Front Page Titles (by Subject) 244.: STATE OF OPINION IN FRANCE EXAMINER, 30 MAR., 1834, PP. 195-6 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIII - Newspaper Writings August 1831 - October 1834 Part II
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244.: STATE OF OPINION IN FRANCE EXAMINER, 30 MAR., 1834, PP. 195-6 - 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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STATE OF OPINION IN FRANCE
One of Mill’s more elaborate attempts to counter what he saw as prejudice against and ignorance of France, this leader in the “Political Examiner,” headed as title, is described in his bibliography as “An article headed ‘State of Opinion in France’ in the Examiner of 30th March 1834” (MacMinn, p. 39). It is listed in the Somerville College set of the Examiner as title. The article (except for the first and last paragraphs) was reprinted, in translation, with an introduction, in Revue Républicaine, 10 July, 1834, pp. 82-8, as “Opinion d’un Anglais sur l’esprit publique en France.”
the tory publications,Blackwood’s and Fraser’s Magazines, the Quarterly Review, and others, have frequently of late indulged in long-winded lamentations on the state of France, which by repetition have established a sort of claim to notice, since there is scarcely any misrepresentation which, if it be often repeated and never contradicted, does not find at last some persons to believe it.1 What they affirm is in substance this—that the second French Revolution has swept away what little of morality and religion the first had left; and instead of producing any advances in freedom or good government, has substituted for the mild, legal, and constitutional rule (as they term it) of the elder Bourbons, a most oppressive though an unstable despotism. Which proves the folly and wickedness of all revolutions, and of all attempts of the people to control the management of their affairs.
We shall say nothing at present on the state of France in respect to religion and morality, except that to a Tory and High Church observer, there must naturally appear to be none; since what there is of either, differs from his morality and religion, in most of those non-essentials which he has been taught to consider as the essentials. We mean now to confine ourselves to the political state of France, which is represented as so desperate. On this subject the Tories only repeat and exaggerate what we ourselves had said long before. At a time when English journalists were all but unanimous in their laudation of Louis Philippe and his principles of government, and invective against all against whom Louis Philippe’s stipendiary press inveighed, we alone protested against the delusion, and spoke out what is now admitted to be the truth, with respect to the man and his system. Yet we are firmly convinced that even now, under a government as arbitrary, as encroaching, and as much the enemy of popular institutions and social reforms as ever ruled in France with the forms of a constitution, the French nation is making advances in all the most important elements of good government and political improvement, unparalleled at any former period of history; and that for the rapidity of this progress she is wholly indebted to the late Revolution.
If, indeed, the beneficial results of a political convulsion are to be estimated by the improvements which it may immediately bring about in the institutions of a country, or the change which it may at once effect in the spirit which pervades the Government, the French Revolution of 1830 must be pronounced a failure. But if the Three Days of July had been as fruitful as they have hitherto been barren of this kind of improvement, what, after all, would it have amounted to? Something doubtless; but not much. Governments, and the acts of governments, are in themselves no good, but merely the means of good; and not the only, far even from being the principal, means. Governments, besides, are made by men, and can neither be better nor worse than the men who made them. “Governments and Constitutions,” says M. Comte in the Censeur Européen, “create nothing—they declare what already exists.”2 —A maxim false as to the ultimate effects of any government, but true of all governments when first established. Till they have fairly struck root, they are of importance far more as symptoms than as causes. That the French people, having the power, did not, in July 1830, establish a better government, proves that the national mind was not ripe for a better: it has been ripening since with wonderful rapidity, and its time will come. Improvement in the government is so sure to follow, and is of so little avail and so little likely to be durable if it precede, improvement in the national mind, that no government, however bad in spirit, which allows that to go on, gives much cause for regret or apprehension. And if that best improvement, which alone renders any other great improvement possible, be taking place as rapidly under the present men and measures as it could under any others, the better part of all which better men and measures could have produced, is already attained; and the rest may be waited for, not passively, for then it would never be had, but without any of the impatience of disappointment.
And such we conceive to be the fact. The public mind of France is now in a state of such rapid progress, that we question whether it could have improved more quickly, even if a better settlement had been made of the government in August 1830. The whole character of public discussion has changed. The Revolution and its consequences have filled the public mind with new ideas. That great event has set so many old questions at rest, that room has been made for new; and has excited a spirit which would not allow the blank to remain unfilled. It has carried discussion onward into another field. It has finally closed the volume of the eighteenth century, and has begun to inscribe that of the nineteenth with distinct and durable characters.
This change, both in the questions discussed and in the spirit of discussion, is equally visible, whether the subject be forms of government, or those great interests of man and society to which all questions respecting forms of government are merely subsidiary.
During the fifteen years of the Restoration, the popular party was altogether on the defensive. Impassable limits were prescribed to political improvement by the provisions of the Charter. To have made profession, or even submitted to the imputation, of a desire to introduce into France more liberal institutions than the Charter had given, was to forfeit all chance of political influence. The Charter itself was perpetually assailed, both covertly and indirectly; and to defend it against the ruling power, which, being the stronger was naturally the encroaching party, was sufficient occupation for the friends of popular government. As they knew that they could not hope for more than the Charter, and were never sure of retaining that, they made it their rallying point, and allowed it to be held sacred even in those of its provisions which they disapproved, that the Government might be forced to observe it in those which they approved. In this defensive position, entrenched behind a piece of parchment, there was little demand for the higher resources of intellectual warfare. Political discussion mostly turned upon a certain small number of ideas, revolving in one unvarying round. The question to be settled always was, Had the Charter been observed? From which an aspiring disputant occasionally ascended to the more comprehensive subject of inquiry, Whether the Charter ought to be observed? viz. whether so much liberty, and security for good government, as the Charter gave, ought to exist; not whether more. And then was to be tried over again daily the cause of the first Revolution. The dispute was, not what should be done now, but, whether what had been done in 1789, to annihilate the privileges of the Nobility and the political power of the Church, were well done? and whether the King and his Ministers were trying to undo it? and whether the means they used were or were not in accordance with the text of the Charter? These discussions certainly were not altogether unfruitful; they cannot be said to have done nothing towards educating the public mind. They helped to confirm the French in their antipathy to sacerdotal ascendancy, and to every description of hereditary rank: sentiments which being thus perpetually called into action, perpetually gained strength, and have taken the deepest root in the national character. By frequent discussion of the limits which a written constitution imposed upon the King’s will, the French became more and more attached to the forms of legal rule, and to a strict definition of the powers of the magistrate. But this was all: beyond these few points, not one great principle of government and social organization was usually appealed to. No progress was made in familiarizing the public mind even with the real essentials of a representative constitution; and the Three Days found the nation so unfurnished with any distinct conceptions on the subject, that months elapsed before it occurred to any one to think what an opportunity had been lost for securing to thirty-three millions of people a larger body of electors than eighty thousand. So backward was not only the popular mind, but even those superior intellects, which in France far more than in England carry the popular mind along with them. If they were so ill prepared on constitutional subjects, which they had thought of, they were still more completely at sea on the questions of detail and application, of which they had not thought. If they had once felt easy about their Charter, they would soon have bethought themselves that a Charter after all is not good laws, but merely permission to make them, and would have instantly set about using the permission. As it was, they never had a moment’s leisure during the fifteen years to think what use they should make of their Constitution when they had secured it. They were like the Roman legionary, who, stationed for twenty years in a distant province, fought for his country until he forgot that he had a country, for any purpose except to fight for.
But the Revolution of the Three Days was the date of a new era. It set free the national mind. Since then, the question has been, not how to defend what was already gained, but how to gain more. Improvement, and not Conservation, has been the prize contended for. The questions of a Hereditary Aristocracy and a Dominant Church are disposed of for ever: the last appeal has been made, it was to the sword, and it has been tried and decided. Louis Philippe, and the bourgeois Oligarchy on whom his power rests, will not repeat the mistake of Napoleon and the elder Bourbons, by encumbering themselves with those detested appendages. That a Government may be very detestable without them, was a lesson which the French people, for want of sufficient experience, had yet to learn, and in which Louis Philippe has proved himself an apt instructor. We question whether anything but the experiment they are now making could have convinced the French that the mischiefs of an Oligarchy do not depend upon its being this or that particular kind of Oligarchy, but upon its being an Oligarchy at all. This they were strangely ignorant of some few years ago. They are now seeing it every day more clearly. The prevailing political opinions, there as elsewhere, still leave much to be desired; but the more active and intelligent portion of the French public are beginning distinctly to perceive, that the first fundamental principle of good government in a civilized country, is protection against the sinister interests of the few by periodical accountability to the many. Nor do the advances which democratic opinions are now making among the French, arise, as is pretended, from a blind passion for equality; but from the exhibition which the now dominant class is constantly making before their eyes, of its own inherent selfishness and corruption.
And now, too, their lips are unsealed, and they dare avow that let Charters say what they may, less than good government will not content them, and good government they are determined to have. The Three Days have given them back the audacity which Leipzig and Waterloo had quelled.3 A dynasty the work of their own hands, and a Charter run up in a few hours to stop the gap made by a Revolution, do not suffice to overawe them.
An attempt has indeed been made to restrain the expression of political opinion within definite bounds, by the trite and vulgar expedient of making all persons in the exercise of a public function, even down to the electors of a village corporation, take an oath of fidelity to the constitution.4 When MM. Voyer d’Argenson and Audry de Puyraveau, after having, as deputies, taken this oath, avowed that they held opinions and pursued objects completely at variance with the Constitution, there was much very bad acting of vehement indignation.5 Some of those who joined in the outcry, had in the course of their lives sworn fidelity to as many as thirteen Constitutions. But they probably quieted their consciences with the reflection that they had kept their oath, by never failing in their allegiance to any government so long as it was the strongest; which MM. d’Argenson and de Puyraveau have done, and are consequently perjured.
Oaths of allegiance, empty formalities at all times, are most mischievous ones in an age of revolution, by confusing the boundaries of right and wrong, and accustoming men to trifle with the outward symbol of a solemn obligation. They are never observed, and never ought to be so: like our Custom-house oaths (recently abolished)6 and the oaths taken by students at our Universities,7 they may justifiably be considered as mere forms: their guilt, if guilt there be (though it is rather folly), is in imposing them, not in taking them and in violating them. If such oaths were binding, a Nero or a Charles IX might tie up the consciences of all honest men from resisting their tyranny.8 No honest man will accept favours, from a Government which he cannot honestly engage to support: but he will accept from electors the office of watching and controlling the Government. The distinction is broad and obvious. Governments may prescribe conditions to their servants, but not to their masters. If a Government is at liberty to enact that no one shall either elect or be elected a member of the Legislature without swearing to the entire Constitutional Law of the country, as printed in a book; and if no one who thinks any change in any part of this book advisable, feels himself at liberty to take the oath; no change can ever be effected by legal means, and no road is left open for improvement but through a violent revolution. If at our general election in 1831, every elector had been compelled to swear fidelity to the rotten boroughs, would it have been better to let the Reform Bill drop, or to carry it by pikes and muskets instead of votes, or to submit to the degrading formality of the false oath, publicly declaring it to be a mere formality?
The declaration of these two Deputies (men of the highest reputation for honor and integrity, both as men and as politicians), far from being immoral, is an indication of a great progress in the morality of public discussion. Men now speak out plainly; they declare with candour and simplicity their real sentiments, their ultimate purposes; and have discarded the timid, the reserved, the prudent (shall we say?) or the artful policy, to which the clever writers of the St. Simonian Globe gave the name of la comédie de quinze ans.* There are now no more disguises, no equivocations, no conventional hypocrisies. No one who does not really feel attachment to the first magistrate of the State, holds it necessary to speak of him in the language of loyalty and devotedness. No one who desires the entire abrogation of the existing Constitution and the establishment of a Republic, feels himself restrained from avowing his creed, and saying all that he has to say in defence of it: and it is avowed by Deputies in the Chamber, and systematically advocated by newspapers of the highest merit and character. If opinions subversive of the existing government are thus openly avowed by a powerful and rising political party, it may well be imagined that the freedom is complete for minor differences of opinion. With all the inclination in the world to stifle inquiry, the ruling power is unable to give it even the slightest check: nothing is protected from questioning: all the great principles of government and the social union are brought perpetually into play, either to be contested or to be applied: and the result is a sifting of opinions, and an increased mastery over the first elements of political science, to which there has been no parallel heretofore in France.
The improvement is perhaps most striking in this, that the active politicians, whether speculative or practical, no longer limit their interest, even their immediate interest, to forms of government: on the contrary, the tendency of the rising school of political reformers is, not indeed to be indifferent to forms of government, but to value them chiefly as means to some definite end: not for some supposed inherent excellence in themselves, which has been a very prevalent notion hitherto in France; not even as the surest means for attaining the public good, whatever that may happen to be; but as means for realizing some conception already entertained of good legislation and an enlightened management of the interests of society in detail. French politics, in short, are beginning to partake somewhat of the practical and business-like character of our own. The English indeed require correction the contrary way: under the notion of being practical, they are mechanical, literal, and narrow: what cannot be weighed or counted,9 is to them as if it did not exist. They leave out of their calculations almost entirely the influence of the general spirit of the institutions of a country, looking exclusively to the effect of the definite and tangible provisions. The French will never run into that extreme, and we congratulate them heartily upon the prospect of deliverance from the other.
Much more than we have said, and more than we have now room for, is necessary to give any adequate conception of the new spirit which has been infused into political speculation in France, and the altered character of the views now prevalent both on the principles and on the details of legislation and administration. But we must reserve the further prosecution of this subject, either for a separate article, or for occasional notices as suitable opportunities present themselves.
[1 ]See Archibald Alison, “France in 1833 (No. I): Its Political State,” Blackwood’s Magazine, XXXIV (Oct. 1833), 641-56, and “France in 1833 (No. II): Effects of the Revolution of the Barricades on Government, Religion, Morals and Literature,” ibid. (Dec. 1833), 902-28; Robert Benton Seeley [?], “Whig Foreign Policy,” Fraser’s Magazine, VI (Dec. 1832), 637-52; and John Wilson Croker, “French Revolution of 1830” (commented on in No. 213).
[2 ]“Considérations sur l’état moral de la nation française, et sur les causes de l’instabilité de ses institutions,” in Le Censeur Européen, 12 vols. (Paris: Au bureau de l’administration, 1817-19), Vol. I, p. 82.
[3 ]The battles of Leipzig and Waterloo, both crushing French defeats, took place on 16-19 Oct., 1813, and 18 June, 1815.
[4 ]By Bull. 6, No. 61 (31 Aug., 1830).
[5 ]For the episode, see No. 230, n3.
[6 ]Abolished by 1 & 2William IV, c. 4 (1831).
[7 ]For details, see No. 6.
[8 ]Nero (37-68), renowned for his profligacy, used murder and massacre to maintain his power; Charles IX of France (1550-74), was duc d’Orléans until, at the age of ten, he succeeded his brother, François II. The religious strife and secret plotting that distinguished his reign culminated in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.
[* ]This expression, we observe, has found favour in the eyes of English Tories, who, thinking it must mean something disgraceful, employ it ad invidiam, little knowing who were its authors, and neither knowing nor caring in what sense it was intended to be understood. The phrase was invented to characterize the conduct during the Restoration, of those Liberals who, disapproving of the existing Government, and not being permitted to speak or write anything which might bring it into discredit, adopted the only course which seemed left to them for effecting its subversion, by allying themselves with those who made their stand upon the Charter; and contended for the strict observance of the Constitution, not so much for its own sake, as because they in reality believed that its strict observance was incompatible with the Bourbon dynasty, who could only maintain themselves against the growing strength of public odium by perpetual violations of the Charter, and if precluded from these must certainly fall. [The phrase was first used in “Séance d’avant-hier à la cour des pairs,” Le Globe, 24 Nov., 1830, p. 1, and its popularity discussed in “La comédie de quinze ans,” ibid., 22 Apr., 1831, p. 1.]
[9 ]A variant of one of Mill’s favourite texts, taken from Coleridge, Second Lay Sermon (1817), in On the Constitution of Church and State, and Lay Sermons, ed. Henry Nelson Coleridge (London: Pickering, 1839), p. 409.