Front Page Titles (by Subject) V: The Aftermath - David Hume: Prophet of the Counter-revolution
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V: The Aftermath - Laurence L. Bongie, David Hume: Prophet of the Counter-revolution 
David Hume: Prophet of the Counter-revolution (2nd ed.), Foreword by Donald W. Livingston (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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The counter-revolutionary use of Hume’s History of the Stuarts as a bible of unshakeable prophecies, complacently illustrating the irrationalism and ineradicable sins of human nature, the implacable “force of things,” and the inevitable failure of all revolutions, continued with perhaps even greater intensity in the last five years of the century. Disheartening to some revolutionists too was the fact that political events as they progressed seemed to lend a new respectability to the fashionable science of historical analogies as more and more of the royalist predictions were, in appearance at least, fulfilled.
On the whole, however, few republicans showed signs of discouragement. Although leaders of the Right flattered themselves with the hope of restoration and pointed again and again to the failure of the English republican experiment, those on the Left, now publishing parallels of their own, staunchly denied the validity of such royalist hopes.
Much of this republican optimism seems to have been based on the belief that the established church, acknowledged as the throne’s chief support, was now gone forever. Such, for example, is the opinion of Jean-Jacques Leuliette, writing in 1797: “. . . if I could hazard an opinion, I would say that the return of the monarchy is impossible in France, that its very foundations have been overturned, that if this colossus were to rise again one day, it would stand, like the statue of Nebuchadnezzar, only on feet of clay. James Stuart once uttered a profound maxim: no Bishop, no King and there is no likelihood that the reign of superstition will be easily restored. . . .”1
Republicans were generally confident on this last point. Neither the Church nor the monarchy could ever return to power. Also writing in 1797, the idéologue Roederer explained just why there was no need to fear a religious revival. His reasons, given only a few years before the appearance of the Génie du Christianisme and the ratification of the Concordat, are worth noting and invite certain reflections on the advantages held, temporarily at least, by the empirical conservatives of the opposing camp who spoke so lovingly of the inertia in the nature of things and who went on making their hopeful historical parallels:
Do you know that in France there are two million copies of Helvétius, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu, and that every day one hundred thousand pages of philosophy are read in France? Do you not think that it would be difficult to destroy entirely the power of these men, even if their works were no more than part of the personal furniture of a host of people? No one likes to see his library, the books that adorn his room, degraded. Certainly, the morocco leather, the vellum bindings, the gold tooling of our Voltaire and Montesquieu volumes weigh in our favour. Ask the old lawyers who looked on with such regret as some of the worst laws were being abolished if part of their concern was not because of their libraries.2
Confidence in the future of the new Republic and the reasoned hope that it would consolidate its forces now that the days of anarchy were over thus seem to have been the prevailing attitude on the Left at this time. Some republicans, however, despite such assurances, did in fact worry about the Stuart parallels. Typically concerned was Antoine Boulay de la Meurthe, a member of the Conseil des Cinq-Cents, who in December 1797 became president of the Assembly. Although Boulay had himself narrowly escaped the Terror, he became in this post-Terror period a strong advocate of harsher measures against refractory priests and against members of the nobility who had not emigrated. Such measures are best described as indicative of his own pronounced fears of a counter-revolution. At his suggestion even, a special promise not to aid in attempts to restore the monarchy was added to the oath of civil officers at this time.
It can safely be said, I think, that much of Boulay’s preoccupation with the dangers of a counter-revolution came to him from his study of Stuart history.
The English republic had not survived because, obviously, the English had made mistakes. But what were those English mistakes? As an answer to this question, Boulay published in 1798 his popular essay showing the causes of failure in the English revolution.3
The basic implication of Boulay’s work is that the art of revolution is a difficult one—more difficult certainly than was admitted by those who had nursed France’s great social experiment through its earliest years. The English had faced the same original problem. They too had overthrown the monarchy in hopes of destroying despotism: “One of the more immediate causes of this revolution was monarchical despotism, elevated to a great height by the princes of the House of Tudor and imprudently sustained by the House of Stuart that followed.”4 They had failed to maintain their republic, however, because of rigorous extremism. The English republic would have survived if patriots had steered a middle course between the servile policies of the royalists—which Hume, Boulay asserts, despite all his airs of impartiality, obviously supports—and the fanatical conduct of the extreme Left wing. Boulay admits, of course, that some harsh measures were necessary at the time:
However much one might wish to take pride in moderation, it would be difficult to deny that, once the revolution was accomplished, the people’s leaders had every right to repress the royalist party by reducing it to a situation where it could do no harm. When a political change has been carried out in the interests of the people and with their approval, it is obvious that all necessary measures to consolidate it are not only authorized but required by justice, not that distributive justice which operates among individuals, but general justice that sees to the preservation and the happiness of societies, whose acts, though always advantageous to the majority, may at times not seem favorable to the minority.5
But having gone this far, Boulay warns, leaders of revolutions must be careful to go no farther. Harsh measures must be restricted to what is absolutely necessary: “The fine art of revolution is to attain your goal while doing the least possible harm.”6 The delicate trick of survival entails giving only a half-turn to the political wheel, which must come to rest at precisely the right point, that is, before the necessity of reaction sets in. There are implications in the following passage which make it possible for us to understand how republicans were soon able to reconcile in their minds both the Revolution and the arrival of Bonaparte—however much they were to murmur eventually at the title of Emperor:
One of man’s greatest needs, and, especially, one of the greatest needs of any society, is the need for tranquillity. . . . One of the first duties of government is thus to secure the public peace, not the kind of peace sometimes provided by despotism and which resembles too closely the peace of the graveyard, but rather, the peace that combines with dynamic action in proportions that are most salutary for both the body politic and its individual members, such peace being always the fruit of liberty wisely and firmly regulated by the constitution and by laws.7
Disagreeing with Boulay de la Meurthe’s position on several points but supporting basically his view that extremism could only harm the Revolution, the young republican Benjamin Constant in an earlier work had also invoked Stuart history to warn France of the dangers of counter-revolution.
First of all, Constant maintained, it was a mistake to say that the English revolution had failed. Confusion had arisen on this question because it was assumed that the French and English revolutions had had similar goals:
When we attempt to measure the success of revolutions—the product of ideas—we sometimes confuse their secondary and primary goals. We assume, for example, that the revolution of 1648 in England failed because the monarchy was later restored. But it was not the idea of a republic that sparked the revolution, it was the idea of religious freedom. The notion of a republic was no more than an accessory goal, and in this respect the revolution fell short.8
Even though an ideological identity did not exist, there were important lessons to be learned from Stuart history by those who wished to maintain the Republic in France:
The English revolution, which was essentially an attack on popery, having gone beyond its goal by abolishing royalty, provoked a violent reaction: twenty-eight years later a second revolution was required to forestall the restoration of popery. The French Revolution, which was essentially an attack on privilege, having likewise gone beyond its goal by attacking property, has now provoked a terrible reaction and there will be need for, not another revolution, I hope, but for much precaution and extreme care to ensure that privilege is not reinstated.9
Stuart history shows, according to Constant, that the greatest difficulties are encountered when one attempts to restore to its just and moderate limits a revolution that has gone too far. The political pendulum swings an equal distance in both directions. Repressive reaction equal to former excess is a constant threat. It was to warn against the dangers of such a reaction that Benjamin Constant added his own remarks to Boulay’s treatment of the English revolution. Boulay had described the oppressive extremes of the English revolutionaries; he had not, however, sufficiently emphasized the greater horrors perpetrated by those who subsequently restored the monarchy. This was, Constant urged, the lesson of Stuart history that called for France’s immediate attention:
The present state of the republic has been an additional reason for me to undertake this work. Men of every party, in their books and in their speeches, seem to be saying that a transition would be desirable, that coming to terms would be possible. I would like to demonstrate that contractual agreements between the republic and royalty are never more than deceitful arrangements intended to disarm those targeted for punishment; that compromises with kings are always without guarantee; that the same impulses that argue for a restoration of the monarchy lead invariably to overturning the barriers with which one hopes to limit monarchical power; finally, that the nation that does not know how to live without a master knows even less how to keep him in check.10
To prove these points, Constant proposed to quote authorities who could not be suspected of republican bias. He deftly agrees to leave aside Mrs. Macaulay’s account and promises to use the royalists Clarendon and Hume. Even these historians, he implies, had found it impossible to veil the atrocities of the bloody Jefferies and Kirkes. What is more, the force of this English lesson had to be multiplied several times over for proper application to circumstances in France, since conditions in England had been of such a nature as to soften the violence of counter-revolution.
. . . what attentive reader will not be struck by the differences that distinguish our current situation from what prevailed in England at the time, differences that would make the restoration of the monarchy a thousand times more dangerous here? . . .
To forestall the counter-revolution, to maintain the republic, is thus in the common interests of all Frenchmen of every class. Why then is there this universal indifference, this pervasive lethargy, in which the people, despite the dangers that surround them, seem to be submerged?11
As we have already noted, not all republicans were as worried about the Stuart parallels as Constant and Boulay seem to have been. Commenting in the same year on Boulay’s work, J.-B. Salaville objected that such a show of uneasiness was bad for the morale of republicans generally, and politically most unwise. Boulay had no doubt been well intentioned in his desire to warn the French by citing the failures of the English revolution. But however laudable his motives were, he was guilty in effect of telling his compatriots that much of what they had already accomplished was somehow invalid and that the course of the revolution would have to be changed. Was this not, Salaville asked, the very line preached by French royalists who also liked to talk about the revolutionary failures of the English? Had not Boulay unwittingly played into the hands of the counter-revolutionaries? “I am assured,” Salaville asserted, “that your work has had an effect quite different from what you expected; that it has discouraged republicans, the sincere friends of liberty; that, conversely, it has singularly revived the hopes of royalists because of the resemblance they think they can see between the English revolution and what has just taken place here, a conformity that sufficiently guarantees in their eyes the counter-revolution they yearn for.”12
France’s republicans had to be encouraged, not told that their efforts had been wasted. Royalists, on the other hand, had to be stripped of any comforting and politically dangerous illusions. The best way to effect both of these salutary measures was, in Salaville’s opinion, to prove that the English and French revolutions, which even republicans now seemed to see as “perfectly similar,” were in fact quite dissimilar and that nothing at all could be concluded from the one to the other except perhaps that re-establishment of the monarchy in France, in any form whatever, was henceforth an impossibility.
To begin with, the English would not have had a revolution had it not been for the disagreement over religion. This in itself, Salaville maintained, was enough to show that the French and English revolutions were quite different. England’s quarrel over religion could have been resolved without a political revolution. France’s revolution, on the other hand, had grown out of the vicious socio-political structure of the ancien régime; a political revolution had been absolutely necessary to change that structure.
Salaville also repeated—only a few months before the 18th Brumaire—the arguments so popular with those members of the Convention who during Louis’s trial had rejected the Stuart parallel:
I think one could successfully argue that there has never been a republic in England. Cromwell was already king when Charles mounted the scaffold; there is nothing more to be seen in that event than the elimination of one despot by his competitor. The same thing has occurred in countless monarchies. . . . Hiding under the Protectorate label, royalty became all the more absolute, and in the end, when Cromwell was allowed to name his successor, it was even made hereditary.
In France royalty was abolished both in law and in fact; no individual took it upon himself to assume under any title whatever the former occupant’s place; the generals stayed with their armies. . . . No revolution had ever before provided such an example. . . .13
The 18th Brumaire was, of course, and very soon, to spoil even this splendid example. Once again we are forced to think, with all our advantages of hindsight, of Roederer and the warm sense of security he felt as he contemplated the two million copies of Voltaire, Helvétius, et cetera, that existed in France, providing an “insurmountable” barrier to the religious revival! The makers of parallels frequently showed, it must be admitted, less innocence at least in their empirical prophecies. Innocence too is perhaps the word that best characterizes Salaville’s apparent inability to equate more meaningfully the factor of religion in the seventeenth century with that of politics one hundred and fifty years later. He illustrates the deficiency well in the following criticism of Boulay:
Moreover, Citoyen représentant, these factions or these parties that, especially in your work, seem to bear such a striking resemblance to those created by our Revolution, might very well, after fairly rigorous analysis, turn out to be quite different in both their principles and procedures; everyone has seen in your Presbyterians the equivalent of our Fédéralistes or Modérés, and in your Independents those we have specifically labeled Jacobins; but the fact is that the Presbyterians and the Independents, in conformity with the spirit of the English revolution, were bigots and fanatics, concerned mainly with religion; politics had only a subsidiary rôle as a means to achieve the changes they wished to see made in their forms of worship; there is not much there that resembles the motivating forces which inspired in turn our own various parties.14
With the concluding thought that Salaville, even for his day, was perhaps too exclusive in his application of the terms bigot and fanatic, let us turn now to those whom he described as sighing for the counter-revolution and as excessively comforted by the belief that what had happened in England was happening even then in France.
Waiting for General Monk
The Abbé Duvoisin in his Défense de l’ordre social contre les principes de la Révolution Française (1798) gives, along with the usual history-inspired theocratic account of the origin of society, perhaps the most precise expression to the royalists’ counter-revolutionary hopes at this time. God is the author of society in the sense that he made man a social creature. Hereditary monarchy gives the best demonstration of this natural form of government; the “force of things” as evidenced in the reassuring example of Stuart history must inevitably return the French to their old régime:
Similar to the English republic in its origins, the French Republic will likewise end in the same manner. After the death of Cromwell, England, tired of both parliamentary anarchy and protectoral tyranny, saw in the restoration of the slain king’s son its only hope for peace. The Directoire, which subjugated the legislative body, which destroyed all national representation, which stripped the people of all their constitutional rights, the Directoire is the Cromwell of the French Republic. It will fall, and with it will disappear all that remains of the republic, its nomenclatures and its forms. . . .
Monarchical government is a restorative for nations that are exhausted by civil discord.15
Duvoisin then provides hints, drawn from his knowledge of Stuart history, as to how France’s government would become legal once more:
Zealous or ambitious generals, armies that have been enticed away, have lent their support to the Directoire against the nation. In the midst of these same armies, a more noble and enlightened ambition may raise up a Monk who, as he unfurls the royal standard, will see himself as the leader and liberator of the nation. . . .
If the past can provide us with conjectures for the future, history abounds with actions that seem to justify the hopes of the friends of religion and royalty. . . .16
That the counter-revolution would be the work of a few men was also the opinion of Joseph de Maistre in his famous Considérations sur la France, published in 1796, two years before Duvoisin’s work.
When we advance hypotheses regarding the counter-revolution, we too often commit the error of thinking that the counter-revolution will be, and can only be, the result of a popular decision. . . . How pitiful! The people play no rôle in revolutions, or at least they are involved only as passive instruments. Perhaps four or five persons will be responsible for giving France a king. . . . If the monarchy is restored, the people will not be involved in its reinstatement any more than they were involved in its destruction or in the establishment of a revolutionary government.17
Benjamin Constant had warned republicans that a counter-revolution would be bloody and vengeful, and he had cited Hume’s History to prove this. De Maistre, also writing with the pages of Hume’s Stuarts open before him, sees the exact opposite to be the case. He soothingly reassured his republican enemies that the restoration would be forgiving:
It is a very common piece of sophistry these days to insist on the dangers of a counter-revolution in order to show that we must never go back to the monarchy. . . .
Are people perhaps convinced that . . . because the monarchy was overturned by monsters it must be reinstated by men who are their counterparts? Oh! may those who employ this sophism do it full justice by looking closely into their own hearts! They know that the friends of religion and of the monarchy are incapable of committing any of the excesses that stained the hands of their enemies. . . .18
A return to the monarchy, far from producing such evils, would put an end to the maladies afflicting France. Only the forces of destruction, de Maistre blithely asserts, would be destroyed. Were there foolish sceptics among his readers who still remained unconvinced? For these he marshals his weightiest arguments, the evidence of history:
. . . let us at least believe in history, history which is experimental politics. In the last century, England presented more or less the same spectacle that we see in France today. The fanaticism of liberty, fired up by religious fanaticism, penetrated men’s souls there much more deeply than it has in France where the cult of liberty is based on nothingness. What a difference, moreover, in the character of the two nations and in the actors who played a rôle on the two stages! Where are, I will not say the Hampdens, but the Cromwells of France? And yet, in spite of the blazing fanaticism of the English republicans, in spite of the austere determination of the national character, in spite of the well-deserved fears of many guilty persons, and especially of the army, did the restoration of the monarchy in England cause the kind of divisions that were generated by the regicide revolution? Show us the atrocities, the vengeful reprisals of the English royalists. A few regicides perished by authority of the law, but no battles took place, no individual scores were settled. The king’s return was marked only by a great cry of joy that was heard throughout England. Enemies embraced, and the king, surprised at what he saw, exclaimed with great emotion: It must surely have been my own fault that I have been absent so long from such a good people! . . .19
After citing that impartial historian David Hume as his source, de Maistre in aphoristic style defines the one great truth he wished the French to make theirs: “The restoration of the monarchy, which is called a counter-revolution, will not be a contrary revolution, but the contrary of the revolution.”20
De Maistre saw Stuart history, properly interpreted, as a marvellous specific against the unfounded fears of even the guiltiest republicans. They had no need to be anxious about a future restoration of the monarchy. That Stuart history could also give unique hope and assurance to long-suffering royalists is made equally clear by the last chapter in de Maistre’s book, the title of which is self-explanatory and needs no further comment. It is called, quite simply, “Extract from a History of the French Revolution, by David Hume.”21
There was little doubt in the minds of most royalists that the French revolution was going exactly the way of its English predecessor. The only question that remained involved the length of time the whole inevitable process would take. Was it necessary, for example, for the French Republic to pass through the Cromwell phase? Was it not possible that the Cromwell era had already occurred? We remember that Duvoisin had seen the Directoire in 1798 as the equivalent of Cromwell although, earlier still, others had maintained that Robespierre was Cromwell and that counterrevolutionary France had to make itself ready to welcome its General Monk.
Charles de Villers expressed the belief in 1798 that this last opinion attributed possibly too much importance to Robespierre, who is described in a dialogue by de Villers as newly arriving in hell and greeting the English Protector as follows:
“I have been looking for you ever since I got here. The striking resemblance of our two destinies, the conformity of our projects, of our methods and our talents, naturally draws us close to each other and prompts us to reminisce together about the great events that we set in motion.”
Much offended, Cromwell disagrees and scornfully points out that Robespierre is nothing more than a “minor rabble-rouser, a market- stall schemer”:
Time would indeed tell. Mallet du Pan, perhaps the wisest royalist spokesman in this period, indicated in December 1798 that the answer to de Villers’s question was close: “The Directoire,” he stated, “is now at the stage Cromwell was in when he drove out Parliament. There is no Cromwell in France, but the similarity of situations requires a similar outcome.”23
Not long after this, however, he began to express important doubts about the tactical wisdom of counting on such parallels: “To try to throw light on the history of the revolution by these means is to demonstrate that one is quite ignorant of its true character.”24 Not only were there bad analogies involved; politically speaking, the parallels made the counter-revolution seem just a little too easy: “It is asking much to suggest to the individual who has barely managed to save his life and his few rags from Robespierre’s executioners that he should once more trust his fate to the hazard of events! It takes a rare combination of circumstances to retemper a man’s spirit once it has been broken.”25 The Stuart parallel was especially harmful if, as seemed to be the case, it encouraged royalists merely to sit back and wait complacently for the English restoration to be duplicated automatically in France. Much active preparation had to be carried out:
The elements of a huge royalist party are there but the party itself—without leaders, without concerted effort, without funding, without weapons, without power, without gathering places—the party itself is yet to be formed.
Four fifths of all Frenchmen detest their government; but, as David Hume rightly points out, the English royalists living under the republic made the mistake of thinking that all those who complained about the new regime were supporters of the monarchy. . . .
The King of France has fewer enemies to vanquish than he has uncaring self-servers to convince; it is less a question for him of urging royalists on to action than it is a matter of creating them: reducing the number of those opposed to his authority will be his most useful victory.26
Mallet du Pan, himself an active agent of the counterrevolution, is probably one of the few royalists at this time who, for various reasons, felt it was necessary to abandon the fashionable parallel. Speaking of this current “abuse of similitudes,” he made the following objection:
Heaven preserve the cabinets of Europe and the councils of Louis XVIII from deluding themselves with these romantic parallels. A schoolboy could easily discern the crude similarities that seem to equate the two revolutions; but it is the tableau of their differences that must be examined by anyone dedicated to annihilating the French Republic.
It was not necessary to arm Europe, or to invade England with foreign troops, to bring about a restoration whose constituent parts were already in place and well matched to the task. When you compare these with the rubble to which the customs and institutions of old France have been reduced, when you see in England the nobility, the clergy, and nearly all English gentlemen continuing to occupy their homes, retaining their titles and their lands as well as the respect and admiration of the public, when you contrast the intense spirit of religion, the manners, customs, and laws of England, the judiciary powers, the national character, the character of the army, when you hear Cromwell address a member of the Upper House who appeared before him as Milord, when you set all that off against the catastrophic ruins under which France lies buried, you throw all of your parallels into the fire and yield to the realization that identifying the specific combination of factors that will bring France back to its original state might well be an entirely new problem under the sun.27
Mallet du Pan’s warning about the potential dangers of such comparisons seems to have had little effect. English-French parallels, almost all foretelling the imminent appearance of a French General Monk, became the hackneyed prediction and commonplace hope of much émigré literature, threatening even to grow to the proportions of an elegant literary genre. Sometimes the treatment was very light indeed, as can be seen in the following passage, judged by its author Pierre-Jean-Baptiste Nougaret as a “curious and intriguing piece, worthy of being considered part of our history”:
Referring to the time when the parties divided the British Isles, when its citizens were at war with one another and blood flowed everywhere, Hume writes of two citizens who presented themselves to the king, “with lean, pale, sharp, and dismal visages: faces so strange and uncouth; figures, so habited and accoutred, as at once moved [according to Lord Clarendon] the most severe countenance to mirth and the most cheerful heart to sadness. . . .”
Do we not have here a portrait of our hideous Jacobins, dirty, disgusting, wearing short jackets called carmagnoles, long breeches or trousers, their grimy, greasy hair topped with a fur cap or a red woollen bonnet like those of galley slaves, the same colour as the blood they loved to shed so abundantly, wide moustaches, gaunt and hollow cheeked from the forced abstinence of their recent state of beggarliness and poverty?28
Admittedly, we are not dealing here with the most ponderous examples of the genre, and Nougaret derived few great prophecies from his observation that both Round Heads and Jacobins had the bad taste to be cosmetically below standard. Other parallels pretended, however, to greater things. Chateaubriand in his Essai sur les Révolutions (1797) states that the Jacobins directly imitated the English execution of Charles I when they put Louis XVI to death: “I dare to go even further: if Charles had not been decapitated in London, Louis, in all probability, would not have been guillotined in Paris.”29 Supporting such claims, Rivarol complained at the turn of the century that only the leftist leaders had taken the trouble to learn from previous revolutions. He affirmed, even, that he had personally seen members of the Constituent Assembly in 1789 reading Stuart history for the first time “to see how the Long Parliament dealt with Charles I.”30
The 18th Brumaire, immediately viewed by many royalists as a first step in the long-awaited fulfilment of the great prophecy, rallied immensely the hopes of those who had been carefully tending their parallels: “Royalists are thinking of Monk,” wrote Rivarol, “and are more in favour of Bonaparte than the democrats; meanwhile, he is fawned over like Necker, Lafayette, and Pétion.”31 Even the head of the counter-revolutionary party, Louis XVIII, at first expressed the hope that Napoleon would be magnanimous enough to play the rôle of Monk. On Bonaparte’s refusal to be so generous and after a later counter-proposal from the French consul à vie that Louis XVIII renounce his claim to the throne in exchange for certain indemnities, the latter turned to an equally common practice of the day, that of calling Bonaparte a Cromwell. As the French monarch in exile explained to Cardinal Maury in 1803: “. . . if Cromwell, after conquering Jamaica, had offered it to Charles II, he could not have accepted it: it would have implied recognition of the Protector’s legal existence. My case is the same. . . .”32
Bonaparte’s own “republican” admirers felt that all the modern parallels were too confining when it came to describing the greatness of the French Consul. The younger Lacretelle, for example, made this sentiment dramatically clear in 1802:
Because of his astonishing destiny he has been compared to every extraordinary man who has ever appeared on the world’s stage. I can see no one in recent times who resembles him.
I’m told that a few superficial or malicious observers have compared him to Cromwell. Some lunatics hope he is a new General Monk. France and Europe find in him a striking resemblance to Caesar.33
The truth is, of course, that the epithet Cromwell was still seen as highly insulting by everyone in France at this time. Jean-Baptiste Say, writing in La Décade in 1801, indignantly took to task Sir Francis d’Ivernois for having made the “comparison, so threadbare and so false, between our Bonaparte and Cromwell. The name Cromwell,” he added, “has always been used to stigmatize the friends of every kind of reform. During the American war it was applied to Washington; even before our revolution it became the appanage of Fox, and during the Constituent Assembly, if I’m not mistaken, the label was applied to Lafayette, who deserved it even less than the others.”34
Decidedly the tag of Caesar was better. There would be no rest ahead for the French if Bonaparte was a Cromwell. Cromwell inspired fear; Bonaparte inspired admiration and hope. “The one destroyed,” wrote Lacretelle in 1802, “the other heals.”
We shall end here our considerations on the influence of Stuart history, and more particularly David Hume’s History of the Stuarts, in France from the ancien régime to the counter-revolution.
Although the high point of critical French interest in the English revolutionary period had passed by the time Napoleon made his dramatic appearance on the scene, the force of Hume’s enormous influence over a subject which was so remarkably suited to exploitation by pundits and prophets of the Right was by no means entirely spent. Rivarol before his death in 1801 gave a fair indication of how it would be possible, for some time yet, to continue playing the merry game of parallels. His French projection of Stuart history, well worth quoting here, provided in fact an advance outline of many similar future speculations which events of the following thirty years seemed to justify: “There is a singular parity between the English revolution and that of France; the Long Parliament and the death of Charles I; the Convention and the death of Louis XVI; Cromwell and Bonaparte. If there is a restoration will we see another Charles II dying in his bed and another James II leaving his kingdom and then a different dynasty? It’s as good a prediction as any.”35
Whatever the true merits of Hume’s presentation of the English revolution, it is undeniable that the case he put to the French during the critical years from roughly 1760 to 1800 had had profound and far-ranging effects. It is no exaggeration to say that his particular interpretation of that revolution, in a sense almost written for France, had become an integral part of the French historical consciousness and had imposed etiological categories which the vast majority of Frenchmen on the political Right and even a fair number on the moderate Left felt obliged to follow when giving explanation to what were seen as similar political processes in their own country. Admittedly, much of the detailed use made of Hume’s History was purely polemical. That the greater part of it cannot be dismissed as such, however, seems obvious. We have only to look into a work such as De l’usage et de l’abus de l’esprit philosophique durant le dix-huitième siècle by Jean-Etienne-Marie Portalis to see the permanent importance of Hume’s total impact at this time on the thinking of French rightists.
Portalis’s book was written between 1798 and 1800. It did not exert the influence or enjoy the reputation of Chateaubriand’s more frothy production, the Génie du Christianisme, perhaps because its message came too late. It appeared first as a posthumous publication in 1820, thirteen years after its author’s death. It nevertheless represents one of the few truly important end-of-the-century French rejections of the Enlightenment and was motivated not by the cramped and brutal spirit of some of Joseph de Maistre’s formulas, but rather by a certain wise science of man which Hume himself, on whose writings some of it is based, would probably not have disavowed.
Portalis approved of the eighteenth century’s love of philosophical history and Hume, he felt, had surely written his history of England “as a philosopher.” The French philosophes, on the other hand, had not produced an equivalent history of France. Voltaire, it is true, had boasted of writing philosophical history but had succeeded, like Gibbon, only in writing history that was anti-ecclesiastical.36
The eighteenth century had prided itself on having no religious superstitions. It had nevertheless ended up being politically superstitious. It was an eighteenth-century superstition, not shared by Hume, to imagine that any political act was good provided it was committed in favour of liberty: “In politics, all factional crimes are canonized for fear of violating the rights of peoples. . . . Some have dared to accuse Hume of bias because he criticized the excesses committed during England’s revolutions.”37
Thinking no doubt of histories like that of Catherine Macaulay, so highly praised by the Mirabeaus, Condorcets, and Brissots, Portalis pointed out that not only had revolutionary opinion dared to question Hume’s impartiality, it had attempted as well to make history over again into an arsenal of political propaganda: “Some philosophers now regard historical facts as nothing more than a basis on which to construct the most arbitrary systems.” But history, wrote the man of the Concordat, could not be denied, nor could its true function, which was to present “an immense collection of moral experiments carried out on the human race,”38 be frustrated.
Such history damns forever all a priori political theorists: “All of our false ideas, our exaggerated principles concerning the rights of man, his independence, all of our ranting speeches against civil and political institutions, derive initially from the notion we have fashioned for ourselves of a so-called state of nature. . . . Let us abandon all systems if we wish to be philosophers; let us renounce our wanderings in the land of illusion. . . .”39
History never confronts us with a state of nature; society does not exist by reason of any social pact. It cannot therefore be dissolved at will like a business arrangement simply because of an alleged breach of contract. Society is not a pact but a fact:
Society is, at the same time, a mixture and an unbroken succession of persons of all ages and genders, constantly brought together or pulled apart at every instant by interest, chance, and a thousand diverse connections. . . . The social order has as its object the permanent good of humanity. It is founded on the essential and indestructible relationships that exist among men. It is not dependent on any gratuitous or arbitrary institution: it is commanded by nature; . . . its source is the very structure of our being and it can end only with that structure.40
Men are united in society because such is the wish of nature which made them social creatures. Of course, nothing is immutable; time brings the necessity of change and adaptation, but a society, in its transformations, must be very careful that it does not put its very existence to the test: “It thus requires very great, very extreme, highly intolerable evils, before the idea of change—always devastating, always marked by the most violent turmoil—can be authorized, before a revolution that attacks the very wellspring of legitimacy can be legitimized.”41 Politics is not the art of the ideal but of the real: “Let us not feed on false notions, let us take care not to seek in human institutions a perfection that is foreign to them.”42 If man were a totally reasonable creature such perfection would be possible. The sad truth is, however, that he is not so constituted. The human cogitative aspect is probably of less importance in our practical behaviour than the sensitive parts of our nature. Man’s sentiment, his irrationalism, is as basic and natural to him as his reason. Politically man is a creature of emotion, habit, opinion, and prejudice. When political reforms prove necessary, these less flexible elements must not be forgotten. Reforms must be approached with circumspection: one does not tolerate everything, nor must one destroy everything:
Since man’s nature is not altered by an alteration in customs, forms must be modified without abandoning the principles that take their origin in the very nature of man.
Characteristically, an erroneous philosophical approach impairs our ability to distinguish principles. We imagine that institutions that may have degenerated were never useful. . . . All religious or secular establishments in which we no longer believe are judged to be politically fraudulent.43 We want only absolute verities and maxims, as if such existed in politics and in legislation. We replace the lessons of experience with hollow speculations. . . . We deny that we have been shaped by those institutions and laws that, disparaged and weakened today, nevertheless survive in the habits we acquired through them. . . .
We compromise the civilization of a people when, under the pretext of giving it better government, we do away with everything that civilized it; we plunge it anew into barbarism by isolating it from everything that originally rescued it from that state.44
One can hear echoes of Hume’s own science of human nature in Portalis’s important manifesto of revolt against some of the more transient bursts of illumination emitted by the siècle des Lumières. One also notes, of course, the influence of Burke; but it should be remembered that Burke himself was probably influenced by Hume to an extent greater than his Christian Whig principles may have cared to admit. Soon, completing the image and contributing to the destruction of what were seen as Enlightenment excesses in non-political fields, a new Hume was to enter France via Kant’s Germany. Hume the philosopher as opposed to Hume the philosophe was destined to make the world almost forget that there had ever been an “English Tacitus.”
But Hume’s radically empirical History, which some modern scholars have tended to view as quite unrelated to his radically empirical philosophy, was not yet completely dead in France. Quite to the contrary, after the Restoration, during the reign of Louis XVIII, its importance seemed still great enough to ultra-royalists for several of their number to set about editing a completely revised translation preceded by a long study of Hume’s life and works by the French academician Vincent Campenon.45 Needless to say, the foreword of this new edition begins by reverently calling Hume nothing less than “the most impartial and the most judicious historian who has ever lived.”46
Other editions of this work were to follow but as France’s political events evolved toward more liberal goals, Hume’s great historical reputation and influence fell. A different, although not necessarily a more serious, conception of history was being born. Guizot in 1826 triumphantly proclaimed the new era: “Today . . . the history of the English Revolution has taken on a different complexion: Hume was once the arbiter of European opinion on that subject; and in spite of Mirabeau’s support, Mistress Macaulay’s declamations never managed to shake his authority.”47
Europe, Guizot was happy to announce, had at last recovered its independence. Two pages farther on, he voiced the judgement that seems to have endured among many historians of the “English Revolution” ever since: “Hume no longer satisfies anyone.”
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[1. ]Des Emigrés Français ou Réponse à M. de Lally-Tollendal, Paris, 1797, pp. 104-5.
[2. ]Journal d’économie politique, de morale, et de politique; rédigé par Roederer de l’Institut national de France, Paris, 1797, II. 370. It is curious to note that Montesquieu’s conservatism, although it was often attacked during the Revolution, was also very often “explained away” as representing nothing more than the exoteric principles of a basically radical but prudent political thinker who was obliged to use the subterfuge of a double doctrine under the oppression of the ancien régime. See, for example, Destutt de Tracy, M. de Tracy à M. Burke, p. 9; La Décade, 1795, V. 468; Brissot, Le Patriote Français, No. 915, 11 February 1792, pp. 167-68; Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man, 1791, Part I, p. 75.
[3. ]Essai sur les causes qui, en 1649, amenèrent en Angleterre l’établissement de la République; sur celles qui devaient l’y consolider; sur celles qui l’y firent périr. Par Boulay (de la Meurthe), Représentant du Peuple, Paris, An VII.
[4. ]Ibid., p. 4.
[5. ]Ibid., p. 121.
[6. ]Ibid., p. 122.
[7. ]Ibid., pp. 126-27.
[8. ]De la force du gouvernement actuel de la France et de la nécessité de s’y rallier, 1796, p. 95, note f.
[9. ]Des réactions politiques, An V, pp. 2-3.
[10. ]Des suites de la contre-révolution de 1660 en Angleterre, Paris, An VII, pp. viii-ix.
[11. ]Ibid., pp. 77-80.
[12. ]J.-B. Salaville, De la Révolution Française comparée à celle de l’Angleterre ou Lettre au Représentant du peuple Boulay (de la Meurthe), sur la différence de ces deux révolutions; pour servir de suite à l’ouvrage publié par ce Représentant sur celle de l’Angleterre, Paris, An VII, p. 2.
[13. ]Ibid., p. 26.
[14. ]Ibid., pp. 29-30. Salaville rather than Mirabeau is sometimes credited with the publication in 1789 of Théorie de la royauté, d’après la doctrine de Milton, par le comte de M******* (see supra, p. 140, n. 89).
[15. ]Oeuvres complètes de Duvoisin, p. 1302.
[16. ]Ibid., pp. 1307-8.
[17. ]Oeuvres complètes de J. de Maistre, I. 113.
[18. ]Ibid., I. 121-22.
[19. ]Ibid., I. 153-56.
[20. ]Ibid., I. 157.
[21. ]See supra, p. 90, n. 16. Royalists were immensely pleased with this clever bit of editing. (See, for example, the Spectateur du Nord, July-September 1797, pp. 93-94.)
[22. ]“Dialogue entre Cromwel et Robespierre,” Le Spectateur du Nord; journal politique, littéraire et moral, Hambourg, July-September 1798, VII. 76-85.
[23. ]Mercure Britannique ou notices historiques et critiques sur les affaires du tems, par J. Mallet du Pan, Londres, 25 December 1798, II. 23.
[24. ]Ibid., 25 April 1799, III. 31.
[25. ]Ibid., 10 August 1799, III. 481.
[26. ]Ibid., III. 482-83.
[27. ]Ibid., III. 483-85.
[28. ]Pierre-Jean-Baptiste Nougaret, Parallèle de la Révolution d’Angleterre en 1642, et celle de France, Metz, p. 13 [see Hume, History of England, VII. 501].
[29. ]Oeuvres complètes, Paris, 1834, I. 153.
[30. ]Pensées inédites de Rivarol, Paris, 1836, pp. 80-81.
[31. ]Ibid., p. 92.
[32. ]Letter of 10 August 1803, from Warsaw, in Correspondance diplomatique et mémoires inédits du Cardinal Maury, annotés et publiés par Mgr Ricard, Lille, 1891, II. 271.
[33. ]Parallèle entre César, Cromwell, Monck et Bonaparte: Fragment traduit de l’Anglais (published anonymously by Charles-Jean-Dominique de Lacretelle, Paris, 1802), p. 2.
[34. ]La Décade, XXVIII. 281.
[35. ]Rivarol, op. cit., p. 111.
[36. ]Portalis, op. cit., seconde édition, Paris, 1827, II. 24-26.
[37. ]Ibid., II. 28.
[38. ]Ibid., II. 39.
[39. ]Ibid., II. 299.
[40. ]Ibid., II. 301.
[41. ]Ibid., II. 334.
[42. ]Ibid., II. 363.
[43. ]Portalis, though fully aware of Hume’s religious scepticism, believed along with a number of other French conservatives that Hume regretfully bore his disbelief as an unwholesome burden. He makes some of the same distinctions we have already encountered in Trublet and opposes religious sceptics to the eighteenth-century atheists: “In truth, these sceptics do not pass censure on religious institutions. They want free access to religion for those who feel uplifted by it; they even seem to complain of their own philosophy, which prevents them from believing. We sense, they say, that unbelievers are less fortunate, that nothing can fill the void in the human heart that a lively faith in religion would otherwise satisfy. And so it was that J.-J. Rousseau would say to his friends: ‘I would rather be a believer than a philosopher.’ Similarly, Hume, after one of those touching and sublime scenes that only religion can present so wondrously, cried out: ‘I would have been much happier had I never doubted!’ ” (Ibid., II. 191-92.) Portalis is not the only victim at this time of a purely fictional anecdote concerning Hume; the “Story of La Roche,” contributed by Henry Mackenzie to the Scottish publication The Mirror in 1779 but which, perhaps not too strangely, received wide circulation in France after the Revolution. We find it reproduced in La Décade in 1796 (VIII. 554-62); the Bibliothèque britannique in 1798 (VII. 199-215); and in the Spectateur du Nord (VII. 297-312) also in 1798.
[44. ]Portalis, op. cit., II. 503-4, 512.
[45. ]Histoire d’Angleterre depuis l’invasion de Jules-César jusqu’à la révolution de 1688 par David Hume et depuis cette époque jusqu’à 1760 par Smollett. Traduite de l’anglais. Nouvelle édition, revue, corrigée et précédée d’un Essai sur la vie et les écrits de D. Hume, par M. Campenon de l’Académie Française, Paris, 1819.
[46. ]Ibid., I. v.
[47. ]Histoire de la Révolution d’Angleterre depuis l’avenèment de Charles Ier jusqu’à la restauration de Charles II, Première partie, Paris, 1826, I. xvii.