Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION III: Popular Excesses which attended the Revolution. - Vindiciae Gallicae and Other Writings on the French Revolution
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SECTION III: Popular Excesses which attended the Revolution. - Sir James Mackintosh, Vindiciae Gallicae and Other Writings on the French Revolution 
Vindiciae Gallicae and Other Writings on the French Revolution, edited and with an Introduction by Donald Winch (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006).
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Popular Excesses which attended the Revolution.
That no great Revolutions can be accomplished without excesses and miseries at which humanity revolts, is a truth which cannot be denied. This unfortunately is true, in a peculiar manner, of those Revolutions, which, like that of France, are strictly popular. Where the people are led by a faction, its leaders find no difficulty in the re-establishment of that order, which must be the object of their wishes, because it is the sole security of their power. But when a general movement of the popular mind levels a despotism with the ground, it is far less easy to<163> restrain excess. There is more resentment to satiate and less authority to controul. The passion which produced an effect so tremendous, is too violent to subside in a moment into serenity and submission. The spirit of revolt breaks out with fatal violence after its object is destroyed, and turns against the order of freedom those arms by which it had subdued the strength of tyranny. The attempt to punish the spirit that actuates a people, if it were just, would be in vain, and if it were possible would be cruel. They are too many to be punished in a view of justice, and too strong to be punished in a view of policy. The ostentation of vigor would in such a case prove the display of impotence, and the rigor of justice conduct to the cruelty of extirpation. No remedy is therefore left but the progress of instruction, the force of persuasion, the mild authority of opinion. These remedies, though infallible, are of slow operation; and in the interval which elapses before a<164> calm succeeds the boisterous moments of a Revolution, it is vain to expect that a people, inured to barbarism by their oppressors, and which has ages of oppression to avenge, will be punctiliously generous in their triumph, nicely discriminative in their vengeance, or cautiously mild in their mode of retaliation. “They will break their chains on the heads of their oppressors.”*
Such was the state of France, and such were the obvious causes that gave birth to scenes which the friends of freedom deplore as tarnishing her triumphs. They feel these evils as men of humanity. But they will not bestow the name on that womanish and complexional sensibility, towards which, even in the still intercourse of private life, indulgence is mingled with love. The only humanity<165> which, in the great affairs of men, claims their respect, is that manly and expanded humanity, which fixes its steady eye on the object of general happiness. The sensibility which shrinks at a present evil, without extending its views to future good, is not a virtue, for it is not a quality beneficial to mankind: It would arrest the arm of a Surgeon in amputating a gangrened limb, or the hand of a Judge in signing the sentence of a parricide. I do not say, (God forbid!) that a crime may be committed for the prospect of good. Such a doctrine would shake morals to their center. But the case of the French Revolutionists is totally different. Has any moralist ever pretended, that we are to decline the pursuit of a good which our duty prescribed to us, because we foresaw that some partial and incidental evil would arise from it. This is the true view of the question, and it is only by this principle that we are to estimate the re-<166>sponsibility of the leaders of the Revolution for the excesses which attended it.
If any of these leaders had crimes in contemplation for the attainment of their purpose, I abandon them to merited obloquy and execration. The man who would erect freedom on the ruins of morals, understands nor loves neither. But the number against whom this charge has ever been insinuated, is so small, that supposing (what I do not believe) its truth, it only proves that corrupt and ambitious men will mix with great bodies. The question with respect to the rest, is reducible to this—“Whether they were to abstain from establishing a free Government, because they foresaw that it could not be effected without confusion and temporary distress—Whether they were to be deterred from pursuing that Constitution which they deemed best for their country, by the<167> prospect of partial and transient evils, or to be consoled for these calamities by the view of that happiness to which their labours were to give ultimate permanence and diffusion?” A Minister is not conceived to be guilty of systematic immorality, because he balances the evils of the most just war with that national security that is produced by the reputation of spirit and power; nor ought the Patriot, who, balancing the evils of transient anarchy with the inestimable good of established liberty, finds the last preponderate in the scale.
Such, in fact, have ever been the reasonings of the leaders in those insurrections which have preserved the remnant of freedom that still exists among mankind. Holland, England, America, must have reasoned thus, and the different portions of liberty which they enjoy, have been purchased by the endurance of far greater calamities than have been suf-<168>fered by France. It is unnecessary to appeal to the wars which for almost a century afflicted the Low Countries. But it may be necessary to remind England of the price she paid for the establishment at the Revolution. The disputed succession which arose from that event, produced a destructive civil war in Ireland, two rebellions in Scotland, the consequent slaughter and banishment of thousands of citizens, with the widest confiscation of their properties; not to mention the continental connections into which it plunged England, the foreign wars in which it engaged us, and the necessity thus imposed upon us of maintaining a standing army, and accumulating an enormous public debt.* <169>
The freedom of America was purchased by calamities still more inevitable. The authors of the Revolution must have foreseen them, for they were not contingent or remote, but ready in a moment to burst on their heads. Their case is most similar to that of France, and best answers one of Mr. Burke’s most triumphant arguments. They enjoyed some liberty, which their oppressors did not attack. The object of resistance was conceded in the progress of the war.—But like France, after the concessions of her King, they refused to acquiesce in an imperfect liberty, when a more perfect one was within their reach. They pursued what Mr. Burke, whatever were his then sentiments, on his present system, must reprobate as a speculative and ideal good. They sought their beloved independence through new calamities, through the prolonged horrors of civil war.—“Their resistance,” from that moment, “was against concession. Their blows were<170> aimed at a hand holding forth immunity and favours.”40 —Events have indeed justified that noble resistance. America has emerged from her struggle into tranquility and freedom, into affluence and credit.—The authors of her Constitution have constructed a great permanent experimental answer to the sophisms and declamations of the detractors of liberty.
But what proportion did the price she paid for so great a blessing bear to the transient misfortunes which have afflicted France?—The extravagance of the comparison shocks every unprejudiced mind. No series of events in history have probably been more widely, malignantly, and systematically exaggerated than the French commotions. An enraged, numerous and opulent body of exiles, dispersed over Europe, have possessed themselves of every venal press, and filled the public ear with a perpetual buz of the<171> crimes and horrors that were acting in France.* Instead of entering on minute scrutiny, of which the importance would neither expiate the tediousness, nor reward the toil, let us content ourselves with opposing one general fact to this host of falsehoods. No commercial house of importance has failed in France since the Revolution!—How is this to be reconciled with the tales that have been circulated. As well might the transfers of the Royal-Exchange, be quietly executed in the ferocious anarchy of Gondar,<172> and the peaceful opulence of Lombard-street, flourish amidst hordes of Galla and Agows.—Commerce, which shrinks from the breath of civil confusion, has resisted this tempest, and a mighty Revolution has been accomplished with less commercial derangement than could arise from the bankruptcy of a second rate house in London, or Amsterdam. The manufacturers of Lyons, the merchants of Bourdeaux and Marseilles, are silent amidst the lamentations of the Abbé Maury, M. Calonne, and Mr. Burke. Happy is that people whose commerce flourishes in Ledgers, while it is bewailed in orations, and remains untouched in calculation, while it expires in the pictures of eloquence. This unquestionable fact, is on such a subject worth a thousand arguments, and to any mind qualified to judge, must expose in their true light those execrable fabrications, which have sounded such a “senseless yell” through Europe.<173>
But let us admit for a moment their truth, and take as a specimen of the evils of the Revolution, the number of lives which have been lost in its progress. That no possibility of cavil may remain, let us surpass in an exaggerated estimate the utmost audacity of falsehood. Let us make a statement, from which the most frontless hireling of Calonne would shrink. Let us for a moment suppose, that in the course of the Revolution 20,000 lives have been lost. On the comparison of even this loss with parallel events in history, is there any thing in it from which a manly and enlightened humanity will recoil? Can it be compared with the slaughter that established American freedom, or with the fruits of the English Revolution? But this comparison is an injustice to the argument. Compare it with the expenditure of blood by which in ordinary wars so many pernicious and ignoble objects are sought.—Compare it with the blood spilt by Eng-<174>land in the attempt to subjugate America, and if such be the guilt of the Revolutionists of France, for having, at the hazard of this evil, sought the establishment of freedom, what new name of obloquy shall be applied to the Minister of England, who with the certainty of a destruction so much greater, attempted the establishment of tyranny.
The illusion which prevents the effect of these comparisons, is not peculiar to Mr. Burke. The massacres of war, and the murders committed by the sword of justice, are disguised by the solemnities which invest them. But the wild justice of the people has a naked and undisguised horror. Its slightest exertion awakens all our indignation, while murder and rapine, if arrayed in the gorgeous disguise of acts of State, may with impunity stalk abroad. Our sentiments are reconciled to them in this form, and we forget that the evils of anarchy must be short-<175>lived, while those of despotic government are fatally permanent.
Another illusion has particularly in England favored the exaggeration of the exiles. We judge of France by our own situation. This is to view it through a false medium. We ought to judge of it by a comparison with nations in similar circumstances. With us “the times may be moderate,* and therefore ought to be peaceable”: But in France the times were not moderate, and could not be peaceable.
Let us correct that illusion of moral optics which makes near objects so disproportionately large. Let us place the scene of the French Revolution in a remote age, or in a distant nation, and then let us calmly ask our own minds, whether the most reasonable subject of wonder be not its unexampled mild-<176>ness, and the small number of individuals crushed in the fall of so vast a pile.
Such are the general reflexions suggested by the disorders of the French Revolution. Of these, the first in point of time as well as of importance, was the Parisian insurrection and the capture of the Bastile. The mode in which that memorable event is treated by Mr. Burke, is worthy of notice. It occupies no conspicuous place in his work. It is only obscurely and contemptuously hinted at as one of those examples of successful revolt, which have fostered a mutinous spirit in the soldiery. “They have not forgot the taking of the King’s Castles in Paris and at Marseilles. That they murdered with impunity in both places the Governors has not escaped their minds.” (Burke, p. 324.) Such is the courtly circumlocution by which Mr. Burke designs the Bastile—the King’s Castle at Paris. Such is the igno-<177>minious language in which he speaks of the summary justice executed on the titled ruffian who was its Governor; and such is the apparent art with which he has thrown into the back ground invective and asperity, which if they had been prominent, would have provoked the indignation of mankind.
“Je sais,” says Mounier, in the language of that frigid and scanty approbation that is extorted from an enemy, “qu’il est des circonstances qui legitiment l’insurrection, & je mets dans ce nombre celles qui ont causé le siège de la Bastille.” (Exposé de Mounier, p. 24.)41 But the admiration of Europe and of posterity, is not to be estimated by the penurious applause of M. Mounier, nor repressed by the insidious hostility of Mr. Burke. It will correspond to the splendor of an insurrection, as much ennobled by heroism as it was justified by necessity, in which the citizens of Paris, the unwarlike inhabitants of a vo-<178>luptuous capital, listening to no voice but that of the danger which menaced their representatives, their families, and their country, animated, instead of being awed, by the hosts of disciplined mercenaries that invested them on every side, formed themselves into an army, attacked with a gallantry and success equally incredible, a fortress formidable from its strength, and tremendous from its destination; dispelled every hostile project, and changed the destiny of France. To palliate or excuse such a revolt, would be abject treachery to its principles. It was a case in which revolt was the dictate of virtue, and the path of duty; and in which submission would have been the most dastardly baseness, and the foulest crime. It was an action not to be excused, but applauded; not to be pardoned, but admired. I shall not therefore descend to vindicate acts of heroism, which history will teach the remotest posterity to revere, and of which the recital is destined to<179> kindle in unborn millions the holy enthusiasm of Freedom.
Commotions of another description early followed the Revolution, partly arising from the general causes before stated, and partly from others of more limited and local operation. The peasantry of the provinces, buried for so many ages in the darkness of servitude, saw, indistinctly and confusedly, in the first dawn of liberty, the boundaries of their duties and their rights. It was no wonder that they should little understand that freedom which so long had been remote from their views. The name conveyed to their ear a right to reject all restraint, to gratify every resentment, and to attack all property. Ruffians mingled with the deluded peasants, with hopes of booty, and inflamed their ignorance and prejudices, by forged acts of the King and the Assembly authorizing their licentiousness. From these circumstances arose many calamities in the<180> provinces. The country houses of many gentlemen were burnt, and some obnoxious persons were assassinated. But one may without excessive scepticism doubt, whether they had been the mildest masters whose chateaux had undergone that fate. Perhaps the peasants had oppressions to avenge, those silent grinding oppressions that form almost the only intercourse of the rich with the indigent; which though less flagrant than those of Government, are perhaps productive of more intolerable and diffusive misery.
But whatever was the demerit of these excesses, they can by no torture of reason be imputable to the National Assembly, or the leaders of the Revolution. In what manner were they to repress them? If they exerted against them their own authority with rigor, they must have provoked a civil war. If they invigorated the police and tribunals of the deposed Government, besides incurring the ha-<181>zard of the same calamity, they put arms into the hands of their enemies. Placed in this dilemma, they were compelled to expect a slow remedy from the returning serenity of the public mind, and from the progress of the new Government towards consistence and vigor.*
A degree of influence exerted by the people, far more than would be tolerated by a firm Government, or could exist in a state of tranquility, must be expected in the crisis of a<182> Revolution which the people have made.—They have too recent experience of their own strength to abstain at once from exerting it. Their political passions have been agitated by too fierce a storm to regain in a moment that serenity which would expect with patient acquiescence the decrees of their Representatives. From an inflamed multitude, who had felt themselves irresistible, and whose fancy annexed to the decision of every political question the fate of their freedom, an undue interposition in the proceedings of the Legislature was to have been expected. The passions which prompt it are vehement; the arguments which prove its impropriety are remote and refined. Too much, therefore, of this interposition was at such a conjuncture inevitable. It is without doubt a great evil, but it is irremediable. The submission of the people in a period of tranquility, degenerates into a listless and torpid negligence of public affairs, and the fervor which the moment of Revolu-<183>tion inspires, necessarily produces the opposite extreme. That, therefore, the conduct of the populace of Paris should not have been the most decorous and circumspect respecting the deliberations of the Assembly, that it should be frequently irregular and tumultuous, was, in the nature of things, inevitable. But the horrible picture which Mr. Burke has drawn of that “stern necessity” under which this “captive”42 Assembly votes, is neither justified by this concession, nor by the state of facts. It is the overcharged colouring of a fervid imagination. Those whom he alludes to, as driven away by assassins, M.M. Lally and Mounier, might, surely, have remained with perfect safety in an Assembly in which such furious invectives are daily bellowed forth with impunity against the popular leaders. No man will deny, that that Member of the Minority enjoyed liberty of speech in its utmost plenitude, who called M. Mirabeau “Le plus vil de tous les assassins.”43 “The terrors<184> of the lamp-post and bayonet”44 have hitherto been visionary. Popular fury has hitherto spared the most furious declaimers of Aristocracy, and the only decree, so far as I can discern, which has even been pretended to have been materially influenced by the populace, is that respecting the prerogatives of war and peace. That tumult has frequently derogated from the dignity and decorum which ought to distinguish the deliberations of a legislative Assembly, is not to be denied. But the only important question regards the effect of these tumults on their decisions. That their debates have been tumultuous, is of little importance, if their decisions have been independent.—Even in the question of war and peace, “the highest bidder at the auction of popularity”* did not succeed. The scheme of M. Mirabeau, with few amendments, prevailed, while the more “splendidly popular”<185> propositions, which vested in the Legislature alone the prerogative of war and peace were rejected.
We are now conducted by the course of these strictures to the excesses committed at Versailles on the 5th and 6th of October, 1789. After the most careful perusal of the voluminous evidence before the Chatelet, of the controversial pamphlets of M.M. d’Orleans and Mounier, and of the official report of M. Chabroud to the Assembly,45 the details of the affair seem to me so much involved in obscurity and contradiction, that they afford little on which a candid mind can with confidence pronounce.
They afford, indeed, to frivolous and puerile adversaries the means of convicting Mr. Burke of some minute errors. Mons. Miomandre, the centinel at the Queen’s-gate, it is true, survives, but it is no less true, that<186> he was left for dead by his assassins. On the comparison of evidence, it seems probable, that the Queen’s chamber was not broken into, “that the asylum of beauty and Majesty was not profaned.”† But these slight corrections palliate little the atrocity, and alter not, in the least, the general complexion of these flagitious scenes.
The most important question which the subject presents is, whether the Parisian populace were the instruments of conspirators, or whether their fatal march to Versailles was a spontaneous movement, produced by real or chimerical apprehensions of plots against their<187> freedom. I confess that I incline to the latter opinion.—Natural causes seem to me adequate to account for the movement. A scarcity of provision is not denied to have existed in Paris. The dinner of the body-guards might, surely have provoked a people more tranquil than those of a city scarce recovered from the shock of a great Revolution. The maledictions poured forth against the National Assembly, the insults offered to the patriotic cockade, the obnoxious ardor of loyalty displayed on that occasion, might have awakened even the jealousy of a people whose ardor had been sated by the long enjoyment, and whose alarms had been quieted by the secure possession of liberty. The escape of the King would be the infallible signal of civil war—the exposed situation of the Royal residence was therefore a source of perpetual alarm. These causes operating on that credulous jealousy, which is the malady of the Public mind in<188> times of civil confusion, which sees hostility and conspiracy on every side, seem sufficient to have actuated the Parisian populace.
The apprehensions of the people in such a period torture the most innocent and frivolous accidents into proofs of sanguinary plots.—Witness the war of conspiracies carried on by the contending factions in the reign of Charles the Second. The boldness with which such charges are then fabricated, and the facility with which they are credited, form indeed, in the mind of a wise man, the strongest presumptions against their truth. It is in perusing the history of such a period, that his scepticism respecting conspiracies is the most vigilent. The research of two centuries has not, in England, been able to decide disputes which these accusations have produced. The participation of Queen Mary in Babington’s Plot against Elizabeth, is still the subject of controversy. We, at the present day, dispute<189> about the nature of the connection which subsisted between Charles the First and the Catholic insurgents of Ireland. It has occupied the labour of a century to separate truth from falsehood in the Rye-house Plot, to distinguish what both the friendship and enmity of cotemporaries confounded; the views of the leaders from the schemes of the inferior conspirators, and to discover that Russel and Sydney had, indeed, conspired a revolt, but that the underlings alone had plotted the assassination of the King.46
It may indeed be said, that ambitious leaders availed themselves of the inflamed state of Paris, that by false rumours, and exaggerated truths, they stimulated the revenge, and increased the fears of the populace; that their emissaries, mixing with the mob, and concealed by its confusion, were to execute their flagitious purposes; that conspiracy was thus joined to popular madness, and fanatics, as<190> usual, were the dupes of hypocritical leaders. Such is the accusation which has been made against M. d’Orleans and M. Mirabeau. Their defence is not imposed on the admirers of the French Revolution. That Revolution is not stigmatized, if its progress has not been altogether exempt from the interposition of profligate ambition, from which who can guard any of the affairs of men? Their cause is foreign from that of Revolution, and to become the advocate of individuals, were to forget the dignity of a discussion that regards the rights and interests of an emancipated nation. Of their guilt, however, I will be bold to say, evidence was not collected by the malignant activity of an avowedly hostile tribunal, which, for a moment, would have suspended their acquittal by an English Jury. It will be no mean testimony to the innocence of M. Mirabeau, that an opponent, not the mildest in his enmity, nor the most candid in his judgment, confessed, that he saw no seri-<191>ous ground of accusation against him.—“J’avoue,” says the Abbé Maury, “que je ne vois aucune imputation grave contre M. de Mirabeau.”*
One circumstance of repulsive improbability is on the face of the project attributed to them, that of intimidating the King into a flight, that there might be a pretext for elevating the Duke of Orleans to the office of Regent. But the King could have had no rational hopes of escaping,* for he must have traversed 200 miles of a country guarded by a people in arms, before he could reach the nearest frontier of the kingdom. The object of the conspiracy then was too absurd to be pursued by conspirators, to whom talent and sagacity have not been denied by their enemies. That the popular leaders in France<192> did, indeed, desire to fix the Royal residence at Paris, it is impossible to doubt. The name, the person, and the authority of the King, would have been most formidable weapons in the hands of their adversaries. The peace of their country, the stability of their freedom, called on them to use every measure that could prevent their enemies from getting possession of that “Royal Figure.”47 The name of the King would have sanctioned foreign powers in supporting the aristocracy. Their interposition, which now would be hostility against the King and kingdom, would then have been only regarded as aid against rebellion. The name of the King would fascinate and inflame the people of the provinces. Against all these dreadful consequences, there seemed only one remedy, the residence of the King at Paris. Whether that residence is to be called a captivity, or by whatever other harsh name it is to be designed, I will not hesitate to affirm, that the Parliament of England would have merited<193> the gratitude of their country, and of posterity, by a similar prevention of the escape of Charles I. from London. The same act would have given stability to their limitations of kingly power, prevented the horrors of civil war, the despotism of Cromwell, the relapse into servitude under Charles II. and the calamities that followed the subsequent Revolution. Fortunate would it have been for England, if the person of James II. had been retained while his authority was limited. She would then have been circumstanced as France is now; where the odium of personal misconduct would have kept alive a salutary jealousy of power, the prejudices of personal right would not have been provoked to hostility against the Constitution, nor the people compelled to entrust their new Sovereign with exorbitant strength to defend their freedom and his contested throne. Such is the general view which a calm survey may suggest of the 6th October. The march to Versailles seems<194> to have been the spontaneous movement of an alarmed populace. Their views, and the suggestions of their leaders, were probably bounded by procuring the King to change his residence to Paris, but the collision of armed multitudes terminated in unforeseen excesses and execrable crimes.
In the eye of Mr. Burke, however, these crimes and excesses assume an aspect far more important than can be communicated to them by their own insulated guilt. They form, in his opinion, the crisis of a Revolution, far more important than any change of Government; a Revolution, in which the sentiments and opinions that have formed the manners of the European nations are to perish. “The age of chivalry is gone, and the glory of Europe extinguished for ever.”48 He follows this exclamation by an eloquent eulogium on chivalry, and by gloomy predictions of the future state of Europe, when the nation that has<195> been so long accustomed to give her the tone in arts and manners is thus debased and corrupted. A caviller might remark, that ages much more near the meridian fervor of chivalry than ours have witnessed a treatment of Queens as little gallant and generous as that of the Parisian mob. He might remind Mr. Burke, that in the age and country of Sir Philip Sidney, a Queen of France, whom no blindness to accomplishment, no malignity of detraction could reduce to the level of Maria Antonietta, was, by “a nation of men of honour and cavaliers,”49 permitted to languish in captivity and expire on a scaffold; and he might add, that the manners of a country are more surely indicated by the systematic cruelty of a Sovereign, than by the licentious phrenzy of a mob. He might remark, that the mild system of modern manners which survived the massacres with which fanaticism had for a century desolated, and almost barbarized Europe, might, perhaps,<196> resist the shock of one day’s excesses committed by a delirious populace. He might thus, perhaps, oppose specious and popular topics to the declamation of Mr. Burke.
But the subject itself is, to an enlarged thinker, fertile in reflexions of a different nature. That system of manners which arose among the Gothic nations of Europe, of which chivalry was more properly the effusion than the source, is without doubt one of the most peculiar and interesting appearances in human affairs. The moral causes which formed its character have not, perhaps, been hitherto investigated with the happiest success. But to confine ourselves to the subject before us. Chivalry was certainly one of the most prominent features and remarkable effects of this system of manners. Candor must confess, that this singular institution is not alone admirable as a corrector of the ferocious ages in which it flourished. It contributed to polish<197> and soften Europe. It paved the way for that diffusion of knowledge and extension of commerce which afterwards, in some measure, supplanted it, and gave a new character to manners. Society is inevitably progressive.—In Government, commerce has overthrown that “feudal and chivalrous system”50 under whose shade it first grew. In religion, learning has subverted that superstition whose opulent endowments had first fostered it. Peculiar circumstances softened the barbarism of the middle ages to a degree which favoured the admission of commerce and the growth of knowledge. These circumstances were connected with the manners of chivalry; but the sentiments peculiar to that institution could only be preserved by the situation which gave them birth. They were therefore enfeebled in the progress from ferocity and turbulence, and almost obliterated by tranquillity and refinement. But the auxiliaries which the manners of chivalry had in rude ages reared, ga-<198>thered strength from its weakness, and flourished in its decay. Commerce and diffused knowledge have, in fact, so compleatly assumed the ascendant in polished nations, that it will be difficult to discover any relics of Gothic manners, but in a fantastic exterior, which has survived the generous illusions that made these manners splendid and seductive. Their direct influence has long ceased in Europe,* but their indirect influence, through the medium of those causes, which would not perhaps have existed, but for the mildness which chivalry created in the midst of a barbarous age, still operates with encreasing vigor. The manners of the middle age were, in the most singular sense, compulsory. Enterprizing benevolence was produced by general fierceness, gallant courtesy by ferocious rude-<199>ness, and artificial gentleness resisted the torrent of natural barbarism. But a less incongruous system has succeeded, in which commerce, which unites men’s interests, and knowledge, which excludes those prejudices that tend to embroil them, present a broader basis for the stability of civilized and beneficent manners.
Mr. Burke, indeed, forebodes the most fatal consequences to literature from events, which he supposes to have given a mortal blow to the spirit of chivalry. I have ever been protected from such apprehensions by my belief in a very simple truth, that diffused knowledge immortalizes itself. A literature which is confined to a few, may be destroyed by the massacre of scholars and the conflagration of libraries; but the diffused knowledge of the present day could only be annihilated by the extirpation of the civilized part of mankind.<200>
Far from being hostile to letters, the French Revolution has contributed to serve their cause in a manner hitherto unexampled in history. The political and literary progress of nations has hitherto been the same; the period of their eminence in arts has also been the aera of their historical fame; and no example occurs in which great political splendor has been subsequent to the Augustan age of a people. Previous to the year 1789, this might have been considered as a maxim to which history furnished no exception. But France, which is destined to refute every abject and arrogant doctrine that would limit the human powers, presents a new scene. There the shock of a Revolution has infused the ardor of juvenile literature into a nation tending to decline. New arts are called forth when all seemed to have passed their zenith. France enjoyed one Augustan age, fostered by the favor of despotism. She seems about to witness another, created by the energy of freedom.<201>
In the opinion of Mr. Burke, however, she is advancing by rapid strides to ignorance and barbarism.* “Already,” he informs us, “there appears a poverty of conception, a coarseness and vulgarity in all the proceedings of the Assembly, and of all their instructors. Their liberty is not liberal. Their science is presumptuous ignorance. Their humanity is savage and brutal.” To animadvert on this modest and courteous picture belongs not to the present subject; and impressions cannot be disputed, more especially when their grounds are not assigned. All that is left is, to declare opposite impressions with a confidence authorized by the example. The proceedings of the National Assembly of France appear to me to contain models of more splendid eloquence, and examples of more profound political research than have been exhibited by any public body<202> in modern times. I cannot therefore augur, from these proceedings, the downfall of philosophy, or the extinction of eloquence.
Thus various are the aspects which the French Revolution, not only in its influence on literature, but in its general tenor and spirit, presents to minds occupied by various opinions. To the eye of Mr. Burke it exhibits nothing but a scene of horror. In his mind it inspires no emotion but abhorrence of its leaders, commiseration of their victims, and alarms at the influence of an event which menaces the subversion of the policy, the arts, and the manners of the civilized world. Minds who view it through another medium are filled by it with every sentiment of admiration and triumph—of admiration due to splendid exertions of virtue, and of triumph inspired by widening prospects of happiness.<203>
Nor ought it to be denied by the candor of philosophy, that events so great are never so unmixed as not to present a double aspect to the acuteness and exaggeration of contending parties. The same ardor of passion which produces patriotic and legislative heroism becomes the source of ferocious retaliation, of visionary novelties, and precipitate change. The attempt were hopeless to encrease the fertility, without favouring the rank luxuriance of the soil. He that on such occasions expects unmixed good, ought to recollect, that the oeconomy of Nature has invariably determined the equal influence of high passions in giving birth to virtues and to crimes. The soil of Attica was remarked by antiquity as producing at once the most delicious fruits and the most virulent poisons. It is thus with the human mind; and to the frequency of convulsions in the ancient commonwealths, they owe those examples of sanguinary tumult and virtuous heroism,<204> which distinguish their history from the monotonous tranquillity of modern States. The passions of a nation cannot be kindled to the degree which renders it capable of great atchievements, without endangering the commission of violences and crimes. The reforming ardor of a Senate cannot be inflamed sufficiently to combat and overcome abuses, without hazarding the evils which arise from legislative temerity. Such are the immutable laws, which are more properly to be regarded as libels on our nature than as charges against the French Revolution. The impartial voice of History ought, doubtless, to record the blemishes as well as the glories of that great event, and to contrast the delineation of it which might have been given by the specious and temperate Toryism of Mr. Hume, with that which we have received from the repulsive and fanatical invectives of Mr. Burke, might still be amusing and instructive. Both these great men would be adverse to the Re-<205>volution; but it would not be difficult to distinguish between the undisguised fury of an eloquent advocate and the well dissembled partiality of a philosophical Judge. Such would probably be the difference between Mr. Hume and Mr. Burke, were they to treat on the French Revolution. The passions of the latter would only feel the excesses which had dishonoured it; but the philosophy of the former would instruct him, that the human feelings, raised by such events above the level of ordinary situations, become the source of a guilt and a heroism unknown to the ordinary affairs of nations; that such periods are only fertile in those sublime virtues and splendid crimes, which so powerfully agitate and interest the heart of man.<206>
[* ]The eloquent expression of Mr. Curran in the Parliament of Ireland, respecting the Revolution. [John Philpot Curran. Unable to identify the source of this quotation.]
[* ]Yet this was only the combat of reason and freedom against one prejudice, that of hereditary right, whereas the French Revolution is, as has been sublimely said by the Bishop of Autun, “Le premier combat qui se soit jamais livrée entre tous les Principes et toutes les Erreurs!”—Addresse aux François, 11 Fev. 1790. [“The first conflict which ever took place between ALL the PRINCIPLES and ALL the ERRORS!” Talleyrand, bishop of Autun, “Adresse aux François,” in E. Madival and E. Laurent, Archives Parlementaires 1787–1860, 1e série, 99 vols., vols. 1–82 (Paris: Dupont, 1879–1914), vols. 83–99 (Paris: 1961–95), 11:549.]
[40. ]Burke, Reflections, 127.
[* ]The manoeuvres of M. Calonne, in England, are too obvious from the complexion of some English prints. He informs us, that he had at once in contemplation to have inserted in a note at the end of his work extracts from the public papers in all the nations of Europe, demonstrating the general horror in which the French Revolution was held. This note would have been the more amusing, as probably all these paragraphs were composed, and transmitted to these papers by M. Calonne himself:—who would thus be the self-created organ of the voice of Europe.
[* ]Junius. [The Letters of Junius, ed. J. Cannon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 288, letter 58, September 30, 1771.]
[41. ]“I know that it is the circumstances which legitimate insurrection, and I place among this number those which caused the storming of the Bastille,” J. J. Mounier, Exposé de la conduite de M. Mounier, dans l’assemblée nationale: et des motifs de son retour en Dauphiné (Paris: Buisson, 1789), 24n.
[* ]If this statement be candid and exact, what shall we think of the language of Mr. Burke, when he speaks of the Assembly as “authorizing treasons, robberies, rapes, assassinations, slaughters, and burnings, throughout all their harrassed land.” P. 129. In another place he groupes together the legislative extinction of the Order of Nobles with the popular excesses committed against individual Noblemen, to load the Assembly with the accumulated obloquy. See p. 236–37. A mode of proceeding more remarkable for controversial dexterity than for candor.
[42. ]Burke, Reflections, 160–61.
[43. ]“The vilest of all the assassins.” See Burke, Reflections, 167n in which Burke quotes from Lally-Tollendal’s Second Letter to a Friend.
[44. ]Burke, Reflections, 161.
[* ]Burke, p. 362.
[45. ]Procedure criminelle fait au Chatelet de Paris (Paris, 1790); Justification de M. d’Orléans, du réflexions d’un bon citoyen sur la conduite du Chatelet au sujet de l’affaire du cinq octobre (1789) ([Paris?], 1790); J. Mounier, Appel au tribunal de l’opinion publique, du rapport de M. Chabraud, et du décret rendu par l’Assemblée Nationale le 2 octobre 1790. Examen du mémoire du Duc d’Orléans, et du plaidoyer du Comte de Mirabeau, et nouveaux ecclaircissemens sur les crimes du 5 et du 6 octobre 1789 (Génève, 1790); speech of M. Chabraud to National Assembly, Archives Parlementaires, 19:354.
[† ]The expression of M. Chabroud. Five witnesses assert that the ruffians did not break into the Queen’s chamber. Two give the account followed by Mr. Burke, and to give this preponderance its due force, let it be recollected, that the whole proceedings before the Chatelet were ex parte. See Procedure Criminelle fait au Chatelet de Paris, &c. deux Parties.Paris, 1790.
[46. ]The Rye House plot, which was foiled in June 1683, involved an attempt to seize the king and resulted in the execution of William Lord Russell and Algernon Sidney for their alleged involvement.
[* ]Discours de M. l’Abbé Maury dans l’Assemblée Nationale, 1 Octobre, 1790. [“I avow that I see no serious charge against M. de Mirabeau.” Probably a reference to Abbé Maury’s speech to the National Assembly, in Archives Parlementaires, 19:399.]
[* ]The circumstances of his late attempt sanction this reasoning. [For flight to Varennes in 1791, see chronology of events.]
[47. ]Burke, Reflections, 325.
[48. ]Ibid., 169–70.
[49. ]Ibid., 169.
[50. ]Burke, Reflections, 172.
[Thomas Warton, “On the Birth of the Prince of Wales,” in Poems, a new edition, with additions (London: T. Becket, 1777), 22.]
[* ]Burke, p. 174.