Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER II.: Of some Particulars in the new Constitution of France, and some Circumstances attending the Dissolution of the old one. - Letters to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke
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LETTER II.: Of some Particulars in the new Constitution of France, and some Circumstances attending the Dissolution of the old one. - Joseph Priestley, Letters to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke 
Letters to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, occasioned by his Reflections on the Revolution in France (Birmingham: Thomas Pearson, 1791).
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Of some Particulars in the new Constitution of France, and some Circumstances attending the Dissolution of the old one.
IT is very possible that the National Assembly, having entered upon the business of reforming the whole state in a very unexpected manner, when nothing could have been preconcerted, may have acted injudiciously in more respects than one; but allowance should be made for their peculiar circumstances. The opportunity that was given them to act was sudden, and such as they might in vain have waited for, if they had done nothing till they had been prepared to make the most of it. They did right, therefore, to do the best they could, as the occasion offered.
They might, for example, have divided themselves into two houses, and, as in this country, have given each house a negative in all their transactions, and another to the king. But this might have appeared too hazardous at that time; and indeed it is very probable that, upon that plan, nothing effectual could have been done at all. But they may adopt this method if they should hereafter see reason for it. Power is more easily given than taken away.
That they have nothing of the nature of a Senate, as you complain, p. 287, I do not see; while they still retain a king, and allow him to appoint certain ministers of state.
They may have left too little power in the hands of the crown; but kingly power is a plant which, having once taken root, is very apt to grow too luxuriant; and this, though lopped, may sprout again. As the French kings had gradually acquired, and grossly abused, their power, it is not to be wondered at, if, in the first instance, the Assembly should have reduced it too low.
You particularly complain, p. 296, of the king not having the power of peace and war. But was ever any power more grossly abused than this has been? Infinite have been the evils brought upon whole countries, by princes having it in their power to involve them in war at their pleasure, from motives of personal resentment and ambition, or the mere caprice of those about them; and in France generally that of their mistresses.
“There is no other way,” you say, p. 296, “of keeping other potentates from intriguing distinctly and personally with the members of your assembly, from intermeddling in all your concerns, and fomenting in the heart of your country the most pernicious of all factions; factions in the interest, and under the direction, of foreign powers.” But even this is nothing, compared with the evils that states have suffered from the power of peace and war being in the hands of the prince, that is, of his ministers; and cannot foreign powers intrigue with them as well as with the leaders of a popular assembly? Did not the court of France intrigue with the ministry of our Charles II. and is it not always done, more or less, by all ambassadors and their agents in all foreign courts? But if any people was fairly represented in a National Assembly, so that their real interests should be better consulted, causes of war would seldom occur, and consequently there would be but little temptation to foreigners to intermeddle in their concerns. For it has been peace or war that has been the chief subject of the intrigues that you complain of.
The most serious difficulty that appears to me to threaten the French government, arises from their debts, a difficulty brought upon them by their former government, and which indeed made it impossible to go on any farther with it. This, therefore, is a difficulty that does not necessarily attend the formation of the new government, but has been occasioned by the unwillingness of the present governors, that those who have had confidence in the state, should suffer from the errors of their predecessors. It is the case of an heir, who will put himself to great inconvenience to pay the debts of a profligate ancestor.
You cavil, among other things, at the low rank of the members of the National Assembly; saying, p. 61, “That the majority are of the inferior, unlearned, mechanical, merely instrumental, members of the profession of the law,” that is, such as our attornies. “From the moment,” you say, “I read the lift, I saw distinctly, and very nearly as it has happened, all that was to follow. It was not to be expected,” you say, p. 63, “that they would attend to the stability of property, whose existence had always depended upon whatever rendered property questionable, ambiguous, and obscure.”
I shall not call in question your gift of prophecy. It may be your peculiar talent to see all events, past, present, and to come, in their most concealed causes, nor shall I question what you assert to be a fact. But of whomsoever the National Assembly of France consists, there cannot well be a doubt of their being a truer representation of the French nation than our House of Commons, because there cannot well be a worse, being in the opinion of most people, I doubt not, as well as that of Dr. Price, a mere mockery ofrepresentation, notwithstanding the influence of those causes which I acknowledge to give it the effect of a much better representation.
It signifies very little out of what class of men the members of the National Assembly were chosen, since they must have been persons in whom their constituents thought they could best confide. But if your reasoning be good, that lawyers, “whose existence depends upon rendering property questionable, ambiguous, and obscure,” will not attend to the stability of property, where is our policy in raising such men to the rank of judges? We do not think our property less safe in their hands, because they have always lived by what has been called the glorious uncertainty of the law. The first American Congress, I very well remember, was said to consist chiefly of lawyers; nor is it to be wondered at that it should be so; lawyers, who have the talent and the habit of speaking in public, being generally conspicuous characters in all places. The study of the law, moreover, leads them to understand the constitution of the country, and their profession gives them a knowledge of mankind, and the habits of business. If the lawyers of France do as well as the lawyers of America, they will soon wipe away the reproach they may now lie under, and become the object of respect, perhaps of dread, to those who at present despise them.
It is amusing to compare the sentiments of different writers on the same subject, and to observe in how different a light the same thing appears to different minds. I cannot give a better illustration of this, than by quoting what Dr. Ramsay, in his History of the American Revolution, says of the first Congress, as a contrast to what you say of the National Assembly of France.
“Of the whole number of deputies which formed the Continental Congress of 1774, one half were lawyers; gentlemen of that profession had acquired the confidence of the inhabitants by their exertions in the common cause. The previous measures in the respective provinces, had been planned and carried into effect more by lawyers than by any other order of men. Professionally taught the rights of the people, they were among the foremost to descry every attack made on their liberties. Bred in the habits of public speaking, they made a distinguished figure in the meetings of the people, and were particularly able to explain to them the tendency of the late acts of parliament. Exerting their abilities and influence in the cause of their country, they were rewarded with its confidence,” vol. 1. p. 134.
The mistakes you have sallen into, with respect to the present government of France, I am informed are gross, and your censures founded on them, of course, misplaced. You particularly amuse yourself and your readers with the division of the country, p. 254, into squares, and a sub-division of squares within squares, which has no existence but in your own imagination, the actual division of the country being no more squares than our counties.
Taking it for granted, that the present members of the National Assembly are not eligible into the next, you deduce many alarming consequences from such an ill-judged measure. But the measure is your own, not theirs; the present members being as eligible as any others, and, it is generally supposed, that a great majority of them have given so much satisfaction to their constituents, that they will not fail to be re-elected. As you took so much time in preparing your publication for the press, you would have done well to have employed part of it in procuring better information. However, your mistakes will be the means of our getting more correct accounts of the real state of facts; and if any of your censures on the new constitution of France be just, they may be an useful and seasonable lesson to the great actors in the scene; who, I doubt not, will readily learn what they can, even from an enemy.
You make the most tragical representation of the degraded state of the present king of France, calling it, p. 99, “the most horrid, atrocious, and afflicting spectacle, that perhaps ever was exhibited to the pity and indignation of mankind,” considering him as a person who received his crown, with all its powers, from his ancestors, and who had himself done nothing to deserve the treatment that he met with. Admitting this, if by a succession of incroachments, the power of the crown itself had long been enormous, should that be continued, to the terror and distress of the country, for the sake of the innocent head that happens to wear it. And, after all, what has this king suffered? He is still the first in rank, wealth, and power of any person in France. If you say that this power is only nominal, I answer that the power of the most arbitrary princes is little more. They are, in general, only instruments in the hands of those who are about them. As to doing what a man really wishes to do, the last king of France had very little of it; and in general, the higher any man stands in the order of society, the less power he has of doing what he really likes, and the more of his time he spends in doing what he had rather wish not to do, than other men.
You make a still more lamentable description of the indignities offered to the queen of France; and on this subject you give the most unbounded scope to your eloquence* , as if you were her knight, pledged to defend her honour. Now, such is the natural prepossession of mankind, at least in this part of the world (in which the French nation has generally been considered as foremost) in favour of the female sex, and especially in exalted stations, that I think it will not be easy to account for the fall of this queen from the height of popularity, to the abhorrence and contempt into which, you tell us, she is sunk, without supposing something very material to her prejudice, though I do not pretend to say what that is. And if she was that intriguing woman, and that enemy to their liberties, that the French nation in general imagine her to have been, she may think herself fortunate, in such a revolution as this has been, to have escaped with life. But, after all, is the liberty and happiness of a whole nation to be sacrificed to female beauty and complaisance?
Objects appear in very different lights to different persons, according to their respective situations, and the opportunities they have of observing them. To you, Sir, seventeen years ago, the queen of France, then the Dauphiness, appeared in all her splendour, like “the morning star,” p. 112, decorating the face of heaven. To the French themselves, at that time, she probably appeared in the same light; but in the course of so many years progress, she has appeared to them to be nothing better than a comet, foreboding every disaster, and bringing desolation and ruin on their country. You saw nothing but the fine features, and imagined them to belong to a Venus, a Juno, or a Pallas. The French, it seems, have discovered the snaky hair, and find her to be a mere Medusa; and the ten thousand swords,” that you say were then ready “to leap from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult,” would now be drawn against any who would defend her conduct.
You will probably say that something, at least, should have been proved against the queen of France, as well as against the king. But where, Sir, was the court of law, or justice, in which such a suit could be instituted? When there are no ordinary means of redressing grievances, people who feel them, and have no other remedy, will have recourse to extraordinary ones; and if thirty millions find their interests incompatible with that of a few, they, of course, being the judges, will not hesitate to decide for themselves, and carry that decision into execution. In this they will, no doubt, proceed irregularly. But you, Sir, should have been upon the spot, and have told them how to proceed in that grave and decorous manner, in which you now say they ought to have acted on this great occasion; and at the same time have obtained effectual redress of their grievances. For without this, they would have done worse than nothing.
Kings and ministers of state are alone responsible for all the confusion and bloodshed which attend those revolutions which their abuse of power has rendered necessary. They choak up the ordinary channels of justice, and then complain that it overflows its bounds, and that the country is deluged by it. They who first raise a storm are answerable for all the devastation that it may make.
You lay to the charge of the National Assembly what, it is evident, they never authorised, and what, I doubt not, they condemn and regret, even more than you do. “Their cruelty, you say, p. 58, has not been even the base result of fear. It has been the effect of their sense of perfect safety, in authorising treasons, robberies, rapes, assassinations, slaughters, and burnings, throughout their harrassed land. But the cause of all was plain from the beginning. This unforced choice, this fond election, of evil, would appear perfectly unaccountable, if we did not consider the composition of the National Assembly, &c.”
This, Sir, is charging upon the National Assembly every outrage committed by Frenchmen (and more, I believe, than ever were committed by them) which were any way connected with the revolution. But is this equitable? Should any thing be laid to the charge of any man, or any body of men, to which they were no way accessary, by their concurrence at the time, or their approbation afterwards? Was the execution of persons particularly obnoxious to the populace, and effected by the populace, to be ascribed to the National Assembly? Or were the insults which you have so pathetically described, as offered to your adorable queen of France, done by the orders of that body? You must know that they were as innocent of them as the parliament of Great Britain, or as yourself. When any murder is committed, is the first person that you chuse to lay hold of, the guilty person?
In the same rash and indiscriminate manner you describe Dr. Price as exulting in the above-mentioned horrid outrages, which, I dare say, give him much more serious concern than they do you, and for a very obvious reason. He wishes to recommend the revolution, and therefore is sorry for every thing that disgraces it; whereas you wish to discredit it, and are evidently not displeased with any circumstance that favours your purpose. Dr. Price rejoices in the good, and you most uncandidly represent him as rejoicing in the evil that has necessarily accompanied it.
I am, Dear Sir, yours, &c.
[* ]I am informed by a gentleman who was at Paris during the whole of these transactions, that there is no truth at all in what Mr. Burke says of the queen’s bedchamber being broke into, or the centinel killed. Nothing of the kind, he says, was ever heard of till a considerable time after the event, and the report arose from the Aristocrates.