French Democracy

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

The number of political writers in France is out of all proportion to the number of reading and reflecting men who enter into the population of the state. This has been the case uninterruptedly since the Revolution; but it has become doubly apparent since the last great social and political convulsions. Those events serve at once to furnish the text and to point the moral. The Empire with its uncovered vices, the war with its hard and serious lessons, the Commune with its baffled purposes, keep the presses of Paris working day and night. Every writer has his theory ; every theory has its printer. Renan leaves the Semitic languages and the battle-grounds of Biblical history, to write scholarly and thoughtful essays on the questions of the hour. Tame forsakes art and artists, and assails universal suffrage. Littré the lexicographer, Victor Hugo the poet, Alexandre Dumas the playwright, the Bishop of Orleans, and a great army of professors, soldiers, churchmen, and nobles, men of every profession and every rank in society, join in the great work of the patriot. It is the work of the patriot, because patriotism exacts of every man that he reflect on the affairs of his country, and that he give his neighbors the result of his reflections. In politics, as in every other department of life, the clashing of thought is sometimes a proof of disease, but always a promise of reform. But politics has this feature almost uniquely; it has relation to one of the most important concerns of practical life, and therefore its abstract principles are also rules for the conduct of men. It is at once a science and an art. Hence one of the most attractive of subjects may become one of the most pernicious, when carried too far or in the wrong direction. Now French political speculation is not free from either of these defects. The great body of French political literature contains much that is good and admirable; but after a few standard names are excepted, it will be found that the writers in that branch have loaded it with superficial virtues, which scarcely hide its deeper and graver vices. They have made it clever, fascinating, shallow, egotistic, and dangerous.

The fruitful parent of much of this activity is the French Ac4demy. Found ed by Richelieu, the type of clerical absolutism, and built up by Louis XIV., the type of royal absolutism, the French Academy has passed through the vicissitudes of politics with the calm dignity becoming its character, and without often losing sight of constitutional principles of government. It weighed the Second Empire boldly and accurately. During the whole term of that treacherous régime, the Academy was its fearless, implacable, and hated foe. The Emperor might banish particular members of the order, but the Academy itself, the pride of France and the admiration of Europe, he could neither bribe nor intimidate. Hence the venerable institution stood forth the champion of liberal principles in a country where so many thoughtful men seemed to believe that everything but the Empire led to anarchy. Without taking a formal part in governmental affairs, it came to represent a very distinct political creed. It rests itself on the traditions of the July Monarchy. The reign of Louis Philippe was the golden age of the French Academy, and, according to the Academy, the golden age of France itself. The Academy therefore presents hereditary monarchy with free parliamentary institutions as the true ideal of a political system for France. But doctrines which were liberal when the Empire was at Paris are conservative when the Empire is a fugitive in Europe; hence the Academy now lifts up its voice against democracy, without at all changing its own creed. If individual differences be overlooked, and the sum of opinion on essential points be alone regarded, it will appear, we think, that the circle of writers of which the Academy is the centre reach their conclusions by the path which we proceed to indicate.

In the view of those amiable bourgeois, democracy and imperialism are the extremes of a scale, whereof the middle is the point of prudence and safety. Imperialism is a false system for reasons which all but imperialists now accept. But the reasons for rejecting democracy are quite different. Democracy is held to be out of place in France, because historically and philosophically France requires monarchical institutions. Her greatness was founded by Charlemagne, the most sagacious of kings, and the country pursued, under a long succession of monarchs, a career of growth and glory, until the Revolution, warring justly against a perversion of the kingly principle, imbued the people with hostility to the principle itself. From the moment at which the Revolution exceeded its proper limits dates the decline of France. When the Revolution planted in the popular mind the heresies of equality and self-government, it invited all the disasters which followed, from Waterloo to Sedan. The one glimpse of light in the century of darkness was afforded by the short reign of the house of Orleans. The house of Orleans founded a system which satisfied at once the monarchical traditions and the liberal aspirations of France. It centred the executive power of the state in a personal head; and it formulated the will of the people through an independent parliament. Theoretically the July Monarchy was perfect. But a popular revolt overthrew it.

The overthrow of the Orleans monarchy was the act of this extreme democratic spirit. The proceeding was strictly analogous to the later stages of the first Revolution. The first Revolution, carried too far, produced the First Empire; the Revolution of 1848 produced the Second Empire. In both cases the cause was the same. The democratic spirit of France is the source of all the difficulty, because, first, that spirit is at war with the traditions of the country, and hence can never realize its aim; second, it is unsuited to the slight discipline of the people, and must in all cases become the victim of demagogues or usurpers; third, because it ~s out of character with the situation of France in the great family of European powers. Most of the writers who share this belief hold that democracy is originally and always an evil; but out of deference to the stupidity of the age, they present the above among other practical reasons for opposing it in France.

In beginning an examination of this theory, it is proper to assume with its author that this democratic spirit does actually exist. The question then is, How shall that spirit be treated? How shall it be utilized, or how shall it be destroyed?

The student of French history will recall three systems which have tried to deal with this admitted passion of the French people. The Bourbons crushed it; the Orleanists snubbed it; the Bonapartes deceived it. We need not describe in detail these three series of tactics. We need not recall how the Bourbon princes trampled under foot till 1789 the growing spirit of democracy among their subjects; or how under Louis Philippe the bourgeoisie quietly absorbed all the powers and all the honors of the state; or how the Bonapartes flattered the people with plébiscites which bore false witness. The essential fact is that no one of these dynasties has made a sincere and intelligent effort to deal with democracy as something which can be fostered and utilized, but cannot be exterminated. Each has sought by its own method to destroy the indestructible. This fact is the key to French history of the past hundred years, of the half-dozen revolutions, of the sham republics, and the spurious monarchies, of the Directory and the Commune, of the series of harrowing events which stain with blood the records of a noble people. It has scarcely occurred to the elegant doctrinaires of the French Academy to accept democracy as a stubborn fact, and to mould it into an ally of sound constitutional government. Yet this was the problem which presented itself in 1789, and which has presented itself unceasingly ever since. How must one explain this failure ?

No error is more common than to confound democracy as an element in national character with democracy as a form of government. The Academicians themselves fall into this error in arguing that the democratic spirit of France is an evil because it can never establish democratic institutions. Now the two are not on]y not identical, but they are not even necessarily coexistent. By the former we understand that spirit in a people which leads them to demand equality among citizens and a substantial control over their own affairs ; by the latter, a system in which the people pronounce directly on all the details of government. Hence there may be democratic peoples without strictly democratic institutions; and there may be popular institutions with a very weak democratic spirit. No one can deny that the Americans are more democratic than the English; yet the government of England feels more directly than that of the United States the force of public opinion. Each has its check on the action of the popular will. In the United States the check is found in narrowing and lengthening the channels by which that will reaches the governing powers; in England it consists of an hereditary crown and an hereditary nobility, which can restrain hut cannot thwart the people. But the latter system is much the weaker, and is slowly giving way. A perfect democracy is a creature of the fancy. It has never existed. Perhaps the nearest approach to it was reached in the free city of the Middle Ages, an institution which is copied, though without the element of political independence, in the unit of our system, the township.

Another error in the use of terms is that which confounds democratic government with republican government. Even Montesquieu failed to draw clearly the distinction. His oft-quoted declaration that a republic is possible only in a small state, means really that a strict democracy is possible only in a small state, a proposition obviously true. But a republic is a device for utilizing democracy in a large state. The three great evils of a democracy are these: it is too clumsy for convenience, it is imperfectly responsible, and it is too passionate for deliberate action. The republic grapples with all these defects. It relieves unwieldiness, it distributes responsibility; it checks precipitation. At the same time it carefully fosters the democratic spirit in a variety of ways, but chiefly by the institution of local self-government.

In this view the value of a republic is merely a question of utility, or, if one prefers, a question of relation. Given the democratic spirit, and the desire to afford it the best method of utterance, does or does not the republic combine the most features of excellence? With him who holds that democracy is an evil to be destroyed, we can, at this point, have no dispute. The only possible disputant is he who believes in democracy, but not in the republic as a means of conserving it. But the day for that species of controversy has nearly passed away. Thanks to Alexander Hamilton, America has shown how a free people can found a democracy shorn of all the terrors which for so many ages haunted the dreams of philosophers. The federative republic now finds few sceptics among those who truly believe that democracy is a healthy and beneficent spirit.

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.

Presented by

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

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

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In