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MIGNET’S FRENCH REVOLUTION 1826 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XX - Essays on French History and Historians 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XX - Essays on French History and Historians, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by John C. Cairns (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985).
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MIGNET’S FRENCH REVOLUTION
Westminster Review, V (Apr., 1826), 385-98. Headed. “Art. V.—Histoire de la Révolution Française, depuis 1789, jusqu’en 1814. / Par F[rançois] A[uguste] Mignet Paris [ Firmin Didot], 1824, 2 vols. [sic for 2 parts.] 8vo. Pp. 735. / History of the French Revolution. By F.A. Mignet, 8vo. 2 vols. / 12mo. 2 vols. 1826. [London:] Hunt and Clarke.” Running titles: “French Revolution,” Unsigned. Not republished. Identified in Mill’s bibliography as “A review of Mignet’s History of the French Revolution, in the 10th number of the Westminster Review” (MacMinn, 7). There is no separate copy of this article in Mill’s library, Somerville College.
For comment on the essay, see xxxix-xlii and xciv-xcv above.
Mignet’s French Revolution
this is a very sprightly narrative of the French Revolution, in two small volumes: which is as much as to say, that it is calculated to be most extensively popular. It possesses, indeed, all the requisites for a popular history. It tells an interesting story; it tells it in an interesting manner; it is not too long to be readable; it addresses itself to the reigning sentiment in the nation for which it is written, and there is just philosophy enough in it to persuade common readers that they are deriving instruction, while there is not enough to task their attention or their patience. There is a sort of middle point which it is difficult to hit exactly, between a philosophical history and a mere narrative. M. Mignet seems to have aimed at this point; he has at any rate attained it.
The old mode of writing a history resembled the mode of writing a novel; with only this difference, that the facts were expected to be true. In both cases there was a story to be told, and he who told it best was the best novelist, or the best historian. The poems which preceded the first histories, and which were probably intended, with some qualifications, to pass for histories, were written with the same ends in view as the prose histories which followed them. Greater license of amplification was, indeed, allowed to the poet, but in other respects the standard of excellence was the same: he who raised the most vivid conceptions, and the most intense emotions, was the greatest master of his art. This mode of writing history attained its highest excellence in the hands of the Greek and Roman historians. Livy, perhaps, exemplifies it in its purest state. In what remains of his history we have a surprising instance of the perfection to which the art of narration may be carried, where no other part of the duties of a historian is attended to; and for that very reason. Thucydides, with the exception of his early chapters,[*] which consist chiefly of a comment upon evidence, may be regarded as another variety of the same class. Each stands preeminent among his countrymen in the talent of narrative, each avoids generalization, and when he has any reflections to make, puts them into the mouth of one of the dramatis personae; retaining the character of the story-teller, even when he puts on that of the orator or the politician.
Between this style of historical composition, and the more modern one, which makes history subservient to philosophy, in which the narrative itself is but a secondary object, the illustration of the laws of human nature and human society being the first, there is an intermediate style, which endeavours to unite the characteristic properties of both the others. In this the primary object is still the gratification of that large class, who read only for amusement. With this purpose long inductions of facts or trains of reasoning being inconsistent, they are accordingly avoided, or banished to an appendix. Dramatic interest is with these, as with the first class of historians, the main object; but such general reflections are interspersed, drawn from the surface of the subject, as may be comprehended without any effort of attention, by an ordinary understanding. The common reader is thus provided with such instruction, or supposed instruction, as his habits of mind render him capable of receiving, and is possessed with a high idea of the powers of the writer, who can communicate wisdom in so easy and entertaining a form. Of the popularity which may be acquired by this mode of writing history, the success of Hume is a striking example.[*] Excelling all modern historians in his powers of narrative, he has also obtained credit for the profundity of his reflections. That his reputation for this quality is so widely diffused, is of itself a sufficient proof that it is undeserved. Had his reflections been really profound, we may venture to affirm that they would have been less popular. By a profound reflection, is meant a reflection, the truth of which is not obvious at first sight, and to a cursory reader, but which, in proportion as a man grows wiser, and takes a deeper insight into things, forces itself upon his assent.
When we say, that M. Mignet seems to have formed himself in this school, and that he is the highest specimen of it, among recent writers, which our recollection suggests to us, we have conveyed, we think, a tolerably accurate conception of his character as a historian. Little, therefore, remains to be done beyond the selection of such passages as seem best adapted to exhibit the degree in which he possesses the various attributes of his class: for we do not purpose to enter at present into the general question of the French revolution; it being our intention, at no distant period, to treat of that subject at greater length.[†] In the main, our view of the subject accords with that of M. Mignet; and for this reason, among others, we are anxious that his work should be extensively circulated in this country. There is nothing more disgraceful to Englishmen than their utter ignorance, not only of the causes and effects, but of the very events, the story, of the French revolution. With the majority of them, even of those among them who read and think, the conception they have of that great event is all comprehended in a dim but horrible vision of mobs, and massacres, and revolutionary tribunals, and guillotines, and fishwomen, and heads carried on pikes, and noyades, and fusillades, and one Robespierre, a most sanguinary monster. What the Tory prints choose to tell them of this most interesting period of modern history, so much they know, and nothing more: that is, enough to raise in their minds an intense yet indefinite horror of French reforms and reformers, and as far as possible of all reforms and reformers. Now, however, when they have ceased to tremble for themselves, and to start from their sleep at the terrific idea of a landing of French Jacobins or a rising of English ones to confiscate their property and cut their throats, they can, perhaps, bear to look at the subject without horror; and we exhort them to buy and read M. Mignet’s work, that they may know in what light the revolution is regarded by the nation which saw and felt it, which endured its evils, and is now enjoying its benefits.
M. Mignet, in his two volumes, had not space to do more than relate the story of the revolution. Proofs, in seven hundred pages, he could give none; his work is not even attended by the pièces justificatives, which usually follow in the train of a French history. The revolution has been long une cause jugée, in the minds of all disinterested persons in France; and none of M. Mignet’s countrymen would have asked him for his proofs, who would have been capable of being convinced by them if offered. To an English reader, this omission will diminish in some degree the value of the book. A writer who opposes the current opinion, has need of all the proofs he can muster. Happily, the proofs are not scanty, and are, even in this country, accessible.[*] We purpose to lay some of them before our readers ere long.
M. Mignet’s narrative powers are of a high order. He has mastered the grand difficulty in narration; he is interesting, without being voluminous; concise, without being vague and general Former writers on the French revolution had either lost themselves in a sea of details, dwelling on circumstance after circumstance with such painful minuteness that he who had patience to read to the end of the story had time before he arrived there to forget the beginning; or had contented themselves with a meagre abstract, describing the most remarkable scenes in terms so general as to have fitted a hundred other scenes almost as well. In narrative, as in description, it is impossible to excite vivid conceptions, in other words it is impossible to be interesting, without entering somewhat into detail. A particular event cannot be characterized by a general description. But details are endless. Here then is the dilemma. All the details it is not possible to give, not only because nobody would read them, but because if read they would defeat their own purpose. If the reader’s conception wants vivacity where there are no details, where there is excess of details it wants distinctness. The multitude of the parts injures the ensemble. The difficulty is in the apt selection of details. It is in judging which of the individualizing features it is best to delineate, when there is not room for all: it is in fixing upon those features which are the most strikingly characteristic, or which, if delineated, will of themselves suggest the remainder, that the rarest quality, perhaps, of the skilful narrator displays itself. M. Mignet possesses this quality in an extraordinary degree. His narrative may be pronounced a model of the apt selection of details. No one has better allied circumstantiality with condensation. We have all heard of graphic descriptions. M. Mignet’s is a graphic narrative: and whoever looks even at the outside of the voluminous compilations which are called Histories of the Revolution, and then turns to M. Mignet’s small volumes, will wonder by what art he can abridge so much, with so little of the appearance of an abridgement.
We quote the following sketch of the state of affairs at the opening of the Etats Généraux, partly for the complete justification which it affords of the early revolutionists, and partly as a specimen of the manner in which M. Mignet has executed one of the most important parts of his task:
The government ought to have been better aware of the importance of the States-general. The re-establishment of that assembly announced of itself a great revolution. Looked forward to by the nation with eager hope, they reappeared at a moment when the ancient monarchy was in a state of decrepitude, and when they alone were capable of reforming the state, and supplying the necessities of the king. The difficulties of the times, the nature of their commission, the choice of their members, every thing announced that they were convoked no longer as the payers of taxes, but as the makers of laws. The public voice and the instructions of their constituents had confided to them the right of regenerating France; and public support, and the enormity of existing abuses, promised them strength to undertake and accomplish this great task.
It was the interest of the monarch to associate himself in their undertaking. By this means he might have re-established his power, and protected himself against the revolution, by being himself the author of it. Had he taken the lead in reforms, settled with firmness but with justice the new order of things; had he realized the wishes of the nation by defining the rights of the citizen, the functions of the States-general and the bounds of the royal authority; had he sacrificed his own arbitrary power, the superiority of the nobles, and the privileges of the corporate bodies; had he, in short, executed all the reforms which were called for by the public voice, and subsequently effected by the Constituent Assembly; he would have prevented the fatal dissensions which afterwards broke out. It is rarely that a prince consents to the diminution of his power, and has the wisdom to concede what he will ultimately be forced to sacrifice. Yet Louis XVI would have done so, if instead of being ruled by those around him, he had obeyed the impulses of his own mind. But utter anarchy prevailed in the royal councils. At the meeting of the States-general, no measures had been adopted, nothing previously settled, to prevent future disputes. Louis wavered irresolute, between his ministry, directed by Necker, and his court, governed by the queen and several princes of his family.
The minister, satisfied with having carried the double representation of the commons, dreaded the king’s indecision and the discontent of the court. Insufficiently alive to the magnitude of a crisis which he regarded as financial rather than political, instead of anticipating he waited for the result, and flattered himself that he could guide the course of events which he had done nothing to prepare. He felt that the ancient organization of the states could no longer be maintained, and that the existence of three estates, with each a veto on the other two, was a hindrance to the accomplishment of reforms and to the conduct of administration. He hoped, after the effects of this threefold opposition should be proved by experience, to reduce the number of the orders, and obtain the adoption of the British form of government, including the nobles and clergy in one chamber, and the commons in another. He did not perceive that when once the struggle had begun, his interference would be vain, and half-measures be satisfactory to nobody, that the weaker party from obstinacy, and the stronger from the force of circumstances, would refuse their assent to this system of conciliation. A compromise can only be satisfactory, while the victory is undecided.
The court, far from wishing to give regularity to the States-general, desired to annul them. It preferred the occasional resistance of the great public corporations to a division of authority with a permanent assembly. The separation of the orders favoured its designs: by fomenting their disunion, it sought to prevent them from acting. From the vice of their organization, former States-general had effected nothing, and it the more confidently anticipated a similar result now, as the first two estates seemed less than ever inclined to acquiesce in the reforms demanded by the third. The clergy desired to retain their wealth and privileges, and foresaw that they would have more sacrifices to make than advantages to gain. The nobles were conscious that even in resuming their long-lost political independence, they would have more to concede to the people on the one hand, than to obtain from the monarch on the other. The approaching revolution was about to take place almost exclusively in favour of the commons, and the first two estates were led to coalesce with the court against the commons, as they had previously coalesced with the commons against the court. Interest was the sole motive of this change of side; and they allied themselves to the monarch with no attachment to him, as they had defended the people with no view to the public good.
No means were spared to keep the nobles and clergy in this disposition. Courtship and seducements were lavished upon their leaders. A committee, partly composed of the most illustrious personages, was held at the house of the Comtesse de Polignac, and the principal members of the two orders were admitted to it. It was there that two of the most ardent defenders of liberty in the parliament, and before the convocation of the States-general, d’Epréménil and d’Entragues, were won over, and became its most inveterate enemies. There were regulated the costumes of the three orders,[*] and etiquette first, intrigue next, and lastly force, were applied to disunite them. The court was led away by the recollection of the old States-general: and imagined it possible to manage the present like the past; to keep down Paris by the army, and the deputies of the commons by those of the nobles; to control the States, by disuniting the orders, and to disunite the orders by reviving the old usages which elevated the nobility and humiliated the commons. It was thus that after the first sitting of the assembly, they imagined that they had prevented every thing by conceding nothing.*
Of the rapidity and dramatic interest of his narrative, the following passage is an example. He has just been relating the early acts of the Constituent Assembly.
The attempt to prevent the formation of the assembly having failed, nothing remained to the court but to become a party to its proceedings, in order to get the direction of them into its own hands. By prudence and good faith it might yet have repaired its errors and effaced the memory of its hostilities. There are times when we can originate sacrifices; there are others when we can do no more than take the merit of accepting them. At the opening of the States-general the monarch might have made the constitution. It was now only time to receive it from the assembly; if he had accommodated himself to this situation, his situation would infallibly have been improved. But the counsellors of Louis, recovered from the first emotion of surprise at their defeat, resolved to have recourse to the bayonet, having had recourse to authority in vain. They intimated to him that the contempt of his commands, the safety of his throne, the maintenance of the laws of the kingdom, and even the happiness of his people, demanded that he should recal the assembly to submission; that the assembly, sitting at Versailles, in the immediate neighbourhood of Paris, and supported by both places, required to be subdued by force; that it must either be removed or dissolved; that this design required immediate execution, to arrest the progress of the assembly, and that to carry it into effect it was necessary to call in the troops without delay, to intimidate the assembly, and keep down Paris and Versailles.
While these schemes were in preparation, the deputies of the nation were commencing their legislatorial labours, and preparing that constitution so impatiently waited for, and which they thought it no longer fitting to delay. Addresses poured in from Paris and the great towns, applauding their wisdom, and encouraging them to carry forward the work of the regeneration of France. In this posture of affairs the troops arrived in great numbers; Versailles assumed the appearance of a camp; the hall of the states was surrounded by guards, and entrance interdicted to the public; Paris was environed by several bodies of troops, which seemed posted to undertake, as need might be, a blockade or a siege. These immense military preparations, the arrival of trains of artillery from the frontiers, the presence of foreign regiments, whose obedience was without limits, every thing gave indication of sinister designs. The people were in agitation; the assembly wished to undeceive the king, and request the removal of the troops. On the motion of Mirabeau, it presented to the king a firm and respectful address, but in vain.[*] Louis declared that he was sole judge of the necessity of calling in or of withdrawing the troops, which he assured them were no more than an army of precaution, to prevent disturbances, and protect the assembly; he likewise offered to remove the assembly to Noyon or Soissons, in other words, to place it between two armies, and deprive it of the support of the people.[†]
Paris was in the most violent fermentation; that immense city was unanimous in its devotion to the assembly: its own danger, that of the national representatives, and the scarcity of subsistence, predisposed it to insurrection. The capitalists, from interest and the fear of a national bankruptcy, enlightened men and all the middle class from patriotism, the populace, oppressed by want, imputing its sufferings to the court and the privileged orders, desirous of agitation and of novelty, had ardently embraced the cause of the revolution. It is difficult to figure to one’s self the internal commotion which agitated the capital of France. Awakened from the repose and silence of servitude, it was still, as it were, astonished at the novelty of its situation, and intoxicated with liberty and enthusiasm. The press blew up the flame; the newspapers gave circulation to the deliberations of the assembly, and seemed to make their readers actually present at its meetings: and the questions which were there agitated, were again discussed in the open air, in the public places. It was in the Palais Royal especially that the deliberative assembly of the capital was held. It was thronged by a multitude, which seemed permanent, but which was perpetually changing. A table was the rostra, the first comer was the orator; they harangued on the dangers of the country, and exhorted to resistance. Already, on a motion made at the Palais Royal, the prisons of the Abbaye had been forced, and some grenadiers of the French guards carried off in triumph, who had been confined there for refusing to fire upon the people. This commotion had led to no result; a deputation had solicited, in favour of the liberated prisoners, the good offices of the assembly, who had appealed to the clemency of the king in their behalf: they had returned to their confinement, and had received their pardon. But this regiment, one of the bravest and fullest in its numbers, had become favourable to the popular cause.[*]
We give the sequel of this passage in the original, despairing to preserve its spirit in a translation.
Telles étaient les dispositions de Paris lorsque Necker fut renvoyé du ministère. La cour, après avoir établi des troupes à Versailles, à Sèvres, au Champ-de-Mars, à Saint-Denis, crut pouvoir exécuter son plan. Elle commença par l’exil de Necker et le renouvellement complet du ministère. Le maréchal de Broglie, Lagallissonnière, le duc de la Vauguyon, le baron de Breteuil et l’intendant Foulon, furent désignés comme remplaçants de Puiségur, de Montmorin, de la Luzerne, de Saint-Priest et de Necker. Celui-ci reçut le samedi, 11 juillet, pendant son dîner, un billet du roi qui lui enjoignait de quitter le royaume sur le champ. Il dîna tranquillement sans faire part de l’ordre qu’il avait reçu, monta ensuite en voiture avec madame Necker, comme pour aller à Saint-Ouen, et prit la route de Bruxelles.
Le lendemain dimanche, 12 juillet, on apprit à Paris, vers les quatre heures du soir, la disgrace de Necker et son départ pour l’exil. Cette mesure y fut considérée comme l’exécution du complot dont on avait aperçu les préparatifs. Dans peu d’instants la ville fut dans la plus grande agitation; des rassemblements se formèrent de toutes parts, plus de dix mille personnes se rendirent au Palais-Royal, émues par cette nouvelle, disposées à tout, mais ne sachant quelle mesure prendre. Un jeune homme plus hardi que les autres, et l’un des harangueurs habituels de la foule, Camille Desmoulins, monte sur une table, un pistolet à la main, et il s’écrie. “Citoyens, il n’y a pas un moment à perdre; le renvoi de M. Necker est le tocsin d’une Saint-Barthélemy de patriotes! ce soir même tous les bataillons suisses et allemands sortiront du Champ-de-Mars pour nous égorger! il ne nous reste qu’une ressource, c’est de courir aux armes.” On approuve par de bruyantes acclamations. Il propose de prendre des cocardes pour se reconnaître et pour se défendre.—“Voulez-vous, dit-il, le vert, couleur de l’espérance, ou le rouge, couleur de l’ordre libre de Cincinnatus?”—“Le vert, le vert, répond la multitude.” L’orateur descend de la table, attache une feuille d’arbre à son chapeau, tout le monde l’imite, les marronniers du Palais sont presque dépouillés de leurs feuilles, et cette troupe se rend en tumulte chez le sculpteur Curtius.
On prend les bustes de Necker et du duc d’Orléans, car le bruit que ce dernier devait être exilé, s’était aussi répandu; on les entoure d’un crêpe et on les porte en triomphe. Ce cortége traverse les rues Saint-Martin, Saint-Denis, Saint-Honoré, et se grossit à chaque pas. Le peuple fait mettre chapeau bas à tous ceux qu’il rencontre. Le guet à cheval se trouve sur sa route, il le prend pour escorte; le cortége s’avance ainsi jusqu’à la place Vendôme, où l’on promène les deux bustes autour de la statue de Louis XIV. Un détachement de royal allemand arrive, veut disperser le cortége, est mis en fuite à coups de pierres, et la multitude continuant sa route, parvient jusqu’à la place Louis XV. Mais là, elle est assaillie par les dragons du prince de Lambesc; elle résiste quelques moments, est enfoncée, le porteur d’un des bustes et un soldat des gardes-françaises sont tués, le peuple se disperse, une partie fuit vers les quais, une autre se replie en arrière sur les boulevards, le reste se précipite dans les Tuileries par le pont tournant. Le prince de Lambesc les poursuit dans le jardin, le sabre nu, à la tête de ses cavaliers; il charge une multitude sans armes qui n’était point du cortége et qui se promenait paisiblement. Dans cette charge, un vieillard est blessé d’un coup de sabre; on se défend avec des chaises, on monte sur les terrasses, l’indignation devient générale, et le cri aux armes retentit bientôt partout, aux Tuileries, au Palais-Royal, dans la ville et dans les faubourgs.
Le régiment des gardes-françaises était, comme nous l’avons déjà dit, bien disposé pour le peuple; aussi l’avait-on consigné dans ses casernes. Le prince de Lambesc, craignant malgré cela qu’il ne prît parti, donna ordre à soixante dragons d’aller se poster en face de son dépôt, situé dans la Chaussée-d’Antin. Les soldats des gardes, déjà mécontents d’être retenus comme prisonniers, s’indignèrent à la vue de ces étrangers, avec lesquels ils avaient eu une rixe peu de jours auparavant. Ils voulaient courir aux armes, et leurs officiers eurent beaucoup de peine à les retenir en employant, tour-à-tour, les menaces et les prières. Mais ils ne voulurent plus rien entendre, lorsque quelques-uns des leurs vinrent annoncer la charge faite aux Tuileries et la mort d’un de leurs camarades. Ils saisirent leurs armes, brisèrent les grilles, se rangèrent en bataille, à l’entrée de la caserne, en face des dragons, et leur crièrent: Qui vive?—Royal Allemand.—Etes-vous pour le tiers-état?—Nous sommes pour ceux qui nous donnent des ordres.—Alors les gardes-françaises firent sur eux une décharge qui leur tua deux hommes, leur en blessa trois et les mit en fuite. Elles s’avancèrent ensuite au pas de charge et la baionnette en avant jusqu’à la place Louis XV, se placèrent entre les Tuileries et les Champs-Elysées, le peuple et les troupes, et gardèrent ce poste pendant toute la nuit. Les soldats du Champ-de-Mars reçurent aussitôt l’ordre de s’avancer. Lorsqu’ils furent arrivés dans les Champs-Elysées, les gardes-françaises les reçurent à coups de fusil. On voulut les faire battre, mais ils refusèrent: les Petits-Suisses furent les premiers à donner cet exemple que les autres régiments suivirent. Les officiers désespérés ordonnèrent la retraite, les troupes rétrogradèrent jusqu’à la grille de Chaillot, d’où elles se rendirent bientôt dans le Champ-de-Mars. La défection des gardes-françaises, et le refus que manifestèrent les troupes, même étrangères, de marcher sur la capitale, firent échouer les projets de la cour.
Pendant cette soirée le peuple s’était transporté à l’Hôtel-de-Ville, et avait demandé qu’on sonnât le tocsin, que les districts fussent réunis et les citoyens armés. Quelques électeurs s’assemblèrent à l’Hôtel-de-Ville, et ils prirent l’autorité en main. Ils rendirent pendant ces jours d’insurrection les plus grands services à leurs concitoyens et à la cause de la liberté par leur courage, leur prudence et leur activité; mais dans la première confusion du soulèvement, il ne leur fut guère possible d’être écoutés. Le tumulte était à son comble; chacun ne recevait d’ordre que de sa passion. A côté des citoyens bien intentionnés étaient des hommes suspects qui ne cherchaient dans l’insurrection qu’un moyen de désordre et de pillage. Des troupes d’ouvriers, employés par le gouvernement à des travaux publics, la plupart sans domicile, sans aveu, brûlèrent les barrières, infestèrent les rues, pillèrent quelques maisons; ce furent eux qu’on appela les brigands. La nuit du 12 au 13 se passa dans le tumulte et dans les alarmes.*
After every allowance is made (and much ought to be made) for the deep interest of the events themselves, great praise is still due to the powers both of narration and description, which the above passage displays.
M. Mignet generally subjoins to each chapter a résumé of the progress of events during the period which it embraces. The same sort and degree of talent is manifested in these résumés which is conspicuous in the body of the work. We quote the following, though one of the longest, not because it is the best, but because it contains a summary view of the early history of the Revolution:
If one were to describe a nation which had just passed through a great crisis, and to say, There was in this country a despotic government whose authority has been limited, two privileged orders whose supremacy has been abolished, an immense population already enfranchised by the growth of civilization and intelligence, but destitute of political rights, and which, when they were refused to its entreaties, has been compelled to assume them by force; if to this it were added that the government, after resisting for a time, had at length yielded to the revolution, but that the privileged orders stedfastly persevered in their resistance, the following are the conclusions which might be drawn from these data:
The government will feel regret, the people will show distrust, the privileged orders, each in its own way, will make war on the new order of things. The nobles, too feeble at home to make any effectual opposition, will emigrate and stir up foreign powers, who will make preparations for an attack; the clergy, who abroad would be deprived of their means of action, will remain in the interior, and there endeavour to raise up enemies to the revolution. The people, threatened from without, endangered from within, irritated against the emigrants for exciting foreigners to hostilities, against foreigners for attacking its independence, and against the clergy for stirring up insurrections at home, will treat the emigrants, the foreigners, and the clergy as enemies. It will first demand that the refractory priests be placed under surveillance, next that they be banished, that the revenues of the emigrants be confiscated, and finally, that war be made upon confederated Europe, to prevent the disadvantage of having to sustain the attack. The original authors of the revolution will condemn those of its measures which are inconsistent with the law; the continuators of the revolution will see in them, on the contrary, the salvation of their country. A discord will break out between those who prefer the constitution to the state, and those who prefer the state to the constitution, the prince, impelled by his interests as king, his affections, and his conscience, to reject this policy, will pass for an accomplice in the counter-revolutionary conspiracy, because he will appear to protect it. The revolutionists will then attempt, by intimidation, to draw the king to their side, and, failing of success, they will subvert his power.
Such was the history of the Legislative Assembly. The internal tumults led to the decree against the priests; the menaces of foreigners to that against the emigrants; the confederacy of foreign powers, to the war against Europe; the first defeat of our armies, to the formation of the camp of twenty thousand. The suspicions of the Girondists were directed towards Louis, by the refusal of his assent to most of these decrees.[*] The division between that party and the constitutional monarchists, the latter wishing to appear legislators, as in time of peace, the former, enemies, as in time of war, disunited the partisans of the revolution. In the minds of the Girondists, liberty depended upon victory, and victory upon these decrees. The 20th of June was an attempt to compel the acceptance of the decrees; on its failure, they deemed it necessary to renounce the revolution or the throne, and they made the 10th of August. Thus but for the emigration which produced the war, and the schism in the church which produced the tumults, the king would probably have been reconciled to the revolution, and the revolutionists would never have thought of a republic.*
We have given this and other extracts in a translation with reluctance. Our only remaining specimen shall be in the original language.
The following is a brief but interesting résumé of the decline and fall of the virtuous and unfortunate Gironde:
Ainsi succomba le parti de la Gironde, parti illustre par de grands talents et de grands courages, parti qui honora la république naissante par l’horreur du sang, la haine du crime, le dégoût de l’anarchie, l’amour de l’ordre, de la justice et de la liberté; parti mal placé entre la classe moyenne, dont il avait combattu la révolution, et la multitude dont il repoussait le gouvernement. Condamné à ne pas agir, ce parti ne put qu’illustrer une défaite certaine, par une lutte courageuse et par une belle mort. A cette époque, on pouvait avec certitude prévoir sa fin: il avait été chassé de poste en poste: des Jacobins, par l’envahissement des Montagnards; de la commune, par la sortie de Pétion; du ministère, par la retraite de Roland et de ses collègues; de l’armée, par la défection de Dumouriez. Il ne lui restait plus que la convention; c’est là qu’il se retrancha, qu’il combattit, et qu’il succomba. Ses ennemis essayèrent tour-à-tour, contre lui, et des complots et des insurrections. Les complots firent créer la commission des douze,[*] qui parut donner un avantage momentané à la Gironde, mais qui n’en excita que plus violemment ses adversaires. Ceux-ci mirent le peuple en mouvement, et ils enlevèrent aux Girondins, d’abord leur autorité en détruisant les douze, ensuite leur existence politique en proscrivant leurs chefs.
Les suites de ce désastreux évènement ne furent selon la prévoyance de personne. Les Dantonistes crurent que les dissensions des partis seraient terminées, et la guerre civile éclata. Les modérés du comité de salut public crurent que la convention reprendrait toute la puissance, et elle fut asservie.[†] La commune crut que le 31 mai lui vaudrait la domination, qui échut à Robespierre, et à quelques hommes dévoués à sa fortune ou à l’extrême démocratie. Enfin, il y eut un parti de plus à ajouter aux partis vaincus, et dès-lors aux partis ennemis; et comme on avait fait, après le 10 août, la république contre les constitutionnels, on fit, après le 31 mai, la terreur contre les modérés de la république.†
Did space permit, we would gladly quote M. Mignet’s characters of the leading members of the Constituent Assembly. In general it appears to us that the characters of eminent men, which we read in historians, are very little to be depended upon. It is no easy matter to draw a character at once correct and complete, even of one who is personally known to us, if there be any thing about him more than common; but from hearsay, or from his public acts, it may be pronounced impossible. The troubled period, however, of the French revolution exhibited many of its actors in such varied situations, several of them very trying ones, that the data it affords for judging of their characters, though far from adequate, are less scanty than ordinary. M. Mignet has turned these data to the best account. His portraits seem accurate, and they are, at any rate, animated.
Our preliminary observations will have prepared the reader to find that we cannot speak altogether so favourably of M. Mignet’s reflections as of his narrative. The prevailing vice of French writers, since Montesquieu, is that of straining at point, at sententiousness, at being striking—we want a word—at producing an effect by mere smartness of expression; and from this vice M. Mignet’s work, though one of the best of its kind, is not wholly free. The sort of writers in whom this defect is conspicuous, and of whom, in recent times, Madame de Staël is one of the most favourable specimens, can never communicate a fact without edging in, to account for it, some axiom or principle, wide in its extent and epigrammatic in its form. Generalization in history is so far from being blamable, that history would be of no use without it, but general propositions intended to be of any use, concerning the course of events in matters where large bodies of men are concerned, cannot be compressed into epigrams; for there is not one of them that is true without exception, and an epigram admits not of exceptions. What do these generalizations amount to? Commonly to this: that something which has happened once or twice will happen always.
M. Mignet’s generalizations are, in most cases, the generalizations of an acute mind; but in his anxiety to be sententious, he almost always overdoes the generalization; he affirms that to be true in all cases which is only true in some, or enunciates without qualification a proposition which must be qualified to be defensible. He generalizes upon first impressions; and as first impressions are sometimes right, he often, by generalizing on the first impression of a remarkable fact, stumbles upon a valuable and even a recondite truth—a truth which, if it did not stand single among so many faux brillans, might be supposed to have emanated from a mind profoundly versed in human nature. When this happens, the point of the expression adds great force to the sentiment, and imprints it in the imagination. Here, however, M. Mignet is far excelled by Madame de Staël, whose chief merit, in our opinion, is the unrivalled felicity with which she has given expression to many important truths suggested to her forcibly by the circumstances of the times in which she lived, which will be remembered long after the brilliant paradoxes and pompous inanities, which she threw out in such abundance along with them, shall be forgotten.
M. Mignet has been occasionally betrayed into dressing up a truism in epigrammatic guise, and bringing it out with the air of an oracle, as a piece of consummate wisdom. The following maxims—“C’est toujours sur le passé qu’on règle sa conduite et ses espérances” (p. 458). “Tout ce qui existe s’étend” (p. 166), to account for the rapid growth of the Jacobin club. “Il ne suffit pas d’être grand homme, il faut venir à propos” (p. 107). “Dès qu’il y a des partis déplacés dans un état, il y a lutte de leur part,” &c. (p. 204), and several others, are examples.
The following are obvious cases of incorrect generalization: “Tous les partis sont les mêmes, et se conduisent par les mêmes maximes, ou si l’on veut par les mêmes nécessités” (p. 518), merely because the Girondists and the Montagnards died with equal courage.
“Quand on sait ce qu’on veut, et qu’on le veut vite et bien, on l’emporte toujours” (p. 357). Had he said souvent, the proposition would have been true: as it stands, it is extravagant.
“En révolution les hommes sont mûs par deux penchans, l’amour de leurs idées et le goût du commandement” (p. 442). Two very powerful forces, it is true; but that they are far from being the only ones which act upon man, “en temps de révolution,” is evident enough. The other principles of human nature are not suspended, during that period, or any other.
“En révolution les hommes sont facilement oubliés, parce que les peuples en voient beaucoup et vivent vite. Si l’on ne veut pas qu’ils soient ingrats, il ne faut pas cesser un instant de les servir à leur manière” (pp. 160-1). A general proposition grounded on one or two instances, and only on the surface of those.
The next two are examples of important truths, or rather of approximations to important truths, spoiled by their epigrammatic form: “On est bientôt, en révolution, ce qu’on est cru être” (p. 311). “Le plus grand tort des partis, après celui d’être injustes, est celui de ne vouloir pas le paraître” (p. 317).
To have expressed accurately what there is of truth in these maxims, in such manner as to be intelligible, would have spoiled all the point of the phrase.
The following remark, with a slight qualification, contains the expression of an important fact: “Dès qu’on est en révolte, le parti dont l’opinion est la plus extrême et le but le plus précis, l’emporte sur ses associés” (p. 388). The party which has the most definite purpose commonly prevails; and this (as it happens) is generally the party which goes to the greatest lengths in matter of opinion. The men who have no fixed set of opinions follow the march of events: those who have, lead it.
The following is a profound remark, happily expressed: “Barrère, qui, comme tous les esprits justes et les caractères faibles, fut pour la modération, tant que la peur ne fit pas de lui un instrument de cruauté et de tyrannie” (p. 363). It is most true, as is hinted in this passage, that the great incentive to cruelty is fear.
The last observation which we shall quote, relates to the formation of a judicial establishment; and, though somewhat loosely expressed, indicates an acute perception of an important principle of legislation: “Ce redoutable pouvoir, lorsqu’il relève du trône, doit être inamovible pour être indépendant; mais il peut être temporaire lorsqu’il relève du peuple, parce qu’en dépendant de tous, il ne dépend de personne” (p. 153).
We shall now take our leave of M. Mignet’s work, by recommending the perusal of it to all who desire either to be amused by a most entertaining and well told story, or to learn, by a few hours reading, what intelligent Frenchmen think and say on the subject of the French Revolution.
[[*] ]Thucydides (Greek and English), trans. Charles Forster Smith, 4 vols. (London: Heinemann; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969), Vol. I, pp. 3-7 (i-iii).
[[*] ]David Hume, The History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688 (1754-62), 8 vols. (London: Cadell, Rivington, et al., 1823).
[[†] ]Mill treated the subject at length in “Scott’s Life of Napoleon,” Westminster Review, IX (Apr., 1828), 251-313 (reprinted at pp. 53-110 below).
[[*] ]Mill is referring, at least in part, to Collection des mémoires relatifs à la révolution française, ed. Saint-Albin Berville and Jean François Barrière, 68 vols. (Paris: Baudouin, 1820-28).
[[*] ]See Gazette Nationale, ou Le Moniteur Universel, 1789, Introduction, p. 235.
[* ][Translated from] Mignet, pp. 41-5.
[[*] ]See Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau, speeches of 8 and 9 July, 1789, in Oeuvres de Mirabeau, 9 vols. (Paris: Dupont and Brissot-Thivars, 1825-27), Vol. VII, pp. 148-58 and 158-63.
[[†] ]Louis XVI, “Réponse du roi à l’assemblée nationale” (11 July, 1789), Gazette Nationale, ou Le Moniteur Universel, 10-13 July, 1789, p. 74.
[[*] ]Translated from Mignet, pp. 57-60.
[* ]Mignet, pp. 60-6.
[[*] ]See “Décret relatif aux troubles excités sous prétexte de religion” (16 Nov., 1791), in Gazette Nationale, ou Le Moniteur Universel, 17 Nov., 1791, p. 1338, “Décret concernant les émigrans” (9 Nov., 1791), ibid., 10 Nov., 1791, pp. 1310-11; “Décret d’augmentation de vingt mille hommes pour l’armee” (8 June, 1792), ibid., 9 June, 1792, p. 668; Louis XVI, “Refus de sanction au décret contre les prêtres non assermentés”; “Proclamation du roi” (12 Nov., 1791), and untitled refusal, ibid., 20 Dec., 1791, p. 1481, 14 Nov., 1791, p. 1325, and 20 June, 1792, p. 716, respectively.
[* ][Translated from] Mignet, pp. 289-92.
[[*] ]François Bergoing, Antoine Bertrand, Jacques Boileau, Jean Baptiste Boyer-Fonfrède, Jean François Martin Gardien, Jean René Gomaire, Pierre François Joachim Henry-Larivière, Augustin Bernard François Legoazre de Kervélégan, Etienne Mollevault, Jean Paul Rabaut Saint-Etienne, Charles Vaissière de Saint-Martin-Valogne, and Louis François Sébastien Viger.
[[†] ]The “modérés” included Jean Jacques de Bréard-Duplessys, Louis Bernard Guyton-Morveau, and Jean Baptiste Treilhard.
[† ]Mignet, pp. 379-81.