Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTERS ON THE FRENCH COUP D'ÉTAT OF 1851. ( Addressed to the Editor of The Inquirer .) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 1 (Memoir, Early Essays)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
LETTERS ON THE FRENCH COUP D’ÉTAT OF 1851. ( Addressed to the Editor of “ The Inquirer ”.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 1 (Memoir, Early 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. 1.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
LETTERS ON THE FRENCH COUP D’ÉTAT OF 1851.
Paris, 8th Jan., 1852.
You have asked me to tell you what I think of French affairs. I shall be pleased to do so; but I ought perhaps to begin by cautioning you against believing, or too much heeding, what I say. However, I do not imagine that I need do so; for with your experience of the public journals, you will be quite aware that it is not difficult to be an “occasional correspondent”. Have your boots polished in a blacking-shop, and call the interesting officiator an “intelligent ouvrier”; be shaved, and cite the coiffeur as “a person in rather a superior station”; call your best acquaintance “a well-informed person,” and all others “persons whom I have found to be occasionally not in error,” and—abroad, at least—you will soon have matter for a newspaper letter. I should quite deceive you if I professed to have made these profound researches; nor, like Sir Francis Head, “do I no longer know where I am,” because the French President has asked me to accompany him in his ride. My perception of personal locality has not as yet been so tried. I only know what a person who is in a foreign country during an important political catastrophe cannot avoid knowing, what he runs against, what is beaten into him, what he can hardly help hearing, seeing, and reflecting.
That Louis Napoleon has gone to Notre-Dame to return thanks to God for the seven millions and odd suffrages of the French people—that he has taken up his abode at the Tuileries, and that he has had new napoleons coined in his name—that he has broken up the trees of liberty for firewood—that he has erased, or is erasing (for they are many), Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité, from the National buildings,—all these things are so easy and so un-English, that I am pretty sure, with you, they will be thought signs of pompous impotence, and I suppose many people will be inclined to believe the best comment to be the one which I heard—“Mon dieu, il a sauvé la France: la rue du Coq s’appelle maintenant la rue de l’Aigle!”1
I am inclined, however, to imagine that this idea would be utterly erroneous; that, on the contrary, the President is just now, at least, really strong and really popular; that the act of 2nd December did succeed and is succeeding; that many, that most, of the inferior people do really and sincerely pray Domine Salvum fac Napoleonem.
In what I have seen of the comments of the English press upon recent events here, two things are not quite enough kept apart—I mean the temporary dictatorship of Louis Napoleon to meet and cope with the expected crisis of ’52, and the continuance of that dictatorship hereafter,—the new, or as it is called, the Bas-Empire—in a word, the coming Constitution and questionable political machinery with which “the nephew of my uncle” is now proposing to endow France. Of course, in reality these two things are separate. It is one thing to hold that a military rule is required to meet an urgent and temporary difficulty: another, to advocate the continuance of such a system, when so critical a necessity no longer exists.
It seems to me, or would seem, if I did not know that I was contradicted both by much English writing and opinion, and also by many most competent judges here, that the first point, the temporary dictatorship, is a tolerably clear case; that it is not to be complicated with the perplexing inquiry what form of government will permanently suit the French people; that the President was, under the actual facts of the case, quite justified in assuming the responsibility, though of course I allow that responsibility to be tremendous. My reasons for so believing I shall in this letter endeavour to explain, except that I shall not, I fancy, have room to say much on the moral defensibility or indefensibility of the coup d’état; nor do I imagine that you want from me any ethical speculation—that is manufactured in Printing-house Square; but I shall give the best account I can of the matter-of-fact consequences and antecedents of the New Revolution, of which, in some sense, a resident in France may feel without presumption that he knows something hardly so well known to those at home.
The political justification of Louis Napoleon is, as I apprehend, to be found in the state of the public mind which immediately preceded the coup d’état. It is very rarely that a country expects a revolution at a given time; indeed, it is perhaps not common for ordinary persons in any country to anticipate a revolution at all; though profound people may speculate, the mass will ever expect to-morrow to be as this day at least, if not more abundant. But once name the day, and all this is quite altered. As a general rule the very people who would be most likely to neglect general anticipation are exactly those most likely to exaggerate the proximate consequences of a certain impending event. At any rate, in France five weeks ago, the tradespeople talked of May, ’52, as if it were the end of the world. Civilisation and Socialism might probably endure, but buying and selling would surely come to an end; in fact, they anticipated a worse era than February, ’48, when trade was at a standstill so long that it has hardly yet recovered, and when the Government stocks fell 40 per cent. It is hardly to be imagined upon what petty details the dread of political dissolution at a fixed and not distant time will condescend to intrude itself. I was present when a huge Flamande, in appearance so intrepid that I respectfully pitied her husband, came to ask the character of a bonne. I was amazed to hear her say, “I hope the girl is strong, for when the revolution comes next May, and I have to turn off my helper, she will have enough to do”. It seemed to me that a political apprehension must be pretty general, when it affected that most nonspeculative of speculations, the reckoning of a housewife. With this feeling, everybody saved their money: who would spend in luxuries that which might so soon be necessary and invaluable! This economy made commerce—especially the peculiarly Parisian trade, which is almost wholly in articles that can be spared—worse and worse; the more depressed trade became, the more the traders feared, and the more they feared, the worse all trade inevitably grew.
I apprehend that this feeling extended very generally among all the classes who do not find or make a livelihood by literature or by politics. Among the clever people, who understood the subject, very likely the expectation was extremely different; but among the stupid ones who mind their business, and have a business to mind, there was a universal and excessive tremor. The only notion of ’52 was “on se battra dans la rue”. Their dread was especially of Socialism; they expected that the followers of M. Proudhon, who advisedly and expressly maintains “anarchy” to be the best form of Government, would attempt to carry out their theories in action, and that the division between the Legislative and Executive power would so cripple the party of order as to make their means of resistance for the moment feeble and difficult to use. The more sensible did not, I own, expect the annihilation of mankind: civilisation dies hard; the organised sense in all countries is strong; but they expected vaguely and crudely that the party which in ’93 ruled for many months, and which in June, ’48, fought so fanatically against the infant republic, would certainly make a desperate attack,—might for some time obtain the upper hand. Of course, it is now matter of mere argument whether the danger was real or unreal, and it is in some quarters rather the fashion to quiz the past fear, and to deny that any Socialists anywhere exist. In spite of the literary exertions of Proudhon and Louis Blanc, in spite of the prison quarrels of Blanqui and Barbès—there are certainly found people who question whether anybody buys the books of the two former, or cares for the incarcerated dissensions of the two latter. But however this may be, it is certain that two days after the coup d’état a mass of persons thought it worth while to erect some dozen barricades, and among these, and superintending and directing their every movement, there certainly were, for I saw them myself, men whose physiognomy and accoutrements exactly resembled the traditional Montagnard, sallow, stern, compressed, with much marked features, which expressed but resisted suffering, and brooding one-ideaed thought, men who from their youth upward had for ever imagined, like Jonah, that they did well—immensely well—to be angry, men armed to the teeth, and ready, like the soldiers of the first Republic, to use their arms savagely and well in defence of theories broached by a Robespierre, a Blanqui, or a Barbès, gloomy fanatics, over-principled ruffians. I may perhaps be mistaken in reading in their features the characters of such men, but I know that when one of them disturbed my superintendence of barricade-making with a stern allez vous-en, it was not too slowly that I departed, for I felt that he would rather shoot me than not. Having seen these people, I conceive that they exist. But supposing that they were all simply fabulous, it would not less be certain that they were believed to be, and to be active; nor would it impair the fact that the quiet classes awaited their onslaught in morbid apprehension, with miserable and craven, and I fear we ought to say, commercial disquietude.
You will not be misled by any high-flown speculations about liberty or equality. You will, I imagine, concede to me that the first duty of a Government is to ensure the security of that industry which is the condition of social life and civilised cultivation; that especially in so excitable a country as France it is necessary that the dangerous classes should be saved from the strong temptation of long idleness; and that no danger could be more formidable than six months’ beggary among the revolutionary ouvriers, immediately preceding the exact period fixed by European as well as French opinion for an apprehended convulsion. It is from this state of things, whether by fair means or foul, that Louis Napoleon has delivered France. The effect was magical. Like people who have nearly died because it was prophesied they would die at a specified time, and instantly recovered when they found or thought that the time was gone and past, so France, timorously anticipating the fated revolution, in a moment revived when she found or fancied that it was come and over. Commerce instantly improved; New Year’s Day, when all the Boulevards are one continued fair, has not (as I am told) been for some years so gay and splendid; people began to buy, and consequently to sell; for though it is quite possible, or even probable, that new misfortunes and convulsions may be in store for the French people, yet no one can say when they will be, and to wait till revolutions be exhausted is but the best Parisian for our old acquaintance Rusticus expectat. Clever people may now prove that the dreaded peril was a simple chimera, but they can’t deny that the fear of it was very real and painful, nor can they dispute that in a week after the coup d’état it had at once, and apparently for ever, passed away.
I fear it must be said that no legal or constitutional act could have given an equal confidence. What was wanted was the assurance of an audacious Government, which would stop at nothing, scruple at nothing, to secure its own power and the tranquillity of the country. That assurance all now have; a man who will in this manner dare to dissolve an assembly constitutionally his superiors, then prevent their meeting by armed force; so well and so sternly repress the first beginning of an outbreak, with so little misgiving assume and exercise sole power,—may have enormous other defects, but is certainly a bold ruler—most probably an unscrupulous one—little likely to flinch from any inferior trial.
Of Louis Napoleon, whose personal qualities are, for the moment, so important, I cannot now speak at length. But I may say that, with whatever other deficiencies he may have, he has one excellent advantage over other French statesmen—he has never been a professor, nor a journalist, nor a promising barrister, nor, by taste, a littérateur. He has not confused himself with history; he does not think in leading articles, in long speeches, or in agreeable essays. But he is capable of observing facts rightly, of reflecting on them simply, and acting on them discreetly. And his motto is Danton’s, De l’audace et toujours de l’audace, and this you know, according to Bacon, in time of revolution, will carry a man far, perhaps even to ultimate victory, and that ever-future millennium, “la consolidation de la France”.
But on these distant questions I must not touch. I have endeavoured to show you what was the crisis, how strong the remedy, and what the need of a dictatorship. I hope to have convinced you that the first was imminent, the second effectual, and the last expedient.
I remain yours,
THE MORALITY OF THE COUP D’ÉTAT.
Paris, 15th Jan., 1852.
I know quite well what will be said about, or in answer to, my last letter. It will be alleged that I think everything in France is to be postponed to the Parisian commerce—that a Constitution, Equality, Liberty, a Representative Government, are all to be set aside if they interfere even for a moment with the sale of étrennes or the manufacture of gimcracks.
I, as you know, hold no such opinions: it would not be necessary for me to undeceive you, who would, I rather hope, never suspect me of that sort of folly. But as St. Athanasius aptly observes, “for the sake of the women who may be led astray, I will this very instant explain my sentiments”.
Contrary to Sheridan’s rule, I commence by a concession. I certainly admit, indeed I would, upon occasion, maintain, bonbons and bracelets to be things less important than common law and Constitutional action. A coup d’état would, I may allow, be mischievously supererogatory if it only promoted the enjoyment of what a lady in the highest circles is said to call “bigotry and virtue”. But the real question is not to be so disposed of. The Parisian trade, the jewellery, the baubles, the silks, the luxuries, which the Exhibition showed us to be the characteristic industry of France, are very dust in the balance if weighed against the hands and arms which their manufacture employs—the industrial habits which their regular sale rewards—the hunger and idle weariness which the certain demand for them prevents. For this is the odd peculiarity of commercial civilisation. The life, the welfare, the existence of thousands depend on their being paid for doing what seems nothing when done. That gorgeous dandies should wear gorgeous studs—that pretty girls should be prettily dressed—that pleasant drawing-rooms should be pleasantly attired—may seem, to people of our age, sad trifling. But grave as we are, we must become graver still when we reflect on the horrid suffering which the sudden cessation of large luxurious consumption would certainly create, if we imagine such a city as Lyons to be, without warning, turned out of work, and the population feelingly told “to cry in the streets when no man regardeth”.
The first duty of society is the preservation of society. By the sound work of old-fashioned generations—by the singular painstaking of the slumberers in churchyards—by dull care—by stupid industry, a certain social fabric somehow exists; people contrive to go out to their work, and to find work to employ them actually until the evening, body and soul are kept together, and this is what mankind have to show for their six thousand years of toil and trouble.
To keep up this system we must sacrifice everything. Parliaments, liberty, leading articles, essays, eloquence,—all are good, but they are secondary; at all hazards, and if we can, mankind must be kept alive. And observe, as time goes on, this fabric becomes a tenderer and a tenderer thing. Civilisation can’t bivouac; dangers, hardships, sufferings, lightly borne by the coarse muscle of earlier times, are soon fatal to noble and cultivated organisation. Women in early ages are masculine, and, as a return match, the men of late years are becoming women. The strong apprehension of a Napoleonic invasion has, perhaps, just now caused more substantial misery in England than once the wars of the Roses.
To apply this “screed of doctrine” to the condition of France. I do not at all say that, but for the late coup d’état, French civilisation would certainly have soon come to a final end. Some people might have continued to take their meals. Even Socialism would hardly abolish eau sucrée. But I do assert that, according to the common belief of the common people, their common comforts were in considerable danger. The debasing torture of acute apprehension was eating into the crude pleasure of stupid lives. No man liked to take a long bill; no one could imagine to himself what was coming. Fear was paralysing life and labour, and as I said at length, in my last, fear, so intense, whether at first reasonable or unreasonable, will, ere long, invincibly justify itself. May, 1852, would, in all likelihood, have been an evil and bloody time, if it had been preceded by six months’ famine among the starvable classes.
At present all is changed. Six weeks ago society was living from hand to mouth: now she feels sure of her next meal. And this, in a dozen words, is the real case—the political excuse for Prince Louis Napoleon. You ask me, or I should not do so, to say a word or two on the moral question and the oath. You are aware how limited my means of doing so are. I have forgotten Paley, and have never read the Casuists. But it certainly does not seem to me proved or clear, that a man who has sworn, even in the most solemn manner, to see another drown, is therefore quite bound, or even at liberty, to stand placidly on the bank. What ethical philosopher has demonstrated this? Coleridge said it was difficult to advance a new error in morals,—yet this, I think, would be one; and the keeping of oaths is peculiarly a point of mere science, for Christianity, in terms at least, only forbids them all. And supposing I am right, such certainly was the exact position of Louis Napoleon. He saw society, I will not say dying or perishing—for I hate unnecessarily to overstate my point—in danger of incurring extreme and perhaps lasting calamities, likely not only to impair the happiness, but moreover to debase the character of the French nation, and these calamities he could prevent. Now who has shown that ethics require of him to have held his hand?
The severity with which the riot was put down on the first Thursday in December has, I observe, produced an extreme effect in England; and with our happy exemption from martial bloodshed, it must, of course, do so. But better one émeute now than many in May, be it ever remembered. There are things more demoralising than death, and among these is the sickly-apprehensive suffering for long months of an entire people.
Of course you understand that I am not holding up Louis Napoleon as a complete standard either of ethical scrupulosity or disinterested devotedness; veracity has never been the family failing—for the great Emperor was a still greater liar. And Prince Louis has been long playing what, morality apart, is the greatest political misfortune to any statesman—a visibly selfish game. Very likely, too, the very high heroes of history—a Washington, an Aristides, by Carlyle profanely called “favourites of Dryasdust,” would have extricated the country more easily, and perhaps more completely, from its scrape. Their ennobling rectitude would have kept M. de Girardin consistent, and induced M. Thiers to vote for the Revision of the Constitution; and even though, as of old, the Mountain were deafer than the uncharmed adder, a sufficient number of self-seeking Conservatives might have been induced by perfect confidence in a perfect President, to mend a crotchety performance, that was visibly ruining, what the poet calls, “The ever-ought-to-be-conserved-thing,” their country.
I remember reading, several years ago, an article in the Westminster Review, on the lamented Armand Carrel, in which the author,1 well known to be one of our most distinguished philosophers, took occasion to observe that what the French most wanted was “un homme de caractère”. Everybody is aware—for all except myself know French quite perfectly—that this expression is not by any means equivalent to our common phrase, a “man of character,” or “respectable individual,” it does not at all refer to mere goodness; it is more like what we sometimes say of an eccentric country gentleman, “He is a character”; for it denotes a singular preponderance of peculiar qualities, an accomplished obstinacy, an inveterate fixedness of resolution and idea that enables him to get done what he undertakes. The Duke of Wellington is, “par excellence, homme de caractère”; Lord Palmerston rather so; Mr. Cobden a little; Lord John Russell not at all. Now exactly this, beyond the immense majority of educated men, Louis Napoleon is, as a pointed writer describes him: “The President is a superior man, but his superiority is of the sort that is hidden under a dubious exterior: his life is entirely internal; his speech does not betray his inspiration; his gesture does not copy his audacity; his look does not reflect his ardour; his step does not reveal his resolution; his whole mental nature is in some sort repressed by his physical: he thinks and does not discuss; he decides and does not deliberate; he acts without agitation; he speaks, and assigns no reason; his best friends are unacquainted with him; he obtains their confidence, but never asks it”.1 Also his whole nature is, and has been, absorbed in the task which he has undertaken. For many months, his habitual expression has been exactly that of a gambler who is playing for his highest and last stake; in society it is said to be the same—a general and diffusive politeness, but an ever-ready reflection and a constant reserve. His great qualities are rather peculiar. He is not, like his uncle, a creative genius, who will leave behind him social institutions such as those which nearly alone, in this changeful country, seem to be always exempt from every change; he will suggest little; he has hardly an organising mind; but he will coolly estimate his own position and that of France; he will observe all dangers and compute all chances. He can act—he can be idle: he may work what is; he may administer the country. Anyhow, il fera son possible, and you know, in the nineteenth century, how much and how rare that is.
I see many people are advancing beautiful but untrue ethics about his private character. Thus I may quote as follows from a very estimable writer: “On the 15th October, he requested his passports and left Aremberg for London. In this capital he remained from the end of 1838 to the month of August, 1840. In these twenty months, instead of learning to command armies and govern empires, his days and nights, when not given to frivolous pleasures, were passed on the turf, in the betting-room, or in clubs where high play and desperate stakes roused the jaded energy of the blasé gambler.”1
The notion of this gentleman clearly is, that a betting man can’t in nature be a good statesman; that horse-racing is providentially opposed to political excellence; that “by an interesting illustration of the argument from design, we notice an antithesis alike marvellous and inevitable,” between turf and tariffs. But, setting Paley for a moment apart, how is a man, by circumstances excluded from military and political life, and by birth from commercial pursuits, really and effectually to learn administration? Mr. Kirwan imagines that he should read all through Burke, common-place Tacitus, collate Cicero, and annotate Montesquieu. Yet take an analogous case. Suppose a man, shut out from trading life, is to qualify himself for the practical management of a counting-house. Do you fancy he will do it “by a judicious study of the principles of political economy,” and by elaborately re-reading Adam Smith and John Mill? He had better be at Newmarket, and devote his heures perdues to the Oaks and the St. Leger. He may learn there what he will never acquire from literary study—the instinctive habit of applied calculation, which is essential to a merchant and extremely useful to a statesman. Where, too, did Sir Robert Walpole learn business, or Charles Fox, or anybody in the eighteenth century? And after all, M. Michel de Bourges gave the real solution of the matter. “Louis Napoleon,” said the best orator of the Mountain, “may have had rather a stormy youth (laughter). But don’t suppose that any one in all France imagines you, you Messieurs, of the immaculate majority, to be the least better (sensation). I am not speaking to saints” (uproar). If compared with contemporary French statesmen, and the practical choice is between him and them, the President will not seem what he appears when measured by the notions of a people who exact at least from inferior functionaries a rigid decorum in the pettiest details of their private morals.
I have but one last point to make about this coup d’état, and then I will release you from my writing. I do not know whether you in England rightly realise the French Socialism. Take, for instance, M. Proudhon, who is perhaps their ideal and perfect type. He was représentant de la Seine in the late Assembly, elected, which is not unimportant, after the publication of his books and on account of his opinions. In his Confessions d’un Révolutionnaire, a very curious book—for he writes extremely well—after maintaining that our well-known but, as we imagine, advanced friends, Ledru Rollin, and Louis Blanc, and Barbès, and Blanqui, are all réactionnaires, and clearly showing, to the grief of mankind, that once the legislator of the Luxembourg wished to preserve “equilibrium,” and the author of the provincial circulars to maintain “tranquillity,” he gives the following bonâ fide and amusing account of his own investigations:—
“I commenced my task of solitary conspiracy by the study of the socialisms of antiquity, necessary, in my judgment, to determine the law, whether practical or theoretical, of progress. These socialisms I found in the Bible. A memoir on the institution of the Sabbath—considered with regard to morals, to health, and in its relation to the family and the city—procured for me a bronze medal from my academy. From the faith in which I had been reared, I had precipitated myself headlong, head-foremost, into pure reason, and already, what was wonderful and a good omen, when I made Moses a philosopher and a socialist, I was greeted with applause. If I am now in error, the fault is not merely mine. Was there ever a similar seduction?
“But I studied, above all, with a view to action. I cared little for academical laurels. I had no leisure to become savant, still less a littérateur or an archæologist. I began immediately upon political economy.
“I had assumed as the rule of my investigations that every principle which, pushed to its consequences, should end in a contradiction, must be considered false and null; and that if this principle had been developed into an institution, the institution itself must be considered as factitious, as utopian.
“Furnished with this criterion, I chose for the subject of investigation what I found in society the most ancient, the most respectable, the most universal, the least controverted,—property. Everybody knows what happened; after a long, a minute, and, above all, an impartial analysis, I arrived, as an algebraist guided by his equations, to this surprising conclusion. Property, consider it as you will,—refer it to what principle you may, is a contradictory idea; and as the denial of property carries with it of necessity that of authority, I deduced immediately from my first axiom also this corollary, not less paradoxical, the true form of government is anarchy. Lastly, finding by a mathematical demonstration that no amelioration in the economy of society could be arrived at by its natural constitution, or without the concurrence and reflective adhesion of its members; observing, also, that there is a definite epoch in the life of societies, in which their progress, at first unreflecting, requires the intervention of the free reason of man, I concluded that this spontaneous and impulsive force (cette force d’impulsion spontanée), which we call Providence, is not everything in the affairs of this world: from that moment, without being an Atheist, I ceased to worship God. He’ll get on without your so doing, said to me one day the Constitutionnel. Well: perhaps he may.”
These theories have been expanded into many and weary volumes, and condensed into the famous phrase, “La Propriété c’est le vol”; and have procured their author, in his own sect, reputation and authority.
The Constitutionnel had another hit against M. Proudhon, a day or two ago. They presented their readers with two decrees in due official form (the walls were at the moment covered with those of the 2nd December), as the last ideal of what the straightest sect of the Socialists particularly desire. It was as follows: “Nothing any longer exists. Nobody is charged with the execution of the aforesaid decree. Signed, Vacuum.”
Such is the speculation of the new reformers—what their practices would be I can hardly tell you. My feeble income does not allow me to travel to the Basses Alpes and really investigate the subject; but if one quarter of the stories in circulation are in the least to be believed (we are quite dependent on oral information, for the Government papers deal in asterisks and “details unfit for publication,” and the rest are devoted to the state of the navy and say nothing), the atrocities rival the nauseous corruption of what our liberal essayist calls “Jacobin carrion,” the old days of Carrier and Barère.1 This is what people here are afraid of; and that is why I write such things—and not to horrify you, or amuse you, or bore you—anything rather than that; and they think themselves happy in finding a man who, with or without whatever other qualities or defects, will keep them from the vaunted Millennium and much-expected Jacquerie. I hope you think so, too—and that I am not, as they say in my native Tipperary, “Whistling jigs to a mile-stone”.
I am, sir, yours truly,
P.S.—You will perhaps wish me to say something on the great event of this week, the exile of the more dangerous members of the late Assembly, and the transportation of the Socialists to Cayenne. Both measures were here expected; though I think that both lists are more numerous than was anticipated: but no one really knew what would be done by this silent Government. You will laugh at me when I tell you that both measures have been well received: but properly limited and understood, I am persuaded that the fact is so.
Of course, among the friends of exiled représentants, among the littérateurs throughout whose ranks these measures are intended to “strike terror and inspire respect,”1 you would hear that there never was such tyranny since the beginning of mankind. But among the mass of the industrious classes—between whom and the politicians there is internecine war—I fancy that on turning the conversation to either of the most recent events, you would hear something of this sort: “Ça ne m’occupe pas”. “What is that to me?” “Je suis pour la tranquillité, moi.” “I sold four brooches yesterday.” The Socialists who have been removed from prison to the colony, it is agreed were “pestilent fellows perverting the nation,” and forbidding to pay tribute to M. Bonaparte. Indeed, they can hardly expect commercial sympathy. “Our national honour rose—our stocks fell,” is Louis Blanc’s perpetual comment on his favourite events, and it is difficult to say which of its two clauses he dwells upon with the intenser relish. It is generally thought by those who think about the matter, that both the transportation, and in all cases, certainly, the exile will only be a temporary measure, and that the great mass of the people in both lists will be allowed to return to their homes when the present season of extreme excitement has passed over. Still, I am not prepared to defend the number of transportations. That strong measures of the sort were necessary, I make no doubt. If Socialism exist, and the fear of it exist, something must be done to reassure the people. You will understand that it is not a judicial proceeding either in essence or in form; it is not to be considered as a punishment for what men have done, but as a perfect precaution against what they may do. Certainly, it is to be regretted that the cause of order is so weak as to need such measures; but if it is so weak, the Government must no doubt take them. Of course, however, “our brethren,” who are retained in such numbers to write down Prince Louis, are quite right to use without stint or stopping this most un-English proceeding; it is their case, and you and I from old misdeeds know pretty well how it is to be managed. There will be no imputation of reasonable or humane motives to the Government, and no examination of the existing state of France: let both these come from the other side—but elegiac eloquence is inexhaustibly exuded—the cruel corners of history are ransacked for petrifying precedents—and I observe much excellent weeping on the Cromwellian deportations and the ten years’ exile of Madame de Staël. But after all they have missed the tempting parallel—I mean the “rather long” proscription list which Octavius—“l’ancien neveu de l’ancien oncle”—concocted with Mark Antony in the marshes of Bononia, and whereby they thoroughly purged old Rome of its turbulent and revolutionary elements. I suspect our estimable contemporaries regret to remember of how much good order, long tranquillity, “beata pleno copia cornu” and other many “little comforts” to the civilised world that very “strong” proceeding, whether in ethics justifiable or not, certainly was in fact the beginning and foundation.
The fate of the African generals is much to be regretted, and the Government will incur much odium if the exile of General Changarnier is prolonged any length of time. He is doubtless “dangerous” for the moment, for his popularity with the army is considerable, and he divides the party of order; he is also a practical man and an unpleasant enemy, but he is much respected and little likely (I fancy) to attempt anything against any settled Government.
As for M. Thiers and M. Emile de Girardin—the ablest of the exiles—I have heard no one pity them; they have played a selfish game—they have encountered a better player—they have been beaten—and this is the whole matter. You will remember that it was the adhesion of these two men that procured for M. Bonaparte a large part of his first six millions. M. de Girardin, whom General Cavaignac had discreetly imprisoned and indiscreetly set free, wrote up the “opposition candidate” daily, in the Presse (he has since often and often tried to write him down), and M. Thiers was his Privy Councillor. “Mon cher Prince,” they say, said the latter, “your address to the people won’t do at all. I’ll get one of the rédacteurs of the Constitutionnel to draw you up something tolerable.” You remember the easy patronage with which Cicero speaks in his letter of the “boy” that was outwitting him all the while. But, however, observe I do not at all, notwithstanding my Latin, insinuate or assert that Louis Napoleon, though a considerable man, is exactly equal to keep the footsteps of Augustus. A feeble parody may suffice for an inferior stage and not too gigantic generation. Now I really have done.
ON THE NEW CONSTITUTION OF FRANCE AND THE APTITUDE OF THE FRENCH CHARACTER FOR NATIONAL FREEDOM.
Paris, 20th Jan., 1852.
We have now got our Constitution. The Napoleonic era has commenced; the term of the dictatorship is fixed and the consolidation of France is begun. You will perhaps anticipate from the conclusion of the last letter, that à propos of this great event, I should gratify you with bright anticipations of an Augustan age, and a quick revival of Catonic virtue, with an assurance that the night is surely passed and the day altogether come, with a solemn invocation to the rising luminary, and an original panegyric on the “golden throned morning”.
I must always regret to disappoint any one; but I feel obliged to entertain you instead with torpid philosophy, constitutional details, and a dull disquisition on national character.
The details of the new institutions you will have long ago learnt from the daily papers. I believe they may be fairly and nearly accurately described as the Constitution of the Consulate, minus the ideas of the man who made it. You will remember that, besides the First Magistrate, the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Council of State (which we may call, in legal language, the “common form” of continental constitution), the ingenious Abbé Sieyès had devised some four principal peculiarities, which were to be remembered to all time as masterpieces of political invention. These were the utter inaction of the First Magistrate, copied, as I believe, from the English Constitution—the subordination to him of two Consuls, one to administer peace and the other war, who were intended to be the real hands and arms of the Government—the silence of the Senate—the double and very peculiar election of the House of Representatives. Napoleon the Great, as we are now to speak, struck out the first of these, being at the moment working some fifteen hours a day at the reorganisation of France. He said plainly and rather sternly that he had no intention of doing nothing—the idéologue went to the wall—the “excellent idea” put forth in happy forgetfulness of real facts and real people was instantly abandoned—for the Grand Elector was substituted a First Consul, who, so far from being nothing, was very soon the whole Government. Napoleon the Little, as I fear the Parisian multitude may learn to call him, has effaced the other three “strokes of statesmanship”. The new Constitution of France is exactly the “common form” of political conveyancing, plus the Idée Napoléonienne of an all-suggesting and all-administering mind.
I have extremely little to tell you about its reception; it has made no “sensation,” not so much as even the “fortified camps” which his Grace is said to be devising for the defence of our own London. Indeed, “Il a peur” is a very common remark (conceivable to everybody who knows “the Duke”), and it would seem even a refreshing alleviation of their domestic sorrows. In fact, home politics are now the topic; geography and the state of foreign institutions are not, indeed, the true Parisian line—but it has, in fine, been distinctly discovered that there are no salons in Cayenne, which, once certain, the logical genius of the nation, with incredible swiftness, deduced the clear conclusion that it was better not to go there. Seriously, I fancy—for I have no data on which to found real knowledge of so delicate a point—the new Constitution is regarded merely as what Father Newman would call a “preservative addition” or a “necessary development,” essential to the “chronic continuance” of the Napoleonic system; for the moment the mass of the people wish the President to govern them, but they don’t seem to me to care how. The political people, I suppose, hate it, because for some time it will enable him, if not shot, to govern effectually. I say, if not shot—for people are habitually recounting under their breath some new story of an attempt at assassination, which the papers suppress. I am inclined to think that these rumours are pure lies; but they show the feeling. You know, according to the Constitution of 1848, the President would now be a mere outlaw, and whoever finds him may slay him, if he can. It is true that the elaborate masterpiece of M. Marrast is already fallen into utter oblivion (it is no more remembered than yesterday’s Times, or the political institutions of Saxon Mercia); but nevertheless such, according to the antediluvian régime, would be the law, and it is possible that a mindful Montagnard may upon occasion recall even so insignificant a circumstance.
I have a word to say on the Prologue of the President. When I first began to talk politics with French people, I was much impressed by the fact to which he has there drawn attention. You know that all such conversation, when one of the interlocutors is a foreigner, speaking slowly and but imperfectly the language of the country in which he is residing, is pretty much in the style of that excellent work which was the terror of our childhood—Joyce’s Scientific Dialogues—wherein, as you may remember, an accomplished tutor, with a singular gift of scholastic improvisation, instructs a youthful pupil exceedingly given to feeble questions and auscultatory repose. Now, when I began in Parisian society thus to enact the rôle of “George” or “Caroline,” I was, I repeat, much struck with the fact that the Emperor had done everything: to whatever subject my diminutive inquiry related, the answer was nearly universally the same—an elegy on Napoleon. Nor is this exactly absurd; for whether or not “the nephew” is right in calling the uncle the greatest of modern statesmen, he is indisputably the modern statesman who has founded the greatest number of existing institutions. In the pride of philosophy and in the madness of an hour, the Constituent Assembly and the Convention swept away not only the monstrous abuses of the old régime, but that régime itself—its essence and its mechanism, utterly and entirely. They destroyed whatever they could lay their hands on. The consequence was certain—when they tried to construct they found they had no materials. They left a vacuum. No greater benefit could have been conferred on politicians gifted with the creative genius of Napoleon. It was like the fire of London to Sir Christopher Wren. With a fertility of invention and an obstinacy in execution, equalling, if not surpassing, those of Cæsar and Charlemagne, he had before him an open stage, more clear and more vast than in historical times fortune has ever offered to any statesman. He was nearly in the position of the imagined legislator of the Greek legends and the Greek philosophers—he could enact any law, and rescind any law. Accordingly, the educational system, the banking system, the financial system, the municipal system, the administrative system, the civil legislation, the penal legislation, the commercial legislation (besides all manner of secondary creations—public buildings and public institutions without number), all date from the time, and are more or less deeply inscribed with the genius, the firm will, and unresting energies of Napoleon. And this, which is the great strength of the present President, is the great difficulty—I fear the insurmountable difficulty—in the way of Henry the Fifth. The first revolution is to the French what the deluge is to the rest of mankind; the whole system then underwent an entire change. A French politician will no more cite as authority the domestic policy of Colbert or Louvois than we should think of going for ethics and æsthetics to the bigamy of Lamech, or the musical accomplishments of Tubal Cain. If the Comte de Chambord be (as it is quite on the cards that he may be) within a few years restored, he must govern by the instrumentality of laws and systems devised by the politicians whom he execrates and denounces, and devised, moreover, often enough, especially to keep out him and his. It is difficult to imagine that a strong Government can be composed of materials so inharmonious. Meanwhile, to the popular imagination, “the Emperor” is the past; the House of Bourbon is as historical as the House of Valois; a peasant is little oftener reminded of the “third dynasty” than of the long-haired kings.
In discussing any Constitution, there are two ideas to be first got rid of. The first is the idea of our barbarous ancestors—now happily banished from all civilised society, but still prevailing in old manor-houses, in rural parsonages, and other curious repositories of mouldering ignorance, and which in such arid solitudes is thus expressed: “Why can’t they have Kings, Lords and Commons, like we have? What fools foreigners are.” The second pernicious mistake is, like the former, seldom now held upon system, but so many hold it in bits and fragments, and without system, that it is still rather formidable. I allude to the old idea which still here creeps out in conversation, and sometimes in writing,—that politics are simply a subdivision of immutable ethics; that there are certain rights of men in all places and all times, which are the sole and sufficient foundation of all government, and that accordingly a single stereotype Government is to make the tour of the world—that you have no more right to deprive a Dyak of his vote in a “possible” Polynesian Parliament, than you have to steal his mat.
Burke first taught the world at large, in opposition to both, and especially to the latter of these notions, that politics are made of time and place—that institutions are shifting things, to be tried by and adjusted to the shifting conditions of a mutable world—that, in fact, politics are but a piece of business—to be determined in every case by the exact exigencies of that case; in plain English—by sense and circumstances.
This was a great step in political philosophy—though it now seems the events of 1848 have taught thinking persons (I fancy) further. They have enabled us to say that of all these circumstances so affecting political problems, by far and out of all question the most important is national character. In that year the same experiment—the experiment, as its friends say, of Liberal and Constitutional Government—as its enemies say, of Anarchy and Revolution—was tried in every nation of Europe—with what varying futures and differing results! The effect has been to teach men—not only speculatively to know, but practically to feel, that no absurdity is so great as to imagine the same species of institutions suitable or possible for Scotchmen and Sicilians, for Germans and Frenchmen, for the English and the Neapolitans. With a well-balanced national character (we now know) liberty is a stable thing. A really practical people will work in political business, as in private business, almost the absurdest, the feeblest, the most inconsistent set of imaginable regulations. Similarly, or rather reversely, the best institutions will not keep right a nation that will go wrong. Paper is but paper, and no virtue is to be discovered in it to retain within due boundaries the undisciplined passions of those who have never set themselves seriously to restrain them. In a word—as people of “large roundabout common-sense” will (as a rule) somehow get on in life—no matter what their circumstances or their fortune—so a nation which applies good judgment, forbearance, a rational and compromising habit to the management of free institutions, will certainly succeed; while the more eminently gifted national character will but be a source and germ of endless and disastrous failure, if, with whatever other eminent qualities, it be deficient in these plain, solid, and essential requisites.
The formation of this character is one of the most secret of marvellous mysteries. Why nations have the character we see them to have is, speaking generally, as little explicable to our shallow perspicacity, as why individuals, our friends or our enemies, for good or for evil, have the character which they have; why one man is stupid and another clever—why another volatile and a fourth consistent—this man by instinct generous, and that man by instinct niggardly. I am not speaking of actions, you observe, but of tendencies and temptations. These and other similar problems daily crowd on our observation in millions and millions, and only do not puzzle us because we are too familiar with their difficulty to dream of attempting their solution. Only this much is most certain,—all men and all nations have a character, and that character when once taken, is, I do not say unchangeable—religion modifies it, catastrophe annihilates it—but the least changeable thing in this ever-varying and changeful world. Take the soft mind of the boy, and (strong and exceptional aptitudes and tendencies excepted) you may make him merchant, barrister, butcher, baker, surgeon, or apothecary. But once make him an apothecary, and he will never afterwards bake wholesome bread—make him a butcher, and he will kill too extensively, even for a surgeon—make him a barrister, and he will be dim on double entry, and crass on bills of lading. Once conclusively form him to one thing, and no art and no science will ever twist him to another. Nature, says the philosopher, has no Delphic daggers!—no men or maids of all work—she keeps one being to one pursuit—to each is a single choice afforded, but no more again thereafter for ever. And it is the same with nations. The Jews of to-day are the Jews in face and form of the Egyptian sculptures; in character they are the Jews of Moses—the negro is the negro of a thousand years—the Chinese, by his own account, is the mummy of a million. “Races and their varieties,” says the historian, “seem to have been created with an inward nisus diminishing with the age of the world.” The people of the South are yet the people of the South, fierce and angry as their summer sun—the people of the North are still cold and stubborn like their own north wind—the people of the East “mark not, but are still”—the people of the West “are going through the ends of the earth, and walking up and down in it”. The fact is certain, the cause beyond us. The subtle system of obscure causes, whereby sons and daughters resemble not only their fathers and mothers but even their great-great-grandfathers and their great-great-grandmothers, may very likely be destined to be very inscrutable. But as the fact is so, so moreover, in history, nations have one character, one set of talents, one list of temptations, and one duty—to use the one and get the better of the other. There are breeds in the animal man just as in the animal dog. When you hunt with greyhounds and course with beagles, then, and not till then, may you expect the inbred habits of a thousand years to pass away, that Hindoos can be free, or that Englishmen will be slaves.
I need not prove to you that the French have a national character. Nor need I try your patience with a likeness of it. I have only to examine whether it be a fit basis for national freedom. I fear you will laugh when I tell you what I conceive to be about the most essential mental quality for a free people, whose liberty is to be progressive, permanent, and on a large scale; it is much stupidity. I see you are surprised—you are going to say to me, as Socrates did to Polus, “My young friend, of course you are right; but will you explain what you mean?—as yet you are not intelligible”. I will do so as well as I can, and endeavour to make good what I say—not by an a priori demonstration of my own, but from the details of the present, and the facts of history. Not to begin by wounding any present susceptibilities, let me take the Roman character—for, with one great exception—I need not say to whom I allude—they are the great political people of history. Now, is not a certain dulness their most visible characteristic? What is the history of their speculative mind?—a blank. What their literature?—a copy. They have left not a single discovery in any abstract science; not a single perfect or well-formed work of high imagination. The Greeks, the perfection of narrow and accomplished genius, bequeathed to mankind the ideal forms of self-idolising art—the Romans imitated and admired; the Greeks explained the laws of Nature—the Romans wondered and despised; the Greeks invented a system of numerals second only to that now in use—the Romans counted to the end of their days with the clumsy apparatus which we still call by their name; the Greeks made a capital and scientific calendar—the Romans began their month when the Pontifex Maximus happened to spy out the new moon. Throughout Latin literature, this is the perpetual puzzle—Why are we free and they slaves? we prætors and they barbers? Why do the stupid people always win, and the clever people always lose? I need not say that, in real sound stupidity, the English are unrivalled. You’ll hear more wit, and better wit, in an Irish street-row than would keep Westminster Hall in humour for five weeks. Or take Sir Robert Peel—our last great statesman, the greatest Member of Parliament that ever lived, an absolutely perfect transactor of public business—the type of the nineteenth-century Englishman, as Sir R. Walpole was of the eighteenth. Was there ever such a dull man? Can any one, without horror, foresee the reading of his memoirs? A clairvoyante, with the book shut, may get on; but who now, in the flesh, will ever endure the open vision of endless recapitulation of interminable Hansard? Or take Mr. Tennyson’s inimitable description:—
Whose company so soporific? His talk is of truisms and bullocks; his head replete with rustic visions of mutton and turnips, and a cerebral edition of Burn’s Justice! Notwithstanding, he is the salt of the earth, the best of the English breed. Who is like him for sound sense? But I must restrain my enthusiasm. You don’t want me to tell you that a Frenchman—a real Frenchman—can’t be stupid; esprit is his essence, wit is to him as water, bons-mots as bonbons. He reads and he learns by reading; levity and literature are essentially his line. Observe the consequence. The outbreak of 1848 was accepted in every province in France; the decrees of the Parisian mob were received and registered in all the municipalities of a hundred cities; the Revolution ran like the fluid of the telegraph down the Chemin de fer du Nord; it stopped at the Belgian frontier. Once brought into contact with the dull phlegm of the stupid Fleming, the poison was powerless. You remember what the Norman butler said to Wilkin Flammock, of the fulling mills, at the castle of the Garde Douloureuse: “That draught which will but warm your Flemish hearts, will put wildfire into Norman brains; and what may only encourage your countrymen to man the walls, will make ours fly over the battlements”.1Les braves Belges, I make no doubt, were quite pleased to observe what folly was being exhibited by those very clever French, whose tongue they want to speak, and whose literature they try to imitate. In fact, what we opprobriously call stupidity, though not an enlivening quality in common society, is Nature’s favourite resource for preserving steadiness of conduct and consistency of opinion. It enforces concentration; people who learn slowly, learn only what they must. The best security for people’s doing their duty is, that they should not know anything else to do; the best security for fixedness of opinion is, that people should be incapable of comprehending what is to be said on the other side. These valuable truths are no discoveries of mine. They are familiar enough to people whose business it is to know them. Hear what a dense and aged attorney says of your peculiarly promising barrister: “Sharp! oh yes, yes! he’s too sharp by half. He is not safe; not a minute, isn’t that young man.” “What style, sir,” asked of an East India Director some youthful aspirant for literary renown, “is most to be preferred in the composition of official despatches?” “My good fellow,” responded the ruler of Hindostan, “the style as we like is the Humdrum.” I extend this, and advisedly maintain that nations, just as individuals, may be too clever to be practical, and not dull enough to be free.
How far this is true of the French, and how far the gross deficiency I have indicated is modified by their many excellent qualities, I hope at a future time to inquire.
I am, sir, yours truly,
ON THE APTITUDE OF THE FRENCH CHARACTER FOR NATIONAL SELF-GOVERNMENT.
Paris, 29th Jan., 1852.
There is a simple view of the subject on which I wrote you last week, that I wish to bring under your notice. The experiment (as it is called) of establishing political freedom in France is now sixty years old; and the best that we can say of it is, that it is an experiment still. There have been perhaps half a dozen new beginnings—half a dozen complete failures. I am aware that each of these failures can be excellently explained—each beginning shown to be quite necessary. But there are certain reasonings which, though outwardly irrefragable, the crude human mind is always most unwilling to accept. Among these are different and subtle explications of several apparently similar facts. Thus, to choose an example suited to the dignity of my subject, if a gentleman from town takes a day’s shooting in the country, and should chance (as has happened) at first going off, to miss some six times running, how luminously soever he may “explain” each failure as it occurs, however “expanded a view” he may take of the whole series, whatever popular illustrations of projectile philosophy he may propound to the bird-slaying agriculturists—the impression on the crass intelligence of the gamekeeper will quite clearly be, “He beint noo shot homsoever—aint thickeer”. Similarly, to compare small things with great, when I myself read in Thiers and the many other philosophic historians of this literary country, various and excellent explanations of their many mischances;—of the failure of the constitution of 1791—of the constitution of the year 3—of the constitution of the year 5—of the charte—of the system of 1830—and now we may add, of the Second Republic—the annotated constitution of M. Dupin;—I can’t help feeling a suspicion lingering in my crude and uncultivated intellect—that some common principle is at work in all and each of these several cases—that over and above all odd mischances, so many bankruptcies a little suggest an unfitness for the trade; that besides the ingenious reasons of ingenious gentlemen, there is some lurking quality, or want of a quality, in the national character of the French nation which renders them but poorly adapted for the form and freedom and constitution which they have so often, with such zeal and so vainly, attempted to establish.
In my last letter I suggested that this might be what I ventured to call a “want of stupidity”. I will now try to describe what I mean in more accurate, though not, perhaps, more intelligible words.
I believe that I am but speaking what is agreed on by competent observers, when I say that the essence of the French character is a certain mobility; that is, as it has been defined, a certain “excessive sensibility to present impressions,” which is sometimes “levity,”—for it issues in a postponement of seemingly fixed principles to a momentary temptation or a transient whim; sometimes “impatience,”—as leading to an exaggerated sense of existing evils; often “excitement,”—a total absorption in existing emotion; oftener “inconsistency,”—the sacrifice of old habits to present emergencies; and yet other unfavourable qualities. But it has also its favourable side. The same man who is drawn aside from old principles by small pleasures, who can’t bear pain, who forgets his old friends when he ceases to see them, who is liable in time of excitement to be a one-idea being, with no conception of anything but the one exciting object, yet who nevertheless is apt to have one idea to-day and quite another to-morrow (and this, and more than this, may, I fancy, be said of the ideal Frenchman), may and will have the subtlest perception of existing niceties, the finest susceptibility to social pleasure, the keenest tact in social politeness, the most consummate skilfulness in the details of action and administration,—may, in short, be the best companion, the neatest man of business, the lightest homme de salon, the acutest diplomat of the existing world.
It is curious to observe how this reflects itself in their literature. “I will believe,” remarks Montaigne, “in anything rather than in any man’s consistency.” What observer of English habits—what person inwardly conscious of our dull and unsusceptible English nature, would ever say so? Rather in our country obstinacy is the commonest of the vices, and perseverance the cheapest of the virtues. Again, when they attempt history, the principal peculiarity (a few exceptions being allowed for) is an utter incapacity to describe graphically a long-passed state of society. Take, for instance—assuredly no unfavourable example—M. Guizot. His books, I need not say, are nearly unrivalled for eloquence, for philosophy and knowledge; you read there, how in the middle age there were many “principles”; the principle of Legitimacy, the principle of Feudalism, the principle of Democracy; and you come to know how one grew, and another declined, and a third crept slowly on; and the mind is immensely edified, when perhaps at the 315th page a proper name occurs, and you mutter, “Dear me, why, if there were not people in the time of Charlemagne! Who would have thought that?” But in return for this utter incapacity to describe the people of past times, a Frenchman has the gift of perfectly describing the people of his own. No one knows so well—no one can tell so well—the facts of his own life. The French memoirs, the French letters are, and have been, the admiration of Europe. Is not now Jules Janin unrivalled at pageants and prima donnas?
It is the same in poetry. As a recent writer excellently remarks: “A French Dante, or Michael Angelo, or Cervantes, or Murillo, or Goethe, or Shakespeare, or Milton, we at once perceive to be a mere anomaly; a supposition which may indeed be proposed in terms, but which in reality is inconceivable and impossible”. Yet, in requital as it were of this great deficiency, they have a wonderful capacity for expressing and delineating the poetical and voluptuous element of everyday life. We know the biography of De Béranger. The young ladies whom he has admired—the wine that he has preferred—the fly that buzzed on the ceiling, and interrupted his delicious and dreaming solitude, are as well known to us as the recollections of our own lives. As in their common furniture, so in their best poetry. The materials are nothing; reckon up what you have been reading, and it seems a congeries of stupid trifles; begin to read,—the skill of the workmanship is so consummate, the art so high and so latent, that while time flows silently on, our fancies are enchanted and our memories indelibly impressed. How often, asks Mr. Thackeray, have we read De Béranger—how often Milton? Certainly, since Horace, there has been no such manual of the philosophy of this world.
I will not say that the quality which I have been trying to delineate is exactly the same thing as “cleverness”. But I do allege that it is sufficiently near it for the rough purposes of popular writing. For this quickness in taking in—so to speak—the present, gives a corresponding celerity of intellectual apprehension, an amazing readiness in catching new ideas and maintaining new theories, a versatility of mind which enters into and comprehends everything as it passes, a concentration in what occurs, so as to use it for every purpose of illustration, and consequently (if it happen to be combined with the least fancy), quick repartee on the subject of the moment, and bons-mots also without stint and without end—and these qualities are rather like what we style cleverness. And what I call a proper stupidity keeps a man from all the defects of this character; it chains the gifted possessor mainly to his old ideas; it takes him seven weeks to comprehend an atom of a new one; it keeps him from being led away by new theories—for there is nothing which bores him so much; it restrains him within his old pursuits, his well-known habits, his tried expedients, his verified conclusions, his traditional beliefs. He is not tempted to “levity,” or “impatience,” for he does not see the joke, and is thick-skinned to present evils. Inconsistency puts him out,—“What I says is this here, as I was saying yesterday,” is his notion of historical eloquence and habitual discretion. He is very slow indeed to be “excited,”—his passions, his feelings, and his affections are dull and tardy strong things, falling in a certain known direction, fixing on certain known objects, and for the most part acting in a moderate degree, and at a sluggish pace. You always know where to find his mind.
Now this is exactly what, in politics at least, you do not know about a Frenchman. I like—I have heard a good judge say—to hear a Frenchman talk. He strikes a light, but what light he will strike it is impossible to predict. I think he doesn’t know himself. Now, I know you see at once how this would operate on a Parliamentary Government, but I give you a gentle illustration. All England knows Mr. Disraeli, the witty orator, the exceedingly clever littérateur, the versatile politician; and all England has made up its mind that the stupidest country gentleman would be a better Home Secretary than the accomplished descendant of the “Caucasian race”. Now suppose, if you only can, a House of Commons all Disraelis, and do you imagine that Parliament would work? It would be what M. Proudhon said of some French assemblies, “a box of matches”.
The same quality acts in another way, and produces to English ideas a most marvellous puzzle, both in the philosophical literature and the political discussion of the French. I mean their passion for logical deduction. The habitual mode of argument is to get hold of some large principle; to begin to deduce immediately; and to reason down from it to the most trivial details of common action. Il faut être conséquent avec soi-même—is their fundamental maxim; and in a world the essence of which is compromise, they could not well have a worse. I hold, metaphysically perhaps, that this is a consequence of that same impatience of disposition to which I have before alluded. Nothing is such a bore as looking for your principles—nothing so pleasant as working them out. People who have thought, know that inquiry is suffering. A child stumbling timidly in the dark is not more different from the same child playing on a sunny lawn, than is the philosopher groping, hesitating, doubting and blundering about his primitive postulates, from the same philosopher proudly deducing and commenting on the certain consequences of his established convictions. On this account Mathematics have been called the paradise of the mind. In Euclid at least, you have your principles, and all that is required is acuteness in working them out. The long annals of science are one continued commentary on this text. Read in Bacon, the beginner of intellectual philosophy in England, and every page of the Advancement of Learning is but a continued warning against the tendency of the human mind to start at once to the last generalities from a few and imperfectly observed particulars. Read in the Méditations of Descartes, the beginner of intellectual philosophy in France, and in every page (once I read five) you will find nothing but the strictest, the best, the most lucid, the most logical deduction of all things actual and possible, from a few principles obtained without evidence, and retained in defiance of probability. Deduction is a game, and induction a grievance. Besides, clever impatient people want not only to learn, but to teach. And instruction expresses at least the alleged possession of knowledge. The obvious way is to shorten the painful, the slow, the tedious, the wearisome process of preliminary inquiry—to assume something pretty—to establish its consequences—discuss their beauty—exemplify their importance—extenuate their absurdities. A little vanity helps all this. Life is short—art is long—truth lies deep—take some side—found your school—open your lecture-rooms—tuition is dignified—learning is low.
I do not know that I can exhibit the way these qualities of the French character operate on their opinions, better than by telling you how the Roman Catholic Church deals with them. I have rather attended to it since I came here; it gives sermons almost an interest, their being in French—and to those curious in intellectual matters it is worth observing. In other times, and even now in out-of-the-way Spain I suppose it may be so, the Catholic Church was opposed to inquiry and reasoning. But it is not so now, and here. Loudly—from the pens of a hundred writers—from the tongues of a thousand pulpits—in every note of thrilling scorn and exulting derision, she proclaims the contrary. Be she Christ’s workman, or Anti-Christ’s, she knows her work too well.—“Reason, Reason, Reason!”—exclaims she to the philosophers of this world—“Put in practice what you teach, if you would have others believe it; be consistent; do not prate to us of private judgment when you are but yourselves repeating what you heard in the nursery—ill-mumbled remnants of a Catholic tradition. No! exemplify what you command, inquire and make search—seek, though we warn you that ye will never find—yet do as ye will. Shut yourself up in a room—make your mind a blank—go down (as ye speak) into the ‘depths of your consciousness’—scrutinise the mental structure—inquire for the elements of belief—spend years, your best years, in the occupation; and at length—when your eyes are dim, and your brain hot, and your hand unsteady—then reckon what you have gained: see if you cannot count on your fingers the certainties you have reached: reflect which of them you doubted yesterday, which you may disbelieve to-morrow; or rather, make haste—assume at random some essential credenda—write down your inevitable postulates—enumerate your necessary axioms—toil on, toil on—spin your spider’s web—adore your own souls—or, if you prefer it, choose some German nostrum—try the intellectual intuition, or the ‘pure reason,’ or the ‘intelligible’ ideas, or the mesmeric clairvoyance—and when so or somehow you have attained your results, try them on mankind. Don’t go out into the highways and hedges—it’s unnecessary. Ring the bell—call in the servants—give them a course of lectures—cite Aristotle—review Descartes—panegyrise Plato—and see if the bonne will understand you. It is you that say ‘Vox populi—Vox Dei’; but you see the people reject you. Or, suppose you succeed—what you call succeeding—your books are read; for three weeks, or even a season, you are the idol of the salons; your hard words are on the lips of women; then a change comes—a new actress appears at the Théâtre Français or the Opéra—her charms eclipse your theories; or a great catastrophe occurs—political liberty (it is said) is annihilated—il faut se faire mouchard, is the observation of scoffers. Anyhow, you are forgotten—fifty years may be the gestation of a philosophy, not three its life—before long, before you go to your grave, your six disciples leave you for some newer master, or to set up for themselves. The poorest priest in the remote region of the Basses Alpes has more power over men’s souls than human cultivation; his ill-mouthed masses move women’s souls—can you? Ye scoff at Jupiter. Yet he at least was believed in—you never have been; idol for idol, the dethroned is better than the unthroned. No, if you would reason—if you would teach—if you would speculate, come to us. We have our premises ready; years upon years before you were born, intellects whom the best of you delight to magnify, toiled to systematise the creed of ages; years upon years after you are dead, better heads than yours will find new matter there to define, to divide, to arrange. Consider the hundred volumes of Aquinas—which of you desire a higher life than that? To deduce, to subtilise, discriminate, systematise, and decide the highest truth, and to be believed. Yet such was his luck, his enjoyment. He was what you would be. No, no—Credite, credite. Ours is the life of speculation—the cloister is the home for the student. Philosophy is stationary—Catholicism progressive. You call—we are heard,” etc., etc., etc. So speaks each preacher according to his ability. And when the dust and noise of present controversies have passed away, and in the silence of the night, some grave historian writes out the tale of half-forgotten times, let him not forget to observe that skilfully as the mediæval Church subdued the superstitious cravings of a painful and barbarous age—in after-years she dealt more discerningly still with the feverish excitement, the feeble vanities, and the dogmatic impatience of an over-intellectual generation.
And as in religion—so in politics, we find the same desire to teach rather than to learn—the same morbid appetite for exhaustive and original theories. It is as necessary for a public writer to have a system as it is for him to have a pen. His course is obvious; he assumes some grand principle—the principle of Legitimacy, or the principle of Equality, or the principle of Fraternity—and thence he reasons down without fear or favour to the details of everyday politics. Events are judged of, not by their relation to simple causes, but by their bearing on a remote axiom. Nor are these speculations mere exercises of philosophic ingenuity. Four months ago, hundreds of able writers were debating with the keenest ability and the most ample array of generalities, whether the country should be governed by a Legitimate Monarchy, or an illegitimate; by a Social, or an old-fashioned Republic; by a two-chambered Constitution, or a one-chambered Constitution; on “Revision,” or Non-revision; on the claims of Louis Napoleon, or the divine right of the national representation. Can any intellectual food be conceived more dangerous or more stimulating for an over-excitable population? It is the same in Parliament. The description of the Church of Corinth may stand for a description of the late Assembly: every one had a psalm, had a doctrine, had a tongue, had a revelation, had an interpretation. Each member of the Mountain had his scheme for the regeneration of mankind; each member of the vaunted majority had his scheme for newly consolidating the Government; Orleanist hated Legitimist, Legitimist Orleanist; moderate Republican detested undiluted Republican; scheme was set against scheme, and theory against theory. No two Conservatives would agree what to conserve; no Socialist could practically associate with any other. No deliberative assembly can exist with every member wishing to lead, and no one wishing to follow. Not the meanest Act of Parliament could be carried without more compromise than even the best French statesmen were willing to use on the most important and critical affairs of their country. Rigorous reasoning would not manage a parish vestry, much less a great nation. In England, to carry half your own crotchets, you must be always and everywhere willing to carry half another man’s. Practical men must submit as well as rule, concede as well as assume. Popular government has many forms, a thousand good modes of procedure; but no one of those modes can be worked, no one of those forms will endure, unless by the continual application of sensible heads and pliable judgments to the systematic criticism of stiff axioms, rigid principles, and incarnated propositions.
I am, etc.,
P.S.—I was in hopes that I should have been able to tell you of the withdrawal of the decree relative to the property of the Orleans family. The withdrawal was announced in the Constitutionnel of yesterday; but I regret to add was contradicted in the Patrie last evening. I need not observe to you that it is an act for which there is no defence, moral or political. It has immensely weakened the Government.
The change of Ministry is also a great misfortune to Louis Napoleon. M. de Morny, said to be a son of Queen Hortense (if you believe the people in the salons, the President is not the son of his father, and everybody else is the son of his mother), was a statesman of the class best exemplified in England by the late Lord Melbourne—an acute, witty, fashionable man, acquainted with Parisian persons and things, and a consummate judge of public opinion. M. Persigny was in exile with the President, is said to be much attached to him, to repeat his sentiments and exaggerate his prejudices. I need not point out which of the two is just now the sounder counsellor.
ON THE CONSTITUTION OF THE PRINCE-PRESIDENT.
The many failures of the French in the attempt to establish a predominantly Parliamentary Government have a strong family likeness. Speaking a little roughly, I shall be right in saying that the Constitutions of France have perished, both lately and formerly, either in a street-row or under the violence of a military power, aided and abetted by a diffused dread of impending street-rows, and a painful experience of the effects of past ones. Thus the Constitution of 1791 (the first of the old series) perished on 10th August, amid the exultation of the brewer Santerre. The last of the old series fell on the 18 Brumaire, under the hands of Napoleon, when the 5 per cents. were at 12, the whole country in disorder, and all ruinable persons ruined. The Monarchy of 1830 began in the riot of the three days, and ended in the riot of 24th February; the Republic of February perished but yesterday, mainly from terror that Paris might again see such days as the “days of June”.
I think all sensible Englishmen who review this history (the history of more than sixty years) will not be slow to divine a conclusion peculiarly agreeable to our orderly national habits, viz., that the first want of the French is somebody or something able and willing to keep down street-rows, to repress the frightful elements of revolution and disorder which, every now and then, astonish Europe; capable of maintaining, and desirous to maintain, the order and tranquillity which are (all agree) the essential and primary prerequisites of industry and civilisation. If any one seriously and calmly doubts this, I am afraid nothing that I can further say will go far in convincing him. But let him read the account of any scene in any French revolution, old or new, or, better, let him come here and learn how people look back to the time I have mentioned (to June, 1848), when the Socialists,—not under speculative philosophers like Proudhon or Louis Blanc, but under practical rascals and energetic murderers, like Sobrier and Caussidière—made their last and final stand, and against them, on the other side, the National Guard (mostly solid shopkeepers, three-parts ruined by the events of February) fought (I will not say bravely or valiantly, but) furiously, frantically, savagely, as one reads in old books that half-starved burgesses in beleaguered towns have sometimes fought for the food of their children; let any sceptic hear of the atrocities of the friends of order and the atrocities of the advocates of disorder, and he will, I imagine, no longer be sceptical on two points,—he will hope that if he ever have to fight it will not be with a fanatic Socialist, nor against a demibankrupt fighting for “his shop”; and he will admit, that in a country subject to collisions between two such excited and excitable combatants, no earthly blessing is in any degree comparable to a power which will stave off, long delay, or permanently prevent, the actual advent and ever-ready apprehension of such bloodshed. I therefore assume that the first condition of good government in this country is a really strong, a reputedly strong, a continually strong Executive power.
Now, on the face of matters, it is certainly true that such a power is perfectly consistent with the most perfect, the most ideal type of Parliamentary Government. Rather I should say, such and so strong an executive is a certain consequence of the existence of that ideal and rarely found type. If there is among the people, and among their representatives, a strong, a decided, an unflinching preference for particular Ministers, or a particular course of policy, that course of policy can be carried out, and will be carried out, as certainly as by the Czar Nicholas, whose Ministers can do exactly what they will. There was something very like this in the old days of King George III., of Mr. Pitt, and Mr. Perceval. In those times, I have been told, the great Treasury official of the day, Mr. George Rose (still known to the readers of Sydney Smith) had a habit of observing, upon occasion of anything utterly devoid of decent defence: “Well, well, this is a little too bad; we must apply our majority to this difficulty”. The effect is very plain; while Mr. George Rose and his betters respected certain prejudices and opinions, then all but universal in Parliament, they in all other matters might do precisely what they would; and in all out-of-the-way matter, in anything that Sir John could not understand, on a point of cotton-spinning or dissent, be as absolute as the Emperor Napoleon. But the case is (as we know by experience of what passes under our daily observation) immensely altered, when there is no longer this strong, compact, irrefragable “following,” no distinctly divided, definite faction, no regular opposition to be daily beaten, no regular official party to be always victorious—but, instead, a mere aggregate of “independent members,” each thinking for himself, propounding, as the case may be, his own sense or his own nonsense—one, profound ideas applicable to all time; another, something meritorious from the Eton Latin Grammar, and a mangled republication of the morning’s newspaper; some exceedingly philosophical, others only crotchety, but, what is my point, each acting on his own head, assuming not Mr. Pitt’s infallibility, but his own. Again, divide a political assembly into three parties, any two of which are greater than the third, and it will be always possible for an adroit and dexterous intriguer (M. Thiers has his type in most assemblies) to combine, three or four times a fortnight, the two opposition parties into a majority on some interesting question—on some matter of importance. The best government possible under the existing circumstances will be continually and, in a hazardous state of society, even desperately and fatally weakened. We have had in our sensible House of Commons—aye, and among the most stupid and sensible portion of it, the country gentlemen—within these few years a striking example of how far party zeal, the heat of disputation, and a strong desire for a deep revenge, will carry the best-intentioned politicians in destroying the executive efficiency of an obnoxious Government. I mean the division of the House of Commons on the Irish Army Bill which ended in the resignation of Sir Robert Peel. You remember on that occasion the country party, under the guidance of Lord G. Bentinck, in the teeth of the Irish policy which they had been advocating and supporting all their lives, and which they would advocate and support again now, in the teeth of their previous votes, and (I am not exaggerating the history) almost of their avowed present convictions, defeated a Government, not on a question of speculative policy or recondite importance, but upon the precautionary measures necessary (according to every idea that a Tory esquire is capable of entertaining) for preventing a rebellion, the occurrence of which they were told (and as the event proved, told truly) might be speedy, hourly, and immediate. Of course I am not giving any opinion of my own about the merits of the question. The Whigs may be right; it may be good to have shown the world how little terrible is the bluster of Irish agitation. But I cite the event as a striking example of an essential evil in a three-sided Parliamentary system, as practically showing that a generally well-meaning opposition will, in defiance of their own habitual principles, cripple an odious executive, even in a matter of street-rows and rebellions. I won’t weary you with tediously pointing the moral. If such things are done in the green tree, what may be done in the dry? If party zeal and disputatious excitement so hurry men away in our own grave business-like experienced country—what may we expect from a vain, a volatile, an ever-changing race?
Nor am I drawing a French Assembly from mere history, or from my own imagination. In the late Chamber, the great subject of the very last Annual Register, there are not only three parties but four. There was a perpetually shifting element of 200 members, calling itself the Mountain, which had in its hands the real casting vote between the President’s Government and the Constitutional opposition. In the very last days of the Constitution they voted against, and thereby negatived, the proposition of the questors for arming the Assembly; partly because they disliked General Changarnier, and detested General Cavaignac; partly because, being extreme Socialists, they would not arm anybody who was likely to use his arms against their friends on the barricades. The same party was preparing to vote for the Bill on the Responsibility of the President, actually, and according to the design of its promoters, in the nature of a bill of indictment against him, because they feared his rigour and efficiency in repressing the anticipated convulsion. The question, the critical question, Who shall prevent a new revolution? was thus actually, and owing to the lamentable divisions of the friends of order, in the hands of the Parliamentary representatives of the very men who wished to affect that revolution, was determined, I may say, ultimately and in the last resort by the party of disorder.
Nor on lesser questions was there any steady majority, any distinctive deciding faction, any administering phalanx, anybody regularly voting with anybody else, often enough, or in number enough, to make the legislative decision regular, consistent, or respectable. Their very debates were unseemly. On anything not pleasing to them, the Mountain (as I said) a yellow and fanatical generation—had (I am told) an engaging knack of rising en masse and screaming until they were tired. It will be the same, I do not say in degree (for the Mountain would certainly lose several votes now, and the numbers of the late Chamber were unreasonably and injudiciously large), but, in a measure, you will be always subject to the same disorder—a fluctuating majority, and a minority, often a ruling minority, favourable to rebellion. The cause, as I believe, is to be sought in the peculiarities of the French character, on which I dwelt, prolixly, I fear, and ad nauseam, in my last two letters. If you have to deal with a mobile, a clever, a versatile, an intellectual, a dogmatic nation, inevitably, and by necessary consequence, you will have conflicting systems—every man speaking his own words, and always giving his own suffrage to what seems good in his own eyes—many holding to-day what they will regret to-morrow—a crowd of crotchety theories and a heavy percentage of philosophical nonsense—a great opportunity for subtle stratagem and intriguing selfishness—a miserable division among the friends of tranquillity, and a great power thrown into the hands of those who, though often with the very best intentions, are practically, and in matter of fact, opposed both to society and civilisation. And, moreover, beside minor inconveniences and lesser hardships, you will indisputably have periodically—say three or four times in fifty years—a great crisis; the public mind much excited, the people in the streets swaying to and fro with the breath of every breeze, the discontented ouvriers meeting in a hundred knots, discussing their real sufferings and their imagined grievances, with lean features and angry gesticulations; the Parliament, all the while in permanence, very ably and eloquently expounding the whole subject, one man proposing this scheme, and another that; the Opposition expecting to oust the Ministers, and ride in on the popular commotion; the Ministers fearing to take the odium of severe or adequate repressive measures, lest they should lose their salary, their places and their majority: finally, a great crash, a disgusted people, overwhelmed by revolutionary violence, or seeking a precarious, a pernicious, but after all a precious protection from the bayonets of military despotism. Louis Philippe met these dangers and difficulties in a thoroughly characteristic manner. He bought his majority. Being a practical and not over sentimental public functionary, he went into the market and purchased a sufficient number of constituencies and members. Of course the convenances were carefully preserved; grossness of any kind is too jarring for French susceptibility; the purchase money was not mere coin (which indeed the buyers had not to offer), but a more gentlemanly commodity—the patronage of the Government. The electoral colleges were extremely small, the number of public functionaries is enormous; so that a very respectable body of electors could always be expected to have, like a four-year-old barrister (since the County Courts), an immense prejudice for the existing Government. One man hoped to be Maire, another wanted his son got into St. Cyr or the Polytechnic School, and this could be got, and was daily got (I am writing what is hardly denied), by voting for the Government candidate. In a word, a sufficient proportion of the returns of the electoral colleges resembled the returns from Harwich or Devonport, only that the Government was the only bidder; for there are not, I fancy, in any country but England, people able and willing to spend, election after election, great sums of money for procuring the honour of a seat in a representative assembly. In fact, to copy the well-known phrase, just as in the time of Burke, certain gentlemen had the expressive nickname of the King’s friends, so these constituencies may aptly be called the King’s constituencies. Of course, on the face of it, this system worked, as far as business went, excellently well. For eighteen years the tranquillity was maintained. France, it may be, has never enjoyed so much calm civilisation, so much private happiness; and yet, after all such and so long blessings, it fell in a mere riot—it fell unregretted. It is a system which no wise man can wish to see restored; it was a system of regulated corruption.
But it does not at all follow, nor I am sure will you be apt so to deduce, that because I imagine that France is unfit for a Government in which a House of Commons is, as with us, the sovereign power in the State, I therefore believe that it is fit for no freedom at all. Our own constitutional history is the completest answer to any such idea. For centuries, the House of Commons was habitually, we know, but a third-rate power in the State. First the Crown, then the House of Lords, enjoyed the ordinary and supreme dominion; and down almost to our own times the Crown and House of Lords, taken together, were much more than a sufficient match for the people’s House; but yet we do not cease to proclaim, daily and hourly, in season and out of season, that the English people never have been slaves. It may, therefore, well be that our own country having been free under a Constitution in which the representative element was but third-rate in power and dignity, France and other nations may contrive to enjoy the advantage from institutions in which it is only second-rate.
Now, of this sort is the Constitution of Louis Napoleon. I am not going now, after prefacing so much, to discuss its details; indeed, I do not feel competent to do so. What should we say to a Frenchman’s notion of a £5 householder, or the fourth and fifth clauses of the New Reform Bill? and I quite admit that a paper building of this sort can hardly be safely criticised till it is carried out on terra firma, till we see not only the theoretic ground-plan, but the actual inhabited structure. The life of a constitution is in the spirit and disposition of those who work it; and we can’t yet say in the least what that, in this case, will be; but so far as the constitution shows its meaning on the face of it, it clearly belongs to the class which I have named. The Corps Législatif is not the administering body, it is not even what perhaps it might with advantage have been, a petitioning and remonstrating body; but it possesses the Legislative veto, and the power of stopping en masse the supplies. It is not a working, a ruling, or an initiative, or supremely decisive, but an immense checking power. It will be unable to change Ministers, or aggravate the course of revolutions; but it could arrest an unpopular war—it could reject an unpopular law—it is, at least in theory, a powerful and important drag-chain. Out of the mouths of its adversaries this system possesses what I have proved, or conjectured, or assumed to be the prime want of the French nation—a strong executive. The objection to it is that the objectors find nothing else in it. We confess there is no doubt now of a power adequate to repress street-rows and revolutions.
At the same time, I guard myself against intimating any opinion on the particular minutiæ of this last effort of institutional invention. I do not know enough to form a judgment; I sedulously, at present, confine myself to this one remark, that the new Government of France belongs, in theory at least, to the right class of Constitutions—the class that is most exactly suited to French habits, French nature, French social advantages, French social dangers—the class I mean, in which the representative body has a consultative, a deliberative, a checking and a minatory—not as with us a supreme, nearly an omnipotent, and exclusively initiatory function.
I am, yours, etc.,
P.S.—You may like five words on a French invasion. I can’t myself imagine, and what is more to the point, I do not observe that anybody here has any notion of, any such inroad into England as was contemplated and proposed by General Changarnier. No one in the actual conduct of affairs, with actual responsibility for affairs, not, as the event proved, even Ledru Rollin, could, according to me, encounter the risk and odium of such a hateful and horribly dangerous attempt. But, I regret to add, there is a contingency which sensible people here (so far as I have had the means of judging) do not seem to regard as at all beyond the limits of rational probability, by which a war between England and France would most likely be superinduced; that is, a French invasion of Belgium. I do not mean to assure you that this week or next the Prince-President will make a razzia in Brussels. But I do mean that it is thought not improbable that somehow or other, on some wolf-and-the-lamb pretext, he may pick a quarrel with King Leopold, and endeavour to restore to the French the “natural limit” of the Rhine. Now, I have never seen the terms of the guarantee which the shrewd and cautious Leopold exacted from England before he would take the throne of Belgium, but as the only real risk was a French aggression upon this tempting territory, I do not make any doubt but that the expressions of that instrument bind us to go to war in defence of the country whose limits and independence we have guaranteed. And in this case, an invasion of England would be as admissible a military movement as an invasion of France. I hope, therefore, you will use your best rhetoric to induce people to put our pleasant country in a state of adequate and tolerable defence.
I see by the invaluable Galignani, that some excellent people at Manchester are indulging in a little arithmetic. “Suppose,” say they, “all the French got safe, and each took away £50, now how much do you fancy it would come to (40,000 men by £50, nought’s nought is nought, nought and carry two)—compared to the existing burden of the National Debt? Was there ever such amiable infatuation! It is not what the French could carry off, but what they would leave behind them, which is in the reasonable apprehension of reasonable persons. The funds at 50—broken banks—the Gazette telling you who had not failed—Downing Street vide Wales—destitute families, dishonoured daughters, one-legged fathers—the mourning shops utterly sacked—the customers in tears—a pale widow in a green bonnet—the Exchange in ruins—five notches on St. Paul’s—and a big hole in the Bank of England;—these, though but a few of the certain consequences of a French visit to London, are quite enough to terrify even an adamantine editor and a rather reckless correspondent.
THE FRENCH NEWSPAPER PRESS.
Paris, 10th Feb.
We learn from an Oriental narrative in considerable circulation, that the ancient Athenians were fond of news. Of course they were. It is in the nature of a mass of clever and intellectual people living together to want something to talk about. Old ideas—common ascertained truths—are good things enough to live by, but are very rare, and soon sufficiently discussed. Something else—true or false, rational or nonsensical—is quite essential; and, therefore, in the old literary world men gathered round the travelling sophist, to learn from him some thought, crotchet, or speculation. And what the vagabond speculators were once, that, pretty exactly, is the newspaper now. To it the people of this intellectual capital look for that daily mental bread, which is as essential to them as the less ethereal sustenance of ordinary mortals. With the spread of education this habit travels downward. Not the literary man only, but the ouvrier and the bourgeois, live on the same food. This day’s Siècle is discussed not only in gorgeous drawing-rooms, but in humble reading-rooms, and still humbler workshops. According to the printed notions of us journalists, this is a matter of pure rejoicing. The influence of the Press, if you believe writers and printers, is the one sufficient condition of social well-being. Yet there are many considerations which make very much against this idea: I can’t go into several of them now, but those that I shall mention are suggested at once by matters before me. First, newspaper people are the only traders that thrive upon convulsion. In quiet times, who cares for the paper? In times of tumult, who does not? Commonly, the Patrie (the Globe of this country) sells, I think, for three sous: on the evening of the coup d’état, itinerant ladies were crying under my window, “Demandez la Patrie—Journal du soir—trente sous—Journal du soir”; and I remember witnessing, even in our sober London, in February, 1848, how bald fathers of families paid large sums, and encountered bare-headed the unknown inclemencies of the night air, that they might learn the last news of Louis Philippe, and, if possible, be in at the death of the revolutionary Parisians. “Happy,” says the sage, “are the people whose annals are vacant;” but “woe! woe! woe!” he might add, “to the wretched journalists that have to compose and sell leading articles therein.”
I am constrained to say that, even in England, this is not without its unfavourable influence on literary morals. Take in the Times, and you will see it assumed that every year ought to be an era. “The Government does nothing,” is the indignant cry, and simple people in the country don’t know that this is merely a civilised façon de parler for “I have nothing to say”. Lord John Russell must alter the suffrage, that we may have something pleasant in our columns.
I am afraid matters are worse here. The leading French journalist is, as you know, the celebrated Emile de Girardin, and, so far as I can learn anything about him, he is one of the most fickle politicians in existence. Since I have read the Presse regularly, it has veered from every point of the compass well-nigh to every other—now for, now against, the revision of the constitution—now lauding Louis Napoleon to the skies—now calling him plain M. Bonaparte, and insinuating that he had not two ideas, and was incapable of moral self-government—now connected with the Red party, now praising the majority; but all and each of these veerings and shiftings determined by one most simple and certain principle—to keep up the popular excitement, to maintain the gifted M. de Girardin at the head of it. Now, a man who spends his life in stimulating excitement and convulsion is really a political incendiary; and however innocent and laudable his brother exiles may be, the old editor and founder of the Presse is, as I believe, now only paying the legitimate penalty of systematic political arson.
When a foreigner—at least an Englishman—begins to read the French papers, his first idea is, “How well these fellows write! Why, every one of them has a style, and a good style too. Really, how clear, how acute, how clever, how perspicuous; I wish our journalists would learn to write like this;” but a little experience will modify this idea—at least I have found it so. I read for a considerable time these witty periodicals with pleasure and admiration; after a little while I felt somehow that I took them up with an effort, but I fancied, knowing my disposition, that this was laziness; when on a sudden, in the waste of Galignani, I came across an article of the Morning Herald. Now you’ll laugh at me, if I tell you it was a real enjoyment. There was no toil, no sharp theory, no pointed expression, no fatiguing brilliancy, in fact, what the man in Lord Byron desired, “no nothing,”1 but a dull, creeping, satisfactory sensation that now, at least, there was nothing to admire. As long walking in picture galleries makes you appreciate a mere wall, so I felt that I understood for the first time that really dulness had its interest. I found a pure refreshment in coming across what possibly might be latent sense, but was certainly superficial stupidity.
I think there is nothing we English hate like a clever but prolonged controversy. Now this is the life and soul of the Parisian press. Everybody writes against everybody. It is not mere sly hate or solemn invective, nothing like what we occasionally indulge in, about the misdemeanours of a morning contemporary. But they take the other side’s article piece by piece, and comment on him, and, as they say in libel cases, innuendo him, and satisfactorily show that, according to his arithmetic, two and two make five; useful knowledge that. It is really good for us to know that some fellow (you never heard of him) it rather seems can’t add up. But it interests people here;—c’est logique, they tell you; and if you are trustful enough to answer “Mon Dieu, c’est ennuyeux, je n’en sais rien,” they look as if you sneered at the Parthenon.
It is out of these controversies that M. de Girardin has attained his power and his fame. His articles (according to me, at least) have no facts and no sense. He gives one all pure reasoning—little scrappy syllogisms; as some one said most unjustly of old Hazlitt, he “writes pimples”. But let an unfortunate writer in the Assemblée Nationale, or anywhere else, make a little refreshing blunder in his logic, and next morning small punning sentences (one to each paragraph like an equation) come rattling down on him: it is clear as noonday that somebody said “something followed,” and it does not follow, and it is so agreed in all the million cabinets de lecture after due gesticulation; and, moreover, that M. de Girardin is the man to expose it, and what clever fellows they are to appreciate him; but what the truth is, who cares? The subject is forgotten.
Now all this, to my notion, does great harm. Nothing destroys commonplace like the habit of arguing for arguing’s sake; nothing is so bad for public matters as that they should be treated, not as the data for the careful formation of a sound judgment, but as a topic or background for displaying the shining qualities of public writers. It is no light thing this. M. de Girardin for many years has gained more power, more reputation, more money than any of his rivals; not because he shows more knowledge—he shows much less; not because he has a wiser judgment—he has no fixed judgment at all; but because he has a more pointed, sharp way of exposing blunders, intrinsically paltry, obvious to all educated men; and does not care enough for any subject to be diverted from this logical trifling by a serious desire to convince anybody of anything.
Don’t think I wish to be hard on this accomplished gentleman. I am not going to require of hack-writers to write only on what they understand—if that were the law, what a life for the sub-editor; I should not be writing these letters, and how seldom and how timidly would the morning journals creep into the world. Nor do I expect, though I may still, in sentimental moods, desire, middle-aged journalists to be buoyed up by chimerical visions of improving mankind.
You know what our eminent chef (by Thackeray profanely called Jupiter Jeames) has been heard to say over his gin and water, in an easy and voluptuous moment: “Enlightenment be —, I want the fat fool of a thick-headed reader to say, ‘Just my own views,’ else he ain’t pleased, and may be he stops the paper”. I am not going to require supernatural excellence from writers. Yet there are limits. If I were a chemist, I should not mind, I suppose, selling now and then, a deleterious drug on a due affidavit of rats, then and there filed before me; yet I don’t feel as if I could live comfortably on the sale of mere arsenic. I fancy I should like to sell something wholesome occasionally. So, though one might, upon occasion, egg on a riot, or excite to a breach of the peace, I should not like to be every day feeding on revolutionary excitement. Nor should I like to be exclusively selling diminutive, acute, quibbling leaders (what they call in the Temple special demurrers), certain to occupy people with small fallacies, and lead away their minds from the great questions actually at issue.
Sometimes I might like to feel as if I understood what I wrote on, but of course with me this indulgence must be very rare. You know in France journalism is not only an occupation, it is a career. As in far-off Newcastle a coal-fitter’s son looks wistfully to the bar, in the notion that he too may emulate the fame and fortune of Lord Eldon or Lord Stowell, so in fair Provence, a pale young aspirant packs up his little bundle in the hope of rivalling the luck and fame of M. Thiers; he comes to Paris—he begins, like the great historian, by dining for thirty sous in the Palais Royal, in the hope after long years of labour and jealousy he, too, may end by sleeping amid curtains of white muslin lined with pink damask. Just consider for a moment what a difference this one fact shows between France and England. Here a man who begins life by writing in the newspapers, has an appreciable chance of arriving to be Minister of Foreign Affairs. The class of public writers is the class from which the equivalent of Lord Aberdeen, Lord Palmerston, or Lord Granville will most likely be chosen. Well, well, under that régime you and I might have been important people; we might have handled a red box, we might have known what it was to have a reception, to dine with the Queen, to be respectfully mystified by the corps diplomatique. But angry Jove forbade—of course we can hardly deny that he was wrong—and yet if the revolutions of 1848 have clearly brought out any fact, it is the utter failure of newspaper statesmen. Everywhere they have been tried: everywhere they have shown great talents for intrigue, eloquence, and agitation—how rarely have they shown even fair aptitude for ordinary administration; how frequently have they gained a disreputable renown by a laxity of principle surpassing the laxity of their aristocratic and courtly adversaries! Such being my imperfect account of my imperfect notions of the French press, I can’t altogether sympathise in the extreme despondency of many excellent persons at its temporary silence since the coup d’état. I might even rejoice at it, if I thought that the Parisian public could in any manner be broken of their dependence on the morning’s article. But I have no such hope; the taste has got down too deep into the habits of the people; some new thing will still be necessary; and every Government will find some of its most formidable difficulties in their taste for political disputation and controversial excitement. The ban must sooner or later be taken off; the President sooner or later must submit to censure and ridicule, and whatever laws he may propose about the press, there is none which scores of ingenious men—now animated by the keenest hatred, will not try every hazard to evade. What he may do to avoid this is as yet unknown. One thing, however, I suppose is pretty sure, and I fancy quite wise. The press will be restrained from discussing the principles of the Government. Socialists will not be allowed to advocate a Democratic Republic. Legitimists will not be allowed to advocate the cause of Henri Cinq, nor Orleanists the cause of the Comte de Paris. Such indulgence might be tolerable in more temperate countries, but experience shows that it is not safe now and here.
A really sensible press, arguing temperately after a clear and satisfactory exposition of the facts, is a great blessing in any country. It will be still more a blessing in a country where, as I tried to explain formerly, the representative element must play (if the public security is to be maintained) a rather secondary part. It would then be a real stimulus to deliberate inquiry and rational judgment upon public affairs; to the formation of common-sense views upon the great outlines of public business; to the cultivation of sound moral opinions and convictions on the internal and international duties of the State. Even the actual press which we may expect to see here, may not be pernicious. It will doubtless stimulate to many factious proceedings, and many interruptions of the public prosperity; it may very likely conduce to drive the President (contrary, if not to his inclination, at least to his personal interest) into foreign hostilities and international aggression; but it may be, notwithstanding, useful in preventing private tyranny, in exposing wanton oppression, in checking long-suffering revenge; it may prevent acts of spoliation like what they call here le premier vol de l’aigel—the seizure of the Orleans property;—in a word, being certain to oppose the executive, where the latter is unjust its enemy will be just.
I had hopes that this letter would be the last with which I should tease you; but I find I must ask you to be so kind as to find room for one, and only for one more.
I am, yours, etc.,
Paris, 19th Feb., 1852.
There is a story of some Swedish Abbé, in the last century, who wrote an elaborate work to prove the then constitution of his country to be immortal and indestructible. While he was correcting the proof sheets, a friend brought him word that—behold! the King had already destroyed the said polity. “Sir,” replied the gratified author, “our Sovereign, the illustrious Gustavus, may certainly overthrow the Constitution, but never my book.” I beg to parody this sensible remark; for I wish to observe to you, that even though Louis Napoleon should turn out a bad and mischievous ruler, he won’t in the least refute these letters.
What I mean is as follows. Above all things, I have designed to prove to you that the French are by character unfit for a solely and predominantly Parliamentary Government; that so many and so great elements of convulsion exist here, that it will be clearly necessary that a strong, vigorous, antibarricade executive should, at whatever risk and cost, be established and maintained; that such an Assembly as the last is irreconcilable with this; in a word, that riots and revolutions must, if possible, come to an end, and only such a degree of liberty and democracy be granted to the French nation, as is consistent with the consolidated existence of the order and tranquillity which are equally essential to rational freedom and civilised society.
In order to combine the maintenance of order and tranquillity with the maximum of possible liberty, I hope that it may in the end be found possible to admit into a political system a representative and sufficiently democratic Assembly, without that Assembly assuming and arrogating to itself those nearly omnipotent powers, which in our country it properly and rightfully possesses, but which in the history of the last sixty years, we have, as it seems to me, so many and so cogent illustrations that a French Chamber is, by genius and constitution, radically incapable to hold and exercise. I hope that some checking, consultative, petitioning Assembly—some βουλή, in the real sense of the term—some Council, some provision by which all grave and deliberate public opinion (I do not speak more definitely, because an elaborate Constitution, from a foreigner, must be an absurdity) may organise and express itself—yet at the same time, without utterly hampering and directing—and directing amiss—those more simple elements of national polity on which we must, after all, rely for the prompt and steady repression of barricade-making and bloodshed.
I earnestly desire to believe that some such system as this may be found in practice possible; for otherwise, unless I quite misread history, and altogether mistake what is under my eyes, after many more calamities, many more changes, many more great Assemblies abounding in Vergniauds and Berryers, the essential deficiencies of debating Girondin statesmen will become manifest, the uncompact, unpractical, over-volatile, overlogical, indecisive, ineffectual rule of Gallican Parliaments will be unequivocally manifest (it is now plain, I imagine, but a truth so humiliating must be written large in letters of blood before those that run will read it), and no medium being held or conceived to be possible, the nation will sink back, not contented but discontented, not trustfully but distrustfully, under the rule of a military despot; and if they yield to this, it will be from no faith, no loyalty, no credulity; it will be from a sense—a hated sense—of unqualified failure, a miserable scepticism in the probable success and the possible advantages of long-tried and ill-tried rebellion.
Now, whether the Constitution of Louis Napoleon is calculated to realise this ideal and intermediate system, is, till we see it at work, doubtful and disputable. It is not the question so much of what it may be at this moment, as of what it may become in a brief period, when things have begun to assume a more normal state, and the public mind shall be relaxed from its present and painful tension. However, I should be deceiving you, if I did not inform you that the state of men’s minds towards the Prince-President is not, so far as I can make it out, what it was the day after the coup d’état. The measures taken against the Socialists are felt to have been several degrees too severe; the list of exiles too numerous; the confiscation of the Orleans property could not but be attended with the worst effect; the law announced by the Government organs respecting or rather against the Press, is justly (though you know from my last letter I have no partiality for French newspapers) considered to be absurdly severe, and likely to countenance much tyranny and gross injustice; above all, instead of maintaining mere calm and order, the excessive rigour, and sometimes the injustice, of the President’s measures, have produced a breathless pause (if I may so speak) in public opinion; political conversation is a whispered question, what will he do next? Firstly, the Government is dull, and the French want to be amused; secondly, it is going to spoil the journals (depreciate newspapers to a Frenchman, disparage nuts to a monkey); thirdly, it is producing (I do not say it has yet produced, but it has made a beginning in producing) a habit of apprehension;—in fact, I believe the French opinion of the Prince-President is near about that of the interesting damsel in George Sand’s comedy, concerning her uninteresting pretendu: “Vous l’aimez? n’est-ce pas?” “Oui, oui, oui, certainement je l’aime. Oui, oui, mille fois, oui. Je dis que oui. Je vous assure.Au moinsje fais mon possible à l’aimer:” the first attachment is not extinct, but people have begun—awful symptom—to add the withering and final saving clause. Yet it is, I imagine, a great mistake to suppose that the present Constitution, if it work at all, will permanently work as a despotism, or that the Corps Législatif will be without a measure of popular influence; the much more helpless Tribunal was not so in the much more troublesome times of the Consulate. And the source of such influence and the manner of its operation may be, I imagine, well enough traced in the nature of the forces whereby Louis Napoleon holds his power.
A truly estimable writer says, I know, “that the Legislative body cannot have, by possibility, any analogy with the consultative and petitioning senate of the Plantagenets,” nor can any one deny that the likeness is extremely faint (no illustration ever yet ran on all fours), the practical differences clear and convincing. But yet, according to the light which is given me now, I affirm that for one vital purpose—the resisting and criticising any highly unpopular acts of a highly unpopular Government—the Corps Législatif of Louis Napoleon must, and will, inevitably possess a power compared with which the forty-day followers of the feudal noblesse seem as impotent as a congregation of Quakers; a force the peculiarity of which is that you can’t imprison, can’t dissolve, can’t annihilate it—I mean, of course, the moral power of civilised opinion. You may put down newspapers, dissolve Parliaments, imprison agitators, almost stop conversation, but you can’t stop thought. You can’t prevent the silent, slow, creeping, stealthy progress of hatred, and scorn, and shame. You can’t attenuate easily the stern justice of a retarded retaliation. These influences affect the great reservoir of physical force—they act on the army. A body of men enlisted daily from the people take to the barracks the notions of the people; in spite of new associations, the first impressions are apt to be retained; you overlay them, but they remain. What is believed elsewhere and out of doors gives them weight. Each soldier has relations, friends, a family—he knows what they think. Much more with the officers. These are men moving in Parisian society, accessible to its influences, responsible to its opinion, apt to imbibe its sentiments. Certainly esprit de corps—the habit of obedience, the instinct of discipline, are strong, and will carry men far; but certainly, also, they have natural limits. Men won’t stand being cut, being ridiculed, being detested, being despised, daily and for ever, and that for measures which their own understandings disapprove of. Remember there is not here any question of barbarous bands overawing a civilised and imperial city; no question of ugly Croats keeping down cultivated Italians; it is but a question of French gentlemen and French peasantry in uniform acting in opposition to other French gentlemen and other French peasants without uniform. Already there has been talk (I do not say well-founded, but still the matter was named) of breaking two or three hundred officers, for speaking against the Orleans decrees. Do you fancy that can be done every day? Do you imagine that a Parliament, whatever its nominal functions may be (remember those of the old régime), speaking the sense of the people about the question of the day, in a time of convulsion, and in a critical hour, would not be attended to, or at any rate thought of and considered, by an army taken from the people—commanded by men selected from and every day mixing with common society and very ordinary mankind? The 2nd of December showed how readily such troops will support a decided and popular President against an intriguing, divided, impotent Chamber. But such hard blows won’t bear repetition. Soldiers—French soldiers, I take it especially, from their quickness and intelligence, are neither deaf nor blind. If there be truth in history or speculation, national forces can’t long be used against the nation: they are unmerciful, and often cruel to feeble minorities; they are ready now for a terrible onslaught on mere Socialists, just as of old they turned out cheerfully for awful dragonnades on the ill-starred Protestants; but once let them know and feel that everybody is against them—that they are alone, that their acts are contemned and their persons despised—and gradually, or all at once, discipline and habit surely fail, men murmur or desert, officers hesitate or disobey, one regiment is dismissed to the Cabyles, another relegated to rural solitudes; at last, most likely in the decisive moment of the whole history, the rulers, who relied only on their troops, are afraid to call them out; they hesitate, send spies and commissioners to inquire. “Vive le Gouvernement Provisoire!”—the black and roaring multitude rises and comes on; but two seconds, and the obnoxious institutions are lost in the flood; nothing is heard but the cry of the hour, sounding shrill and angry over the waste of Revolution—“Vive le Diable!” With such a force behind them, a French Parliament, of whatever nature, with whatever written duties, is, if at the head of the movement, in the critical hour, apt to be stronger than the strongest of the Barons.
Nor do I concur with those who censure the President for “recommending” avowedly the candidates he approves. It is a part of the great question, How is universal suffrage to be worked successfully in such a country as France? The peasant proprietors have but one political idea, that they wish the Prince to govern them;—they wish to vote for the candidate most acceptable to him, and they wish nothing else. Why is he wrong in telling them which candidate that is?
Still, no doubt, the reins are now strained a great deal too tight. It is possible, quite possible, that a majority in this Parliament may be packed, but what I would impress on you is that it can’t always be packed. Sooner or later constituencies who wish to oppose the Government will, in spite of maires and préfets, elect the opposition candidate: it is in the nature of any, even the least vigorous system of popular election, to struggle forwards and progressively attain to some fair and reasonable correspondence with the substantial views and opinions of the constituent people.
I therefore fall back on what I told you before—my essential view or crotchet about the mental aptitudes and deficiencies of the French people. The French, said Napoleon, are des machines nerveuses.
The point is, can their excitable, volatile, superficial, overlogical, uncompromising character be managed and manipulated as to fit them for entering on a practically uncontrolled system of Parliamentary Government? Will not any large and omnipotent Assembly resemble the stormy Constituent and the late Chamber, rather than the business-like, formal, ennui-diffusing Parliament to which in our free and dull country we are felicitously accustomed? Can one be so improved as to keep down a riot? I foresee a single and but a single objection. I fancy, indeed I know, that there is a school of political thinkers not yet in possession of any great influence, but, perhaps, a little on the way thereto, which has improved or invented a capital panacea, whereby all nations are, within very moderate limits of time, to be surely and certainly fitted for political freedom; and that no matter how formed—how seemingly stable—how long ago cast and constructed, be the type of popular character to which the said remedy is sought to be applied. This panacea is the foundation or restoration of provincial municipalities. Now, I am myself prepared to go a considerable length with the school in question. I do myself think, that a due and regular consideration of the knotty points of paving and lighting, and the deciding in the last resort upon them, is a valuable discipline of national character. It exercises people’s minds on points they know, in things of which there is a test. Very few people are good judges of a good Constitution; but everybody’s eyes are excellent judges of good light; every man’s feet are profound in the theory of agreeable stones. Yet I can’t altogether admit, nevertheless, that municipalities are the sufficient and sole, though they may be very likely an essential, pre-requisite of political freedom. There is the great instance of Hindostan to the contrary. The whole old and national system of that remarkable country—a system in all probability as ancient as the era of Alexander, is a village system; and one so curious, elaborate, I fancy I might say so profound, that the best European observers—Sir Thomas Munro, and that sort of people—are most strenuous for its being retained unimpaired. According to them, the village hardly heard of the Imperial Government, except for the purpose of Imperial taxation. The business of life through that whole vast territory has always been practically determined by potails1 and parish-vestries, and yet nevertheless and in spite of this capital and immemorial municipal system, our subjects, the Hindoos, are still slaves and still likely to be slaves; still essentially slavish, and likely, I much fear, very long indeed to remain so. It is therefore quite certain that rural and provincial institutions won’t so alter and adapt all national characters, as to fit all nations for a Parliamentary Constitution; consequently, the onus probandi is on those who assert that it will so alter and mould the French. Again, I assure you that the French do think of paving and lighting; not enough, perhaps, but still they have begun. The country is, as you know, divided into departments, arrondissements, and communes; in each of these there is a council, variously elected, but, in all cases, popularly and from the district, which has the sole control over the expenditure of the particular locality for every special and local purpose, and which, if I am rightly informed, has, in theory, at least, the sole initiative in every local improvement. The defect, I fancy, is that in the exercise of these, considerable bodies are hampered and controlled by the veto and supervision of the central authority. The rural councils discuss and decide what in their judgment should be then done and what money should be so spent; the better sort of the agricultural population have much more voice in the latter than have the corresponding class in England, in the determination and imposition of our own country rate; but it is the central authority which decides whether such proposals and recommendations shall in fact be carried out. In a word, the provinces have to ask leave of the Parisian Ministry of the Interior. Now I admit this is an abuse. I should maintain that elderly gentlemen with bald heads and local influence ought to feel that they, in the final resort, settle and determine all truly local matters. Human nature likes its own road, its own bridge, its own lapidary obstacles, its own deceptive luminosity. But I ask again, can you fancy that these luxuries, to whatever degree indulged in, alter and modify in any essential particular, the levity and volatility of the French character? How much light to how much logic? How many paving stones to how much mobility? I can’t foresee any such change. And even if so, what in the meantime?
We are left them, I think, to deal with the French character pretty much as we find it. What stealthy, secret, unknown, excellent forces may, in the wisdom of Providence, be even now modifying this most curious intellectual fabric, neither you nor I can know or tell. Let us hope that they may be many. But if we indulge, and from the immense records of revolutionary history, I think, with due distrust, we may legitimately and even beneficially indulge, in system-building and speculation, we must take the data which we have, and not those which we desire or imagine. Louis Napoleon has proposed a system: English writers by the thousand (if I was in harness instead of holiday-making I should be most likely among them) proclaim his system an evil one. What then? Do you know what Father Newman says to the religious reformers, rather sharply, but still well: “Make out first of all where you stand—draw up your creed—write down your catechism”? So I answer to the English eloquence: “State first of all what you would have—draw up your novel system for the French Government—write down your political Constitution”. Don’t criticise but produce; do not find fault but propose—and when you have proposed upon theory and have created upon paper, let us see whether the system be such a one as will work, in fact, and be accepted by a wilful nation in reality—otherwise your work is nought.
And mind, too, that the system to be sketched out must be fit to protect the hearths and homes of men. It is easy to compose polities if you do but neglect this one essential condition. Four years ago, Europe was in a ferment with the newest ideas, the best theories, the most elaborate, the most artistic Constitutions. There was the labour, and toil, and trouble of a million intellects, as good, taken on the whole, perhaps, as the world is likely to see,—of old statesmen, and literary gentlemen, and youthful enthusiasts, all over Europe, from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean, from the frontiers of Russia to the Atlantic Ocean. Well, what have we gained? A Parliament in Sardinia! Surely this is a lesson against proposing politics which won’t work, convening assemblies that can’t legislate, constructing executives that aren’t able to keep the peace, founding Constitutions inaugurated with tears and eloquence, soon abandoned with tears and shame; beginning a course of fair auguries and liberal hopes, but one from whose real dangers and actual sufferings a frightened and terrified people, in the end, flee for a temporary, or may be a permanent, refuge under a military and absolute ruler.
Mazzini sneers at the selfishness of shopkeepers—I am for the shopkeepers against him. There are people who think because they are Republican there shall be no more “cakes and ale”. Aye, verily, but there will though; or else stiffish ginger will be hot in the mouth. Legislative Assemblies, leading articles, essay eloquence—such are good—very good,—useful—very useful. Yet they can be done without. We can want them. Not so with all things. The selling of figs, the cobbling of shoes, the manufacturing of nails,—these are the essence of life. And let whoso frameth a Constitution of his country think on these things.
I conclude, as I ought, with my best thanks for the insertion of these letters; otherwise I was so full of the subject that I might have committed what Disraeli calls “the extreme act of human fatuity,” I might have published a pamphlet: from this your kindness has preserved me, and I am proportionally grateful.
I am, yours,
[1 ] The general reader may not before have read, that the Rue du Coq l’Honoré is an old and well-known street in Paris, and that notwithstanding the substitution of the eagle for cock as a military emblem, there is no thought of changing its name.
[1 ] John Stuart Mill, October, 1837; reprinted in Mill’s works.
[1 ] M. de la Guersonnière in the Paris Pays.
[1 ] A. V. Kirwan, Esq., Barrister-at-Law, in Fraser’s Magazine of Jan., 1852.
[1 ] Macaulay: Close of Essay on Barère. (Forrest Morgan.)
[1 ] Kinglake: Eöthen. (Forrest Morgan.)
[1 ] “The Princess.”
[1 ]The Betrothed, chap. iii.
[1 ] Letter to Murray, 4th June, 1817. (Forrest Morgan.)
[1 ] A Madras word which means a kind of village mayor.