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ON THE CHARACTER OF MIRABEAU AND HIS INFLUENCE ON HIS AGE. ( Written in Early Youth. ) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 8 (Physics and Politics, Currency Monopoly, and Essays) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 8.
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ON THE CHARACTER OF MIRABEAU AND HIS INFLUENCE ON HIS AGE.
Mirabeau was the first great character brought to light by the French Revolution. He partook strongly of the peculiar spirit of the times. The new opinions, which claimed to the exclusion of all others the character of philosophical, had taken deep root in his mind, and had borne their most fatal fruit—religious scepticism. On political questions his views were far more correct, as far as they were fixed. He by no means went the extravagant length of Rousseau, and his more devoted followers, who scarcely tolerated the bonds of society itself, rejected without scruple all aristocratic distinctions and ridiculed the fundamental principles of monarchy and representation. Mirabeau’s views went no farther than the erection of a kingly commonwealth like that of England. He would have eradicated without scruple the oppressive pecuniary privileges of the feudal noblesse; he would have opened to the tiers état a chance of rising to the highest stations in the country, then wholly denied to them. But he would not have demanded of the nobility to coalesce with the commons, and to relinquish their right to vote in a separate chamber, which they possessed in England, the most democratic of feudal monarchies. Mirabeau seems to have shared the favour with which universal suffrage was then regarded in France. He seems to have regarded political power as a right, not as a trust: an error very excusable in a nation just emerging from despotism, who have experienced all the evils of exclusion from a share in the government; but very pernicious when those who hold it deem themselves obliged to extend any power to those classes of the community whose ignorance and credulity unfit them for its exercise. All are entitled to receive this trust who show themselves worthy of it, and those who have abused it may rightfully be excluded from its possession.
The bane of Mirabeau was his excessive vanity. The Grand Monarque in past times had been the idol of the French people. That age had passed away. D’Alembert, in 1780, on the birth of the Dauphin, said, “I am old enough to remember when such an event would have excited transports of joy, but the people now regard the birth of a new master with great indifference”. This homage, it was thought by Mirabeau, was more justly due to the leader in the national Assembly, and it was his aim to be himself that leader, and to engross the popular applause. He rose to be dreaded and feared; his sarcasm was the dread of his rivals, and the Assembly was led by his skill in selecting those topics that had most influence on their understanding, and those modes of presenting them most calculated to move their sympathy. But before his death, “The great treason of the Count of Mirabeau” resounded in the streets of Paris. At that momentous stage of the Revolution when in the Assembly the members of the Jacobin Club, thirty in number, and afterwards so fatally celebrated, dared to express disapprobation at his opposition to the cruelties towards the emigrants, he exclaimed, “Your murmurs are unavailing; to please you is my happiness, to warn you my duty; the popularity which I desire is not a feeble twig fanned by the breath of momentary favour; it is an oak whose roots are spread in the soil—that is to say, fixed on the immutable basis of justice and liberty. I understand the vexation of those who, now so ardent, or rather so perfidious, in their love of freedom, would be puzzled to tell when it arose in their bosoms.” At these concluding words, a violent uproar was made among the Jacobins. “Silence those thirty voices,” cried Mirabeau in a voice of thunder, and it was instantly quelled: such was his power when exerted in the cause of order, to which he wished to devote the last years of life. “I would not wish,” he said, “to be always employed in the work of destruction,” and with this view he had allied himself to the sinking cause of monarchy when death cut short his plans. If his life had been prolonged he might have preserved the throne. The boldness of his genius and the grandeur of his plans mark him out as the only man who was equal to the achievement. A part of his plan the King attempted to execute when deprived by death of his aid, and fled to Varennes. But it was in vain—the mainspring of the enterprise was gone—the head that had planned it was laid in the tomb, and the soul whose unrivalled daring alone was equal to its execution was fled for ever. When every incident is attractive, it is difficult to avoid tediousness, but some notice is required by the more prominent points of his career, and a few of his sayings must be mentioned to show the character of his eloquence.
On his death-bed, he exclaimed to Dumont, “How right were we, my friend, to oppose the tiers état in their attempt to adopt the title of States General; since that day they have done nothing but show themselves unworthy of it”. His whole death scene, though clouded by the dim uncertainty which his rejection of revelation shed over the future, is exceedingly affecting. It is the effort of a great soul by its own unaided strength to preserve that calmness which Christianity has placed within the reach of the weakest and the humblest.
The connection of Mirabeau with the Duc d’Orléans, “whose name is infamy,” has been a question much argued. That he had some intercourse with him can scarcely be doubted after a due examination of the evidence, but who can believe that he placed any reliance on a fickleness so wayward, or that he preferred the unmingled blackness of his character to the good intentions, mildness, and conscientious though mistaken patriotism of Louis? The influence of the Duke on the Revolution was unmixed evil, but that evil has been overrated. He squandered his fortune in corrupting the populace, but the despotism of centuries had laid the train; and though had he never existed, though the whole royal family had united round the King, some other sparks would have gone forth and scattered their league to the winds. The most unfortunate scene in Mirabeau’s career is the sitting of the 23rd of June. The King on that occasion presented a free constitution to France, and mainly through Mirabeau’s means it was refused. There is, it is true, another side to the question. No exculpation can be attempted for the fatal imprudence of the King, much less for the secret treachery of his courtiers whose dearest wish was the failure of the Revolution. The alterations from the draft which Neckar had prepared were so great that the Minister sent in his resignation and absented himself from the Assembly at the important moment when he was most wanted for its defence. At the conclusion of his speech the King desired the Assembly to break up for that day, and he himself immediately left the hall. The members of the tiers état did not follow him, for Mirabeau was addressing them on their wrongs in a speech of unequalled power. The master of the ceremonies, the Marquis de Breze, entered to remind them, as he said, of the King’s intentions. When his message had been delivered a murmur of disapprobation ran through the Assembly, but all hesitated to reply. Then Mirabeau started from his seat and exclaimed with the thunder of his powerful voice, “Yes, sir, we have heard the intentions of the King, and you who cannot be his agent at the States General, you who have here neither seat nor voice, are not the person to remind us of his speech. Go! tell your master that we are here by the power of the people, and that nothing save the point of the bayonet shall expel us!” With an official answer in this spirit, the messenger retired. There is something very spirited and undaunted in this reply, but was it wise? or was it even just? Even if the Assembly should be ultimately obliged to reject this constitution, ought the irrevocable resolution to have been taken in a moment of excitement? The question was a momentous one. It could never have been the proper moment for decision, when the plan was but just laid before them, and could not have been digested in their minds. The King should not, undoubtedly, have concluded with a proposition so unskilful as the order to adjourn immediately. A party decision was by this means rendered unavoidable, which the monarch’s interest most expressly forbade. But after all, should the Assembly have thrust back the King’s proffers with such disdain? Doubtless the plan was in some respects defective, but should they not have forgiven this as exactly what they had to expect, and trusted to the progress of time and the gradual diffusion of more enlightened views for their correction? The duty of the Assembly was to secure the firm establishment of a regular system of representation. When they had done this, they had done all that was absolutely needful; but they desired to do everything in a moment; time-hallowed opinions were swept away, ancient institutions interwoven with the people’s everyday life were overthrown, and the consequence was the reign of terror. But to return to Mirabeau—was his conduct on this occasion noble? surely not. He yielded to his passions when he should have restrained them with his whole strength; he should have stood between the prince and the people, and perhaps the plague might have been stayed, but he rather chose to scatter the seeds of the pestilence. Public obloquy is cast on the incendiary of a private dwelling, how much rather on him who wantonly lets loose the all-consuming fire on the constitution of a state! Mirabeau by no means deserves a censure so undiscriminating, but even his desire for the public good which was doubtless for the most part the most influential sentiment in his bosom, will not exempt him from a large portion of the censure due to those who helped to bring on the appalling calamities that ensued.
I have delayed perhaps too long on this incident, but it is an important and at the same time an attractive one. It will be unnecessary to dwell at any length on any subsequent occasion, though there are few in which the character of Mirabeau is not presented more favourably for his own fame. The principal points of his subsequent life are the following: The address for the removal of the troops whom the courtiers had persuaded the King to assemble round Paris, under pretence of quelling the disorders of the populace, but the real object of which in the plan of the Queen and her associates was to secure a return to the old régime by a counter-revolution or if necessary by a civil war. Here, his conduct was truly patriotic, and gave France a chance for liberty, which she squandered in her haste for an over-early enjoyment of its fruits. His next great measure was the Riot Act, which was founded on that of England, though it was more favourable to the magistrate, as it did not compel him to risk his life in reading it to the assembled mob, but required them to disperse on the display of a red flag placed in some conspicuous position.
This act was only executed once by the authorities during the Revolution, and then it completely quelled the disturbance and so daunted its chief author, Robespierre, that he implored his commune for protection. But he exacted a deep and a bloody revenge. Bailly, the presiding magistrate, on that occasion was for his obedience to the law executed during the reign of terror. If it had been rightly and regularly enforced, and combined with the suppression of the democratic clubs, France might have been preserved, and the cause of freedom would not have been stained with crimes and cruelties which must now be her reproach as long as history endures to tell of her shame. Mirabeau concurred in the reforms of the 4th of August, which redressed most of the real evils of France. The national debt is the chief exception, and to remedy this Mirabeau had also a scheme which, though obvious, would have been very beneficial. He prevailed on the Assembly to pass a decree in virtue of which one-fourth of the whole property of France would have been subscribed and converted into a fund for its liquidation. This proposition was at first very coldly received, but the eloquence of its author was excited to the utmost, and the bill was passed with great enthusiasm. The disorders of France, however, ensued; it was never acted on. The revolutionary leaders learned to despise public faith, and the debt was subsequently cancelled with no regard to the interests of the creditor.
This is but an instance of the general course of the Revolution. The views of the earlier leaders were wise and comparatively moderate, but the fury of the populace prevented all moderate and salutary reform, which they had been taught to despise. Mirabeau assisted in unloosing the people’s ancient chains, and he instilled into their minds the flattering notion that they were the rightful sovereigns of the earth. A wise and calm nation long inured to a free government and who had been trained up in equal laws and instructed in just and religious sentiments would have found it difficult to resist ideas so artfully insinuated and so seductive in themselves. The French nation has none of these characteristics, and much less the populace of Paris, who were the prime rulers of all events; the fitness of the latter for freedom may be judged from their indignant complaints against the Parisian magistracy for having with unwonted energy delivered out of their hands some miserable wretch whom they had doomed for no crime to a barbarous death: “Is this,” said they, “our freedom, when we can no longer hang whom we please?” I cannot refrain from adding one other illustration; it was the common tone of the drawing-room circles of Paris, what a “charming thing is a revolution”. No trait of French character is so unfavourable as this manner of treating the most awful question imposed on human responsibility, as this readiness to sound the depths of a gulf from whose shore the greatest and most wary statesmen retire with fear and dread and with a firm consciousness that their utmost skill cannot stem its breakers.
Mirabeau also supported the decree for the abolition of tithes. It is unnecessary here to enter on the general question of the sacredness attaching to property vested by past ages in the national church. It is amply sufficient to claim the right which has always been exercised in England for the State’s interference to prevent its extravagant increase, by whatever enactments it may think most fitting. But in all sudden changes of system regard must be had to the interests of those who have been induced by the long-standing and apparent firmness of the old system to devote their lives to the performance of whatever services it may require.
This the Constituent Assembly neglected to do. They confiscated at once ecclesiastical property to the amount of sixteen millions sterling, and made in requital but a very inadequate provision for religious instruction in future. The Church of France had become exceedingly corrupt; the very humble salaries of the curés and the extravagant incomes and unbounded luxury of the bishops attracted universal attention, and as the higher situations were only open to the nobles, the tiers état had no motive to preserve wealth to whose accumulation they contributed, but in the enjoyment of which they had no share. On the free passing of this decree Mirabeau made his celebrated observation, “There are but three ways of subsisting—to beg, to rob, and to be salaried”. He disposed of the difficulty of private property in a very summary manner. “Property,” he said, “is the price which society pays a man for the distribution he makes to others in the shape of his consumption and expenses.” The insecurity on which all the fruits of industry rest is not a little appalling. For if we have to beg them, they may be refused; if to rob for them, their acquisition may be rightfully resisted; and if they are a salary, as Mirabeau probably meant to assert, it is quite sufficient to say to any man that the State has no further need of his “consumption and expenses,” and whatever be his former fortune he may be rightfully left to starve on the public road. Very small safety is here provided for that on which, as a great writer has expressed it, “the consent of mankind has stamped the titles of Sacred and inviolable,” and on the stability of which every human action depends. If this was the view taken of private property, very little safety could be anticipated for that of the clergy, whom there was no disposition in the public mind to regard with favour.
The cruelty evinced towards the clergy is fully worthy the name of persecution, and would sully a fame otherwise far brighter than that of the Constituent Assembly. It was indeed reserved for its successor to applaud undisguised professions of atheism, but “those who sow the wind must reap the whirlwind”; they deprived the people of their pastors and of every means of instruction, and they erected no adequate substitute, and they had no right to be surprised at their appalling ignorance and their rejection of God. The heroic and almost saint-like conduct of the clergy was unappreciated by the Parisian mob, and they were the rulers of France. In the provinces, indeed, their sufferings excited more sympathy, but every noble, every natural chief of the peasantry was in exile, and their efforts in their pastors’ behalf were few, weak, and ineffectual.
It is impossible to keep from digression on themes so interesting and so attractive. Mirabeau’s career in public life was a brief one, though it was at a time when days did the work of years. No long time elapsed between these events and his junction with the court, the consequences of which have already been described as fully as the design of this essay will permit. The remainder of it will be devoted to an examination more in detail of the most marked features of his character.
It is not too much to say that a very striking resemblance of Mirabeau would be formed by the union of the best parts of the mind of Chatham with the worst parts of the mind of Sheridan. The fiery soul, the dauntless courage, the unpremeditated but heart-stirring eloquence of Chatham find their counterparts in Mirabeau, and the Phillipics against Walpole, and the “System of Subsidies” were not perhaps far inferior in execution to those which shook the court of Versailles and daunted the Jacobin Club; and their subjects were immeasurably inferior: but there was wholly wanting the stainless purity and the uncorrupt integrity which in an age of shameless profligacy raised the first William Pitt so far over every rival; and in their stead there was the laxity of principle and the undisciplined desires and unregulated passions which were so ill-combined with the lofty moral sentiments of his brighter moods, and which blighted the usefulness of Sheridan and sullied his fame. Mirabeau had a maxim that morality on a small scale was incompatible with its possession on one more extended, or as he enunciated it, “La petite morale était ennemie de la grande”; a very lamentable exhibition of the errors consequent on the rejection of a religion which prescribes the performance of private duties and the culture of the milder and domestic virtues as well as those more conspicuous ones that are exhibited to the eye of the world, and which, though by no means always more difficult, are always repaid with a far higher earthly guerdon. In common with Chatham, Mirabeau had a predominating influence on the Assembly whenever he put forth his whole mental power; with neither did any contemporary dare to measure himself in the direct conflict of sarcasm, neither could any adversary retort with effect to the lamentable inconsistencies which their conduct and opinions too often displayed.
Both were destitute of the qualities most requisite to form a great party leader. The manners of both were unconciliating and occasionally harsh, and the office demands more attention to individuals and more careful consideration for petty interests than either could be persuaded to bestow. For want of this, Chatham fell, and Mirabeau, though his life was too short to exhibit its full effects, felt it also. With Sheridan, Mirabeau had also in common that love of dramatic effect, the distinguishing bane of the French nation, but shared not that sparkling and epigrammatic wit which in early youth produced “The Rivals” and “The School for Scandal” and delighted the House of Commons in riper manhood. Mirabeau was distinguished by nothing so much as by quickness and rapidity of thought. His finest eloquence was without premeditation. Many of the best set speeches which he read from the Tribune were the composition of others. In most of his literary productions, he had the aid of those better acquainted with the subjects treated of than himself. From them he gained the facts, and in conversation with them obtained the clearest and best lights in which they could be regarded, but the nervous eloquence with which he clothed them was his own, and so was also the copious illustration by means of which he made the ideas which he wished to enforce as clear to others as to himself, and in these he has never been surpassed. In such a character it is easy for an invidious eye to scan defects without number. He had no power of patient attention—a short paroxysm of violent labour he could endure, hut be was wholly incapable of the long-continued exertion of mind necessary for the production of a great work. His appetite for praise was enormous, and his rejection of religion had shut him out from those higher motives of action which so much tend to check some part of its influence and to elevate the character of what remains. His ardent love of virtue did not preserve him from vicious indulgence. He wished for the advancement of truth, but avowed his conviction that her cause was not advanced by the martyrdom of her advocates, a doctrine which if true would go far to drive from the earth all the most hazardous and the noblest forms of virtue, but which is fortunately contradicted by experience whose testimony has uniformly shown that there is in human nature a disposition to look with favour on the doctrines of the oppressed, and that while contrasting their patient endurance with the cruelty of their persecutors, men are apt to call to mind that the truth is known by its fruits.
In the chequered scenes of his youth, Mirabeau had found a school of acquaintance with mankind, but it was not one fitted for high training in moral excellence. Nothing is so wonderful as that, thrown so much with the worst portion of mankind, he should have retained so much trust in the more elevated sentiments of human nature. Far less served to extinguish all sympathy with them in the breast of Napoleon.
His early instructors had inspired him with a hatred of the existing order of things, which made him share in the vast dreams which announced as close at hand a new era in political science and in the happiness of mankind; and his spirit—and there were not a few who sympathised in his feelings—brooked not that illusions so dazzling and beautiful should be dispelled by the light of the past whose more steady brilliancy would have shown the rottenness of the foundation as well as the grandeur of the fabric. A society was to arise brighter than Utopia in the eyes of its gifted author, a haven of rest more beautiful and more glorious than ever was pictured by Raleigh and his daring comrades in their fabled Eldorado. And all this was to take place when despotism had overshadowed France and Europe for ages, when, with the exception of our island and the distant shores inhabited by her sons, the state of political knowledge may be summed up in the emphatic declaration, “That darkness covered the earth and gross darkness the nation”. To have breathed such aspirations was worthy of Mirabeau, and to hold them up to the admiration and imitation of mankind was a work fitted to call forth the utmost efforts of his genius and the inmost resources of his eloquence; but to suppose that such glories were immediately to be realised in the existing circumstances of mankind is his reproach and condemnation. A feebler and more sordid soul would not have risen to their contemplation; a calmer and wiser mind would have foreseen the frequent failures, the long and arduous trials, the prolonged and solemn religious training by which alone the inhabitants of earth can be fitted for such an approximation to the purity and happiness of a higher sphere.
END OF VOL. VIII.
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