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REASONS AGAINST THE FRENCH WAR OF 1793. * - Sir James Mackintosh, The Miscellaneous Works 
The Miscellaneous Works. Three Volumes, complete in One. (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1871).
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REASONS AGAINST THE FRENCH WAR OF 1793.*
At the commencement of the year 1793 the whole body of the supporters of the war seemed unanimous; yet even then was perceptible the germ of a difference which time and events have since unfolded. The Minister had early and frequent recourse to the high principles of Mr. Burke, in order to adorn his orations,—to assail his antagonists in debate,—to blacken the character of the enemy,—and to arouse the national spirit against them. Amid the fluctuating fortune of the war, he seemed in the moment of victory to deliver opinions scarcely distinguishable from those of Mr. Burke, and to recede from them by imperceptible degrees, as success abandoned the arms of the Allies. When the armies of the French republic were every where triumphant, and the pecuniary embarrassments of Great Britain began to be severely felt, he at length dismissed altogether the consideration of the internal state of France, and professed to view the war as merely defensive against aggressions committed on Great Britain and her allies.
That the war was not just on such principles perhaps a very short argument will be sufficient to demonstrate. War is just only to those by whom it is unavoidable; and every appeal to arms is unrighteous, except that of a nation which has no other resource for the maintenance of its security or the assertion of its honour. Injury and insult do not of themselves make it lawful for a nation to seek redress by war, because they do not make it necessary: another means of redress is still in her power, and it is still her duty to employ it. It is not either injury or insult; but injury for which reparation has been asked and denied, or insult for which satisfaction has been demanded and refused, that places her in a state in which, having in vain employed every other means of vindicating her rights, she may justly assert them by arms. Any commonwealth, therefore, which shuts up the channel of negotiation while disputes are depending, is the author of the war which may follow. As a perfect equality prevails in the society and intercourse of nations, no state is bound to degrade herself by submitting to unavowed and clandestine negotiation; but every government has a perfect right to be admitted to that open, avowed, authorized, honourable negotiation which in the practice of nations is employed for the pacific adjustment of their contested claims. To refuse authorized negotiation is to refuse the only negotiation to which a government is forced to submit: it is, therefore, in effect to refuse negotiation altogether; and it follows, as a necessary consequence, that they who refuse such authorized negotiation are responsible for a war which that refusal makes on their part unjust.
These principles apply with irresistible force to the conduct of the English Government in the commencement of the present war. They complained, perhaps justly, of the opening of the Scheldt,—of the Decree of Fraternity,—of the countenance shown to disaffected Englishmen: but they refused that authorised intercourse with the French Government through its ambassador, M. Chauvelin, which might have amicably terminated these disputes. It is no answer that they were ready to carry on a clandestine correspondence with that government through Noel and Maret, or any other of its secret agents. That Government was not obliged to submit to such an intercourse; and the British Government put itself in the wrong by refusing an intercourse of another sort.
No difficulties arising from a refusal to negotiate embarrass the system of Mr. Burke. It is founded on the principle that the nature of the French Government is a just ground of war for its destruction, and regards the particular acts of that government no farther than as they are proofs of its irreconcilable hostility to all other states and communities.
We are not disposed to deny that so mighty a change in the frame of government and the state of society, of one of the greatest nations of the civilized world, as was effected by the Revolution in France,—attended by such extravagant opinions, and producing such violent passions,—was of a nature to be dangerous to the several governments and to the quiet of the various communities, which compose the great commonwealth of Europe. To affirm the contrary would be in effect to maintain that man is not the creature of sympathy and imitation,—that he is not always disposed, in a greater or less degree, to catch the feelings, to imbibe the opinions, and to copy the conduct of his fellow-men. Most of the revolutions which have laid ancient systems in ruins, and changed the whole face of society, have sprung from these powerful and active principles of human nature. The remote effect of these revolutions has been sometimes beneficial and sometimes pernicious: but the evil which accompanied them has ever been great and terrible; their future tendency was necessarily ambiguous and contingent; and their ultimate consequences were always dependent on circumstances much beyond the control of the agents. With these opinions, the only question that can be at issue between Mr. Burke and ourselves is, whether a war was a just, effectual, and safe mode of averting the danger with which the French Revolution might threaten the established governments of Europe;—just in its principle,—effectual for its proposed end,—and safe from the danger of collateral evil. On all the three branches of this comprehensive question we are obliged to dissent very widely from the opinions of Mr. Burke.
We are not required to affirm universally that there never are cases in which the state of the internal government of a foreign nation may become a just ground of war; and we know too well the danger of universal affirmations to extend our line of posts farther than is absolutely necessary for our own defence. We are not convinced of the fact that the French Government in the year 1791 (when the Royal confederacy originated) war of such a nature as to be incapable of being so ripened and mitigated by a wise moderation in the surrounding Powers, that it might not become perfectly safe and inoffensive to the neighbouring states. Till this fact be proved, the whole reasoning of Mr. Burke appears to us inconclusive. Whatever may be done by prudence and forbearance is not to be attempted by war. Whoever, therefore, proposes war as the means of attaining any public good, or of averting any public evil, must first prove that his object is unattainable by any other means. And peculiarly heavy is the burden of proof on the man who, in such cases as the present, is the author of violent counsels,—which, even when they are most specious in promise, are hard and difficult in trial, as well as most uncertain in their issue,—which usually preclude any subsequent recurrence to milder and more moderate expedients,—and from which a safe retreat is often difficult, and an honourable retreat is generally impossible.
Great and evident indeed must be the necessity which can justify a war that in its nature must impair, and in its effects may subvert, the sacred principle of national independence,—the great master-principle of public morality, from which all the rules of the law of nations flow, and which they are all framed only to defend,—of which the balance of power itself (for which so many wars, in our opinion just, have been carried on) is only a safeguard and an outwork,—and of which the higher respect and the more exact observance have so happily distinguished our western parts of Europe, in these latter times, above all other ages and countries of the world. Under the guard of this venerable principle, our European societies, with the most different forms of government and the greatest inequalities of strength, have subsisted and flourished in almost equal security,—the character of man has been exhibited in all that variety and vigour which are necessary for the expansion and display both of his powers and of his virtues,—the spring and spirit and noble pride and generous emulation, which arise from a division of territory among a number of independent states, have been combined with a large measure of that tranquil security which has been found so rarely reconcilable with such a division,—the opinion of enlightened Europe has furnished a mild but not altogether ineffectual, control over the excesses of despotism itself,—and the victims of tyranny have at least found a safe and hospitable asylum in foreign countries from the rage of their native oppressors. It has alike exempted us from the lethargic quiet of extensive empire,—from the scourge of wide and rapid conquest,—and from the pest of frequent domestic revolutions.
This excellent principle, like every other rule which governs the moral conduct of men, may be productive of occasional evil It must be owned that the absolute independence of states, and their supreme exclusive jurisdiction over all acts done within their own territory, secure an impunity to the most atrocious crimes either of usurpers or of lawful governments degenerated into tyrannies. There is no tribunal competent to punish such crimes, because it is not for the interest of mankind to vest in any tribunal an authority adequate to their punishment; and it is better that these crimes should be unpunished, than that nations should not be independent. To admit such an authority would only be to supply fresh incitements to ambition and rapine,—to multiply the grounds of war,—to sharpen the rage of national animosity,—to destroy the confidence of independence and internal quiet,—and to furnish new pretexts for invasion, for conquest, and for partition. When the Roman general Flaminius was accomplishing the conquest of Greece, under pretence of enfranchising the Grecian republics, he partly covered his ambitious designs under colour of punishing the atrocious crimes of the Lacedæmonian tyrant Nabis.* When Catherine II. and her accomplices perpetrated the greatest crime which any modern government has ever committed against another nation, it was easy for them to pretend that the partition of Poland was necessary for the extirpation of Jacobinism in the north of Europe.
We are therefore of opinion that the war proposed by Mr. Burke is unjust, both because it has not been proved that no other means than war could have preserved us from the danger; and because war was an expedient, which it was impossible to employ for such a purpose, without shaking the authority of that great tutelary principle, under the shade of which the nations of Europe have so long flourished in security. There is no case of fact made out to which the principles of the law of vicinage are to apply. If the fact had been proved, we might confess the justice of the war; though even in that case its wisdom and policy would still remain to be considered.
The first question to be discussed in the examination of every measure of policy is, whether it is likely to be effectual for its proposed ends. That the war against France was inadequate to the attainment of its object, is a truth which is now demonstrated by fatal experience; but which, in our opinion, at the time of its commencement, was very evident to men of sagacity and foresight. The nature of the means to be employed was of itself sufficient to prove their inadequacy. The first condition essential to the success of the war was, that the confederacy of ambitious princes who were to carry it on, should become perfectly wise, moderate, and disinterested,—that they should bury in oblivion past animosities and all mutual jealousies—that they should sacrifice every view of ambition and every opportunity of aggrandisement to the great object of securing Europe from general confusion by re-establishing the ancient monarchy of France. No man has proved this more unanswerably than Mr. Burke himself. This moderation and this disinterestedness were not only necessary for the union of the Allies, but for the disunion of France.
But we will venture to affirm, that the supposition of a disinterested confederacy of ambitious princes is as extravagant a chimera as any that can be laid to the charge of the wildest visionaries of democracy. The universal peace of the Abbé St. Pierre was plausible and reasonable, when compared with this supposition. The universal republic of Anacharsis Cloots himself was not much more irreconcilable with the uniform experience and sober judgment of mankind. We are far from confounding two writers,—one of whom was a benevolent visionary and the other a sanguinary madman,—who had nothing in common but the wildness of their predictions and the extravagance of their hopes. The Abbé St. Pierre had the simplicity to mistake an ingenious raillery of the Cardinal Fleuri for a deliberate adoption of his reveries. That minister had told him “that he had forgotten an indispensable preliminary—that of sending a body of missionaries to turn the hearts and minds of the princes of Europe.” Mr. Burke, with all his knowledge of human nature, and with all his experience of public affairs, has forgotten a circumstance as important as that which was overlooked by the simple and recluse speculator. He has forgotten that he must have made ambition disinterested,—power moderate,—the selfish generous,—and the short-sighted wise, before he could hope for success in the contest which he recommended.* To say that if the authors of the partition of Poland could be made perfectly wise and honest, they might prevail over the French democracy, is very little more than the most chimerical projector has to offer for his wildest scheme. Such an answer only gives us this new and important information, that impracticable projects will be realised when insurmountable obstacles are overcome. Who are you that presume to frame laws for men without taking human passions into account,—to regulate the actions of mankind without regarding the source and principle of those actions? A chemist who in his experiments should forget the power of steam or of electricity, would have no right to be surprised that his apparatus should be shivered to pieces, and his laboratory covered with the fragments.
It must be owned, indeed, that no one could have ventured to predict the extent and extravagance of that monstrous and almost incredible infatuation which has distracted the strength and palsied the arms of the Allied Powers: but it was easy to foresee, and it was in fact predicted, that a sufficient degree of that infatuation must prevail to defeat the attainment of their professed object. We cannot help expressing our surprise, that the immense difference in this respect between the present confederacy and the Grand Alliance of King William III. did not present itself to the great understanding of Mr. Burke. This is a war to avert the danger of the French Revolution, in which it is indispensably necessary to avoid all appearance of a design to aggrandise the Allies at the expense of France. The other was one designed to limit the exorbitant power of Louis, which was chiefly to be effected by diminishing his overgrown dominions. The members of that confederacy gratified their own ambition by the same means which provided for the general safety. In that contest, every conquest promoted the general object:—in this, every conquest retards and tends to defeat it. No romantic moderation—no chimerical disinterestedness—no sacrifice of private aggrandisement to the cause of Europe, was required in that confederacy. Yet, with that great advantage, it is almost the only one recorded in history, which was successful. Still it required, to build it up, and hold it together, all the exalted genius, all the comprehensive wisdom, all the disinterested moderation, and all the unshaken perseverance of William* —other talents than those of petty intrigue and pompous declamation. The bitterest enemies of our present ministers could scarcely imagine so cruel a satire upon them, as any comparison between their talents and policy, and those of the great monarch. The disapprobation of the conduct of the British Cabinet must have arisen to an extraordinary degree of warmth in the mind of Mr. Burke, before he could have prevailed on himself to bring into view the policy of other and better times, and to awaken recollections of past wisdom and glory which must tend so much to embitter our indignation at the present mismanagement of public affairs. In a word, the success of the war required it to be felt by Frenchmen to be a war directed against the Revolution, and not against France; while the ambition of the Allies necessarily made it a war against France, and not against the Revolution. Mr. Burke, M. de Calonne, M. Mallet du Pan, and all the other distinguished writers who have appeared on behalf of the French Royalists—a name which no man should pronounce without pity, and no Englishman ought to utter without shame—have acknowledged, lamented, and condemned the wretched policy of the confederates. We have still to impeach their sagacity, for not having originally foreseen what a brittle instrument such a confederacy must prove; we have still to reproach them, for not having from the first perceived, that to embark the safety of Europe on the success of such an alliance, was a most ambiguous policy,—only to be reluctantly embraced, after every other expedient was exhausted, in a case of the most imminent danger, and in circumstances of the most imperious necessity.
These reflections naturally lead us to the consideration of the safety of the war, or of the collateral evil with which it was pregnant in either alternative, of its failure or success; and we do not hesitate to affirm, that, in our humble opinion, its success was dangerous to the independence of nations, and its failure hostile to the stability of governments. The choice between two such dreadful evils is embarrassing and cruel: yet, with the warmest zeal for the tranquillity of every people,—with the strongest wishes that can arise from personal habits and character for quiet and repose,—with all our heartfelt and deeply-rooted detestation for the crimes, calamities, and horrors of civil confusion, we cannot prevail on ourselves to imagine that a greater evil could befall the human race than the partition of Europe among the spoilers of Poland. All the wild freaks of popular licentiousness,—all the fantastic transformations of government,—all the frantic cruelty of anarchical tyranny, almost vanish before the terrible idea of gathering the whole civilized world under the iron yoke of military despotism. It is—at least, it was—an instinct of the English character, to feel more alarm and horror at despotism than at any other of those evils which afflict human society; and we own our minds to be still under the influence of this old and perhaps exploded national prejudice. It is a prejudice, however, which appears to us founded on the most sublime and profound philosophy; and it has been implanted in the minds of Englishmen by their long experience of the mildest and freest government with which the bounty of Divine Providence has been pleased for so many centuries to favour so considerable a portion of the human race. It has been nourished by the blood of our forefathers; it is embodied in our most venerable institutions; it is the spirit of our sacred laws; it is the animating principle of the English character; it is the very life and soul of the British constitution; it is the distinguishing nobility of the meanest Englishman; it is that proud privilege which exalts him, in his own respect, above the most illustrious slave that drags his gilded chain in the court of a tyrant. It has given vigour and lustre to our warlike enterprises, justice and humanity to our laws, and character and energy to our national genius and literature. Of such a prejudice we are not ashamed: and we have no desire to outlive its extinction in the minds of our countrymen:—
To return from what may be thought a digression, but which is inspired by feelings that we hope at least a few of our readers may still be old-fashioned enough to pardon us for indulging,—we proceed to make some remarks on the dangers with which the failure of this war threatened Europe. It is a memorable example of the intoxication of men, and of their governors, that at the commencement of this war, the bare idea of the possibility of its failure would have been rejected with indignation and scorn: yet it became statesmen to consider this event as at least possible; and, in that alternative, what were the consequences which the European governments had to apprehend? With their counsels baffled, their armies defeated, their treasuries exhausted, their subjects groaning under the weight of taxes, their military strength broken, and their reputation for military superiority destroyed,—they have to contend, in their own states, against the progress of opinions, which their own unfortunate policy has surrounded with the dazzling lustre of heroism, and with all the attractions and fascinations of victory. Disgraced in a conflict with democracy abroad, with what vigour and effect can they repress it at home? If they had forborne from entering on the war, the reputation of their power would at least have been whole and entire: the awful question, whether the French Revolution, or the established governments of Europe, are the strongest, would at least have remained undecided; and the people of all countries would not have witnessed the dangerous examples of their sovereigns humbled before the leaders of the new sect. Mr. Burke tells us that the war has at least procured a respite for Europe; but he has forgotten to inform us, that there are respites which aggravate the severity of the punishment, and that there are violent struggles which provoke a fate that might otherwise be avoided.
We purposely forbear to enlarge on this subject, because the display of those evils which, at the commencement of the war, were likely to arise from its failure, is now become, unfortunately, the melancholy picture of the actual situation of Europe. This is a theme more adapted for meditation than discourse. It is as sincere wellwishers to the stability and tranquil improvement of established governments,—as zealous and ardent friends to that admirable constitution of government, and happy order of society, which prevail in our native land, that we originally deprecated, and still condemn, a war which has brought these invaluable blessings into the most imminent peril. All the benevolence and patriotism of the human heart cannot, in our opinion, breathe a prayer more auspicious for Englishmen to the Supreme Ruler of the world, than that they may enjoy to the latest generations the blessings of that constitution which has been bequeathed to them by their forefathers. We desire its improvement, indeed,—we ardently desire its improvement—as a means of its preservation; but, above all things, we desire its preservation.
We cannot close a subject, on which we are serious even to melancholy, without offering the slender but unbiassed tribute of our admiration and thanks to that illustrious statesman,—the friend of what we must call the better days of Mr. Burke,—whose great talents have been devoted to the cause of liberty and of mankind,—who, of all men, most ardently loves, because he most thoroughly understands, the British constitution,—who has made a noble and memorable, though unavailing, struggle to preserve us from the evils and dangers of the present war,—who is requited for the calumnies of his enemies, the desertion of his friends, and the ingratitude of his country, by the approbation of his own conscience, and by a well-grounded expectation of the gratitude and reverence of posterity. We never can reflect on the event of this great man’s counsel without calling to mind that beautiful passage of Cicero, in which he deplores the death of his illustrious rival Hortensius: “Si fuit tempus ullum cum extorquere arma posset e manibus iratorum civium boni civis auctoritas et oratio, tum profecto fuit, cum patrocinium pacis exclusum est aut errore hominum aut timore.”*
[* ] From the Monthly Review, vol. xl. p. 435.—Ed.
[* ] Livy, lib. xxxiv. cap. 24. The whole narrative is extremely curious, and not without resemblence and application to later events.
[* ] Perhaps something more of flexibility of character and accommodation of temper,—a mind more broken down to the practice of the world,—would have fitted Mr. Burke better for the execution of that art which is the sole instrument of political wisdom, and without which the highest political wisdom is but barren speculation—we mean the art of guiding and managing mankind. How can he have forgotten that these vulgar politicians were the only tools with which he had to work in reducing his schemes to practice? These “creatures of the desk and creatures of favour” unfortunately govern Europe. The ends of generosity were to be compassed alone through the agency of the selfish; and the objects of prospective wisdom were to be attained by the exertions of the short-sighted.—Monthly Review (N. S.), vol. xix. p. 317.—Ed.
[* ] “If there be any man in the present age who deserves the honour of being compared with this great prince, it is George Washington. The merit of both is more solid than dazzling. The same plain sense, the same simplicity of character, the same love of their country, the same unaffected heroism, distinguished both these illustrious men: and both were so highly favoured by Providence as to be made its chosen instruments for redeeming nations from bondage. As William had to contend with greater captains, and to struggle with more complicated political difficulties, we are able more decisively to ascertain his martial prowess, and his civil prudence. It has been the fortune of Washington to give a more signal proof of his disinterestedness, as he was placed in a situation in which he could without blame resign the supreme administration of that commonwealth which his valour had guarded in infancy against a foreign force, and which his wisdom has since guided through still more formidable domestic perils”—Monthly Review, vol. xi. p. 308.—Ed.
[* ] Pharsalia, lib. vii.
[* ] De Claris Oratoribus.