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VII: The Fourth of August - John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, Lectures on the French Revolution (LF ed.) 
Lectures on the French Revolution, ed. John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence, with a foreword by Steven J. Tonsor (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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The Fourth of August
We come to-day to the most decisive date in the Revolution, the fall of the social system of historic France, and the substitution of the Rights of Man.
When the Assembly was fully constituted, it had to regulate its procedure. Sir Samuel Romilly, a friend of Dumont, and occasionally of Mirabeau, sent over an account of the practice of the British Parliament, with the cumbrous forms, the obstacles to prompt action, the contrivances to favour a minority, and to make opposition nearly equal to government. The French required more expeditious methods. They had a single Assembly with a known and well-defined commission, and the gravest danger of the hour was obstruction and delay. Every member obtained the right of initiative, and could submit a motion in writing. The Assembly might, after debate, refuse to consider it; but if not arrested on the threshold, it might be discussed and voted and passed in twenty-four hours. The security for deliberation was in the Bureaux. The Assembly was divided into thirty groups or committees, of nearly forty members each, who met separately, the Assembly in the morning, the Bureaux in the evening. This plan ensured thorough and sincere discussion, for men spoke their genuine thoughts, where there was no formality, no reporter, no stranger in the gallery. The Bureaux were disliked and suspected by the excluded public. The electorate, experiencing for the first time the sensation of having deputies at work to do their will, desired to watch them, and insisted on the master’s right to look after his man. Representation was new; and to every reader of Rousseau, of Turgot, or of Mably, it was an object of profound distrust. The desire to uphold the supremacy of the deputing power over the deputed, of the constituent over his member, was distinctly part of the great literary inheritance common to them all. As the mandate was originally imperative, the giver of the mandate claimed the right of seeing to its execution. The exercise of powers that were defined and limited, that were temporary and revocable, called for scrutiny and direct control.
The Bureaux did not last, and their disappearance was a disaster. Party, as the term is used in the constitutional vocabulary, was not yet developed; and no organisation possessed the alternate power of presenting ministers to the Crown. The main lines that divided opinion came to light in the debates of September, and the Assembly fell into factions that were managed by their clubs. The President held office for a fortnight, and each new election indicated the movement of opinion, the position of parties, the rise of reputations. The united Assembly did honour to the acceding orders. The first presidents were prelates and men of rank. Out of six elections only one fell to a commoner, until the end of September, when the leader of the Liberal Conservatives, Mounier, was chosen, at what proved a moment of danger. In the same way, the thirty chairmen of the Bureaux were, with scarcely an exception, always taken from the clergy or the nobles.
As Mounier, with his friends, had dominated in the constitutional committee of thirty, and was now paramount in the new committee of eight, there was some prospect of a coalition, by which, in return for their aid in carrying the English model, the nobles would obtain easy terms in the liquidation of privilege. That is the parliamentary situation. That is the starting-point of the transactions that we have now to follow.
During the days spent in making terms between the king, the Assembly, and the capital, the provinces were depending on Paris for news, for opinions, and direction. They were informed that the Parisians had made themselves masters of the royal fortress, and had expelled the royal authority; that the king and the Assembly had accepted and approved the action; that there was no executive ministry, either old or new; and that the capital was providing for its own security and administration. The towns soon had imitations of the disorders that had been so successful, and quickly repressed them; for the towns were the seat of the middle class, the natural protectors of acquired property, and defenders of order and safety. In country districts the process of disintegration was immediate, the spontaneous recovery was slow. For the country was divided between the nobles who were rich, and their dependents who were poor. And the poverty of one class was ultimately due to innumerable devices for increasing the wealth of the other. And now there was nobody in authority over them, nobody to keep peace between them.
The first effect of the taking of the Bastille, the effacement of royalty, the suspension of the ministerial office, was the rising of the cottage against the castle, of the injured peasant against the privileged landlord, who, apart from any fault of his own, by immemorial process of history and by the actual letter of the law, was his perpetual and inevitable enemy. The events of the week between July 11 and 17 proclaimed that the authorised way to obtain what you wanted was to employ the necessary violence. If it was thorough and quick enough, there would be no present resistance, and no subsequent complaint. And if there was some excess in the way of cruelty and retribution, it was sure of amnesty on the ground of intolerable provocation and of suffering endured too long. The king had accepted his own humiliation as if it had been as good as due to him. He could not do more for others than for himself. His brief alliance with the aristocracy was dissolved. He was powerless for their defence, as they were for their own. By their formal act of submission to the Assembly on July 16, they acknowledged that their cause was lost with the Bastille. They neglected to make terms with the enemy at their homes.
The appalling thing in the French Revolution is not the tumult but the design. Through all the fire and smoke we perceive the evidence of calculating organisation. The managers remain studiously concealed and masked; but there is no doubt about their presence from the first. They had been active in the riots of Paris, and they were again active in the provincial rising. The remnant of the upper classes formed a powerful minority at Versailles; and if they acted as powerful minorities do; if they entered into compacts and combinations, they could compound for the loss of fiscal immunity by the salvation of social privilege. The people would continue to have masters—masters, that is, not of their own making. They would be subject to powers instituted formerly, whilst the Government itself obtained its credentials for the day, and there would still be an intermediate body between the nation and the sovereign. Wealth artificially constituted, by means of laws favouring its accumulation in a class, and discouraging its dispersion among all, would continue to predominate.
France might be transformed after the likeness of England; but the very essence of the English system was liberty founded on inequality. The essence of the French ideal was democracy, that is, as in America, liberty founded on equality. Therefore it was the interest of the democratic or revolutionary party that the next step should be taken after the manner of the last, that compulsion, which had answered so well with the king, should be tried on the nobles, that the methods applied at Paris should be extended to the Provinces, for there the nobles predominated. A well-directed blow struck at that favoured and excepted moment, when the country was ungoverned, might alter for ever, and from its foundation, the entire structure of society. Liberty had been secured; equality was within reach. The political revolution ensured the prompt success of the social revolution. Such an opportunity of suppressing compromise, and sweeping the historical ruin away, had never been known in Europe.
While the local powers were painfully constituting themselves, there was a priceless interval for action. The king had given way to the middle class; the nobles would succumb to the lower, and the rural democracy would be emancipated like the urban. This is the second phase of that reign of terror which, as Malouet says, began with the Bastille. Experience had shown the efficacy of attacking castles instead of persons, and the strongholds of feudalism were assailed when the stronghold of absolutism had fallen.
It is said that one deputy, Duport, a magistrate of the parliament of Paris, had 400,000 francs to spend in raising the country against the nobles at the precise moment of their weakness. The money was scarcely needed, for the rioters were made to believe that they were acting in obedience to the law. One of their victims wrote, August 3, to Clermont Tonnerre that they were really sorry to behave in that way against good masters, but they were compelled by imperative commands from the king. He adds that seven or eight castles in his neighbourhood were attacked by their vassals, all believing that the king desired it. The charters and muniments were the main object of pillage and destruction, for it was believed that claims which could not be authenticated could not be enforced. Often the castle itself was burnt with the parchments it contained, and some of the owners perished.
The disorders raged in many parts of France. A district east and south-east of the centre suffered most. Those provinces had continued long to be parts of the Empire; and we shall see hereafter what that implies. The peasants of Eastern France rose up in arms to overthrow the ancient institutions of society, which the peasants of the West gave their lives to restore.
Rumours of all this desolation soon penetrated to the Assembly, and on August 3 it was officially reported that property was at the mercy of gangs of brigands, that no castle, no convent, no farm-house was safe. A committee moved to declare that no pretext could justify the refusal to pay the same feudal dues as before. Duport proposed that the motion be sent back to the Bureaux. The Assembly came to no conclusion. In truth, the thing proposed was impossible. The Commons, who now prevailed, could not, after sitting three months, re-impose, even provisionally, burdens which were odious, which their Instructions condemned, and which they all knew to be incapable of defence. There had been time to provide: the crisis now found them unprepared. The Court advised the nobles that nothing could save them but a speedy surrender. They also were informed, by Barère, that some of his friends intended to move the abolition of fiscal and feudal privilege. They replied that they would do it themselves. Virieu, who afterwards disappeared in a sortie, during the siege of Lyons, said to a friend: “There are only two means of calming an excited populace, kindness and force. We have no force; we hope to succeed by kindness.” They knew that precious time had been lost, and they resolved that the surrender should be so ample as to be meritorious. It was to be not the redress of practical grievances, but the complete establishment of the new principle, equality.
At a conference held on the evening of August 3 it was agreed that the self-sacrifice of the ancient aristocracy of France, and the institution in its place of a society absolutely democratic, should be made by the Duke d’Aiguillon, the owner of vast domains, who was about to forfeit several thousands a year. But on August 4 the first to speak was Noailles; then d’Aiguillon, followed by a deputy from Brittany. You cannot repress violence, said the Breton, unless you remove the injustice which is the cause of it. If you mean to proclaim the Rights of Man, begin with those which are most flagrantly violated. They proposed that rights abandoned to the State should be ceded unconditionally, and that rights abandoned to the people should be given up in return for compensation. They imagined that the distinction was founded on principle; but nobody ever ascertained the dividing line between that which was property and that which was abuse. The want of definiteness enabled the landlords afterwards to attempt the recovery of much debatable ground, and involved, after long contention, the ultimate loss of all.
The programme was excessively complicated, and required years to be carried out. The nobles won the day with their demand to be compensated; but Duport already spoke the menacing words: “Injustice has no right to subsist, and the price of injustice has no right to subsist.” The immensity of the revolution, which these changes implied, was at once apparent. For it signified that liberty, which had been known only in the form of privilege, was henceforward identified with equality. The nobles lost their jurisdiction; the corporation of judges lost their right of holding office by purchase. All classes alike were admitted to all employments. When privilege fell, provinces lost it as well as orders. One after the other, Dauphiné, Provence, Brittany, Languedoc, declared that they renounced their historic rights, and shared none but those which were common to all Frenchmen. Servitude was abolished; and on the same principle, that all might stand on the same level before the law, justice was declared gratuitous.
Lubersac, bishop of Chartres, the friend and patron of Sieyès, moved the abolition of the game laws, which meant the right of preserving on another man’s land. It was a right which necessarily followed the movement of that night; but it led men to say that the clergy gave away generously what belonged to somebody else. It was then proposed that the tithe should be commuted; and the clergy showed themselves as zealous as the laity to carry out to their own detriment the doctrine that imposed so many sacrifices.
The France of history vanished on August 4, and the France of the new democracy took its place. The transfer of property from the upper class to the lower was considerable. The peasants’ income was increased by about 60 per cent. Nobody objected to the tremendous loss, or argued to diminish it. Each class, recognising what was inevitable, and reconciled to it, desired that it should be seen how willingly and how sincerely it yielded. None wished to give time for others to remind them of inconsistency, or reserve, or omission, in the clean sweep they had undertaken to make. In their competition there was hurry and disorder. One characteristic of the time was to be unintelligent in matters relating to the Church, and they did not know how far the clergy was affected by the levelling principle, or that in touching tithe they were setting an avalanche in motion. At one moment, Lally, much alarmed, had passed a note to the President begging him to adjourn, as the deputies were losing their heads. The danger arose, as was afterwards seen, when the Duke du Chatelet proposed the redemption of tithe.
The nobles awoke next day with some misgiving that they had gone too far, and with some jealousy of the clergy, who had lost less, and who had contributed to their losses. On August 7 Necker appeared before the Assembly and exposed the want of money, and the need of a loan, for the redistribution of property on August 4 did nothing to the immediate profit of the Exchequer. But the clergy, vying with their rivals in generosity, had admitted the right of the nation to apply Church property to State uses.
On the following day the Marquis de Lacoste proposed that the new debt should be paid out of the funds of the clergy, and that tithe should be simply abolished. He expressed a wish that no ecclesiastic should be a loser, and that the parish clergy should receive an accession of income. The clergy offered no resistance, and made it impossible for others to resist. They offered to raise a loan in behalf of the State; but it was considered that this would give them a position of undue influence, and it would not have satisfied the nobles, who saw the way to recover from the clergy the loss they had sustained. In this debate the Abbé Sieyès delivered his most famous speech. He had no fellow-feeling with his brethren, but he intended that the tithe should enrich the State. Instead of that it was about to be given back to the land, and the landowners would receive a sum of nearly three millions a year, divided in such a way that the richest would receive in proportion to his wealth. It would indemnify the laity. Not they, but the clergy, were now to bear the charge of August 4. There was one deputy who would be richer by 30,000 francs a year upon the whole transaction. The landlords who had bought their estates subject to the tithe had no claim to receive it. As all this argument was heard with impatience, Sieyès uttered words that have added no little to his moral stature: “They fancy that they can be free and yet not be just!” He had been, for three months, the foremost personage in the nation. He was destined in after years, and under conditions strangely altered, to be once more the dictator of France. More than once, without public favour, but by mere power of political thinking, he governed the fortunes of the State. He never again possessed the heart of the people.
The Assembly deemed it a good bargain to restore the tithe to the land; and the clergy knew so well that they had no friends that, on August 11, they solemnly renounced their claim. In this way the Assembly began the disendowment of the Church, which was the primitive cause of the Reign of Terror and the Civil War.
All these things are an episode. The business of the Assembly, from the end of July, was the Constitution. The first step towards it was to define the rights for which it exists. Such a declaration, suggested by America, had been demanded by the electors in several of the instructions, and had been faithfully reproduced by Mounier, July 9. It appeared, on the following day, that Lafayette had already got the required document in his pocket. Another text was produced, ten days later, by Sieyès, and another by Mounier, which was a revision of Lafayette’s. Several more came out soon after.
On July 27 the archbishop of Bordeaux, in laying down the outline of the new institutions, observed that it was necessary to found them on principles defined and fixed. On the same day Clermont Tonnerre brought forward his analysis of the available ideas contained in the instructions. He went at once to the heart of the matter. Some instructions, he said, contemplated no more than the reform of existing institutions, with the maintenance of controlling tradition and the historic chain. Others conceived an entirely new system of laws and government. The distinction between the two was this, that some required a code of principles which must be the guide in preparing the Constitution; the others wished for no such assistance, but thought it possible to bind past and future together. The main conflict was between the authority of history and the Rights of Man. The Declaration was the signal of those who meant to rescue France from the ancestors who had given it tyranny and slavery as an inheritance. Its opponents were men who would be satisfied with good government, in the spirit of Turgot and the enlightened reformers of his time, who could be happy if they were prosperous, and would never risk prosperity and peace in the pursuit of freedom.
Those who imagined that France possessed a submerged Constitution that might be extracted from her annals had a difficult task. Lanjuinais desired to sail by a beacon and to direct the politics of 1789 by a charter of 864. There was a special reason, less grotesque than the archaeology of Lanjuinais, which made men averse to the Declaration. Liberty, it was said, consists in the reign of the national will, and the national will is known by national custom. Law ought to spring from custom, and to be governed by it, not by independent, individual theory that defies custom. You have to declare the law, not to make it, and you can only declare what experience gives you. The best government devised by reason is less free than a worse government bequeathed by time. Very dimly, ideas which rose to power in other days and evolved the great force of nationality, were at work against a system which was to be new and universal, renouncing the influence both of time and place. The battle was fought against the men of the past, against a history which was an unbroken record of the defeat and frustration of freedom. But the declaration of rights was more needful still against dangers on the opposite side, those that were coming more than those that were going out. People were quite resolved to be oppressed no more by monarchy or aristocracy, but they had no experience or warning of oppression by democracy. The classes were to be harmless; but there was the new enemy, the State.
No European knew what security could be needed or provided for the individual from the collected will of the people. They were protected from government by authority or by minority; but they made the majority irresistible, and the plébiscite a tyranny.
The Americans were aware that democracy might be weak and unintelligent, but also that it might be despotic and oppressive. And they found out the way to limit it, by the federal system, which suffers it to exist nowhere in its plenitude. They deprived their state governments of the powers that were enumerated, and the central government of the powers that were reserved. As the Romans knew how monarchy would become innocuous, by being divided, the Americans solved the more artful problem of dividing democracy into two.
Many Frenchmen were convinced that Federalism would be the really liberal policy for them. But the notion was at once pushed aside by Mounier, and obtained no hearing. And the division of powers, which he substituted, was rejected in its turn. They would not admit that one force should be checked and balanced by another. They had no resource but general principles, to abolish the Past and secure the Future. By declaring them, they raised up an ideal authority over the government and the nation, and established a security against the defects of the Constitution and the power of future rulers. The opponents of the Declaration fought it on the proposal to add a declaration of duties. The idea was put forward by the most learned of the deputies, the Jansenist Camus, and the clergy supported him with energy. The Assembly decided that a system of rights belonged to politics, and a system of duties to ethics, and rejected the motion, on the morning of the 4th of August, by 570 to 433.
This was the deciding division on the question of the Rights of Man. After some days, absorbed by the crisis of aristocracy, the distracted and wearied Assembly turned again from the excitement of facts and interests to the discussion of theory. A new committee of five was appointed to revise the work of the committee of eight, which dealt with the entire Constitution.
On August 17 Mirabeau reported their scheme. His heart was not in it; and he resented the intrusion of hampering generalities and moralities into the difficult experimental science of government. He advised that the Constitution should be settled first, that the guide should follow instead of preceding. The Assembly rejected the proposals of its committees, and all the plans which were submitted by the celebrities. The most remarkable of these was by Sieyès, and it met with favour; but the final vote was taken on a less illustrious composition, which bore no author’s name. The selected text was less philosophical and profound, and it roused less distant echoes than its rival; but it was shorter, and more tame, and it was thought to involve fewer doubtful postulates, and fewer formidable consequences. Between the 20th and 26th of August it was still further abridged, and reduced from twenty-four propositions to the moderate dimension of seventeen. These omissions from a document which had been preferred to very remarkable competitors are the key to the intentions of the National Assembly, and our basis of interpretation.
The original scheme included a State Church. This was not adopted. It distinguished the inequality of men from the equality of rights. This was deemed self-evident and superfluous. It derived the mutual rights of men from their mutual duties; and this terrestrial definition also disappeared, leaving the way open to a higher cause. The adopted code was meagre and ill-composed, and Bentham found a malignant pleasure in tearing it to pieces. It is, on the whole, more spiritual than the one on which it was founded, and which it generally follows; and it insists with greater energy on primitive rights, anterior to the State and aloof from it, which no human authority can either confer or refuse. It is the triumphant proclamation of the doctrine that human obligations are not all assignable to contract, or to interest, or to force.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man begins with an appeal to heaven, and defines them in the presence, and under the auspices, of Almighty God. The Preamble implies that our duties towards Him constitute our rights towards mankind, and indicates the divine origin of Law, without affirming it. The Declaration enumerates those rights which are universal, which come from nature, not from men. They are four: Liberty, Property, Security, and Self-defence. Authorities are constituted, and laws are made, in order that these original, essential, and supreme possessions of all mankind may be preserved.
The system of guarantees is as sacred as the rights which they protect. Such are the right of contributing by representatives to legislation and taxation, religious toleration, the liberty of the press. As the rights are equal, the power of ensuring them must be equal. All men alike have a share in representation, all alike are admissible to office, all must be taxed in the same proportion. The law is the same for all. The principle of equality is the idea on which the Declaration most earnestly insists. Privilege had just been overthrown, and the duty of providing against indirect means for its recovery was the occupation of the hour. That this may be secured, all powers must be granted by the people, and none must be exercised by the people. They act only through their agents. The agent who exercises power is responsible, and is controlled by the sovereign authority that delegates it. Certain corollaries seem to follow: restricted suffrage, progressive taxation, an established church, are difficult to reconcile with equality so profoundly conceived. But this is not explicit. Questions regarding education, poverty, revision are not admitted among the fundamentals and are left to future legislation. The most singular passage is that which ordains that no man may be molested for his opinions, even religious. It would appear that Toleration was that part of the liberal dogma for which the deputies were least prepared.
The Declaration passed, by August 26, after a hurried debate, and with no further resistance. The Assembly, which had abolished the past at the beginning of the month, attempted, at the end, to institute and regulate the future. These are its abiding works, and the perpetual heritage of the Revolution. With them a new era dawned upon mankind.
And yet this single page of print, which outweighs libraries, and is stronger than all the armies of Napoleon, is not the work of superior minds, and bears no mark of the lion’s claw. The stamp of Cartesian clearness is upon it, but without the logic, the precision, the thoroughness of French thought. There is no indication in it that Liberty is the goal, and not the starting-point, that it is a faculty to be acquired, not a capital to invest, or that it depends on the union of innumerable conditions, which embrace the entire life of man. Therefore it is justly arraigned by those who say that it is defective, and that its defects have been a peril and a snare.
It was right that the attempt should be made; for the extinction of privilege involved a declaration of rights. When those that were exclusive and unequal were abandoned, it was necessary to define and to insist on those that were equal and the property of all. After destroying, the French had to rebuild, and to base their new structure upon principles unknown to the law, unfamiliar to the people, absolutely opposed to the lesson of their history and to all the experience of the ages in which France had been so great. It could not rest on traditions, or interests, or any persistent force of gravitation. Unless the idea that was to govern the future was impressed with an extreme distinctness upon the minds of all, they would not understand the consequences of so much ruin, and such irrevocable change, and would drift without a compass. The country that had been so proud of its kings, of its nobles, and of its chains, could not learn without teaching that popular power may be tainted with the same poison as personal power.