Front Page Titles (by Subject) 162.: THE CLOSE OF THE SESSION IN FRANCE EXAMINER, 6 MAY, 1832, PP. 291-2 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIII - Newspaper Writings August 1831 - October 1834 Part II
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162.: THE CLOSE OF THE SESSION IN FRANCE EXAMINER, 6 MAY, 1832, PP. 291-2 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIII - Newspaper Writings August 1831 - October 1834 Part II 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIII - Newspaper Writings August 1831 - October 1834 Part II, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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THE CLOSE OF THE SESSION IN FRANCE
This comment on the background and meaning of the legislative session, with its companion article, No. 172, employs a genre later used by Mill for British sessions (see CW, Vol. VI). The article, headed as title, is described in Mill’s bibliography as “An article headed ‘Close of the Session’ in the Examiner of 6th May 1832” (MacMinn, p. 21). In the Somerville College set of the Examiner it is listed as “The Close of the Session in France” and enclosed in square brackets; at 455.11 “ong” in “longer” is inked over, but no obvious correction can be inferred.
when the french chambers met, after the general election in June 1831, the situation of France and of the French Government presented many features of resemblance with the position of affairs at the opening of the States General in 1789.
There was not, indeed, as at the former period, an accumulated pile of the abominations of centuries, to be carted off and flung into the bottomless pit. The extirpation of evil had ceased to be the first and greatest good; the destroying angel had done his work, and a gentler and more beneficent spirit must henceforth preside over the accomplishment of the milder task which remained. Neither had the men of 1831, like the far greater men of 1789, to construct a Government, from the foundation upwards. There was a Government: in a degree more or less perfect, it was, and could keep itself, obeyed; and had therefore full leisure to look about it and think of deserving to be so. What is called a Constitution, too, that is, the bare walls and rafters and doorways, the mere carcass of the social edifice, had been bequeathed to the new French Legislature by its immediate predecessors. What is deemed the great question of Government, the question who shall govern, (not how), had been provisionally decided, by those who had accidentally found the sceptre lying at their feet, when it fell from the incapable hands of its former holders. The workman had got his new tools, and fit was it that he should try how he could work with them, ere he flung them away and looked out again for another set. To this extent, therefore, the position of the French Chambers differed from that of the Constituent Assembly; and was a far easier one. But in other respects the two were strikingly analogous.
In both, the sense of the whole nation, or of that part of it which the law presumed to be the fit guide and guardian of the remainder, had been appealed to; in the one case, after the happening of a revolution; in the other, under circumstances which were in themselves a revolution. In both, a call had been made upon the people to choose out all their best and wisest men, and send these to assemble in one place and consider what could be done to make the condition of the French Nation better. Both bodies were invited by the circumstances under which they were called together, to review all the institutions and the general political condition of their country. Both assembled at the opening of a new era; and on the will of each it mainly depended, what, in the first instance, the character of that era should be.
But the two bodies were very differently fitted, by talents and acquirements, for the task which lay before them.
The Constituent Assembly, with all their faults, were the élite of France. There was scarcely a man in the kingdom who had given public proof of integrity and abilities to the nation, or to his own province or district, who did not find a place in that illustrious body. The ruling spirits were inexperienced, which was not their fault; they were also vain and presumptuous, which was. But they were, almost to a man, persons whose talents would in any sphere of life have made them conspicuous; well versed in the best studies and the most valuable ideas of their age. If any one doubts this, he does not know them; he has not read, or has not understood, their speeches and writings. It is true, such culture as their age afforded had possessed the most of them thoroughly and deep-rootedly, with little besides this, that Evil was Evil. That it was possible to extinguish the Evil and yet miss the Good, was a lesson which they had not learned, but which their best and bravest were destined to leave to posterity written in their blood. Yet they warred against evil with an undaunted spirit, and did unflinchingly and effectually the great work of their own time.
The work of our time requires far greater men, and is likely, for all we can perceive, to devolve upon far smaller.
It is a very simple matter, if we will but consider it, to see when things as they are, are wrong: the signs of a vicious constitution of society glare obviously upon us: though men who have slept over their evils for centuries, are apt to think that they have accomplished something mirific, because, when their eyes are no longer shut, they can see. But to know the essentials of a healthy state of society, and what it is in the power of a government to do towards realizing these, is quite another affair. Whatever requires only that we shall see what now is, many may accomplish; but to conceive and foresee things yet to come, the results which will ensue hereafter from our actions now, so as to be able to translate a mere opinion that things go wrong, into a practical effort of any profitable kind to make them go right—is a faculty given in any high degree to very few, and which even in its lower degrees, seems to be but sparingly possessed by the present generation of public men in France. There is but little of it in the nation; and the legislature represents most imperfectly even that little.
For sixteen years previous to the Revolution in 1830, France had enjoyed a practically free press, and an approach to a representative constitution. During this period, the minds of her youth, absorbed as they have even morbidly been in political speculation and discussion, might have been expected to make some advances in political knowledge; for, in the absence, there as elsewhere, of any systematic instruction on such subjects, it is to the collision of opinions on the questions which practically arise, that mankind are indebted for such faint light as they anywhere see, and guide themselves by. But this improvement, the peculiar character of the battle which French patriotism had then to fight, in a great measure forbade. The contest for good Government, under the Restoration, was essentially conservative. The legitimists and divine-right men were then the innovators. The Liberal party were struggling, not to acquire further good, but to hold fast that which they had, against ever-repeated efforts, both open and covert, to take it from them. Consequently, by a strange and unhappy fortune, although the cause of Representative Government against feudal monarchy seemed finally won, and had been followed up even to judgment and execution, it was yet kept open for a perpetual rehearing, and no new cause was ever called on. Still the endless, and then and there almost profitless, dispute about the mere instrument of Government, occupied all tongues and all minds, to the exclusion of every thought about Government itself: to say nothing of the still greater problem, in what fashion man, well governed or not, is called upon to conduct himself in this world. Any question which seemed to have no immediate bearing on that preliminary one, “The Charter, or the ancien régime,” was all but overlooked. The natural consequence followed. While patriotism was busily and noisily engaged in defending the mere external rampart of French legislation, the watchful eye and quiet hand of private interest were ever at work moulding the whole interior of the structure to its purposes. It was in the years of fiercest anti-Bourbonism, that the most systematic and all-comprehensive system of commercial monopoly under the name of protection, which the world has seen for centuries, was silently organized and brought to perfection. And how much of the public mind was taken up with this, during the process? About as much as was bestowed upon the dismissal of a single public officer, for having voted against orders at an election.1 During the same period, the roads of France, which Napoleon left in good order, were allowed (the public voice remaining nearly silent) to fall into such a state of dilapidation, and the canals to remain so heavily taxed, that except near the great rivers or the sea, France could produce little either in agriculture or manufactures, save what could be consumed on or near the spot where it was called into existence. No one asked why France, for her extent and population, had neither internal nor foreign commerce deserving of the name. If even the almost total extinction of the Lancasterian schools made any noise during its progressive accomplishment, the cause was chiefly, that, in the minds of the Liberals, it was inseparably connected with Jesuitism and the Camarilla.2
We mention not these things for censure, but for the light they throw on what France at present is. We may well lament, not indeed that France, but that man, can seldom think earnestly on more than one thing at a time. But when the sole and indispensable instrument of all other political good, freedom of thought and of utterance, and its accompaniments, exemption from the iron yoke of a caste-oligarchy over the body, and of a retrograde priesthood over the soul, when these were possessions which, while they seemed irrevocably gained, did not the less require to be perennially battled for with all the energy of manhood; it must even be set down to the mere infirmity of our nature, that the French, in the engrossing interest of the contest for a form of government, found little leisure to think of those things for which forms of government were intended.
During the short respite which the Martignac Ministry afforded, (a truce which it was hoped might be the preliminary of a lasting peace), the minds of the French youth eagerly turned from thinking only of the tools, to think of the work itself; and a strong tendency to the study of the details of government, with a view to substantial improvements, was beginning to impress itself on the national mind. The accession of the Polignac ministry brought this march of improvement to a dead halt. And then came the Revolution of July: the greatest advance which any nation perhaps ever made by a single step—an advance which no one expected, and for which no one’s habits and ideas were prepared—a change which gave the French nation a clear field to build on, before they had possessed themselves of the materials to build withal; a leap, which cleared in an instant a space of many years journey; and transported France through mid-air, away from the scenes with which she was familiar, into regions unvisited and unknown.
Nothing worse has ensued than ought to have been expected. The peculiarities of the French character render public opinion (when such really exists) in that country more even than elsewhere, all but irresistible: but there has been no public opinion since the Revolution of July; only public discontent and irritation, and a voice perpetually crying out “Do something,” but not telling what to do, not having any thing to tell. On one point, and no more, since the accession of Louis Philippe, has there been in France a public opinion: this was the Hereditary Peerage:3 and on this, accordingly, the Government, though with the worst grace in the world, yielded: it had no choice: and it will yield every thing which shall hereafter be demanded with like energy of conviction by the French people; but, unfortunately, the French people have not yet known what else to ask; their time, however, is coming.
Men have not always convictions, but they have always interests: with difficulty enough controlled even by the firmest convictions, but paramount and omnipotent wheresoever there are none. Accordingly, the most remarkable feature in the French literature of the day, whether books or newspapers, is the unceasing complaint proceeding from every earnest mind, that there is no faith, no strong persuasion of any kind; an all-pervading scepticism; nobody feeling sufficiently certain of what he calls his opinion, to be willing to part with five pounds because of its truth; and even the men from whom such conduct was least to be expected, sacrificing what seemed their most cherished principles of action for place or favour. Yet these are probably not bad men, nor incapable, even yet, of sacrifices for conscience sake. They have simply nothing for which their conscience commands them any sacrifice. The plain fact is, man doubts of every thing else, but feels perfectly certain that he has a stomach; for amidst all the changes of religious, moral, and political creeds, and even during the interval betwixt one creed and another, these truths remain eternally recognizable—that man lives by bread, and that sugar is pleasant to the palate.
In all this, France is neither worse, nor worse off, than other countries; she has only got forward into another phasis of the change which all Europe is passing through, and of which we ourselves are in the earlier stages, but which, we may trust, is destined to be softened to us by the example of our predecessors. The difference with us is, that more of the old house will probably be left standing until the new one is ready: but who is to build the new one, here any more than there? or who has arrived at any clear notion even of the principles of its construction? Whether the resting-place in which the mind provisionally houses herself, be an old ruin, or a temporary shed, certain it is that she never feels herself at home in it, but dwells in an uneasy uncertainty until Thought and Experience have enabled her to erect for herself a permanent abode. But for this, time is required; and it must be given.
In the meanwhile, for want of clear guiding perceptions to incite or to restrain, such activity as is still to be met with will be the result of passion and instinct. The young and ardent, who hope eagerly, and know not such a feeling as self-distrust, will be impatient and angry because nothing, or less than they expected, is done:—having, themselves, as yet, mostly nothing to propose but this, “Let the people decide:” as if those maxims of political wisdom which they, the friends and leaders of the people, have hitherto failed to discover in their own heads, were to be brought to light of a sudden through some magical incantation by means of balls in a balloting-box. On the other hand, the old and timid, but especially the class possessed of property, will be palsied by a nervous dread of innovation. They who have aught to lose—until improvement is brought before them in a palpable shape, so that they fancy they can see and touch all its consequences—are instinctively its enemies; for they love not a leap in the dark, and, it must be owned, do not trouble themselves greatly to seek for light, feeling easy in their bodily attitude where they now are, and unhappily being apt to esteem that the principal, or the only essential point. But by degrees, as the thinking minds of a country throw more and more light upon question after question, the demands of the one party become more definite and circumspect, the terrors of the other abate, and they lend a more willing ear to what originally appalled them; until, at length, not at one stroke, but by a series of partial efforts, new and wiser systems of policy are bodied forth and wrought into the people’s minds, and the practice of the state insensibly moulded thereon.
In spite of superficial appearances, in themselves affording no materials for right judgment, and seen besides with purblind and jaundiced eyes by the newspaper-writers of all parties in England; the public mind of France is already making a perceptible progress towards this desirable consummation. Great indeed are the obstacles, and long will it be ere they are entirely overcome: yet even now, not a day passes without some fresh indication of the good which is silently preparing: a sensible brightening has long indicated the commencement of the twilight which precedes the rising of the sun. Many are the new and practically important ideas which have for the first time been thrown into general circulation within the last year; and along with the increased tendency to the more directly applicable parts of the art of government, may be plainly discerned the natural accompaniment of a more careful study of that art—an increasing sense of its difficulties. It is chiefly from the press, that we gather these satisfactory indications. Such marks are not indeed wholly wanting in the Chambers also, but are almost imperceptible, and would not, perhaps, be detected there by any person who had not previously observed the same tokens elsewhere. For in this, as in all else, the French Legislature is but an indifferent representation of the good sense, the talent, or the acquirements of the nation, or of anything else therein which deserves to be represented. The proofs that it is so, deduced from the history of its last session, and the reasons why it must be so, drawn from its own constitution, we shall next lay before our readers. Be this, however, the work of a separate, and a future article.4
[1 ]Joseph Pierre Lafontaine (1792-1858), a chevalier of the Legion of Honour (1813), a capitaine d’état major at Dijon, was notified in 1822 by the general commanding his division that he should vote for the ministry; he refused, voted for the opposition, and was imprisoned for sedition.
[2 ]A term applied to the clique of royal courtiers and flatterers who influenced policy.
[3 ]For details, see No. 115, n1.
[4 ]See No. 172.