The Lesson of the French Revolution

THE call for a third edition of Mr. Beesly’s apologetic Life of Danton1 seems to show that there is Danton in the political air. In fact, some of the features of the French Revolution, notably the rising of the peasants against the landowning nobility, are being reproduced in Russia. The Russian bomb-thrower is the French Terrorist; indeed, he is largely the political progeny of the Terror. The lesson of the French Revolution, therefore, is wholesome now. Anarchism, if it were triumphant, would not be confined to Russia. Of this there are premonitory signs.

A famous philanthropist of extreme opinions is supposed to have said that the French Revolution was the one happy event in history. To me the French Revolution has always seemed, of all the events in history, the most calamitous. All that wreck, crime, and suffering; the destruction of all those thousands by mob-massacre, judicial murder, wreck of industry, and famine; that letting loose of the most hellish passions on the most awful scale; the Reign of Terror, anarchy, and civil war, followed by a Corsican despotism, with its bloody and desolating wars of conquest; a European counter-revolution as the inevitable consequence; renewal of revolution in France; the Days of June; the Second Empire, founded in sanguinary usurpation; the Franco-German War; the Commune; the movement of political and social progress, fatally tainted as it is with violence, class-war, Jacobinical malignity, and extravagance — all this for what ? Because Loménie Brienne and Calonne failed to deal with a financial deficit with which Turgot felt assured of dealing by obvious expedients, such as retrenchment, equalization of imposts, improvement in the collection of the taxes, half of which were going into the hands of the farmers-general, and sale of monastery lands, with abstinence from war. There were, of course, other things loudly calling for reform in the rotten monarchy of Louis XIV: obsolete and oppressive privileges of the nobility, the plethoric episcopacy, the grievances of the downtrodden peasantry, the intolerance of the Church, the defects and abuses of the law. But with all these a strong minister armed with the power of an absolute monarchy might have successfully grappled, especially if the king could have got on horseback, and, instead of riding after stags at Versailles, ridden over the kingdom, to the people of which he was still Providence. It was the financial difficulty alone that compelled, or was supposed to compel, that most fatal of all errors, the calling of the StatesGeneral, an old feudal assembly, the workings of which were little understood, but which was sure to be inexperienced in politics, to be filled at that crisis with the most extravagant expectations, and to contain in its popular element all the firebrands. A really representative assembly of notables on the call of the Crown would not have been nearly so dangerous. When convulsion threatens, a government surely ought, instead of flinging the reins on the neck of popular excitement, to grasp them firmly in its own hand and take the lead in the necessary reforms. This is what the Russian government will do now if there is a man at the helm.

What was wanted was redress of practical abuses and grievances, such as fell within the power of a strong government, There is no contrat social in the cahiers. Contrat social can hardly be said to have appeared practically in force before Robespierre, the high priest of Rousseau, with his Feast of the Supreme Being. The influence of the philosophers on the course of events has probably been overrated. The masses could not read. Of those who did read, many probably were literary triflers, dallying with an intellectual fashion. A fanciful version of Greek and Roman republicanism and patriotism seems to have been fully as much the mode as any creation of Voltaire and Rousseau. Voltaire was a thorough monarchist and a devout courtier.

How much, after all, has been gained by this enormous sacrifice which might not have been gained at less cost ? In France herself what do we see ? Rousseauist bliss and brotherhood, or anything like them ? The government is a government of party, or rather of sections, unstable and perpetually shifting. The stability even of the Republican constitution is threatened by aristocratic and sacerdotal plottings. There was a rather narrow escape from reactionary revolution at the time of Boulanger, and again at the crisis of the Dreyfus affair. Only the other day fear of disturbance was again felt, and military preparations were made to meet a rising. The clergy are probably more mischievous politically than they would have been if, instead of being driven into ultramontan ism, they had remained national and Gallican, with practical reforms. That relations between employer and employed are still unsettled is shown by frequent strikes and by the language of agitators and the socialist press. In the condition of the peasantry there has no doubt been a great change for the better dating from the Revolution, though the peasant in France before the Revolution was not a serf, as in some countries the peasant was, but free, and master of his own labor. Yet if the picture of peasant life given in La Terre is anything like the truth, as with regard to parts of the South of France we are told that it is, the improvement in peasant civilization is not great.

Agricultural improvement and rural civilization have owed something to large ownership where the land-owner has done his duty. Where the landlord is a mere receiver of rents he is a burden. That in France before the Revolution he generally was a mere receiver of rents, Arthur Young has tragically shown us. The Due de la Rochefoucauld, however, was trying to lead on the path to a landlord’s duty.

The cities in France on the eve of the Revolution, so far as we can gather from Arthur Young, appear to have been doing well.

Europe in general was doing fairly well. There had been a respite from war, of which, after the Seven Years’ War, the nations might well be weary. Pitt was reducing his military estimates and looking forward confidently to many years of peace. Science was rapidly advancing. Mechanical invention and agricultural improvement were increasing wealth and lightening labor. Intolerance was giving way to increasing freedom of thought. The press was gaining influence. The Order of Jesuits had been suppressed. Beccaria, Tanucci, Bentham, were reforming jurisprudence. Adam Smith had found a powerful disciple in Pitt. Howard was reforming prisons. In England Parliamentary reform was certainly coming, and would have furnished an effective example of the working of a free constitution. To stimulate progress the American experiment was on foot. A strong movement for the extinction of slavery had begun. A general spirit of benevolence and tenderness was spreading. In England it inspired the poetry of Cowper. Over Europe at large, it was propagated by Rousseau, whose sentiment is far superior to his theories. In England religion, and morality with it. had been aroused from torpor by Wesley. Beneficence had possessed itself more or less of several European thrones. Voltaire had helped to make it the fashion. The governments of Austria, Spain, Naples, Tuscany, Prussia, and even of Russia, had been forwarding reform and progress in their several degrees and ways. Their tendency was at once arrested, and presently reversed, by the French Revolution. Pitt dropped Parliamentary Reform.

To make the ruinous effect of calling the States-General doubly sure, the place chosen for their meeting was Versailles, close to Paris, when Paris was seething with agitation and full of restless spirits, such as Camille Desmoulins. The troops quartered there, or in the neighborhood, yielded to sympathy with the populace, and to the seductions of the courtesans, who played a not inconsiderable part in these events. The officers, who were exclusively aristocratic, were unpopular with the men. The men mutinied, the Gardes Françaises leading the way, and by their defection sealed the fate of the Monarchy. The Minister Necker was a mere financier, totally unfitted either to repress or to guide a revolution. The commonest military precautions had been neglected. The garrison of the Bastille was not reenforced, and the arsenal of the Invalides had not been secured against attack.

In the Faubourg St. Antoine and the low quarters adjoining was gathered perhaps the greatest and most formidable collection of criminal ruffians and desperadoes in Europe. It had been recently reënforced by an influx of vagabondage from the country, which, to complete the list of malign influences, had been suffering from famine. In the disastrous course of events, and through the weakness of leading men, the Faubourg St. Antoine eventually got hold, through its agitators, of the powers of a highly centralized government at the point of centralization, and was thus enabled to impress its character on the revolution. No more calamitous accident has befallen the world.

There have been in different countries savage mobs which have done savage things. But has there ever been in a civilized country anything like the cannibal ferocity of St. Antoine: mangling, sometimes gnawing, the bodies of those whom it had murdered; carrying about heads on a pike; parading the remains of the Princess de Lamballe, loathsomely dismembered, under the eyes of her bosom friend the Queen; carting Bailly from the ordinary place of execution to be executed on a dunghill, while the guillotine was being set up ? Is it not appalling to think that the destinies of France, and in great measure those of the civilized world, should for a moment, or in the slightest degree, have fallen into the hands of this worse than savage rabble ? Through such a channel could anything good come ? This, however, and this alone is “the people” of Jacobin orations, and the sacred source of Jacobin authority. It is not likely that respectable citizens ever frequented the Jacobin Club.

The poor King it was who decided that the place of meeting must be Versailles, on account of the hunting, to him the most important duty of life. Louis was good and meant well. He showed passive courage. He had insight enough to value Turgot, and to see that interference in the war between England and her insurgent colonists was a blunder, as in the end it proved most fatally to him and his throne to have been. Left to himself, he would probably have floated with the stream, and might have come out with personal safety. But he was under the pernicious influence of Marie Antoinette.

France did not much like an Austrian marriage. But Marie Antoinette’s beauty and grace at first won for her great popularity. This she afterwards forfeited by her indiscretions, her gambling table at Marly, her midnight wanderings with doubtful company in the gardens of Versailles, her breaches not only of etiquette but of decorum, the sharpness of her tongue, her intimate attachments to certain courtiers which, though really innocent, bred scandal. She, with the bad set into the hands of which she had fallen, committed the great crime of supplanting Turgot, because, at a time of the greatest public need, he sought to set bounds to Court extravagance. The Queen was now extremely unpopular. Everything bad was believed about her, even the story of the diamond necklace; and her influence in state affairs was the object of intense suspicion. Willful and obstinate, yet flighty and variable, she led her torpid and too compliant partner into impotent intrigue and spasmodic sallies of reaction, in the end bringing him with herself to the tragical fate which has made her a figure of pathetic interest and cast a halo round her name.

What part was played by the Duke of Orléans it is difficult to say. He had a pique against the Court and wanted to spite it. That motive probably was as strong as any desire of a demagogic crown. The duke probably intrigued in a dull way and opened his purse to needy adventurers. He was above all things a debauchee and a gourmand. After being condemned to death he sat down to a great dinner. One is glad to know that a shudder, even in that cruel audience, went round when d’Orléans gave his vote for the death of his kinsman the king.

There might have been a chance of bilking Destiny if a good understanding could have been kept up between the Assembly and the well-meaning and easygoing King. That chance was destroyed by the selfish demagogism of Mirabeau, effectually seconded by the reactionary follies of the Queen. Mirabeau was a splendid orator; in his way he was a great man. His personal ascendency dominated that babel, but his life had been very wild. He had broken not the rule of pure morality only, but that of honor. He wanted money for his pleasures, as he showed bytaking it at last from the Court. Nor can his statesmanship be said to have been of the highest kind. He did, as things went on, see the rock on which the ship was being run, and tried, at some risk of his popularity, to put down the helm. But his plan of carrying the King away from Paris to the Provinces, and confronting the issue of civil war, was not very hopeful, while it implied the most decisive condemnation of the Revolution which its author had launched on its fatal course. Mira beau’s death was hastened by debauchery. Private morality at this time in France was at a low ebb. Religious restraint had been killed by the casuistry of the Jesuit, the vices of the clergy, and the reaction against the code of intolerance. Voltaire, Diderot, fashionable writers generally, were unclean. Moral depravation could not fail to act on political character in one way as the strict moral code of the Puritan did in the other. It is an element in this history not to be overlooked.

Compare the list of leaders in the French Revolution with that of the leaders of the Revolution in England — Eliot, Pym, Hampden, Cromwell, Ireton — in character, capacity, loftiness of aim. There was a good deal in Talleyrand’s saying that the key to the French Revolution was vanity. Vanity is always visible as a strong motive. In the whole list Mirabeau was the only one who could in any sense be called great. Bailly was good, and he was butchered. Barnave, when he had come to himself, also was good, and he also was butchered. Lafayette sincerely wished the country to be saved, but to be saved by Lafayette; and on the occasion of the mob invasion of Versailles and the deportation of the King to Paris, he seems to have played a sinister game. Lamartine has canonized the Girondists; but to have been murdered by the Jacobins seems about their highest title to adoration. They had among them certainly eloquent speakers, perhaps genuine patriots, but their leader, Brissot, was a shifty schemer. They gave a cowardly vote for the execution of the King. Worse still, they, for their own party ends, involved France in war. On a fair review of the facts it does not seem likely that the allied monarchs would have attacked the French Republic, provoking as the propagandist language and demonstrations of the Revolutionists had been. Shelter could hardly have been refused to émigrés whom France had cast out, and who, whatever demonstrations they might make, could evidently have done nothing by themselves. The invasions of France, and Brunswick’s insane and fatal manifesto, were provoked by defiance of international law on the part of France under Girondist intrigue. Setting aside the immorality, nothing could show shallowness on the part of politicians more than the belief that the path to constitutional freedom lay through excitement of war passions and the exaltation of military power.

That such a man as Robespierre should have been able to make himself dictator is a proof of the pettiness as well as the wickedness of those over whose heads he rose. I have unfortunately lost a manuscript description of him by Sergent, the last survivor of the set. It depicted inexpressible meanness. Faculties, no doubt, Robespierre had: cunning of the fox, and in hunting down the objects of his hatred and jealousy the perseverance of the weasel. Of his Rousseauist orations, which at the time told greatly with the Jacobins, all readers now speak with nausea. He was incorruptible, no doubt; corruptible, that is to say, by nothing but vanity and lust of power. An attempt has been made to relieve him of the charge of bloodthirstiness on the ground that some weeks before his fall he had been absent from the committee which was working the guillotine. So he had, very likely because he had marked some of its members for extinction. But though absent he still ruled, nor is there any reason for supposing that he moderated or intended to close the Terror, which, after his apogee at the Feast of the Supreme Being, started afresh, and ended with his fall. A sincere Rousseauist unquestionably he was, and meant, when he had guillotined all unbelievers in his idol and himself, to make the world pastorally happy. In his youth the dictator of the Terror had resigned an office rather than pass a sentence of death. On the same page in Lord Houghton’s Autograph Book there were a set of love verses by Robespierre and a deathwarrant signed by him in the Terror. Sentiment is not a perfect safeguard without principle. In Louis Blanc, sentiment, as all who knew him would have said, was strong and genuine; but in his writings there are things which seem to show that he was lucky in never having command of a guillotine.

The execution of the King was a crime and a blunder. He was helpless and harmless. His attempts, or rather those of his Queen, to get foreign powers to interpose on their behalf were excusable when not only his crown but his life and the lives of his wife and children were in peril, as in the attack of the Parisian mob upon Versailles, and on other occasions, they certainly were. He was, in fact, a valuable hostage. Louis had not dictated, nor was there any ground for believing that he would have approved, Brunswick’s manifesto. Mr. Beesly bids us remember Cromwell and Charles I. The execution of Charles I was a fatal mistake on Cromwell’s part; but the cases are hardly parallel. Charles was in treaty with the Parliament for a settlement, when by a secret int rigue he brought upon the country a Scotch invasion, together with a formidable rising of Royalists in the South; thereby putting the Puritan government and its adherents in the extremest peril. The enraged army demanded his blood, and Cromwell yielded to their demand. Regicidal passion and vanity probably played full as large a part as justice or policy in the execution of Louis, It was a grand thing to vie with the English regicides, and to “fling in the face of coalized monarchs the head of a King.” The head was flung in the faces, not only of the monarchs but of the monarchical nations. In England nothing helped the Court to carry the nation into war with France more than the execution of the French King. Touching all hearts, it had a greater effect than even the outrageous manifesto tendering French aid to all nations which would rise against their governments, though this would have afforded to all the governments so threatened an ample justification for war.

What is to be said about the execution of the Queen after a trial loathsomely insulting ? Infinite mischief she had done, but political error is not crime. What is to be said about the execution of the King’s innocent sister, Madame Elisabeth ? What, above all, is to be said about the treatment of the poor little Dauphin, torn from his mother and aunt, put into the hands of a brute like Simon, to be kept in filth and misery, depraved by drink, beaten, reduced to idiocy, and slowly done to death ? Compare with this the behavior of the Long Parliament to the children of Charles I. Could the men who did such things be other than the vilest of their kind ?

We cannot without a thrill of horror even now look into that abyss of fiendish cruelty and crime, the Terror.

Carrier, at Nantes, has nine noyades, in which it is reckoned that on the most moderate calculation 1777 persons were drowned in the Loire. At first the victims were drowned in hulks, but afterwards they were tied hand and foot and thrown into the river. The Terrorists at Paris, suspecting that Carrier was overdoing it, sent a young man, himself well schooled in Terrorism, to report. The report was: —

“The combination of three plagues, war, pestilence, and famine, threatens Nantes. A crowd of royalist soldiers have been shot, not far from the city, and the heaped up masses of corpses, joined with the pestilential exhalations of the Loire, which is entirely polluted with blood, have corrupted the air. Some National Guards have been sent from Nantes by Carrier to bury the dead, but nevertheless two thousand persons have died in less than two months of a contagious disease. The mouth of the Loire has been quite blocked up, which prevents food from arriving, and the city is prey to most horrible famine. . . . Carrier, who had spread it abroad that he was sick and in the country, was found to be well and at Nantes, surrounded by sycophants and women, who formed his court and seraglio.”

Carrier guillotines at once twenty-six artisans and farm-hands, among them two boys of fourteen and two of thirteen years of age. He was present at the execution, and could hear one of the children of thirteen, already bound to the board, but too small and having only the top of the head under the knife, ask the executioner, “Will it hurt me much?” “ What the triangular blade fell upon,” says Taine, “may be imagined.” The executioner died of horror. Collot d’Herbois, St. Just, and Tallien, if they could not match this, vied with it.

If, as there are monuments of gratitude, there were to be monuments of execration, the loftiest would surely rise to the memories of Robespierre, Marat, and their train.

Carnot, perhaps, claims exemption as having acted by himself in the Department of War, which he administered with consummate skill. Yet apparently he must have signed the death warrants of the Terror. He must have been a party to the execution of the Generals Houchard, Custine, and Luckner, and to the order forbidding quarter to be given to English or Hanoverians. He votes for the death of the King. It seems that he was constantly upbraided with his complicity in acts of blood, and that his own mind was darkened with remorse. Reproached, we are told, by his comrade Barras, he lifted his hands in protest; when Barras exclaimed, “Do not lift your hands, they will drip with blood.”2

Mr. Beesly would except Danton also from our general sentence on the actors of the Terror. He has treated the case with a mastery of detail to which I cannot pretend, and has no doubt given an impartial judgment. It is evident that he is thoroughly at home in the history of the French Revolution. It may be at once conceded that Danton was in character the least bad of the set, as he decidedly was first in ability. It was something to be an unprincipled man of sense, and not entirely without a heart, in the midst of a Bedlam turned into a slaughter-house. As an orator Danton appears to have been very powerful. His utterances are like the voice of the cannon. But he was a Terrorist,though limited. He proposed to make the advocacy of federalism punishable with death. He wanted to do justice to the people that it might not do justice to itself; in other words, to indulge it with a dole of blood that it might not resort, to massacres. To prevent murder, as he said, he advocated a new revolutionary tribunal which should prevent popular violence by depriving it of a cry; so that he was largely responsible for the erection of the Revolutionary guillotine. Always taking the mob of the Faubourg St, Antoine for “the people,” he urged it “not to limit itself to defensive war, but to take the offensive against the Moderates.” He had urged the execution of the King; he countenanced that of Marie Antoinette, avowedly to preserve his popularity. He did not love Marat, but he combined with him and defended him, avowing that he had been one of Marat’s boldest champions. He said that “the time for inflexibility and a national vengeance was not over, and that he wished Terror to be the Order of the Day.” That by holding sanguinary language he was qualifying himself for the practical service of mercy, seems a rather precarious supposition. His audience would be likely to take him at his word. Of the charge of corruption, which all these miscreants, probably with general truth, leveled against one another, Mr. Beesly seems to have proved that Danton was entirely guiltless. But the charge which of all weighs most heavily on Danton’s memory is that of having planned the hideous massacres of September. That Danton planned the massacres, I think Mr, Beesly has shown is not proven; that he connived at them cannot possibly be denied. It is much if Mr. Beesly can show that he did not. approve of them. His connivance, he being Minister of Justice as well as the most powerful man of the hour, would be enough to blast his name. The massacres Were absolutely inexcusable. The poor victims, fast in gaol, could not possibly have conspired with an invader. St. Antoine lusted for a feast of blood. Bold and strong as Danton was, he showed irresolution in his final death-struggle with Robespierre. In planning the storm of the Tuileries and the destruction of the Monarchy, he had proved himself to be no great statesman. The King had been stripped of all power, but his name was the only symbol of national authority, and the effect of his deposition on the Provinces was to precipitate civil war.

The last stage of the Revolution was the Directory, a paragon of corruption, as American history plainly tells. Its leading member was Barras,the foul ness of whose private vices was a scandal even in that age, and who made a large fortune by public theft. This man and his colleague Larevellière-Lépeaux, a rogue who had invented a religion, conspired with Napoleon’s emissaries against their colleagues and the constitutional majority of the legislature, packed them off in iron cars, trying to get them murdered on the road, and deported them to Cayenne. In justice to Pitt it must be said that to make peace with these villains was impossible. War was their game and the source of their gains. The conqueror of Italy was directed to “send them everything that might be of use to them.” Neighboring states, which they had invited to a “sweet fraternity,” speedily found what a sweet fraternity meant. Of all the elements of this scene far the best was the army, which, if raised largely by conscription or hunger, was partly raised also by the spirit of the “Marseillaise.” But under the Directory its victories were turned into rapine.

Then in due course came the military despot. He came in the form, not of a Frenchman, but of a Corsican, supreme in military genius, great in administrative power, and as devoid of any moral restraint or sentiment of humanity as any brigand of his native isle. “Peace with glory,” he said, was what France wanted; peace being his despotism, while the glory was the satisfaction of French vanity by trampling on other nations. He had conceived the mad ambition of making himself Emperor of Europe, but he was also animated by a Corsican lust of war. This it was probably that carried him to Russia. Lord Russell, who saw him at Elba, said that his eyes flashed at the mention of war. Twice he brought the enemy into Paris. His conscriptions were a tax fully as heavy as any imposed by the Bourbons. The result to Europe was twenty years of bloodshed, destruction, and misery, with the political reaction in Europe generally which the struggle entailed. Napoleon’s home policy was of course centralization carried to an extreme, when what France wanted most was decentralization, with a healthy development of provincial life. He restored the State Church of France, as an engine of his despotism, with effects with which France is now compelled to deal. Paradox has pictured him as a great soldier of democracy. He revived aristocracy in France, surrounding himself with Sansculotte dukes and Jacobin counts, while he sought for himself a matrimonial alliance with the royal family of Austria, the very type of reaction. Never surely was humanity more degraded than in allowing itself to be immolated to the ambition of this man. We owe France much; but, it is submitted, not much for her Revolution. What we owe her, if anything, for her Revolution, is the terrible warning which Russian Terrorism disregards.

  1. Life of Danton. By A. H. BEESLY. Third Edition. London : Longmans & Co. 1906.
  2. Cambridge Modern History, viii, 492.