Front Page Titles (by Subject) FRANCE BEFORE THE CONSULATE. - Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville, vol. 1
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FRANCE BEFORE THE CONSULATE. - Alexis de Tocqueville, Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville, vol. 1 
Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville. Translated from the French by the translator of Napoleon’s Correspondence with King Joseph. With large Additions. In Two Volumes (London: Macamillan, 1861). Vol. 1.
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FRANCE BEFORE THE CONSULATE.
Two Chapters of a Work which was to have been a continuation of “France before the Revolution of 1789” (L’Anoien Régime et la Révolution).
HOW THE REPUBLIC WAS READY TO ACCEPT A MASTER.
One of the most extraordinary subjects of contemplation among the shifting scenes of human life is the interior of the Republic before which all Europe trembled.
The Government, which had at its disposal the most formidable army, and perhaps the greatest generals that had appeared in the world since the downfall of Rome tottered at every instant, steadying itself with difficulty’, always on the point of falling under the weight of its vices and its follies, devoured by innumerable diseases, and, in spite of its youth, consumed by the nameless evil which in general attacks only old governments—a sort of general feebleness, of senile consumption, of which there can be no other definition than an inability to live. Attempts were no longer made to overturn it; but it seemed to have lost the power of standing upright.
After the 18th Fructidor, more power was conferred on the Directory than had ever belonged to the dynasty which the Revolution had overthrown; in fact, it had become despotic, and it followed a revolution which had destroyed every barrier formerly opposed by law, habit, and manners, to the abuse, and sometimes to the use of power. The press was mute. France had returned the representatives designated by the Government; local administrators who were not submissive had been superseded; the Legislature, humbled and powerless, desired only to obey.
Still the Directory was incapable of governing. It occupied the seat of government, but could not wield the power. It never could give regularity to the administration, order to the finances, or peace to the country. The whole of its reign was an anarchy tempered by violence. Not for a single day was its duration expected by one of its supporters. Political parties never took it for an established government—they kept alive their hopes and, above all, their antipathies.
The Government itself was only a party—always restless and violent, it was the least numerous and most contemptible party of all. It was a coterie of regicides, composed almost entirely of second-rate revolutionists, who, by following in the wake of great criminals, or by committing none but obscure crimes, had escaped both under the Reign of Terror and the reaction which followed the 9th Thermidor. These men looked upon the republic as their refuge, but in reality the majority cared for nothing but the power and pleasure which they enjoyed under it. Both sceptical and sensual, all that they had preserved of their former selves was their vigour. It is remarkable that almost all the men whose moral sense had been destroyed in the course of this long revolution, still retained, in the midst of the vices that they acquired, some remnant of the ungoverned and wild courage which had enabled them to take a part in making that revolution. Often, amid their cares and their dangers, they had contemplated and desired a return to the Reign of Terror. They thought of it after Fructidor, they tried to re-establish it after Prairial, but in vain. This fact suggests important reflections.
At the beginning of a violent revolution, the laws, passed in ordinary times, are milder than public opinion suddenly rendered harsh by the influence of new passions. But, at a later period, law becomes more stringent than public opinion, which in its turn paralyses the action of the law. At first, terror reigns as it were without the legislator’s interference, afterwards he often spends his strength in endeavours to create it. The most cruel of the laws of 1793 are less barbarous than many of those passed in 1797, 1798, and 1799. The laws which banished without trial the representatives of the people and the newspaper writers to Guiana, that which authorized the Directory to imprison or transport at will any priests whom it should consider dangerous; the graduated income-tax which, under the name of the forced loan, deprived the rich of the whole of their revenues; and lastly, the famous law of hostages; have a finished and skilful atrocity that did not belong even to the laws of the Convention, and yet they did not re-awaken terror. The men who proposed them were as bold, as unscrupulous, and perhaps more intelligent than their predecessors, in the devices of tyranny; and it is still more striking that these measures were voted almost without discussion, and promulgated without resistance. While most of the laws that prepared and established the Reign of Terror were warmly contested, and excited the opposition of a great part of the country, the laws of the Directory were silently accepted. But they never could be completely enforced, and (this observation deserves especial attention) the same cause aided their birth and deadened their effect. The Revolution had lasted so long that France, enervated and dispirited, had neither surprise nor reprobation left to manifest when the most violent and cruel laws were propounded; but this very moral debility made the daily application of such laws difficult. Public opinion no longer lent its aid; it opposed to the virulence of the Government a resistance, languid indeed, but on account of its languor almost impossible to put down. The Directory wasted its strength in the endeavour.
It is true that this Government, though fruitful in the invention of revolutionary measures, was strangely awkward and incapable in all questions of organization. It never learned to supply the absence of popular enthusiasm by an ably constituted administrative machinery. Its tyranny was always in want of instruments, and its victims escaped because its agents would not seize them. The Directory never understood the great maxim which we soon shall see applied, that to command and to maintain obedience, tyrannical laws, capriciously followed, are less efficacious than mild ones, enforced regularly and almost mechanically every day and against every person, by a skilful administration.
This deadness of the passions, this languor in public opinion, did not show itself merely in the application of revolutionary laws, but in the selection of punishments. For the scaffold was substituted transportation, a penalty often severer than death, but which the people do not see executed, so that while vengeance is satisfied, the unpleasant sight of suffering is avoided.
Towards the end of the Directory, the Jacobins reopened their club. They resumed their badges, their phrases and their habits, for political parties seldom change, and it is a phenomenon worth remarking that they are more inflexible, both in theory and practice, than the individuals who compose them. The Jacobins then acted precisely as they had acted under the Reign of Terror without being able to bring it back. The fear which they inspired had the effect only of making the nation more eager to give up its freedom.
The Directory, after having governed without opposition and almost without control, having interfered with everything, having tried everything, with the absolute power bestowed on it by the events of Fructidor, seemed gradually to expire of itself, and without an effort. (June, 1799; in the language of that time, 30th Prairial, an VII.) The same legislative body that it had decimated, in part recomposed, and always treated as its slave, regained the mastery and resumed the government. But soon the victor knew not what to do with his conquest. Hitherto the administrative machinery had worked irregularly, now it seemed to stand still. It was evident that Assemblies, which are of admirable use sometimes in strengthening, and at other times in moderating the government, are more incapable than the worst governments of directing public affairs.
No sooner had the sovereign power returned to the corps législatif, than universal debility pervaded the administration throughout the country. Anarchy spread from private individuals to officials. No one resisted—no one obeyed. It was like a disbanding army. The taxes, instead of being ill paid, were not paid at all. In every direction, conscripts preferred highway-robbery to rejoining the army. At one time it seemed as if not only order, but civilization itself, were to be overturned. Neither persons, nor property, nor even the high-roads were safe. In the correspondence of the public functionaries with the Government, still preserved in the national archives, is a description of these calamities; for, as a minister of that time said, “The accounts given to the nation should be reassuring; but in the retreat, not exposed to the public eye, where the Government deliberates, everything ought to be told.”
I have before me one of these secret reports, that of the Minister of Police, dated the 30th Fructidor, an VII. (the 16th of September, 1799), on the condition of the country. I gather from it, that, at that time, of the eighty-six departments into which France (properly so called, for I except the recent acquisitions by conquest) was divided, forty-five were abandoned to disorder and civil war. Troops of brigands forced open the prisons, assassinated the police, and set the convicts at liberty; the receivers of taxes were robbed, killed, or maimed; municipal officers murdered, landowners imprisoned for ransom or taken as hostages, lands laid waste and diligences stopped. Bands of two hundred, of three hundred, and of eight hundred men overspread the country. Gangs of conscripts resisted everywhere, arms in hand, the authorities whose duty it was to enrol them. The laws were disobeyed in all quarters; by some to follow the impulse of their passions—by others to follow the practices of their religion; some profited by the state of affairs to strip travellers—others to ring the long-silent church-bells, or to carry the banners of the Catholic faith through the desecrated churchyards.
The means used to suppress disturbances were at once violent and insufficient. We read in these reports, that often when a refractory conscript tried to escape from the soldiers, they killed him as an example. The private dwellings of citizens were continually exposed to public domiciliary visits. Moving columns of troops, almost as disorderly as the bands which they pursued, scoured the country, and extorted ransoms for want of pay or rations.
Paris was cowed. She slept, but uneasily and disturbed by painful dreams. A thousand different prophecies of some terrible outbreak are circulated through the city. Some say that a great movement will be made against the Directory, in favour of Democracy—others think that it will be on the royalist side; a huge fire is to give the signal. Men have been heard to say, “It is foolish to pay one’s rent, for a blow will be struck that will settle every debt; blood will shortly be shed.” Such is the language of the reports.
It is curious to observe the despair into which the sight of this universal confusion throws the reporters; the causes that they assign, and the remedies which they propose. The citizens are in absolute apathy, say some; public spirit is utterly destroyed, say others. Here we find it asserted, that the brigands find asylums everywhere; in another place it is said, that the manœuvres of different parties and the impunity of crime are viewed by patriots with deplorable indifference. A few ask for measures against the supporters of fanaticism; many wish for still more stringent laws against emigrants, priests, and nuns. The greater number are full of astonishment, and consider all that is going on as incomprehensible. The secret disease which surprised the agents of the Directory, the unknown and hidden evil that was sapping the life of authority, was the state of public opinion and public morals—France refused to obey her government.
It is easy to mistake the signs which betoken great convulsions in revolutions of long duration, for these signs vary with the different periods. They even change their nature as the revolution advances. In the beginning public opinion is excited, lively, intolerant, presumptuous, and capricious; in the decline it is patient and sad. After having tolerated nothing, there seem to be no bounds to its powers of endurance. But submission is accompanied by implacable resentment; irritation increases, contempt becomes every day more inveterate, and hatred more bitter, in the midst of obedience. The nation has no longer, as in the commencement of the revolution, force and energy sufficient to push its Government towards the precipice, but it rejoices to see it fall over.
Such was the state of France in 1799. She despised and detested, yet obeyed, her Government.
This secret moral resistance sufficed to paralyze a government which had no internal force or vitality. Often, in our own day, we have seen the executive survive the legislative functions. While the paramount powers in the State were expiring or already overthrown, the subordinate powers still continued to conduct affairs with regularity and firmness. They were times of revolution, but not of anarchy.
The reason is, that now in France the actual executive government forms, to a considerable extent independently of the sovereign, a special administrative body, with habits, rules and instruments of its own, so that it is able for a certain period to present the phenomenon of a headless trunk still proceeding on its way. This was the work of Napoleon. We shall see how, by the construction of this powerful machine, he made revolution at the same time more easy and less destructive.
Nothing similar existed at the time of which we are speaking. The old authorities were overthrown without any other being in reality as yet substituted. The administration was as incoherent and disorderly as the nation; as much without rules, without a hierarchy, and without traditions. The Reign of Terror had been able to work with this ill-made and ill-adjusted machinery. To return to it had become impossible, and in the failure of public spirit the whole political machine fell at once into pieces.
We then presented a sad spectacle; in every direction France bore the traces of the sort of moral decay produced in the long run by the wear and tear of revolutions. All revolutions, even the most necessary, have indeed for a time this effect, but it was stronger, I think, in our case than in any other, and I do not find in history a single event that contributed more to the wellbeing of succeeding generations, or more entirely demoralized the generation that brought it to pass. Many reasons for this may be assigned, and especially the immense mass of property confiscated by the winning party. The French Revolution multiplied, to an extent never before witnessed in any civil war, the number of doubtful properties guaranteed by law but not by conscience. The sellers of confiscated estates were not quite sure of their right to alienate them, nor the buyers of their right to acquire them. With both parties it generally happened that idleness or ignorance prevented their forming a correct opinion on this important point, and interest prevented most of them from looking too closely into the matter. Bad feelings were often excited among millions of men. During the great revolution which preceded the Reformation, in the 16th century—the only revolution that can be compared with the French Revolution—the property of the Church was confiscated, but it was not brought to the hammer. A few great nobles seized it. With us, on the other hand, not only the estates of the Church, but those of almost all great landowners—not the property of a single corporation, but the patrimonies of 100,000 families, were disposed of. It is to be remarked, too, that men did not grow rich merely by the purchase at a low price of confiscated estates, but by the pretended satisfaction of a large amount of incumbrances; the profit was perfectly legal and perfectly dishonest.
Risking the comparison further, I find that the revolution in the sixteenth century threw doubt upon only one set of human opinions, and disturbed established habits on only some points. The moral sense, which in most men is founded less upon reason than upon custom and prejudice, was then only shaken, whereas the French Revolution attacked at the same time political and religious faith, desired to reform simultaneously the individual and the State, tried to change ancient customs, received opinions, and fixed habits on every subject, and all at once; all which produced a universal perturbation in morals, and conscience tottered on every point.
But in long-continuing revolutions, men are morally ruined less by the faults and the crimes that they commit in the heat of passion or of their political convictions, than by the contempt that in the end they acquire for the very convictions and passions which moved them; when wearied, disenchanted, and undeceived, they turn against themselves and consider their hopes as having been childish—their enthusiasm, and above all, their devotion, absurd. None can conceive how often the mainspring of even the strongest minds is broken by such a catastrophe. Man is so crushed by it that not only can he no longer attain to great virtues, but he seems to have become almost incapable of great crimes. Those who saw France reduced to this state imagined that in future it would be impossible for her to make any great moral effort, but they deceived themselves; for if our virtues never satisfy the moral philosopher, our vices never leave him without hope; the truth is, that we never tread either path so decidedly as to be unable to leave it.
The French nation, after having been passionately attached to liberty in 1789, loved her no longer in 1799, though no other object had engaged their affections. Having at one time bestowed on her a thousand imaginary charms, they now could not see even the merits that she really possessed; they could feel only her inconveniences and her dangers. For the last ten years, indeed, they had found in her little else. According to the strong expression of a contemporary, the republic had been nothing but a restless slavery. At what other period in history had the habits of men been so violently interfered with, and when did tyranny enter so deeply into the details of private life? What feelings and what actions had been left free? What habits or what customs had been respected? The private citizen had been forced to change his days of work and rest, his calendar, his table of weights and measures, even his terms of speech. While obliged to bear his part in ceremonies which appeared to him ridiculous and profane, he was not allowed to worship except in secret. He broke the law whenever he obeyed his conscience or indulged his taste. I know not if a similar state of things could have been endured for so long by any other nation, but there is no limit to our patience, nor again to our resistance, on different occasions.
Often during the course of the Revolution the French thought that they were on the point of finding a happy termination of this great crisis; sometimes they trusted in the Constitution, sometimes in the Assembly, and sometimes in the executive itself. Once or twice they trusted in their own exertions, which is always the last resource. All these hopes had been deceived, all these attempts had been made in vain. The march of the Revolution was not arrested. Great changes, indeed, were no longer effected, but a continual agitation was kept up. The wheel, it is true, carried nothing with it, but it seemed likely to go round and round for ever.
It is difficult to imagine, even in these days, the extreme fatigue, apathy, indifference, or rather contempt, for politics, into which such a long, terrible, and barren struggle had thrown men’s minds. Many nations have presented a spectacle of the same nature, but as every nation brings its own peculiar character into a situation resembling that in which others have been placed, on this occasion the French appeared to abandon themselves to fate, with a feverish passionate intoxication. Despairing of escape from their misfortunes, they determined not to think about them. The amusements in Paris, says a contemporary, are now not interrupted for a single instant, either by the terrible events that take place, or by the fear of future calamities. The theatres and public places were never so crowded. At Tivoli you hear it said, that things will soon be worse than ever; patriotism is sneered at,* and through it all we dance. One of the police reports says, that on the pedestal of the statue of Liberty has been placed this inscription: “Our Government resembles the Funeral Service; there is no Gloria, no Credo; a long Offertory, and no Benediction at the end.” Fashion was never so despotic nor so capricious. It was a strange phenomenon that despair revived the frivolity of former times. New features, however, were introduced. Our manners became eccentric, disorderly, in fact revolutionary; trifles, as well as serious things, no longer knew rule or limit.
Institutions are like religions—observances generally survive faith. It was curious to see the government of a nation, which no more cared for liberty than it believed in the continuance of the Republic, in whom all revolutionary zeal seemed to have expired, still obstinately persevering in all the ceremonies introduced by the Revolution. In May it attended solemnly the Fête of the Sovereignty of the People; in the spring i was present at the Fête of Youth; in summer at that in honour of Agriculture; in autumn at the Fête of Old Age. On the 21st of January, all the public functionaries were assembled round the altar dedicated to the country, to swear fidelity to the constitution and hatred to tyrants.
François de Neufchâteau, who was Home Minister in 1799, when France was devoured at home by anarchy and threatened abroad by foreign enemies, was chiefly occupied in arranging these civic fêtes; most of his circulars are on this subject. He depends greatly on pageants, he says, for reviving patriotism and all private virtues. As no one would regard these ridiculous fêtes in earnest, a law was passed (the 17th Thermidor, 6th year) to force the shopkeepers, on pain of fine or imprisonment, to close their establishments on fête-days and on the decades; and to forbid, under the same penalty, any work to be done on these days on the highroads or within the public view. As the appellation of citizen had become vulgar and had fallen out of use, the Government posted up in large letters in all the public places these words: “Here men are proud of the title of citizen.” The revolutionary, which was the governing party, kept up likewise in its official language all the common-places of the Revolution. The last thing abandoned by a party is its phraseology, because among political parties, as elsewhere, the vulgar make the language, and the vulgar abandon more easily the ideas that have been instilled into it than the words that it has learnt. When one reads the harangues of the time, it seems as if nothing could be said simply. Soldiers are called warriors; wives—faithful companions; children—pledges of love. Duty is never mentioned, virtue takes its place; no one ever promises less than to die for his country and for liberty. The contemptible part is, that most of the orators who delivered these speeches were themselves almost as wearied, as disgusted, and as cold as their hearers; but it is a sad necessity to violent passions in their decline, that long after they have lost all influence over the heart, the expressions that once were natural to them survive. Any one who had derived all his information from the newspapers might have imagined that he lived in the midst of a nation passionately fond of liberty and interested in public affairs. Their language had never been more inflated, nor their demands more clamorous, than when they were on the eve of a fifteen years’ silence. To ascertain the real power of the press, attention should be paid, not to what it says, but to the way in which the public listens. Its very vehemence is sometimes a forerunner of its entire extinction; its clamours are often the proof of its perils. It screams only because its audience is growing deaf, and this very deafness makes it safe to silence it.
Although the people were from this time excluded from the conduct of affairs, it must not be thought that they were indifferent to their personal danger. Exactly the contrary was the case. The French had never perhaps so dreaded the consequences to themselves of political events, as when they were no longer able to direct them. In politics, fear is a passion that grows at the expense of all others; everything terrifies when nothing is any longer ardently desired. The French, too, have a sort of joyous desperation, which deceives their rulers; they laugh at their own misery, but they feel it no less. At this time, though full of their own petty affairs and dissipated by pleasure, they were worn by political anxieties. Suspense that was almost unbearable, terror that seems to us incredible, took possession of every mind.
Although the dangers of that time were, on the whole, infinitely less than those of the beginning of the Revolution, they inspired terror that was more intense and more general, because the nation had less energy, feebler passions, and more experience. All the evils that had overpowered the people for ten years were combined in their fancy to form a picture of the future; and after having permitted to take place, without alarm and even without foreboding, the most terrible catastrophes, they trembled at their own shadows. On reading the edicts of the time, it is evident that the most opposite things were feared; some dreaded the abolition of property, and others the return of feudal rights. Often the same man, after fearing one of these evils, immediately apprehended the other; in the morning a Restoration, in the evening a return of the Reign of Terror. Many were afraid of showing their fear; and it was not till after the crisis of the 18th Brumaire that it was possible to measure, by the extent of their satisfaction and the excess of their joy, the depth of pusillanimity into which the Revolution had plunged these enervated souls.
Although experience ought to prepare us for any amount of caprice in men, some surprise may be permitted to us at seeing so great a change in the disposition of a nation; so much selfishness succeeding to such devotion; so much indifference, to such vehemence; so much cowardice, to so much heroism; such utter contempt for what they had desired so ardently and paid for so dearly. Such a complete and sudden revolution cannot be explained by ordinary moral laws. The character of our nation is so peculiar, that the study of human nature in general does not embrace it; those even who have most studied it are continually taken by surprise; for our nation is gifted beyond any other with capacity to appreciate great things, and even to do them; it is equal to any single effort, however extraordinary, but unable to remain strung up to a high pitch for any length of time; because we act upon impulse, not on principle, and our instincts are better than our moral qualities; we are the most civilized people in the world, and yet, in certain respects, we have retained more of the savage than any other nation; for the great characteristic of the savage is, to be influenced by the sudden impressions of the present, without recollection of the past or thought of the future.
HOW THE NATION, THOUGH IT CEASED TO BE REPUBLICAN, REMAINED REVOLUTIONARY.
The Royalists, seeing the disgust conceived against liberty by the nation, fancied that it was anxious to return to the old* system. Almost all parties whose day has gone by are apt to imagine that because their successors are hated they must be loved, not perceiving how much easier it is for men to be constant in their antipathies than in their affections. France, though she no longer loved the Republic, was still strongly attached to the Revolution. Such important consequences follow from this fact, that it deserves to be considered at some length.
As time passed on, and the ancien régime faded in the distance, the people grew more and more resolved not to return to it. The phenomenon was remarkable. The Revolution seemed to become dear to the nation in proportion to the suffering which it inflicted. From the writings of the time it is evident, that this it was which most astonished the enemies of the Revolution. When they contrasted the evils that it produced with the attachment that it retained, France seemed to them to have become raving mad.
These opposite effects, however, were due to one cause.
Men suffered more and more from the Revolution the longer the bad government which had risen out of it lasted, while this very duration made the habits that it had planted take root, and increased the number and variety of the interests which it sustained. As the nation advanced, barrier after barrier rose up behind and impeded a return. Most Frenchmen had taken an active share in affairs since the beginning of the Revolution, and had attested their adherence to it by public acts; they felt almost themselves responsible for the calamities that had ensued. This responsibility seemed to strengthen with the increase and duration of the evils. Thus the Reign of Terror gave to many, even of its victims, an unconquerable aversion to the re-establishment of old rights, the owners of which would have so many injuries to resent.
Something like this has been witnessed in every revolution. Even the most oppressive render a return to a former state intolerable to the nation, if they only last long enough. Our revolution, besides, did not oppress the whole country in an equal degree; some suffered little by it, and among those even who bore the burden many had found considerable advantages mixed with the evils that it had caused. I believe that the comfort of the lower classes was much less disturbed than is commonly supposed. At least they had great alleviations of their misfortunes. Great numbers of workmen having willingly, or by compulsion, joined the army, those who remained in France obtained much higher pay. Wages rose in spite of public and private calamities, for the working class diminished still more quickly than the demand for their services.* One of the principal foes of the Revolution, Mallet-Dupan, writes in 1796: “The working men earn more now than in 1790.” Sir Francis d’Ivernois, who for ten years imposed on himself the task of proving once a year to England that France, exhausted by misery, had only six months to live, acknowledges in his last pamphlet, written in 1799, that wages had risen everywhere since the Revolution, and that the price of wheat had fallen.
As for the peasantry, I need not repeat that they were able to purchase much land at a low price. It is impossible to set down precisely in figures the gain that they made, but it is well known that it was considerable. All the world knows that the Revolution abolished many heavy and vexatious taxes, such as tithes, feudal dues, forced labour, the salt-tax, some of which were never reimposed, and others only partially, and at a much later period. At this day we can scarcely imagine how hateful many of those taxes were to the people, either on account of their oppressiveness, or from the ideas with which they were connected.
In the year 1831 I was in Canada, and when conversing with the peasants of French extraction, I found that in their language the word taille (poll-tax) was synonymous with misery and evil. They call any great misfortune “a regular taille.” The tax itself I believe to have never existed in Canada; at any rate it had been abolished for more than half a century. Its meaning was even lost, the name alone remained in the language as a lasting proof of the horror that it had inspired.
Another fact, which has not sufficiently been noticed, is the less direct and regular, but not less real benefit conferred by the Revolution on many poor debtors. Their debts were not actually abolished in law, but soon afterwards they were reduced in fact by the issue of paper money.
It is now known that in many provinces in France the number of small proprietors was considerable, even before 1789. There is reason for thinking (although the fact cannot be absolutely proved) that most of these small landowners were involved in debt, for at that time they bore the chief burden of taxation. Now even, when the weight of contributing to the revenue is laid on all equally, that class still falls most into debt. The possessors of small encumbered estates nearly filled the towns, for France has always been a country abounding more in vanity and in wants than in wealth. We must note, that before the Revolution, as in our own day, the farmers formed a numerous class, because our farms are in general small. The rapid depreciation of paper-money operated universally, as if all securities had been thrown into the fire, and rents reduced to nothing. The disorder of the times, and, still more, the weakness of the administration, prevented even the debt to the State from being regularly or fully paid. The financial records of the Republic show that neither the old taxes which were retained nor the new ones that were imposed were ever completely collected. The State was maintained by means of assignats by payment in kind, and by the spoils of Europe. M. Thibeaudeau said with reason in his memoirs, “that the discredit of assignats, while it ruined the great proprietors and annuitants, made the fortunes of the peasants and farmers.”
“The country,” wrote in 1795 M. Mallet-Dupan, whom I have already quoted, “grows rich by the poverty of the towns; fabulous profits are made in it. A sack of flour pays the farmer’s rent. The peasantry have become calculating and speculating; they fight with each other for the lands of emigrants, and pay no taxes.”
A foreigner, evidently a man of talent, who was travelling in France at this period, wrote in his journal, “In France, at the present day, the rich aristocracy is the aristocracy of farmers and peasants.”
It is true that the peasant had to set against these advantages some oppressions incident to the times, the billetting of soldiers and requisitions in kind; but these partial and momentary evils did not prevent his enjoying the benefits of the Revolution. On the contrary, he became more and more attached to them, and he bore these annoyances as he bore storms and floods, for which a good estate is never abandoned, though they make the owner long for a fair season that will enable him to turn it to good account.
When one considers the means by which the originators of our first revolution succeeded in gaining the hearts of the agricultural classes, and with what substantial gifts they obtained the enthusiastic suffrage of the small farmers and lower classes (that is, of the masses) for their work, in spite of the misery and desolation of the period, one wonders at the simplicity of some democrats in our own day who thought that it would be easy to persuade a highly civilized people to submit patiently to the inconvenience inseparable from a great political change, by the bribe of freedom instead of that of plunder and profit.
The middle class (la Bourgeoisie), especially that of the towns, who began the revolution, was, of the victorious party, the class that had chiefly to bear the burden. Its personal sufferings were greater, and its substantial losses relatively almost as great as those of the nobles. Its trade was partially, its manufactures were totally destroyed. The small Government employments, and many other privileges belonging to it, were abolished, but the events which ruined it made it the governing class. The power of the State passed to it immediately, the fortune of the State soon followed. The greater part of the innovations which were suddenly produced by the violent and disorderly tyranny of the Revolution had been expected, extolled, and longed-for all through the eighteenth century. They satisfied the judgment and charmed the imagination even of those with whose interests they interfered. The only fault found with these innovations was that they had cost too dear. Even the price that had been paid rendered some of them still more precious. Much as France, therefore, feared and suffered, there was always one thing which seemed worse than present pain and anxiety; it was a return to the past.
Some ingenious modern writers have undertaken the defence of the Ancien Régime. My first remark is that it is a small proof of the excellence of a government when men wait to praise it till they have ceased to believe in the possibility of its restoration. But I judge of it, not from my own ideas, but from the feelings that it inspired in those who endured and overthrew it. All through the course of that cruel and tyrannical revolution I see hatred towards the Ancien Régime surpass in the heart of every Frenchman every other hatred, and so deeply rooted as to survive the object of its abhorrence, and from a passing impulse become a permanent instinct. I observe that during the most dangerous vicissitudes of the last sixty years, fear of the return of the Ancien Régime has always extinguished in our restless, excitable minds, every other fear. This is enough for me. The experiment, in my opinion, has been made.
The impossibility of forcing the French back into the former state of things was seen, indeed, almost immediately after they had escaped from it. Mirabeau proclaimed it from the first, and by many of the greatest enemies to the new institutions it soon was discovered. The following extract is from a little pamphlet published during the emigration, by M. de Montlosier (in 1796), and perhaps the most remarkable production of his vigorous and eccentric mind.
“Monarchy,” he said, “has sunk with the weight of our rights and privileges which clung to it for salvation. We must sacrifice our rights and privileges before it rises to the surface. We are assured that every one curses the Revolution; I am quite willing to believe it. I am only trying to find out if there is not some difference between cursing the Revolution and wishing to restore the ancient state of things. France wishes only to remain as she is, and to be at peace. No one will consent to lose the fruit of his talents or of circumstances. Generals will not again be privates, judges do not choose again to be constables, the mayors and residents of the department are not willing to be once more labourers or artizans, those who have obtained our fortunes are not likely to give them up. The thing is done, the Revolution cursed by the whole of France has spread over the whole of France. We must take this confusion as it is, find our places in it, and convince ourselves that it will not value us at our former price.”*
Most of the emigrants had different ideas. The mistakes of these royalists living abroad would appear to be inconceivable, if we did not know that they were brought up in the prejudices and illusions of an unpolitical aristocracy, and that they had long lived in exile. The punishment of exile is especially cruel in this respect, that, while it inflicts suffering, it teaches nothing.
It crystallizes, as it were, the minds of its victims, fixes in them the notions acquired in childhood, or those that were in vogue when they were exiled. For them the facts that occur, the new customs that are established in their country, do not exist. They stand still like the hands of a watch at the hour when it stopped. This is said to be an infirmity peculiar to the minds of certain exiles. I believe that it is a malady incident to exile, from which few escape.
The emigrants, then, lived in the imaginary enjoyment of their privileges, long after these privileges had been lost to them for ever. They were always thinking of what they would do when they should be reinstated in the possession of their estates and of their vassals, without remembering that Europe trembled before those vassals. Their chief uneasiness was not lest the republic might last, but lest monarchy should not be restored precisely such as it had been before its fall. They hated the constitutionalists more than the terrorists; they talked only of the just severity that they would exercise when they should return to power, and in the meantime they persecuted each other; in short, they omitted nothing that might maintain the detestation in which they were held; or that might give an idea to France of an ancien régime more odious than that which had been destroyed. Divided between fears of the royalists and of the Jacobins, the mass of the nation sought for an escape. The Revolution was loved, but the Republic was feared lest it should bring back the royalists or the Jacobins. We may even say that each of these passions nourished the other; it was because the French set great value upon certain benefits conferred upon them by the Revolution, that they felt all the more keenly the inconvenience that would result from a government which should interfere with their enjoyment of them. Of all the privileges that they had won or obtained during the last ten years, the only one that they were willing to surrender, was liberty! They were ready to give up the liberty which the Revolution had only promised, to enjoy at length in peace the other advantages that it had given to them.
All parties, indeed, reduced, cold, and weary, longed to rest for a time in a despotism of any kind, provided that it were exercised by a stranger, and weighed upon their rivals as heavily as on themselves. This stroke finishes the picture. When great political parties begin to cool in their attachments, without softening their antipathies, and at last reach the point of wishing less to succeed than to prevent the success of their adversaries, one must prepare for slavery—the master is near. It was easy to see that this master could rise only from the army.
It is interesting to follow throughout the different phases of this long revolution, the gradual advance of the army towards sovereign power. In the beginning, the army was dispersed by an unarmed populace, or, rather, fell to pieces in the rapid changes of public opinion. For a long time it stood aloof from all internal affairs. The population of Paris usurped the power of making and unmaking the rulers of France. Still the revolution goes on. The enthusiasm which it had inspired fades; the able men who had directed its course in the Assembly retire or die. The government relaxes; public opinion, stern in the early days of the Revolution, becomes weak, anarchy spreads in every direction. Meanwhile the army acquires consistency, experience and fame; great generals are formed. It retains a common object and common passions, while the nation has them no more. In short, the military and the civilians grow into two entirely distinct societies, within the same period and in the heart of the same nation. The chain that binds the one is drawn closer, while that which unites the other relaxes its hold.
On the 13th Vendémiaire, 1795, the army, for the first time since 1789, took part in internal affairs. It caused the victory of the Convention, and the discomfiture of the middle class in Paris.
In 1797, on the 18th Fructidor, it assisted the Directory in the conquest, not only of Paris, but of the legislative body, or rather of the whole country, by which that body had been chosen. On the 30th Prairial, 1799, it refused to support the very Directors whom it held responsible for its own reverses, and they fell before the Assembly.
After the 13th Vendémiaire, no government was possible without the army. Soon after, there could be no government except through the army. Having reached this point, it chose to assume the government itself. One step induced the other. Long before they were really masters, the soldiery adopted the tone and habits of command. A German-Swiss, a great partizan of the Revolution and friend to the Republic, who travelled in France in 1798, remarks with regret, that to judge from the military parade at the public festivals, the tyranny of the soldiers, and the insolence with which they repulsed the public, one would think that never in the Royal fêtes had so little respect been shown to the people.
The friends of the Republic, who perceived the growing influence of the army, consoled themselves by considering that the military had always exhibited ultra-republican passions, by which it seemed still to be violently agitated, while they had disappeared in the rest of the nation. What they took for love of the Republic was chiefly love for the Revolution. In fact, the army was the only class in France of which every member, without exception, had gained by the revolution, and had a personal interest in supporting it. Every officer owed his rank to it, and every soldier his hopes of becoming an officer. The army was, in truth, the Revolution roused and in arms. When it still wildly exclaimed,—“Long live the Republic!” it was only as a challenge to the ancien régime, whose adherents cried,—“Long live the King!” In reality it cared nothing for the liberties of the nation. Hatred to foreigners, and a love of his native land, are in general the only elements of the soldier’s patriotism, even in free countries; still more must this have been the case in a nation in the then state of France. The army, like almost every other army in the world, could make nothing of the slow and complicated movements of a representative government; it detested and despised the Assembly, because it was incapable of understanding any power that was not strong and simple, and all that it wanted was national independence and victories.
The recent revolution having thus prepared the way, it must not be supposed that a clear idea was formed of what was coming. There are moments when the world resembles one of our theatres before the curtain rises. We know that we shall see a new play. We already hear the preparations on the stage; the actors are close to us, but we cannot see them, and we know not what the piece is to be. In like manner, especially toward the end of the year 1799, the approach of a revolution was heard in every direction, though none knew whence it was to come. It appeared to be impossible for the existing state of things to continue, and seemed equally impossible to escape from it. In every correspondence of the time is this sentence: “things cannot remain as they are”—no more is added. Even imagination was exhausted. Men were tired of hoping and predicting. France abandoned herself to her fate; filled with dread, but overcome by languor, she looked wearily from side to side to see if no one could come to her aid. It was evident that this deliverer must rise from the army. Who could it be? Some named Pichegru, some Moreau, others thought that it would be Bernadotte.*
“Retired into the country in the heart of the Bourbonnais,” writes M. Fiévée in his memoirs, “one fact only recalled me to politics; every peasant whom I met in the fields, the vineyards, or the forest stopped me to ask if there were any news of General Bonaparte, and why he did not return to France; I was never asked any question concerning the Directory.”
[*]“On appelle la Patrie la Patraque,” are the French words. Patraque is slang for an old worn-out machine.—Tr.
[*]Similar causes produced a similar phenomenon at the close of the Empire. The condition of the working classes improved in the midst of our disasters.
[*]In a report on the debts of the emigrants, made in 1798 by the head of the “Bureau de liquidation,” Bergerat, we read that the debts of the emigrants from the Department of the Seine alone equalled in amount all the debts left by the emigrants in the other departments, because all the great landowners in France lived in Paris. Nothing can show better than this fact that the nobles had ceased to be a political aristocracy, and become merely a select society; they had exchanged real power for court favour.
[*]Towards the last, the approach of the catastrophe became so evident that even the amusements were interrupted in Paris. At the end of Fructidor, about two months before the 18th Brumaire, we find, in a literary journal of fashion, among various attempts at poetry, this advertisement, in which the frivolity, the anxieties, and the monstrous taste of the time are well painted: “We shall publish no new fashions till this crisis is over. At present fear and anxiety appear to have usurped the empire over our polished countrymen.”