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Mirabeau, from the French of Louis Barthou .. online

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question for several weeks, and did not break out again
until the beginning of the year 1791. On January i, as
he gave his consent to a motion by Barnave to assure the
execution of the decree of November 27, he tried to explain
that the refusal of the oath was incompatible with a public
function, but that any priest who refused it would be con-
sidered simply as having sent in his resignation without
incurring any other sanction. He added that the Assembly
had not trenched on the spiritual domain. But on
January 4, on the occasion of the disturbances excited in
his parish by the cur^ of Peronne, he secured a series
of measures aiming at the facilitation of the election
of bishops and cures and the nomination of vicars. In
this way he sought to avoid a too long interruption of the
ministration of religion, which every wise citizen would
regard "as the eclipse of an influence very necessary to the
patriotic zeal of the people," and to deprive the enemies
of the Revolution of a means of turning public opinion
against it by denouncing it as having attacked the "power
of their religion, its worship and its hopes."

These two speeches were the expression of a very wise
idea which led Mirabeau to seek rather to calm disaffection
than to aggravate it, and to facilitate peace rather than to
excite hostilities. Were they not thus in contradiction to
Mirabeau's plan for urging the necessity and possibility
of a remedy through the very excess of the evil ? The
Comte de La Marck pointed this out to him and amicably



reproached him with not having let the Assembly "fall
into the snare." Mirabeau replied that "if the Assembly
thought the resignation of twenty thousand cur^s would
have no effect on the kingdom, it must be looking through
queer spectacles." Although he had had no part in the
deliberations of the ecclesiastical committee he was entrusted
with an address to the French nation on the civil Constitu-
tion of the clergy, and he read it aloud on January 14. On
this occasion he drifted into rather than assumed violence,
and expressed himself in a manner which gave such offence
to both the Right and to certain members of the majority
that he could not finish the reading. It needed nothing
less than his admirable report of January 28 on the foreign
situation to extricate him from this unfortunate set-back.

M. de La Marck insisted on the execution of that part of
the plan which aimed at "undermining" the Assembly,
and urged him once more to profit by the question of the
clergy to add to the discredit of the legislature. Mirabeau
sent two notes to the Court (January 21 and 24) to this in-
tent, and it is impossible to read them without pain. In
order to increase the number of the malcontents and to
"store up combustible matter for the fire," he suggests a
whole series of measures set forth in precise detail. But,
by a strange contradiction, in the Assembly he opposed
the attitude of the Abbe Maury and Cazales, who, uncon-
sciously, were in favour of the plan he had drawn up.

Mirabeau 's restless incoherence during all these debates
is too glaringly in contrast with the serious importance
of the religious question not to occasion astonishment
and regret. His capacity for intrigue submerged his
political instinct just at the very moment when he needed
it most. Mirabeau would have done better, if it was im-
possible for him to have the courage of his convictions, to
persist in a silence which would have been less injurious
than his speeches to the public service and to his own repu-
tation. He thought and wrote better than he acted :



" Here," he said in a letter of January 27, " is a new sore, the
most inflamed and festered of all, which will add yet another
gangrene to those which are burning into, corroding and
dissolving the body politic. We had made ourselves a King
in effigy, without power, and a legislative body which ad-
ministers, informs, judges, rewards, punishes, does every-
thing but what it ought to do. Now we are setting up
religious schism side by side with political schism. We
had not enough trouble, but we must rouse more : not
enough dangers, but we must evoke the worst of all : not
enough difficulties, but we must raise the most insurmount-
able : we shall bring about the end of all things if the
Assembly does not soon grow weary of obeying the
anarchists ! " There could not be a firmer or more clear-
sighted statement of the case. That the same maa should
have written so noble a letter and should have contradicted
it by his conduct, that he should so clearly have foreseen
the danger of religious schism and should have contri-
buted to it, is a most disconcerting problem in political
psychology. Nothing can solve it except the Marquis de
Mirabeau's judgment of his son : "He is all contrasts."

But the part Mirabeau had played in the question of
the clergy did not satisfy him. He felt that he had yielded
too much to his desire to maintain his popularity, or that
he had weakened his attitude by too much subtlety and
ill-understood niceties. The courageous good sense which
he had shown in his letter prevailed and, on March 2,
in a few significant words he expressed the same opinion
in the tribune : "The fact is," he said, "we are giving far
too much attention to the clergy : we should be concerned
with other things now than the question of giving them
their pensions and letting them sleep in peace."

At the beginning of the year 1791 Mirabeau's popularity
was immense. The people of Paris were grateful for his
services and proud of his genius. Mirabeau had become
a national glory. The Chaussee d'Antin district, where he



had set up house and lived a recklessly gorgeous life,
appointed him on January i8 chief of a battalion of the
National Guard. His delight was the greater in that La
Fayette had opposed his election. Also he hoped that
his office, by giving him "the advantage of going with
Monseigneur the Dauphin on his walks," would also give
him the advantage of meeting the Queen, with whom he had
in vain sought a second interview. He was disappointed
in this hope. But the Assembly accorded him an honour
which repaired his discomfiture.

Since its convocation it had had forty-two presidents,
a few of them famous, some well known, others very
mediocre. It was high time to summon to the chair
the orator of geniuS whose fight for liberty had redeemed
the errors of a restless and adventurous life. At several
junctures Mirabeau had had reason to think he would be
elected. At the time of the celebration of the Federation
he had been opposed by the umbrageous virtue of La
Fayette, who since then had not given him his promised
support. Mirabeau's address on the civil Constitution
had weakened his chances, which had materially improved.
"I don't care a fig," he wrote to the Comte de La Marck
with scornful familiarity, but, at heart, he had a very
natural desire for the honour. He was elected on
January 29, and was an incomparable president. Never
had the office been so brilliantly filled or exercised with
such genial ease, such sovereign clarity, or such witty
impartiality. The speeches he made in answer to the
delegations admitted to the bar show a marvellous supple-
ness of mind and form.

To the composers he delivered an eulogy of music with
a lightness and quickness of touch which recalled his little
book, Le Lecteur y mettra le Titre.

To the municipality of Paris, who protested against the
special control of the municipal excise, he replied: "Do
not be afraid of the weight of your trials : it is something



gained for liberty." He proclaimed the necessity of public
peace and order and of the union of all citizens. And,
forgetting the duplicity of the advice he had given in his
secret plan, he decried the "intriguing men who were
trying to disturb law and order in order to raise them-
selves to the position of moderators and mediators."

To a deputation of the Quinze-Vingts he declared, with
the emotion of one whose sight has been impaired,
that the Assembly had every sympathy with "the cruel
affliction which deprives a man of all the consolations of
life and yet falls short of death." He added that a blind
man without a leader ought to be a sight unknown among
civilized nations. Are there not even now only too many
highly civilized nations where such a sight is seen ?

To the Quakers, who asked permission to practise their
religion in France, and to have their civil status expressed
in a particular form, he replied in a speech the prudent
courtesy, the political wisdom and high philosophy of
which several times provoked the unanimous applause of
the Assembly. True, in such speeches Mirabea,u was
exceeding the bounds of his office. But who would think
of reproaching him when he expressed such ingenious and
moving thought with such delicacy and force ? The
Quakers had invoked the article of their religion which
forbade them to carry arms or to kill under any pretext
whatever. "It is doubtless," he replied, "a fine philoso-
phical principle thus to worship humanity ; but consider
whether self-defence and the defence of kin and kind is
not also a religious duty."

To the lawyers he made a magnificent eulogy of public
and private law, "the eternal truths which, based on the
nature of man and society, see everything change about
them and never change themselves, and are the principle
of every lasting regeneration."

If it is true that certain of Mirabeau's enemies had raised
him to the presidency in order to set him aside and reduce



him to silence, their doing so served their designs but ill.
His tenure of the office was the public revelation of certain
qualities of the mighty Tribune which until then had only-
been appreciated by his intimate friends. His glory
gained by it. Circumstances, a few days after he had
surrendered the chair to Duport, were to heighten it still
more by the heroic resistance which Mirabeau offered to
the "anarchists," whose excesses were favoured by a section
of the Assembly, a weakly complacent section, who did
not share their opinions.

Mirabeau 's popularity made M. de La Marck uneasy :
"If ever he were to despair of a government," he wrote,
"and were to count wholly on his popularity he would
be insatiable." The part played by Mirabeau in arrang-
ing for M. de La Marck to go to Metz to warn the Marquis
de Bouille of the possibility of the King's departure was
enough to allay such anxiety. This plan, of the circum-
stances of which little is known, came to nothing. It is
difficult to say in what form or to what purpose Mirabeau
would have facilitated its realization. We can only con-
clude from it that Mirabeau did not abandon his "wards,"
as he called the King and Queen. Never had they been
in greater need of his guardianship. Unfortunately they
sought his advice more than they followed it, and, either
from distrust or from weakness, they refrained, especially
the King, from their personal share in any action demand-
ing their initiative.

Being warned of a journey to Rome planned by the
King's aunts, Mirabeau at once saw and tried to make the
Court understand the manifold dangers which false in-
terpretations and the violence of "factions" could bring
into being. "If Mesdames were to be brought back," he
said, "the commotion might extend even to the palace, and
when one lives under a thatched roof it is reasonable to
dread both flood and fire." He pledged the King to take
the initiative in approaching the Assembly to point out,



that as he dared not, for fear of exceeding his powers,
forbid a journey which was obviously inopportune, he
expected the deputies to issue a decree defining his rights
over the members of his family. Such a step would have
given Louis XVI the popularity that Mirabeau expected,
but it was too bold not to be distasteful to the King's
habitual indecision. Mesdames Adelaide and Victoire left
Paris for Rome on February 19, and were first stopped at
Moret, and then detained in the Cote d'Or by the munici-
pality of Arnay-le-Duc, whose report, together with a protest
by the King's aunts, claiming their rights as "citizenesses,"
was sent to the Assembly. Mirabeau blamed Mesdames
for having done an imprudent and impolitic thing in
leaving Paris at a time when all good citizens should stay
at their posts near the head of the nation, but he declared
that, as the journey was not illegal, there was no reason
to discuss it. "Is there a law? " he said. And when he
was interrupted with the reply, "There is a law : the safety
of the people," he answered with admirable presence of
mind : "The safety of the people does not entail the neces-
sity for these ladies to sleep three or four extra nights on
the road." His motion was carried (February 24).

On the next day, on the occasion of an incident provoked
by Cazal^s during the course of a debate on the residence
of public functionaries, he uttered some of the strongest
words he ever pronounced. He averred that the oath
pledged to the nation, the law anH the King was indivis-
ible, and that none of its component parts could be
separated : "Our oath of fidelity to the King," he declared,
"is in the Constitution; it is constitutional. It is pro-
foundly injurious to cast any doubt on our respect for this
oath. After such an unequivocal declaration, for which
I am prepared to fight the whole world, being determined
to fight every kind of faction that may try to undermine
the principles of the monarchy, under any system what-
soever, and wherever in the kingdom it may appear "



(the Left applauded loudly); "after such a declaration,
which embraces every locality, all times, all systems, all
persons, all sects, without wasting more time in vain
recriminations, let us pass on to the question which is the
order of the day."

Never had Mirabeau expressed himself with more
authority. It was the language of a leader conscious of
his duty and responsibility. "Take care," he said to
Malouet with brutal frankness, "I am the only man in
this patriotic horde who could speak thus without a volte-
face. I have never adopted their fictions, nor their meta-
physics, nor their useless crimes." Through all the inci-
dents that came crowding in, ever more passionate, ever
more numerous from day to day, he saw the fixed line, the
steadfast barrier which must be maintained if they were to
be controlled, their consequences directed, their repetition
averted. In his hostility to the counter-revolutionary
monarchists and the revolutionary anarchists he regarded
them both as factions whose success, in either case, would
lead to tyranny. "It was," as Michelet showed in a com-
pelling passage, "a solemn field of battle whereon two
principles, two orders of mind, met in combat : one being
the original and natural principle which created the Revo-
lution, justice, equitable humanity вАФ and the other being
the principle of expediency and interest which called itself
the public safety." Between the two systems Mirabeau
was aiming at equity.

The debate on the journey of Mesdames had only been
an incident, a preparation for the tragic duel. It was the
projected decree relating to emigration that brought Mira-
beau, already mortally stricken, and the Terror, feeling its
way, to grips. In the name of the committee on the Con-
stitution Le Chapelier had prepared a project, but, before
reading it, he declared that it would "be injurious to prin-
ciples and outside the Constitution." At the same time he
recognized all the difficulties which would make the applica-



tion of the ordinary law almost impossible. His honesty
impelled him to admit the dictatorial nature of what he had
drawn up. Dictatorial it certainly was, for, in times of
trouble, the Assembly would be able to give to a council
of three the right to authorize or forbid passage out of the

Mirabeau spoke three times. First of all he read an
extract from a letter he had written to Frederick William
of Prussia, on the day of that Prince's accession to the
throne, in which in the name of eternal equity he denounced
as tyrannical any law forbidding emigration. When he
had read this letter he asked the Assembly to pass on to
the order of the day. The Assembly wished to hear the
committee's scheme. As soon as its text was made known
Mirabeau rushed to take possession of the tribune. With
a firmness of tone which the uproar of a certain thirty
members of the Assembly could not shake, he opposed the
discussion of a law which could not be enforced. He
declared that he would regard himself as released from
every oath of fidelity to those who should be infamous
enough to appoint a dictatorial committee. It was a chal-
lenge. He accentuated the haughtiness of it by the famous
words which have done more for his glory as an orator
than all his other eloquent speeches: "The popularity
which has been my ambition," he cried, "the popularity
which, like any other man, I have had the honour to enjoy,
is not a frail reed : I wish that it may plunge its roots into
the soil down to the unshakable bases of reason and liberty.
If you pass a law against emigration I swear that I will
never obey it ! " The muttering gained in volume. Turn-
ing on the extreme Left from whence the uproar came, he
silenced them with a sublimely scornful cry: "Silence,
you thirty ! " His brevity was better than a programme.
Outside the mob roared. It was suggested that the pro-
posal for the decree should be sent back to the committee
for further consideration : "You may add," he said, "that
from this moment until the end of the adjournment there



shall be no disturbance." Thus he made the "thirty
voices " responsible for the disorder which had come as
far as the very doors of the Assembly. As a member of
some weeks' standing of the directing body of the depart-
mental administration of Paris, Mirabeau left the tribune
to go straight to this post, to which his duty called him.
There he drew up a proclamation which was an echo of the
speech he had just delivered: "The authors of these dis-
turbances," he said, "have dishonoured the name of liberty :
for liberty does not consist in recognizing no authority : it
consists in obeying only such law as has been constitution-
ally made."

In the evening he went to the Jacobin Club. He had
already encountered storms there. On December 6, during
a tumultuous meeting, he had called Robespierre to order
and respect for the law. When he entered on February 28,
the hall was full. Duport and Lameth, who had been silent
in the Assembly, were counting on having their revenge
on Mirabeau in the over-excited, heated club. Mirabeau
knew or suspected as much. With admirable courage he
faced the formidable contest, which was made unequal by
the passions of a partial audience. His arrival created a
sensation. Indignant shouts arose. Without showing
any emotion he went to his place and listened and waited.
Disconcerted by his unexpected appearance, Duport wan-
dered off into a long speech against La Fayette. At the end
of it he denounced those men whom he regarded as most
dangerous to liberty: "They are not far away," he said.
The anger of the audience, who had only been waiting for
this signal, broke out. From every side there came loud
applause. All eyes were turned on Mirabeau, and the
spectators stood up and shouted and encouraged Duport.
He told the story of the morning's sitting : he accused
Mirabeau of being the head of a coalition against the
Jacobins : he declared that the hopes of the nation and
of liberty could never rest upon any one man, and then,
in a movement which in fairness he could not but render to



Mirabeau as his due for so many services given to their
cause, he appealed to the Tribune to affect a reconcihation
in order to defend the pubHc Hberty.

Mirabeau walked swiftly to the tribune. He was
received with wild uproar, insults, threats. He stood up
against them and at last obtained silence. Instead of turn-
ing on La Fayette and thus diverting the storm on to his
rival's head, he was noble enough and bold enough to
defend him and to throw in his lot with him. Then he
turned to Duport's bitter words : he powerfully maintained
his opinion against the law on emigration, and he
loudly reproached his adversaries for not having opposed
that opinion in the Assembly, if they thought it so
disastrous to liberty. The audience was moved and be-
came almost favourable.

Once more Lameth's speech let loose its fury. Ordin-
arily a dull and poor speaker, Lameth was stung by hate
and spite into surpassing himself. He was skilful and
vehement, eager and treacherous. Mirabeau had spoken
of the "leaders of opinion." This expression was twisted
by Lameth into an insult to all other deputies, whose
jealousy, envy and mediocrity he stirred up with deadly
fervour. With growing audacity he declared that he was
not of those who thought it necessary to spare Mirabeau
in order not to drive him to despair. He did not spare
him. He dragged forth the mistakes of his youth, his
contradictions, his intrigues, his weaknesses, and the
equivocal situation that made him at one and the same time
the champion of the ideas of Malouet, Cazal^s, and the
Abb6 Maury. The audience was excited almost to

Mirabeau bore the brunt of this formidable attack with-
out a word or a gesture of interruption. When he got up
to reply his hearers displayed an even more violent in-
dignation than they had done after Duport's speech. The
president tried to remove the orator from the tribune and
to close the meeting. The sight of Mirabeau's "terrible



head," his indomitable and imperious will, his masterful
coolness, and possibly also the sort of fascination which
physical courage can sometimes exercise over an unbridled
mob, triumphed over the revolting partiality of the meet-
ing. Were they to be so stupid and cowardly as to stop
the words on the eloquent lips that in each critical hour had
spoken the vengeful words which had made or saved the
Revolution ? The club avoided the shame of such injus-
tice. Mirabeau was heard. What did he say ? History
knows not. Camille Desmoulins, who reported Lameth's
accusation in full, gives only a few lines to Mirabeau's
defence. He admits that he spoke with "infinite art," and
does not deny his success. That is saying too little. A
German, himself a Jacobin, who had no interest in the
quarrel, though he does not give us the lines followed by
the great orator's reply, leaves no doubt as to the effect
he produced. Mirabeau was sublime. Not one of his
speeches could come up to the boiling, tumultuous impro-
visation, in which, denounced, insulted and threatened, he
gripped his adversary, and, shaking from his grasp his
poisoned weapons, laid him low before an audience that,
in spite of all its prejudices, was overwhelmed and acknow-
ledged its defeat by enthusiastic applause. "I will stay
among you even though you ostracize me," said Mirabeau,
as he ended his speech. He was spared such ostracism
by death. After the tragic meeting of the Jacobins he
had only four weeks to live.

On March i, addressing the National Assembly on
behalf of a deputation from Paris, he affirmed the neces-
sity of assuring the public peace against "perverse and
factious men," whose proceedings he denounced as danger-
ous to the Constitution. He reminded the people that,
having laws and magistrates, they could not take things
into their own hands. On being admitted to the King's
presence with the same deputation, he declared that "there
is no real power save in the union of all the forces of the
Empire with one common end, no lasting government save
X 305


that in which the law in its execution preserves all the
energy of the general will that created it." In such words
he was expressing the ideas habitual to his mind. Public
order appeared to him more and more to be the condition
and safeguard of liberty. But he was not so well inspired
in proposing, in favour of twelve hundred poor families,
a levy of five days' pay on each deputy. Robespierre
rejected the principle. "Every motion," he said, "tending
to pervert the salary of the representatives of the nation
from its proper destination is an abnegation of the pro-
tective principles of public liberty." Democratic truth
was on Robespierre's side.

Of Mirabeau's subsequent interventions it is only neces-

Online LibraryLouis BarthouMirabeau, from the French of Louis Barthou .. → online text (page 24 of 29)