William O'Connor Morris.

The French revolution and first empire : an historical sketch online

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abode of a Prince wielding the sovereignty of France.



The next phase of the French Revolu-
the^period °^ ^^^^ ^^.y be fitly compared to the watery
from the spacc. Comparatively level, yet broken and

1789 to the tossed, and agitated by uncertain currents,

summer of , . , . . n 1 ,

lygi. which IS seen occasionally between moun-

tainous waves during the pauses of a tre-
mendous storm. From the autumn of 1789 to the summer
of 1 79 1 — a period of nearly two years — no events oc-
curred of such obvious significance as the rising of Paris,
the siege of the Bastille, the insurrection in the Provinces,
and the 5th and 6th of October ; and though elements
of trouble gathered and grew apparent to a discerning
eye, they did not yet form into a general outbreak.
Some terrible crimes were, indeed, perpetrated under
the influence of local passion or revenge ; one or two
conspiracies, real or feigned, were attempted by parti-
sans of the Court; the emigration of the Nobles in-
creased ; all along the frontier rumors were heard of
counter-revolution and even of invasion ; the attitude of

1789-91- The Constihctton of i^go-t. J7

foreign Powers became doubtful ; and throughout France,
from the Pyrenees to the Rhine, innovation showed
itself in a thousand forms ; the hearts of men throbbed
with the desire for change, and knavery and ambition
appealed too successfully to the hearts, the jealousies,
and the fears of the multitude. Nevertheless, the sur-
face of things at least appeared for a time less disturbed
'than before; some reforms were attended with perma-
nent good, and others with benefits for the moment ; the
dangerous pressure of popular distress, so evident in
1789, lessened ; and it seemed to thousands as if the
Revolution was tending to happiness, peace, and pro-
gress. The King had been separated from the faction
of the Court ; the National Assembly was supreme ; the
removal of the feudal burdens from the soil improved
agricultri.'e as if by magic ; France enjoyed such
liberty as she had never enjoyed before ; the Middle
class and the National Guards seemed sufficient to keep
mob violence down ; signs of increasing opulence were
not wanting ; and though disorder was still abroad, and
demagogues held formidable sway, and the echoes of
strife and discord were heard, were not symptoms like
these inevitable at a crisis of great and rapid change,
and would they not before long disappear ? The issue
was to be otherwise ; and this brief moment of compara-
tive calm was to see France brought nearer to the abyss,
to accelerate the dangers collecting around, and ulti-
mately to give renewed force to revolutionary passion
and suspicion. Yet History rejects the false creed of
fatalism, though she admits the stupendous power of
circumstance ; and while large allowances must, in jus-
tice, be made for inexperience and the difficulties of the
situation, it is not the less, in our judgment, true that
had France found statesmen among her rulers, had her

,]8 The Constitution of Y"] ^0-1. ch. hi.

aristocracy been less spoiled by arrogance, and less
morally worthless, had her Sovereign and those around
him been less unwise, the course of events would have
been very different.

After the scenes of the 5th and 6th of
Iss'embit''^' October, the National Assembly returned to
frlme\he ^^ ^^^^ °^ re-modelling the institutions of

Constitution. France, which had been, almost from the
first, its mission. Much that it accomplished
during the following months, although done with pre-
cipitate haste, was a great improvement on the old state
of things, and has since had beneficent re-
forms. ^' suits.* Old barbarous penalties were abol-
ished ; seignorial jurisdiction disappeared ;
internal trade, which had been crippled by mischievous
restrictions, was set free; a project was formed to fuse
into a Code the medley of written laws and customs,
conflicting and obscure, which prevailed in the king-
dom ; the monopolies and exclusive guilds of the towns
vanished with the feudal charges on the land ; and,
above all, religious toleration was proclaimed, the whole
system of taxation was reformed, and the iniquitous ex-
emptions of the privileged orders in this particular were
removed. These nieasures, and many others of the
kind, were salutary, and, for the most part, just ; and
Englishmen may, in these respects, agree with those
Frenchmen who extol "the immortal principle of 1789."
But the work of the Assembly, considered as a whole,

* A learned account of the Constitution of 1790-1 will be found
in Professor Von Sybel's History of the French Revolution.
Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, remain, however,
the best and most profound commentary on the work of the Na-
tional Assembly and its tendencies. Many of the observations of
the great philosophic statesman have proved prophetic.

1789—91- The Constitution of 1 790-1. 39

was marked by a passion for mere theory, and a perilous
disregard of facts ; and it displayed itself in wild inno-
vations which irritated and exasperated „, , ,

Wild and pre-

many classes, made settled government at cipitate iano-
best precarious, and added strength to revo-
lutionary tendencies. Instead of addressing itself simply
to mitigating the political and social grievances of which
such a multitude existed in France, it had begun its
labors by a grand Declaration — at once imposing, dan-
gerous, and untrue — o^ what it regarded as the Rights
of Man ; and it proceeded to carry out these
principles, more or less faithfully, in its sub- jyjan. ^^ "^^ °
sequent legislation. Like the feudal exac-
tions, the immense property of the Church, and of a
number of other corporations, was confiscated with a
stroke of the pen ; and though compensa- ^ ^ . ,

^. ... . Confiscation 01

tion was promised to existing interests, it Church and
was to a great extent illusory. Soon after- peny.'^^Aboli-
wards titles of honor were suppressed, how- *^°" °^ nx\<'s..
ever dignified or historical ; places, offices, and privileges
were abolished with little reflection, or even justice ; and
it was announced as an eternal truth that Frenchmen
were essentially equal, notwithstanding the
inequalities that must exist in an ancient, or
indeed in any community. In addition, an extraordinary
change was made in the local constitution of the King,
dom ; the old Provinces were effaced from
the map, with their complex variety of rights transformed
and immunities ; the local associations thus into Depai»

' ments.

formed were destroyed, and the Kingdom
was parcelled out into new divisions, ever since lrnoi»'->
by the name of Departments, each with a perfectly unl
form organization and distribution of local authority.
Having thus levelled, in a few months, almost everv

40 The Constitution of 1790-1. CH. in.

^ institution of old France, the Assembly

Character of ■'

the new Consti- began the work of creating a new Con-
ing defects. "^ stitution for the transformed Kingdom. The
Monarchy was continued and liberally en-
dowed ; but it was shorn of most of its ancient preroga-
tives, and reduced to a very feeble Executive ; and
while it obtained a perilous veto on the resolutions and
acts of the Legislature, it was separated from that
power, and placed in opposition to it, by the exclusion
of the Ministers of the Crown from seats and votes in
the National Assembly. The Legislature was composed
of a Legislative Assembly, formed of a single Chamber
alone, in theory supreme, and almost absolute ; but, as
we have seen, it was liable to come in conflict with the
Crown, and it had less authority than might be sup-
posed, for it was elected by a vote not truly popular,
and subordinate powers were allowed to possess a very
large part of the rights of Sovereignty which it ought to
have divided with the King. This last portion of the
scheme was very striking, and was the one, too, that
most caused alarm among distant political observers.
Too great centralization having been one of the chief
complaints against the ancient Monarchy, this evil was
met by a radical reform, which also fell in with the new
doctrines of equality and the supremacy of the people
— ^two main tenets of the Rights of Man. The towns
received extraordinary powers ; their municipalities had
complete control over the National Guards to be elected
in them, and possessed many other functions of Govern-
ment ; and Paris, by these means, became almost a
separate Commonwealth, independent of the State, and
directing a vast military force. The same system was
applied to the country ; every Department was formed
into petty divisions, each with its National Guards, and

1789-91' The Constitution of \'j()Q>-\. 41

a considerable share of what is usually the power of the
government ; and in each Department a higher ad-
ministration was entrusted with a kind of general super-
intendence. In every separate centre in town and
country this immense authority was for the most part
wielded by men chosen by a scarcely restricted suffrage ;
and Burke's saying was strictly correct, " that France
was split into thousands of Republics, with Paris pre-
dominating and queen of all." With respect to other
institutions of the State, the appointment of nearly all
civil functionaries, judicial and otherwise, was taken
from the Crown, and abandoned to a like popular elec-
tion ; and the same principle was also applied to the
great and venerable institution of the Church, already
deprived of its vast estates, though the election of
bishops and priests by their flocks interfered directly
with Roman Catholic discipline, and probably, too, with
religious dogma. As for the Army, it was also in a great
degree removed out of the hands of the King ; and
while unjust privileges were swept away, it was organized
on a democratic model, commissions and similar rights
being abolished.

*^ Many acts, too, of the National Assem- Administra-
bly administration of affairs were unwise ^^^^ measures.
and dangerous. Notwithstanding the opposition of
Necker, who, though hardly a statesman, understood
finance, it was resolved to sell the lands of the Church
to procure funds for the necessities of the State ; and the
deficit, which was increasing rapidly, was met by an in-
convertible currency of paper, secured on the lands to
be sold. This expedient, borrowed to some extent, from
precedents set by the old Monarchy, and indeed by other
governments in distress, and not wholly mischievous
under careful restrictions, was carried out with iniudi-

4.2 The Constitution of \']()o—\. CH. iii.

Assignats. cious rccklessness. The Assignats, as the
new notes were called, seemed a mine of inexhaustible
wealth, and they were issued in quantities which, from
the first moment, disturbed the relations of life and com-
merce, though they created a show of brisk trade for a
False system time. In matters of taxation the Assem-
of taxation. y^^^ ^ ^^^^ exceeded the bounds of reason
and justice ; exemptions previously enjoyed by the rich
were now indirectly extended to the poor; wealthy
owners of land were too heavily burdened, while the
populace of the towns went scot free; and though
little wrong was as yet done, the example was set of
future injustice. Very large sums also, belonging to the
Undue favor State, Were advanced to the Commune of
Paris. Paris, now rising into formidable power, at

an interest much below the market rate ; and thus the
Nation was made to minister to the needs of one favored
portion of it — a perilous and iniquitous principle. With
the assent of the Assembly, the funds so obtained were
lavishly squandered in giving relief to the poor of the
capital in the most improvident ways — in buying bread
dear and reselling it cheap, and in finding fanciful em-
ployment for artizans out of work. The result, of
course, was to attract to Paris many thousands of the
lowest class of rabble, and to add them to the scum of
the city ; and, indeed,* not a few of the communistic
theories which predominated during the Reign of Terror,
and have ever since been a curse to France, may be
traced, partly in operation, at this time.

It is easy to point out on what erroneous principles
the Assembly founded a large part of its work, and

* Professor Von Sybel's History, book II., chapter iv., has
brought out clearly the Communistic tendencies of part of the le-
gislation of the National Assembly.

1789-91- The ConstitutioJi ^1790-1. 43

time was soon to show what a series of ills , "^li^ J^^.' °*

the Federation,

inevitably resulted from much that it had July 14, 1790,
done. But the attractive nature of the Europe.
doctrines it laid down, and the generous liberality of
many of its speakers, created enthusiasm for the mo-
ment ; and the declaration of the Rights of Man aroused
feelings of exultation and delight, not only in France,
but throughout Europe. On the first anniversary of the
fall of the Bastille, and before the Constitution had been
finished, Paris witnessed a scene which vividly ex-
pressed the sentiments with which millions welcomed
what seemed the inauguration of a new age of gold. A
great national holiday was kept; and, amidst multitudes
of applauding spectators, deputations from every De-
partment in France, headed by the authorities of the
thronging capital, defiled in procession to the broad
space known as the Field of Mars, along the banks of
the Seine. An immense amphitheatre had been con-
structed, and decorated with extraordinary pomp ; and
here, in the presence of a splendid Court, of the Na-
tional Assembly, and of the municipalities of the realm,
and in the sight of a great assemblage surging to and
fro with throbbing excitement, the King took an oath
that he would faithfully respect the order of things that
was being established, while incense streamed from
high-raised altars, and the ranks of seventy thousand
National Guards burst into loud cheers and triumphant
music ; and even the Queen, sharing in the passion of
the hour, and radiant with beauty, lifted up in her arms
the young child who was to be the future chief of a dis-
enthralled and regenerate people — unconscious happily
of the dark clouds that were gathering already over so
many victims. The following week was gay with those
brilliant displays which Paris knows how to arrange so

44 I'he Constilution of i^go-i. CH. iii.

well ; flowery arches covered the site of the Bastille,
fountains ran wine, and the night blazed with fire ; and
the far-extending influence of France was attested by
enthusiastic deputations of "friends of liberty" from
many parts of Europe, hailing the dawn of an era of
freedom and peace.
^ ., The work, however, of the National As-

Evil conse- . . „

quences of sembly developed some of its effects ere
signs of disorder lorig- The abolition of titles of honor filled
and anarchy. ^^ ^^^ measure of the anger of the Nobles ;
the confiscation of the property of the Church ; above
all, the law as to the election of priests, known as the
Civil Constitution of the Clergy, shocked all religious or
superstitious minds. The reduction of the old rights cf
the Crown, and the antagonism created by the absurd
severance of the Legislative and Executive powers, en-
feebled the State, and caused the King his Ministers,
and the Assembly to clash; and Necker and all his
associates but one were dismissed, and replaced by men
of an inferior stamp. The extinction of privilege, too,
in the Army, provoked discontent among the whole
class of officers ; and yet it did not much please the
men, for no great immediate benefits followed, and their
superiors stood more than ever aloof. Meanwhile the
substance of power began to pass to the masses to an
alarming extent, through the regulations as to the
National Guards and the administrative services of the
Kingdom ; and though they did not yet know their
strength, leaders were not wanting to teach the lesson.
The ascendency of Paris, too, became more decided
than it had ever been ; and the dislocation of authority
caused by the extreme weakening of the central govern-
ment disintegrated France to a great degree, and gave
% wide scope to low popular influence. It is easy to

ijSg-gi. The Constitution of Y'jc^o-i. 45

imagine the results in a country torn by deep divisions
ot class, where an ancient throne had been suddenly
weakened, where nothing was permanent, fixed, and
established, and where anarchy and license, though for
the moment checked, had made themselves so perilous-
ly apparent. The emigration of the Nobles, which had
become very general from the 5th and 6th of October,
went on in daily augmenting numbers ; and, in a short
time, the frontiers were edged with bands of exiles
breathing vengeance and hatred. In many districts the
priests denounced as sacrilege what had been done to
the Church, divided the peasantry, and preached a cru-
sade against what they called the atheist towns ; and
angry mutinies broke out in the Army, which left be-
hind savage and relentless feelings. The relations be-
tween the King and the Assembly, too, became strained,
if not hostile, at every turn of affairs, to the detriment
of anything like good government ; and while Louis
sunk into a mere puppet, the Assembly, controlled in a
great measure by demagogues and the pampered mobs
of Paris, felt authority gradually slipping from it. Thus
anarchy was not restrained from above, while, so to
speak, it was organized from below ; and the rein was
thrown on the necks of a people long misgoverned, and
whose excitable nature had been aroused by every kind
of stimulant. As yet, however, the mere popular forces
did not break out in general disorder ; but their increa-
sing influence was plainly seen in the ascendency gained
by brawling demagogues, in an immense diffusion of
cheap and bad journals, and in the multiplying of asso-
ciations of an extreme type in politics. One _, ,

•^ ^ ^ The Jacobin

of these societies, sprung from a small be- and other

. . cl ubs

gmnmg, had established itself in an old

convent in Paris ; and here, growing into larger num-

4-6 The Constitution ^1790-1. CM. iii.

bers, it held frequent sittings, at which the members dis-
cussed the acts of the National Assembly, or made
vehement addresses to the people. The most ardent
reformers of the Commune were prominent in it, and
were wont to report to the populace, in the forty-eight
sections into which the capital had been divided, what-
ever had been decided or done ; and the society had
affiliated to it a great number of bodies of the same cha-
racter throughout the principal cities of France. Such
was the origin of the famous Jacobin Club — a dread
name in the drama of the Revolution.
Weakness of ^^ "^^7 appear Strange that the powerful

Conservative interests which were represented in the

elements in ^

the Assembly. National Assembly did not contend better
against these immense changes ; and that the Commons,
of whom very _ j\v liaa genuine sympathy with the lowest
classes, should have given such free scope to anarchic
disorder. But the Crown and the Nobles were divided
from each other ; the Nobles were divided among them-
selves ; the prelates and lower clergy were not friends ;
and many of the lay and clerical aristocracy were unwise
enough to join the ranks of the emigrants. Of the Con-
servative Nobles and prelates who remained in the
Assembly, few had anything like talent ; and the chief
defenders of the ancient rites of the throne of Henry
IV., and of the Rohans and Mortemarts, were a young dra-
goon officer and a simple abbe, the impetuous Cazal^s,*

* Cazales, the brilliant military champion of Conservatism in
the Assembly, was bom in 1752. He has been well described as
a " chivalrous soldier, sans peur et reproche ;" and Mirabeau said
of him that " if the knowledge of Cazales equalled the charms of
his elocution, all efforts would be ineffectual against him," But
he was rash to a fault, and seems to have had as little judgment as

1789-9^- ^^ Cotistitution ^1790-1. 47

the subtle Maury.* As for the reforming N-obles,
among whom were several men of fine parts, many
doubtless went further than they wished ; but some
were carried away by the false philosophy in fashion ;
others bid against each other for popular support,
and they never united in a rational policy of what
might have been called constitutional reform. The
Commons, too, were mere tyros in politics, though many
were apt at the tongue and pen ; they were also full of
the new doctrines, and could not see what innovations
were unsafe ; and they were largely influenced by a
strong dislike of the old institutions and the privileged
orders. Add the characteristics of the French intellect,
addicted to system, and to carry out ideas, without re-
gard to facts, to their extreme consequences ; add the
impetuous and ardent French temperament, often wildly
generous and sentimental ; and we shall see how the
Assembly, without any intention, prepared the way for
a part, at least, of what followed. Yet what contributed
most, perhaps, to the annihilation of the noble classes,
and encouraged measures of a revolutionary tendency,
was the pitiful conduct of those best known by the still
dishonorable name of emigres. In a few months the
great majority of the aristocracy of France had fled ihe
kingdom, abandoning the throne around which they
had stood, breathing maledictions against a contempt-
uous Nation, as arrogant as ever in the impotence of
want, and thinking only of a counter-revolution that

"* The Abbe Maury was born in 1746. He had been versed in
ecclesiastical and political affairs before the Revolution, and de-
fended with skill and eloquence the cause of the Monarchy, the
Church, and the Nobles in the National Assembly. He became
afterwards an Archbishop and a Cardinal, and died in 1817, having
witnessed the Bourbon Restoration.

48 The Constitution of I'] go-i. ch. hi.

would cover the natal soil with blood. History makes
allowances for these men; for they were the victims of
an evil order of things ; but France could not make
allowances for them at a crisis of agitation and passion ;
and their utter want of patriotism and of sound feeling
made thousands believe that the state of society which
had bred such creatures ought to be swept away.

. One man, however, in the National As-

Attempts or

Mirabeau to sembly, saw distinctly whither events were

chcCiC tllG QIS" . ^^^

organization of tending. The life of Mirabeau was stained
the State. .^-^j^ vices ; and his public career was deeply

marked by reckless ambition and perhaps crime. But
he added keen insight and strong common sense to elo-
quence of extraordinary force ; he was not the dupe of
deceptive theories, and he perceived that France was
falling into confusion. He had protested against the
destruction of the Church and Nobles as leading to civil
war ; h.e had declared that it was dangerous and unwise
to refuiie the ministers of the Crown a seat in the As-
sembly ; and he summed up a great truth in the words
that what France required was a firm Executive to keep
anarchy down and to maintain order. We cannot affirm
whether he had thought out a scheme of Constitutional
Monarchy for France; but as early as 1790 he made
overtures to the Court, and he had more than one inter-
view with the Queen, to whose " force of character " he
did admiring homage. His projects were to remove the
King to a town in the interior of France, to rally around
him the loyal part of the Army, and to summon a new
Assembly, which would undo what was most mischie-
vous in the work of the old ; and he promised that he
would answer for thirty-six Departments, and expressed
a strong hope that the middle classes, alarmed at the
prospect of mob rule, would throw their weight on the

■., 7 89—9 1 • ^^^ Constitution of I'jgo-i. 49

«ide of the Monarchy. The Court, however, vacillating
and suspicious, would not trust the proud man of genius ;
and Mirabeau could not obtain the adhesion of Bouille,
the most popular chief of the Army, and of Lafayette,
all powerful with the National Guards, whose co-opera-
tion he deemed necessary. Dec.th came to put an end
to his hopes and fears ; he expired in April, ^^. , ,

^ ' JT J. ^jg death.

1791, and with him perished the best chance
of arresting the Revolution already at hand.

Meanwhile, the attitude of neighboring States had be-
come uncertain, if not threatening, and

Online LibraryWilliam O'Connor MorrisThe French revolution and first empire : an historical sketch → online text (page 5 of 26)