Return to Title Page for The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XX - Essays on French History and Historians
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
ALISON’S HISTORY OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION 1833 - 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).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The online edition of the Collected Works is published under licence from the copyright holder, The University of Toronto Press. ©2006 The University of Toronto Press. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced in any form or medium without the permission of The University of Toronto Press.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
ALISON’S HISTORY OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
Monthly Repository, n.s. VII (July, and Aug., 1833), 507-11, and 513-16. Title footnoted: “History of Europe during the French Revolution, embracing the period from the Assembly of the Notables in 1789, to the establishment of the Directory in 1796. By Archibald Alison, F.R.S.E. Advocate. In 2 vols. 8vo. [Edinburgh: Blackwood: London: Cadell,] 1833.” Running titles: “The French Revolution.” Unsigned. Most of the second part (Aug., 1833) republished in Dissertations and Discussions, I, 56-62, entitled: “A Few Observations on the French Revolution,” with the title footnoted: “From a review of the first two volumes of Alison’s History of Europe, Monthly Repository, August 1833.” Running titles: “The French Revolution.” Identified in Mill’s bibliography as “A review of Alison’s History of the French Revolution in the Monthly Repository for July and August 1833” (MacMinn, 32-3). The copy of the article (tear-sheets) in Mill’s library, Somerville College, headed in Mill’s hand, “From the Monthly Repository for July & August 1833,” contains two corrections also in Mill’s hand (here adopted), at 116.14 “this” is altered to “his”, at 119.2 “our” is altered to “an”.
The following text, taken from the Monthly Repository (our usual rule of using the latest version as copy-text here not applying to D&D because only part of the text was republished), is collated with those in D&D, 1st ed. (1859), and 2nd ed. (1867). In the footnoted variants, “59” indicates D&D, 1st ed., and “67” indicates D&D, 2nd ed.
For comment on the essay, see xlvi-l and xcvi-xcvii above.
Alison’s History of the French Revolution
of history, the most honoured, if not honourable species of composition, is not the whole purport biographic? History, it has been said, is the essence of innumerable biographies.[*] Such, at least, it should be: whether it is, might admit of question. But, in any case, what hope have we in turning over those old interminable chronicles, with their garrulities and insipidities; or still worse, in patiently examining those modern narrations, of the philosophic kind, where philosophy, teaching by experience, must sit like owl on house-top, seeing nothing, understanding nothing, uttering only, with solemnity enough, her perpetual most wearisome hoo, hoo,—what hope have we, except the for most part fallacious one of gaining some acquaintance with our fellow-creatures, though dead and vanished, yet dear to us; how they got along in those old days, suffering and doing, to what extent, and under what circumstances, they resisted the devil, and triumphed over him, or struck their colours to him, and were trodden under foot by him; how, in short, the perennial battle went, which men name life, which we also in these new days, with indifferent fortune, have to fight, and must bequeath to our sons and grandsons to go on fighting, till the enemy one day be quite vanquished and abolished, or else the great night sink and part the combatants; and thus, either by some Millennium or some new Noah’s Deluge, the volume of universal history wind itself up! Other hope, in studying such books, we have none and that it is a deceitful hope, who that has tried knows not? A feast of widest biographic insight is spread for us; we enter full of hungry anticipation, alas! like so many other feasts, which life invites us to, a mere Ossian’s feast of shells,[†] the food and liquor being all emptied out and clean gone, and only the vacant dishes and deceitful emblems thereof left! Your modern historical restaurateurs are indeed little better than high-priests of famine, that keep choicest china dinner-sets, only no dinner to serve therein. Yet such is our biographic appetite, we run trying from shop to shop, with ever new hope, and, unless we could eat the wind, with ever new disappointment.*
Thus writes, although in a publication unworthy of him, an author whom the multitude does not yet, and will not soon understand. The biographic aspect here so exclusively dwelt upon, is indeed not the only aspect under which history may profitably and pleasantly be contemplated: but if we find ourselves disappointed of what it ought to afford us in this kind, most surely our search will be equally vain for all other fruit. If what purports to be the history of any portion of mankind, keep not its promise of making us understand and represent to ourselves what manner of men those were whose story it pretends to be, let it undertake what else it may, it will assuredly perform nothing.
To know our fellow-creature, [we still quote from the same author,] to see into him, understand his goings forth, decipher the whole heart of his mystery;[*] nay, not only to see into him, but even to see out of him, to view the world altogether as he views it, so that we can theoretically construe him, and could almost practically personate him, and do now thoroughly discern both what manner of man he is, and what manner of thing he has got to work on and live on.[†]
This is what a perfect biography, could such be obtained, of any single human being, would do for us, or more properly enable us to do for ourselves, and the perfection of a history, considered in its biographic character, would be to accomplish something of the same kind for an entire nation or an entire age. Thus in respect to the French Revolution, though complete insight is not to be had, we should have been thankful for anything that could have aided us in forming for ourselves even an imperfect picture of the manner in which a Frenchman, at the period of the breaking out of the Revolution lived: what his thoughts were habitually occupied with; what feelings were excited in him by the universe, or by any of the things that dwell therein; above all, what things he fixed his desires upon; what he did for his bread; what things he cared for besides bread; with what evils he had to contend, and how he was enabled to bear up against them; what were his joys, what his consolations, and to what extent he was able to attain them. Such clear view of him and of his circumstances, is the basis of all true knowledge and understanding of the Revolution. Having thus learnt to understand a Frenchman of those days, we would next be helped to know, and to bring vividly before our minds, the new circumstances in which the Revolution placed him, how those circumstances painted themselves to his eyes, from his point of view; what, as a consequence of the conception he formed of them, he thought, felt, and did, not only in the political, but perhaps still more in what may be called “the private biographic phasis; the manner in which individuals demeaned themselves, and social life went on, in so extraordinary an element as that; the most extraordinary, one might say, for the ‘thin rind of habit’ was utterly rent off, and man stood there with all the powers of civilization, and none of its rules to aid him in guiding these.”[‡]
Such things we would willingly learn from a history of the Revolution; but who among its historians teaches the like? or has ought of that kind to teach? or has ever had the thought strike him that such things are to be taught or learnt? Not Mr. Alison’s predecessors, of whom, nevertheless, there must be some twenty who have written better books than his; far less Mr. Alison himself. How should he? When in the course of ages a man arises who can conceive a character, though it be but of one being, and can make his readers conceive it too, we call him a dramatist, and write down his name in the short list of the world’s great minds; are we then entitled to expect from every respectable, quiet, well-meaning Tory gentleman, that he shall be capable of forming within himself, and impressing upon us, a living image of the character and manner of existence, not of one human being, but of a nation or a century of mankind? To throw our own mind into the mind and into the circumstances of another, is one of the most trying of all exercises of the intellect and imagination, and the very conception how great a thing it is, seems to imply the capacity of at least partially performing it.
Not to judge Mr. Alison by so high a standard, but by the far lower one of what has actually been achieved by previous writers on the subject, let us endeavour to estimate the worth of his book, and his qualifications as a historian.
And first, of his merits. He is evidently what is termed a kind-hearted, or, at the very least, a good-natured man. Though a Tory, and, therefore, one in whom some prejudices against the actors in the Revolution might be excused, he is most unaffectedly candid and charitable in his judgment of them. Though he condemns them as politicians, he is more indulgent to them as men than even we are, who look with much less disapprobation upon many of their acts. He has not, indeed, that highest impartiality which proceeds from philosophic insight, but abundance of that lower kind which flows from milkiness of disposition. He can appreciate talent; he does not join in the ill-informed and rash assertion of the Edinburgh Review, reechoed by the Quarterly, that the first authors of the French Revolution were mediocre men;[*] on the contrary, speaking in his preface of the Constituent Assembly, he talks of its “memorable discussions,” and of himself as “most forcibly impressed with the prodigious, though often perverted and mistaken ability, which distinguished them.”[†] Mr. Alison has a further merit, and in a man of his quality of mind it is a most positive one—he is no canter. He does not think it necessary to profess to be shocked, or terrified, at opinions or modes of conduct contrary to what are deemed proper and reputable in his own country. He does not guard his own respectability by a saving clause, whenever he has occasion to name or to praise even a Mirabeau. We should never think of this as a quality worthy of particular notice in a mind accustomed to vigorous and independent thought; but in whatever mind it exists, it is evidence of that which is the first condition of all worth, a desire to be rather than to seem.
Having said thus much on the favourable side, turn we to the other column of the account, and here we have to say simply this, that, after reading both these volumes carefully through, we are quite completely unable to name any one thing that Mr. Alison has done, which had not been far better done before; or to conjecture what could lead him to imagine that such a work as he has produced was any desideratum in the existing literature on the subject. It is hard to say of any book that it is altogether useless; that it contains nothing from which man, woman, or child can derive any one particle of benefit, learn any one thing worth knowing; but a more useless book than this of Mr. Alison’s, one which approaches nearer to the ideal of absolute inutility, we believe we might go far to seek.
We have not often happened to meet with an author of any work of pretension less endowed than Mr. Alison with the faculty of original thought; his negation of genius amounts almost to a positive quality. Notwithstanding, or, perhaps, in consequence of, this deficiency, he deals largely in general reflections; which accordingly are of the barrenest; when true, so true that no one ever thought them false; when false, nowise that kind of false propositions which come from a penetrating but partial or hasty glance at the thing spoken of, and, therefore, though not true, have instructive truth in them; but such as a country-gentleman, accustomed to be king of his company, talks after dinner. The same want of power manifests itself in the narrative. Telling his story almost entirely after Mignet and Thiers,[*] he has caught none of their vivacity from those great masters of narration; the most stirring scenes of that mighty world-drama, under his pen turn flat, cold, and spiritless. In his preface he apologizes for the “dramatic air” produced by inserting fragments of speeches into his text:[†] if the fact were so, it would be a subject of praise, not of apology; but if it were an offence, we assure Mr. Alison that he never would be found guilty of it; nothing is dramatic which has passed through the strainer of his translations; even the eloquence of Mirabeau cannot rouse within him one spark of kindred energy and fervour. In the humbler duties of a historian he is equally deficient; he has no faculty of historical criticism, and no research; his marginal references point exclusively to the most obvious sources of information; and even among these he refers five times to a compilation, for once to an original authority. In this he evinces a candour worthy of praise, since his crowded margin betrays that scantiness of reading which other authors leave theirs blank on purpose to conceal. We suspect he has written his book rather from memory and notes than with the works themselves before him; else how happens it that he invariably misspells the name of one of the writers, he oftenest refers to?* why are several of the names which occur in the history, also misspelt, in a manner not to be accounted for by the largest allowance for typographical errors? why are there so many inaccuracies in matter of fact, of minor importance indeed, but which could hardly have been fallen into, by one fresh from the reading of even the common histories of the Revolution? The very first and simplest requisite for a writer of French history, a knowledge of the French language, Mr. Alison does not possess in the necessary perfection. To feel the higher excellences of expression and style in any language implies a mastery over the language itself, and a familiarity with its literature, far greater than is sufficent for all inferior purposes. We are sure that any one who can so completely fail to enter into the spirit of Mirabeau’s famous “Dites-lui que ces hordes étrangères dont nous sommes investis,”[*] of that inspired burst of oratory upon la hideuse banqueroute,[†] and of almost everything having any claim to eloquence which he attempts to render, must be either without the smallest real feeling of eloquence, or so inadequately conversant with the French language, that French eloquence has not yet found its way to his soul. We are the more willing to give Mr. Alison the benefit of this excuse, as we find his knowledge of French at fault in far smaller things. He mistakes l’impôt du timbre for a tax on timber; fourche, apparently from not understanding what it is, he translates a fork, and chariot a chariot. The waggoner Cathelineau he terms a charioteer, and the victims of the revolutionary tribunal are carried from the prison to the guillotine in a chariot. Mr. Alison might with as much reason call the dead-cart, during the plague of London, by that name.
If our sole object were to declare our opinion of Mr. Alison’s book, our observations might stop here. But Mr. Alison’s subject seems to require of us some further remarks, applicable to the mode in which that subject is treated by English writers generally, as well as by him.
* * * * *
aHistory is interesting under a two-fold aspect, it has abscientificb interest, and a cmoralc or dbiographicd interest. A scientific, inasmuch as it exhibits the general laws of the moral universe acting in circumstances of complexity, and enables us to trace the connexion between great effects and their causes. A moral or biographic interest, inasmuch as it erepresents to use the characters and lives of human beings, and calls upon us, according to their deservings or to their fortunes, for four sympathy, our admiration, or our censuref .
gNow, withoutg entering at present, more than to the extent of a few words, into the hscientifich aspect of the history of the French Revolution, or stopping to define the place which we would assign to it as an event in universal history, we need not fear to declare utterly unqualified for estimating the French Revolution any one who looks upon it as arising from causes peculiarly French, or otherwise than as one turbulent passage in a progressive irevolutioni embracing the whole human race. All political revolutions, not effected by foreign conquest, originate in moral revolutions. The subversion of established institutions is merely one consequence of the previous subversion of established opinions. The jhundredj political revolutions of the last three centuries were but a few outward manifestations of a moral revolution, which dates from the great breaking loose of the human faculties commonly described as the “revival of letters,” and of which the main instrument and agent was the invention of printing. How much of the course of that moral revolution yet remains to be run, or how many political revolutions it will yet generate before it be exhausted, no one can foretell. But it must be the shallowest view of the French Revolution, which can knowk consider it as any thing but a mere lincidentl in a great change in man himself, in his mbeliefm , in his principles of conduct, and therefore in the outward arrangements of society; a change nwhich is but half completed, and which is now in a state of more rapid progress here in England, than any where elsen .
Now if this view be justo, which we must be content for the present to assumeo , surely for an English historian, writing at this particular time concerning the French Revolution, there was something pressing for consideration of greater interest and importance than the degree of praise or blame due to the few individuals who, with more or less pofp consciousness what they were about, happened to be personally implicated in that strife of the elements.
But also, if, feeling his incapacity for treating history from the scientific point of view, an author thinks fit to confine himself to the qmoralq aspect, surely some less common-place moral result, some more valuable and more striking practical lesson, might admit of being drawn from this extraordinary passage of history, than merely this, that men should beware how they begin a political convulsion, because they never can tell how or when it will end; which happens to be the one solitary general inference, the entire aggregate of the practical wisdom, deduced therefrom in Mr. Alison’s book.
Of such stuff are ordinary rmen’sr moralities composed. Be good, be wise, always do right, take heed what you do, for you know not what may come of it. Does Mr. Alison, or any one, really believe that any human thing, from the fall of man to the last bankruptcy, ever went wrong for want of such maxims as these?
A political convulsion is a fearful thing: granted. Nobody can be assured beforehand what course it will take: we grant that too. What then? No one ought ever to do any thing which has any tendency to bring on a convulsion: is that the principle? But there never was an attempt made to reform any abuse in Church or State, never any denunciation uttered, or mention made of any political or social evil, which had not some such tendency. Whatever excites dissatisfaction with any one of the arrangements of society, brings the danger of a forcible subversion of the entire fabric so much the snearer: doess it follow that there ought to be no censure of any thing which exists? Or is this abstinence, peradventure, to be observed only when the danger is considerable? But that is whenever the evil complained of is considerable; because the greater the evil, the stronger is the desire excited to be freed from it, and because the greatest evils are always those which it is most difficult to get rid of by ordinary means. It would follow, then, that mankind are at liberty to throw off small evils, but not great ones, that the most deeply-seated and fatal diseases of the social system are those which ought to be left for ever without remedy.
Men are not to make it the sole object of their political lives to avoid a revolution, no more than of their natural lives to avoid death. They are to take reasonable care to avert both those contingencies when there is a present danger, but tthey aret not to forbear the pursuit of any worthy object for fear of a mere possibility.
Unquestionably it is possible to do mischief by striving for a larger measure of political reform than the national mind is ripe for; and so forcing on prematurely a struggle between elements, which, by a more gradual progress, might have been brought to harmonize. And every honest and considerate umanu , before he engages in the career of a political reformer, will inquire whether the moral state and intellectual culture of the people are such as to render any great improvement in the management of public affairs possible. But he will inquire too, whether the people are likely ever to be made better, morally or intellectually, without a vpreviousv change in the government. If not, it may still be his duty to strive for such a change at whatever wrisksw .
What decision a perfectly wise man, at the opening of the French Revolution, would have come to upon these several points, he who knows most will be most slow to pronounce. By the Revolution, substantial good has been effected of immense value, at the cost of immediate evil of the most tremendous kind. But it is impossible, with all the light which has been, or probably ever will be, obtained on the subject, to do more than conjecture whether France could have purchased improvement cheaper; whether any course which could have averted the Revolution, would not have done so by arresting all improvement, and barbarizing down the people of France into the condition of Russian boors.
A revolution, which is so ugly a thing, certainly cannot be a very formidable thing, if all is true xthe Toriesx say of it. For, according to them, it has always depended upon the will of some small number of persons, whether there should be a revolution or ynoy . They invariably begin by assuming that great and decisive immediate improvements, with a certainty of subsequent and rapid progress, and the ultimate attainment of all zpracticalz good, may be had by peaceable means at the option of the leading reformers, and that to this they voluntarily prefer civil war and massacre for the sake of marching somewhat more directly and rapidly towards their ultimate ends. Having thus made out a revolution to be so mere a bagatelle, that, except by the extreme of knavery or folly, it may always be kept at a distance; there is little difficulty in proving all revolutionary leaders knaves or fools. But unhappily theirs is no such enviable position; a far other alternative is commonly offered to them. We will hazard the assertion, that there anevera yet happened a political convulsion, originating in the desire of reform, where the choice did not, in the full persuasion of every person concerned, lie between ballb and cnothingc ; where the actors in the revolution had not thoroughly made up their minds, that, without a revolution, the enemies of all reform would have the entire ascendency, and that not only there would be no present improvement, but the door would for the future be shut against dalld endeavour towards it.
Unquestionably, such was the conviction of those who took part in the French Revolution, during its earlier stages. eTheye did fnotf choose the way of blood and violence in preference to the way of peace and discussion. Theirs was the cause of law and order. The States General at Versailles were a body, legally assembled, legally and constitutionally sovereign of the country, and had every right which law and opinion could bestow upon them, to do all that they did. But as soon as they did any thing disagreeable to the king’s courtiers, (at that time they had not even gbegung to make any alterations in the fundamental institutions of the country,) the king and his advisers took steps for appealing to the bayonet. Then, and not till then, the adverse force of an armed people stood forth in defence of the highest constituted authority—the legislature of their country—menaced with illegal violence. The Bastille fell; the popular party became the stronger; and success, which so often is said to be a justification, has here proved the reverse: men who would haveh ranked with Hampden and Sidney, if they had quietly waited to have their throats cut, ibecomei odious monsters because they have been victorious.
We have not now time nor space to discuss the quantum of the guilt which attaches, not to the authors of the Revolution, but to the jsubsequent, to the variousj revolutionary governments, for the crimes of the Revolution. Much was done which could not have been done except by bad men. But whoever examines faithfully and diligently the records of those times, whoever can conceive the circumstances and look into the mindsk of the men who planned and lwhol perpetrated those enormities, will be the more fully convinced, the more he considers the facts, that all which was done had one sole object. That object was, according to the phraseology of the time, to save the Revolution; to msavem it, no matter by what means; to defend it against its irreconcilable enemies, within and without; to prevent the undoing of the whole work, the restoration of all nwhichn had been demolished, and the extermination of all who had been active in demolishing; to keep down the royalists, and drive back the foreign invaders; as the means to these ends to erect all France into a camp, subject the whole French people to the obligations and the arbitrary discipline of a besieged city, and to inflict death, or suffer it with equal readiness—death or any other evil—for the sake of succeeding in the object.
But nothing of all this is dreamed of in Mr. Alison’s philosophy:[*] he knows not enough, oneither of his professed subject, noro of the universal subject, the nature of man, to have got even thus far, to have made this first step towards understanding what the French Revolution was. In this he is without excuse, for had he been even moderately read in the French literature, psubsequentp to the Revolution, he would have found this view of the details of its history familiar to every writer and to every reader.a
It was scarcely worth while to touch upon the French Revolution for the sake of saying no more about it than we have now said; yet it is as much, perhaps, as the occasion warrants. Observations entering more deeply into the subject will find a fitter opportunity when it shall not be necessary to mix them up with strictures upon an insignificant book.
[[*] ]Carlyle is referring to his own remark in “Thoughts on History,” Fraser’s Magazine, II (Nov., 1830), 414.
[[†] ]See Ossian [James Macpherson], Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books, with Several Other Poems (London: Becket and Hondt, 1762), p. 78 (Bk. VI).
[* ]Article [by Thomas Carlyle] on Biography, in Fraser’s Magazine [V] for April, 1832, [254-5,] introductory to the admirable article [also by Carlyle] on Boswell’s Johnson in the Number for the following month [V (May, 1832), 379-413].
[[*] ]Cf. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, III, ii, 366 (in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974], p. 1165).
[[†] ]Carlyle, “Biography,” p. 253.
[[‡] ]Taken from a letter of 12 Jan., 1833, from Carlyle to Mill; see The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Carlyle, ed. Charles Richard Sanders, et al., Vol. VI (Durham, N.C. Duke University Press, 1977), p. 302.
[[*] ]See John Wilson Croker and John Gibson Lockhart, “The Revolutions of 1640 and 1830,” Quarterly Review, XLVIII (Mar., 1832), 269, echoed in Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Dumont’s Recollections of Mirabeau,” Edinburgh Review, LV (July, 1832), 558-9: and re-echoed in Philip Henry Stanhope, “Lord John Russell, The Causes of the French Revolution,” Quarterly Review, XLIX (Apr., 1833), 156 and 171.
[[†] ]Alison, History, Vol. I, p. xvi.
[[*] ]François Auguste Marie Mignet, Histoire de la révolution française, 2 pts. (Paris: Didot, 1824), and Louis Adolphe Thiers, Histoire de la révolution française, 10 vols. (Paris: Lecointe and Durey, 1823-27).
[[†] ]Alison, History, Vol. I, p. xvi.
[* ]M. Toulongeon, always spelt Toulangeon by Mr. Alison. [François Emmanuel Toulongeon, Histoire de France, 7 vols. (Paris: Treuttel and Wurtz, 1801-10).]
[[*] ]Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau, speech of 15 July, 1789, in Oeuvres de Mirabeau, 9 vols. (Paris: Dupont and Brissot-Thivars, 1825-27), Vol. VIII, p. 166.
[[†] ]Mirabeau, speech of 26 Sept., 1789, ibid., p. 301.
[a-a]122[reprinted as A Few Observations on the French Revolution in D&D, 59,67]
[f-f]59,67 sympathy, admiration, or censure
[n-n]59,67 so far from being completed, that it is not yet clear, even to the more advanced spirits, to what ultimate goal it is tending
[o-o]59,67 (which . . . assume)
[s-s]59, 67 nearer Does
[x-x]59,67 that Conservatives
[a-a]59,67 has scarcely ever
[i-i]59,67 passed for
[j-j]59,67 various subsequent
[[*] ]Cf. Hamlet, I, v, 166-7 (in The Riverside Shakespeare, p. 1151).
[o-o]59,67 either or