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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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observations on the veto. the women offer up their ornaments to the public. debate whether the spanish branch of the boursons could reign in france. conduct of the king respecting the decrees of the fourth of august. vanity of the french. debates on quartering a thousand regulars at versailles. individuals offer their jewels and plate to make up the deficiency of the loan. the king sends his rich service of plate to the mint. necker’s proposal for every citizen to give up a fourth of his income. speech of mirabeau on it. his address to the nation.
AFTER the national assembly had determined, that the legislative body should consist of one house, to be renewed every two years, they appear to have had some suspicion of the impolicy of the decree; but not allowing themselves time to comprehend the use of a senate taken from the body of the people, they attempted to silence the fears, some moderate men entertained, of the bad consequences which might arise from the decisions of an impetuous assembly without a check, by assuring them, that the delay, the veto would occasion, was a sufficient counterpoise. They represented the king’s veto as the negative archetype of the national will; adding, that it would be the duty of the sovereign to examine with vigilance the justice or wisdom of their decrees; and by the exertion of his power prevent the hasty establishment of any laws inimical to the public good. So easy is it for men to frame arguments, to cover the homely features of their own folly—so dangerous is it to follow a refined theory, however feasible it may appear, when the happiness of an empire depends on it’s success; and so inconsiderately did the national assembly act in this great business, that they did not wait even to determine the precise meaning of the word sanction.
If the king then represented the negative will of the nation, which the assembly pretended to say he did; and if he possessed the supreme wisdom and moderation necessary to guaranty that will, which supposing he did not, it was a folly too gross to require any comment; in the name of common sense—why was his veto suspensive?
The truth is obvious,—the assembly had not sufficient courage to take a decided part.—They knew, that the king and court could not be depended upon; yet they had not the magnanimity to give them up altogether. They justly dreaded the depravity and influence of the nobles; but they had not the sagacity to model the government in such a manner, as would have defeated their future conspiracies, and rendered their power nugatory; though they had the example of the Thirteen States of America before them, from which they had drawn what little practical knowledge of liberty they possessed.—But, no; the regeneration of France must lead to the regeneration of the whole globe. The political system of frenchmen must serve as a model for all the free states in the universe!—Vive la liberté was the only cry—and la bagatelle entered into every debate—whilst the whole nation, wild with joy, was hailing the commencement of the golden age.
The women too, not to be outdone by the roman dames, came forward, during this discussion, to sacrifice their ornaments for the good of their country. And this fresh example of public spirit was also given by the third estate; for they were the wives and daughters of artizans, who first renounced their female pride—or rather made one kind of vanity take place of another. However, the offering was made with theatrical grace; and the lively applauses of the assembly were reiterated with great gallantry.
Another interruption had likewise occurred, of a more serious nature.—For after they had decreed, with an unanimous voice—That the person of the king is sacred and inviolable, that the throne is indivisible; that the crown is hereditary, in the males of the reigning family, according to the order of primogeniture, to the perpetual exclusion of females, a deputy proposed, that, before going any further, they should decide ‘whether the branch reigning in Spain could reign in France, though it had renounced the crown of the latter kingdom by the most authentic treaties.’
Several of the most respectable members represented, that this was a delicate business, with which it was impolitic to meddle at present, and as unnecessary as imprudent. Mirabeau was of this opinion; but when he found, that much time was likely to be consumed in idle debates, and contemptible vehemence, he endeavoured to cut the matter short by moving a new question—namely, ‘that no one could reign in France, who was not born in the kingdom.’
But nothing could prevent the agitation of the same subject for three days; prolonged either by the fears of one party, or the desire of another to embroil the assembly, and retard the formation of a constitution. Mirabeau made several severe, but just remarks, on the character of Louis XIV, whose ambition had produced the dispute; and reprobated with dignity, their manner of treating a people, as if they were the property of a chief. Should any difficulty arise, in future, he maintained, that the nation would then be competent to judge of it; and had an equal right to determine the succession, as to choose a new system of government.
The assembly, though generally so inattentive to the suggestions of sound policy, despising moderation, became now beyond measure scrupulous. Some deputies represented the danger of alienating to the english the commerce of Spain, by disgusting it’s court; and others anticipated the intestine troubles, which a doubt respecting the unchangeable descent of the crown might produce. At last they resolved to add to the declaration, respecting the monarchy, that they did not mean to make the decree, by any means prejudge the effect of renunciations.
Whilst they were settling these things in the assembly, the refractory nobles and clergy were intriguing to prevent the king from giving his assent to the promulgation of the decrees of the 4th of august. The royal sanction had been demanded before the import of the word was scanned; and the court taking advantage of this ambiguity, made the king pretend he misunderstood the demand; and imagined that they merely asked for his opinion, and not to know his will. Instead then of a simple monosyllable, he replied by a memoire. He approved, in general, of the spirit of these determinations; but entered into an investigation, more or less copious, of every article. He weighed the advantages and inconveniences; and pointed out precautions and modifications, which appeared to him necessary to realize the former and prevent the latter. He objected particularly to the abolition of some rents; which, though substitutes for personal service, were now actual property; he suggested some difficulty that might attend the abolition of tithes; and hinted, that the german princes, who had possessions in Alsace, secured to them by treaty, might resent the infringement. In answer to the last objection, a member observed, that the inhabitants of this province, who had long been sinking under the weight of these privileges, daily augmented by the connivance of ministers, had inserted an article in their instructions expressly demanding the abolition of this destructive system; which reduced them to despair, and forced them continually to emigrate. Several of the deputies wished to have the king’s reply referred to the examination of a committee; yet, a great majority insisting, that the decrees of the 4th of august were not new laws, to be carried into force by the executive power, but abuses which it was absolutely necessary to clear away before the formation of the constitution, demanded their immediate promulgation. Accordingly they resolved, that the president should wait on the king and request him immediately to order the promulgation of the decrees; assuring him at the same time, that the national assembly, when considering each article separately, would pay the most scrupulous attention to the observations communicated by his majesty.
This imperative petition had the desired effect, and the king acceded, the 20th of september, to their will, sanctioning decrees he did not approve.
This was the first glaring instance of the constituting assembly acting contrary to it’s pretensions; and the king, long in the habit of dissembling, always yielding to the pressure of remonstrances, no matter from what quarter they came, with criminal insincerity acknowledging himself a cipher, laid the foundation of his own insignificancy, by ordering the promulgation of decrees, which he believed were incompatible with justice, and might involve the french monarchy in disagreeable disputes with foreign princes, when peace was particularly necessary to calm it’s internal convulsions.
If a chief magistrate be of any consequence to a state, his wisdom ought to appear in the dignity and firmness of his actions.—But, if he be considered as the fountain of justice and honour, and do not possess the abilities and magnanimity of a common man, in what a wretched light must he be viewed by the eyes of discernment and common sense?—And, if the framers of a constitution create a power that must continually act at variance with itself, they not only undermine the pillars of their own fabric, but they insert the scion of a disease the most destructive to truth and morals.
After complying with this compulsatory request, Louis, who, finding that he was left without any share of power, seems to have thought very little of his suspensive veto, determined to play a part that would give an air of sincerity to his present conduct, whilst his object was secretly to favour the efforts of the counter-revolutionists; and if possible effect his own escape.—But, in the mean time, he endeavoured to make such use of it as might prevent the total derangement of the old system, without unveiling his secret views, and intentions. It is difficult to determine which was the most reprehensible, the folly of the assembly, or the duplicity of the king. If Louis were without character, and controlled by a court without virtue, it amounted to a demonstration, that every insidious mean would be employed by the courtiers to reinstate the old government; and recover, if possible, their former splendour and voluptuous ease. For, though they were dispersed, it was notorious to all France, nay, to all Europe, that a constant correspondence was kept up between the different parties, and their projects concerted by one of the most intriguing of disappointed men* . It was obvious, therefore, to Mirabeau, that the king ought to be gained over to the side of the people; and made to consider himself as their benefactor, in order to detach him from the cabal. But in this respect he was unfortunately over-ruled. This mixture of magnanimity, and timidity, of wisdom and headstrong folly, displayed by the assembly, appears, at the first view, to involve such a contradiction, that every person unacquainted with the french character would be ready to call in question the truth of those undeniable facts, which crowd on the heels of each other during the progress of the great events, that formed the revolution. A superficial glance over the circumstances, will not enable us to account for an inconsistency, which borders on improbability.—We must, on the contrary, ever keep in our thoughts, that, whilst they were directed in their political plans, by a wild, half comprehended theory, their sentiments were still governed by the old chivalrous sense of honour, which diffusing a degree of romantic heroism into all their actions, a false magnanimity would not permit them to question the veracity of a man, on whom they believed they were conferring favours; and for whom they certainly made great allowance, if they did not forgive him for countenancing plots, which tended to undermine their favourite system.
It is, perhaps, the characteristic of vanity, to become enamoured with ideas, in proportion as they were remote from it’s conception, until brought to the mind by causes so natural, as to induce it to believe, that they are the happy and spontaneous flow of it’s own prolific brain. Their splendour then eclipsing his judgment, the man is hurried on by enthusiasm and self-sufficiency, like a ship at sea, without ballast or helm, by every breath of wind: and, to carry the comparison still further, should a tempest chance to rise in the state, he is swallowed up in the whirlpools of confusion, into the very midst of which his conceit has plunged him; as the vessel, that was not prepared to stem the violence of a hurricane, is buried in the raging surge.
The occasions of remarking, that frenchmen are the vainest men living, often occur, and here it must be insisted on; for no sooner had they taken possession of certain philosophical truths, persuading themselves, that the world was indebted to them for the discovery, than they seem to have overlooked every other consideration, but their adoption. Much evil has been the consequence; yet France is certainly highly indebted to the national assembly for establishing many constitutional principles of liberty, which must greatly accelerate the improvement of the public mind, and ultimately produce the perfect government, that they vainly endeavoured to construct immediately with such fatal precipitation.
The consideration of several other articles of the constitution was continually interrupted, and not more by the variety of business, which came under the cognizance of the assembly, than by the want of a proper arrangement of them. Much time was lost in disputing about the choice of subjects of deliberation; and the order in which they ought to proceed. The business of the day was perpetually obliged to give place to episodical scenes; and men, who came prepared to discuss one question, being obliged to turn to another, lost in some measure the benefit of reflection, and the energy, so different from the enthusiasm of the moment, with which a man supports a well digested opinion.
Two or three slight debates had arisen on the subject of quartering a thousand men, of the regular troops, at Versailles. The commandant of the guards had requested permission of the municipality; pointing out the necessity for the security of the town, the national assembly, and the person of the king. The necessity did not appear so obvious to the public, and, in fact, the demand seemed calculated to provoke the tumults, against which they were so officiously guarding. Mirabeau also observed, ‘that the executive power had undoubtedly a right to augment the military force, in any particular place, when private information, or urgent circumstances, appeared to require it; and that the municipality had, likewise, a right to demand the troops they judged necessary; yet he could not help thinking it singular, that the ministers should have entrusted the municipality with a secret, which they did not communicate to the assembly, who might be supposed at least as anxious to take every precaution for the safety of the town and the king’s person.’ To these pertinent remarks no attention was paid; and a letter from the mayor of Paris, informing the assembly, that a great number of the districts of the metropolis had remonstrated against the introduction of regular troops into Versailles, to awe the national guards, was equally neglected; whilst a letter to the president, in the name of the king, informing him, that he had taken the different measures necessary to prevent any disturbances in the place where the national assembly were sitting, was thrown aside without any comment.
The loan still failing, several individuals made magnificent presents; sacrificing their jewels and plate, to relieve the wants of their country. And the king sent his rich service to the mint, in spite of the remonstrances of the assembly.—The disinterestedness of this action, it is absurd to talk of benevolence, may fairly be doubted; because, had he escaped, and the escape was then in contemplation, it would have been confiscated; whilst the voluntary offer was a popular step, which might serve for a little time to cover this design, and turn the attention of the public from the subject of the reinforcement of the guards to the patriotism of the king.
These donations, which scarcely afforded a temporary supply, rather amused than relieved the nation; though they suggested a new plan to the minister. Necker, therefore, incapable of forming any great design for the good of the nation, yet calculating on the general enthusiasm, which pervaded all descriptions and ranks of people, laid before the assembly the ruinous state of the finances, proposing at the same time, as the only mode of remedying the evil, to require of the citizens a contribution of one-fourth of their income. The assembly was startled by this proposal, but Mirabeau, believing that the people would now grant whatever their representatives required, prevailed on the assembly, by a lively representation of the perilous state of the kingdom, to adopt the only plan of salvation which had yet been suggested—insisting, that this was the only expedient to avoid an infamous national bankruptcy. ‘Two centuries of depredations and pillage,’ he exclaimed, ‘have hollowed out an immense gulph, in which the kingdom will soon be swallowed. It is necessary to fill up this frightful abyss. Agreed!—Choose out the rich, that the sacrifice may fall on the fewer citizens; but, determine quickly! There are two thousand notables, who have sufficient property to restore order to your finances, and peace and prosperity to the kingdom. Strike; immolate without pity these victims!—precipitate them into the abyss—it is going to close on them—ye draw back, with horrour—ye men! pusillanimous and inconsistent!—and see ye not in decreeing a bankruptcy, or, which is still more contemptible, rendering it inevitable, ye are sullied by an act a thousand times more criminal?’
But it is impossible to do justice to this burst of eloquence, in a translation; besides, the most energetic appeals to the passions always lose half their dignity, or, perhaps, appear to want the support of reason, when they are cooly perused.—Nothing produces conviction like passion—it seems the ray from heaven, that enlightens as it warms.—Yet the effect once over, something like a fear of having been betrayed into folly clings to the mind it has most strongly influenced; and an obscure sense of shame lowers the spirits that were wound up too high.
From the whole tenour of this speech it is clear, that Mirabeau was in earnest; and that he had fired his imagination, by considering this plan as an act of heroism, that would ennoble the revolution, and reflect lasting honour on the national assembly. In this extemporary flow of eloquence, probably the most simple and noble of modern times, mixed none of the rhetoric which frequently entered into his studied compositions; for his periods were often artfully formed;—but it was the art of a man of genius. He proposed to the assembly to address their constituents on this occasion; and he was accordingly requested to prepare an address for their consideration.
His address to the nation is, indeed, a master-piece; yet, being written to persuade, and not spoken to carry a point immediately, and overwhelm opposition, there is more reasoning in it; and more artful, though less forcible, appeals to the passions. And, though this expedient appears to be the most wild that folly could have blundered upon, the arguments ought to be preserved with which it was glossed over.
To expect a man to give the fourth of what he lived on; and that in the course of fifteen months, leaving it to him to make the estimate, was expecting that from virtue, which could only have been produced by enthusiasm. All the ancient acts of heroism were excited by the spur of present danger; and of this kind of virtue the french were equally capable; yet, though the plan afforded them an opportunity to give a splendid proof of their patriotism, it by no means answered; because, it being the effect rather of temper than of principle, selfishness had time to find a plausible pretext to elude it; and vanity is seldom willing to hide it’s good works in the common measure.
As the removing the national assembly to Paris forms an epocha in the history of the revolution, it seems proper to close this chapter with Mirabeau’s address.
‘The deputies of the national assembly suspend a while their labours to lay before their constituents the wants of the state, and to call upon their patriotism to second the measures, which a country in danger demands.
‘It were betraying you to dissemble. Two ways are open—the nation may stride forward to the most glorious pre-eminence, or fall head-long into a gulph of misfortune.
‘A great revolution, the very plan of which some months ago would have appeared chimerical, has taken place amongst us, Accelerated by unforeseen circumstances, the momentum has suddenly overthrown our ancient institutions. Without allowing us time to prop what must be preserved, or to replace what ought to be destroyed, it has at once surrounded us with ruins.
‘Our efforts to support the government are fruitless, a fatal numbness cramps all it’s powers. The public revenue is no more; and credit cannot gain strength at a moment, when our fears equal our hopes.—This spring of social power unbent, has weakened the whole machine; men and things, resolution, courage, and even virtue itself, have lost their tension. If your concurrence do not speedily restore life and motion to the body-politic, the grandest revolutions, perishing with the hopes it generated, will mingle again in the chaos, whence noble exertions have drawn it; and they, who shall still preserve an unconquerable love of liberty, will refuse to unworthy citizens the disgraceful consolation of resuming their fetters.
‘Since your deputies have buried all their rivalry, all their contending interests, in a just and necessary union, the national assembly has laboured to establish equal laws for the common safety. It has repaired great errours, and broken the links of countless thraldoms, which degraded human nature: it has kindled the flame of joy and hope in the bosoms of the people, the creditors of earth and nature, whose dignity has been so long tarnished, whose hearts have been so long discouraged: it has restored the long-obscured equality of frenchmen, established their common right to serve the state, to enjoy it’s protection, to merit it’s rewards: in short, conformably to your instructions, it is gradually erecting, on the immutable basis of the imprescriptible rights of man, a constitution mild as nature, lasting as justice, and the imperfections of which, the consequence of the inexperience of it’s authors, will easily be repaired. We have had to contend with the inveterate prejudices of ages, whilst harassed by the thousand uncertainties which accompany great changes. Our successors will have the beaten track of experience before them; we have had only the compass of theory to guide us through the pathless desert. They may labour peaceably; though we have had to bear up against storms. They will know their rights, and the limits of their power: we have had to recover the one, and to fix the other. They will consolidate our work—they will surpass us—What a recompence! Who shall dare, mean while, to assign limits to the grandeur of France? Who is not elevated by hope? Who does not felicitate himself on being a citizen of it’s empire?
‘Such, however, is the crisis of the finances, that the state is threatened with dissolution before this grand order of things can find it’s centre. The cessation of the revenue has banished specie. A thousand circumstances hasten it’s exportation. The sources of credit are exhausted; and the wheels of government are almost at a stand. If patriotism then step not forward to the succour of government, our armies, our fleets, our subsistence, our arts, our trade, our agriculture, our national debt, our country itself, will be hurried towards that catastrophe, when she will receive laws only from disorder and anarchy—Liberty would have glanced on our sight, only to disappear for ever, only to leave behind the bitter consciousness, that we did not merit the possession. And to our shame, in the eyes of the universe, the evil could be attributed solely to ourselves. With a soil so fertile, industry so productive, a commerce so flourishing, and such means of prosperity—what is this embarrassment of our finances? Our wants amount not to the expence of a summer’s campaign—and our liberty, is it not worth more than those senseless struggles, when even victory has proved ruinous?
‘The present difficulty overcome, far from burdening the people, it will be easy to meliorate their condition. Reductions, which need not annihilate luxury; reforms, which will reduce none to indigence; a commutation of the oppressive taxes, an equal assessment of the impost, together with the equilibrium which must be restored between our revenue and our expenditure; an order that must be rendered permanent by our vigilant superintendency.—These are the scattered objects of your consolatory perspective.—They are not the unsubstantial coinage of fancy; but real, palpable forms—hopes capable of proof, things subordinate to calculation.
‘But our actual wants—the paralysis of our public strength, the hundred and sixty extra millions necessary for this year, and the next—What can be done? The prime minister has proposed as the great lever of the effort, which is to decide the kingdom’s fate, a contribution proportional to the income of each citizen.
‘Between the necessity of providing instantly for the exigencies of the public, and the impossibility of investigating so speedily the plan before us; fearing to enter into a labyrinth of calculations, and seeing nothing contrary to our duty in the minister’s proposal, we have obeyed the dictates of our consciences, presuming they would be yours. The attachment of the nation to the author of the plan, appeared to us a pledge of it’s success; and we confided in his long experience, rather than trust to the guidance of our speculative opinions.
‘To the conscience of every citizen is left the valuation of his income: thus the effect of the measure depends on your own patriotism. When the nation is bursting from the nothingness of servitude to the creation of liberty—when policy is about to concur with nature in unfolding the inconceivable grandeur of her future destiny—shall vile passions oppose her greatness? interest stay her flight? and the salvation of the state weigh less than a personal contribution?
‘No; such madness is not in nature; the passions even do not listen to such treacherous reckonings. If the revolution, which has given us a country, cannot rouse some frenchmen out of the torpor of indifference, at least the tranquillity of the kingdom, the only pledge of their individual security, will influence them. No; it is not in the whirl of universal overthrow, in the degradation of tutelary authority, when a crowd of indigent citizens, shut out from the work-shops, will be clamouring for impotent pity; when the soldiery disbanded will be forming itself into hungry gangs of armed plunderers, when property will be violated with impunity, and the very existence of individuals menaced—terrour and grief waiting at the door of every family—it is not amidst such complicated wretchedness, that these cruel and selfish men will enjoy in peace the hoards which they denied their country. The only distinction that awaits them, in the general wreck, will be the universal opprobrium they deserve, or the useless remorse that will corrode the inmost recesses of their hearts.
‘Ah! how many recent proofs have we of the public spiritedness, which renders all success so easy! With what rapidity was formed the national militia, those legions of citizens armed for the defence of the country, the preservation of tranquillity, and the maintenance of the laws! A generous emulation has beamed on all sides. Villages, towns, provinces, have considered their privileges as odious distinctions, and solicited the honour of depriving themselves of peculiar advantages, to enrich their country. You know it: time was not allowed to draw up the mutual concessions, dictated by a purely patriotic sentiment, into decrees; so impatient was every class of citizens to restore to the great family whatever endowed some of it’s members to the prejudice of others.
‘Above all, since the embarrassment of our finances, the patriotic contributions have increased. From the throne, the majesty of which a beneficent prince exalts by his virtues, has emanated the most striking example.—O thou, so justly the dearly beloved of thypeople—king—citizen—man of worth! it was thine to cast a glance over the magnificence that surrounded thee, and to convert it into national resources. The objects of luxury which thou hast sacrificed, have added new lustre to thy dignity; and whilst the love of the french for thy sacred person makes them murmur at the privation, their sensibility applauds thy magnanimity; and their generosity will repay thy beneficence by the return it covets, by an imitation of thy virtues, by pursuing thy course in the career of public utility.
‘How much wealth, congealed by ostentation into useless heaps, shall melt into flowing streams of prosperity! How much the prudent economy of individuals might contribute to the restoration of the kingdom! How many treasures, which the piety of our forefathers accumulated on the altars of our temples, will forsake their obscure cells without changing their sacred destination! “This I set apart, in times of prosperity;” says religion; “it is fitting that I dispense it in the day of adversity. It was not for myself—a borrowed lustre adds nothing to my greatness—it was for you, and the state, that I levied this honourable tribute on the virtues of your forefathers.”
‘Who can avoid being affected by such examples? What a moment to display our resources, to invoke the aid of every corner of the empire!—O prevent the shame, with which the violation of our engagements, our most sacred engagements, would stain the birth of freedom! Prevent those dreadful shocks, which, in overturning the most solid institutions, and shattering the most established fortunes, would leave France covered with the sad ruins of a shameful hurricane. How mistaken are those, who at a certain distance from the capital contemplate not the links, which connect public faith with national prosperity, and with the social contract! They who pronounce the infamous term bankruptcy, are they not rather a herd of ferocious beasts, than a society of men just and free? Where is the frenchman who will dare to look his fellow citizens in the face, when his conscience shall upbraid him with having contributed to empoison the existence of millions of his fellow creatures? Are we the nation to whose honour it’s enemies bear witness, who are about to fully the proud distinction by a bankruptcy?—Shall we give them cause to say, we have only recovered our liberty and strength to commit, without shuddering, crimes which paled even the cheek of despotism?
‘Would it be any excuse to protest, that this execrable mischief was not premeditated? Ah! no: the cries of the victims, whom we shall scatter over Europe, will drown our voice. Act then!—Be your measures swift, strong, sure. Dispel the cloud, that lowers over our heads, the gloom of which sheds terrour into the hearts of the creditors of France.—If it burst, the devastation of our national resources will be more tremendous than the terrible plague, which has lately ravaged our provinces.
‘How will our courage in the exercise of the functions, you have confided to us, be renewed! With what vigour shall we labour in forming the constitution, when secured from interruption! We have sworn to save our country—judge of our anguish, whilst it trembles on the verge of destruction. A momentary sacrifice is sufficient; a sacrifice offered to the public good, and not to the encroachments of covetousness. And is this easy expiation of the faults and blunders of a period, stigmatized by political servitude, above our strength? Think of the price which has been paid for liberty by other nations, who have shown themselves worthy of it:—for this, rivers of blood have streamed—long years of woe, and horrid civil wars, have every where preceded the glorious birth!—Of us nothing is required, but a pecuniary sacrifice—and even this vulgar offering is not an impoverishing gift:—it will return into our bosom, to enrich our cities, our fields; augmenting our national glory and prosperity.’