French Democracy

"The republic can be established, if the brain of the country lend itself to the heart in the work."

This digression brings us to one essential cause of the failure of free government in France. The profound democratic spirit of the country has heretofore failed of its mission because no wise and comprehensive attempts have been made to organize it. No other people learn so little by example as the French. With the United States before them as the model of democracy crystallized into an effective system, the French invariably drift into anarchy or coups d’état. Their republics have had too little or too much cohesion among the parts, or they have had no parts at all; the executive has been made a cipher or a despot. They have been destroyed by the incapacity of the builders, and their ignorance of the principle of checks and balances. To establish these requires mutual sacrifices, and often a high degree of political skill; but a people who are unwilling to make sacrifices, and who can produce no statesmen, are preordained to failure. Now the French can rise to the conditions of a republic if they are permitted to do so. But the self-appointed leaders have never shown themselves equal to their part of the task. Once, indeed, there was a glimpse of the truth during the Revolution, when it was proposed to fix some intermediate steps between the elector and the delegate. Europe sneered at the plan, as a violation of the very democratic principle for which the Revolution contended. But the .National Assembly was wiser than Europe. To-day an eminent writer has published an essay, in which, borrowing the plan without giving any credit to its authors, he recommends a similar graduation of the electoral process. The principle is so little understood among French democrats, that no one rebukes the plagiarist.

Quite as serious an error is the failure to provide for local self-government. As this lies at the bottom of republican institutions, and should be, moreover, the first concern of democracy, the blunder of the French is extraordinary. They have practically reversed the scale of powers. For an occasional plébiscite, bringing them closely into relation with the central authority, they have permitted the central authority to appoint their chief local officers, and to interfere in the most minute local affairs. Now it is scarcely possible that there should be a successful republic in which this species of centralization exists. It is perhaps more important that the people should select their own local officers, than that they should choose the general legislature; because, when the central government names the local officers, it can, to a great extent, shape the legislature itself. The converse does not hold true. While a centralized republic usually passes into a monarchy, a people who have full control of their local affair generally manage not only to retain, but to extend, their liberties. This truth, also, has occasionally been seen in France ; but on its last appearance it was so summarily crushed, that it must seem doubtful if it soon revive The Commune, in spite of all the horrible deeds with which it is associated, aimed to establish a principle which Americans know how to prize, and which they would not surrender without a revolution. Under the greatest provocation, the Legislature has never dared to appoint a mayor for New York City. But the municipal officers of Paris are as little responsible to the people of Paris as to the people of Borovitchi. To correct this monstrous injustice, the Commune fought and fell. There was something heroic in its conduct, something worthy of the great principle for which it contended throughout its brief and bloody course, from the first bold movement at Montmartre until the hour when the bravest of its leaders walked out on the ramparts, folded their arms, and waited the approach of death. The Commune was not a protest against the Empire, but against a republic, against a system which borrows the clothing of the Emperor and calls itself a republic. But the defects of the present system are not due so much to the ignorance, as to the duplicity, of its authors; they do not wish a durable republic. Yet the architects who have had their heart in the work have shown no better skill. They begin at the dome and build downward, resting at no stages, and finishing without a base. Veritable castles in the air, which vanish at the first rude wind of adversity!

It may be said that this ignorance of the conditions of a republic is one of the best reasons for believing a republic impossible. That would certainly be the natural inference, but it needs one important qualification. The republics have not miscarried because there are no men able to build them, but because they who have the ability lack the will. The bourgeoisie, the great middle class, the scholars and writers of the Academy, have stood by with folded arms, sneering at the patient awkwardness of the republican workmen, and waiting for the day when the slender edifice should tumble to the ground. They hate the republic cordially and openly. Their hopes all centre in a government of “gentlemen,” and they have no patience with the vulgar theory which places a mind to think, and a heart to feel, in every human frame.

These elegant sceptics are no friends of the Empire. But there is only one step between democracy and the Empire; if any person doubts this, let him consider the enormous majorities which were deposited, over and over again, at the feet of Napoleon III. In throwing himself ostentatiously on the confidence of the masses, Louis Napoleon showed talents of the very highest order. He had the sagacity to perceive that it was easier to flatter French democracy than to crush or ignore it. He flattered it, and disarmed it, and betrayed it. He was a usurper and an irresponsible despot, but he knew a title sounder than inheritable legitimacy, and rested himself on universal suffrage and five million affirmative votes. Here is a profound lesson for the speculative politicians of the conservative party. Situations multiply themselves. The intelligent conservatives have the power to solve the difficulty by helping their illiterate neighbors found an enduring republic. Or they may for a time pursue an opposite course. They may subject their patriotism to their prejudices, and adopt the reactionary policy which wrecked the Republic of 1848. But like causes produce like effects. For a few hours they may fancy that they have killed democracy and saved France. But on the morrow they will be ordered to meet some stern horseman with dull gray eyes, who bears the emblems of his uncle and the banner of universal suffrage.

We do not underrate the difficulties which surround the problem. The profound and lamentable ignorance of the French people is the friend of no good system, but it is the peculiar foe of the democratic republic. France is at once the most cultivated and the most illiterate of nations. If her culture be measured by her art and her literature, by her scholars, orators, and philosophers, and by the brilliant society which throngs the salons of Paris, she may place herself high up in the scale of civilization. But if it be measured by the average capacity of the entire people, what rank can she claim of the kindest critic? M. Ernest Renan is distressed because America has produced no great original work of the human mind. But .she has produced the American Republic, and by the side of that grand work how insignificant are all the trophies of France! The latter can look back over thirty generations of great kings. She has a language which makes friends in every part of the world. She has a literature a thousand years old. She has built a vast capital city, within whose walls all men can worship taste and beauty and comfort. She has the theatre and the opera in their highest form, the Academy with its severe scholastic dignity, the Louvre and its priceless treasures of art. But one half of the population can neither read nor write. Outside, of the large cities, four sevenths of the men who make the government cannot prepare their own ballots. Some of them, in their simplicity, elected Louis Napoleon, because his wealth would render taxes unnecessary. Others chose the republic, because its nature renders taxes illegal. And in remote districts there are peasants to-day who have not learned that the Empire is dead, and that the Tuileries are a hollow spectre.

Certainly these are unpromising materials with which to renew the republican experiment. But the fact suggests the old, old question. Is monarchy the cause or the effect of this popular ignorance, and what is the part of the republic? Now be the cause what it may, we believe profoundly that the republic alone can correct that ignorance, because the republic alone has an interest in correcting it. The Empire is satisfied with a brutal constituency. Royalty can dispense with suffrage entirely. But~ the republic needs all the minds of the country as a numerical basis of authority, and it needs educated minds as an intelligent basis of action. To one who objects that general ignorance will defeat the republic, there can be but one answer. The republic alone can abolish general ignorance. If that is not the lesson of history, we have read blindly the records of ten centuries of monarchy and thirty years of imperialism. Contrast the measures proposed to-day by the rival parties. The monarchists point to the condition of things and propose to curtail the right of suffrage ; the republicans point to the same great evil and propose universal and compulsory instruction. The one party would shut the patient up away from air and light; the other party would give him purer air and clearer light, diet and exercise and discipline. Who can compare these two remedies and repeat the stale formula, that a people must postpone the era of self-government till they reach the era of universal culture?

In the foregoing there is no question of the value of democracy. There is no inquiry into the nature of the spirit as it exists in France, nor as to the extent to which it has penetrated the popular heart. It is enough to agree with its enemies, that it is actually present as a factor in the political problem, and to accept their estimate of its dimensions. We part company with them only in inference and deduction. It is in the suggestion of remedies that they seem to wander into the tortuous paths which lead farther and farther from peace and stability. The outlines of the problem are very plain. A great people, little versed in the arts of statesmanship, demand a system which shall enable them at once to govern themselves, and to render themselves worthy of governing. Obviously the duty of all educated patriots is to put themselves in harmony with the inevitable, and to lend their superior capacity to their democratic compatriots. But this is not the policy of the French Academicians. They prefer to weep over facts which stare them in the face, and to speculate on the method by which those facts can be passed without being met.

The republic can be established, if the brain of the country lend itself to the heart in the work. The republic must be established, because there is no safe alternative. Eighty years’ trifling with the subject has brought France, maimed, humbled, impoverished, to the year 1872. She has learned what it costs to tread on democracy with the Bourbons, and to betray it with the Bonapartes. Is it not time to try the effect of adopting it even as an unwelcome necessity, and of training it up to reason and usefulness? Indeed, there is no safe alternative. When the spirit of democracy has once fused itself into the daily life of a nation, it may be curbed for brief periods by the military power; but the French Academy ought to know that it can be thoroughly exterminated only by a process which exterminates the national manhood.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In