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CHAPTER I. - 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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a deputation of the national assembly arrives at paris. baillie chosen mayor, and la fayette commander in chief of the national guards. resignation of the ministry. necklr recalled. the king visits paris. character of the parisians. the revolution urged on prematurely. emigrations of several of the nobility and others. calonne advises the french princes to stir up foreign powers against france. foulon killed.
The presence of the deputies had diffused throughout the capital the most intoxicating joy—for where is joy expressed with such infantile playfulness, such entire forgetfulness of to-morrow, as at Paris? and the citizens, with their usual burst of gratitude, which always resembles adoration, made choice of Baillie, the first acting president of the national assembly, for mayor, and of La Fayette for commander in chief of the national guards: the name now given to the garde-bourgeoise, and the other soldiers incorporated with them. But the rapture of the parisians, as transient as lively, dwindled, as their spirits were exhausted, into the murmurs of suspicion.—The ministry, said they, who were chosen to depress us, are not yet dismissed; and the troops, that were to have been their instruments of mischief, still hover round Paris, and are even augmented by the arrival of two fresh regiments at St. Denis. A rumour was spread, that a convoy of flour had been intercepted by the order of the ministers, in it’s way to Paris; and some disturbances at the Bastille had given colour to a report, that they had attempted to make themselves once more masters of this important fortress. The night of the 15th was then another devoted to watchfulness and anxiety; and in the morning a deputation was sent to the national assembly, praying them to demand the dismission of the present ministry, and the recall of Necker.
The assembly took the subject into deliberation; but still attentive to etiquette, they debated about the decorum of interfering with the appointment of the executive power. This roused the genius of Mirabeau; and the bubbles of fear, and the straw-like objections of timidity, were carried away by the torrent of his eloquence. The discussion grew warm; yet for the present occasion soon became of little importance, because the ministry, finding that they could not stand the brunt of the storm, resigned; Necker also, in whom the public had still the most implicit confidence, was invited to return;—and the king, appearing to be anxious to give every proof of his desire to establish general tranquillity, signified, that he wished to visit Paris. A short time after they were officially informed that the troops were promptly removing to more distant quarters. The national assembly accordingly sent some of their members to communicate to the parisians this welcome intelligence, to prepare for the reception of the king by calming the fears of the people.
And he, adhering to his purpose, left Versailles the next day (the 17th), though his family ridiculously endeavoured to dissuade him; insinuating, that he ought not to trust his sacred person to the mercy of an enraged multitude; whilst rumours of projected assassinations were repeated before him, with exaggerated comments. But, being a man of considerable animal courage, and now almost perceiving, that all the evils with which he was struggling had been produced by his headstrong advisers, he seemed determined, at least for the present, not to be governed by their dangerous councils. And he had even the sagacity to foresee, that, convulsed as the kingdom was, they would occasion a civil war, and his life might then be still more exposed. In this instance, as we shall find in many others, Louis appears to have been directed by a kind of glimmering instinct of propriety; for at the present juncture it was particularly discreet, considering the little effect the pageantry of the court had produced at the séance royale, to meet the people without the parade of robes or guards. And, in fact, the hundred deputies who followed him, were now the only retinue that would have appeared respectable in the eyes of the people. What too must have been his surprise, in spite of all he had heard, to pass through an immense avenue of armed parisians with such a new aspect.—Till now he had always seen a timid multitude flying before the watch, giving vent to their vengeance in vain songs, and to their grief in feeble murmurs:—to-day he saw them triumphant, moving orderly along, calling out on every side, during the procession, for a constitution and laws! marching in unison with their reflections, they advanced, but slowly; for, almost afraid to hope, they proceeded with the measured step of thought, or rather sadness; and the people, whose mind was still agitated, as the swell of the sea continues after the storm has subsided, uttered not the shout of gladness—vive le roi;—but the menacing memento—vive la nation.
This was as ominous a sound, as the woe! woe! resounding through the silent streets of a besieged city—for it was equally the voice of fate, proclaiming the will of the people, disgusted with courts, and suspicious even of the king. Louis seems to have been forcibly struck by the energy every where displayed; and not more by the eloquent discourses addressed to him at the hôtel-de-ville, than by the countenance of each citizen: for the fire of liberty had already lighted up in every face the serene lustre of manly firmness.—So impressed, indeed, was his mind by the whole scene, that, when the animated speakers were silent, he exclaimed in reply—‘My people! my people, may always rely on my love.’—And taking the national cockade from the hands of the mayor, he appeared at the window with his heart in his eyes, as if eager to convince the multitude of his sincerity: and perhaps conscious, that, first submitting to necessity, he now yielded to feeling. At these words, the repetition of which flew like lightning from rank to rank, the whole concourse of people caught the electrical sympathy.—Vive-le-roi was shouted from every quarter; and revived affection glowed with the fresh fervour, that effaces the remembrance of doubts, and makes the fear of having been unjust, the most powerful spring of tenderness. And persuading themselves, for the moment, that the disposition of the king was not so much at variance with their happiness as his conduct, they poured blessings on him, bestowing all their execrations on his counsellors.
Pleasure, now almost mounting to a feverish height, set all Paris quickly in motion; and the found of the thundering artillery was the swift harbinger of the tidings of reconciliation to Versailles, where the royal family must have been anxiously alive to the events of the day.
These sudden transitions from one extreme to another, without leaving any settled conviction behind, to confirm or eradicate the corroding distrust, could not be seen in such a strong light any where as at Paris, because there a variety of causes have so effeminated reason, that the french may be considered as a nation of women; and made feeble, probably, by the same combination of circumstances, as has rendered these insignificant. More ingenious than profound in their researches; more tender than impassioned in their affections; prompt to act, yet soon weary; they seem to work only to escape from work, and to reflect merely how they shall avoid reflection. Indolently restless, they make the elegant furniture of their rooms, like their houses, voluptuously handy. Every thing, in short, shows the dexterity of the people, and their attention to present enjoyment.
And so passive appears to be their imagination, it requires to be roused by novelty; and then, more lively than strong, the evanescent emotions scarcely leave any traces behind them. From being devoted to pleasure in their youth, old age is commonly passed in such merely animal gratifications, that a respectable looking aged man or woman is very rarely to be seen. Independent, likewise, of the vanity which makes them wish to appear polite, at the very moment they are ridiculing a person, their great susceptibility of disposition leads them to take an interest in all the sensations of others, which are forgotten almost as soon as felt. And these transient gusts of feeling prevent their forming those firm resolves of reason, that, bracing the nerves, when the heart is moved, make sympathy yield to principles, and the mind triumph over the senses.
Besides, the climate of France is so genial, and the blood mounted so cheerily in the veins, even of the oppressed common people, that, living for the day, they continually basked in the sunshine, which broke from behind the heavy clouds that hung over them.
It is impossible, after tracing the horrid conspiracy formed by the court against the lives and liberty of the people, not to feel the most ineffable contempt for that kind of government, which leaves the happiness of a nation at the mercy of a capricious minister of state. The awful and interesting lesson, which the developement of this treachery afforded, was such as ought to have made an indelible impression on their minds.—It was a lesson, the very thought of which stops for a moment the genial current of the heart.—It was a lesson, that should be repeated to mankind, to bring home to their very senses a conviction of the lengths to which a depraved and absolute government will go, for the sake of holding fast it’s power.—It was, in short, a deduction of experience, which will teach posterity that life, and every thing dear to man, can be secured only by the preservation of liberty.
The want of decision in the character of Louis seems to have been the foundation of all his faults, as well as of all his misfortunes; and every moment fresh occasions to make the observation arise as we trace his misconduct, or compassionate his situation.
To give a striking instance, it is only necessary to turn our attention to the fatal effects that flowed from his consenting to assemble an army of foreigners, to intimidate the states-general. He could not resist the court, who counselled this measure; or silence the misgivings of his heart, which made him averse to the troops taking any decisive step, that might lead to slaughter. And still governed by these undisciplined seelings, when he dismissed the army, he pursued the advice of the very cabal, that had led him into this errour; giving way to the wishes of the people, yet dissembling with them even in the act of reconciliation. Thus, for ever wavering, it is difficult to mark any fixt purpose in his actions; excepting that which does him honour—the desire to prevent the shedding of blood. This principle has, in general, directed his conduct; though the short-sighted measures of timid humanity, devoid of strength of mind, turned all his efforts to a very contrary effect.
From the presence of these troops, and their abortive attempt to crush liberty in the egg, the shell was prematurely broken, and the enthusiasm of frenchmen excited before their judgment was in any considerable degree formed. Intoxicated by conquest, each began to descant on the existing abuses, to show his own cleverness in pointing out the remedy; and arms being once in the hands of the people, it was difficult to persuade them to give them up for the occupations of peace. It is true, had the national assembly been allowed quietly to have made some reforms, paving the way for more, the Bastille, though tottering on it’s dungeons, might yet have stood erect.—And, if it had, the sum of human misery could scarcely have been increased. For the guillotine not finding it’s way to the splendid square it has polluted, streams of innocent blood would not have flowed, to obliterate the remembrance of false imprisonment, and drown the groans of solitary grief in the loud cry of agony—when, the thread of life quickly cut in twain, the quivering light of hope is instantly dashed out—and the billows suddenly closing, the silence of death is felt!—This tale is soon told.—We hear not of years languished away in misery, whilst dissolution by inches palsies the frame, or disturbs the reason: yet, who can estimate the sum of comfort blasted; or tell how many survivors pine the prey of an imagination distracted by sorrow?
The character of the french, indeed, had been so depraved by the inveterate despotism of ages, that even amidst the heroism which distinguished the taking of the Bastille, we are forced to see that suspicious temper, and that vain ambition of dazzling, which have generated all the succeeding follies and crimes. For, even in the most public-spirited actions, celebrity seems to have been the spur, and the glory, rather than the happiness of frenchmen, the end.—This observation inforces the grand truth on mankind, that without morality there can be no great strength of understanding, or real dignity of conduct. The morals of the whole nation were destroyed by the manners formed by the government.—Pleasure had been pursued, to fill up the void of rational employment; and fraud combined with servility to debase the character;—so that, when they changed their system, liberty, as it was called, was only the acme of tyranny—merely with this difference, that, all the force of nature being roused, the magnitude of the evil promised, by some mighty concussion, to effect it’s own cure.
The reunion of the king and people not only routed, but terrified, the cabal; and as cowardly in adversity, as presumptuous in prosperity, they immediately took to flight different ways, and even disguised. One man, who had long been obnoxious to the people on account of inordinate covetousness, and vulgar tyranny, not softened by the graceful condescension of the nobility, caused it to be reported, that he was dead. The renowned mareschal Broglio sought an asylum at Luxemburgh, whilst madame Polignac fled to Basle. Thus went into exile an amiable woman, who had been the instrument of the ambition of a family, that rapaciously availed themselves of her great favour with the queen, whose strange predilection for handsome women blighted the reputation of every one, whom she distinguished.
The count d’Artois, with several others of the blood royal and principal nobility, likewise thought it prudent to leave the kingdom for the present; either to provide for their safety, or to seek vengeance. At Brussels they met the unquiet Calonne, who, having heard of the dismission of Necker, was lured back by the first glimpse of hope. For wishing to wipe away the indignity, which he had so impatiently brooked; and fondly believing, that the army had had sufficient time to quash the verbal disputes of the nation; he was hastening towards France, to be ready to come in for his share of the triumph.
To his country this meeting has proved a source of evil, that could only have been hatched in such an unprincipled brain, fertile in plans of mischief, and prone to puzzle the cause which he wanted force to subvert. His last effort for power had been to obtain a seat in the states-general. And, had not the remembrance of his former administration stood in his way, it is probable he would have succeeded, and there have become a flaming patriot, could he have been the leader of a party; for he possessed the showy talents necessary to procure instantaneous applause in a popular assembly—a deceiving, rather than a commanding eloquence. Mirabeau, on the contrary, seems to have had from nature a strong perception of a dignified propriety of conduct; and truth appearing to give earnestness to his arguments, his hearers were compelled to agree with him out of respect to themselves. Leaving then plausibility far behind, he always stood forth as the sturdy champion of reason; even when, laying down his club, he loitered to dally with the imagination. Whilst therefore Mirabeau was teaching the national assembly dignity* , the resentment of the vain-glorious Calonne, sharpened to the keenest edge by disappointment, made him suggest to those crest-fallen princes, the necessity of engaging foreign aid, to reinstate the king in his former plenitude of power, and to heal their wounded pride. Unfortunately, the plausibility of his manners, and the ingenuity of his arguments, awakened their fears, and nourished their prejudices; and quickly persuaded to assert what they wished to believe, they protested against the conduct of the national assembly; insinuating, that the body of the people did not support their pretensions. The delusion, however, did not rest here; for he even convinced them, that, if the appeal made to the national honour of the french did not recall crowds to their chivalrous allegiance, it would not be a difficult task to engage all the powers of Europe in behalf of his most christian majesty, by showing them, that, if freedom were once established in France, it would soon extend beyond it’s confines, bounding over the Alps and Pyrenees.
Such are the opposite sentiments, or rather conduct of court parasites, and men struggling to be free, that it is sufficient to contrast them. The deputies, whose lives had been threatened, and their persons grossly insulted, not only excused the ill advised monarch for the countenance which he had given to the violation of the most sacred principles; but expressed a conciliatory disposition to all parties. The mob, it is true, in the heat of rage, inhumanly butchered two of the vile instruments of despotism. But this violence offered to justice ought not to be attributed to the temper of the people, much less to the connivance of the national assembly, who acted with a degree of magnanimity, at this time, of which it can never be enough lamented that they have since lost sight. The behaviour however of the hardened children of oppression in all countries is the same; whether in the amphitheatre at Rome, or around the lantern-post in Paris.
The king’s eldest brother alone remained with the court, a man with more resources of understanding in himself, than the rest of his family; yet, making it a point of honour to be treated like his younger brother the count d’Artois, he contributed by his rapacity to drain the royal treasure, though such an expensive variety of amusements was not necessary to give a zest to his pleasures.
The noble depredators had now escaped; yet Foulon, the minister, the most desperate and pusillanimous of the gang, was taken, in spite of his mock funeral.—I purposely use the word gang; for a squeamish delicacy with respect to terms makes us sometimes confound characters to such a degree, that the great villain is not stigmatized with the epithet associated with the idea of a gallows; because, by the grossest subversion of reason, the aggravation of guilt has so palliated the punishment, that the head, which would have disgraced a halter, has been respectfully severed on a block.
Once seized, no authority could prevent the murder of this miserable wretch; and the same evening the intendant of Paris, his son-in-law, met a death still more shocking, being prolonged by the humane interposition of the respectable mayor, and La Fayette, in his favour.
Strange, that a people, who often leave the theatre before the catastrophe, should have bred up such monsters! Still we ought to recollect, that the sex, called the tender, commit the most flagrant acts of barbarity when irritated.—So weak is the tenderness produced merely by sympathy, or polished manners, compared with the humanity of a cultivated understanding. Alas!—It is morals, not feelings, which distinguish men from the beasts of prey! These were transactions, over which, for the honour of human nature, it were to be wished oblivion could draw the winding-sheet, that has often enwrapped a heart, whose benevolence has been felt, but not known. But, if it be impossible to erase from the memory these foul deeds, which, like the stains of deepest dye revived by remorse in the conscience, can never be rubbed out—why dwell circumstantially on the excesses that revolt humanity, and dim the lustre of the picture, on which the eye has gazed with rapture, often obliged to look up to heaven to forget the misery endured on earth? Since, however, we cannot ‘out the damned spot,’ it becomes necessary to observe, that, whilst despotism and superstition exist, the convulsions, which the regeneration of man occasions, will always bring forward the vices they have engendered, to devour their parents.
Servility, destroying the natural energy of man, stifles the noblest sentiments of the soul.—Thus debased, heroic actions are merely directed by the head, and the heart drops not into them it’s balm, more precious than the trees of Arabia ever distilled! Ought we then to wonder, that this dry substitute for humanity is often burnt up by the scorching flame of revenge? This has now actually been the case; for there has been seen amongst the french a spurious race of men, a set of cannibals, who have gloried in their crimes; and tearing out the hearts that did not feel for them, have proved, that they themselves had iron bowels. ‘But, if the anger of the people be terrible,’ exclaims Mirabeau, ‘it is the sang froid of despotism, that is atrocious; those systematic cruelties, which have made more wretches in a day than the popular insurrections have immolated in a course of years!* We often fear,’ adds he, ‘the people, because we have injured them; and thus are forced to fetter those we oppress.’
The example of the capital was followed by the provinces; and all the citizens flew to arms, whilst the soldiers grounded their’s, swearing not to stain their hands with the blood of their fellow citizens. Added to the account of the conspiracy to dissolve the states-general, and massacre their representatives, a number of idle rumours of present danger tended to make the country people not only eager to guard against they scarcely knew what, but also desirous to enter into the adventures, and share the honours of the parisians.
In all civil wars, personal vengeance mixing with public, or taking advantage of it, has directed the dagger of the assassin: and in France it ought particularly to have been dreaded; because, when fear induces a man to smother his just resentment, the festering wound is only to be cured by revenge. It is then highly probable, that most of the barbarities in the towns were the effervescence of private anger, or the sport of depraved, uncultivated minds, who found the same pleasure in tormenting men, as mischievous boys in dismembering insects; for public indignation, directed against aristocratical tyranny, was elsewhere, in general, displayed only in burning the country castles, and the archives of nobility. But, in the country, indeed, men rarely commit such crimes, as lift up their reptile heads in the capital, where the rank atmosphere affords the noxious particles necessary to give virulence to the poison. The vices of villagers are, in fact, rather the rich exuberance of the passions, than the vile dregs of exhausted nature.
[* ]Mirabeau appears to have been continually hurt by the want of dignity in the assembly.—By the inconsistency, which made them stalk as heroes one moment, with a true theatrical stride, and the next cringe with the flexible backs of habitual slaves.
[* ]‘Let us compare,’ he further adds, ‘the number of innocents sacrificed by mistake, by the sanguinary maxims of the courts of criminal judicature, and the ministerial vengeance exercised secretly in the dungeons of Vincennes, and in the cells of the Bastille, with the sudden and impetuous vengeance of the multitude, and then decide on which side barbarity appears. At the moment when the hell created by tyranny for the torment of it’s victims opens itself to the public eye; at the moment when all the citizens have been permitted to descend into those gloomy caves, to poize the chains of their friends, of their defenders; at the moment when the registers of those iniquitous archives are fallen into all hands; it is necessary, that the people should be essentially good, or this manifestation of the atrocities of ministers would have rendered them as cruel as themselves!’