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CHAPTER III. - 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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reflections on the members of the national assembly. secession of several pseudo-patriots. society ripe for improvement throughout europe. war natural to men in a savage state. remarks on the origin and progress of society. the arts—property—inequality of conditions—war. picture of manners in modern france.
The despotism of the former government of France having formed the most voluptuous, artificial characters, in the higher orders of society, makes it less extraordinary to find the leading patriots men without principles or political knowledge, excepting what they had casually gleaned from books, only read to while away an idle hour not employed in pleasure. So superficial indeed was their acquaintance with any subject that demanded thought—and so great the degeneracy of their manners, it was natural for every man of reflection to infer, that a considerable length of time must elapse before the new order of things, which they were about to create, could attain stability. But this was not a discouraging consideration, when it was obvious, that important advantages had already been gained by the people; and by the improvement of morals, which would necessarily follow, it was to be presumed, that the evils, the old system produced, would vanish before gradual amendments; whilst, by a practical knowledge of political and civil liberty, the great objects of the revolution would be ascertained; namely, just laws, and equal liberty.
The depravity of the higher class, and the ignorance of the lower respecting practical political science, rendered them equally incapable of thinking for themselves; so that the measures which flattered the foibles, or gratified the weakness of either, were sure to have great influence in producing a schism in the public mind; which gave an opportunity to the enemies of the revolution to impede it’s course. And the number of the lower class having it’s due weight, when they became free, the most daring innovators became the greatest favourites with the public, to whose will every prudential consideration was obliged to yield.
Much had been gained on the 4th of august by the nation: the old forms of feudal vassalage were completely overturned—and France then stood at the point the most advantageous in which a government was ever constructed.—She stood fair as the dawn of her liberty, having shaken off the prejudices of ages; and reason was tracing out the road, which leads to virtue, glory, and happiness—Still ambitious selfishness, melancholy drawback! governed too great a proportion of the assembly; and the nobles and clergy who had been averse to the junction of the orders now intriguing, every debate became a bitter or violent contest, in which the popular advocates continued to gain an ascendency.
This disposition to intrigue, and want of sincerity, so generally remarked in the French character, laid the foundation of universal distrust; and the coalesced parties, who had not been actuated by a love of liberty, or regard for the prosperity of the kingdom, but dexterously fell in with the spirit of the day, were not aware, that a watchful, suspicious multitude, would be as likely to mistrust them in their turn, as the court, which had thriven on the ruin of their happiness. This was a blindness so gross, that it appears not a little wonderful, after considering the different characters, who succeeded each other in the ministry, or directed the helm of the state, that men should not acquire sufficient judgment to adopt the integrity of conduct, with which alone people in their senses, awake to their interest and rights, will ever be satisfied.
For a vain glorious ambition, mixing with the abortions of giddy patriotism, acts as the most fatal poison to political disquisitions, during seasons of public ferment. The solid views of deep thinkers are adapted to the spirit of the times, and the state of reason of their compeers. And if they find, that the current of opinion, in overturning inveterate prejudices, and the decayed walls of laws, that no longer suit the manners, threatens the destruction of principles the most sacred; they ought firmly to wait at their post, until, the fervour abating, they could, by diverting the stream, gradually restrain it within proper bounds.—But such patriotism is of slow growth; requiring both a luxuriant public soil, and to be fostered by virtuous emulation. Yet this emulation will never flourish in a country where intriguing finesse, supplying the place of exalted merit, is the surest ladder to distinction. It was by debasing artifices, under the old government, that men obtained favour and consequence; and whilst such men, men who were educated and ossified by the ancient regimen, act on the political stage of France, mankind will be continually distressed and amused by their tragic and comic exhibitions.
Art applied to art, and stratagem against stratagem, may produce, for a time, alternate defeats; but ultimately the most cunning will triumph.
Vanity had made every frenchman a theorist, though political aphorisms were never ascertained under the reign of tyranny or caprice. The sagacious part of the nation, it is true, clearly perceived, that the period was arrived, when a revolution was inevitable; but selfishness being incompatible with noble, comprehensive, or laudable views, it is not wonderful, keeping in sight the national foible, that at the meeting of the states-general every deputy had his particular plan to suggest. Few of the leaders embraced the same; and acting, without coalescing, the most violent measures were sure to be the most applauded. We shall find also, that some of the most strenuous advocates for reforming abuses, and establishing a constitution, when their favourite systems were exploded, peevishly retired in disgust: and by afterwards venting it, have hurried into action a race of monsters, the most flagitious that ever alarmed the world by the murder of innocents, and the mockery of justice; and whilst the profanation of her temple, besprinkled with blood, has branded with an indelible stigma the sanguinary brutes, the deserters cannot escape without a share of the odium.
Contemplating the progress of the revolution, a melancholy reflection is produced by observing, that almost every precipitate event has been the consequence of a tenacity and littleness of mind in the political actors, whilst they were affecting a roman magnanimity of conduct—to which they appear to have been as great strangers, as they were destitute of legitimate patriotism, and political science.
We have first seen Calonne, in order to secure his popularity and place, proposing an equalization of taxes; and, when he found that his consequence and power were lost, abandoning his country in disgust, and employing the most unwarrantable means to involve his fellow citizens in all the horrours of a civil war. We shall find, likewise, several other declaimers, for their subsequent conduct obliges me to consider them in no better light, when their plans were disregarded, if not acting the same shameful part, yet leaving their posts; their patriotism expiring with their popularity.—And it will be only necessary to keep in mind the conduct of all the leading men, who have been active in the revolution, to perceive, that the disasters of the nation have arisen from the same miserable source of vanity, and the wretched struggles of selfishness; when the crisis required, that all enlightened patriots should have united and formed a band, to have consolidated the great work; the commencement of which they had accelerated. In proportion as these desertions have taken place, the best abilities which the country contained have disappeared. And thus it has happened, that ignorance and audacity have triumphed, merely because there were not found those brilliant talents, which, pursuing the straight forward line of political economy, arrest, as it were, the suffrage of every well disposed citizen.—Such talents existed in France: and had they combined, and directed their views by a pure love of their country, to one point; all the disafters, which in overwhelming the empire have destroyed the repose of Europe, would not have occurred to disgrace the cause of freedom.
Every great reform requires systematic management; and however lightly weak daring heads may treat the gravity of such a remark, the pacific progress of every revolution will depend, in a very material degree, on the moderation and reciprocity of concessions made by the acting parties. It is true, that in a nation chiefly celebrated for wit so much prudence could scarcely be expected—yet that is not a sufficient reason for condemning all the principles, that produced the revolution: for liberty cannot be considered as belonging exclusively to any particular climate, or temper of mind, as a physical effect. It was peculiarly urgent, indeed, to form such a coalition, to counteract the dangerous consequences of old prejudices. The stubborn habits of men, whom personal interest kept firm to their ground, it was morally certain would interrupt the tranquil march of the revolution: it would have been prudent then for men, who agreed in the main objects, to have overlooked trifling differences of opinion, till they were secured: and of this several members seem to have been aware.*
Had the conduct of men been sincere, and had they really pursued that fraternity, about which they so continually declaimed; they might, in consolidating the rights of french citizens, have established every political advantage, which the then state of reason was capable of adopting for the immediate benefit of society. But resentment bursting forth, which had long lain concealed (the effect of servitude and contumely), joined with the vanity of excelling all other nations in the science of government, to produce an insolent audacity of conduct, which, aiming at overturning every thing, discouraged the wavering, and frightened the timid. Designing knaves then conceived the plan of rising to eminence by the accumulating foibles of the multitude, who, loosened from all restraint, were easily caught by the insidious arts of the most contemptible anarchists.
The object of those monsters, who were meditating the violation of the sacred ties of honour and humanity, was early perceived by the more penetrating; but instead of opposing themselves to their designs, they for the most part became initiated into their clubs; whilst others, more haughty, though perhaps less under the direction of principles,—if there were any among them,—emigrated, leaving their country verging towards the whirlpool of civil discord, and all it’s concomitant wretchedness.
It is necessary for us to attend closely to these considerations, in order to be enabled to form a just opinion of the various revolutions which have succeeded each other:—because, from a superficial view of things of this nature, we frequently attribute to the passions, or innate turpitude of man, what was merely the effect of moral depravity. Hence it has happened, that so many of the admirers of the revolution, in its infancy, now talk of extravagant innovations, tending to overturn all the barriers of justice,—to trample on the feelings of humanity, and to destroy every thing splendid and beautiful,—the production of ages, industry, taste, and learning.
But this revolution did not interest frenchmen alone; for it’s influence extending throughout the continent, all the passions and prejudices of Europe were instantly set afloat. That most favoured part of the globe had risen to an astonishing pre-eminence, though every where it’s inhabitants have had to contend with distinctions the most unnatural, and prejudices the most veteran. But, having overcome those formidable obstacles to the happiness of her citizens, society seems to have arrived at that point of civilization, when it becomes necessary for governments to meliorate it’s condition, or a dissolution of their power and authority will be the consequence of a wilful disregard of the intimations of the times. This is a truth, which the people have perceived; but which the parasites of courts, and the advocates for despotism have not been willing to believe. And besides, their support, it might be said existence, being attached to the continuation of those savage abuses, they have fought with unusual intrepidity in their defence. Thus wars have been the business of courts, in which they have artfully interested the passions of the people.
Men in a savage state, without intellectual amusements, or even fields or vineyards to employ them, depending for subsistance on the casual supply of the chace, seem continually to have made war, one with another, or nation with nation; and the booty taken from their enemies formed the principal object of contest, because war was not, like industry, a kind of abridgement of their liberty. But the social feelings of man, after having been exercised by a perilous life, flow over in long stories, when he reaches garrulous old age. Whilst his listening progeny wondering at his seats, their hearts are fired with the ambition of equaling their fire. His soul also warmed by sympathy, feeling for the distresses of his fellow creatures, and particularly for the helpless state of decrepit age; he begins to contemplate, as desirable, associations of men, to prevent the inconveniencies arising from loneliness and solitude. Hence little communities living together in the bonds of friendship, securing to them the accumulated powers of man, mark the origin of society: and tribes growing into nations, spreading themselves over the globe, form different languages, which producing different interests, and misunderstandings, excite distrust.
The invention of the arts now affords him employment; and it is in proportion to their extension that he becomes domestic, and attached to his home. For whilst they were in their infancy his restless temper, and savage manners, still kept alive his passion for war and plunder; and we shall find, if we look back to the first improvement of man, that as his ferocity wore away, the right of property grew sacred. The prowess or abilities of the leaders of barbarians gave them likewise an ascendency in their respective dynasties; which gaining strength in proportion to the ignorance of the age, produced the distinctions of men, from which the great inequality of conditions has originated; and they have been preserved long since the necessity has ceased to exist.
During the reign of ignorance, the disagreements of states could be settled only by combats; and the art of dexterously murdering seems to have decided differences, where reason should have been the arbitrator. The custom then of settling disputes at the point of the bayonet, in modern Europe, has been justified by the example of barbarians; and whilst fools continually argue from the practice of inhuman savages, that wars are necessary evils, courts have found them convenient to perpetuate their power: thus slaughter has furnished a plausible pretext for peculation.
Fortunately, in spite of the various impediments that have thwarted the advancement of knowledge, the blessings of society have been sufficiently experienced to convince us, that the only solid good to be expected from a government must result from the security of our persons and property. And domestic felicity has given a mild lustre to human happiness superiour to the false glory of sanguinary devastation, or magnificent robberies. Our fields and vineyards have thus gradually become the principal objects of our care—and it is from this general sentiment governing the opinion of the civilized part of the world, that we are enabled to contemplate, with some degree of certainty, the approaching age of peace.
All that could be done by a body of manners, without a soul of morals, to improve mankind, had been tried in France—The result was polished slavery; and such an inordinate love of pleasure, as led the majority to search only for enjoyment, till the tone of nature was destroyed. Yet some few really learned the true art of living; giving that degree of elegance to domestic intercourse, which, prohibiting gross familiarity, alone can render permanent the family affections, whence all the social virtues spring.
It is a mistake to suppose that there was no such thing as domestic happiness in France, or even in Paris. For many french families, on the contrary, exhibited an affectionate urbanity of behaviour to each other, seldom to be met with where a certain easy gaiety does not soften the difference of age and condition. The husband and wife, if not lovers, were the civilest friends and the tenderest parents in the world—the only parents, perhaps, who really treated their children like friends; and the most affable masters and mistresses. Mothers were also to be found, who, after suckling their children, paid a degree of attention to their education, not thought compatible with the levity of character attributed to them; whilst they acquired a portion of taste and knowledge rarely to be found in the women of other countries. Their hospitable boards were constantly open to relations and acquaintance, who, without the formality of an invitation, enjoyed there cheerfulness free from restraint; whilst more select circles closed the evening, by discussing literary subjects. In the summer, when they retired to their mansion houses, they spread gladness around, and partook of the amusements of the peasantry, whom they visited with paternal solicitude. These were, it is true, the rational few, not numerous in any country—and where is led a more useful or rational life?
In the provinces, likewise, more simplicity of manners prevailing, their morals were more pure: though family pride, as in England, made the most noble house the royal family of each village, who visited the grand court only to import it’s follies. Besides, in France, the women have not those factitious, supercilious manners, common to the english; and acting more freely, they have more decision of character, and even more generosity. Rousseau has taught them also a scrupulous attention to personal cleanliness, not generally to be seen elsewhere: their coquetry is not only more agreeable, but more natural: and not left a prey to unsatisfied sensations, they were less romantic indeed than the english; yet many of them possessed delicacy of sentiment.
It is, perhaps, in a state of comparative idleness—pursuing employments not absolutely necessary to support life, that the finest polish is given to the mind, and those personal graces, which are instantly felt, but cannot be described: and it is natural to hope, that the labour of acquiring the substantial virtues, necessary to maintain freedom, will not render the french less pleasing, when they become more respectable.
[* ]Lally-Tolendal, in particular; for giving his opinion on the subject of two chambers, he said:—‘It is not doubtful at present, and for this first assembly, that a single chamber is preferable, and perhaps necessary—There are so many difficulties to be surmounted, so many prejudices to be conquered, so many sacrifices to be made, such old habits to root out, so great a power to control; in a word so much to destroy, and almost all to create anew. This moment, gentlemen, which we are so happy as to have seen, of which it is impossible a description can be given—when private characters, orders of men, and provinces, are vying with each other, who will make the greatest sacrifices to the public good—when all press together at the tribune, to renounce voluntarily, not only odious privileges, but even those just rights, which appear to you an obstacle to the fraternity and equality of all the citizens. This moment, gentlemen, this noble and rich enthusiasm which hurries you along, this new order of things which you have begun—all this—most assuredly, could never have been produced but from the union of all persons, of all opinions, and of all hearts.’—