consisting of extracts from an unpublished article
“VIE ET TRAVAUX DE CHARLES DE SISMONDI.”
At school he was remarked for his uprightness, his candour, the entire and conscientious employment of his time, and his uncommon docility. Independently of his classes, he had private masters, and though he was not born for the arts, and was not very fond of them, he cultivated music and drawing with the same assiduity which he carried into all his studies. Greek, by which he had gained prizes at school was, at a later time, almost useless to him, and he had almost ceased to attend to it, at the period when, for his historical labours, he had to learn so many different idioms.
He repressed his high faculties to employ them in making himself an able arithmetician, an excellent book-keeper. More than once when, become a man, he had to weigh with deep thought the interests of the masses, to calculate the results of labour, to compare wages, to throw light on the entangled questions of capital and income, to hold the balance of exchange between nations; more than once must he have congratulated himself on the energy with which he applied to studies which were at first distasteful to him. All those who had any money transactions with him (he was soon at the head of the house) had reason, on their side, to bless that exactness, that punctuality, that spirit of order, so often unknown to artists and men of letters, and which Sismondi owed to the conscientious labours of his youth.
In the month of February, 1793, the family Simonde sought an asylum in England, and boarded with the rector of the small parish of Bearmarsh. in Sussex. They staid all the summer in the vicarage, where solitude becoming too melancholy for their social habits, they went to spend the winter at Teuterden, in Kent.
This time of exile was not lost to Charles; he employed it in familiarizing himself with the language of the country. But the study of idioms and literature was not sufficient employment for the activity of the young man. He reflected on the constitution of the country, on her laws, on her usages. He familiarized himself with the trial by jury, with the customs of courts of justice, and took full notes on every thing. A short stay in London allowed of his seeing the best actors of the time, and made him acquainted with the state of dramatic literature. He visited the prisons, the public edifices, celebrated institutions, in short, he made every possible advantage of a journey which was shortened, to his great regret, by his mother's sad state of health.
Unable to make himself heard, or to break open the door, the young man decided on defending it; his last hope was that the noise and tumult at the door might awaken Monsieur Caila, and that he might still escape; he listened with a beating heart to hear the door open which led to France. The shriek of Madame de Sismondi, on seeing her son struck to the ground by a blow from the butt-end of a musket, did indeed awake M. de Caila, and he might still have fled, but disdaining a life to be purchased only by endangering those of his hosts, he generously presented himself to his executioners. Charles, still anxiously listening, had the anguish to hear the wrong door unlocked, and to see his revered friend led off to certain death. The day had scarcely broken on that painful night, when the family, still on their knees in prayer, heard the disclmrge of fire-arms, which finished the sufferings and the lives of the four virtuous magistrates.
Tuscany passed alternately from the hands of the Austrians into those of the French. Charles, suspected by the first, was seized with sixteen other inhabitants of Pescia, and thrown into prison, where he passed the summer of 1796.
It was a hard trial for one who enjoyed rural pleasures so much, and who had taken his share in the feasts, as well as in the labours of the peasantry. How often, with his mother, whose arstocratic tendencies did not lessen her familiar goodness, he had taken his place in the harvest feasts, those of the Battitura, and of the vintage! Now it was, behind bars, that he thought of those enjoyments of the people, of which he has drawn such winning pictures, and for whom to the last, he alone, among all economists, has pleaded, repeating that “Man does not live by bread alone.”
From the terrace of Madame Forti (his sister) they could see the prison; soon the mother and the son spoke by signs, and the songs of the prisoner reached his family. A less vague correspondence was opened by means of their bailiff, Gian Antonio Spiccioni, whose business it was to take Charles his food. The Austrian habitually refuses to his captives pen, ink, and paper; he pretends to famish the soul as well as the body. Bits of paper, ends of pencil, were hidden in the candlestick, in the bread, in the meat, even in the bottles of wine; and the letters of Madame de Sismondi, safely received, were every day answered. The necessity of cheering and consoling his mother, and a lively attachment to those principles from which he never deviated are apparent in all these little notes, in which Sismondi continually repeats— “Love me; do not afflict yourself; when I converse with you, and when I read, I feel myself really out of prison.”
During the days of suffocating heat, so difficult to bear when air and space are meted out, a simple mark of the attachment and goodness of his bailiff cheered the solitude of Charles. Every evening ices were brought, as from Madame de Sismondi. The thanks of the prisoner, and the astonishment of the mother, discovered the affectionate fraud of Antonio to lighten, in his way, the captivity of his young master: in his simplicity he did not suspect that the notes he carried might betray his generous imposition.
A second time the suspicions of the Austrian government snatched Sismondi from his peaceful labours. He was confined ill an airy convent at Pescia, and the means of writing were not denied him; he had permission to search the library of the monks, and with this condition, imprisonment would not have appeared hard, if the health of his mother had not failed from vexations and anxiety. Examinations had not been able to produce a single charge against him, but still his promised enlargement was deferred from day to day, from month to month; this feverish expectation wore out the strength of Madame de Sismondi. With gay and gentle chat her son endeavoured to divert her grief.
“You do not know the history,” wrote he, “of one of your English notes, found when they took away my pens and ink, and carried to the commandant, then to the vicar, who each did their utmost to find some learned philologist who could explain it. At last an abbé presented himself; but in vain had he recourse to the dictionary: understanding nothing of this conjuring book, he ended by declaring himself too orthodox to decipher the writing of a woman. Then they sent to Pistoia; the gentlemen translators could not understand how writing in English could only be about my dinner and my supper; in short, they understood nothing about it, because they wished to understand too much.”
Sismondi also endeavoured to take advantage of the measures of an absolute government to destroy the aristocratic prejudices of his mother. She could not forget that it was the inroad of new ideas which had exiled her from her country, that a republican soldier had nearly killed her son before her eyes, that it was in the name of liberty that her guest, her friend, had been shot, almost in her presence. It will be always difficult to teach women to distinguish principles from their effects.
“If you could say—these are tyrants, monsters, Frenchmen,—they only do what it is their business to do; injustice triumphs, it is the lot of human kind; virtue will have its turn,—you would console yourself,” wrote Charles to his mother. “But no, these are the favourites of your heart, those whom you so ardently wished for, those from whom you expected so many benefits, who deceive you with so much cruelty. You do not know how to reconcile your opinions, your feelings, and your sufferings; and till you are convinced that there is neither honour, justice, virtue, or happiness for a country except in freedom, and that a counter-revolution is a hundred times worse than a revolution, you will doubly suffer.
“Do not blaspheme philosophy,” he again writes, “for she is gentle and consoling, and religion still more so. The sermon I read to-day enchanted me; the text was, ‘The works of the wicked are deceitful.’ I read it in Italian to my priest, and I do not think the words have lost any thing of their eloquence, it is become so easy to me to translate as I read.”
“I forget men,” says he in another note; “I hate only parties. These moral bodies are alone guilty; before every thing the motives of those who compose them have a right to be examined. And then the hatred with which a party inspires you, is not nearly so painful as that which is nourished against an individual.”
extracts from some notes written to his mother from his prison, in january, 1796, mostly written in english, with a pencil, and sent secretly.
“Do you still blaspheme the noble English liberty., the habeas corpus, the trial by jury, and fixed laws ? Even the poor copy which the French have preserved of them would shelter us from the injustice under which I am suffering, if we were in France.”
“I am not a Frenchman, I do not approve their actions nor their government, (at this time he had been arrested by the French party,) but I adhere more firmly than ever to the opinion, that without liberty there is neither honour, nor justice, nor virtue, nor happiness, and that a counter-revolution is still worse than the revolution which preceded it. I am not a friend to democracy, but I should be ashamed to call myself an aristocrat, and to bear this name in common with the lower nobility of Pescia.”
“I will endeavour to obtain permission to draw, for it would be a great resource. Adieu, beloved mother, love me, but do not grieve for me; my gloomiest moments are those in which I am thinking, consequently when I am writing; but when I am reading, or talking with my friends, I feel as if I were out of prison.”
“How impatient I am! I have no feeling but impatience! I languish to get out, I languish for all I anticipate; nevertheless I am well, and as we had obliging guards, I had company, and I am gay to-day; be gay also, dear mother, it is impossible but that I should be soon liberated. I am accused of no fact, the witnesses have only their opinions to allege.”
“As to politics, I would say little. My opinions on liberty are too steady ever to change: as to the French, what they make me suffer will not make me think worse of them, nor will it ever make me think better of kings and their satellites.”
The father of Sismondi, returning to Geneva, gave up to his son the care of directing the little farm of Valchiusa. It had been held on lease during thirty years, by an honest family of peasants, and its produce in kind, divided into two parts, according to the custom of the little farms among the hills, was to provide subsistence for the masters, farmers, and servants. Devoted to this cultivation with all the ardour of his age, he increased the activity of his mind by the numerous labours of rural life, and imbued his vast intellect with the study of agriculture, that fruitful source of ever varied, ever attaching, ever new observations.
His free and generous mind reproached the tyrants of Italy with the progressive increase of the barren moors, uncultivated plains, and bogs; nature, as he said, taking again the gifts which man did not know how to manage. Struck with admiration at sight of the dikes, which forced the devastating torrent, an immense river of mud, to restore the slime which it was carrying to the sea, and to transform into fertile fields what would have changed its mouth into infectious marshes, Sismondi thanked for these admirable metamorphoses the zeal of the religious orders, which have so often in Italy, as lately in France, renewed the face of the earth.
At this time Sismondi employed his mind on those questions of political economy which were later resolved by his heart, when he boldly declared himself the adversary of the English school, of the Ricardos, of the Maccullochs, of the Says, of all those who see in the mass of men only a machine to create the wealth which will afterwards crush them. He weighed in his judgment, full of sagacity, the advantages of small and large properties, of short and long leases. He studied the great farms let in livello (corn-rents) on leases for lives, and the modest podere, which is cultivated on a rent of half the produce by a mezzaiuolo (partner) who enjoys without possessing, and does not feel that he is poor. The young man, almost alarmed at the complex ideas which arose in his mind, asked himself, “If an active, numerous, and poor population was not worth more than a small number of idle and rich inhabitants? Whether the extinction of laborious and active families is not a loss to states? Whether they ought to protect a material advantage, founded on the annihilation of the poorer classes ?”—Agricolture Toscans.
The news of this negociation, by turns broken off and renewed, arrived at last at Valchiusa, and raised a tempest in the heart of Madame de Sismondi. Her letters, bathed in tears, begged her son to listen only to the interests of his fortune, of his long future life; she repeats, “that foreigners, learned men, men of letters, are better received in the north than in the other parts of Europe; that they find more roads to fortune open; that they often make rich marriages.” Then, after having enumerated all the advantages it offered, she cries, “Do not ask me how I feel this affair of Wilna: I have too much pain in driving off this feeling. But have you not guessed it? You, who are alarmed at spending ten years far from the country you prefer; do you not know that these ten years are all of life that remains to me? From the day that they begin, all will be over for me. I do not say that I shall die of it; it is in the vigour of one's age that one imagines one shall die of grief that seems insupportable, and that one thinks the measure of moral strength must be that of life. Those who have grown old amidst storms, learn that they wither us, bow us down, but do not carry us off. Sorrow eats up life, but a stroke of nature must give death.” Then, frightened at having allowed this cry of anguish to escape her, the poor mother accuses herself of weakness, and begs her son and her husband to forget her unworthy terrors, to reckon them as nothing, to weigh with sang froid the advantages and inconveniences, assisted by the information of those who knew the country, and afterwards to decide, putting her interest quite out of the question.
Sismondi wrote and re-wrote with inconceivable rapidity the beginning of his History of the Italian Republics, “of that labyrinth of equal and independent states, where he saw displayed more great characters, more ardent passions, more rare talents, more virtue, courage, and true greatness, than in a number of indolent monarchies.” It seemed as if many lives were not enough to study the obscure annals of each of these states in particular. No one had dared to penetrate this intricacy, and he undertook to make these divers histories proceed together, and to unite them in one point of view.
His introduction had satisfied both Madame de Staël, who heard it read with lively interest, and Madame de Sismondi, who mixed with her praises the counsels of the most delicate taste. “Take care,” she wrote to her son, “to avoid every thing which approaches at ever so great a distance the manner of the philosophical haranguers of 1789, who thunder as soon as they open their mouths; warmth must come from development. It is agreeable to perceive the fire under the ashes before the explosion, and the reader more willingly shares the opinions of the author when they come to him by degrees.”
On the contrary, as he went deeper into these dark chronicles, Sismondi felt himself frozen. His father and grandmother had listened coldly to the first chapters of his history; Madame de Staël, so delighted with the Introduction, treated what followed as dry, and wanting life. The author began and began again with his indefatigable perseverance, but the impossibility of finding a publisher added painful disappointment to a fatiguing progress; a thousand apprehensions arose in the mind of the young man. He experienced at the entrance of this career all the agonies of that struggle in which a poor author, doubtful of his ability, can only be supported by the love of fame and the necessity of writing for his bread.
“I have never before attempted history, have I the necessary talent?” he asked himself. Then came that depressing discouragement, in which he complains, “Detached from the present and the future,” added he in his journal, “my life is only a series of moments not connected together; I perceive existence only by the continuity of suffering.” At last, attacked by fever, he wished to sink under it, forgetting the inexhaustible love of her whose letters were full of the most energetic exhortations, the most tender encouragement.
“I am afraid of every thing,” Madame de Sismondi wrote to him. “I am afflicted at the way in which your imagination is excited, is depressed. I should rather say why does it not gather something from the future, with such a fertile field before it. Come, my child, rouse yourself; electrify yourself by every means; all those, of course, that are sure and honourable. Dear child, I exhort you, I conjure you, do not let your heart be oppressed by the obstacles you experience; they are the natural and necessary consequence of the profession of an author; all begin by that. I will not suffer you to speak ill of the lot of a man of letters. Come, let me teach you to see things on their favourable side; when I say favourable side, it is a flower of rhetoric, for I only ask you to be just and consistent. No doubt the man of letters has his own little particular load, as every vocation has; but generally he carries a less heavy share than others of the common burden. Great shocks rarely touch him, except indirectly; trouble, that is to say labour, is one of his pleasures; its reward is double and often very attractive.—Indeed, if I had to live over again and to choose, I should adopt a literary life as the happiest.”
These exhortations were seconded by less sedentary habits, by excursions to Coppet, where Sismondi often staid several days; by journeys to the glaciers; lastly by the lively and animating conversation of Madame de Staël, and by the chosen society that she attracted around her.
His frequent visits to Coppet did not prevent Charles from working assiduously at his history, of which the progress may be followed in the letters of his mother, and the advice inspired by the different aspects of the work. With what admirable justness of mind does she resist that disposition in her son to absolute opinions, to prose. lytism, even of doubts, the inherent malady of youth and inexperience.
“You must not thus throw about fire and flame,” she wrote to him; “reflect on it, you who require love so much. It is not merely enemies of a day that are made by this decided tone; they are exasperated, and for life. It is not, indeed, very surprising that those who uselessly attack opinions on which men have founded all their happiness, should be hated by them. They may be erroneous, but long received errors are more respectable than those we would substitute for them: for it is not truth which is found, when the system of religion generally received has been pulled down, since this truth, if it is not repeated, is hidden beneath the impenetrable darkness of the human mind. Leave the Trinity, the Virgin, and the Saints in peace; to the greater part of those who are attached to these doctrines, they are the columns which support all the edifice: if you shake them it will crumble away. And what will become of the souls that you will have deprived of all consolation, and of all hope? Piety is one of the sweetest affections of the soul, and the most necessary to its repose; it must exist in every religion, except in that which, by lopping off the branches to which our senses cling, by too much spiritualizing, makes us fall into abstract ideas, into a desolating vague state of mind. Promise me, at least, before you publish, to consult some clever person, not of the court of Madame de Staël. She can bear hatred, she has so many adorers; but you, you would be irritated, would suffer, would become dry, and I cannot bear the thoughts of it.”
Soon afterwards, that journey which was the origin of Corinne, took place, and put M. de Sismondi into communication with all the most distinguished minds in Italy. Though congratulating herself on a companionship which premised her son so many advantages, Madame de Sismondi, uneasy, redoubled her injunctions, and forewarned her son not only against his own imperfections, but those of his illustrious friend.
“Ah!” writes she, “you are going then to travel with Madame de Staël! You are only too happy to have such a companion. But take care, travelling is like a short marriage: always, always together, people see too much of one another; defects have no corner in which they can hide themselves; the spoiled child of nature and the world, as she is, must have in the mornings moments of fatigue and ennui; and I know who is revolted by a defect in those he loves. He should therefore be doubly attentive to open his eyes to his own defects, and to keep them steadily shut to those of his companion. How curious I am to know how she will get on in society in that country. No doubt she will form particular intimacies only with those who know French; for how can she express her thoughts in Italian? she! it is impossible. However well she may understand it, know it, read Dante better than three-quarters of his countrymen, she will never find the means, in that language, of making conversation flow as it ought. How can words be found in the language, when opinions and ideas are yet unborn? You will see that she will not like the Italian prosody either. However, she will be admired, and she will excite fanaticism (fera fanatisma), as we say.”
The prediction was literally accomplished. Charles wrote from Rome: “Madame de Stael pleases everywhere, but she finds nothing which pleases her; she is angry at this fine sounding language, which says nothing. In the poetry which they boast of to her, she finds no ideas, and in conversation no sentiment.”
At the end of a year entirely devoted to work, and which was passed in the middle of his family, Sismondi again found himself thrown into the vortex of the world.
Madame de Staël travelled in Germany, where she was charmed to present “to every one,” as she said, “the new historian, preceded by his fame.” Received with all imaginable kindness, living at Vienna at the house of Madame de Staël, admitted into the bosom of that choice society, distinguished by its exquisitely polished manners, by its sparkling conversation; acting plays with princesses, dukes, counts, with the courts of Germany and Russia; sur rounded at the Monday suppers of his illustrious hestess, by all those whom the city contained, most distinguished by talents and by rank, Sismondi saw pass before him the old ministry of Maria Theresa, worn out, grey-headed, broken in the service of Joseph, of Leopold, and of Francis. These ministers, acute men, not devoid of talent, having an inclination to be liberal, attached to their master by habit, he saw them, inactive, without the capacity of foresight, without judgment, without will, discouraged about the government. He saw the complete ruin of the finances, the relaxation of all the machinery of government; in short this monarchy, the defence of old opinions against the new, and which, endeavouring to rally around it noble sympathies, placed itself as an adversary. to the military despotism of Napoleon, he saw falling into dissolution because all power was in one hand, that of the emperor, and that hand was paralytic.
For a moment Sismondi hoped, by his Memoir on Paper Money, (Mémoire sur le Papier Monnaie,) to apply a remedy to the greatest of the evils which he witnessed, to that which reached every class, by the disorganization of public wealth and private fortunes. In this writing, which could not have been published at a more opportune moment, Sismondi proves that “currency, of which stability ought to be the principal characteristic, can never be the production of credit, essentially variable in its nature, and the object of which being to borrow and transmit value, cannot create it; a Power belonging to labour alone.” After having demonstrated that “the most false of all money is paper, that this value, fictitious and deceptive, destroys all real value in the state, which disappears that it may not be estimated by this false measure,” the writer points out the incalculable evils which flow from this disorder: “Commerce struck to death by stock-jobbing; the legitimate rewards of labour and industry subjected to the chances of gaming; activity become a cause of ruin; whilst easy circumstances appear to be the fruit only of idleness and inactivity; public charity annihilated by universal indigence; prodigality and dissipation permitted to call themselves wisdom; lastly, the laws concurring with vice in the destruction of the community.”
The enumeration of these evils is followed by an indication of the remedy. “There is only one, the suppression of paper, the revocation of every order by which confidence is imposed, is commanded. From the moment that it is demonstrated that the circulation of forced notes is a continual bankruptcy, it is to the degradation, not to the annihilation of paper, that the sufferings of the people must be attributed: it must therefore be cut to the quick.” Sismondi does not the less find numerous hidden causes which soften a shock, which he calls an extraordinary tax pretty equally divided, thanks to the number of hands through which paper money passes: for the rapidity of the circulation, by multiplying losses, has at least this advantage, that when the notes will no longer circulate, it equalizes them, and blunts the shock by dividing it among all.
Strongly supported by the Prince de Ligne, considered, discussed, praised by the ministers of Austria and Russia, presented to the Archdukes John and Charles, approved by the Archduke Renier, attentively read in manuscript by the emperor, printed at Weimar, the paper of Sismondi, which for a moment raised the hopes of commerce, had no other result than to give its author the satisfaction of throwing light on an important subject, and having conscientiously laboured for the interests of the community. Trembling, and as it were fascinated, Austria dared not hazard the least movement, and seemed breathlessly to await the sword of Napoleon.
When in the month of January, 1815, Sismondi came to Paris to publish the 9th, 10th, and 11th volumes of his Republics, they were celebrating, at Paris, the funeral obsequies of Louis the Sixteenth. Though the nation had, with justice, cast off all responsibility of the death of the unfortunate monarch, it saw an insult in this appeal to ancient animosity, and severed itself more and more from a family which, far from endeavouring to fill up the bloody abyss hollowed out between it and France, made efforts to enlarge its wide-opening mouth. “The old courtiers disturbed those who had acquired national properties, and covered with lace, played at greatness, as if they had been young upstarts.” The king is sitting for his portraits; he is now at the eleventh; and the people cannot accustom themselves to contemplate the abuse of weakness, in those same places where, a few months before, reigned the abuse of strength.
The landing of the 20th of March, and the rapid progress of Napoleon, gave a new aspect to every thing. After having seen the Bourbons “commit every fault of presumption for ten months, and every fault of weakness for ten days,” Sismondi read the proclamations of the emperor, fixed by the side of the royal ordinances which put a price on his head. It seemed to him that after such a return, the man of the Revolution could not disown his mother; “that he had too well proved the weakness of monarchical alliances to court them afresh;” and two decrees issued from l Elysée Bourbon, to abolish the slave trade, and to establish the liberty of the press, seemed to confirm all these generous hopes. Persuaded that once entered on the route of concession, power endeavours in vain to go back; that it is better to ameliorate than to begin again; that the most formidable danger at this period was from foreign bayonets, and a second reaction, Sismondi, without stopping to discuss questions of detail, and of interior administration, thought only of rallying round the national colours all the patriotism there was in France. His Examen de la Constitution Française, (Examination of the French Constitution,) published in the Moniteur and in some other journals, demonstrates without enthusiasm, but with great power of reasoning, that the Acte additionnel secures the liberties of the citizens, by giving them for guarantees, the responsibility of the ministers; the independence of an irremovable magistracy, and of a jury chosen among the people; lastly, the liberty of the press, the confirmation of every other liberty. On the other hand, by increasing the number of deputies, and acknowledging that every Frenchman may be elected a deputy of the nation, this act promises to all the enjoyment of political rights, the noblest education that man can receive.
When he returned to Coppet, in 1815, he was received with the same affection by Madame de Staël, but at Geneva it was otherwise. His friends looked upon him as a deserter, because in his eyes the end did not justify the means, because he had a horror of foreign intervention, because the union between the Jacobins and the Royalists, which he had long refused to believe, inspired him with profound disgust, because his heart bled at this war of hatred; and seeing our fields stripped, our town swept down, he cried, “I could console myself for the sufferings of the rich, of those who have brought this scourge upon us; but the state of ruin, but the misery, but the despair of the unhappy peasants rend my heart.”
The death of his friends Labedoyére and Ney, the persecutions of the south, the violence of the royalist Chamber, “a counterpart to the Convention,” all contributed to make his thoughts gloomy, and “finding more melancholy than pleasure in his recollections,” he took refuge in his work. “I have always endeavoured to forget myself,” said he, “and thanks to my studies, I can live in other ages than my own.”
In July, 1817, as he was going to Paris to print the four last volumes of his history, he was detained at Coppet. There had just been brought the lifeless body of her who had made that abode so agreeable, of her who had so long been his friend, his second sister. “There is something confusing,” wrote Sismondi to his mother, “in a misfortuue which has taken place at a distance; at first one sees nothing changed around one, and it is only slowly and by degrees that one learns to know one's own grief. It is over, then, for me; this abode where I have lived so much, where I always felt myself so much and so happily at home! It is over—that animating society, that magic lanthorn of the world, which I there saw righted up for the first time, and where I have learned so much! My life is grievously changed; there was no one, perhaps, to whom I owed more than to her. How I suffered on the day of her funeral! A discourse by the minister of Coppet at the bier, in presence of Madame de Broglie and Miss Randall kneeling before the coffin, had begun to soften my heart, to make me feel the full extent of my loss, and I could not restrain my tears.”
When, on publishing the conclusion of his great and admirable work, Sismondi cast a glance backwards on the twenty-two years devoted to his history, he might have felicitated himself with just pride, on finding at the last page of his sixteenth volume, the same moral tendency, the same political principles, which had inspired him at the begning. “During this long period; tormented by the eager strife between nations thirsting for liberty, and princes obstinate in refusing it, Europe had seen over and over again her institutions destroyed, and different political doctrines by turns proscribed and proclaimed;” but the historian of the old times remained the same, becoming more enlightened without being changed, enlarging his ideas without abandoning them. His style acquired, however, as he proceeded, more firmness, more dignity, less endeavour after effect; and yet with what fervent candour he replies to his critics.
“It was never voluntarily, never knowingly, that I have employed unusual terms and expressions. But to fulfil the task which I had imposed on myself, to attain the truth which I had engaged to present to the public, I have been obliged to live in some sort out of my maternal tongue. I have been obliged habitually to write and think in Italian or in Latin, and occasionally in German, Spanish, Greek, English, Portuguese, Provencal. I have been obliged to pass from one of these languages to another, without reflecting on the form in which thought was clothed, almost without perceiving the substitution of one dialect for another. Then a form of speech which I had met with a thousand times, I thought French, because I had been accustomed to it, in another idiom.”
The new views, indicated by the article “Political Economy,” in the Edinburgh Encyclopædia, published in 1818, and written in English by Sismondi, show that he had already deviated from Adam Smith, in the consequences which he drew from the principles laid down by the Scotch economist. The pleasure of proceeding systematically from deduction to deduction, of erecting a series of metaphysical propositions, with the regularity of a mathematician, could not seduce this observing mind, nor blind this practical philosopher, as to how much experience had falsified the conclusions of the learned. He was occupied with results, “the evils of competition, that war of the years of peace; the excess of production, which ceases to be wealth from the moment when it no longer finds consumers.”
In the two volumes of his Nouveaux Principes, Sismondi gave more development to this first sketch. Since the production of his Richesse commercielle, studying facts instead of books, he now carried to new ground that science in which he has been accused of making retrograde steps. “Strongly moved by the commercial crisis which overthrew the means of life to so many all over Europe, and weighed so heavily on the working class,” he had seen, with a feeling of sorrow, the combined efforts of proprietors, of statesmen, and of writers, aggravate the evil they thought to remedy, and in order to obtain a larger nett product, reduce real product, and change the systems of cultivation, which still spread some comfort and some happiness among the peasants of Switzerland and Italy. “Good persons, full of excellent intentions, caused evil, and lost themselves, sometimes in seeking what might augment population, sometimes what might increase wealth,” whilst both, considered singly, are only abstractions, and all abstraction is deceptive. The true problem to find is the proportion of population and of wealth which will secure most happiness to the human kind in a given space; for the object of economical science ought to be to augment the mass of happiness among man, and to equalize the division of it; that of political science, to ennoble the whole nation, by making morality penetrate every class.
The Nouveaux Principes might be called the book of economical proportions; they aim particularly at demonstrations; that the social question consists in a due balance. “Income must increase with capital, population must not surpass the income on which it ought to live, consumption should increase with population, and reproduction ought to be in proportion both to the capital which produces it, and to the population which consumes it.”
In proving that each of these relations may be disturbed separately, but never with impunity, Sismondi makes it be observed, “that wages are always in proportion to the quantity of labour in demand, which depends on consumption; and this regulates itself, not by production, or by what is wanted, as Ricardo, Say, and their school have pretended, but by income. Each individual buys, in fact, according to his means, and not according to his desires. Systems too often forget that the community is composed only of individuals, and that the public fortune, being only an aggregation of private fortunes, arises, is increased, is distributed, is deteriorated, and destroyed by the same means as that of each individual.”
He had not the pride to flatter himself that he could make the world turn on a new pivot, or discover a “universal panacea.” To find efficacious remedies, he proclaims continually, the sanction of time, and the concurrence of the most enlightened minds are requisite. As M. Michelet says, in an admirable lecture, the most worthy homage that has been paid to the memory of Sismondi:—“His glory is to have pointed out the evils; courage was necessary for that!—to have foretold new crises. But the remedy? That is not an affair of the same man, or the same age. Five hundred years have been required to set us free from political feudalism; will a few years be sufficient to set us free from industrial feudalism?”
Thus, whilst with the accents of entreaty and of anguish, the writings of Sismondi call on the whole of society to help those it crushes, in his practical and in his private life he sought pallia tives, constantly addressed himself to the best feelings of man for man, and rested his hopes and his actions on what is most tender in charity; on that double movement from the heart of him who gives, and from the heart of him who receives.”
Independently of his immense work, the “History of the French,” (of which two or three volumes appeared alternately every two years,) Sismondi still connected himself by pamphlets, by frequent articles published in different periodicals, with the whole literary and political movement of France, Italy, and England. Everywhere misfortune found in him an advocate, liberty a support, moderation an organ.
In the journey which he made into England, in 1826, before publishing the second edition of his “Nouveaux Principes,” he saw what he had foretold realized, and shuddered at the fatal effects of “that vital organization, which stripping the working man of all other property, but that of his hands, ends by taking that also from him, and replacing it by machines.” Witness of that “progress of industry which tends to increase the inequality of enjoyment among men,” recoiling from the aspect “of the hideous oonvulsions of wealth ill divided,” he cries: “No spectacle is more alarming than that which England presents, in the midst of that opulence, which at first dazzles the eye. The great roads are alternately traversed by troops of beggars dismissed from the manufactories, and by troops of ragged Irish, who offer themselves from farm to farm to perform agricultural labour. Both ask alms, only when they are refused work; but every nook is full. The field labourers see with bitterness strangers contending with them for work, which before was scarcely sufficient to maintain them.”
“In the towns, in the capital, in Hyde Park, where the most sumptuous equipages succeed one another with the rapidity of lightning, bands of ten and twenty manufacturers, seated motionless, despair in their eyes, fever exhausting their limbs, do not excite a moment's attention. A third of the workshops are closed, another third must soon be closed, and all the shops are loaded; on every side manufactures are offered at a price which can only half pay the expense of production. In this universal distress, everywhere the working man is dismissed, and the English nation gives his place to steam engines.”
In the face of such a state of things, “at a period when suffering humanity has the most need that the science which is the theory of the well being of all, should draw near to common intellects, and speak a popular language, political economy is lost in abstractions, and enveloped in calculations more and more difficult to follow.”
“What,” cried Sismondi, answering Ricardo in a long conversa tion which they had together at Geneva, a short time before the death of the English writer, “What, is wealth then everything! are men absolutely nothing!”
It was painful to Sismondi, after having repudiated the economical theories which England was teaching to France, still to have to repel the different systems which connected themselves with the demand for industrial organization. He rejected in turn the cooperative system of Owen, the Saint Simonians, the disciples of Fourier. “To attempt to suppress personal interest, and to think that the world can go on without it,” he said to some of them, “is sufficiently bold; but to imagine that all the labour of the community, the conducting of all its interests, can be determined at any moment of the day by the plurality of suffrages, is acting like a society of fools.” He accused others of ordering a body to walk, after having taken away all the muscles, all the stimulus of individual interest. “They take away from you hope, liberty, family affection,” cried he, sorrowfully, “all to make you happy! Alas! there is nothing true in their books but the evil they would remedy.”
He stood alone between the masters and the disciples, both of whom he equally disavowed; those, because absorbed by the love of the science which they had created, they neglected the creation of God; man, the object and end of all science; these, because absorbed in the search of physical well-boing, they forget both our celestial origin, and our immortal tendencies; on both sides he repudiated the worship of matter.
The Etudes were in great part written at Pescia, whither Sismondi went towards the end of August, 1835, drawn there by the desire to see those who remained of the family of his sister.
The beautiful and fertile fields which had first awakened in him the love of nature, and of humanity, offered anew to the eyes of the economist that association which he continually demanded, that of the owner and the cultivator, the union of capital and handlabour. He again found the favourable results of the leases for ninety-nine years, the livelli which he had formerly studied, and which give to the farmer, married to his farm, as much love for the soil as if it were his complete property. He again entered the cheerful dwelling of the mezzaiuolo, the farmer who divides the produce, and who without possessing any thing, lives easy and content, and enjoys, what makes man moral, an assurance of the future, what renders him happy, security, liberty, variety, hope.
This landscape of Tuscany, animated by cheerful labours, intermingled with songs, fêtes, and joy, like the small farms which have scattered over them elms, garlands of vines, nosegays of orange and citron trees, forms the most striking contrasts to the oceans of corn, and fields of potatoes of vast and beautiful Ireland; to those flourishing fields where the miserable farmers and the starving cottagers die of hunger in the bosom of abundance.
But when, in 1837, Sismondi traversed the Campagna of Rome, which he had visited for the first time thirty years before, vain were the endeavours to make him taste those artistic pleasures which attract the aristocracy and the idle, from all parts of the globe. “Here,” cried Sismondi “I can only hear one voice, that of expiring society, contemplate one view, the decline and agony of Rome. The rapid decay of all I perceive, of all which constitutes a city, monuments, palaces, churches, houses, cottages, pavements, marks, in a fatal manner, the progress of time. The population of the country has disappeared; I cannot imagine how the population of the town can be long in disappearing also. This crowd of parasites, accustomed to live on the crumbs which fall from the tables of the prelates, of the ambassadors of the great, will find no nourishment when these tables are no longer covered. The fields, divided among only a hundred great proprietors, are doomed to become an unpeopled desert, and the wind will there pass over broom and immense briers. The workshops of the cities no longer offer any asylum to the indolent population, for the rich will not consume Roman productions, and the poor cannot buy them; how sorrowful is the spectacle of a great city dying of inanition!”
Sismondi had been a witness of historical results and of their causes, and he resolved to write the history of the French. He immediately set about collecting the necessary works. “I look at these quartos with a sort of respect and fear,” said he, “when I think that I must go through all that, and that I must make myself as familiar with it as the collection of Muratori is become to me.”
Hitherto, having worked by means of borrowed books, and, as happens to most of those who accustom themselves to trust always to their pen, written memory having almost annulled mental memory, he found himself obliged to make numerous and minute extracts. “The purchase of a choice library, formed without regard to expense,” wrote he to his mother—“for in fact they are the instruments of my trade” led him to change this mode. Instead of extracting, he composed annals, in which he entered the memorable events of each year, such as he drew them from the original sources. The simultaneous comparison of the different accounts of the same fact cleared up to him what had appeared obscure to the most eminent historians. The historian of the Republics had endeavoured to bring into our view that great number of lives, existing in so many independent sovereign cities, throughout the extent of Italy. The historian of France sought a different point of view. He had to explain a compact monarchy, the most closely united, the most complete organization. He untwisted the threads of this woof so solidly woven, and dividing his narrative into periods, questioned each on the secret cause of a progressive agglomeration, on the strength of a growing centralization; and endeavoured to discover how this indivisible unity was prepared, produced, and consolidated.
To elevate his soul still more towards the country to which it was tending, only one step was wanting, suffering, and he was not spared that. He endured it with that unshaken firmness which had been formed by the whole course of his life. A religion full of hope and love, which places prayer in the intimate relations of the creature with its Creator, and in the effort to conform to his mysterious will, added the heroic gentleness of resignation to the strength which had been developed in Sismondi, by the constant habit of making his actions agree with his principles and his writings.
After a violent attack, his illness only left him short and incomplete respites, of which he took advantage to set himself to work again with inconceivable courage. At first living only on milk, his stomach torn by dreadful agony, he did not the tess persist in working; soon he dismissed his physicians, lest they should forbid his writing, and because he felt the insufficiency of their art. In 1840, volumes 23 and 24 of the History of the French appeared; in 1841 they were soon followed by the remainder Besides this, Sismondi gave to the Bibliothèque universelle Génève, the complete and striking article on penal colonies and punishment. The attention of one who had treated in so superior a manner the greater part of social questions, was awakened by the inquiries and successive reports on the exclusively material prosperity of Van Diemen's Land and Sydney, which was accompanied with its usual consequence, a gross and demoralized social condition. His powerful indignation was excited by the eloquent complaints of the Archbishop of Dublin, Richard Whately; and he treated the subject from a loftier point of view, embracing every kind of punishment, without excepting from the melancholy list, that most fearful of all for the judge—death.
“It is a mournful subject, the evil which men do when they are endeavouring to do good,”as Sismondi says. First, he endeavours to discover what are the true conditions of punishment. “Punishment must intimidate, must correct, must reach the guilty, must reach him certainly, quickly, must reach only him; it must be rather intense than long, or else it ceases to be feared; it must not corrupt even the criminal, and must not demoralize society.”What then must be said of penal colonies, when the shame of the criminal colonist becomes, through destitution, an object of desire to the day-labourer and free workman; when from these sinks of the community arise new nations, which, born of vice, in the bosom of vies, organize an aristocracy of crime, and carry to a fearful perfection by uniting them together, the depravation of barbarism, and that of civilization. What can be said of penitentiaries, which, after a long and frightful punishment, “like a surgical operation, during which the patient utters an uninterrupted cry of pain,”give back the criminal to society, mutilated, not in his body, but his soul; from which has been cut off, by his lonely life, whatever crime had left of intelligence and human feeling.
The profound pity of the historian for social wounds, for vice and misery, of which he had past his whole life in sounding the depths, and discovering the causes, because it is the causes which teach the remedies, found his heart neither contracted nor withered by personal suffering. Whilst in the classification of criminals, in the remuneration of labour, and even in physical suffering, but especially by a continual study of the question, which ought to be a subject of interest to every one, he sought for progressive amelioration, the sure and slow cure which is disdained by the inventors of universal specifics, Sismondi was himself a prey to sufferings of body and mind.
Physical pain had robbed him of those recreations which he had formerly tasted with so much zest, in the rapid exchange of mind and thought. All visits, all society, were become a punishment. “My speech,”wrote he to a friend, “is so disturbed and interrupted by hiccough when I have talked a quarter of an hour, that I must be insupportable to others. Even when one writes with a bad pen, one loses half one's ideas, think then how a convulsion which interrupts every sentence two or three times, must hurt conversation.”It was only in fulfilling the mission which he pursued with unalterable energy, that he could for a moment escape from his fits of pain: “I forget my suffering when I am writing,”said he.
Moral pains, most felt by a soul like his, sometimes softened his heart without lessening his resignation. “I give myself up,”he wrote in September, 1841, “to the melancholy which is inspired by a condition like ours, where nothing is renewed, where in one's self and around one, one remarks only decay. . . . Affections leave us, recollections are extinguished ”(he had just lost two of his best friends, the illustrious De Candolle, and almost at the same time Chateauvieux, whose funeral he followed, and which preceded his own so short a time). “How melancholy seems this solitude where I remain,”pursued he; “sometimes I ask myself what right have I to linger after them? ”
It was in 1842, that the radical association, of the 3rd of March, which for nine months had threatened the government of Geneva, and kept Sismondi in anxiety, burst out in insurrections. The national representation was threatened with knives, poniards, firearms, and fire. The national guard deemed it prudent to lay down their arms, without having made use of them, the magistrates thought it wise to yield, without having resisted, and Sismondi dying, mounted the breach alone.
On the 30th of March, 1842, he would pronounce, in the Constitutive Assembly, a member of which he had been elected, notwithstanding the alarming state of his health, the last words he uttered in public. This impromptu speech, full of good sense, of moderation, of power, was interrupted by painful convulsions, and he was carried home in a state of the greatest exhaustion. Even then he would not be cast down, and as his afflicted widow said, “Standing up as long as there was anything to be done, he lay down only to die.”
The conclusion of his history, written on his birthday, five weeks before he breathed his last, is an adieu annexed to the legacy which he left us, to us Frenchmen, for whom he laboured twenty-four years.
“It will soon be two years,”said he in his conclusion, “since I have enjoyed a single day of health. Every month, every week, I have perceived that my complaints grow worse, and the advance by which they must arrive at their termination, though slow, is not the less sure. They were not common efforts which have been required, not to be diverted one day from my work. that I might devote to it all my remaining strength; but now it is over; it would be impossible to take a step more.”
“At the end of so long a task, placed on the threshold of that door which separates time from eternity, I may be forgiven for seeking some satisfaction, in considering what I have accomplished.”
“Different powers have been given to different historians: I know what I want, and what have belonged to some of my contemporaries. But there is one testimony which I dare render to myself, and I have a firm confidence that posterity will confirm it; the work which I am finishing, and which I present to the public, is that of a con scientious writer; I have always sought for truth, and I have spared neither labour nor expense to discover it.”
“My life has been divided between the study of political economy and that of history; thus, the economist must often appear in this long recital, by the side of the historian; I have endeavoured not to let those lessons be lost which are given by experience, as to what contributes to create and to maintain the prosperity of nations. But above all, I have always considered wealth as a means, not as an end. I hope it will be acknowledged by my constant solicitude for the cultivator, for the artisan, for the poor who gain their bread by the sweat of their brow, that all my sympathies are with the labouring and suffering classes.”
“It was in the month of May, 1818, that I seriously began to work at the History of the French; it is in the month of May, 1842, that I lay down my pen, having gone as far as my strength would permit. In delivering this work to the public, terminated with the advantages which I have set forth, with the defects which I do not dissemble, I rest on the feeling that I have done a service to the French nation. I have given her what she had not, a complete picture of her existence, a conscientious picture, in which neither love nor hatred, neither fear nor flattery, have ever led me to disguise one truth; a moral picture in which she may always reeognize what bitter fruits are borne by vice, what excellent fruits are borne by virtue; and where, without being inflated by vain glory, she will learn, and may teach her children how to esteem, how to respect themselves.”
This task finished, he had only one thought, to go to Pescia and to die beneath the beautiful sky of Tuscany, amidst the flowers, the fruite, the trees he had planted, and with the recollectiona of the mother who had watched ever, and matured the promise of his youth.
But no, hie stomach torn by an ulcer, could no longer bear even cold water: nevertheless he corrected proofs, still wrote to his friends, answered historical questions addressed to him by indifferent persons; his patience increased with his tortures. He preserved his soul unchanged, his body was rapidly wearing out.
On the 9th of May he wrote his conclusion; from the 29th to the 31st he drew up a detailed catalogue of his works, which in itself forms a work, the abridged history of his life. On the 7th of June he corrected the four sheets of proofs which terminated the twenty-seventh volume of the History of the French, and rectified the paging of the Index. On the 8th he looked over the four first sheets of the following volume, twenty-ninth and last. On the 10th he wrote two letters, one to the son of his old bailiff, at valchiusa, to remind him that a small pension which this peasant had engaged to pay to his mother, who was a widow, was due. The other letter, which gave to a Bordelais, employed on a History of the Vaudois, the list which he had asked him for, of the authors which he ought to read, finished with the words of the gladiator to Cæsar, Morituri te salutant. On the 13th the dying man still corrected proofs. On the 14th he added a codicil to his will, in which “acknowledging the blessings which Providence had heaped upon him, he surrenders his soul into the hands of God, and begs his wife and all those who bestowed their affection on him, to see him depart with love, but without regret, as he himself quits this world, and all in it which he held dear.”
On the 25th of June he continued lying down, motionless, and without speaking till about one o'clock; then he asked to get up. He was dressed and laid on a sofa, where he remained quiet, and at three o'clock in the afternoon he ceased to breathe.
His works remain to us. In one of those hours of moral agony which the most vigorous minds pass through, Sismondi had exclaimed with bitterness, “I shall leave this world without having made any impression, and nothing will be done.”He deceived himself. He had chosen France to make his ideas popular; France will apply them. He, whose mind was considered as retrograde, when he said that the opinion of the crowd is not the same as the opinion of the wisest; as a dreamer when he affirmed that the means by which hand-labour is spared should not force men to heavier labour, has done well not to be tired of swimming against the current. His observations, his ideas, have become so entirely a public possession, that those who proclaim them, clothing them in sounding words, often do not even know that they are the ideas of Sismondi which they are proclaiming; his opinions, his principles which they are making popular.
Was it not Sismondi who was first indignant at the laissez faire, laissez passer, of political economy? It was only after him that his disciple Buvet repeated, “Laissez faire la misèrs; laissez passer la mort!” Let wretchedness do its work, do not interfere with death!
It was Sismondi who was indignant at the system by which some labour, that others may enjoy.
He it was who cried out that the time will come when our posterity will not deem us less barbarous for having left the labouring classes without any security, than we deem those nations who have reduced them to slavery.
It was he who asked if it is not every where perceived that men are confiscated for the advantage of things? The working men are retrenched, sometimes in one business, sometimes in another. And what signifies the increase of wealth, if it does not serve to feed men?
It was he who demanded for all a participation in the advantages of life: he, who refused to call that riches, which one member of the community took from another: he, who cried that the advantage of all ought to limit the rights of all: that property is the right to use, not to abuse.
Before O'Connell, with as much boldness and more weight, Sismondi exclaimed, “The social order of Ireland is essentially bad; it must be changed from top to bottom. The question is not to give the bread of charity to the famished poor: it is to secure existence, property, to every man whose hands are his only wealth.”
Who is the radical who has said with more vehement warmth than Sismondi, “There is spoliation, the rich man robs the poor, when this rich man draws from a fertile and easily cultivated soil his idle opulence, whilst he who has raised this income, who with his sweat bathes every production, dies of hunger without being able to touch it.”
It was he who taught the people that the true Savings bank is the land; governors, that to raise the moral character of the people, the future must be given to them, for all our moral ideas are connected with foresight.
He who has been accused of an aristocratic spirit, repeats in all his works, by the examples which he brings, and by the reflections which he makes on them, “that the day in which the aristocracy is uprooted from the country, the day in which it forsakes the soil by which it was nourished, it commits suicide.”
It was he who continually repeated, “that all the efforts of charity are only palliatives: of what use are schools to him who has no time? Instruction, to him who sells the most painful bodily labour at the cheapest rate, without being able to get work? Savings banks, to him who has only potatoes? ”
No, the persevering study, the warnings, which his heart prompted, are not lost. Facts have gone on; they bring that conviction which he complained of not being able to produce. The day will come when the experience which he laid up will bear fruit in the world; the day will come when both the operative and the labourer will obtain that just share of enjoyment which he never ceased soliciting for them.