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   Chapter 23 CONCLUSION.

The Eve of the French Revolution By Edward J. Lowell Characters: 41567

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France had become a despotism in the attempt to escape from mediaeval anarchy. What she asked of her kings was security from external enemies, and good government at home. The first of these they had given her. No country in Europe was more respected and feared. In spite of occasional and temporary reverses, her borders had been enlarged from reign to reign, and her fields, for nearly three centuries, had seldom been trodden by foreign armies.

Within the country the house of Capet had been partially successful. It had put down armed opposition, it had taken away the power of the feudal nobility, it had maintained tolerable security against violent crime. But here its zeal had slackened. Civilization was advancing rapidly, and the French internal government was not keeping pace with it.

This better performance of its external than of its internal tasks is almost inevitable in a despotism. To protect his country, and to add to it, is the obvious duty and the natural ambition of a despot. His dignity is concerned; his pride is flattered by success; and whether he has succeeded or failed is obvious to himself and to every one else. To control and improve the internal administration is a hard and ungrateful labor, in which mistakes are sure to occur; and the greatest and truest reform when accomplished will injure and displease some persons. The most beneficent improvements are sometimes those which involve the most labor and bring the least reputation.

Moreover, it is not the people who surround kings that are chiefly benefited by the good administration of a country. Courtiers are likely to be interested in abuses, and in the absence of a free press courtiers are the public of monarchs. If we compare the facilities possessed by Louis XVI. for ascertaining the true condition of his country with those possessed by the sovereigns of our own day, an emperor of Germany or of Austria, or even a Russian Czar, we shall find that the king of France was far worse off than they are. There were no undisputed national accounts or statistics in France. There was no serious periodical press in any country, watching events and collecting facts. There were no newspapers endeavoring at once to direct and to be directed by public opinion. True, the satirists were everywhere, with their epigrams and their songs; but who can form a policy by listening to the jeers of the splenetic?

The absolute monarchy, therefore, while it protected the French nation, was failing to secure to it the reasonable and civilized government to which it felt itself to be entitled. It was failing partly from lack of information, but largely also from lack of will. The kings in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had beaten down the power of the nobility and of the Parliaments; the kings of the eighteenth century shrank before the influence of the very bodies which their ancestors had defeated. It is vain to try to eliminate the personal element from history. France would have been a very different country in 1789 from what she was, had Louis XV. and Louis XVI. been strong and able men. The education of a prince is not necessarily enfeebling. Perhaps the commonest vice of despots is willfulness; but the last absolute king of France might have known a far happier fate if he had had a little more of it.

The French government was not aristocratic. There was no class in the country, unless it were the clergy, that was in the habit of exercising important political rights. But the nobility comprised all those men and all those families which were trained to occupy high administrative place. The secretaries of state, the judges of the higher courts, the officers in the army, were noblemen. The order also included a large proportion of the educated men and the possessors of a considerable part of the wealth of the country. It was, therefore, a true power, which might appropriately be considered. Moreover, it was popularly supposed to have political rights, although in fact these were mostly obsolete. Could a good deal of weight have been given, for a time at least, to the nobility, the result would probably have been favorable to the national order and prosperity.

Government, to be stable, should represent the true forces of the state. In a country where all men are of the same race, and where a large portion of the population has some property and some education, numbers should be given weight in government; for the simple reason that, in such a country, many men are stronger than a few, and may choose to use their strength rather than that a few should govern them. What a large majority of the people desires, it can enforce. It is often agreed, in favor of peace and to end controversy, that what a small majority decides shall be taken as decided for all. On this agreement rests the legitimacy of democracy. The compromise is an arbitrary one in itself, but reasonable and sensible; and in a nation that has a good deal of practical good sense, a feeling of loyalty may gather about it. But sensible and practical as it may be, it remains a compromise after all. There is no divine right in one half the voters plus one. Some other proportion may be, and often is agreed on; or some compromise entirely different may be found to be more in accordance with the national will.

In old France the conditions required for democratic government were but partially fulfilled. The population was fairly homogeneous. Property and education were more or less diffused. But of political experience there was little, and the democratic compromise, to be thoroughly successful, requires a great deal. It was rightly felt that a proper regard was not had to the desires of the more numerous part of the inhabitants of the country; that a few persons had privileges far beyond their public deserts or their true powers; but how was this state of things to be remedied? What new relations were to take the place of the old? No actual compromise had been effected, and the idea of the rights of a majority, with the limitations to which those rights are subject, was not clearly defined in men's minds.

A government should represent the sense of duty of a country. All men believe that something better is imaginable than that which exists, and that the better things would be attainable if only men would act as they ought. Most men strive somewhat to improve their own condition and conduct. Every man believes at least that others should do so. But in making laws men are trying to regulate the conduct of others, and are willing, therefore, that the laws should be a little nearer to their ideals than their own practice is. All sensible men believe that they ought to obey the laws, and that if they suffer for not doing so their suffering is righteous. This opinion is one of the forces in the world that makes for good.

Now what were the qualities considered really moral and desirable by the Frenchmen of 1789, and how far did the government of the Bourbons tend toward them? The duty first recognized by the whole country was patriotism. The love of France has never grown cold in French hearts. It is needless to insist on this, for no one who has ever met a Frenchman worthy of the name, or read a French book of any value, can doubt it. With all its noble and all its petty incidents, patriotism is a French virtue.

Under the kings of France its aspirations were satisfied. The country was great and glorious.

That loyalty was held to be a duty will perhaps be less generally recognized, but I think that enough has been written in this book to show it. The evidence of the cahiers is chiefly on that side. Most Frenchmen believed that a king should govern, and that they had a good and well-meaning king. Toward him their hearts were still warm and their sense of duty alive. He was misled, thwarted, overruled, by selfish and designing courtiers. If he could but have his way all would be well. Only a very few persons had eyes strong enough to see that they were worshiping a stuffed scarecrow. A man inside those clothes could really have led them.

Next among the ideals of France, and far above loyalty in many bosoms, came liberty and equality. They were not very clearly comprehended. By liberty was chiefly meant a share of political power; few Frenchmen believed then, or ever have believed, in letting every man do what seemed good in his eyes. Such a theory of liberty does not take a very strong hold on a race so sociable as theirs; nor does such unbridled liberty seem consistent with civilization to men accustomed to the rigid system of Continental police. Equality of rights was an ideal, but most people in France were not prepared to demand its entire carrying out. Equality of property and of enjoyment many persons, especially such as considered themselves Philosophers,-persons who had read Rousseau or Montesquieu,-considered desirable; but no one of any weight had the most distant intention of trying to bring about such a state of things in the work-a-day world. Communistic schemes were not quite unknown in the eighteenth century, but they belong to the nineteenth.[Footnote: See for eighteenth century communism the curious essay of Morelly.]

With the general growth of comfort, with the general hope of an improved world, humanity, the hatred of seeing others suffer, had begun to bestir itself. For many ages people had believed that another life, and not this one, was really to be considered. Kind-hearted men had tried to draw souls to heaven, stern men to drive them thither. The effort had absorbed the energy and enthusiasm of a great proportion of those persons who were willing to think of anything but their own concerns. But in the eighteenth century heaven was clouded. Men's eyes were fixed on a promised land nearer their own level. This world, which was known by experience to be but too often a vale of tears, was soon, very soon, by the operation of the fashionable philosophy, to be turned into something like a paradise. To bring about so desirable a condition of things, the tears must be stopped at their source. Nor was this all. The world had acquired a new interest. It was capable of improvement. Hope in temporal matters had led to Faith,-Faith in progress and happiness here below. The new direction given to Faith and Hope was followed by Charity. The task of relieving human pain was fairly undertaken. Sickness and insanity were better cared for; torture was abolished, punishment lightened. In these matters the government rather followed than led the popular aspirations. In its general inefficiency, it came halting behind the good intentions of the people.

The virtues toward which the government of old France tried to lead the French nation were not, as we have seen, exactly the virtues toward which the national conscience led. The government upheld loyalty and humanity, and the people agreed with it; the government upheld a centralized despotism and privileges, and the popular conscience called for liberty and equality. In religion there was both agreement and divergence. The country, in spite of Voltaire and the Encyclopaedists, believed itself to be fervently Catholic; but its ideal of Catholicism was of a reformed and regenerated type; while that maintained by the government was corrupt and lifeless in high places. The country wanted provincial councils, resident bishops, a purified church.

And in so far as the ideals of the government differed from those of the people, the monarchy did not stand for something nobler and higher than the moral forces that attacked it. The French nation was in fact better than its government, more honest and more generous. The country priests were more self-devoted than the bishops who ruled over them; the poorer nobles were more public-spirited and more moral than the favored nobility of the court; the citizens of the Third Estate conducted their private business more honorably than the administration conducted the business of the country.

If the stability and legitimacy of government depend on its correspondence with the real powers of the nation and with the national conscience, the functions of government embrace something harder to attain even than this agreement. No sovereign power, be it that of an autocrat on his throne or of a nation in its councils, can directly carry out the policy which it desires to adopt. The sovereign must act through agents; and on the proper selection of these the success of his undertakings will largely depend. Jurists must draft the laws, judges must interpret them, officers must enforce obedience. Generals, commanding soldiers, must defend the land. Engineers must construct forts and roads; marine architects must furnish plans for practical ship-builders. Financiers must devise schemes of taxation, to be submitted to the sovereign; collectors of various kinds must levy the taxes on the people. All these should be experts, trained to do their especial work. The choice of experts, then, is one of the most important functions of government.

In this respect the administration of King Louis XVI. and his immediate predecessor was usually, although not uniformly bad. The army and navy, until the last years of disorganization, were reasonably efficient, the naval engineers in particular being the best then at work in the world. The civil and criminal laws were chaotic, more from a defect of legislation than of administration. Old privileges and anomalies were supported by the government, but good jurists and magistrates were produced. Those lawyers can hardly have been incompetent in whose school were trained the framers of the Code Napoleon, the model of modern Europe. Internal order and police were maintained with a thoroughness that was remarkable in an age when the possession of a good horse put the highwayman very nearly on an equality with the officer. The worst experts employed by the government appear to have been those connected with taxation and expenditure, from the Controller of the Finances to the last clerk in the Excise. The schemes of most of them were blundering, their actions were too often dishonest. They never reached the art of keeping accurate accounts.

The condition of the people of France, both in Paris and in the provinces, was far less bad than it is often represented to have been. The foregoing chapters should have given the impression of a great, prosperous, modern country. The face of Europe has changed since 1789 more through the enormous number and variety of mechanical inventions that have marked the nineteenth century than through a corresponding increase in mental or moral growth. While production and wealth have advanced by strides, education has taken a few faltering steps forward. Pecuniary honesty has probably increased, honesty and industry being the virtues especially fostered by commerce and manufactures. Bigotry, the unwillingness to permit in others thought and language unpalatable to ourselves, has become less virulent, but has not disappeared. It is shown alike by the church and by her enemies. Yet the tone of controversy has softened even in France. There are fewer Voltairean sneers, fewer episcopal anathemas. Humanity has been growing; the rich and prosperous becoming more alive to the suffering around them. But it is the material progress that is most striking, after all. The poor are better off than they were a hundred years ago, and the rich also. The minimum required by custom for the decent support of life has risen. The earners of wages are better housed, fed, and clothed in return for fewer hours of labor. In France, as in the world, there are many more things to divide, and things are, on the whole, more evenly divided.

If we compare the France of 1789 no longer with the France of 1892, but with the other countries of Continental Europe as they were in the days preceding the great Revolution, we find that she was worse governed than a few of them. The administration of Prussia while the great King Frederick sat on the throne was probably better than that of France. After his death it rapidly fell off, until a series of defeats had been earned by mis-government at Berlin. In a few of the smaller states, such as Holland, the Swiss cantons, or Tuscany, the citizen was perhaps better governed than in France. But in general, life and property appear to have been less safe beyond the French border than within it. A small despotism, when it is bad, is more searching and interfering than a large one. The lords of France were tyrannous enough at times, but there were always courts of law and a royal court above them, and appeals for justice, although doubtful, might yet be attempted with a hope of success.

The intellectual leadership of France in Europe was very clearly marked under Louis XV. French was unquestionably the language of the well-born and the witty as it was the favorite language of the learned all over the Continent. The reputation of Voltaire, Diderot, d'Alembert, and Rousseau, was distinctly European. Frederick of Prussia was glad to compose his academy at Berlin of second-rate French men of letters, and to make his own attempts at literary distinction in the French language. Smaller German princes modeled their courts on that of Versailles, and ruined themselves in palaces and gardens that were distant copies of those of that famous suburb. This spirit lasted well down to 1789, although the masterpieces of Lessing were already twenty years old, and those of Goethe and Schiller had begun to appear.

But while France was great, prosperous, and growing, and a model to her neighbors, she was deeply discontented. The condition of other countries was less good than hers, but the minds of the people of those countries had not risen above their condition. France had become conscious that her government did not correspond to her degree of civilization. The fact was emphasized in the national mind by the mediocrity of Louis XV. as a sovereign and by the utter incompetence of his well-meaning successor. In hands so feeble, the smallest excess of expenditure over income was important as a symptom of weakness, and for many years the deficit had in fact been increasing. The financial situation gave the nation a ground of attack against its government; it was not the cause of the Revolution, but its occasion. All the machinery of the state needed to be inspected, repaired, or renewed. The people entered into the task with good will, and the warmest interest. But they were entirely without experience. They knew and believed that old forms were to be respected as far as might be compatible with new conditions; they thought that the improvements needed were so obvious that nothing but fairness was required to recognize them. In their ignorance of the working of popular assemblies they supposed them to be inspired with wisdom and virtue beyond that of the individuals who compose them.

This is a mistake not likely to occur to any one who has experience of public meetings; but among the twelve hundred deputies to the Estates General, and among their constituents all over France, no one had much experience. A hundred and forty Notables, in 1787 and 1788, had deliberated on public questions; but their work had been done principally in committee, and their conclusions were without binding force on anybody, their functions being merely advisory. A good many delegates had been members of provincial assemblies or provincial estates; but these, in most of the provinces, had met but a few times, and their powers had been very limited. Such assemblies could do some good, and were carefully hedged from doing much harm. As training for membership in a body which was to discuss all sorts of questions and possess almost absolute power, experience among the Notables or in the provincial assemblies and estates, although valuable, was insufficient, and comparatively few of the members had even so much. Nor was foreign example of avail. No great scholar had published in French a study of the parliamentary history of England, nor were Frenchmen prepared to profit by English experience. Absolute right, according to his own ideas, was what every man expected to obtain.

A public body, although less wise than the best of its members, has one great advantage over a natural person, and experience has taught the nations that have made self-government successful to profit by this advantage. A public body may be so tied by its own rules that it can act but slowly. Thus the hot desire of to-day may be moderated by the cool reflection of to-morrow. To this end are arranged the three readings of bills and the various other dilatory devices of m

ost parliaments and congresses. But when great constitutional changes are to be attempted, such measures as these are insufficient. Great changes should be introduced one by one, separately debated and fought over. Elections should be repeated during the process; much time should be allowed and many tedious forms observed. Under these circumstances the legislature may be no wiser than a common man, but how often would a common man do anything very foolish if he took several years to think about it?

The French assembly did not and could not take the necessary time and precautions. The country was seething and bubbling. The deputies were honest and patriotic. They were generally men of local reputation who had pushed themselves forward by political agitation and by activity in the elections. It is probable that the proportion of violent men among them was larger than in the nation, for they were chosen in a time of excitement, when violence of thought and language was likely to be popular; yet the assembly comprised also most of the truly distinguished men in France. What was wanting was not natural ability, but experience, calmness, and patience.

It is not the purpose of this book to follow them in their great undertaking. They accomplished for France much that was good; they prepared the way for much that was evil. Enough if the condition of the country before the great Revolution began has been here set down.

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