
ous and warm-hearted man beneath the monster whose
proximity she had dreaded. How could she doubt the
sincerity and loyalty of one who could speak so? How
could she but rely upon a devotion which offered a life



as hostage? Surprised to find such charm and deHcacy
allied with such tremendous power, she became wholly
woman, with all the graces of her irresistible amiability,
without forgetting what she owed to her dignity as a
Queen. The King on his part was simple, resigned to
the necessary sacrifices, conciliatory and trustful. Mira-
beau was overcome with emotion, and, according to Mme.
Campan, cried as he kissed the Queen's hand : "Madame,
the monarchy is saved ! " It is impossible to vouch for it,
but there can be no doubt that the somewhat romantic
mystery of the interview increased Mirabeau's conviction
that the royal authority must be restored as quickly as
possible if the country were to be retrieved from the abyss
towards which it was being hurried.

Unhappily the King was growing more and more in-
capable of making up his mind or sticking to it. Mira-
beau had fixed on the Federation festivities, when
delegates from all parts of the kingdom would be
assembled, as the most favourable opportunity for associat-
ing Louis XVI with the Revolution, and giving the King
his rightful place, the first. His advice, which was
prudent and easy to follow, was not listened to. He felt
it bitterly. After having threatened to use his power for
his own ends if he could not find any employment in the
public welfare, he resumed his consultations. His notes
were sent in one after another, pointing out the means of
preparing for a royal journey to Fontainebleau, or suggest-
ing the reorganization, with wise precautions, of the body-
guards, or desiring to separate the Swiss from the rest of
the army so as to preserve them from a contagion which
Mirabeau held to be dangerous to their fidelity.

He had a further opportunity in the tribune of the
Assembly of explaining his view of the duties incumbent
on the army, the unsettled state of which had been revealed
by several incidents. A mutiny had broken out in a
regiment at Metz. A few days later a naval ofificer had



been assassinated at Toulon. The Assembly was inclined
to be content with isolated measures. Mirabeau thought
it preferable to apply a more systematic remedy to a disease
that was unhappily widespread and contagious: "You
cannot," he said forcibly, "treat an ulcerated body by
dressing one sore after another." He suggested a trans-
fusion of new blood by means of a general dismissal of
the troops, followed immediately by an enrolment upon
oath of all the officers and soldiers who wished to rejoin
the service. The remedy was, perhaps, too bold to be
efficacious, but it is worth while to preserve Mirabeau's
declarations made during the discussions. "The army
does not realize that it cannot exist without severe disci-
pline, that the public peace cannot subsist with an in-
subordinate army. You cannot dissemble the fact that if
the Declaration of the Rights of Man contained principles
of no common import, the army could only be sufficiently
organized to maintain the public liberty through a declara-
tion of the duties of each citizen. Order will not be re-
established until the soldiers have learned that they may not
separate their rights from their duty."

These disturbances hardly left him room for hope that
a civil war could be avoided. He even asked himself if
it m.ight not be a necessary evil. But, he wrote to Mau-
villon, "the throne has no ideas, no movement, no will,"
and he added that the road had never been more beset with
traps and ambuscades.

He proceeded along this treacherous ground bravely
facing the difficulties which rose up on all sides. The situa-
tion was growing graver both at home and abroad. The
humanitarian illusions which then obsessed so many minds
had not affected his sturdy common sense. At the time of
his first speech on the right of war and peace, though he
had foreshadowed in the remote future universal Free Trade,
uniiing Europe into one great family, he had admitted
that by changing her political system France had not



forced the other nations to change theirs. He saw that
the enthusiasm for liberty could not win over the world
as swiftly as certain abstract minds of the Jacobin Society
were hoping. He had acknowledged the necessities of
his time by inviting the Assembly to renounce war for
conquest, but he was not deceived by the "candour" of
the Abb6 de Saint-Pierre. Universal peace was in his
eyes a philosophic dream, to which he refused to sacrifice
the interests of a country surrounded by jealous neigh-
bours, and threatened with hostilities: "Though it is
commendable to desire such concord, yet, as we seek it not
in the meanest of our villages or the smallest of our
hamlets, it would be absurd to expect it from the entire
world." Also he thought that "inasmuch as the reason
of a dishonest man will prevail if he be the stronger, . . .
France could not isolate herself without very soon finding
the measure of her true greatness in her apparent
greatness." ;

It was from this point of view that, from the outset, he
regarded the conflict which the possession of the bay of
Nootka in California was about to let loose between
England and Spain. We know how insistently, in writ-
ings prior to the meeting of the States-General, he had
expressed himself in favour of the English alliance. The

Online LibraryLouis BarthouMirabeau, from the French of Louis Barthou .. → online text (page 20 of 29)