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First Edition 1898
Reprinted 1904

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In the preface to a brilliant little biography of Mirabeau
published in " Les grands Ecrivains francais ' ; series
(Hachette, 1891) M. Eousse tells us that everything we
need wish to know about Mirabeau may be found in
the memoirs published by M. Lucas de Montigny
(8 vols., Delauney, 1835), in the exhaustive work of
MM. Louis and Charles de Lomenie (Les Mirabeau,
5 vols., Dentu, 1878-1891), and in the correspondence
between Mirabeau and La Marck edited by M. de
Bacourt (2 vols., Meline, Cans, and Cie., 1851). If we
add to these works the Souvenirs sur Mirabeau of Dumont
(1 vol., Bossange, 1832) and the life of Mirabeau written
by Professor Alfred Stern (Das Leben Mirabeaus, 2 vols.,
Cronbach, 1889), this last the most complete, impartial,
and interesting biography of the orator existing, we are
not likely, when endeavouring to acquaint ourselves
with Mirabeau, to be led into error by want of know-
ledge of the facts or of competent guidance. Yet we
shall only be learning to know him as he appears to the



eyes of others. Long extracts from his letters and
works are indeed given by M. de Montigny, but they
are carefully selected and arranged to produce the
impression desired by the piety of the "adopted son."
The two volumes of M. de Bacourt contain Mirabeau's
letters to La Marck, Lafayette, and others, as well as
his notes for the Court ; but in this correspondence he
is less the real Mirabeau than the Mirabeau he wishes to
be thought by those whom he addresses.

Dumont, no doubt, gives us a good and authentic
portrait, but he is rather disposed to represent Mirabeau
as a wonderful and mighty machine set in motion by
himself and his Swiss friends, and to ignore the pre-
eminence of genius which employed him and them as
pliant and serviceable tools. M. Charles de Lomenie is
biassed against his hero, and although too conscientious
to be guilty of anything approaching to misrepresentation,
he, to say the least, is neither blind nor kind to his faults.

Even Professor Stern, who can scarcely be surpassed
for judicial fairness and sane judgment, occasionally
"imputes himself." This, indeed, seems to me the error
into which it is all but impossible not to fall when
passing judgment on the life of a man such as Mirabeau,
swayed by the most various impulses, uninfluenced by
any religious or moral principles, unsoured by any grain
of conscience. It is difficult not to argue "What a
scoundrel should I be were I to act thus : therefore
what a scoundrel was he ! " Not at all. If we may use


the language of the schools, for him the major premiss
of the moral syllogism did not exist.

The reader's knowledge of Mirabeau is likely, there-
fore, to be more complete and more immediate if in
addition to the books already mentioned he will also
read the Letters from Vincennes published by Manuel
(4 vols., Garnery, 1792), and the (Euvres de Mirabeau,
Discours et Opinions (9 vols., edited by Merilhon, 1826).
As I have said elsewhere, it is when reading the Letters
from Vincennes that we seem to be brought most nearly
into something like personal contact with the author, to
realise what manner of man he was, and to understand
the fascination which he exercised over all who met
him, except pedants and prigs like Necker and Lafayette.

I do not know that much of importance has been
written in English about Mirabeau, except an essay by
Macaulay {Miscellaneous Writings, vol. ii. p. 70, edition
1860). The compound name coined for him after his
own fashion by Macaulay — Wilkes-Chatham — is by itself
alone worth the whole of Carlyle's fanciful rhapsody
{Miscellanies, vol. v. p. 201, edition of 1872).



The Family and Parentage of Mirabeau . . . Page 1


The education of Mirabeau — In disgrace with his father — Campaign
in Corsica — Reconciliation with the Marquis— Marriage— First
lettre de cachet — Castle of If and Pontarlier — Elopement with
Sophie de Monnier — Vincennes .... Page 15


Mirabeau presents himself for trial — His suit against his wife —
Madame de Nehra — Visit to England — Financial Pamphlets
— Mission to Berlin . . . . . Page 43


Mirabeau attacks Calonne and Necker — Publication of the Mon-
archic Priissienne — Negotiations with Montmorin — New
reconciliation with his father — First meeting with La Marck
— Publication of the Berlin Letters — Candidature in Provence.

Page 66



The meeting of the States-General — Position of Mirabeau in the
Assembly — The Seance Royale — Mirabeau at length is heard —
Dismissal of Necker — Fall of the Bastille . . Page 83


Mirabeau's popularity — Generosity of La Marek — The Declaration
of Rights— The 4th of August .... Page 106


The veto — Mirabeau supports Necker — His greater influence in
the Assembly — The 5th of October — The King brought to
Paris — Mirabeau offers his services . . . Page 118


Mirabeau's first advice to the Court — Negotiations with Lafayette
—He fails to prevent the exclusion of Ministers from the
Assembly ........ Page 131


Policy of the Constituent— Mirabeau's treaty with the Court — His
advice to the King and Queen .... Fage 149



The right of declaring war — The Feast of the Federation — Inter-
view with the King and Queen — Despondency of Mirabeau —
He inclines to the Left ..... Page 164


Mirabeau and the Church — His understanding with Montmorin —
Policy proposed by him ..... Page 190


Mirabeau President of the Assembly — Conference with Malouet —
Not trusted by the Court — Defies the Jacobins — Folicy as
member of the Diplomatic Committee — Illness and death.

Page 201



The Family and Parentage of Mirabeau.

Madame de Stael, in her often-quoted description of the
first meeting of the Estates-General in 1789, remarks
that of the men of letters, the merchants, the numerous
lawyers, and few nobles who were the chosen representa-
tives of the Commons of France scarcely any were known
and none celebrated except the Count of Mirabeau. He
alone attracted the eyes of all spectators, and, once seen,
arrested their attention. His vast shock of hair made
him conspicuous among the crowd. His very ugliness
added to the impressive vigour of his countenance,
" swart, prodigious, patched with foul moles and eye-
offending marks," but instinct with indomitable energy
and conscious power. The fear inspired by his un-
principled character strangely heightened the general
opinion of his ability. Other eye-witnesses have recorded
that, when this striking figure was recognised among the
deputies of Provence, the applause with which they at
first were greeted sank in a murmur of disapprobation.

"In every company of every rank," wrote Arthur
Young a few days later, "you hear of the Count of
£ B

2 MIRABEAU chap.

Mirabeau's talents, that he is one of the first pens of
France and the first orator, and yet that he could not
carry from confidence six votes on any question in the
Estates." Mirabeau was indeed far more than the first
orator : he was the greatest statesman, or rather the
only great statesman, in that body to which the future
destinies of France were committed. "When words
only are needed," said his friend the Count of La Marck,
" there is no lack of talents in this assembly, but when
something more than words is required, you have no
rival." He did indeed combine nearly every qualifica-
tion of a consummate politician. A strong and practical
intellect unfettered by phrases, formulas, and systems,
versatility in the choice and adaptation of means, a clear
and tenacious grasp of the end to be attained, skill in
the management of men, a marvellous power of in-
fluencing and winning the confidence of those who were
brought into personal relations with him, an insight
into the future which attained to something little short
of prophecy. " Mirabeau," says Madame de Stael, " knew
everything and foresaw everything." The great orator
has often been represented as the prime agent in the
Revolution, as the very incarnation of the revolutionary
spirit, and indeed that wonderful time, when the dis-
appearance of all barriers left a free field to every
ambition and every ability, produced but one other who
could compare with him as a born leader and chief of
men. Yet, had Mirabeau never existed, the French
Revolution would probably have run the same course ;
had his life been protracted the event would have been
the same, the ruin of the Monarchy not less tragic and


Private and even public vices have not proved
obstacles to the ambition of men far more criminal and
not less profligate. In public life Mirabeau had, as we
shall see, principles, and to these principles he was
essentially faithful ; nor was he without private virtues,
or at least such amiable qualities as pass current for
virtues in social intercourse. It would be unjust to
compare him with an unscrupulous time-server like
Talleyrand, or even, as was done by his father, to a
mischievous and entirely selfish intriguer like the
Cardinal de Retz, and he would certainly have recoiled
with horror from such a crime as the execution of the
Duke of Enghien. How came it, then, that talents so
great proved so unprofitable to him who was endowed
with them, and of so little service to his country 1 The
answer to this question is to be found not in anything
that Mirabeau said or did after he had become a member
of the Assembly, but in the circumstances of his previous

Gabriel Honore de Riqueti was born on the 9th of
March 1749 at Le Bignon, near Nemours, the favourite
residence of his father, the Marquis of Mirabeau, the
disciple and successor of Quesnai, renowned, and at
that time still admired, as "the Friend of Humanity."
Gabriel Honore was the fifth child and the second son.
His elder brother had died in his third year from
drinking the contents of an inkhorn, the victim of a
taste strangely abnormal, though not without a certain
appropriateness in the child of a .family singularly
addicted to the use and abuse of that liquid.

No Montmorency or Rohan could exceed the Marquis
of Mirabeau in pride of birth. The orator was fond of

4 MIRABEAU chap.

repeating, if indeed he did not invent, his father's boast
that an intermarriage with the Medici was the only blot
on his scutcheon. Yet the descent of the Riquets —
for such was the original name of the family — from
Arrighettis, noble exiles from Florence who settled in
Provence during the thirteenth century, seems to have
been a baseless invention. At a time when the Medici
were intermarrying with princes and kings, the founder
of the family of Mirabeau was a thriving citizen of
Marseilles, who amassed a fortune by trading in coral
and manufacturing cloth, while he raised himself in
public estimation by an aristocratic marriage and the
capable discharge of municipal office. This Jean Riquet
or Riqueti bought in 1570 the estate and castle of
Mirabeau, a fief of the old Provencal family of Barras.

In 1660 Thomas de Riqueti entertained Lewis XIV.
in his house at Marseilles. Honore, the son of Thomas,
was created Marquis of Mirabeau in 1685. Great
personal beauty, more than common talents, hot blood,
overweening pride, and self-complacent eccentricity were
the characteristics of the family during the eighteenth
century. But the Friend of Humanity went too far
when he boasted that the world had been learning
during five hundred years to tolerate Mirabeaus, who
were not as other men. The respectable country gentle-
men who, during the seventeenth century, intermarried
with the old houses of Provence, did nothing to startle
the world. The first original in the family appears to
have been one Bruno de Riqueti, who commanded a
company in the musketeers of Lewis XIV. "Bruno,"
said his great nephew, the father of Mirabeau, "had as
much wit as courage, but was mad, insolent, and vicious."


The next generation to Bruno produced a Mirabeau
who would have been famous if indomitable courage
and extravagant pride could secure fame. This is that
Jean Antoine, Marquis of Mirabeau, whose life, written
by his son the economist in the vigorous, straight-
forward, and racy style which he unfortunately con-
sidered to be beneath the dignity of his philosophical
speculations, was plagiarised by his grandson the orator.

A favourite officer of the Duke of Vendome, the
Marquis of Mirabeau served with distinction in many
campaigns, fighting with reckless valour. At Cassano
he was shot through the arm and neck, and lay among
the dead while the tide of battle rolled over his body.
A lucky chance stopped the haemorrhage of a wound
which had injured the jugular vein, and a desperate
operation saved his life. But the tendons of the neck
were so cut that the Marquis could henceforth only
hold up his head by the assistance of a silver band or
stock. Although he called the day of Cassano that of
his death, he was still singularly handsome, and it does
not appear strange that he should have been the success-
ful suitor of a Provencal beauty — Francoise de Castellane-
Norante — or if strange, not because of his forty-two
years and scarcely less numerous scars, but on account
of the reputation he had gained for extravagant self-
assertion and choleric obstinacy. Francoise de Castellane
bore her lord seven children, of whom only three boys
were living when their father died at the age of seventy-

Of the eldest of these sons the biographer of Mira-
beau, however narrow the limits to which he is confined,
must speak at some length : for unless we know his

6 MIRABEAU chap,

father it is impossible to understand the son ; the
younger must be dismissed in a few lines. Yet the
temptation to linger is great ; among the French nobility
of the eighteenth century few characters can be found
as attractive as that of the second son, Jean Antoine,
Bailli de Mirabeau. It has justly been said that his
life was as simple, as straightforward, as full of practical
common sense, of unaffected heroism and self-sacrifice
as that of his eldest brother was artificial, pedantic,
egotistical, and confused by chimerical schemes the
offspring of an extravagant self-conceit.

Received soon after his birth into the order of Malta,
he began when only thirteen his naval career on the
royal galleys. For twenty years he was almost con-
stantly engaged in active service, repeatedly wounded,
and once taken prisoner. Post-captain at thirty-three,
he was shortly afterwards appointed Governor of Guade-
loupe. On his return he might have become Minister
of Marine through the influence of the Abbe de Bernis,
the friend of the Marquis of Mirabeau and of Madame
de Pompadour, had it not been known that he meditated
reforms alarming to the official world. The Marquis
made the one good investment of his life when he found
the 150,000 livres which enabled his brother to defray
for a year the expenses of the office of general of
the galleys of Malta, and thus to secure a claim to the
next good commandery vacant. In addition to this he
obtained two other benefices, and the grand-mastership
of the order appeared to be within his grasp, when,
finding that his brother wished him to come home, he
left Malta. Henceforth he lived chiefly at Mirabeau,
supplying the place of the absentee master, and


assisting his brother with his advice, his sympathy,
and his purse. Although his income was close upon
70,000 livres, the only luxury he permitted himself was
the collection of a fine library. Mirabeau used to
declare that his uncle had but one weakness, his affec-
tionate faith in his brother. It would be more just to
say that nothing we are told about the Marquis does
him so much credit as the unchanging love and con-
fidence between the brothers.

The elder, Victor de Riqueti, Marquis of Mirabeau,
was born on 4th October 1715. He was educated by
the Jesuits at Aix till his fourteenth year, when he
obtained a commission in the regiment his father had

After serving a year Victor de Mirabeau was sent
to an academy at Paris : one of those establishments
in which young nobles were taught the accomplishments
of a soldier and a gentleman — riding, fencing, dancing,
and in their spare hours some smattering of polite

He had taken the precaution to suppress a letter
from his father to the head of the academy authorising
and asking for strict discipline. He was accordingly
allowed to do pretty much what he pleased, and what
pleased him was not edifying. His excesses were, he
confesses, surprising at so early an age, and they
entailed the natural consequences — an illness, from
which he soon recovered, and an empty purse, which
his father refused to fill. In the winter of 1731 a
strange figure was often to be seen in the pit of Parisian
theatres — a boy of remarkable beauty, with clear-cut
features, bold eyes, and hair streaming in long elf-locks

8 MIRABEAU chap.

below his shoulders, the cross of a knight of Malta
hanging over his tattered clothes, who with his com-
panions disturbed actors and audience by noisy dis-
approbation and tumultuous applause. The ragged
young reprobate became the favoured lover of an actress
hardly older than himself, from whom in the following
summer he parted with tears and despair to take the
command of a company in his regiment.

Licentiousness carried to the verge of erotic mania
was the vice which proved the curse of Mirabeau,
which blunted his sense of honour and degraded though
it could not dull his powerful intellect. This failing of
the great tribune may be explained, perhaps even pitied,
as an hereditary taint. His father's youth was excep-
tionally dissolute, even for the eighteenth century. He
himself laments his degradation in a letter, written when
he was twenty-five, to his friend the moralist Vauven-
argues : — "Sensuality is the bane of my imagination.
I shall dearly rue my follies and that licentiousness
which has become my second nature."

The Marquis Jean Antoine died in 1737. His
property was embarrassed by unfortunate speculations
and by a taste for ostentation ; yet he left his successor
a net income of 16,000 livres, sufficient for a country
gentleman content to live quietly on his estate, though
very insufficient for one who aspired to play the part
of a great noble, and whose head was full of schemes
for improving his property which were to be an example
to others and the means of obtaining the wealth which
should enable the Mirabeaus to occupy their proper
place in the world.

After several campaigns the young marquis left the


army (1743) and reflected that he owed it to the
future greatness of his house to marry an heiress.
A friend suggested the only daughter of M. de Vassan —
a general officer who had assumed the title of marquis
in right of his wife, the owner of estates in the Limousin,
in Poitou, and in Perigord. Although he had known
the father for five years and had formed the meanest
opinion of his character and capacity, the imagination
of the Marquis of Mirabeau was fired by the prospect of
acquiring broad domains scattered over a wide area, and
thus raising his family "from provincial to national

The father and mother of the heiress would only
give their daughter an income of 4000 livres, secured
on a fief in Perigord ; they refused to settle even the
reversion of their estates upon her. But nothing could
damp the ardour of the suitor. Disregarding the re-
monstrances of his lawyer, he persisted in signing the
marriage contract, and, as if the most passionate of
lovers, hurried off next day to his unseen bride who
was living in the Limousin with her mother. The
marriage was immediately celebrated, but not before
the Marquis had discovered that his mother-in-law's
mind was unsound : she had, he says, been in a mad-
house before the birth of her daughter ; her temper
perverse — "the most irritable and irritating woman in
the world " ; and that the education of his bride had
been detestable.

Marie Genevieve de Vassan appears at the time of
her marriage to have been an ignorant girl, half educated,
spoilt by a weakly obstinate mother and a foolish father,
with violent passions and ill-balanced mind, inheriting,

10 MIRABEAU chap.

as her husband complains, all the faults of her odious
parentage. If an extant portrait is to be trusted, she
was not altogether bad-looking, but the expression of
her face was sensual and impudent. She was not with-
out wit and could be vivacious, but her chatter was
unrestrained by any tact or sense of propriety. She
was always, says the Marquis, in extremes, sulkily
morose or petulantly loquacious, indolent, slatternly,
without modesty or decency. This and much more, in
extraordinary and repulsive detail, is written by him to a
married daughter ; and what must we think of the father
who in a letter of advice to his child points his moral
by a description of the follies and vices of her mother %

The intermittent but exacting fondness of his wife,
her not unreasonable jealousy and anger, were equally
irritating to the Marquis. He proposed an amicable
separation ; her father was dead, she might live with and
take care of her mother. At first she refused, but at
length, when the health of Madame de Vassan was
failing, and the disposition she would make of her
property uncertain, the Marchioness was persuaded to
go to her mother. In her absence the Marquis dis-
covered proofs of his wife's dishonour, " of shame over
which an honourable man could not throw his cloak,"
so indisputable that she could no longer refuse her
consent to a formal separation. She undertook not to
come to Paris or in any way molest her husband on
condition of receiving a moderate allowance.

Unfortunately Madame de Mirabeau was an in-
veterate gambler and a very foolish one, the born prey
of sharpers and adventurers. She anticipated her
allowance and ran into debt. The creditors plagued


her husband, who deducted payments made to quiet
them from her income. Hence complaints that he
did not perform his part of the compact, To prevent
further scandal and to secure himself against annoyance,
the Marquis applied for and obtained from a minister
related to his wife a lettre de cachet confining her to a
convent at Limoges.

He had some years previously denounced an abuse
of arbitrary power, the victims of which were imprisoned
without form of trial and often ignorant both of their
offence and of their accuser. He himself would never
— so he wrote — have recourse to such an odious in-
strument of oppression while laws and law-courts,
however defective, existed. Yet this was to be the
first of the long series of lettres de cachet by which a
philosophic and humanitarian marquis, fallen on evil
days, sought to maintain some authority over his per-
verse generation.

Every year the Marquis drew up a domestic budget
with an explanatory preamble justifying to his posterity
his administration of the family fortunes. Occasionally
he has misgivings, but on the whole he applauds his
financial skill, which, like that of the French Govern-
ment, consisted in paying one debt by incurring another
and a heavier. He seems to have felt, like many a
systematic prodigal, that the sting of a deficit is gone
when set forth in an elaborate balance - sheet. But
every year his net income dwindled, and at last it
altogether disappeared, although the gross income which
he derived from his estates increased, owing to the rise
in the value of landed property, which continued from
the end of the Seven Years' War to the Eevolution.

12 MIRABEAU chap.

An expenditure which always exceeded his income,
a taste for building and for costly and experimental

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Online LibraryPaul Ferdinand WillertMirabeau → online text (page 1 of 16)