Front Page Titles (by Subject) Letter II.: THE MORALITY OF THE COUP D'ÉTAT. - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 1 (Memoir, Early Essays)
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Letter II.: THE MORALITY OF THE COUP D’ÉTAT. - 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.
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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.
[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.)