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CHAPTER II. - Mary Wollstonecraft, An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution and the Effect it Has Produced in Europe 
An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution and the Effect it Has Produced in Europe (London: J. Johnson, 1795).
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the national assembly proceed to business. opposition of the nobles, bishops, and court. a seance royale proclaimed, and the hall of the assembly surrounded by soldiers. the members adjourn to the tennis court, and vow never to separate till a constitution should be completed. the majority of the clergy and two of the nobles join the commons. seance royale. the king’s speech. spirited behaviour of the assembly. speech of mirabeau. persons of the deputies declared inviolable. minority of the nobles join the commons. at the request of the king, the minority of the clergy do the same,—and are at length followed by the majority of the nobles. character of the queen of france,—of the king,—and of the nobles. lectures on liberty at the palais royal. paris surrounded by troops. spirit of liberty infused into the soldiers. eleven of the french guards imprisoned because they would not fire on the populace, and liberated by the people. remonstrance of the national assembly. the king proposes to remove the assembly to noyon, or soissons. necker dismissed. city militia proposed. the populace attacked in the garden of the thuilleries by the prince of lambesc. nocturnal orgies at versailles.
The third-estate, having constituted themselves a national assembly, now proceeded to business, with calm prudence, taking into consideration the urgent necessities of the state. Closely also attending to their instructions, they first pronounced, that all taxes not enacted by the consent of the representatives of the people were illegal; and afterwards gave a temporary sanction to the present levies, to avoid dissolving one government before they had framed another. They then turned their attention to the object next in importance, and declared, that, as soon as, in concert with his majesty, they should be able to fix the principles of national regeneration, they would employ themselves to examine and liquidate the national debt; mean time the creditors of the state were declared to be under the safe-guard of the honour of the french nation. These decrees concluded with a resolve, that the assembly, now become active, should dedicate it’s first moments to inquire into the cause of the scarcity that afflicted the kingdom; and to search for a remedy the most prompt and effectual.
The nobles, bishops, and, in fact, the whole court, now seriously began to rally all their forces; convinced that it was become necessary, to oppose their united strength against the commons, to prevent their carrying every thing before them.
The chamber of the clergy had been engaged for several days, in discussing the question, where they should verify their powers. A number of them, during this discussion, appear to have advanced, feeling their way; for when they now came to divide, the majority decided to join the national assembly.
Alarmed by the prospect of this junction, one of the members of the chamber, which almost arrogated to itself the prerogative of legislation, that of the nobles, proposed an address to the king, beseeching him to dissolve the states-general; whilst the cause of the people was there vigorously supported by a minority, feeble as to numbers, but powerful in argument, animated by the popularity, which their bold declaration could not fail to produce during the reign of enthusiasm.
This was a moment pregnant with great events. The court still trusted to subterfuge, and, holding the representatives of the people in superlative contempt, affected in some degree to yield to the prayer of the nation; though signifying, that the king was the only fountain of justice, and that he would grant every thing which his faithful subjects could reasonably demand. A trick as palpable as the design was flagrant; for at the instant they were pretending to see some reason in their requisitions, they were guarding against their obtaining the only thing that could secure their rights, an equal representation; holding for this purpose mischievous councils, composed of characters most obnoxious in the eyes of the people. In these meetings it was resolved, to amuse the commons, until the army could be assembled; and then, in case of obstinacy, they would draw on themselves the consequence. Accordingly the 20th of june, the day on which the majority of the clergy was to join the commons, the herald proclaimed a séance royale; and a detachment of guards surrounded the hall of the national assembly, to take care (such was the shallow pretext) that it should be properly prepared for the reception of the king. The deputies came to the door at the usual hour; but only the president (Baillie) and the secretaries were permitted to enter to take away their papers; and they saw, that the benches were already removed, and that all the entrances were guarded by a great number of soldiers.
Courage is seldom relaxed by persecution; and the firm and spirited proceedings of the assembly on this day, gave the decided blow to the stratagems of the court. During the first tumult of surprise, it is true, some of the deputies talked of going immediately to Marly, to invite the king to come among them, and in a truly paternal manner to unite his power with their’s to promote the public good; and thus by an energetic appeal to his heart and understanding, to convince him that they spoke the language of truth and reason. But others, more experienced in ministerial wiles, calmly advised to adjourn the sittings to the neighbouring tennis-court. For they knew, that the hearts of courtiers are fortified with icy prejudices; and that, though a moment of sympathy, a flow of life-blood, may thaw them at the instant, it is only to render them more hard, when the glow of genial heat is passed.
Assembled at the tennis-court, they encouraged each other; and one mind actuating the whole body, in the presence of an applauding crowd, they joined hands solemnly, and took God to witness, that they would not separate, till a constitution should be completed. The benedictions that dropped from every tongue, and sparkled in tears of joy from every eye, giving fresh vigour to the heroism which excited them, produced an overflow of sensibility that kindled into a blaze of patriotism every social feeling. The dungeons of despotism and the bayonets sharpened for massacre, were then equally disregarded even by the most fearful; till, in one of those instants of disinterested forgetfulness of private pursuits, all devoted themselves to the promotion of public happiness, promising to resist, to the last extremity, all the efforts of such an inveterate tyranny. The absent deputies were sent for; and one, who happened to be sick, had himself carried to unite his feeble voice with the general cry. The very soldiers also, disobeying their officers, came to be willing centinels at the entrance of the sanctuary of liberty, eagerly imbibing the sentiments, which they afterwards spread through their garrisons.
This indignity offered to the third-estate could not fail to excite new sensations of disgust at Paris; and give a fresh spring to the animation of the people at large. Yet, this spirited behaviour of the commons excited only supercilious contempt at court. For the gay circles there were so far sunk in fastidious delicacy, and squeamish respect for polished manners, that they could not even discover magnanimity in the conduct of a peasant, or a shopkeeper; much less grandeur in an assembly regardless of ceremonials. And not to be deficient themselves in these respects, the séance royale was put off another day, in order that the galleries, which had been erected for the accommodation of spectators by the national assembly, might be removed.
This was another injudicious step on the part of the cabinet; because it afforded time for the clergy to unite with the commons, who were in search of a place sufficiently capacious to contain such a body. At length, collected in a church, the clergy, with several bishops at their head, and two nobles of Dauphiné, joined them; and the place, seeming to reflect a sanctity on their union, tended to consolidate, under a nobler concave, the resolution taken in the tennis-court.
The following day, the séance royale really took place, with all the exterious splendour usually exhibited at these shows; which hitherto could scarcely be termed empty, because they produced the desired effect. But the public, having their attention turned to other things, now viewed with contempt, what had formerly inspired almost idolatrous respect. The deputies of the third estate were again ordered to enter by a separate door, and even left a considerable time standing exposed to a heavy shower. The people, who were totally excluded, formed themselves into groups, making indignant comments on the repeated affronts offered to their representatives, whose minds likewise recoiled at the idle attempt to impress them with an opinion of their insignificancy; when the very pains taken to do it proclaimed their growing importance in the state.
The object of the king’s speech, on this occasion, was to annul the whole proceedings of the national assembly, and to hold out certain benefits, as lures to submission, which the king meant to grant to the people; as if, observes Mirabeau, ‘the rights of the people, were the favours of the king.’ A declaration of his sovereign will and pleasure was then read, in which, making an insidious attempt to withdraw from the assembly the confidence of the public, he declared, that, if they abandoned him, he would provide for the happiness of his people, without their assistance, knowing the purport of the instructious given to the deputies. The first article of the king’s benevolent intentions, was to grant to the states-general the power of furnishing supplies; carefully specifying, however, that it was to consist of the three orders, who were to vote according to the ancient mode. Some other salutary plans of reform were also brought forward; but always with artful modifications, that would enable the old abuses to keep a sure footing. For example, the taxes were to be levied equally; yet a cautious respect for property sanctioned almost every other feudal privilege; and the absolute abolition of lettres de cachet,* though his majesty wished to secure personal freedom, was hinted at as incompatible with public safety, and the preservation of the honour of private families. The liberty of the press was allowed to be necessary; but the states general were requested to point out a mode of rendering it compatible with the respect due to religion, to morality, and to the honour of the citizens. The tenour of all the rest of the articles was the same; commencing with a plan of reform, and concluding with the ifs and buts, that were to render it void.—Then, winding round to the grand object of the meeting, the king terminated his discourse, with saying, forgetful that this was not the period to imagine himself reigning at Constantinople, ‘I command you to separate immediately, and to attend, each of you, to-morrow, at the chamber appropriated for your order, there to resume your sittings; and I have commanded, in consequence, the grand master of the ceremonies to order the halls to be prepared.’
The majority of the nobles, and the minority of the clergy, obeyed this peremptory order, and obsequiously followed the king, like the trained horses of his court. The members of the national assembly, however, remained sitting, preserving a silence, more menacing and terrible, than the I will, or I command, of the cabinet; when the grand master of the ceremonies entered, and addressing himself to the president, reminded him, in the king’s name, of the order given to separate immediately. The president answered, ‘that the assembly was not constituted to receive orders from any person;’ but Mirabeau, who thought this reply too tame, started up, and addressing the messenger, said: ‘yes; we have heard the intentions which the king has been induced to utter; and you cannot be his organ in this assembly.—You, who have neither seat, nor right to speak, ought not to remind us of his discourse. However, to avoid all equivocation or delay, I declare to you, that if you are charged to make us go from hence, you should demand orders to employ force; for only the bayonet can oblige us to quit our places.’ It is difficult to conceive the ardour inspired by this prompt eloquence. It’s sire flew from breast to breast, whilst a whisper ran round, that what Mirabeau had just uttered, gave a finishing stroke to the revolution.
A warm debate ensued; and the assembly declaring their adherence to their former decrees, the abbé Siéyes said, in his dry, cogent manner: ‘gentlemen, you are to day what you were yesterday.’ A motion was then made, by Mirabeau, who suggested, as a prudent precaution against the measures of a desperate cabal, that the person of each deputy should be pronounced inviolable; and, after a slight discussion, it was carried unanimously.
From this moment we may consider the nation and court at open war. The court had at their command the whole military force of the empire, amounting, at least, to 200,000 men. The people, on the contrary, had only their bare arms, invigorated, it is true, by the new-born love of freedom, to oppose to the various weapons of tyranny. But the army, partaking of the common misery, were not deaf to the complaints or arguments of their fellow citizens: and they were particularly led to consider them with complacency, because a just apprehension, or prudent foresight, had induced many of the popular assemblies, to insert a clause in their instructions, recommending, that the pay of the soldiers should be augmented. Thus recognized as fellow citizens, this class of men, whom it had been the policy of the despots of Europe to keep at a distance from the other inhabitants, making them a distinct class, to oppress and corrupt the rest, began to feel an interest in the common cause. But the court, who either could not, or would not, combine these important facts, rashly precipitated themselves into the very quicksand, into which they were vainly endeavouring to drive the commons.
As Necker had not attended in his place, at the séance royale, it gave colour to the rumour, which had for some time prevailed, that he purposed to retire from the ministry: so that, when the king returned, he was followed by an immense crowd, who could not conceal their discontent. Under the influence also of the same fear, a number of the deputies hastened to Necker, to entreat him not to resign. And the consternation increasing, the queen, who has ever been the first to desert her own plans, when there appeared a shadow of personal danger, sent for him; and, the better to cover the project of the cabinet, prevailed on him not to quit his post. The object of the cabinet he either had not the penetration to discover; or he had not sufficient magnanimity to resign a place, that gratified equally his pride and his avarice. This measure tended to tranquillize the minds of the people, though it was undermining their cause; for trusting to the integrity of this minister, who promised, ‘to live or die with them,’ they did not perceive, that he wanted the energy of soul necessary to enable him to act up to the principles he professed. However, the cause of liberty, as circumstances have proved, did not depend on the talents of one or two men.—It was the fiat of the nation; and the machinations of the tyrants of Europe have not yet been able to overturn it; though false patriots have led them, in their ardour for reform, to the commission of actions the most cruel and unjust. Every thing was effected by natural causes; and we shall find, if we take a cursory view of the progress of knowledge, that it’s advance towards simple principles is invariably in a ratio, which must speedily change the tangled system of european politics.
The séance royale produced so little effect, that the assembly, as if their sittings had never been interrupted, met the next day at the old hall; and the day after, the minority of the nobles. which consisted of forty-seven members, came to incorporate themselves with the commons. All of these, and particularly the duke of Orleans, who led them, acquired by this popular conduct, the love and confidence of the nation. How far they merited it, deceiving the public, or themselves, their future conduct will best explain.
The interesting events, in fact, which almost daily occurred, at the commencement of the revolution, fired the fancies of men of different descriptions; till, forgetting every selfish consideration, the rich and poor saw through the same focus. But, when the former had time to cool, and felt more forcibly than the latter the inconveniences of anarchy, they returned with fresh vigour to their old ground; embracing, with redoubled ardour, the prejudices which passion, not conviction, had chased from the field, during the heat of action. This was a strong reinforcement for the staunch aristocrats; because these were mostly good, but short-sighted people, who really wished, that justice might be established, as the foundation of the new government, though they flinched when their present ease was disturbed; and it was necessary to give more than good wishes.
This minority of nobles must certainly be allowed to have acted more prudently than their peers; and several of them, the most respectable men of that class, both in talents and morals, were probably actuated by half comprehended principles. The great body of the nobles, nevertheless, and the minority of the clergy, continued to meet in different chambers, where their idle deliberations marked their decayed influence. For, shrinking into nothing, their present struggles to regain their power were as fruitless, as their former efforts had been presumptuous. Yet the jealousies and contumely of the nobility continued to agitate the commons; who, animated by a consciousness of the justice of their cause, and feeling, that they possessed the confidence of the public, determined to proceed with the objects of their meeting, without the concurrence of the first order; proving to them, when it was too late to preserve their factitious distinctions, that their power and authority were at an end. In vain were they told, that they were acting contrary to their true interest, and risking the salvation of their privileges. In vain did one of the most moderate of the deputies* remonstrate with them, on what, most probably, would be the consequence of their obstinacy. No argument could move them; and, blind to the danger with which they were threatened, they persisted to attend their councils, without any determinate rule of action. It is true, the duke of Luxembourg declared, in a private committee held by the king, the 26th of june, that ‘the division of the orders would controul the exorbitant claims of the people, and preserve those of the monarch; united,’ added he, ‘they know no master, divided, they are your subjects:’ and he concluded, with emphatically saying, that ‘it would save the independence of the crown, and stamp with nullity the proceedings of the national assembly.’ These were manly, though not patriotic sentiments; and if the court had rallied round them, and defended them to the last extremity, they would at any rate have prevented their disgrace, by avoiding the crooked path of treachery. But abandoning all dignity of conduct, they trusted to the art of manœuvring, which defeated by the people, they were left entirely at their mercy.
With respect to the improvement of society, since the destruction of the roman empire, England seems to have led the way, rendering certain obstinate prejudices almost null, by a gradual change of opinion. This observation, which facts will support, may be brought forward, to prove, that just sentiments gain footing only in proportion as the understanding is enlarged by cultivation, and freedom of thought, instead of being cramped by the dread of bastilles and inquisitions. In Italy and France, for example, where the mind dared to exercise itself only to form the taste, the nobility were, in the strictest sense of the word, a cast, keeping aloof from the people; whilst in England they intermingled with the commercial men, whose equal or superiour fortunes made the nobles overlook their inequality of birth: thus giving the first blow to the ignorant pride that retarded the formation of just opinions respecting true dignity of character. This monied interest, from which political improvement first emanates, was not yet formed in France; and the ridiculous pride of her nobles, which led them to believe, that the purity of their families would be sullied, if they agreed to act in the same sphere with the people, was a prevailing motive, that prevented their junction with the commons. But the more licentious part of the clergy, who followed with a truer scent their own interest, thought it expedient to espouse, in time, the cause of the power, from whence their influence derived its greatest force; and from which alone they could hope for support. This schism proved, as it promised, dangerous to the views of the court.
The desertion of the clergy rendered the nobility outrageous, and hastened the crisis when the important contest was to be brought to an issue.—Then it was that the king perceived how contemptible his undecided conduct had been, and exclaiming, it is said confidently, ‘that he remained alone in the midst of the nation, occupied with the establishment of concord.’ Vain words! and this affectation was particularly reprehensible, because he had already given orders for the assembling of the foreign troops: the object of which was to establish concord with the point of the bayonet.
This total want of character caused him to be flattered by all parties, and trusted by none. Insignificancy had distinguished his manners in his own court. Actions without energy, and professions without sincerity, exhibiting a conduct destitute of steadiness, made the cabinet concert all their measures regardless of his opinion, leaving to the queen the task of persuading him to adopt them. The evil did not rest even here; for the different parties following separate views, the flexibility of his temper led him to sanction things the most at variance, and most dangerous to his future honour and safety. For it appears obvious, that whatever party had prevailed, he could only be considered as an instrument; which, becoming useless when the object should be achieved, would be treated with disrespect. Periods of revolution drawing into action the worst as well as the best of men; and as audacity, in general, triumphs over modest merit, when the political horizon is russled by tempest; it amounted to a moral certainty, that the line of conduct pursued by the king would lead to his disgrace and ruin.
Seeing, however, that the people were unanimous in their approbation of the conduct of their representatives, and watchful to discover the designs of their enemies; it could not but occur to the cabinet, that the only way to lull attention to sleep, was to affect to submit to necessity. Besides, fearing, if they continued to resort to their different chambers, that their plot would take wind before all the agents were assembled, a fresh instance of dissimulation evinced, that their depravity equalled their stupidity. For the king was now prevailed on to write to the presidents of the nobility, and the minority of the clergy, requesting them, to represent to those two orders the necessity of uniting with the third, to proceed to the discussion of his proposals, made at the séance royale.
The clergy immediately acquiesced; but the nobility continued to oppose a junction so humiliating, till the court invented a pretext of honour to save the credit of their mock dignity, by declaring, that the life of the king would be in imminent danger, should the nobles continue to resist the desire of the nation. Pretending to believe this report, for the secret of the cabinet was buzzed amongst them, and appearing to wish to bury all rivalry in royalty, they attended at the common hall, the 27th. Yet even there, the first step they took was to enter a protest, in order to guard against this concession being made a precedent.
A general joy succeeded the terrour which had been engendered in the minds of the people by their contumelious perverseness; and the parisians, cherishing the most sanguine expectations, reckoned, that an unity of exertions would secure to them a redress of grievances.
It is perhaps unnecessary to dwell, for a moment, on the insensibility of the court, and the credulity of the people; as they seem the only clues, that will lead us to a precise discrimination of the causes, which completely annihilated all confidence in the ministers, who have succeeded the directors of those infamous measures, that swept away the whole party; measures which involved thousands of innocent people in the same ruin, and have produced a clamour against the proceedings of the nation, that has obscured the glory of her labours. It is painful to follow, through all their windings, the crimes and follies produced by want of sagacity, and just principles of action. For instance, the séance royale was held on the 23d, when the king, not deigning to advise, commanded the deputies to repair to their different chambers; and only four days after he implored the nobility and clergy to wave every consideration, and accede to the wish of the people. Acting in this contradictory manner, it is clear, that the cabal thought only of rendering sure the decided blow, which was to level with the dust the power, that extorted such humiliating concessions.
But the people, easy of belief, and glad to be light-hearted again, no sooner heard that an union of the orders had taken place, by the desire of the king, than they hurried from all quarters, with good-humoured confidence, called for the king and queen, and testified, in their presence, the grateful joy this acquiescence had inspired. How different was this frankness of the people, from the close hypocritical conduct of the cabal!
The courtly, dignified politeness of the queen, with all those complacent graces which dance round flattered beauty, whose every charm is drawn forth by the consciousness of pleasing, promised all that a sanguine fancy had pourtrayed of future happiness and peace. From her fascinating smiles, indeed, was caught the careless hope, that, expanding the heart, makes the animal spirits vibrate, in every nerve, with pleasure:—yet, she smiled but to deceive; or, if she felt some touches of sympathy, it was only the unison of the moment.
It is certain, that education, and the atmosphere of manners in which a character is formed, change the natural laws of humanity; otherwise it would be unaccountable, how the human heart can be so dead to the tender emotions of benevolence, which most forcibly teach us, that real or lasting felicity flows only from a love of virtue, and the practice of sincerity.
The unfortunate queen of France, beside the advantages of birth and station, possessed a very fine person; and her lovely face, sparkling with vivacity, hid the want of intelligence. Her complexion was dazzlingly clear; and, when she was pleased, her manners were bewitching; for she happily mingled the most insinuating voluptuous softness and affability, with an air of grandeur, bordering on pride, that rendered the contrast more striking. Independence also, of whatever kind, always gives a degree of dignity to the mien; so that monarchs and nobles, with most ignoble souls, from believing themselves superiour to others, have actually acquired a look of superiority.
But her opening faculties were poisoned in the bud; for before she came to Paris, she had already been prepared, by a corrupt, supple abbé, for the part she was to play; and, young as she was, became so firmly attached to the aggrandizement of her house, that, though plunged deep in pleasure, she never omitted sending immense sums to her brother, on every occasion. The person of the king, in itself very disgusting, was rendered more so by gluttony, and a total disregard of delicacy, and even decency in his apartments: and, when jealous of the queen, for whom he had a kind of devouring passion, he treated her with great brutality, till she acquired sufficient finesse to subjugate him. Is it then surprizing, that a very desirable woman, with a sanguine constitution, should shrink abhorrent from his embraces; or that an empty mind should be employed only to vary the pleasures, which emasculated her circean court? And, added to this, the histories of the Julias and Messalinas of antiquity, convincingly prove, that there is no end to the vagaries of the imagination, when power is unlimited, and reputation set at defiance.
Lost then in the most luxurious pleasures, or managing court intrigues, the queen became a profound dissembler; and her heart hardened by sensual enjoyments to such a degree, that when her family and favourites stood on the brink of ruin, her little portion of mind was employed only to preserve herself from danger. As a proof of the justness of this assertion, it is only necessary to observe, that, in the general wreck, not a scrap of her writing has been found to criminate her; neither has she suffered a word to escape her to exasperate the people, even when burning with rage, and contempt. The effect that adversity may have on her choked understanding time will show* ; but during her prosperity, the moments of languor, that glide into the interstices of enjoyment, were passed in the most childish manner; without the appearance of any vigour of mind, to palliate the wanderings of the imagination.—Still she was a woman of uncommon address; and though her conversation was insipid, her compliments were so artfully adapted to flatter the person she wished to please or dupe, and so eloquent is the beauty of a queen, in the eyes even of superiour men, that she seldom failed to carry her point when she endeavoured to gain an ascendancy over the mind of an individual. Over that of the king she acquired unbounded sway, when, managing the disgust she had for his person, she made him pay a kingly price for her favours. A court is the best school in the world for actors; it was very natural then for her to become a complete actress, and an adept in all the arts of coquetry that debauch the mind, whilst they render the person alluring.
Had the hapless Louis possessed any decision of character, to support his glimmering sense of right, he would from this period have chosen a line of conduct, that might have saved his life by regulating his future politics. For this returning affection of the people alone was sufficient to prove to him, that it was not easy to eradicate their love for royalty; because, whilst they were contending for their rights with the nobility, they were happy to receive them as acts of beneficence from the king. But the education of the heir apparent of a crown must necessarily destroy the common sagacity and feelings of a man; and the education of this monarch, like that of Louis XV, only tended to make him a sensual bigot.
Priests have, in general, contrived to become the preceptors of kings; the more surely to support the church, by leaning it against the throne. Besides; kings, who without having their understandings enlarged, are set above attending to the forms of morality, which sometimes produce it’s spirit, are always particularly fond of those religious systems, which, like a sponge, wipe out the crimes that haunt the terrified imagination of unsound minds.
It has been the policy of the court of France, to throw an odium on the understanding of the king, when it was lavishing praises on the goodness of his heart. Now it is certain, that he possessed a considerable portion of sense, and discernment; though he wanted that firmness of mind, which constitutes character; or, in more precise words, the power of acting according to the dictates of a man’s own reason. He was a tolerable scholar; had sufficient patience to learn the english language; and was an ingenious mechanic. It is also well known, that in the council, when he followed only the light of his own reason, he often fixed on the most sage measures, which he was afterwards persuaded to abandon. But death seems to be the sport of kings, and, like the roman tyrant, whose solitary amusement was transfixing flies, this man, whose milkiness of heart has been perpetually contrasted with the pretended watriness of his head, was extremely fond of seeing those grimaces, made by tortured animals, which rouse to pleasure sluggish, gross sensations. The queen, however, prevailed on him not to attempt to amuse her, or raise a forced laugh, in a polite circle, by throwing a cat down the chimney, or shooting an harmless ass. Taught also to dissemble, from his cradle, he daily practised the despicable shifts of duplicity; though led by his indolence to take, rather than to give the tone to his domineering parasites.
The french nobility, perhaps, the most corrupt and ignorant set of men in the world, except in those objects of taste, which consist in giving variety to amusement, had never lived under the controul of any law, but the authority of the king; and having only to dread the Bastille for a little time, should they commit any enormity, could not patiently brook the restraints, the better government of the whole society required. Haughtily then disregarding the suggestions of humanity, and even prudence, they determined to subvert every thing, sooner than resign their privileges; and this tenacity will not appear astonishing, if we call to mind, that they considered the people as beasts of burden, and trod them under foot with the mud. This is not a figure of rhetoric; but a melancholy truth! For it is notorious, that, in the narrow streets of Paris, where there are no footways to secure the walkers from danger, they were frequently killed, without slackening, by the least emotion of fellow-feeling, the gallop of the thoughtless being, whose manhood was buried in a factitious character.
I shall not now recapitulate the feudal tyrannies, which the progress of civilization has rendered nugatory; it is sufficient to observe, that, as neither the life nor property of the citizens was secured by equal laws, both were often wantonly sported with by those who could do it with impunity. Arbitrary decrees have too often assumed the sacred majesty of law; and when men live in continual fear, and know not what they have to apprehend, they always become cunning and pusillanimous. Thus the abject manners, produced by despotism of any species, seem to justify them, in the eyes of those who only judge of things from their present appearance. This leads, likewise, to an observation, that partly accounts for the want of industry and cleanliness in France; for people are very apt to sport away their time, when they cannot look forward, with some degree of certainty, to the consolidation of a plan of future ease.
Every precaution was taken to divide the nation, and prevent any ties of affection, such as ought always to unite man with man, in all the relationships of life, from bringing the two ranks together with any thing like equality to consolidate them. If, for instance, the son of a nobleman happened so far to forget his rank, as to marry a woman of low birth; what misery have not those unfortunate creatures endured!—confined in prisons, or hunted out of the common nest, as contagious intruders. And if we remember also, that, while treated with contempt, only a twentieth part of the profit of his labour fell to the share of the husbandman, we shall cease to inquire, why the nobles opposed innovations, that must necessarily have overturned the fabric of despotism.
The inveterate pride of the nobles, the rapacity of the clergy, and the prodigality of the court, were, in short, the secret springs of the plot, now almost ripe, aimed at the embryo of freedom through the heart of the national assembly. But Paris, that city which contains so many different characters—that vortex, which draws every vice into it’s centre—that repository of all the materials of voluptuous degeneracy—that den of spies and assassins—contained likewise a number of enlightened men, and was able to raise a very formidable force, to defend it’s opinions.
The cabinet saw it’s rising spirit with suspicion; and, resorting to their old wiles, produced a scarcity of bread, hoping that, when the people should be disheartened, the approaching army under Broglio would bring the whole affair to a speedy issue. But circumstances seemed favourable to the people; for the electors of Paris, after they had chosen their deputies, the election having been protracted very late, continued to meet at the Hôtel-de-Ville, to prepare the instructions, which they had not time to digest before the assembling of the states-general.
At this juncture also, a spacious square, equally devoted to business and pleasure, called the Palais Royale, became the rendezvous of the citizens. There the most spirited gave lectures, whilst more modest men read the popular papers and pamphlets, on the benefits of liberty, and the crying oppressions of absolute governments. This was the centre of information; and the whole city flocking thither, to talk or to listen, returned home warmed with the love of freedom, and determined to oppose, at the risk of life, the power that should still labour to enslave them—and when life is put on the cast, do not men generally gain that for which they strive with those, who, wanting their enthusiasm, set more value on the stake?
The turbulence of the metropolis, produced in great measure by the continual arrival of foreign troops, furnished, nevertheless, a plausible pretext for blockading it; and thirty-five thousand men, at least, mostly consisting of hussars and mercenary troops, were drawn from the frontiers, and collected round Versailles. Camps were traced out for still more; and the posts, that commanded the roads leading to Paris, were filled with soldiers. The courtiers, then unable to repress their joy, vaunted, that the national assembly would soon be dissolved, and the rebellious deputies silenced by imprisonment, or death. And should even the french soldiers abandon them, among whom there were some symptoms of revolt, the court depended on the foreign troops, to strike terrour into the very heart of Paris and Versailles. The gathering army was already a very formidable force; but the spirit of enthusiasm, and a keen sense of injuries, rendered more sharp by insults, had such an effect on the people, that, instead of being intimidated, they coolly began to prepare for defence.
All had heard, or were now informed, of the efforts made by the americans to maintain their liberty.—All had heard of the glorious firmness of a handful of raw bostonian militia, who, on Bunker’s-hill, resisted the british disciplined troops, crimsoning the plains of Charles-town with the blood of the flower of their enemy’s army. This lesson for tyrants had resounded through the kingdom; and it ought to have taught them, that men determined to be free are always superiour to mercenary battalions even of veterans.
The popular leaders had also taken the surest means to ingratiate themselves with the soldiery, by mixing with them, and continually insinuating, that citizens ought not to allow the base ministers of power, to treat them like passive instruments of mischief. Besides, it was natural to expect, that the military, the most idle body of men in the kingdom, should attend to the topics of the day, and profit by the discussions, that disseminated new political principles. And such an influence had the arguments in favour of liberty on their minds, that, so early as the 23d of june, during a slight riot, two companies of the grenadiers refused to fire on the people, whom they were sent to disperse. But these symptoms of refractoriness roused the resentment of the court, instead of putting it on it’s guard: consequently several were sent to prison, and the troops were confined to their barracks; yet, regardless of these orders, they came in crowds to the Palais Royale, a day or two after, eager to unite their voices with the general shout, vive la nation, which spoke the present sentiments of the people. The regiments of french, also, that now arrived, to be stationed with the foreign troops round Paris, were conducted to this hot-bed of patriotism; and, meeting with the most cordial reception, they listened with interest to the lively representations of the enormities committed by their old government, and of the meanness of those men, who could live on the bread earned by butchering their fellow citizens.
Whilst these opinions were taking root, the people heard, that eleven of the french guards, confined in the abbey, because they would not obey the order to fire on the populace, were to be transferred to the Bicetre, the most ignominious of all the prisons. The contest now commenced; for the people hastened to deliver them, and, forcing their way, emancipated their friends; and even the hussars, who were called out to quell the disturbance, laid down their arms. Yet, attentive to justice, they sent back to confinement a soldier, who had been previously committed by the police, for some other misdemeanour.
Exasperated as they were, the people, not yet become lawless, guarded the men they had rescued; whilst they sent a deputation to the national assembly, to intercede with the king in their behalf. This spirited, yet prudent, behaviour produced the desired effect; and the assembly named a certain number of the deputies, who with scrupulous decorum were to demand this grace of the king: and he accordingly granted their pardon, laying a cautious stress on it’s being the first request made by the assembly. Put it was still questionable, whether this extorted act of lenity were not done, like the other actions of the court, only to blind the preparations that were making, to humble effectually the soldiery, the metropolis, and the assembly.
During this period of general suspicion, the presence of such a considerable sorce, as now was encamped on every side of the capital, particularly alarmed the electors, who held their deliberations very constantly to watch over the public peace; and, in order to avert the threatening storm, they proposed raising the city militia. Yet, before they determined, they sent to apprise the national assembly of their intention; wishing the king to be informed, that, if an armed force were necessary to secure the public tranquillity, the citizens themselves were the most proper persons to be entrusted with the commission.
The unsettled state of Paris, now suffering from a scarcity of bread, furnished, however, a plausible pretext for the augmentation of the troops, which increased the calamity. ‘When it is with the greatest difficulty,’ says one of the electors, ‘that we can procure provision for the inhabitants, was it necessary to increase the famine and our fears, by calling together a number of soldiers, who were dispersed through all the provinces? These troops,’ he adds, ‘were destined to guard the frontiers, whilst the representatives of the nation are deliberating on the formation of a constitution. But this constitution, desired by the king, and demanded by all the provinces of France, has to cope with dangerous interiour enemies.’
The national assembly, likewise, could not but perceive, that more soldiers were stationed near them, than would have been sufficient to repel a foreign invasion; and Mirabeau, with his usual fervour, animated them to action, by a lively picture of their situation. ‘Thirty-five thousand men,’ he observed, ‘are now distributed between Paris and Versailles; and twenty thousand more are expected. Trains of artillery follow them; and places are already marked out for batteries. They have made sure of all the communications.—All our entrances are intercepted; our roads, our bridges, and our public walks, are changed into military posts. The notorious events, the secret orders, and precipitate counter-orders—in short, preparations for war, strike every eye, and fill with indignation every heart. Gentlemen, if the question were only the insulted dignity of the assembly, it would demand the attention of the king himself; for should he not take care, that we be treated with decency, since we are deputies of the nation from which his glory emanates, which alone constitutes the splendour of the throne?—Yes; of that nation, who will render the person of the king honourable in proportion as he respects himself? Since his wish is to command free men, it is time to banish the old odious forms, those insulting proceedings, which too easily persuade the courtiers, who surround the prince, that royal majesty consists in the abasing relation of master and slave; that a legitimate and beloved king ought on all occasions to show himself with the aspect of an irritated tyrant; or, of those usurpers condemned by their melancholy fate, to mistake the tender and flattering sentiments of confidence.—And who will dare to say, that circumstances have rendered necessary these menacing measures? On the contrary, I am going to demonstrate, that they are equally useless and dangerous, considered either with respect to good order, the quieting of the public, or the safety of the throne: and, far from appearing the fruit of a sincere attachment to the person of the monarch, they can only gratify private passions, and cover perfidious designs. Undoubtedly I do not know every pretext, every artifice of the enemies of reformation, since I cannot divine with what plausible reason they have coloured the pretended want of troops, at a moment, when not only their inutility, but their danger strikes every mind.
‘With what eye will the people, harrassed by so many calamities, see this swarm of idle soldiers come to dispute with them their morsel of bread? The contrast of the plenty enjoyed by one, with the indigence of the other; of the security of the soldiers, to whom the manna falls, without it’s being necessary for them to think of to-morrow, with the anguish of the people, who obtain nothing but by hard labour and painful sweat; is sufficient to make every heart sink with despondency. Added to this, gentlemen, the presence of the troops heats the imagination of the populace; and, by continually presenting new fears, excites an universal effervescence, till the citizens are at their very fire-sides a prey to every kind of terrour. The people, roused and agitated, form tumultuous assemblies; and, giving way to their impetuosity, precipitate themselves into danger—for fear neither calculates nor reasons!’ He concluded with moving an address to the king, representing, that the people were extremely alarmed by the assembling of such a number of troops, and the preparations made to form camps during this season of scarcity; and to remonstrate respecting the conduct of those, who sought to destroy the confidence that ought to subsist between the king and the representatives of the people—a confidence, which alone can enable them to fulfil their functions, and establish the reform expected from their zeal by a suffering nation.
This speech produced the desired effect; and the motion being carried, Mirabeau was requested to prepare an address for their consideration.
The purport of the address was an abridgement of the above speech; respectful; nay, even affectionate; but spirited and noble.
Yet this remonstrance, so well calculated to preserve the dignity of the monarch, and appease the agitation of the public, produced no other effect than a supercilious answer, that only tended to increase the want of confidence, to which disgust gave a new edge. For, instead of attending to the prayer of the nation, the king asserted, that the tumultuous and scandalous scenes, which had passed at Paris, and at Versailles, under his own eyes, and those of the national assembly, were sufficient to induce him, one of whose principal duties it was to watch over the public safety, to station troops round Paris.—Still, he declared, that, far from intending to interrupt their freedom of debate, he only wished to preserve them even from all apprehension of tumult and violence. If, however, the necessary presence of the troops continue to give umbrage, he was willing, at the request of the assembly, to transfer the states-general to Noyon or Soissons; and to repair himself to Compiégne, in order to maintain the requisite intercourse with the assembly. This answer signified nothing; or, rather, it formally announced, that the king would not send away the troops. Obvious as was the meaning, and contemptible as was the dissimulation; yet, as it came from the sovereign, the fountain of fortune and honours, some of the supple hands of the deputies applauded.—But, Mirabeau was not to be cajoled by such shallow fallacy. ‘Gentlemen,’ said he, impatiently, ‘the goodness of the king’s heart is so well known, that we might tranquilly conside in his virtue, did he always act from himself.—But, the assurances of the king are no guarantee for the conduct of his ministers, who have not ceased to mislead his good disposition.—And have we yet to learn, that the habitual confidence of the french in their king is less a virtue than a vice, if it extend to all parts of the administration?
‘Who amongst us is ignorant, in fact, that it is our blind, giddy inconsideration, which has led us from century to century, from fault to fault, to the crisis that now afflicts us, and which ought at last to open our eyes, if we have not resolved to be headstrong children and slaves, till the end of time?
‘The reply of the king is a pointed refusal. The ministry would have it regarded only as a simple form of assurance and goodness; and they have affected to think, that we have made our demand, without attaching much interest to it’s success, and only to appear to have made it. It is necessary to undeceive the ministry—Certainly, my opinion is, not to fail in the confidence and respect which we owe to the virtues of the king; but I likewise advise, that we be no more inconsistent, timid, and wavering in our measures.—Certainly, there is no need to deliberate on the removal proposed; for, in short, notwithstanding the king’s answer, we will not go to Noyon, nor to Soissons—We have not demanded this permission; nor will we, because it is scarcely probable, that we should ever desire to place ourselves between two or three bodies of troops; those which invest Paris, and those which might fall upon us from Flanders and Alsace. We have demanded the removal of the troops—that was the object of our address!—We have not asked permission to flee before them; but only that they should be sent from the capital. And it is not for ourselves, that we have made this demand; for they know very well, that it was suggested by a concern for the general interest, not by any sentiment of fear. At this moment, the presence of the troops disturbs the public order, and may produce the most melancholy events.—Our removal, far from preventing, would, on the contrary, only aggravate the evil. It is necessary, then, to restore peace, in spite of the friends of disorder; it is necessary, to be consistent with ourselves; and to be so, we have only to adhere to one line of conduct, which is to insist, without relaxing, that the troops be sent away, as the only sure way to obtain it.’
This speech, delivered on the 11th of july, produced no further decision in the assembly, though it kept the attention of the members fixt to a point.
But things were now drawing rapidly to a crisis; for this very day Necker, who had been retained in place, only to hoodwink the people, was dismissed, with an injunction not to mention his dismission; and to leave the kingdom in twenty-four hours. These orders he servilely obeyed; and, with all the promptitude of personal fear, said, without the least emotion, to the nobleman, who brought the king’s commands, ‘we shall meet this evening at the council;’ and continued to converse, in his usual strain of smoothness, with the company at dinner. Miserable weakness! This man, who professed himself the friend of the people, and who had so lately promised ‘to live or die with them,’ had not, when brought to the test, sufficient magnanimity to warn them where danger threatened—For he must have known, that this dismission was the signal of hostilities: yet, fleeing like a felon, he departed in disguise, keeping the secret with all the caution of cowardice.*
The next day, the appointment of the new ministry, men particularly obnoxious to the public, made it known to the people; who viewed with melancholy horrour the awsul horizon, where had long been gathering the storm, now ready to burst on their devoted heads. The agitation of the public mind, indeed, resembled a troubled sea; which, having been put in motion by a raging tornado, gradually swells, until the whole element, wave rolling on wave, exhibits one unbounded commotion. All eyes were now opened, all saw the approaching blast; the hollow murmurs of which had inspired a confused terrour for some time past.
It had been proposed on the 10th, at the Hôtel-de-Ville, as a regulation of the Garde-Bourgeoise, that twelve hundred men should be raised at a time, to be relieved every week; and the capital having been divided, at the election, into sixty districts, only twenty would be called out of each. And it was further resolved, that the districts should rest embodied until the entire evacuation of the troops, excepting those who formed the common compliment of the guards. The following day it was decreed; an address was voted to the national assembly, to request their mediation with the king, to sanction immediately the city militia; and the sittings of the committee were adjourned till monday, the 13th. But some of the electors, having heard on sunday, that the populace were all repairing to the Hôtel-de-Ville, hastened there about six o’clock in the evening, and found the hall indeed crowded with people of all conditions. A thousand confused voices demanded arms, and orders to found the tocsin.
At eight o’clock, the patrol guard was relieved, at the Hôtel-de-Ville, and the multitude pressed on the soldiers to disarm them; redoubling the cry for arms at the moment; and even threatened to set fire to the hall. But, still observing some respect for subordination, they demanded, a little imperiously, it is true, an order, in virtue of which, the citizens might arm themselves to repulse the danger that menaced the capital—and amidst these clamours, several precipitate reports painted, in the most lively colours, this danger.
One of the crowd said, that, no sooner had the news of the dismission of Necker reached Paris, than the people hastened to a sculptor’s, and, seizing the busts of that minister, and of the duke of Orleans, they were now actually carrying them through the streets:—Another informed them, that the multitude had rushed into the different theatres, at the hour of opening them, and required, that they should be instantly shut;* and that in consequence all the spectators had been sent away:—A third announced four cannons, placed at the entrance of the Champs Elysées, with their cannoneers ready to light their matches, which were to begin the combat; and that these four cannons were supported by a regiment of cavalry, which, advancing under the command of the prince de Lambese to the place of Louis 15th, was stationed by the bridge that leads to the Thuilleries. He added also, that a cavalier of this regiment, passing by a soldier of the french guards, had fired his pistol at him; and, that the prince de Lambese himself had galloped into the garden, sabre in hand, followed by a detachment, who put to flight the old men, women, and children, that were peaceably taking their customary walk; nay, that he had actually killed, with his own hand, an old man, who was escaping from the tumult. The reporter, it is true, forgot to notice, that the populace had begun to pelt the prince with the stones, that were lying ready, near the buildings which were not finished. Startled, perhaps, by this resistance, and despising the mob, that he expected, only by his presence, to have intimidated, in a delirium, most probably, of terrour and astonishment, he wounded an unarmed man, who fled before him. Be that as it may, this wanton outrage excited the indignation necessary to fire every spirit.
The electors being still pressed for arms, and unable to furnish them, at eleven o’clock decreed, that the districts should be immediately convoked; and that they would repair to all the posts of armed citizens, to beg them, in the name of their country, to avoid all species of riot.—But this was not the moment to talk of peace, when all were making ready for battle.—The tumult now became general. To arms! To arms! re-echoed from all quarters—and the whole city was instantly in motion, seeking for weapons of defence. Whilst the women and children rent the air with shrieks and lamentations, the cannons were fired; and the tocsins of the different parish churches joined by degrees, to excite, and continue, the universal alarm.
Still all their thoughts were turned on defensive measures. Many of the citizens, by ransacking the warehouses of arms, and catching up spits and pokers, appeared with weapons in their hands to second their determinate countenances; and being joined by some of the french guards, more completely accoutred, forced those foreign mercenaries, who had first awakened their fury, to retreat, fleeing like the beasts of the desert, before the bold and generous lion. Though victorious in this midnight fray, because determined to conquer, still they had scarcely any fire arms; and were as inexpert in the use of those they found, as the inhabitants of capitals commonly are—But indignation made each of them, so restless was their courage, seize something to defend himself with: hammers, axes, shovels, pikes, all were sought for, and clenched in hands nerved by heroism; yes, by true heroism, for personal safety was disregarded in the common danger. Wives assisted to beat out pikes for their husbands, and children ran about to pile up stones in readiness for tomorrow. To increase the apprehensions of the night, one of the barriers was set on fire; and a band of desperate robbers, taking advantage of the confusion, began to pillage some houses. To arms! was the cry of danger, and the watch-word of the city—for who could close their eyes? Whilst the tocsin drowning the murmurs of rage, and distress, made the confusion solemn.
Different sounds excited different emotions at Versailles; for there the heart, beating high with exultation, gave way to the most intemperate joy.—Already the courtiers imagined, that the whole mischief was crushed, and that they had the assembly at their mercy.
Intoxicated by success, a little too soon reckoned on, the queen, the count d’Artois, and their favourites, visited the haunt of the bribed ruffians, who were lurking in ambush, ready to fall upon their prey; encouraging them by an engaging affability of behaviour, and more substantial marks of favour, to forget every consideration, but their commands. And so flattered were they by the honied words, and coquetish smiles of the queen, that they promised, as they drained the cup in her honour, not to sheath their swords, till France was compelled to obedience, and the national assembly dispersed. With savage ferocity they danced to the sound of music attuned to slaughter, whilst plans of death and devastation gave the zest to the orgies, that worked up their animal spirits to the highest pitch. After this account, any reflections on the baneful effects of power, or on the unrestrained indulgence of pleasure, that could thus banish tenderness from the female bosom, and harden the human heart, would be an insult to the reader’s sensibility.
How silent is now Versailles!—The solitary foot, that mounts the sumptuous stair-case, rests on each landing-place, whilst the eye traverses the void, almost expecting to see the strong images of fancy burst into life.—The train of the Louises, like the posterity of the Banquoes, pass in solemn sadness, pointing at the nothingness of grandeur, fading away on the cold canvass, which covers the nakedness of the spacious walls—whilst the gloominess of the atmosphere gives a deeper shade to the gigantic figures, that seem to be sinking into the embraces of death.
Warily entering the endless apartments, half shut up, the fleeting shadow of the pensive wanderer, reflected in long glasses, that vainly gleam in every direction, slacken the nerves, without appalling the heart; though lascivious pictures, in which grace varnishes voluptuousness, no longer seductive, strike continually home to the bosom the melancholy moral, that anticipates the frozen lesson of experience. The very air is chill, seeming to clog the breath; and the wasting dampness of destruction appears to be stealing into the vast pile, on every side.
The oppressed heart seeks for relief in the garden; but even there the same images glide along the wide neglected walks—all is fearfully still; and, if a little rill creeping through the gathering moss down the cascade, over which it used to rush, bring to mind the description of the grand water works, it is only to excite a languid smile at the futile attempt to equal nature.
Lo! this was the palace of the great king!—the abode of magnificence! Who has broken the charm?—Why does it now inspire only pity?—Why;—because nature, smiling around, presents to the imagination materials to build farms, and hospitable mansions, where, without raising idle admiration, that gladness will reign, which opens the heart to benevolence, and that industry, which renders innocent pleasure sweet.
Weeping—scarcely conscious that I weep, O France! over the vestiges of thy former oppression; which, separating man from man with a sence of iron, sophisticated all, and made many completely wretched; I tremble, lest I should meet some unfortunate being, fleeing from the despotism of licentious freedom, hearing the snap of the guillotine at his heels; merely because he was once noble, or has assorded an asylum to those, whose only crime is their name—and, if my pen almost bound with eagerness to record the day, that levelled the Bastille with the dust, making the towers of despair tremble to their base; the recollection, that still the abbey is appropriated to hold the victims of revenge and suspicion, palsies the hand that would fain do justice to the assault, which tumbled into heaps of ruins walls that seemed to mock the resistless force of time.—Down fell the temple of despotism; but—despotism has not been buried in it’s ruins!—Unhappy country!—when will thy children cease to tear thy bosom?—When will a change of opinion, producing a change of morals, render thee truly free?—When will truth give life to real magnanimity, and justice place equality on a stable seat?—When will thy sons trust, because they deserve to be trusted; and private virtue become the guarantee of patriotism? Ah!—when will thy government become the most perfect, because thy citizens are the most virtuous!
[* ]Under the reign of Louis XV two hundred and thirty thousand lettres de cachet had been issued; and after this, who will assert, that this was not an inveterate evil, which ought to be eradicated; for it is an insult to human reason, to talk of the modification of such abuses, as seem to be experiments to try how far human patience can be stretched.
[* ]Count Lally Tolendal.
[*]This was written some months before the death of the queen,
[* ]Such is ever the conduct of soi-disant patriots.
[* ]This is an event much more important at Paris, than it would be in London.