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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 duke of liancourt chosen president. the people arm for the defence of the country. the municipal officers appointed under the old government superseded by committees. some people treacherously destroyed by springing a mine at a civic feast. the genevese resident taken up by the patrol. the french suspicious of the designs of britain. necker returns. general amnesty resolved by the electors of paris. debate on a declaration of rights. declaration of rights separate from the constitution determined on. sacrifices made by the nobles, clergy, &c.
The duke of Liancourt, whose warning voice had made the king look around him, when danger was at his heels, was now chosen president. At this moment the obstacles, which at first clogged the exertions of the assembly, seemed to have been overcome: still fresh ones starting up threw a damp on their exultation; and the apprehensions of a famine, real or factitious, were not the least alarming, though the most frequent.
New conspiracies were already formed on the borders of France, by the princes, and those who had subsisted by the corruptions of the old system. But this only proved a stimulus; because the nation, being determined to secure the rights it had so suddenly regained, raised new regiments in every part of the country, and was soon in a situation to repel any attack, which it was possible for all Germany to have made; the only quarter from which the fugitive princes, at that period, could expect assistance. So rapid was the spirit, so general the momentum, that in the course of a week upwards of three millions of men in arms were formed into companies by a common interest resembling an electrical sympathy. Such was the quick succession of events—Such the unanimous sense of the nation; and such the formidable force which instantly opposed itself to the impotent threats of departing despotism. History will record this memorable era, when the disciplined forces of the most puissant tyranny vanished before the force of truth, though still but half unveiled; obliging the haughty sycophants to search for shelter in the recesses of a forest, whither they stole under cover of the night from the presence of an injured people.
The conduct of the garde bourgeoise, during the progress of the revolution, without varnishing over the excesses produced by ebullitions of zeal, is of itself sufficient to prove, that a national militia should every where take place of standing armies, did not experience invariably attest, that the laws were never respected by men, whose business is war, unless they are reduced to mere machines by despotism.
The old municipal officers, mostly suspected, because nominated by the friends of the court, were now obliged to give place to committees elected by the common voice. These taking the administration of public business into their hands, a new order of things began every where to prevail. Still, however, the disturbed imagination of the people was filled with plots, to which some mysterious and fatal incidents gave life.
The municipality of Soissons informed the national assembly, that troops of banditti had cut down the corn before it was ripe, and obliged the villagers to take refuge in the towns. But on further inquiry, it appeared, that this report arose from a simple quarrel of the peasants amongst themselves, which had alarmed some labourers, who flew to the neighbouring town, imagining that they had thousands of banditti at their heels.
Paris was also disturbed by an idle rumour of a riot at St. Denis; so seriously affirmed by those, who declared that they had been eyewitnesses of the violence, that troops and cannon were sent, but they could find no traces of the disturbance.
Another, more serious, had exasperated the people against the nobility, and roused the indignation of the national assembly. A nobleman and counsellor of the parliament gave a civic feast in his castle to the inhabitants of his village; from which, on some pretext, he was absent. All was joy and festivity; but in the midst of the dance of gladness, the sudden explosion of a mine spread around affright and death.—Hearing of this treachery, the people, catching up their rustic weapons, firebrands, hastened to the neighbouring castles; some of which they burnt, others they demolished by pulling them down.
The recital of this atrocity produced a great effect in the national assembly; and, says Mirabeau, ‘though great assemblies are often much too susceptible of theatrical emotions; and this narration was accompanied with circumstances, of which the invention is seldom presumed; and though it was also attested by a public officer; yet the atrocity of the crime gave it an air of improbability.’ This wanton act of barbarity, which the historian also would fain believe a monstrous chimera of heated brains, was, nevertheless, as well substantiated, as such a fact could be; which nothing, but the confession of the guilty party, can render absolutely certain, because it seems equally foolish and barbarous.
These disorders, warmly represented by Lally-Tolendal, determined the assembly, on the 23d of july, to publish a proclamation, inviting all good citizens to the maintenance of order; and declaring, that to try and punish for all crimes of leze-notion was the sole prerogative of the national assembly, till, by the constitution which it was about to establish, a regular tribunal should be instituted, for the trial of such offences. After endeavouring to excuse the violence, or, more properly speaking, to account for it, Mirabeau observed to the assembly, ‘that they ought to be thoroughly convinced, that the continuation of this formidable dictator would expose liberty to as much risk as the stratagems of her enemies. Society,’ he continues, ‘would soon be dissolved, if the multitude, accustomed to blood and disorder, placed themselves above the magistrates, and braved the authority of the law. Instead of running to meet freedom, the people would soon throw themselves into the abyss of servitude; for danger too often rallies men round the standard of absolute power; and in the bosom of anarchy, a despot even appears a saviour. For Carthage is not yet destroyed; there remains a mass of instruments to impede our operations, and to excite divisions in an assembly, that has only been united by danger.’
Some trifling incidents, swelled into importance by supposition, kept alive the inventive mistrust of the nation, to which some innocent victims were sacrificed, without allaying it’s brooding propensity to produce, like jealousy, the evil it feared. Suspecting every body, and a little vain of authority, the patroles of parisian citizens sometimes officiously arrested whomever they thought fit, without assigning a sufficient cause; and among the rest, they stopped the resident in France from Geneva. Three letters were found on him; and one of them being addressed to the count d’Artois, rendered suspicious the circumstance of his tearing a fourth.
The letters were sent by the mayor of Paris to the assembly; and the facts laid before them afforded Mirabeau an opportunity, to display his eloquence on a subject, that recalled to his mind abuses, which had formerly touched himself—the violation of private correspondence.—Though this did not appear to be exactly the present question; for they were not intercepted letters, but letters to which chance had annexed some suspicious characters, to point them out for inspection. The despotism of opening indiscriminately all letters, to enable the government to judge of the character and sentiments of each individual, is too obvious to need animadversion—And who, indeed, will not exclaim against the tyranny, be it even parental, that dares to steal into the secrets of the heart; or the impertinent curiosity, that seeks for information only to diversify an idle life? The latter may be termed petty larceny; yet often the peace of whole families is invaded by these cowardly thefts, and quarrels are rendered irreconcilable, by giving air to angry expressions, the utterance solely of the passion of the moment. The allowing letters, also, surreptitiously obtained, to appear as evidence, in courts of justice, is a gross violation of the first principle of law; because no letters can lawfully be opened, but as other suspected things are sought for—after information given to a magistrate. But, when seals are broken at the discretion of an individual, and brought forward to criminate a person, it is to the full as unjust, as to make a man plead against himself—And for justice to be awarded in consequence of an act of injustice, is an abuse that demands investigation. But the present was not a case in point. It was not a clandestine ransacking of all letters, to search for the clue of some suspected plot; or like the reading of the correspondence of a babbling conspirator, after the danger was over, whose letters might contain a list of timid accomplices, who would be driven to desperation by publicity. However, the decided turn was given to the question by the bishop of Langres observing, that all ages had applauded the generosity of Pompey, who committed to the flames the letters, which the senators had addressed to Sertorius. The mania of imitating the romans on this began to appear, producing one of those instances of false magnanimity, that always arise from imitation: yet so trifling, indeed, in it’s present consequence, that it would scarcely deserve to be ridiculed, much less censured, had not the same affectation afterwards brought forth more serious and even fatal follies.
The temper also of the parisians, who mix in the world very early in life, leads them to imagine, that they have acquired the profound knowledge of the springs of human passions, which enables a sagacious man almost to foresee future events, only because they have often detected the weaknesses of the human heart. This made them now suppose, that the court of Great Britain was about to prosit by their intestine troubles. The phraseology had long been in both countries, that they were the natural enemies of each other; and the mistrustful french quickly imagined, that the english meant immediately to take vengeance for their interference in favour of the americans, by seizing some of their West-India islands. The duke of Dorset, in his justification of England, only changed the object of mistrust, by giving rise to some vague conjectures respecting a conspiracy for delivering Brest into the hands of the english; and, as there was no clue to lead to the discovery of the traitors, several nobles of Brittany, probably innocent, were arrested.
These were, nevertheless, but flight impediments; for the invigorating voice of the awakened nation gave energy to the assembly, who now named committees to expedite the present business, preparatory to their grand task of framing a constitution. The authority and respectability of the assembly being acknowledged, they attentively considered the state of the kingdom; and, mindful of the present distress of the people, issued orders for the free circulation of provision, which had been obstructed by the ancient forms, so opposite to the true principles of political economy.
At this juncture, Necker, still esteemed by the nation, unfortunately returned. Intoxicated by popularity, this minister had not sufficent prudence to decline the honours, which he could not support by that dignity of conduct the present crisis required. In his way to Paris, having heard, that the life of the baron de Benzenval, commandant of the swiss guards, who had been with Broglio, was in danger, he humanely interposed to stop the hand of violence; and so far he deserves praise. But when, arrived at Paris, he was received, by the lively inhabitants, as the tutelar genius of France, this apotheosis had it’s usual effect; and assuming the demi-god, at the Hótel-de-Ville, he was not content to preserve this victim from the public fury, withont recommending a general amnesty; a measure which was as inconsiderately adopted, as proposed. For the electors pretending to issue laws for the whole nation, gave great umbrage to the parisians, who had winked at the stretch of their power, which the pressing exigency of circumstances required, during the moment danger menaced the capital. The wild current thus turned, the men, who in the morning had declared, ‘that liberty was safe, since Necker was allowed to watch over her,’ now accused him of ambition, and a desire to keep well with the court, by facilitating the return, or escape, of it’s minions. Such in fact was the inconstancy of a people, always running after theatrical scenes, that the tocsin was rung to denounce Necker as a courtier in one quarter of the city, at the very time the PalaisRoyal was illuminated to celebrate his return as a patriot.
The business, however, being referred to the national assembly, with a modifying explanation, they decided it mildly, paying the respect due to the good intentions from which it proceeded, though they did not pretend to sanction the hasty resolve of the electors.
After this tumult had subsided the narrow capacity of the minister did not allow him to take a determined part in the grand work, in which the deputies were engaged. His mind had not sufficient strength to burst the shackles of it’s old opinions; and, acting with his usual commercial calculations, he seems to have been one cause of the divisions, which began to agitate an assembly, united rather by circumstances than by sentiments. Besides, the sudden emancipation of the people occasioned a delirium of joy, which required to be managed with the greatest delicacy. A vigorous ministry was certainly necessary to check the licentious spirit manifesting itself continually by acts of violence, in so many parts of the kingdom, where tumults and assassinations were the effects of the giddiness of unexpected success. Whilst complaining of the old government, every man in his sphere seemed to be eager to try how he himself could govern, and make up for the time he had delegated his authority. Besides, the procrastination of the relief looked for as the immediate consequence of the Revolution, however unavoidable, made the people not only murmur, but, disregarding all reason, attempt to gain more by force than could, for a long time, be granted by justice—even had justice been unbiased by self-interest.
The nation called for a constitution; and the assembly debated about the declaration of rights inherent to man, and those he gives up when he becomes a citizen, on which they designed to rest it, as an explanatory support.
Several members argued, that the declaration ought to conclude, and not precede the constitution; insisting, that it was dangerous to awaken a somnambulist on the brink of a precipice; or to take a man to the top of a mountain, to show him a vast country that belonged to him, but of which he could not immediately claim the possession. ‘It is a veil,’ said they, ‘that it would be imprudent to raise suddenly.—It is a secret, that it is necessary to conceal, till the effect of a good constitution puts them into a situation to hear it with safety* .’
But Barnave terminated the sitting, though the question was still in debate, by observing, ‘that the declaration of rights was in two respects practically useful;—first, as it fixed the spirit of the legislation, in order that it might not vary in future;—and, secondly, as it would direct the representatives of the nation in the formation of laws, in all the details of legislation, the completion of which could only be the work of time. As to the apprehension expressed of the people abusing these rights, when they acquire a knowledge of them, it is,’ said he, ‘futile,—and we need only turn over the page of history, to lose these vain fears; for we shall constantly find the people tranquil in the same proportion as they are enlightened.’
Poizing thus the pillars of equal liberty, the discussion was the next day interrupted by the report made by the committee appointed for the purpose of digesting the information sent to the assembly, of the melancholy intelligence which they daily received from the provinces.—‘The taxes, the rents were no longer paid, the revenue was exhausted, the laws were without force; and the social ties almost broken.’ To remedy so many evils, the committee proposed to the assembly to publish, as soon as possible, a solemn declaration to testify their deep sense of the misery of the provinces, and their disapprobation of the non-payment of taxes and rents; and to declare, that, till the assembly had time to consider the decrees necessary to be passed to regulate these objects, there did not exist any cause to justify similar refusals. This proposition occasioned a warm debate.
Some of the deputies represented, that the seudal laws were too iniquitous,—the taxes too unequally assessed—the wretchedness too general, to hope for any happy effect from such a declaration—it would soon fall into oblivion, as had done the proclamation for peace:—it would aggravate the misery of the state, by manifesting the impotence of the national assembly:—it would irritate even the people, who had need of comfort; and of whom they could not, without a kind of derision, in their present circumstances, require the payment of taxes, of which they knew well that each of them felt the injustice.
Others did not fail to insist on the danger of letting the disorder increase; on the sacredness of property; and on the immense deficit with which the nation was menaced; adding, that the national assembly would become contemptible, if it did not take the most vigorous measures.—They further dilated on the necessity of re-establishing the authority of the courts of justice;—and other arguments of the same tendency, which would have been more conclusive, more useful, if the supporters of the declaration had brought forward the shadow of a mode to assure it’s execution. The debate from being warm became bitter, till it was at length resolved, that a declaration should be issued for the security of property, and that the remaining proposals of the committee should be discussed the next evening, the 4th of august.
But, before they separated, the assembly was informed, that Broglio had ordered all the arms, deposited at the town-house of Thionville, to be carried away.—This step appeared to them the height of imprudence, at a moment when the community was obliged to arm itself to watch over the public safety.
The following morning it was decided by a great majority, that there should be a declaration of rights separate from the constitution. The sitting of the evening was impatiently expected, and the opposers of a new proclamation flattered themselves, that they should secure the general suffrage, by making it appear, that patriotism demanded great sacrifices; and that instead of the vain formality of an exhortation, soon despised by the people, it was necessary to carry real offerings to the altar of peace.—This was the purport of a speech made by one of the nobles, the viscount de Noailles; who showed, in a very forcible manner, ‘that the kingdom, at this moment, fluctuated between the alternative of the destruction of society, or of a government which would be admired and imitated by all Europe. How is this government to be obtained?’ said he, ‘how are the relaxed ties of society to be strengthened? By calming the people,’ he continues, by letting them see, that we are really employed for their good; and that we resist them only where it is manifestly conducive to their interest, that they should be resisted.—To attain then this tranquillity, so necessary, I propose:
‘1st. That it be declared, before the proclamation digested by the committee, that the representatives of the nation have decided to levy the impost, henceforward, in proportion to the income of each individual.
‘2dly. That all the public charges shall, in future, be equally supported by the whole community.
‘3dly, That all the feudal claims shall be redeemable, on a fair valuation.
‘4thly, That all the manorial claims, the mains-mortes, and other personal services, shall be done away, without any ransom.
‘5thly. That the manorial rents in poultry, and other kinds of provision, shall be redeemable by the proprietor or contractor, at a just valuation.’
The duke d‘Aiguillon seconded this motion, which had been warmly applauded; or rather made another tending to the same end. For dreading the suppression of his pension, when the Livre Rouge should be reviewed, he suddenly, from being a minion of the old court, became a loud patriot. And further to evince his zeal in the cause of liberty, he declared, ‘that the insurrection found it’s excuse in the vexations to which the people were subject. The lords of manors,’ he observes, ‘seldom commit the excesses of which their vassals complain; but their agents are often devoid of humanity, and the wretched husbandmen, subject to the barbarous feudal laws still in force, groan under the restriction to which they become the victims. At this happy era, when united for the public good, and disengaged from all personal interest, we are going to labour for the regeneration of the state, it seems to me, gentlemen, that it is necessary, before establishing this constitution, so desired by the nation, to prove to all the citizens, that our intention is to establish, as soon as possible, that equality of rights which alone can assure their liberty.’
It too frequently happens, that men run from one extreme to another, and that despair adopts the most violent measures. The french people had long been groaning under the lash of a thousand oppressions; they were the hewers of wood, and drawers of water, for the chosen few. It was, therefore, to be apprehended, after they had once thrown off the yoke, which had imprinted on their character the hateful scars of servitude, that they would expect the most unbridled freedom, detesting all wholesome restraints, as reins they were not now bound to obey. From observing, perhaps, that this was the disposition of the times, the political empiries have continually inflamed the soibles of the multitude, by flattering them. Thus the nobility, whose order would probably lose most by the revolution, made the most popular motions, to gain favour with the people; tickling the spirit they could not tame. Thus also we have seen the desperate leaders of factions selecting ingeniously the terms sans-culottes, citoyen, and egalité, in order to cajole the minds of the vulgar; and hence it has happened, that, in proportion as this cajolery was more highly seasoned, the power of ruling has descended to the most desperate and impudent of the smatterers in politics; whilst public anarchy, and private discord, have been productive of the dreadful catastrophes, and wanton outrages, which have given such home thrusts to the dignity of freedom.
The feudal claims that insult humanity, and show how near man is to the brute creation when laws are first made, were afterwards attempted to be enumerated; but a general cry of indignation and horrour prevented the deputy from finishing the frightful picture of human debasement and brutality. The vestiges of these direful oppressions, however, were still held dear by these very men, who, not having the compass of morality to direct their politics, were humane rather through weakness of nerves than foundness of understanding.
Be this as it may, the motion of the viscount de Noailles excited a sudden enthusiasm, mixed with anger. The members of the privileged orders, like children, seemed to say, by their actions, if you force me to give up this toy, it is fair that you should resign your sugar-plumb.—One gave a blow in the face; and the retort courteous was a back-handed stroke. For a member, that the duke d’Aiguillon should not be generous at the expence of others, proposed the immediate suppression of all places and emoluments granted so profusely by the court, as the heaviest burthen of the people—because obliged to support with their necessaries the luxuries of the great; who, detained as a kind of guards at court, were not only prevented from enlivening the provinces by their presence, but distressed them by drawing away their produce. Distinguishing, however, between the pensions obtained by intrigue, and those that were the reward of actual services,—he moved, that the former should be suppressed, and the latter reduced.
A motion was then made, that not only feudal rights, but all the jurisdiction of the lords of manors, established on the same arbitrary ground, should be abolished.
The president now, according to rule, perceiving that no one attempted to speak against the motion, was proceeding to put it to the vote—but he paused, reproaching himself for attempting to put an end to such an interesting discussion before such among the clergy, as wished to speak, had had an opportunity of declaring their sentiments.
This artful compliment roused the bishop of Nancy to declare, ‘that, the continual and sympathizing witnesses of the misery of the people, the clergy undoubtedly sighed after an opportunity to contribute to their relief; and that the motion anticipated their desire: yet, to show their entire approbation of it, he must be permitted to propose in addition, that the price of the ransom of ecclesiastical feudalities should not be converted to the profit of the actual incumbent; but thrown into a fund for the relief of the poorer part of the body.’
The bishop of Chartres, after approving of the sacrifices already made, demanded, that the suppression of the game laws should be joined to them. This worthy prelate painted the injustice of those laws, not less absurd than oppressive, which force the farmer to be the tranquil spectator of the ravages of his harvest; condemning him to endure cruel punishments, if he follow the first impulse of nature, which would lead him to kill the animals that injure him. A number of the nobility concurred in these sentiments; for who would be out-done in heroism? and demanded the renunciations of these unnatural privileges.
The president de Saint-Fargeau now rose, to demand an explanation relative to the taxes of which the clergy and nobility offered to divide the weight. ‘We have given,’ said he, ‘hopes to the people; but we ought to give them something more substantial; we have decreed, that, provisionally, the taxes should continue to be paid as they have been hitherto; that is to say, we have reserved to the clergy and the nobility the benefit of their exemptions, till they are expressly revoked.—Why do we delay to pronounce this revocation, so strictly imposed in almost all our instructions?—I propose, therefore, that not only for the last six months, but from the very commencement of the year, all privileged persons, without exception, support their proportional part of the public impost.’
As the discussion of the propositions of the viscount de Noailles advanced, the necessity of effacing all the traces of servitude became more and more obvious; and all the members seemed eager to point out to their colleagues the new sacrifices, that ought to be made to the good of their country. One demanded the suppression of the exclusive right to warrens;—another that of fisheries; a third the sale of offices, and that justice should be administered gratuitously.
The parish priest of Soupes, in the name of his brethren, joined the oblations of the poor to the hecatombs, of which the most part cost nothing to those who proposed them; ‘he declared, that, animated by a desire to contribute to the relief of the people, they would relinquish, from the present time, all their casual (or surplice) fees.’ This offer, made with great simplicity of heart, affected the assembly; nor could a very different proposal, made by the duke du Châtelet, respecting the buying up of the tithes, efface it entirely.
The transition to gaiety, when a member asked permission to offer also his sparrow, was very natural in a people, who always mix a degree of sarcastic pleasantry, the good-humoured face of which first appears, with the most serious things. However, after the laughter ceased,—he continued to make his demand more seriously, by observing, that an object, trifling in appearance, was a real grievance to the husbandmen; he moved, therefore, for the total demolition of all the dove-cotes throughout the kingdom.
The respectable duke de la Rochefoucault, after having applauded all these propositions, remarked, that the king had given the example of freeing the serfs in his demesnes; and that the moment was come, to extend this benefit to all the kingdom. This benevolent citizen did not stop here; but added a wish, that, before the close of the sessions, the assembly would take into consideration the sate of the unhappy victims of covetousness, retained in slavery under another hemisphere.
A member now made a motion, that excited testimonies of the most sincere satisfaction from the assembly; it was to augment the stipends of the parish priests, the most respectable part of the clergy.
Several dignitaries of the church, possessing two or more benefices, unwilling to be left behind in generosity, followed with a declaration, that, conformable to the canons, they were resolved to limit themselves to a single one.
The deputies of the provinces enjoying peculiar privileges receiving a hint, that the appellation of french citizens, all partaking the same rights, was the most glorious they could bear, immediately came forward to renounce them. A number of propositions, more or less important, brought up the rear. The suppression of the first fruits; the rights of wardenship; and the abrogation of those barbarous vows, which fetter unfortunate beings for life.—In short, full and entire liberty for the non-catholics.—Admission of all the citizens into all offices, ecclesiastical, civil, and military.—Abolition of the plurality of ecclesiastical pensions.—And then, not forgetting their national character, it was proposed, that a medal should be struck in commemoration of this night* ; and a decree also passed, conferring gratuitously on the king the august title, it might favour of a style that scarcely befits the dignity of history, to say nick-name, of restorer of french liberty. A deputation was accordingly appointed to carry this new mark of homage to the king, and to request his presence at a solemn Te Deum, to be celebrated throughout the kingdom.—And behold night closed on the renowned 4th of august!
It is not possible, says a journalist of the day, to give a distinct description of the scenes which were continually shifting during this sitting.—The vivacity of the sentiments, the quick transition from a generous emotion to an epigrammatical sensation, the disorder which made sensibility predominate over legislative dignity—the reciprocal mistrust, and the combat of generosity—all diversified by the amiable and seducing enthusiasm, so characteristic of the nation, made this an epocha in the history of the revolution, on which the contemplative mind, accustomed to consider the varied character of man, will ponder.
Another observation, also, naturally occurs; for it is just to remark, as a proof of the crudeness of the political notions, not to mention principles, of these legislators, that all talked of sacrifices, and boasted of generosity, when they were only doing common justice, and making the obvious practical comment on the declaration of rights, which they had passed in the morning.—If such were the rights of man—they were more or less than men, who with-held them; and the resignation, rather a resumption of their reason than a sacrifice of their property, was called for, the moment they acknowledged the sovereignty of the people by becoming their representatives.
It is very possible, that the next morning the different parties could scarcely believe, that they had more than the imperfect recollection of a dream in their heads. So quick, indeed, had been the determinations of the meeting, which encroached on the midnight hour, that they had not the sober cast of thought to give them dignity. They seem in reality to have been mostly the effect of passion, of ambition, or a vain desire of vengeance; for those who were led only by enthusiasm, and the vanity of the moment, esteemed their conduct as highly extravagant, when they had time to cool. But the commons, who had the deepest views, knew to what they had urged them, and would not let them recede.
It is true, the abolition of these privileges and powers had been strictly enjoined, in the instructions given to the deputies by their constituents; but, it is doubtful, whether they would have been attended to, had not the most sagacious foreseen, that the neglect might occasion a civil war. Knowing, that then property would not be cautiously respected, they began by attacking that of their presumptuous adversaries; and actually surprised the assembly into the unanimous renunciation of all revenues arising from feudal dues, and even into the abolition of tithes. The nobility, also, who saw, that they should gain more by the suppression of tithes, than they should lose by the sacrifice of the obnoxious manorial fees, came into the same system. The steps likewise taken to increase the salaries of the indigent clergy, the most numerous part of the body in the assembly, secured their influence. And by destroying the monopoly of municipal and judicial employments, the support of the cities was obtained.—Thus the national assembly, without a struggle, found itself omnipotent. Their only enemies were individuals, seemingly of importance, it is true, as they had been accustomed to lead the great corporate bodies; but what was their empire, when all their former subjects were withdrawn from their control? of these enemies, the church dignitaries were of the most consequence; but, after the confiscation of ecclesiastical property, it would have been impossible for the court, even supposing a counter-revolution, to provide for them; as they would have been a dead weight on the royalists.
Unfortunately, almost every thing human, however beautiful or splendid the superstructure, has, hitherto, been built on the vile foundation of selfishness; virtue has been the watch-word, patriotism the trumpet, and glory the banner of enterprize; but pay and plunder have been the real motives. I do not mean to assert, that there were not any real patriots in the assembly.—I know there were many. By real patriots, I mean men who have studied politics, and whose ideas and opinions on the subject are reduced to principles; men who make that science so much their principal object, as to be willing to give up time, personal safety, and whatever society comprehends in the phrase, personal interest, to secure the adoption of their plans of reform, and the diffusion of knowledge.
But most of the leaders of the national assembly were guided by the vulgar import of the word, a vain desire of applause, or deep schemes of emolument. The Lameths, for instance, who had been the obsequious slaves of the queen, were among the hottest advocates for popular power; and throughout the assembly there were traces of a similar spirit.
During the first struggle, the national assembly and the people were divided into republicans and royalists; but we shall find, from the moment all danger of disturbance appeared to be over, the higher class were receding from the patriots, and recruiting from the royalists, to form for themselves, under the appellation of the impartiaux, the elements of a growing aristocracy.
[* ]These members seem to have formed a just estimate of the french character.
[* ]Some french wags have laid a great stress on these decrees passing after dinner.