Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER II.: mr. cobden to the reverend — —. - The Political Writings of Richard Cobden, vol. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
LETTER II.: mr. cobden to the reverend — —. - Richard Cobden, The Political Writings of Richard Cobden, vol. 1 
The Political Writings of Richard Cobden, with a Preface by Lord Welby, Introductions by Sir Louis Mallet, C.B., and William Cullen Bryant, Notes by F.W. Chesson and a Bibliography, vol. 1, (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1903).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
mr. cobden to the reverend — —.
My Dear Sir,
—You asked me to direct you to the best sources of information for those particulars of the origin of the French war to which I briefly alluded in my last letter. What an illustration does this afford of our habitual neglect of the most important part of history, namely, that which refers to our own country, and more immediately affects the destinies of the generation to which we belong! If you feel at a loss for the facts necessary for forming a judgment upon the events of the last century, how much more inaccessible must that knowledge be to the mass of the people. In truth, modern English history is a tabooed study in our common schools, and the young men of our Universities acquire a far more accurate knowledge of the origin and progress of the Punic and Peloponnesian wars than of the wars of the French Revolution.
The best record of facts, and especially of State papers, referring to our modern history is to be found in the Annual Register. These materials have been digested by several writers. The Pictorial History of England is not conveniently arranged for reference; and, although the facts are carefully given, the opinions, with reference to the events in question, have a strong Tory bias. The earliest and latest periods of this history are written in a liberal and enlightened spirit; but that portion which embraces the American and French revolutions fell somehow under the control of politicians of a more contracted and bigoted school. Alison, of whose views and principles I shall not be expected to approve, has given the best narrative of the events which followed the French Revolution down to the close of the war. His work, which has passed through many editions, is admirably arranged for reference. Scott's Life of Napoleon is the most readable book upon the subject, but not the most reliable for facts and figures.
But if you would really understand the motives with which we embarked upon the last French war, you must turn to Hansard, and read the debates in both Houses of Parliament upon the subject from 1791 to 1796. This has been with me a favourite amusement; and I have culled many extracts which are within reach. Shall I put them together for you? They may probably be of use beyond the purposes of a private letter. But there is one condition for which I will stipulate. There must be a very precise and accurate attention to dates in order to understand the subject in hand. Banish from your mind all vague floating ideas arising out of a confusion of events extending over the twenty-two years of war. Our business lies with the interval from 1789, when the Constituent Assembly of France met, till 1793, when war commenced between England and France. Bear in mind we are now merely investigating the origin and cause of the rupture between the two countries.
The ten years from the close of the American war in 1783 to the commencement of the war with France in 1793, was a period of remarkable prosperity. To the astonishment of all parties the separation of the American Colonies, which had been dreaded as the signal for our national ruin, was followed by an increased commercial intercourse with the mother country. The mechanical inventions connected with the cotton trade and other manufactures, and the recent improvement in the steam engine, were adding rapidly to our powers of production; and the consequent demand for labour, and accumulation of capital diffused general comfort and well-being throughout the land. Such a state of things always tends to produce political contentment, and never were the people of this country less disposed to seek for reforms, still less to think of revolution, than when the attention of Europe was first drawn to the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly of France in 1789. The startling reforms effected by that body, and the captivating appeals to first principles made by its orators, soon attracted the sympathies of a certain class of philosophical reformers in this country, who, followed by a few of the more intelligent and speculative amongst the artisan class in the towns, began to take an active interest in French politics. Amongst the most influential of the leaders of this party were Doctor Price and Doctor Priestley, and the Dissenters generally were ranked amongst their adherents. But the great mass of the population were strongly, almost fanatically, on the side of the Church, which was of course opposed to the doctrines of the French Assembly; the spirit of hostility to Dissenters broke forth in many parts of the country, and in Birmingham and other manufacturing places it led to riots, and a considerable destruction of property. “It was not,” said Mr. Fox,∗ “in his opinion a republican spirit that we had to dread in this country; there was no tincture of republicanism in the country. If there was any prevailing tendency to riot, it was on the other side. It was the High Church spirit, and an indisposition to all reform which marked more than anything else the temper of the times.”
Such was the state of the public mind when Mr. Burke published his celebrated Reflections on the French Revolution, a work which produced an instant and most powerful effect not only in England, but upon the governing classes on the Continent. This production was given to the world in 1790: the date is all important; for bear in mind that the Constituent Assembly had then been sitting for a year only; that its labours had been directed to the effecting of reforms compatible with the preservation of a limited monarchy; and that such men as Lafayette and Necker had been taking a lead in its deliberations. Do not confound in your mind the proceedings of this body with those of the Legislative Assembly which succeeded to it the next year; or the National Convention which followed the year after. Do not disturb your fancy with thoughts of the Reign of Terror: that did not begin till four years later. Burke's great philippic contains no complaint of the Constituent Assembly having interfered with us, or meditated forcing its reforms upon other countries. It gives utterance to no suspicion of a warlike tendency on the side of the French. On the contrary, the author of the Reflections, in a speech upon the army estimates in the House of Commons on the 9th of February of this year (1790), declared that “the French army was rendered an army for every other purpose than that of defence;” describing the French soldiers “as base hireling mutineers, and mercenary sordid deserters, wholly destitute of any honourable principle;” alleging, on the same occasion, “that France is at this time in a political light to be considered as expunged out of the system of Europe;” and he asserted that the French “had done their business for us as rivals in a way in which twenty Ramilies or Blenheims could never have done it.”
What, then, was the ground on which he assailed the French Government with a force of invective that drew from Fox six years later the following tribute to its fatal influence?
“In a most masterly performance, he has charmed all the world with the brilliancy of his genius, fascinating the country with the powers of his eloquence, and in as far as that cause went to produce this effect, plunged the country into all the calamities consequent upon war. I admire the genius of the man, and I admit the integrity and usefulness of his long public life; I cannot, however, but lament that his talents, when in my opinion they were directed most beneficially to the interest of his country, produced very little effect, and that when he espoused sentiments different from those which I hold to be wise and expedient, then his exertions should have been crowned with a success that I deplore.”
Read this famous performance again; and then, having freed your mind from the effects of its gorgeous imagery, and fascinating style, ask yourself what grounds it affords, what facts it contains to justify even an angry remonstrance, still less to lead to a war. From beginning to end it is an indictment against the representatives of the French people, for having presumed to pursue a course, in a strictly domestic matter, contrary to what Mr. Burke and the English, who are assumed to be infallible judges, held to be the wisest policy. Everything is brought to the test of our own practice, and condemned or approved in proportion as it is in opposition to or in harmony with British example. The Constituent Assembly is charged with robbery, usurpation, imposture, cheating, violence, and tyranny, for presuming to abolish the law of primogeniture, or appropriate their Church lands to secular purposes, making religion a charge upon the State; or limit to a greater degree than ourselves the prerogative of the Crown; or establish universal suffrage as the basis of their representation; changes which however unsuitable they may have been to the habits and dispositions of Englishmen were yet such as have not been found incompatible with the prosperity of the people of America, and which to a large extent are practically applied to the government of our own colonies.
But let us see what was done besides by this Assembly. Liberty of religious worship to its fullest extent was secured; torture abolished; trial by jury and publicity of courts of law were established; lettres-de-cachet abolished; the nobles and clergy made liable in common with other classes to taxation; the most oppressive imposts, such as those on salt, tobacco, the taille, &c., suppressed; the feudal privileges of the nobles extinguished; access to the superior ranks of the army, heretofore monopolised by the privileged class, made free to all; and the same rule applied to all civil employments.
I dwell on these particulars, because it was from this sweeping list of reforms, effected by the Constituent Assembly of France, and the sympathy which they excited amongst the more active and intelligent of our liberal politicians, that the war between the two countries really sprung. It was not to put down the Reign of Terror that we entered upon hostilities. That would have been no legitimate object for a war. But the Reign of Terror did not commence till nearly a year after the war began. Our indignation was not excited to blows in 1793, by the madness which afterwards possessed the National Convention, and which manifested itself in the alteration of the Calendar, the abolition of Christianity, and, finally, in the deposition of the Deity Himself. These were the consequences, not the causes of war. No, the war was entered upon to prevent the contagion of those principles which were put forth in such captivating terms in 1789 and 1790 by the Constituent Assembly of France. The ruling class in England took alarm at a revolution going on in a neighbouring state where the governing body had abolished all hereditary titles, appropriated the Church lands to State purposes, and decreed universal suffrage as the basis of the representative system. “If,” says Alison,∗ “the changes in France were regarded with favour by one, they were looked on with utter horror by another class of the community. The majority of the aristocratic body, all the adherents of the Church, all the holders of office under the Monarchy, in general, the great bulk of the opulent ranks of society, beheld them with apprehension or aversion.”
From this moment the friends and opponents of the French Revolution formed themselves into opposing parties, whose conduct, says Sir W. Scott,† resembled that of rival factions at a play, who hiss and applaud the actors on the stage as much from party spirit as from real critical judgment; while every instant increases the probability that they will try the question by actual force. Strange that to neither party should it have occurred that to the twenty-four millions of Frenchmen interested in the issue, might be left the task of framing their own government, without the intervention of the people of England; and that the circumstance of a peculiar form of Constitution having been found suitable for one country, did not necessarily prove that it would be acceptable to the other!
But the Revolution in France produced a more decisive impression on the despotic powers of the Continent. As soon as the democratic measures of the Constituent Assembly were accomplished, and the powers of the King made subordinate to the will of the representative body, the neighbouring potentates took the alarm, and began to concert measures for enabling Louis XVI. to recover at least a part of his lost prerogatives. The Emperor of Germany, Leopold, the most able and enlightened Sovereign of Europe, who, as Grand Duke of Tuscany had carried out many of those great economical and legal reforms which constitute the pride of modern statesmen, took the lead in these unwarrantable acts of intervention in the affairs of the French people. His relationship to the Queen of Louis XVI. (for they were both the offspring of Maria Theresa) afforded, however, an amiable plea for his conduct, which was not shared by his Royal confederates. Almost every crowned head on the Continent was now covertly or openly conspiring against the principle of self-government in France; and even the Sovereign of England, under the title of King of Hanover, was supposed to be represented at some of their private conferences. The result was the famous Declaration of Pilnitz, put forth in the names of the Emperor and the King of Prussia, in which they declared conjointly, “That they consider the situation of the King of France as a matter of common interest to all the European Sovereigns. They hope that the reality of that interest will be duly appreciated by the other powers, whose assistance they will invoke, and that in consequence, they will not decline to employ their forces conjointly with their Majesties, in order to put the King of France in a situation to lay the foundation of a monarchical government, conformable alike to the rights of Sovereigns and the well-being of the French nation. In that case, the Emperor and the King are resolved to act promptly with the forces necessary to attain their common end. In the meantime, they will give the requisite orders for their troops to hold themselves in immediate readiness for active service.”
It is all-important to observe the date of this Declaration—August 27, 1791—for upon the date depends entirely the question whether France or the Allied Powers were the authors and instigators of the war. Up to this period the French were wholly engrossed in their own internal reforms, and had not given the slightest ground for suspecting that they meditated an act of hostility against any foreign power. “Whilst employed in the extension and security of her liberties,” says Mr. Baines, in his able and candid history of these events, “amidst the struggle with a reluctant monarch, a discontented priesthood, and a hostile nobility, she was menaced at the same time by a sudden and portentous combination of the two great military states—Prussia under the dominion of Frederic William, and Austria under the Emperor Leopold, brother to Marie Antoinette, queen of France.” The French were wholly unprepared for war. Not only were their finances in a ruinous state—the army had fallen into disorder; for whilst the common soldiers were enthusiastic partisans of the Revolution, the officers, who were all of the class of nobles, were often its violent enemies, and many of them had fled the kingdom. Great as was at that time the dread of French principles, no foreign power felt any fear of the physical force of France; for everybody shared the opinion of Burke, that that country had reduced itself to a state of abject weakness by its revolutionary excesses.
But the best proof that the French Government had not given any good ground of offence to foreign powers, is to be found in the fact that the declaration of the Allied Sovereigns contains no complaint of the kind. Their sole object, as avowed by them in this and subsequent manifestoes, was to restore the King to the prerogatives of which he had been deprived by his people. It needs no argument now to prove that this threat of an armed intervention in the internal affairs of France was tantamount to a declaration of war. Compare this conduct of the despotic powers in 1791 with the abstinence from all interference—nay, the punctilious disavowal of all right to interfere—in the domestic affairs of France in 1848, when the changes in the government of that country were of a far more sudden and startling character than those which had taken place at the time of the Declaration of Pilnitz.
These proceedings of the Allied Powers were not sufficient to divert the French from the all-absorbing domestic struggle in which they were involved. No acts of hostility immediately followed. The wise Leopold, who wished to support the authority of the King of France by other means than war, now exerted himself to assemble a congress of all the great powers of Europe, with a view to agree to a form of government for France. Whilst busying himself with this scheme, death put a sudden close to his reign, and his less prudent and pacific successor soon brought matters to extremities. In the meantime Russia, Sweden, Sardinia, and Spain, assumed a more and more hostile attitude towards France. It was, however, from the side of Germany where twenty thousand emigrant French nobles were menacing their native country with invasion, that the chief danger was apprehended; and it was to the Emperor that the French Government addressed itself for a categorical explanation of its intentions. The note in answer demanded the re-establishment of the French monarchy on the basis which had been rejected by the nation in 1789; it required the restoration of the Church lands, part of which had been sold; and it ignored all that had been done by the Constituent Assembly during the last two years. But I will give a description of the Note by one whose leaning to the French will not be suspected.∗ “The demands of the Austrian Court went now, when fully explained, so far back upon the Revolution, that a peace negotiated upon such terms must have laid France and all its various parties (with the exception of a few of the First Assembly) at the “foot of the sovereign, and, what might be more dangerous, at the mercy of the restored emigrants.” The consequences of this Note may be described in the language of the same author. “The Legislative Assembly received these extravagant terms as an insult on the national dignity; and the King, whatever might be his sentiments as an individual, could not, on this occasion, dispense with the duty his office as constitutional monarch imposed on him. Louis, therefore, had the melancholy task of proposing† to an Assembly filled with the enemies of his throne and person, a declaration of war against his brother-in-law‡ the Emperor.”
Thus began a war which, if not the longest, was the bloodiest and most costly that ever afflicted mankind. Whatever faults or crimes may be fairly chargeable upon the French nation for the excesses and cruelties of the Revolution up to this time (April, 1792) it cannot be with justice made responsible for the commencement of the war. What might have happened if foreign governments had abstained from all interference, has frequently been a topic of speculation and hypothetical prophecy with those who, whilst admitting that the French were not the aggressors, are yet unwilling to allow that war could have been avoided. If such speculations were worth pursuing, surely the experience we have since had in France and other countries would lead to the conclusion that a nation, if unmolested from without, is never so little prone to meddle with its neighbours as when involved in the difficulties, dangers, and embarrassments of an internal revolution. But we have to deal with facts and experiences, and they prove that in the case before us France was the aggrieved, and not the aggressive, party.
It is true that France was the first to declare war; which is a proof that she had more respect for the usages and laws of nations than her enemies; for they were making formidable preparations for an invasion, under the plea of restoring order, and re-establishing the King on his throne, with the view, as they pretended, of benefiting the French people. They would not have declared war against France, but against the oppressors of France, as they chose to term the Legislative Assembly. The resistance they met with proved that they were opposed by the whole French nation; and, therefore, the only plea put forth in their justification fails them in the hands of the historian.
On the 25th July following, the Duke of Brunswick, when, on the eve of invading France, with an army of 80,000 Austrian and Prussian troops, and a formidable band of emigrant French nobles, issued a manifesto, in the name of Austria and Prussia, in which he states his conviction that “the majority of the inhabitants of France wait with impatience the moment when succour shall arrive, to declare themselves openly against the odious enterprises of their oppressors.” To afford a full knowledge of the objects of the invaders, and of the atrocious spirit which animated them, I give the following extract from the 8th article of this manifesto:—
“The city of Paris and all its inhabitants, without distinction, shall be called upon to submit instantly, and without delay, to the King, to set that prince at full liberty, and to ensure to him and all the royal persons that inviolability and respect which are due, by the laws of nature and of all nations, to sovereigns; their Imperial and Royal Majesties making personally responsible for all events, on pain of losing their heads, pursuant to military trials, without hope of pardon, all the members of the National Assembly, of the Departments, of the Districts, of the Municipality, and of the National Guards of Paris, Justices of the Peace, and others whom it may concern. And their Imperial and Royal Majesties further declare, on the faith and word of Emperor and King, that if the palace of the Tuileries be forced or insulted, if the least violence be offered, the least outrage done, their Majesties, the King, the Queen, and the Royal Family, if they be not immediately placed in safety, and set at liberty, they will inflict on those who shall deserve it the most exemplary and ever memorable avenging punishment, by giving up the city of Paris to military execution, and exposing it to total destruction.”
In an additional declaration, published two days later, after declaring that he makes no alteration in the 8th article of the former manifesto, he adds, in case the King, Queen, or any member or the Royal Family should be carried off by any of the factions, that “all the places and towns whatsoever, which shall not have opposed their passage, and shall not have stopped their proceeding, shall incur the same punishments as those inflicted on the inhabitants of Paris; and the route which shall be taken by those who carry off the King and the Royal Family shall be marked with a series of exemplary punishments, justly due to the authors and abettors of crimes for which there is no remission.”
Let it be borne in mind that these proclamations, worthy of Timoor or Attila, were issued at a moment when Louis XVI. was still exercising the functions of a Constitutional Sovereign in France; for it was not till the 10th of August that his palace was assailed by the armed populace, and he and his family were consigned to a prison. And here, in taking leave of the belligerents on the Continent—for my task is confined to the investigation of the origin, and not the progress of the war—let it be observed that there is not a writer, whether French or English, who, in recording historically the dismal catalogue of crimes which from this time for a period of three years disgraced the domestic annals of France, does not attribute the ferocity of the people, and the atrocities committed by them, in a large degree, to the proclamation of the Duke of Brunswick, and the subsequent invasion of the French territory.
There is nothing so certain to extinguish the magnanimity, which is the natural attribute of great multitudes of men, conscious of their strength, as the suspicion of treachery on the part of those to whom they are opposed. It is under the excitement of this passion that the most terrible sacrifices to popular vengeance have been made. The names of De Witt and Artevelde are remarkable among the victims to popular suspicion. But never was this feeling excited to such a state of frenzy as in Paris on the first news of the successes of the invading armies. The King, the nobility, the clergy, and all the opulent classes were suspected of being in correspondence with the foreigner; and the terrors of the populace pictured the Austrians already at the gates of Paris, and the royalists pouring forth to welcome them and to offer their aid in the vengeance which was to follow. It was under this impression of treachery that the horrible massacre of the political prisoners, on the 2nd of September, took place.
But I prefer to give the testimony of a writer who will have little sympathy, probably, for the main argument of this letter:
“No doubt,” says Alison,∗ “can now exist that the interference of the Allies augmented the horrors and added to the duration of the Revolution. All its bloodiest excesses were committed during or after an alarming, but unsuccessful, invasion by the allied forces. The massacres of September 2nd were perpetrated when the public mind was excited to the highest degree by the near approach of the Duke of Brunswick, and the worst days of the government of Robespierre were immediately after the defection of Dumourier and the battle of Nerwinde threatened the rule of the Jacobins with destruction. Nothing but a sense of public danger could have united the factions who then strove with so much exasperation against each other; the peril of France alone could have induced the people to submit to the sanguinary rule which so long desolated its plains. The Jacobins maintained their ascendancy by constantly representing their cause as that of national independence, by stigmatising their enemies as the enemies of the country; and the patriots wept and suffered in silence, lest by resistance they should weaken the state and cause France to be erased from among the nations.”
If facts have any logical bearing upon human affairs, I think I have shown that the war was provoked by the allied powers. Let us now turn to the part performed by England in the events which followed.
From the moment of the appearance of Burke's famous Reflections in 1790, the character, objects, and proceedings of the Constituent Assembly occupied every day more intensely the attention of the English public. The country took sides, and politicians attacked or defended, according to their own views and aspirations, the conduct of the leaders of the Revolution. Not only were the columns of the newspapers occupied with this all-engrossing topic, but the press teemed with pamphlets and volumes in support of, or in opposition to, Burke's production. The most masterly of the latter class was the Vindiciæ Galliæ of Sir James Macintosh, which advocated the fundamental principles of freedom and humanity with a far closer logic and a style scarcely less attractive than that of his great opponent. By degrees the character of the liberal party, comprising the Whigs and Dissenters, became involved to some extent in the fate of the Revolution, and their opponents took care to heap upon them all the odium which attached to the disorders and excesses of the French people. When the Jacobins, as the ultra party were nicknamed, became powerful in France, that detestable name was assigned to the English reformers by their Tory enemies, who, holding as they did the stamp of fashion in their hands, could give general currency to their damaging epithets.
But gradually, and almost imperceptibly, a change came over the character of the controversy. In a couple of years the tone of the dominant classes had altered, first from cold criticism upon the Revolution to fierce invectives, then to menaces, and finally to the cry for war, until at last the Tories and Liberals, instead of being merely contending commentators upon French politics were involved in a fierce contest with each other upon the question of peace or war with the government of France. From that time all that remained of the liberal party, thinned as it was by defection, and headed heroically by Fox, ranged themselves on the side of peace. “The cry of peace,” said Windham∗ (Secretary at War), “proceeded from the Jacobin party in this country, and although every one who wished for peace was not a Jacobin, yet every Jacobin wished for peace.”
There is every reason to suppose that Pitt† would have individually preferred peace. By a commercial treaty which he had entered into with France a few years previously he had greatly extended the trading relations of the two countries, and it is known that he was bent upon some important plans of financial and commercial reform. Upon the meeting of Parliament in 1792, he proposed reduced estimates for our military establishments, and nothing boded the approach of war. The governing class in this country shared the opinions of Mr. Burke as to the powerless condition to which France had reduced herself by her internal convulsion. A veteran army of nearly 100,000 men, under experienced generals, was preparing to invade that country, which, torn by civil strife, with a bankrupt exchequer, and with the court, aristocracy, and clergy secretly favouring the enemy, seemed to offer a certain triumph to its assailants. Little doubt was felt that one campaign would “restore order” to France.
But the Duke of Brunswick's atrocious proclamation had produced upon the French people an effect very different from that which was expected. It is thus described by Alison:∗ “A unanimous spirit of resistance burst forth in every part of France. The military preparations were redoubled; the ardour of the multitude was raised to the highest pitch. The manifesto of the allied powers was regarded as unfolding the real designs of the court and the emigrants. Revolt against the throne appeared the only mode of maintaining their liberties or preserving their independence; the people of Paris had no choice between victory or death.”
The campaign which followed proved disastrous to the invaders, and in September the Duke of Brunswick was in full retreat from French territory. Soon afterwards Dumourier gained the battle of Jemmappes, and took possession of the Austrian Netherlands. On the Rhine and the frontier of Savoy the French armies were also successful.
An instantaneous change of policy now took place in England. The Government had looked on in silence, or with merely an occasional protestation of neutrality, whilst the allied armies were preparing to invade, and, as everybody believed, to occupy the French territory. But no sooner did the news of French victories arrive than the tone of our ministers instantly changed, and even Pitt, with all his cautiousness, was so thrown off his guard, that he disclosed the true object of the war which followed:—
“Those opinions,” said he,∗ “which the French entertained, were of the most dangerous nature; they were opinions professed by interest, inflamed by passion, propagated by delusion, which their success had carried to the utmost excess, and had contributed to render still more dangerous. For, would the Right Honourable Gentleman tell him that the French opinions received no additional weight from the success of their armies? Was it possible to separate between the progress of their opinions and the success of their armies? It was evident that the one must influence the other, and that the diffusion of their principles must keep pace with the extent of their victories. He was not afraid of the progress of French principles in this country, unless the defence of the country should be previously undermined by the introduction of those principles.”
And in the same speech he thus particularises the objects of his solicitude:—
“They had seen, within two or three years, a revolution in France, founded upon principles which were inconsistent with every regular government, which were hostile to hereditary monarchy, to nobility, to all the privileged orders, and to every sort of popular representation, short of that which would give to every individual a voice in the election of representatives.”
The militia was now suddenly embodied, and Parliament was summoned to meet on the 13th of December. Before, however, we refer to this, the closing scene of the peace, it is necessary for a correct understanding of our relationship with France to take a review of the correspondence which was at the same time going on between our Foreign Secretary and M. Chauvelin, the French ambassador at London. Here again, we must pay particular attention to dates.∗
The correspondence commences with a letter, dated May 12, 1792, from M. Chauvelin to Lord Grenville, explaining the cause of the war between France and the Emperor, and complaining in the name of the King of the French that the Emperor Leopold had promoted a great conspiracy against France.
On the 18th June, 1792, M. Chauvelin alludes at greater length, in a letter to Lord Grenville, to the coalition formed on the Continent against France, and asks the British Government to exert its influence to stop the progress of that confederacy, and especially “to dissuade from all accession to this project all those of the allies of England whom it may be wished to draw into it!”
In reply to this letter, Lord Grenville declines to interfere with the allies of this country, to put an end to the confederacy against France, alleging that “the intervention of his counsels or of his good offices cannot be of use unless they should be desired by all the parties interested.” [In direct contradiction to his, was the following passage in the King's speech, January 31, of this very year, 1792, on opening the session:—“Our intervention has also been employed with a view to promote a pacification between the Empress of Russia and the Porte; and conditions have been agreed upon between us and the former of these powers which we undertook to recommend to the Porte, as the re-establishment of peace on such terms appeared to be, under all the circumstances, a desirable event for the general interests of Europe.”]
On the news of the dethronement of the King of France in August, M. Chauvelin received notice, as has been before seen, that he would no longer be recognised by the English Government in his official character; and there was an interval of several months during which the correspondence was suspended. On the 13th December, as before stated, Parliament was hastily assembled: the King's speech announced that the militia had been embodied, and recommended an increase of the army and navy; it complained of the aggressive conduct of the French, and their disregard of the rights of neutral nations. [Not a syllable had been said in disapproval of the conduct of the allied powers when they began the unprovoked attack on France, an attack the complete failure of which was now known in England.] The speeches of the ministers and the majority in Parliament, in the debate on the address, were of a most warlike character. On the 27th of December, 1792, after these occurrences (do not for a moment lose sight of the dates), M. Chauvelin renews the correspondence with Lord Grenville. He begins by saying that he makes his communication at the request of his own Government. After adducing the fact of his having remained in England since August, notwithstanding the recall of our ambassador Lord Gower from Paris, as “a proof of the desire the French Government had to live on good terms with his Britannic Majesty,” he proceeds to complain that “a character of ill-will to which he is yet unwilling to give credit,” has been observable in the measures recently adopted by the British Government, and he asks whether France ought to consider England as a neutral power or an enemy. “But in asking from the ministers of his Britannic Majesty a frank and open explanation as to their intentions with regard to France, the Executive Council of the French Government is unwilling they should have the smallest remaining doubt as to the disposition of France towards England, and as to its desire of remaining at peace with her; it has ever been desirous of answering beforehand all the reproaches which they may be tempted to make in justification of a rupture.” He then proceeds to offer explanations upon the three reasons which he surmises might weigh with the English, and lead them “to break with the French Republic.” The first has reference to the decree of the National Convention of the 19th November, offering fraternity to all people who wish to recover their liberty; the next, the opening of the Scheldt, consequent upon the conquest of the Austrian Netherlands; and thirdly, the violation of the territory of Holland. With respect to the decree of the 19th November, offering assistance to all people wishing for liberty, he said: “The National Convention never meant that the French Republic should favour insurrections, should espouse the quarrels of a few seditious persons, or in a word should endeavour to excite disturbances in any neutral or friendly country whatever.” He then proceeds to say—“France ought to and will respect, not only the independence of England, but even that of those of her allies with whom she is not at war. The undersigned has therefore been charged formally to declare that she will not attack Holland so long as that power shall on its side confine itself towards her within the bounds of a strict neutrality.” He then refers to the only other question, the opening of the Scheldt, “a question irrevocably decided by reason and justice, of small importance in itself, and on which the opinion of England, and perhaps of Holland itself, is sufficiently known to render it difficult to make it seriously the single subject of war.”
M. Chauvelin says, in conclusion, “He hopes that the ministers of his Britannic Majesty will be brought back by the explanations which this note contains, to ideas more favourable to the re-union of the two countries, and that they will not have occasion, for the purpose of returning to them, to consider the terrible responsibility of a declaration of war, which will incontestably be their own work, the consequences of which cannot be otherwise than fatal to the two countries, and to human nature in general, and in which a generous and free people cannot long consent to betray their own interests, by serving as an auxiliary and a reinforcement to a tyrannical coalition.”
The reply of Lord Grenville, dated December 31, begins in the following haughty fashion:—“I have received, Sir, from you a note, in which, styling yourself minister plenipotentiary of France, you communicate to me, as the King's Secretary of State, the instructions which you state to have yourself received from the Executive Council of the French Republic. You are not ignorant, that since the unhappy events of the 10th August, the King has thought proper to suspend all official communication with France.” The rest of the letter repels with little ceremony the advances of the French minister, and subjects his pleas and excuses to a cold and incredulous criticism. It reiterates the complaints respecting the Decree of the 19th November, the opening of the Scheldt, and the violation of the territory of Holland. “If France,” said Lord Grenville, “is really desirous of maintaining friendship and peace with England, she must shew herself disposed to renounce her views of aggression and aggrandisement, and confine herself within her own territory, without insulting other governments, without disturbing their tranquillity, or violating their rights.” [It would have added much to the force of this remonstrance if a similar tone had been taken a year earlier, when the famous Declaration of Pilnitz was published.]
M. Chauvelin, notwithstanding this repulse, again addresses Lord Grenville, January 7, 1793, bringing under his notice the Alien bill just introduced into Parliament, and which contained, as he alleged, provisions, so far as French citizens were concerned, inconsistent with the letter and spirit of the treaty of commerce entered into by France and England in 1786; and he concludes by asking to be informed whether, “under the general denomination of foreigners, in the bill on which the Houses are occupied, the Government of Great Britain means likewise to include the French.” This letter is returned to the writer by Lord Grenville, the same day, accompanied with a short note, declaring it to be “totally inadmissible, M. Chauvelin assuming therein a character which is not acknowledged.”
Unable to obtain a hearing in his official capacity, M. Chauvelin abandons the former style of his letters, which ran—the undersigned minister plenipotentiary, &c., and now addresses a letter to Lord Grenville, beginning “My Lord,” and dropping all allusion to his own diplomatic quality. In this letter, he complains that several vessels in British ports freighted with grain for the French Government had been stopped, contrary to law; he has been informed by respectable authorities that the custom-houses had received orders to permit the exportation of foreign wheat to all ports except those of France; and he goes on to say, “I should the first moment of my knowing it, have waited upon you, my Lord, to be assured from yourself of its certainty, or its falsehood, if the determination taken by his Britannic Majesty, in the present circumstance, to break off all communication between the governments of the two countries, had not rendered friendly and open steps the more difficult in proportion as they became the more necessary.”
And he adds:—“But I considered, my Lord, when the question of war or peace arose between two powerful nations, that which manifested the desire of attending to all explanations, that which strove the longest to preserve the last link of union and friendship, was the only one which appeared truly worthy and truly great. I beseech you, my Lord, in the name of public faith, in the name of justice and of humanity, to explain to me facts which I will not characterise, and which the French nation would take for granted by your silence only, or by the refusal of an answer.”
Lord Grenville's answer, dated 9th January, 1793, evades the question:—“I do not know,” says he, “in what capacity you address me, in the letter which I have received; but in every case it would be necessary to know the resolutions which shall have been taken in France, in consequence of what has already passed before I can enter into any new explanations, especially with respect to measures founded, in a great degree, on those motives of jealousy and uneasiness which I have already detailed to you.”
Nothing daunted, the indefatigable Frenchman renews the correspondence on the 11th. But having resumed the diplomatic style of “the undersigned minister plenipotentiary,” his letter, which states that the “French Republic cannot but regard the conduct of the English Government as a manifest infraction of the treaty of commerce concluded between the two powers, and that, consequently, France ceases to consider herself as bound by that treaty, and that she regards it from this moment as broken and annulled,” was returned to him by Mr. Aust, a clerk, probably, in the Foreign Office, with the following note:—
“Mr. Aust is charged to send back to M. Chauvelin the enclosed paper received yesterday at the office for Foreign Affairs.”
Next, we have a letter from M. Chauvelin to Lord Grenville, written in an unofficial form, dated January 12th, stating that he had just received a messenger from Paris, and soliciting a personal interview; which request is granted, on condition that the communication be put upon paper. On the following day M. Chauvelin communicates to Lord Grenville a copy of a paper which he had received from M. Le Brun, the Foreign Minister of France. This dispatch contains the strongest expressions of a desire to maintain amicable relations with England. “The sentiments of the French nation towards the English,” says the Foreign Minister of France, “have been manifested during the whole course of the Revolution, in so constant, so unanimous a manner, that there cannot remain the smallest doubt of the esteem which it has vowed them, and of its desire of having them for friends.” He then proceeds to discuss, at length, the several topics in dispute between the two countries. As respects the obnoxious decree of the 19th November, every effort is made to explain away its offensive meaning, and it is at last admitted that the object contemplated “might, perhaps, be dispensed with by the National Convention, that it was scarcely worth the while to express it, and it did not deserve to be made the object of a particular decree.”
Assuming that the British Government is satisfied with the declaration made on the part of the French, relative to Holland, the paper proceeds, at length, into the question of the opening of the Scheldt, which is justified by an appeal to the rights of nature and of all the nations of Europe. The Emperor of Germany concluded the treaty for giving the exclusive right of the navigation of the Scheldt to the Dutch without consulting the Belgians. “The Emperor, to secure the possession of the Low Countries, sacrificed, without scruple, the most inviolable of rights.” And, further, “France enters into war with the House of Austria, expels it from the Low Countries, and calls back to freedom those people whom the Court of Vienna had devoted to slavery.” The paper proceeds to say that France does not aim at the permanent occupation of the Low Countries, and that after the close of the war, if England and Holland still attach some importance to the re-closing of the Scheldt, they may put the affair into a direct negotiation with Belgium. If the Belgians, by any motive whatever, consent to deprive themselves of the navigation of the Scheldt, France will not oppose it.
Lord Grenville in his reply to this letter (January 18, 1793) begins by saying, “I have examined, Sir, with the greatest attention, the paper which you delivered to me on the 13th of this month. I cannot conceal from you that I have found nothing satisfactory in the result of that note.” The rest of the letter is either a repetition of the former complaints, or an attempt to extract fresh sources of dispute from the preceding communication. After the exchange of two other unimportant letters, we come to the dénouement. On the 24th January, on the news reaching London of the execution of Louis XVI., Lord Grenville transmits to M. Chauvelin the order of the Privy Council, requiring him to leave the country in eight days.
I have given these copious extracts from this most portentous of all diplomatic correspondence, not to exonerate you from the trouble of reading the remainder, for every word ought to be studied by those who wish to understand the origin of the war, but to enable you to form a correct opinion of the animus which influenced the two parties. Contrast the conciliatory, the almost supplicatory tone of the one, with the repulsive and haughty style of the other, and then ask—which was bent upon hostilities, and which on peace? Recollect that these correspondents were the representatives respectively of sixteen millions of British and twenty-four millions of French, and then say whether the insolent de-haut-en-bas treatment received by the latter could have been intended for any other purpose but to provoke a war. Observe that the more urgent the Frenchman became in his desire to explain away the ground of quarrel, the more resolute was the English negotiator to close up the path to reconciliation;—forcing upon us the conviction that what the British Government really dreaded at that moment was, not the hostility but, the friendship of France.
And, now, a word as to the alleged grounds of the rupture. It must be observed, in the first place, that there is no complaint on our part of any hostile act, or even word being directed against ourselves. The bombastic decree∗ of the National Convention—one of the midnight declarations of that excited body—was put prominently in the bill of indictment, but it was never alleged that it was specially levelled at this country. It was aimed at the governments of the Continent in retaliation for their conspiracies against the French Revolution. “If you invade us with bayonets, we will invade you with liberties,”—was the language addressed by the orators of the Convention to the despotic powers. That this decree was, however, a fair ground of negotiation by our Government cannot be denied, and it is evident from the desire of the French minister to explain away its obnoxious meaning, going so far even as to admit that “perhaps” it ought not to have been passed, that a little more remonstrance in an earnest and peaceful spirit, would have led to a satisfactory explanation on this point. In fact, within a few months of this time the decree was rescinded.
With respect to the Dutch right to a monopoly of the Scheldt:—if that was really one of the objects of the war, the twenty-two years of hostilities might have been spared; for if there was any one thing, besides the abolition of the slave trade, which the Congress of Vienna effected at the close of the war, to the satisfaction of all parties, and with the hearty concurrence of England, it was setting free the navigation of the great rivers of Europe. Nothing need be said about the remaining question of the inviolability of the territory of Holland, inasmuch as the French minister offered to give us a satisfactory pledge upon that point. I may merely add that the Dutch Government abstained from making any demand upon England to sustain its claim to the exclusive navigation of the Scheldt, and wisely so:—for it probably foresaw what happened in the war which followed, when the French, having taken possession of Holland, where they were welcomed by a large part of the population as friends, and having turned the Dutch fleet against us, in less than three years, we seized all the principal colonies of that country, and some of them (to our cost) we retain to the present day.
Whilst through this official correspondence the French Government was endeavouring to remove the causes of war, other and less formal means were resorted to for accomplishing the same end. Attached to the French embassy were several individuals, selected for their popular address, their familiarity with the English language, and their talent in conversation or as writers, who, by mixing in society, and especially that of the Liberals, might, it was hoped, influence public opinion in favour of peace. Amongst these was one who played the chief diplomatic part in the great drama which was about to follow. “The mission of M. de Talleyrand to London,” says M. Lamartine,∗ “was to endeavour to fraternise the aristocratic principle of the English constitution with the democratic principle of the French constitution, which it was believed could be effected and controlled by an upper Chamber. It was hoped to interest the statesmen of Great Britain in a revolution imitated from their own, which, after having convulsed the people, was now being moulded in the hands of an intelligent aristocracy.”
Beyond the circles of the more ardent reformers, however, or the society of a few philosophical thinkers, these semiofficial diplomatists made very little way. They were coldly, and sometimes even uncivilly treated; as the following incident, in which Talleyrand played a part, will shew. “One evening all the members of the embassy, with Dumont, went to Ranelagh, which was then frequented by the most respectable classes of English society. As they entered, there was a murmur of voices—‘There is the French embassy!’ All eyes were fixed on them with a curiosity not mixed with any expression of good-will; and presently the crowd fell back on both sides, as if the Frenchmen had the plague upon them, and left them all the promenade to themselves.”∗ This incident occurred before the dethronement of the King in August; and the writer from whom the above is quoted in the “Pictorial History of England,” after labouring through several pages to prove that the French were the authors of the war, refutes himself with great naïveté by adding, “The public feeling which would have driven England into a war in spite of any ministry, shewed itself in a marked manner even before the horrors of the 10th August and the massacres of September.”
The feeling in France towards England was the very opposite of this, up to the time when the hostile sentiments of our Government became known, and, even then, there was a strong disposition to separate the aristocracy from the people, and to attribute to the former all the enmity which characterised our policy towards them. Previously to the Revolution, English tastes had been largely adopted in France; and indeed so great was at one time the disposition to imitate the amusements, dress, equipage, &c., of Englishmen, that it had acquired the epithet of Anglomania. When political reform became the engrossing thought of the nation, what so natural as that the French people should turn a favourable eye to England, whose superior aptitude for self-government, and more jealous love of personal liberty, they were ready then, as they are now, to acknowledge. Never, therefore, was the sympathy for England so strong as at the commencement of their Revolution. When the Declaration of Pilnitz, and the hostile proceedings of the emigrant nobles at Coblentz in 1791, drew forth the indignant denunciations of Brissot and other orators, and induced some of them to call for war as the only means of putting an end to the clandestine correspondence which was carried on between the “conspirators without and the traitors within,” no such feeling was entertained towards England; and even after the breaking out of hostilities with this country, so unpopular was the war, that the strongest reproach that one unscrupulous faction could throw upon another was in mutual accusation of having provoked it. This fact was at a subsequent period referred to by Lord Mornington,∗ one of Pitt's supporters, as a proof that the British Government at least did not provoke the war. “Robespierre,” said he, “imputes it to Brissot; Brissot retorts it upon Robespierre; the Jacobins charge it upon the Girondists; the Girondists recriminate upon the Jacobins; the mountain thunders it upon the valley; and the valley re-echoes it back against the mountain.”
“All facts,” said Sheridan, with unanswerable force, in reply, “tending to contradict the assertion which the noble Lord professed to establish by them, and making still plainer that there was no party in France which was not earnest to avoid a rupture with this country, nor any party which we may not at this moment reasonably believe to be inclined to put an end to hostilities.”
I have said sufficient probably to satisfy you that France did not desire a collision with England; and that the pretexts put forward by Lord Grenville in his correspondence with M. Chauvelin were not sufficient grounds for the rupture. But I will now redeem my pledge, and prove to you, from the admissions of the partisans of the war, that the real motive was to put down opinions in France, or at least to prevent the spread of them in this country.
Parliament, as I before stated, was hastily summoned for the 13th December, 1792. The country stood on the verge of the most fearful calamity that could befall it. But the mass of the people, whose passions and prejudices had been roused against their old enemies the French, did not see the danger before them, and they were ready for a war. At the same time, to quote the words of Sir Walter Scott,∗ “the whole aristocratic party, commanding a very large majority in both Houses of Parliament, became urgent that war should be declared against France; a holy war, it said, against treason, blasphemy, and murder; and a necessary war, in order to break off all connection betwixt the French Government and the discontented part of our own subjects, who could not otherwise be prevented from the most close, constant, and dangerous intercourse with them.” To add to the excitement, tales of plots and conspiracies were circulated; additional fortifications were ordered for the Tower of London; and a large armed force was drawn round the metropolis. Speaking of the efforts that were made to create a panic in the public mind, Lord Lauderdale† at a later period observed:—“But is there a man in England ignorant that the most wicked arts have been practised to irritate and mislead the multitude? Have not handbills, wretched songs, infamous pamphlets, false and defamatory paragraphs in newspapers been circulated with the greatest assiduity, all tending to rouse the indignation of this country against France, with whom it has been long determined I fear to go to war? To such low artifices are these mercenaries reduced, that they have both the folly and audacity to proclaim that the New River water has been poisoned with arsenic by French emissaries.”
It must not be forgotten that at the very moment when all this preparation was being made against an attack from the French, and when this panic in the public mind was thus artfully created, M. Chauvelin was besieging the Foreign Office with proposals for peace, and, when denied admittance at the front door, entered meekly at the back, asking only to know on what terms, however humiliating, war with England might be averted. The public knew nothing of this at the time, for diplomacy was then, as now, a secret art; but the Government knew it.
The King's speech, at the opening of the session, began by saying, that having judged it necessary to embody a part of the militia, he had, according to law, called Parliament together. He then alluded to seditious practices and a spirit of tumult and disorder, “shewing itself in acts of riot and insurrection, which required the interposition of a military force.” Then followed an allusion to “our happy constitution,” which seems a little misplaced in the midst of riot and insurrection; but the King relied on the firm determination of Parliament “to defend and maintain that constitution which has so long protected the liberties, and promoted the happiness of every class of my subjects.” Next, there was a complaint against France for “exciting disturbances in foreign countries, disregarding the rights of neutral nations, and pursuing views of conquest and aggrandisement.” The speech then announced an augmentation of the naval and military force, as “necessary in the present state of affairs, and best calculated, both to maintain internal tranquillity, and to render a firm and temperate conduct effectual for preserving the blessings of peace.”
The address, in reply to the speech, was carried without a division. The members who were opposed to the war, spoke under the discouraging consciousness that, so far from having that popular support and sympathy which could alone make their opposition formidable, the advocates of peace were in as small a minority in the country as in Parliament. On the first night of the session, after denouncing the panic which had been artfully created, Mr. Fox said, “I am not so ignorant of the present state of men's minds, and of the ferment artfully created, as not to know that I am now advancing an opinion likely to be unpopular. It is not the first time I have incurred the same hazard.” And, on a subsequent occasion, in a still more dejected tone, he said,∗ —“I have done my duty in submitting my ideas to the House; and in doing this, I cannot possibly have had any other motive than those of public duty. What were my motives? Not to court the favour of ministers, or those by whom ministers are supposed to be favoured; not to gratify my friends, as the debates in this House have shewn; not to court popularity, for the general conversation, both within and without these walls, has shewn that to gain popularity I must have held the opposite course. The people may treat my house as they have done that of Dr. Priestley—as it is said they have done more recently that of Mr. Walker.∗ My motive only was that they might know what was the real cause of the war into which they are likely to be plunged; and that they might know that it depended on a mere matter of form and ceremony.”
It is impossible to read the speeches of Fox, at this time, without feeling one's heart yearn with admiration and gratitude for the bold and resolute manner in which he opposed the war, never yielding and never repining, under the most discouraging defeats; and, although deserted by many of his friends in the House, taunted with having only a score of followers left, and obliged to admit† that he could not walk the streets without being insulted by hearing the charge made against him of carrying on an improper correspondence with the enemy in France, yet bearing it all with uncomplaining manliness and dignity. The annals of Parliament do not record a nobler struggle in a nobler cause.
It may naturally be asked, why, with the popular opinions running thus strongly against “French principles,” did the Government resort to such arts as have been described, for creating a still greater panic in men's minds, or where was the motive for going to war with the French Republic? But “the wicked fleeth when no man pursueth.” The vaunted “Constitution” of that time was, so far as the House of Commons was concerned, an insult to reason, an impudent fraud, which would not bear discussion; and the “borough-mongers,” as they were afterwards called, were trembling lest its real character might be exposed, if people were left at leisure to examine it. What that character was, we have been, with infinite naïveté, informed by one of its admirers. “The Government of Great Britain,” says Alison,∗ “which was supposed, by theoretical observers, to have been anterior to the great change of 1832, a mixed constitution, in which the Crown, the Nobles, and the Commons mutually checked and counteracted each other, was in reality an aristocracy, having a sovereign for the executive, disguised under the popular forms of a republic.” Although this Government of false pretences had two extremes of society, the interested few and the ignorant many, on its side; yet there was a small party of parliamentary reformers, who, though stigmatised as “Jacobins,” “Levellers,” and “Republicans,” were active, earnest, and able men, comprising in their body nearly all the intellect of the age; and it was from the chimerical fear that these men would put themselves under the influence of French politicians that the two countries were to be rent asunder by war. Upon this point we have the ingenious avowal of a young statesman, who lived to fill the highest office in the State. Mr. Jenkinson† (afterwards Lord Liverpool), said,—“He had heard it frequently urged that this was a period particularly unfavourable to a war with France, on account of the number of discontented persons amongst us in correspondence with the seditious of that country, who menaced and endangered our government and constitution. That there was a small party entertaining such designs he had very little doubt; and, from their great activity, he also considered them as dangerous; but he confessed that this very circumstance, so far from deterring him from war, became a kind of inducement. They might be troublesome in times of peace—they might be tranquil in time of war; for as soon as hostilities were commenced, the correspondence with the French must cease, and all the resource they had would be to emigrate to that country, which would be a good thing for this; or, remaining where they are, to conduct themselves like good citizens, as that correspondence which by law was not punishable now, would in time of war be treason.”
The same motive for the war was at last avowed by him who had performed the part of Peter the Hermit, in rousing the warlike spirit of the nation. Edmund Burke, who from the year 1789, was possessed by a species of monomania upon the French Revolution, took a prominent part in these discussions; indeed, whatever was the subject before the House, if he rose to speak upon it, he was pretty certain to mount his favourite hobby before he resumed his seat. “Let the subject, the occasion, the argument be what it may,” said Mr. Francis,∗ “he has but one way of treating it. War and peace, the repair of a turnpike, the better government of nations, the direction of a canal, and the security of the constitution are all alike in his contemplation: the French Revolution is an answer to everything; the French Revolution is his everlasting theme, the universal remedy, the grand specific, the never-failing panacea, the principal burden of his song; and with this he treats us from day to day; a cold, flat, insipid hash of the same dish, perpetually served up to us in different shapes, till at length with all his cookery, the taste revolts, the palate sickens at it.”
At length, on the discussion of the Alien Bill,† Burke's powers of reason and judgment seemed to be entirely overborne by a frenzied imagination. Drawing forth a dagger and brandishing it in the air, he cast it with great vehemence of action on the floor: “It is my object,” said he, “to keep the French infection from this country: their principles from our minds, and their daggers from our hearts! I vote for this bill, because I believe it to be the means of saving my life and all our lives from the hands of assassins; I vote for it because it will break the abominable system of the modern pantheon, and prevent the introduction of French principles and French daggers. When they smile I see blood trickling down their faces; I see their insidious purposes,—I see that the object of all their cajoling is blood! I now warn my countrymen to beware of these execrable philosophers, whose only object it is to destroy everything that is good here, and to establish immorality and murder by precept and example!”
And on a subsequent occasion,∗ immediately after the declaration of hostilities, he declared his fixed opinion that “if we continued at peace with France, there would not be ten years of stability in the government of this country.” Thus did he who first sounded the tocsin of war, and led the public mind through each successive phase of hostility, until he triumphed in the deadly struggle which had now begun, avow that the object he sought was to avert the danger with which French principles menaced the institutions of this country.
I must add one extract from a speech delivered by Mr. Windham, the leader of the Whig seceders, who became Pitt's Secretary at War. It was delivered on the 1st February, 1793, the day on which war was declared by France, but before that event was known here. “He agreed that in all probability the French had no wish at this moment to go to war with this country, as they were not yet ready to do so; their object seemed to be to take all Europe in detail, and we might be reserved to be the last.” Here the whole case as against ourselves is fully admitted by one of the most determined advocates of the war. It is needless to add, that if we were justified in going to war because we predicted that France would attack us at some future time, there never need be a want of justification for a war.
But it is at a somewhat later period that we discover more clearly the real motives of the war as acknowledged by its authors. In 1795, when hostilities had been carried on for two years, with but little impression upon the enemy, and when the cry for peace became general, there was less reserve in avowing the objects for which we had entered upon war. In a speech in favour of peace, Mr. Wilberforce∗ said: “With regard to the probable consequences of pursuing the war, he considered them to be in their nature uncertain. Heretofore it might justly be said to be carried on in order to prevent the progress of French principles; but now there was much more danger of their being strengthened by a general discontent, arising from a continuance of the war, than from any importation of the principles themselves from France.”
On a subsequent occasion, after the government of France had undergone a change, and had passed into the hands of the Directory, and when the British ministry was constrained by the general discontent to make a profession of willingness to negotiate for peace, they were obliged, in order to justify themselves for having formerly advocated war, to point to the altered, and as they alleged more settled, state of the French Government as the cause of the change in their policy. Mr. Pitt† said—“I certainly said that the war was not like others, occasioned by particular insult, or the unjust seizure of territory, or the like, or undertaken to repel usurpation, connected with principles calculated to subvert all government, and which, while they flourished in their original force and malignity, were totally incompatible with the accustomed relations of peace and amity. We professed also that many persons in that country felt the pressure of the calamities under which it laboured, and were ready to co-operate for the destruction of the causes which occasioned them.”
In the debate in the House of Lords which followed this pacific message from the King a more undisguised statement was made by one who, as a cabinet minister, had the fullest opportunity of knowing the motives of those who entered upon the war. Earl Fitzwilliam∗ said:—“The present war was of a nature different from all common wars. It was commenced, not from any of the ordinary motives of policy and ambition. It was expressly undertaken to restore order in France, and to effect the destruction of the abominable system that prevailed in that country. Upon this understanding it was that he had separated from some of those with whom he had long acted in politics, and with other noble friends had lent aid to his Majesty's ministers. Upon this understanding he had filled that situation which he some time since held in the Cabinet. Knowing then on such authority the object of the war to have been to restore order in France, he was somewhat surprised at the declaration in the message that his Majesty was now prepared to treat for peace.”
The Fitzwilliams have always had the habit of plain-speaking, though not of invariably foreseeing all the logical consequences of what they say. Their honesty has, however, been proverbial; and as in this case the speaker went to the unusual length of giving evidence as a cabinet minister against his former colleagues, and was not contradicted, we may take his statement as conclusive proof upon the question in hand. But what must we think of the conduct of the government, and especially of Mr. Pitt and Lord Grenville, in having thrown the responsibility of the war upon France upon such pretences as the opening of the navigation of the Scheldt whilst at the same time we have overwhelming evidence to show that they were determined to provoke a collision for totally different objects? What will be said of it when our history is written by some future Niebuhr? I could multiply quotations of a similar tendency to the above, but I forbear from a conviction that no further evidence is required to prove my case.
But there is one act of our government, illustrative of its motives in entering upon the war, which I must not omit to mention. Shortly after the commencement of hostilities (November, 1793) our naval forces took possession of Toulon, when Admiral Hood and the British Commissioners published a proclamation, in the name of the King of England, to the people of France, in which they declared in favour of monarchy in France in the person of Louis XVII. But not a word did they say about the opening of the navigation of the Scheldt or the pretended objects of the war. And about the same time∗ the King of England published a declaration to the French nation, in which he promises the “suspension of hostilities, and friendship, security and protection to all those who by declaring for monarchical government shall shake off the yoke of a sanguinary anarchy.” It is strange that our government did not see that this was as much an act of intervention in the internal concerns of another people as anything which had been done by the French Convention, and that, in fact, it was affording a justification for every act of the kind perpetrated on the Continent, from the Declaration of Pilnitz to the present moment.
In drawing this argument to a close, I have done nothing but prove the truth of a statement made by a writer who has devoted far more time, labour, and learning to the investigation of the subject than it is in my power to bestow. Considering that he is a partisan of the war, and an admirer of the political system which it was designed to uphold, I cannot but marvel at his candour, which I should the more admire if I were sure that he has fully appreciated the logical consequences that flow from his admissions. The following are the remarks of Sir A. Alison upon the origin of the war:—
“In truth, the arguments urged by Government were not the only motives for commencing the war. The danger they apprehended lay nearer home than the conquest of the Republicans: it was not foreign subjugation so much as domestic revolution that was dreaded if a pacific intercourse were any longer maintained with France. ‘Croyez-moi,’ said the Empress Catherine to Segur, in 1789, ‘une guerre seule peut changer la direction des esprits en France, les réunir, donner un but plus utile aux passions et réveiller le vrai patriotisme.’∗In this observation is contained the true secret, and the best vindication of the revolutionary war. The passions were excited; democratic ambition was awakened; the desire of power under the name of reform was rapidly gaining ground among the middle ranks, and the institutions of the country were threatened with an overthrow as violent as that which had recently taken place in the French monarchy. In these circumstances the only mode of checking the evil was by engaging in a foreign contest, by drawing off the ardent spirits into active service, and, in lieu of the modern desire for innovation, rousing the ancient gallantry of the British nation.”†
Of the moral sense which could permit an approval of the sentiments of the imperial patroness of Suwarrow, I would rather not speak. But I wish that a copy of this extract could be possessed by every man in England, that all might understand the “true secret” of despots, which is to employ one nation in cutting the throats of another, so that neither may have time to reform the abuses in their own domestic government. I would say on the contrary, the true secret of the people is to remain at peace; and not only so, but to be on their guard against false alarms about the intended aggressions of their neighbours, which when too credulously believed, give to government all the political advantages of a war, without its risks; for they keep men's minds in a degrading state of fear and dependence, and afford the excuse for continually increasing government expenditure.
One word only upon the objection that the French were the first to declare war. In the present case, as in that of the Allied Powers on the Continent, to which we before alluded, we were giving to ourselves all the advantages of a belligerent power by our warlike preparations, without affording to the French the fair warning of a declaration of war. The Government of France acted more in accordance with the recognised law of nations in publishing the reasons why they were, contrary to their own wishes, at war with England. The language and acts of Mr. Pitt were a virtual declaration of war. Half as much said or done by a Prime Minister now would be enough to plunge all Europe in flames. We have seen that the Militia was embodied, and the Parliament suddenly assembled on the 13th December, 1792, when the King's speech recommended an augmentation of the army and navy. On the 28th January, 1793, upon the arrival of the news of the execution of the French king, not only was M. Chauvelin, the French Minister, ordered to leave the kingdom in eight days, but the King's message, which was sent to the House of Commons announcing this fact, recommended a further augmentation of the land and sea forces. This increased armament was not now wanted, as was professed to be the case on the 13th December, for “preserving the blessings of peace,” but, to quote the words of the Message, “to enable his Majesty to take the most effectual measures, in the present important conjuncture, for maintaining the security and rights of his own dominions; for supporting his allies; and for opposing views of aggrandizement and ambition on the part of France, which would be at all times dangerous to the general interests of Europe, but are peculiarly so when connected with the propagation of principles which lead to the violation of the most sacred duties, and are utterly subversive of the peace and order of all civil society.” Once more I must beg your attention to dates. This message was delivered on the 28th January, 1793. Up to this time the French Government had given undeniable proofs of desiring to preserve peace with England. And it was not till after the delivery of this message to Parliament, after a peremptory order had been given to their ambassador to leave England; after all these preparations for war; and after the insulting speeches and menaces uttered by Mr. Pitt and the other ministers in Parliament, which, as will be seen by referring to the debates of this time, were of themselves sufficient to provoke hostilities, that the French Convention, by a unanimous vote, declared war against England on the 1st February, 1793.
On the 11th February, the King sent a message to Parliament, in which he said he “relied with confidence on the firm and effectual support of the House of Commons, and on the zealous exertions of a brave and loyal people in prosecuting a [when was war ever acknowledged to be otherwise?] just and necessary war.”
The wisdom of the advice of the Czarina Catherine was exemplified in what followed. The war diverted men's minds from every domestic grievance. Hatred to the French was the one passion henceforth cultivated. All political ameliorations were postponed; Reform of Parliament, a question which had previously been so ripe that Pitt himself, in company with Major Cartwright, attended public meetings in its favour, was put aside for forty years; and even the voice of Wilberforce, pleading for the slave, was for several successive sessions mute, amidst the death struggle which absorbed all the passions and sympathies of mankind.
And now, my dear Sir, if you have done me the honour to read this long letter, I will conclude with an appeal for your candid judgment upon the merits of the question between us. Recollect that we are not discussing the professional claims of the Duke of Wellington to our admiration. He and his great opponent were brought forth and educated by the war of the Revolution. They were the accidents, not the cause, of that mighty struggle. The question is—was that war in its origin just and necessary on our part? Was it so strictly a defensive war that we are warranted in saying that God raised up the Duke as an instrument for our protection? I humbly submit that the facts of the case are in direct opposition to this view; and that it is only by pleading ignorance of the historical details which I have narrated that we can hope to be acquitted of impiety in attributing to an all-wise and just Providence an active interposition in favour of a war so evidently unprovoked and aggressive.—And I remain faithfully yours, Richard Cobden.
To the Rev. ———
[∗]House of Commons, May 25, 1792. All the speeches from which I have quoted were delivered in Parliament, and the quotations are from Hansard.
[∗]Vol. iii. p. 108.
[†]“Life of Napoleon,” ch. vii.
[†]20th April, 1792.
[‡]With his too common inaccuracy, the author has overlooked the previous death of Leopold.
[∗]Vol. v. p. 129.
[∗]May 27, 1795.
[†]“No one more clearly than Mr. Pitt saw the ruinous consequences of the contest into which his new associates, the deserters from the Whig standard, were drawing or were driving him. None so clearly perceived or so highly valued the blessings of peace as the finance minister who had but the year before accompanied his reduction of the whole national establishment with a picture of our future prosperity almost too glowing even for his great eloquence to attempt. Accordingly, it is well known, nor is it even contradicted by his few surviving friends, that his thoughts were all turned to peace. But the voice of the court was for war; the aristocracy was for war; the country was not disinclined towards war, being just in that state of excitable (though as yet not excited) feeling which is dependent on the Government, that is, upon Mr. Pitt, either to calm down into a sufferance of peace or rouse into a vehement desire of hostilities. In these circumstances the able tactician, whose genius was confined to parliamentary operations, at once perceived that a war must place him at the head of all the power in the State, and, by uniting with him the more aristocratic portion of the Whigs, cripple his adversaries irreparably; and he preferred flinging his country into a contest which he and his great antagonist, by uniting their forces, might have prevented; but then he must also have shared with Mr. Fox the power which he was determined to enjoy alone and supreme.”—Brougham's Statesmen of George III., series i., vol. i., p. 77–79.
[∗]Vol. ii. p. 330.
[∗]Jan. 4, 1793.
[∗]And here let me give an extract from Scott's Life of Napoleon, illustrative of the looseness and inaccuracy with which history is sometimes written. I have explained the errors in italics:—
[∗]Degree of Fraternity. The National Convention declares in the name of the French nation that it will grant fraternity and assistance to all people who wish to recover their liberty; and it charges the Executive power to send the necessary orders to the generals to give assistance to such people, and to defend those citizens who have suffered or may suffer in the cause of liberty.—19th November, 1792.
[∗]“History of Girondins,” vol. i. p. 197.
[∗]“Pictorial History of England,” vol. iii. p. 276.
[∗]January 21, 1794.
[∗]“Life of Napoleon,” ch. xv.
[†]February 12, 1793.
[∗]December 15, 1792.
[∗]A highly respectable inhabitant of Manchester, whose house was assailed by a “Church and King” mob, upon the charge of being a “Jacobin,” or “Republican and Leveller.” His son, who inherits his liberal principles, but whose good fortune it has been to live in times when popular intelligence can discriminate between friends and foes, is an alderman and magistrate of that city.
[†]February 7, 1793.
[∗]Vol. iii. p. 101.
[†]December 15, 1792.
[∗]May 7, 1793.
[†]December 28, 1792.
[∗]Feb. 18, 1793.
[∗]May 27, 1795.
[†]Dec. 9, 1795.
[∗]December 14, 1795.
[∗]October 29, 1793.
[∗]Believe me, a war alone can change the direction of men's minds in France, re-unite them, give a more useful aim to the passions, and awaken true patriotism.
[†]Vol. iv. p. 7.