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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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the moe demand the king’s removal to paris. this city described. the king repairs to the capital, escorted by a deputation of the national assembly and the parisian militia. the king’s title changed. proceedings of the national assembly. reflections on the declaration of rights.
AFTER the wild tumult, on the morning of the 6th of october, abated, the king showed himself to the people, in the balcony, and the queen followed with the dauphin in her arms. At first, he vainly attempted to speak; but La Fayette informed the people, that his majesty came forward to assure them, that it should be the business of his life to contribute to the happiness of his people. The king at Paris, exclaimed a voice, which was quickly re-echoed by the crowd. ‘My children,’ replied the king, ‘you wish me to be at Paris, and I will go; but it is on the condition, that my wife and family accompany me.’ A loud shout of vive le roi restified the extacy of the moment. The king made a sign to demand silence; and then, with tears in his eyes addressed them again.—‘Ah! my children, run to the relief of my guards.’ Immediately two or three appeared in the balcony with the national cockade in their hats, or the cap of liberty on their heads. The king threw his arms round one of them, and the people following his example embraced those whom they had taken prisoners in the court. One sentiment of gladness seemed to animate the whole concourse of people; and their sensibility produced as mad demonstrations of joy as lately had been displayed of ferocity. The soldiery all mingled together, exchanging swords, hats, or shoulder belts—exhibiting in the most striking manner the prominent features of the french character.
Meanwhile the assembly, instead of instantly examining into the particulars of that alarming convulsion, and exerting themselves to cause a proper respect to be paid to the sovereignty of the law, childishly gave way to the universal transport: instead of considering the peremptory wish of the people to remove the king to Paris as a distrust of their wisdom, as well as of the veracity of the court, which was in some measure the case, they unanimously agreed to the motion of Mirabeau, seconded by Barnave, ‘that the king and assembly should not be separated during the present sessions.’ Mirabeau, and other popular members, were probably glad to have the person of the king secured, without being obliged to appear, in an ostensible manner, in the affair; because they always endeavoured to keep a little hold on the court, whilst they led the people. Such are the pitiful shifts of men, who are not guided by the compass of moral principles, which alone render the character dignified or consistent. Readily then acquiescing in a measure the most fatal and contemptible, they decreed, that the assembly was inseparable from the person of the king, and sent a deputation to inform him of this resolve, previous to his departure.
That Louis, finding all his projects for the present defeated, and after such a narrow escape for his life, should readily have acceded to the demand of the multitude, is not in the least extraordinary.—But, that the representatives of the nation should, without resistance or remonstrance, have surrendered their authority, and thrown themselves headlong into the heart of a city, which could be suddenly agitated, and put into the most disorderly and dangerous commotion, by the intrigues or folly of any desperate or factious leader of the multitude—suffering themselves to be environed by it’s wall, shut in by it’s barriers—in a word—choosing to live in a capacious prison; for men forced, or drawn into any such situation, are in reality slaves or prisoners,—almost surpasses belief. This absurd conduct, in fact, can be accounted for only by considering the national character, and the different though equally interested views, of the court and popular parties, in the assembly.
Independent of the additional incense of praise, with which Mirabeau wished to be continually regaled, in the metropolis, he had a decided preference for it, frequently asserting, that it was the only place where society was truly desirable; the people and place, in spite of their vices and follies, equally attaching the taste they cultivated.
Exclaiming against capitals, the impartial observer must acknowledge, that much has been done to render this a superb monument of human ingenuity.
The entrance into Paris, by the Thuilleries, is certainly very magnificent. The roads have an expansion that agrees with the idea of a large luxurious city, and with the beauty of the buildings in the noble square, that first attracts the travellers eye. The lofty trees on each side of the road, forming charming alleys, in which the people walk and lounge with an easy gaiety peculiar to the nation, seem calculated equally to secure their health and promote their pleasure. The barriers, likewise, are stately edifices, that tower with grandeur, rendering the view, as the city is approached, truly picturesque.
But—these very barriers, built by Calonne, who liked to have Paris compared with Athens, excite the most melancholy reflections.—They were first erected by despotism to secure the payment of an oppressive tax, and since have fatally assisted to render anarchy more violent by concentration, cutting off the possibility of innocent victims escaping from the fury, or the mistake, of the moment.—Thus miscreants have had sufficient influence to guard these barriers, and caging the objects of their fear or vengeance, have slaughtered them; or, violating the purity of justice, have coolly wrested laws hastily formed to serve sinister designs—changing it’s sacred sword into a dagger, and terming the assassin’s stab the stroke of justice, because given with the mock ceremonials of equity, which only rendered the crime more atrocious. The tyrant, who, bounding over all restraint, braves the eternal law he tramples on, is not half so detestable as the reptile who crawls under the shelter of the principles he violates. Such has been the effect of the enclosure of Paris: and the reflections of wounded humanity disenchanting the senses, the elegant structures, which served as gates to this great prison, no longer appear magnificent porticoes.
Still the eye of taste rests with pleasure on its buildings and decorations: proportion and harmony gratify the sight, whilst airy ornaments seem to toss a simple, playful elegance around. The heavens too smile, diffusing fragrance: and as the inhabitants trip along the charming boulevard, the genial atmosphere seems instantaneously to inspire the animal spirits, which give birth to the varied graces that glide around. Clustering flowers, with luxuriant pomp, lend their sweets, giving a freshness to the fairy scene—nature and art combining with great felicity to charm the senses, and touch the heart, alive to the social feelings, and to the beauties most dear to fancy.
Why starts the tear of anguish to mingle with recollections that sentiment fosters—even in obedience to reason?—For it is wise to be happy!—and nature and virtue will always open inlets of joy to the heart. But how quickly vanishes this prospect of delights! of delights such as man ought to taste!—The cavalcade of death moves along, shedding mildew over all the beauties of the scene, and blasting every joy! The elegance of the palaces and buildings is revolting, when they are viewed as prisons, and the sprightliness of the people disgusting, when they are hastening to view the operations of the guillotine, or carelessly passing over the earth stained with blood. Exasperated humanity then, with bitterness of soul, devotes the city to destruction; whilst turning from such a nest of crimes, it seeks for consolation only in the conviction, that, as the world is growing wiser, it must become happier; and that, as the cultivation of the soil meliorates a climate, the improvement of the understanding will prevent those banesul excesses of passion which poison the heart.
A deputation of the national assembly accompanied the royal family to Paris, as well as the parisian militia. A number of the women preceded them, mounted on the carriages which they had taken in their way to Versailles, and on the cannons, covered with national cockades, and dragging in the dirt those that were considered as symbols of aristocracy. Soon after they set out, either by chance, or, which is more probable, pursuant to a plan contrived by some person in power, forty or fifty loads of wheat and flour fell into the procession, just before the king, giving weight to the exclamation of the populace, that they had brought the baker and his family to town.
The assembly continued to sit at Versailles till the nineteenth; and several interesting debates were entered upon, particularly one brought forward by the bishop of Autun, respecting the appropriation of the estates of the clergy to supply the exigences of the government. The abolition of lettres de cachet was considered, and a fresh organization of the municipalities proposed; but as none of these motions were carried before they were more fully discussed at Paris, it seems best to bring the different arguments on those important subjects under one point of view.
Settling the articles of the constitution, however, which previously occupied them, several frivolous discussions, respecting the style of expression to be adopted to signify the king’s acceptance of their decrees, were lengthened out with warmth, and puerile objections made to ancient forms—that were merely forms. After some disputation, the title of the monarch was changed from king of France, with the rest of the formule, for that of king of the French; because Rousseau had remarked, perhaps fastidiously, that the title ought to express rather the chief of the people, than the master of the soil.
The intended removal of the assembly to Paris also produced several warm debates. This resolution, indeed, excited, not without reason, apprehensions in the breasts of some of the deputies, relative to their personal safety, should they, in future, venture to oppose any of the motions of the popular party, which that party instructed the mob of Paris to support.
The president, Mounier, pleading his bad state of health, begged to be dismissed; and Lally-Tolendal, thinking that he could not stem the torrent, retired from public business at the same time. A great many of the members hinting their fears, that the assembly would not be free at Paris, on various pretexts demanded such a number of passports, as to make the president express some apprehension lest the assembly should thus indirectly dissolve itself; whilst other deputies uttered a profusion of indecent sarcasms on a conduct, which the behaviour of the populace, and even of these very orators, seemed to justify. Mirabeau, who so earnestly desired to be at Paris, ridiculed with unbecoming bitterness every opposition made to the removal of the assembly; yet, listening to the representation, that the allowing so many malecontents to retire into the provinces might produce dangerous fermentations, he proposed that no passport should be granted, till the deputy who demanded it had made known his reason for so doing to the assembly. A letter from the king, notifying his intention of residing most part of his time at Paris, and expressing his assurance, that they did not mean to separate themselves from him, now requested them to send commissioners to Paris, to search for a proper place, where they might in future hold their sessions. They accordingly determined to go thither, conformably to the decree of the sixth of october, when a convenient situation should be found.
After this determination, several members gave an account of the gross insults they had received at Paris. One in particular, who was not obnoxious to the public, narrowly escaped with life, only because he was mistaken for a deputy against whom the mob had vowed vengeance. Another, who had also been insulted, with proper spirit moved, that a decree respecting libels should instantly be passed. ‘Are we,’ he asked, ‘to be led to liberty only by licentiousness? No; the people, deceived and intoxicated, are rendered furious. How many times (he added) have I lamented the impetuosity of this assembly, who have accustomed the public, seated in our galleries, to praise, to blame, to deride our opinions, without understanding them.—And who has inspired them with this audacity?’ — He was interrupted by signs of disapprobation; and personalities now disgraced the debate, in which Mirabeau mingled satirical observations and retorts, that did more credit to his abilities than to his heart. But, a day or two after, recollecting himself, he presented the plan of a decree to prevent riots, which he introduced, by saying, that it was an imitation, though not a copy, of the English riot act.
The evening before the departure of the assembly for Paris, passports being still demanded with earnestness, a decree was made, ‘that passports should be granted only for a short and determinate time, on account of urgent business; and that unlimited passports, in cases of ill health, should not be granted before the deputies were replaced by their substitutes;’ and further, cutting a knot that might have revived old claims and animosities, had it been brought forward alone, they decreed, ‘that in future the substitutes should be nominated by the citizens at large; and that, eight days after the first session at Paris, there should be a call of the house; suspending till then the consideration of the propriety of printing and sending to the provinces the list of the absent deputies.’
The constraining so many members to remain at their posts, and condemning a man to a state of ignominious servitude, whilst they were talking of nothing but liberty, was as contemptibly little, as the policy was injudicious. For if the king pretended to acquiesce in their measures the better to disguise his real intention, which doubtless was to fly as soon as he could find an opportunity, or was at liberty, what did they gain? For as they must have known, that his emancipation would be the consequence of his acceptance of the constitution, his imprisonment could only tend to retard their operations: yet they had neither the magnanimity to allow him to depart with an handsome stipend, if such were his wish; nor to grant him such a portion of power, in the new constitution, as would, by rendering him respectable in his own eyes, have reconciled him to the deprivation of the rest. But, as things were settled, it was morally certain, that, whenever his friends were ready, a blow would be directed against them, which they were then as well prepared to meet as they could be at a subsequent period.
Under the influence of fixed systems, certain moral effects are as infallible as physical.—That every insidious attempt would be made by the courts of Europe, to overturn the new government of France, was therefore certain; and, unless they had all been overturned at the same time, was as much to be expected as any effect from a natural cause. The most likely mean then to have parried the evil would have been a decided firmness of conduct, which, flowing from a real love of justice, produces true magnanimity; and not a parading affectation of the virtues of romans, with the degenerate minds of their posterity.
Precision, wisdom, and courage, never fail to secure the admiration and respect of all descriptions of people; and every government thus directed will keep in awe it’s licentious neighbours. But fear and timidity betray symptoms of weakness, that, creating contempt and disrespect, encourage the attempts of ambitious despots; so that the noblest causes are sometimes ruined or vilified by the folly or indiscretion of their directors. All Europe saw, and all good men saw with dread, that the french had undertaken to support a cause, which they had neither sufficient purity of heart, nor maturity of judgment, to conduct with moderation and prudence; whilst malevolence has been gratified by the errours they have committed, attributing that imperfection to the theory they adopted, which was applicable only to the folly of their practice.
However, frenchmen have reason to rejoice, and posterity will be grateful, for what was done by the assembly.
The economy of government had been so ably treated by the writers of the present age, that it was impossible for them, acting on the great scale of public good, not to lay the foundations of many useful plans, as they reformed many grievous and grinding abuses.—Accordingly we find, though they had not sufficient penetration to foresee the dreadful consequences of years of anarchy, the probable result of their manner of proceeding, still by following, in some degree, the instructions of their constituents, who had digested, from the bright lines of philosophical truths, the prominent rules of political science, they, in laying the main pillars of the constitution, established beyond a possibility of obliteration, the great principles of liberty and equality.
It is allowed by all parties, that civilization is a blessing, so far as it gives security to person and property, and the milder graces of taste to society and manners. If, therefore, the polishing of man, and the improvement of his intellect, become necessary to secure these advantages, it follows, of course, that the more general such improvement grows, the greater the extension of human happiness.
In a savage state man is distinguished only by superiority of genius, prowess, and eloquence. I say eloquence, for I believe, that in this stage of society he is most eloquent, because most natural. For it is only in the progress of governments, that hereditary distinctions, cruelly abridging rational liberty, have prevented man from rising to his just point of elevation, by the exercise of his improveable faculties.
That there is a superiority of natural genius among men does not admit of dispute; and that in countries the most free there will always be distinctions proceeding from superiority of judgment, and the power of acquiring more delicacy of taste, which may be the effect of the peculiar organization, or whatever cause produces it, is an incontestible truth. But it is a palpable errour to suppose, that men of every class are not equally susceptible of common improvement: if therefore it be the contrivance of any government, to preclude from a chance of improvement the greater part of the citizens of the state, it can be considered in no other light than as a monstrous tyranny, a barbarous oppression, equally injurious to the two parties, though in different ways. For all the advantages of civilization cannot be felt, unless it pervades the whole mass, humanizing every description of men—and then it is the first of blessings, the true perfection of man.
The melioration of the old government of France arose entirely from a degree of urbanity acquired by the higher class, which insensibly produced, by a kind of natural courtesy, a small portion of civil liberty. But, as for political liberty, there was not the shadow of it; or could it ever have been generated under such a system: because, whilst men were prevented not only from arriving at public offices, or voting for the nomination of others to fill them, but even from attaining any distinct idea of what was meant by liberty in a practical sense, the great bulk of the people were worse than savages; retaining much of the ignorance of barbarians, after having poisoned the noble qualities of nature by imbibing some of the habits of degenerate refinement. To the national assembly it is, that France is indebted for having prepared a simple code of instruction, containing all the truths necessary to give a comprehensive perception of political science; which will enable the ignorant to climb the mount of knowledge, whence they may view the ruins of the ingenious fabric of despotism, that had so long disgraced the dignity of man by it’s odious and debasing claims.
The declaration of rights contains an aggregate of principles the most beneficial; yet so simple, that the most ordinary capacity cannot fail to comprehend their import. It begins by asserting, that the rights of men are equal, and that no distinctions can exist in a wholesome government, but what are founded on public utility. Then showing, that political associations are intended only for the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man, which are his liberty, security of property, and resistance against oppression; and asserting also, that the nation is the source of all fovereignty; it delineates, in a plain and perspicuous manner, in what these rights, and this sovereignty, consist. In this delineation men may learn, that, in the exercise of their natural rights, they have the power of doing whatever does not injure another; and that this power has no limits, which are not determined by law—the laws being at the same time an expression of the will of the community, because all the citizens of the state, either personally, or by their representatives, have a right to concur in the formation.
Thus, having taught the citizens the fundamental principles of a legitimate government, it proceeds to show how the opinion of each may be ascertained; which he has a right to give personally, or by his representatives, to determine the necessity of public contributions, their appropriation, mode of assessment, and duration.
The simplicity of these principles, promulged by the men of genius of the last and present ages, and their justness, acknowledged by every description of unprejudiced men, had not been recognised by any senate or government in Europe; and it was an honour worthy to be reserved for the representatives of twenty-five millions of men, rising to the sense and feeling of rational beings, to be the first to dare to ratify such sacred and beneficial truths—truths, the existence of which had been eternal; and which required only to be made known, to be generally acknowledged—truths, which have been fostered by the genius of philosophy, whilst hereditary wealth and the bayonet of despotism have continually been opposed to their establishment.
The publicity of a government acting conformably to the principles of reason, in contradistinction to the maxims of oppression, affords the people an opportunity, or at least a chance, of judging of the wisdom and moderation of their ministers; and the eye of discernment, when permitted to make known it’s observations, will always prove a check on the profligacy or dangerous ambition of aspiring men.—So that in contemplating the extension of representative systems of polity, we have solid ground on which to rest the expectation—that wars and their calamitous effects will become less frequent, in proportion as the people, who are obliged to support them with their sweat and blood, are consulted respecting their necessity and consequences.
Such consultations can take place under representative systems of government only—under systems which demand the responsibility of their ministers, and secure the publicity of their political conduct. The mysteries of courts, and the intrigues of their parasites, have continually deluged Europe with the blood of it’s most worthy and heroic citizens, and there is no specific cure for such evils, but by enabling the people to form an opinion respecting the subject of dispute.
The court of Versailles, with powers the most ample, was the most busy and insidious of any in Europe; and the horrours which she has occasioned, at different periods, were as incalculable, as her ambition was unbounded, and her councils base, unprincipled, and dishonourable. If, then, it were only for abolishing her sway, Europe ought to be thankful for a change, that, by altering the political systems of the most improved quarter of the globe, must ultimately lead to universal freedom, virtue, and happiness.
But it is to be presumed, when the effervescence, which now agitates the prejudices of the whole continent, subsides, the justness of the principles brought forward in the declaration of the rights of men and citizens will be generally granted; and that governments, in future, acquiring reason and dignity, feeling for the sufferings of the people, whilst reprobating the sacrilege of tyranny, will make it their principal object, to counteract it’s baneful tendency, by restraining within just bounds the ambition of individuals.