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CHAPTER I - Hippolyte Taine, The French Revolution, vol. 2 
The French Revolution, 3 vols., trans. John Durand, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002). Vol. 2.
Part of: The French Revolution, 3 vols.
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Rise of the new political organ—I.Principle of the revolutionary party—Its applications—II.Formation of the Jacobin—The common human elements of his character—Self-conceit and dogmatism are sensitive and rebellious in every community—How kept down in all well-founded societies—Their development in the new order of things—Effect of milieu on imaginations and ambitions—The stimulants of Utopianism, abuses of speech, and derangement of ideas—Changes in office; interests played upon and perverted feeling—III.Psychology of the Jacobin—His intellectual method—Tyranny of formulae and suppression of facts—Mental balance disturbed—Signs of this in the revolutionary language—Scope and expression of the Jacobin intellect—In what respect his method is mischievous—How it is successful—Illusions produced by it—IV.What the theory promises—How it flatters wounded self-esteem—The ruling passion of the Jacobin—Apparent both in style and conduct—He alone is virtuous in his own estimation, while his adversaries are vile—They must accordingly be put out of the way—Perfection of this character—Common sense and moral sense both perverted.
In this society, in a state of dissolution, in which the passions of the people are the sole efficient force, that party rules which knows best how to flatter these and turn them to account. Alongside of a legal government, therefore, which can neither repress nor gratify these passions, arises an illegal government which sanctions, excites, and directs them. While the former totters and falls to pieces, the latter strengthens itself and completes its organization, until, becoming legal in its turn, it takes the other’s place.
We find a theory at the outset, in justification of these popular outbreaks and assaults, which is neither improvised, added to, nor superficial, but firmly fixed in the public mind, fed by long anterior philosophical discussion; a sort of enduring, long-lived root out of which the new constitutional tree has arisen, namely, the dogma of popular sovereignty. Literally interpreted, it means that the government is merely an inferior clerk or domestic.1 We, the people, have established the government; and ever since, as well as before its organization, we are its masters. Between us and it “no contract” that is undefined, or at least lasting—“none which cannot be done away with by mutual consent or through the unfaithfulness of one of the two parties.” Whatever it may be, or provide for, we are nowise bound by it; it depends wholly on us; we remain free to “modify, restrict, and resume as we please the power of which we have made it the depository.” By virtue of a primitive, inalienable right the commonwealth belongs to us and to us only; if we put this into the hands of the government it is as when kings delegate authority for the time being to a minister, and which he is always tempted to abuse; it is our business to watch him, warn him, check him, curb him, and, if necessary, displace him. We must especially guard ourselves against the craft and manoeuvres by which, under the pretext of preserving public tranquillity, he would tie our hands. A law, superior to any he can make, forbids him to interfere with our sovereignty; and he does interfere with it when he undertakes to forestall, obstruct, or impede its exercise. The Assembly, even the Constituent, usurps when it treats the people like a royal drone (roi fainéant), when it subjects them to laws which they have not ratified, and when it deprives them of action except through their representatives. The people themselves must act directly, must assemble together and deliberate on public affairs; they must control and censure the acts of those they elect; they must influence these with their resolutions, correct their mistakes with their good sense, atone for their weakness by their energy, stand at the helm alongside of them, and even employ force and throw them overboard, so that the ship may be saved, which, in their hands, is drifting on a rock.
Such, in fact, is the doctrine of the popular party. This doctrine is carried into effect July 14 and October 5 and 6, 1789. Loustalot, Camille Desmoulins, Fréron, Danton, Marat, Pétion, Robespierre proclaim it untiringly in the political clubs, in the newspapers, and in the Assembly. The government, according to them, whether local or central, encroaches everywhere. Why, after having overthrown one despotism, should we set up another? No longer subject to the privileged aristocracy, we are subject to “the aristocracy of our representatives.”2 Already at Paris “the body of citizens is nothing, while the municipality is everything”; it encroaches on our imprescriptible rights in refusing to let a district revoke at will the five members elected to represent it at the Hôtel-de-Ville; in passing ordinances without obtaining the sanction of electors; in preventing citizens from assembling where they please; in interrupting the out-door meetings of the clubs in the Palais Royal; “Patriots are driven away by the patrol.” Mayor Bailly, “who keeps liveried servants, who gives himself a salary of 110,000 livres,” who distributes captains’ commissions, who forces pedlars to wear metallic badges, and who compels newspapers to have signatures to their articles is not only a tyrant, but a peculator and robber, and “guilty of lèse-nation.” Worse usurpations are committed by the National Assembly. To swear fidelity to the constitution, as this body has just done, to impose its work on us, to make us take a similar oath, without taking our superior rights into account and without reserving a special ratification of it to us3 is “overlooking our sovereignty,” “sporting with the nation’s majesty,” and “substituting the will of twelve hundred individuals for that of the people”: “Our representatives have failed to treat us with respect.”
This is not the first time, and it is not to be the last. Often do they exceed their mandate; they disarm, mutilate, and gag their legitimate sovereign; they pass decrees against the people in the people’s name; such is their martial law, specially devised for “suppressing the uprising of citizens”—that is to say, the only resource left to us against conspirators, monopolists, and traitors. Such is their decree against publishing any kind of joint placard or petition, a decree “null and void,” and “constituting a most flagrant attack on the nation’s rights.”4 Especially is the electoral law one of these, a law which, requiring a small qualification tax for electors and a larger one for les éligibles,5 “consecrates the aristocracy of wealth.” The poor, who are excluded by the decree, must regard it as a nullity; they must register themselves as they please and vote without scruple, because natural law has precedence over written law; it would be simply “fair reprisals” if, at the end of the session, the millions of citizens lately deprived of their vote unjustly, should seize the usurping majority by the throat and tell them: “You cut us off from society in your chamber, because you are the strongest there; we, in our turn, cut you off from out-door society, because we are strongest in the street. You have killed us civilly—we kill you physically.”
Accordingly, from this point of view, all riots are legitimate. Robespierre in the tribune6 excuses jacqueries, refuses to call castle-burners brigands, and justifies the insurgents of Soissons, Nancy, Avignon, and the colonies. Desmoulins, alluding to two men hung at Douai, states that it was done by the people and soldiers combined, and declares that “henceforth—I have no hesitation in saying it—they have legitimated the insurrection”; they were guilty, and it was well to hang them.7 Not only do the party leaders excuse assassinations, but they provoke them. Desmoulins, “attorney-general of the Lantern,8 insists on each of the eighty-three departments being threatened with at least one lantern descent”; while Marat, in the name of principle, constantly sounds the tocsin in his journal: “When public safety is in peril, the people must take power out of the hands of those to whom it is entrusted.… Put that Austrian woman and her brother-in-law in prison.… Seize the ministers and their clerks and put them in irons.… Make sure of the mayor and his lieutenants; keep the general in sight, and arrest his staff.… The heir to the throne has no right to a dinner while you want bread. Organise bodies of armed men. March to the National Assembly and demand food at once, supplied to you out of the national possessions.… Demand that the nation’s poor have a future secured to them out of the national contribution. If you are refused join the army, take the land, as well as gold which the rascals who want to force you to come to terms by hunger have buried and share it amongst you. Off with the heads of the ministers and their underlings, for now is the time; that of Lafayette and of every rascal on his staff, and of every unpatriotic battalion officer, including Bailly and those municipal reactionists—all the traitors in the National Assembly!” Marat, indeed, still passes for a furious ranter among people of some intelligence. But for all that, this is the sum and substance of his theory: It installs in the political edifice, over the heads of delegated, regular, and legal powers an anonymous, imbecile, and terrific power whose decisions are absolute, whose projects are constantly adopted, and whose intervention is sanguinary. This power is that of the populace, of a ferocious, suspicious sultan, who, appointing his viziers, keeps his hands free to direct them, and his scimiter ready sharpened to cut off their heads.
That a speculator in his closet should have concocted such a theory is comprehensible; paper will take all that is put upon it, while abstract beings, the hollow simulacres and philosophic puppets he creates, are adapted to every sort of combination.—That a lunatic in his cell should adopt and preach this theory is also comprehensible; he is beset with phantoms and lives outside the actual world, and, moreover, in this ever-agitated democracy he is the eternal denunciator and instigator of every riot and murder that takes place; he it is who under the name of “the people’s friend” becomes the arbiter of lives and the veritable sovereign.—That a people borne down with taxes, wretched and starving, schooled by declaimers and sophists, should have welcomed this theory and acted under it is again comprehensible; extreme suffering renders all weapons available, and where there is oppression, that doctrine is true which serves to throw oppression off. But that public men, legislators and statesmen, with, at last, ministers and heads of the government, should have made this theory their own; that they should have more fondly clung to it as it became more destructive; that, daily for three years they should have seen social order crumbling away piecemeal under its blows and not have recognised it as the instrument of such vast ruin that, in the light of the most disastrous experience, instead of regarding it as a curse they should have glorified it as a boon; that many of them—an entire party, almost all of the Assembly—should have venerated it as a religious dogma and carried it to extremes with the enthusiasm and rigor of faith; that, driven by it into a narrow strait, ever getting narrower and narrower, they should have continued to crush each other at every step; that, finally, on reaching the visionary temple of their so-called liberty, they should have found themselves in a slaughter-house, and, within its precincts, should have become in turn butcher and brute; that, through their maxims of universal, typical liberty they should have inaugurated a despotism worthy of Dahomey, a tribunal like that of the Inquisition, and raised human hecatombs like those of ancient Mexico; that, amidst their prisons and scaffolds they should persist in believing in the righteousness of their cause, in their own humanity, in their virtue, and, on their fall, have regarded themselves as martyrs—is certainly strange; such intellectual aberration, such excessive self-conceit are rarely encountered, and a concurrence of circumstances, the like of which has never been seen in the world but once, was necessary to produce it.
Exaggerated self-conceit and dogmatism, however, are not rare in the human species. These two roots of the Jacobin intellect exist in all countries, underground and indestructible. Everywhere they are kept from sprouting by the established order of things; everywhere are they striving to upheave old historic foundations which press them down. Now, as formerly, students live in garrets, bohemians in lodgings, physicians without patients and lawyers without clients in lonely offices, so many Brissots, Dantons, Marats, Robespierres, and St. Justs in embryo; only, for lack of air and sunshine, they never come to maturity. At twenty, on entering society, a young man’s judgment and self-esteem are extremely sensitive.—Let the society in which he is comprised be what it will, it is for him a scandal to right reason: it was not organized by a legislative philosopher according to a sound principle, but is the work of one generation after another, according to manifold and changing necessities. It is not a product of logic, but of history, and the new-fledged thinker shrugs his shoulders as he looks up and sees what the ancient tenement is, the foundations of which are arbitrary, its architecture confused, and its many repairs plainly visible.—In the second place, whatever degree of perfection preceding institutions, laws, and customs have reached, these have not received his assent; others, his predecessors, have chosen for him, he being subjected beforehand to moral, political, and social forms which pleased them. Whether they please him or not is of no consequence. Like a horse trotting along between the thills of a wagon in the harness that happens to have been put on his back, he has to make the best of it. Besides, whatever its organization, as it is essentially a hierarchy, he is nearly always subaltern in it, and must ever remain so, either soldier, corporal or sergeant. Even under the most liberal system, that in which the highest grades are accessible to all, for every five or six men who take the lead or command others, one hundred thousand must follow or be commanded, which makes it vain to tell every conscript that he carries a marshal’s baton in his sack, when, nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand, he discovers too late, on rummaging his sack, that the baton is not there.—It is not surprising that he is tempted to kick against social barriers within which, willingly or not, he is enrolled, and which predestine him to subordination. It is not surprising that on emerging from traditional influences he should accept a theory which subjects these arrangements to his arbitrament and gives him authority over his superiors. And all the more because there is no doctrine more simple and better adapted to his inexperience; it is the only one he can comprehend and manage off-hand. Hence it is that young men on leaving college, especially those who have their way to make in the world, are more or less Jacobin,—it is a distemper which belongs to growth.9 —In well organised communities this distemper is beneficial, and is soon cured. The public edifice being substantial and carefully guarded, malcontents soon discover that they have not enough strength to pull it down, and that on contending with its guardians they gain nothing but blows. After some grumbling, they too enter at one or the other of its doors, find a place for themselves, and enjoy its advantages or become reconciled to their lot. Finally, either through imitation, or habit, or calculation, they willingly form part of that garrison which, in protecting public interests, protects their own private interests as well. Generally, after ten years have gone by, the young man has obtained his rank in the file, where he advances step by step in his own compartment, which he no longer thinks of tearing to pieces, and under the eye of a policeman whom he no longer thinks of condemning. He even sometimes thinks that policeman and compartment are of use to him; considering the millions of individuals who are trying to mount the social ladder, each striving to get ahead of the other, he succeeds in comprehending this—that the worst of calamities would be a lack of barriers and of guardians.
Here the worm-eaten barriers have cracked all at once, their easy-going, timid, incapable guardians having allowed things to take their course. Society, accordingly, disintegrated and a pell-mell, is turned into a turbulent, shouting crowd, each pushing and being pushed, all alike overexcited and congratulating each other on having finally obtained elbow-room, and all demanding that the new barriers shall be as fragile and the new guardians as feeble, as defenceless, and as inert as possible. This is what has been done. As a natural consequence, those who were foremost in the ranks have been turned back; many have been struck down in the fray, while in this permanent state of disorder, which goes under the name of definitive order, red heels and pumps continue to be trod on by hob-nailed shoes and sabots.—A free field is now open to the dogmatist and the intemperate egotist. There are no more venerable institutions to overawe, nor physical force to keep them in restraint. On the contrary, the new constitution, through its theoretical declarations and the practical application of these, invites them to display themselves.—For, on the one hand, this constitution as law declares that it is founded on pure reason, beginning with a long string of abstract dogmas from which its positive prescriptions are assumed to be rigorously deduced; this is submitting all laws to the shallow comments of reasoners who will both interpret and break them according to principle.—On the other hand, practically, it hands over all government powers to the elections and confers on the clubs the control of the authorities; this is offering a premium to the presumption of the ambitious who put themselves forward because they think themselves capable, and who defame their rulers purposely to displace them.—Every administrative system is a milieu which serves to develop some species of the human plant and blight others. This is the best one for the propagation and rapid increase of the coffee-house politician, the club haranguer, the stump-speaker, the street-rioter, the committee dictator—in short, the revolutionist and the tyrant Phantasy and presumption in this political hot-bed assume monstrous proportions, and, in a few months, brains that are now only ardent become of a white heat.
Let us trace the effect of this excessive, unhealthy temperature on imaginations and ambitions. The old tenement is down; the foundations of the new one are not yet laid; society has to be made over again from top to bottom. All well-meaning people are invited to come and help, and, as one plain principle suffices in drawing a plan, the first comer may succeed. Henceforth political fancies swarm in the district meetings, in the clubs, in the newspapers, in pamphlets, and in every head-long, venturesome brain. “There is not a merchant’s clerk shaped by reading the ‘Nouvelle Héloise,’10 not a pedagogue that has translated ten pages of Livy, not an artist that has looked through Rollin, not a paragraphist that is converted into a political authority by committing to memory the logogriphs of the ‘Contrat Social,’ who does not manufacture a constitution.… As nothing presents less of an obstacle than the perfecting of the imaginary, all perturbed spirits flock to, and become excited, in this ideal realm. Beginning with curiosity, all end in transports. Ordinary people rush to the enterprise the same as a miser to an incantation scene which promises to bring him treasure, and, thus childishly attracted, each hopes to find at once, what has never been seen under even the most liberal governments, immutable perfection, universal brotherhood, the power of acquiring what one lacks, and a life composed wholly of enjoyment.”
One of these enjoyments, and a keen one, is this species of speculation. One soars in space. By means of eight or ten ready-made phrases, derived from the six-penny catechisms circulated by thousands in the country and in the suburbs of the towns and cities,11 a village attorney, a customs clerk, a check-taker of a theatre, the sergeant of a soldier’s mess becomes a legislator and philosopher; he criticises Malouet, Mirabeau, the Ministry, the King, the Assembly, the Church, foreign Cabinets, France, and all Europe. Consequently, on these important subjects, which always seemed forever forbidden to him, he offers resolutions, reads addresses, makes harangues, obtains applause, and congratulates himself on having argued so well and with such big words. To hold forth on questions that are not understood is now an occupation, a matter of pride and profit. “More is uttered in one day,” says an eye-witness,12 “in one section of Paris than in one year in all the Swiss political assemblies put together. An Englishman would give six weeks of study to what we dispose of in a quarter of an hour.” Everywhere, in the town halls, in popular meetings, in the sectional assemblies, in the wine shops, on the public promenades, on street corners vanity erects a tribune to verbosity. “Contemplate the incalculable activity of such a machine in a loquacious nation where the passion for being something dominates all other affections, where vanity has more phases than there are stars in the firmament, where reputations already cost no more than the trouble of insisting on their being deserved, where society is divided between mediocrities and their trumpeters who laud them as divinities; where so few people are content with their lot, where the corner grocer is prouder of his epaulette than the Grand Condé of his Marshal’s baton, where agitation without object or resources is perpetual, where, from the floor-scrubber to the dramatist, from the academician to the simpleton who gets muddled over the evening newspaper, from the witty courtier down to his philosophic lackey, each one revises Montesquieu with the self-sufficiency of a child which, because it is learning to read, deems itself wise; where self-esteem, in disputation, cavilling and sophistication, destroys all sensible conversation; where no one utters a word but to teach, never imagining that to learn one must keep quiet; where the triumphs of a few lunatics entice every crackbrain from his den; where, with two nonsensical ideas put together out of a book that is not understood, a man assumes to have principles; where swindlers talk about morality, women of easy virtue about civism, and the most infamous of beings about the dignity of the species; where the discharged valet of a grand seignor calls himself Brutus!”—In reality, he is Brutus in his own eyes. Let the time come and he will be so in earnest, especially against his late master; all he has to do is to give him a thrust with his pike. Until he acts out the part he spouts it, and grows excited over his own tirades; his common sense gives way to the bombastic jargon of the revolution and to declamation, which completes the Utopian performance and eases his brain of its last modicum of ballast.
It is not merely ideas which the new régime has disturbed, but it has also disordered sentiments. “Authority is transferred from the Château of Versailles and the courtier’s antechamber, with no intermediary or counterpoise, to the proletariat and its flatterers.”13 The whole of the staff of the old government is brusquely set aside, while a general election has brusquely installed another in its place, offices not being given to capacity, seniority, and experience, but to self-sufficiency, intrigue, and exaggeration. Not only are legal rights reduced to a common level, but natural grades are transposed; the social ladder, overthrown, is set up again bottom upwards; the first effect of the promised regeneration is “to substitute in the administration of public affairs pettifoggers for magistrates, ordinary citizens for cabinet ministers, ex-commoners for ex-nobles, rustics for soldiers, soldiers for captains, captains for generals, curés for bishops, vicars for curés, monks for vicars, brokers for financiers, empirics for administrators, journalists for political economists, rhetoricians for legislators, and the poor for the rich.”—Every species of covetousness is stimulated by this spectacle. The profusion of offices and the anticipation of vacancies “has excited the thirst for command, stimulated self-esteem, and inflamed the hopes of the most inept. A rude and grim presumption renders the fool and the ignoramus unconscious of their insignificance. They have deemed themselves capable of anything, because the law granted public functions merely to capacity. There has dawned upon each an ambitious perspective; the soldier thinks only of displacing his captain, the captain of becoming a general, the clerk of supplanting the chief of his department, the new-fledged attorney of donning the purple, the curé of being ordained a bishop, the veriest scribbler of seating himself on the legislative bench. Offices and professions vacated by the appointment of so many upstarts afford in their turn a vast field for the ambition of the lower classes.”—Thus, step by step, owing to the reversal of social positions, is brought about a general intellectual fever. “France is transformed into a gaming-table, where, alongside of the discontented citizen offering his stakes, sits, bold, blustering, and with fermenting brain, the pretentious subaltern rattling his dice-box. … At the sight of a public functionary emerging from nothing, where is the bootblack whose soul does not bound with emulation?”—He has merely to push himself and elbow his way to secure a ticket “in this immense lottery of popular luck, of preferment without merit, of success without talent, of apotheoses without virtues, of an infinity of places distributed by the people wholesale, and enjoyed by the people in detail.” Political charlatans flock thither from every quarter, those taking the lead who, being most in earnest, believe in the virtue of their nostrum, and need power to impose its recipe on the community; all being saviors, all places belong to them, and especially the highest. They lay siege to these conscientiously and philanthropically; if necessary, they will take them by assault, hold them through force, and, forcibly or otherwise, administer their panacea to the human species.
Such are our Jacobins, born out of social decomposition like mushrooms out of compost. Let us consider their inner organization, for they have one as formerly the Puritans; we have only to follow their dogma down to its depths, as with a sounding-line, to reach the psychological stratum in which the normal balance of faculty and sentiment is overthrown.
When a statesman, who is not wholly unworthy of that great name, finds an abstract principle in his way, as, for instance, that of popular sovereignty, he accepts it, if he accepts it at all, according to his conception of its practical bearings. He begins, accordingly, by imagining it applied and in operation. From personal recollections and such information as he can obtain, he forms an idea of some village or town, some community of moderate size in the north, in the south, or in the centre of the country, for which he has to make laws. He then imagines its inhabitants acting according to his principle, that is to say, voting, mounting guard, levying taxes, and administering their own affairs. Familiar with ten or a dozen groups of this sort, which he regards as examples, he concludes by analogy as to others and the rest on the territory. Evidently it is a difficult and uncertain process; to be exact, or nearly so, requires rare powers of observation, and, at each step, a great deal of tact, for a nice calculation has to be made on given quantities imperfectly ascertained and imperfectly noted!14 Any political leader who does this successfully, does it through the ripest experience associated with genius. And even then he keeps his hand on the check-rein in pushing his innovation or reform; he is almost always tentative; he applies his law only in part, gradually and provisionally; he wishes to ascertain its effect; he is always ready to stay its operation, amend it, or modify it, according to the good or ill results of experiment; the state of the human material he has to deal with is never clear to his mind, even when superior, until after many and repeated gropings.—Now the Jacobin pursues just the opposite course. His principle is an axiom of political geometry, which always carries its own proof along with it; for, like the axioms of common geometry, it is formed out of the combination of a few simple ideas, and its evidence imposes itself at once on all minds capable of embracing in one conception the two terms of which it is the aggregate expression. Man in general, the rights of man, social contract, liberty, equality, reason, nature, the people, tyrants, are all elementary conceptions; whether precise or not, they fill the brain of the new sectary; oftentimes these terms are merely vague, sounding words, but that makes no difference; as soon as they meet in his brain an axiom springs out of them that can be instantly and absolutely applied on every occasion and at all hazards. Men as they really are do not concern him. He does not observe them; he does not require to observe them; with closed eyes he imposes a pattern of his own on the human substance manipulated by him; the idea never enters his head of forming any previous conception of this complex, multiform, swaying material—contemporary peasants, artisans, townspeople, curés and nobles, behind their ploughs, in their homes, in their shops, in their parsonages, in their mansions, with their inveterate beliefs, persistent inclinations, and powerful wills. Nothing of this enters into or lodges in his mind; all its avenues are stopped by the abstract principle which flourishes there and fills it completely. Should actual experience through the eye or ear plant some unwelcome truth forcibly in his mind, it cannot subsist there; however obstreperous and telling it may be, the abstract principle drives it out; if need be it will distort and strangle it, on the ground of its being a calumny, as it gives the lie to the principle which is true in itself and indisputable. Manifestly, a mind of this stamp is not sound; of the two faculties which should pull together harmoniously, one is undeveloped and the other overdeveloped; facts are wanting to turn the scale against the weight of formulae. Too heavy on one side and too light on the other, the Jacobin mind turns violently over on that side to which it leans, and such is its incurable infirmity.
Consider, indeed, the authentic monuments of Jacobin thought, the “Journal des Amis de la Constitution,” the gazettes of Loustalot, Desmoulins, Brissot, Condorcet, Fréron and Marat, Robespierre’s and St. Just’s pamphlets and speeches, the debates in the Legislative Assembly and in the Convention, the harangues, addresses and reports of the Girondists and Montagnards, in brief, the forty volumes of extracts compiled by Buchez and Roux. Never has so much been said to so little purpose; all the truth that is uttered is drowned in the monotony and inflation of empty verbiage and vociferous bombast. One experience in this direction is sufficient. The historian who resorts to this mass of rubbish for accurate information finds none of any account; in vain will he read kilometers of it: scarcely will he encounter one fact, one instructive detail, one document which brings before his eyes a distinct physiognomy, which shows him the real sentiments of a villager or of a gentleman, which vividly portrays the interior of a hôtel-de-ville, of a soldier’s barracks, of a municipal council chamber, or the character of an insurrection. To define fifteen or twenty types and situations which sum up the history of the period, we have been obliged, and shall be, to seek them elsewhere—in the correspondence of local administrators, in affidavits on criminal records, in the secret police15 reports, and in the narratives of foreigners,16 who, prepared for it by a different education, look behind words for things, and see France beyond the “Contrat Social.” This teeming France, this grand tragedy which twenty-six millions of players are performing on a stage of twenty-six thousand square leagues, is lost to the Jacobin; his literature, as well as his brain, contain only unsubstantial generalizations like those above cited, rolling out in a mere play of ideas, sometimes in concise terms when the writer happens to be a professional reasoner like Condorcet, but most frequently in a tangled, knotty style full of loose and disconnected meshes when the spokesman happens to be an improvised politician or a philosophic tyro like the ordinary deputies of the Assembly and the haranguers of the clubs. It is a pedantic scholasticism set forth with fanatical rant. Its entire vocabulary consists of about a hundred words, while all ideas are reduced to one, that of man in himself; society, in their conception of it, consists of so many human units, all alike equal and independent, contracting together for the first time; none could be briefer, for, to arrive at it, man had to be reduced to a minimum. Never were political intellects so dried up, and so wilfully; for it is the attempt to systematise and to simplify which causes their impoverishment. In that respect they follow the method of the century, keeping in the track of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: their mental mould is the classic mould, which mould, already contracted with the late philosophers, is yet more so with them hardened and toughened to excess. The best representatives of the type are Condorect,17 among the Girondists, and Robespierre, among the Montagnards, both mere dogmatists and pure logicians, the latter the most remarkable and with a perfection of intellectual sterility never surpassed.—In the formation of durable laws, that is to say, in the adaptation of social machinery to characters, conditions, and circumstances, such a mind of all others is certainly the most impotent and the most mischievous, for it is organically short-sighted; and, again, its code of axioms, interposed between it and surrounding objects, shuts off its horizon; beyond its own coterie and club it distinguishes nothing, while in the vagueness and confusion of the distance it sets up the empty idols of its own Utopia.—But when power has to be taken by assault, and a dictatorship arbitrarily exercised, the mechanical rigidity of such a mind is serviceable rather than detrimental. Unlike that of the statesman, it has no drawback, no embarrassment arising from the necessity of making investigations, of respecting precedents, of looking into statistics, of calculating and tracing beforehand in different directions the near and remote consequences of its work as this affects the interests, habits, and passions of diverse classes. All this is superannuated and superfluous; the Jacobin comprehends legitimate government and good laws instantaneously; his rectilinear process is the shortest and most efficient both for destruction and construction. For, if calm reflection is required to get at what suits twenty-six millions of living Frenchmen, a mere glance suffices for him to know what is requisite for the human abstractions of the theory;—indeed, according to the theory, men are all shaped to one pattern, nothing being left to them but an elementary will; thus defined, the philosophic automaton demands liberty, equality and popular sovereignty, the maintenance of the rights of man and adhesion to the “Contrat Social.” This suffices: henceforth the will of the people is known, and known beforehand; a consultation among citizens previous to action is not essential; there is no obligation to await their votes. In any event, a ratification by the people is sure; and should this not be forthcoming it is owing to their ignorance, disdain, or malice, in which case their response deserves to be considered as null; the best thing to do, consequently, through precaution and to protect the people from what is bad for them, is to dictate to them what is good for them.—In all this, the Jacobin acts in good faith; for the men in whose behalf he claims rights are not flesh-and-blood Frenchmen, as we see them in the streets and in the fields, but men in general, as they ought to be on leaving the hands of Nature, or after the teachings of Reason. As to the former, there is no need of being scrupulous because they are infatuated with prejudices and their opinions are mere drivelling; as for the latter, it is just the opposite: full of respect for the vainglorious images of his own theory, of spectres begotten by his own intellectual contrivance, the Jacobin always will bow down to responses that he himself has provided, for, the beings that he has created are more real in his eyes than living ones and it is their suffrage on which he counts. Accordingly, viewing things in the worst light, he has nothing against him but the momentary antipathy of a purblind generation. To offset this, he enjoys the approbation of humanity, self-obtained; that of a posterity which his acts have regenerated; that of men who, thanks to him, are again become what they should never have ceased to be. Hence, far from looking upon himself as an usurper or a tyrant, he considers himself the natural mandatory of a veritable people, the authorised executor of the common will. Marching along in the procession formed for him by this imaginary crowd, sustained by millions of metaphysical wills created by himself in his own image, he has their unanimous assent, and, like a chorus of triumphant shouts, he will fill the outward world with the inward echo of his own voice.
In every doctrine which wins men over to it, the sophistry it contains is less potent than the promises it makes; its power over them is greater through their sensibility than through their intelligence; for, if the heart is often the dupe of the head, the latter is much more frequently the dupe of the former. We do not accept a system because we deem it a true one, but because the truth we find in it suits us. Political or religious fanaticism, any theological or philosophical channel in which truth flows, always has its source in some ardent longing, some secret passion, some accumulation of intense, painful desire to which a theory affords an outlet; in the Jacobin, as well as in the Puritan, there is a fountain-head of this description. What feeds this source with the Puritan is the anxieties of a disturbed conscience which, forming for itself some idea of perfect justice, becomes rigid and multiplies the commandments it believes that God has promulgated; on being constrained to disobey these it rebels, and, to impose them on others, it becomes tyrannical even to despotism. The first effort of the Puritan, however, wholly internal, is self-control; before becoming political he becomes moral. With the Jacobin, on the contrary, the first precept is not moral, but political; it is not his duties which he exaggerates but his rights, while his doctrine, instead of being a prick to his conscience, flatters his pride.18 Vast and insatiate as human pride may be, it is satisfied this time, for never before has it had so much to feed upon.
In the programme of the sect do not seek for the limited prerogatives growing out of self-respect which the proud-spirited man claims for himself, such as civil rights accompanied with those political liberties that serve as sentinels and guardians of these rights—security for life and property, the stability of the law, the integrity of courts, equality of citizens before the law and under taxation, the abolition of privileges and arbitrary proceedings, the election of representatives and the administration of public funds; in short, the precious guarantees which render each citizen an inviolable sovereign on his limited domain, which protect his person and property against all species of public or private oppression and exaction, which maintain him calm and erect before competitors as well as adversaries, upright and respectful in the presence of magistrates and in the presence of the government. A Malouet, a Mounier, a Mallet-Dupan, partisans of the English Constitution and Parliament, may be content with such trifling gifts, but the theory holds them all cheap, and, if need be, will trample them in the dust. Independence and security for the private citizen is not what it promises, not the right to vote every two years, not a moderate exercise of influence, not an indirect, limited and intermittent control of the commonwealth, but political dominion in the full and complete possession of France and the French people. There is no doubt on this point. In Rousseau’s own words, the “Contrat Social” prescribes “the complete alienation to the community of each associate and all his rights,” every individual surrendering himself wholly, “just as he may actually be, he himself and all his powers of which his possessions form a part,” so that the State, not only the recognised owner of property, but of minds and bodies as well, may forcibly and legitimately impose on every member of it such education, form of worship, religious faith, opinions, and sympathies as it deems best.19 Now, each man, solely because he is a man, is by right a member of this despotic sovereignty. Whatever, accordingly, my condition may be, my incompetency, my ignorance, my insignificance in the career in which I have plodded along, I have full control over the fortunes, lives, and consciences of twenty-six millions of French people, being accordingly Czar and Pope, according to my share of authority.
But if I adhere strictly to this doctrine, I am yet more so than my quota warrants. This royal prerogative with which I am endowed is only conferred on those who, like myself, sign the Social Contract in full; others, merely because they reject some clause of it, incur a forfeiture; no one must enjoy the advantages of a pact of which some of the conditions are repudiated. Again, as this pact is based on natural right and is obligatory, he who rejects it or withdraws from it, becomes by that act a miscreant, a public wrong-doer and an enemy of the people. There were once crimes of royal lèse-majesty; now there are crimes of popular lèse-majesty; which crimes are committed when by deed, word, or thought, any portion whatever of the more than royal authority belonging to the people is denied or contested. The dogma through which popular sovereignty is proclaimed thus actually ends in a dictatorship of the few, and a proscription of the many. Outside of the sect you are outside of the law. We, five or six thousand Jacobins of Paris, are the legitimate monarch, the infallible Pontiff, and woe betide the refractory and the lukewarm, all government agents, all private persons, the clergy, the nobles, the rich, merchants, traders, the indifferent among all classes, who, steadily opposing or yielding uncertain adhesion, dare to throw doubt on our unquestionable right!
One by one all these consequences are to come into light, and it is evident that, let the logical machinery by which they unfold themselves be what it may, no ordinary person, unless of consummate vanity, will fully adopt them. He must have an exalted opinion of himself to consider himself sovereign otherwise than by his vote, to conduct public business with no more misgivings than his private business, to directly and forcibly interfere with this, to set himself up, he and his clique, as guides, censors and rulers of his government, to persuade himself that, with his mediocre education and average intellect, with his few scraps of Latin and such information as is obtained in reading-rooms, coffee-houses, and newspapers, with no other experience than that of a club, or a municipal council, he could discourse wisely and well on the vast, complex questions which superior men, specially devoted to them, hesitate to take up. At first this presumption existed in him only in germ, and, in ordinary times, it would have remained, for lack of nourishment, as dry-rot or creeping mould. But the heart knows not what strange seeds it contains! Any of these, feeble and seemingly inoffensive, needs only air and sunshine to become a noxious excrescence and a colossal plant. Whether third or fourth rate attorney, counsellor, surgeon, journalist, curé, artist, or author, the Jacobin is like the low hind that has just found, in one corner of his hut, a lot of old parchments which entitle him to the throne. What a contrast between the meanness of his calling and the importance with which the theory invests him! With what rapture he accepts a dogma that raises him so high in his own estimation! Diligently conning the Declaration of Rights, the Constitution, all the official documents that confer on him such glorious prerogatives, charging his imagination with them, he immediately assumes a tone befitting his new position.20
Nothing surpasses the haughtiness and arrogance of this tone. It declares itself at the outset in the harangues of the clubs and in the petitions to the Constituent Assembly. Loustalot, Fréron, Danton, Marat, Robespierre, St. Just, always employ dictatorial language, that of the sect, and which finally becomes the jargon of their meanest valets. Good-breeding or toleration, anything that denotes regard or respect for others, find no place in their utterances nor in their acts; an usurping, tyrannical conceit creates for itself a language in its own image, and we see not only the foremost actors, but their commonest supernumeraries, enthroned on their grandiloquent platform. Each in his own eyes is Roman, savior, hero, and great man. “I stood in the tribune of the palace,” writes Anacharsis Clootz,21 “at the head of the foreigners, acting as ambassador of the human species, while the ministers of the tyrants regarded me with a jealous and disconcerted air.” A schoolmaster at Troyes, on the opening of the club in that town, advises the women “to teach their children, as soon as they can utter a word, that they are free and have equal rights with the mightiest potentates of the universe.”22 Pétion’s account of the journey in the king’s carriage, on the return from Varennes, must be read to see how far self-importance and the impertinence of a blackguard can be carried.23
In their memoirs and even down to their epitaphs, Barbaroux, Buzot, Pétion, Roland, and Madame Roland24 give themselves certificates of virtue, and would pass for Plutarch’s characters, if we could take their word for it. This infatuation is always on the increase, from the Girondists to the Montagnards. St. Just, at the age of twenty-four, and merely a private individual, is already consumed with suppressed ambition. Marat says: “I believe that I have exhausted every combination of the human intellect in relation to morality, philosophy and political science.” Robespierre, from the beginning to the end of the Revolution, is always, in his own eyes, Robespierre the unique, the one pure man, the infallible and the impeccable; no man ever burnt to himself the incense of his own praise so constantly and so directly.—Self-conceit thus drains the cup of theory to the bottom, however distasteful its dregs and however fatal its poison to those who even defy its nausea for the sake of swallowing it. Since it is virtue, no one may reject its dictates without committing a crime. Thus construed, the theory divides Frenchmen into two groups—one consisting of aristocrats, fanatics, egoists, the corrupt, bad citizens in short, and the other patriots, philosophers, and the virtuous—that is to say, those belonging to the sect.25 Thanks to this solution of it, the vast moral and social world with which they deal finds its definition, expression, and representation in a ready-made antithesis.—It is quite clear now what the object of government is: the wicked must submit to the good, or, which is briefer, the wicked must be suppressed. To this end let us employ confiscation, imprisonment, exile, drowning and the guillotine. All means are justifiable and meritorious with traitors; now that the Jacobin has made his slaughterings canonical, he slays through philanthropy.
Thus is this character rounded off like that of the theologian who would become an inquisitor. Extraordinary contrasts meet in its formation—a lunatic that is logical, and a monster that pretends to have a conscience. Under the pressure of his faith and egotism, he has developed two deformities, one of the head and the other of the heart; his common sense is gone, and his moral sense is utterly perverted. In fixing his mind on abstract formulas, he is no longer able to see men as they are; through self-admiration he finally comes to viewing his adversaries, and even his rivals, as miscreants deserving of death. On this downhill road nothing stops him, for, in qualifying things inversely to their true meaning, he has violated within himself the precious conceptions which bring us back to truth and justice. No light reaches eyes which regard blindness as clear-sightedness; no remorse affects a soul which erects barbarism into patriotism, and which sanctions murder with duty.
[1. ]Cf. “The Ancient Régime,” p. 242. Citations from the “Contrat Social.”—Buchez et Roux, “Histoire Parlementaire,” XXVI. 96. Declaration of rights read by Robespierre in the Jacobin club, April 21, 1793, and adopted by the club as its own. “The people is sovereign, the government is its work and its property, and public functionaries are its clerks. The people can displace its mandatories and change its government when it pleases.”
[2. ]Buchez et Roux, 324. (An article by Loustalot, Sept. 8, 1789). Ibid. 331. Motion of the District of Cordéliers, presided over by Danton.—Ibid. 239. Denunciation of the municipality by Marat.—V. 128, VI. 24–41 (March, 1790). The majority of the districts demand the permanent authority of the districts, that is to say, of the sovereign political assemblies.
[3. ]Buchez et Roux. IV. 458. Meeting of Feb. 24, 1790, an article by Loustalot.—III. 202. Speech by Robespierre, meeting of Oct. 21, 1789. Ibid. 219. Resolution of the district of St. Martin declaring that martial law shall not be enforced. Ibid. 222. Article by Loustalot.
[4. ]Buchez et Roux, X. 124, an article by Marat.—X. 1–22, speech by Robespierre at the meeting of May 9, 1791.—III. 247, an article by Loustalot. III. 217, speech by Robespierre, meeting of Oct. 22, 1789. Ibid. 431, article by Loustalot and Desmoulins, Nov., 1789.—VI. 336, articles by Loustalot and Marat, July, 1790.
[5. ]The Constituent Assembly created two classes of electors; one, the mass of voters, consisting of those who paid a small qualification tax, the value of a day’s labor, and who were called active citizens, and the other, chosen by this class, of those who elected deputies to the National Assembly, their qualification tax being the value of a half-pound of silver.—Tr.
[6. ]Ernest Hamel, “Histoire de Robespierre,” passim, (I. 436). Robespierre proposed to confer political rights on the blacks.—Buchez et Roux, IX. 264 (March, 1791).
[7. ]Buchez et Roux, V. 146 (March, 1790); VI. 436 (July 26, 1790); VIII. 247 (Dec., 1790); X. 224 (June, 1791).
[8. ]This soubriquet is bestowed on Desmoulins on account of his advocacy of street executions, the victims of revolutionary passion being often hung at the nearest lanterne, or street lamp, at that time in Paris suspended across the street by ropes or chains.—Tr.
[9. ]Gustave Flaubert. “Tout notaire a rêvé des sultanes” (“Madame Bovary”). “Frédéric trouvait que le bonheur mérité par l’excellence de son â ne tardait á venir” (“L’Education Sentimentale”).
[10. ]Mallet-Dupan, “Correspondance politique.” 1796.
[11. ]“Entretiens du Père Girard,” by Collot d’Herbois. “Les Etrennes du Peuple,” by Barrère. “La Constitution Française pour les Habitans des Campagnes,” etc. Later, “L’Alphabet des Sans-Culottes,” “Le Nouveau Catéchisme Républicain,” “Les Commandements de la Patrie et de la République” (in verse), etc.
[12. ]Mercure de France, an article by Mallet-Dupan, April 7, 1792. (Summing up of the year 1791.)
[13. ]Mercure de France, see the numbers of Dec. 30, 1791, and April 7, 1791.
[14. ]Fox, before deciding on any measure, consulted a Mr. H——, one of the most uninfluential, and even narrow-minded, members of the House of Commons. Some astonishment being expressed at this, he replied that he regarded Mr. H—— as a perfect type of the faculties and prejudices of a country gentleman, and he used him as a thermometer. Napoleon likewise stated that before framing an important law, he imagined to himself the impression it would make on the mind of a burly peasant.
[15. ]“Tableaux de la Révolution Française,” by Schmidt (especially the reports by Dubard, 3 vols).
[16. ]“Correspondence of Gouverneur Morris,” “Memoirs of Mallet-Dupan,” “Moore’s Journal,” “Un Séjour en France” from 1792 to 1795.
[17. ]See, in “Progrès de l’esprit humaine,” the superiority awarded to the republican constitution of 1793. (Book ix.) “The principles out of which the constitution and laws of France have been combined are purer, more exact, and deeper than those which governed the Americans: they have more completely escaped the influence of every sort of prejudice, etc.”
[18. ]Camille Desmoulins, the enfant terrible of the Revolution, confesses this, as well as other truths. After citing the Revolutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, “which derived their virtue from and had their roots in conscience, which were sustained by fanaticism and the hopes of another world,” he thus concludes: “Our Revolution, purely political, is wholly rooted in egotism, in everybody’s amour propre, in the combinations of which is found the common interest.” (“Brissot dévoilé,” by Camille Desmoulins. Buchez et Roux, XIII 207, January, 1792.)
[19. ]Rousseau’s idea of the omnipotence of the State is also that of Louis XIV. and Napoleon. It is curious to see the development of the same idea in the mind of a contemporary bourgeois, like Rétif de la Bretonne, half literary and half one of the people. (“Nuits de Paris,” XVe nuit, 377, on the September Massacres.) “No, I do not pity those fanatical priests; they have done the country too much mischief. Whatever a society, or a majority of it, desires, that is right. He who opposes this, who calls down war and vengeance on the nation, is a monster. Order is always found in the agreement of the majority. The minority is always guilty, I repeat it, even if it is morally right. Nothing but common sense is needed to see that truth.” Ibid. (On the execution of Louis XVI.), p. 447. “Had the nation the right to condemn and execute him? No thinking person can ask such a question. The nation is everything in itself; its power is that which the whole human kind would have if but one nation, one single government governed the globe. Who would dare then dispute the power of humanity? It was the indisputable power that a nation has, to condemn even an innocent man, felt by the ancient Greeks, which led them to exile Aristides and put Phocion to death. ‘Oh truth, unrecognised by our contemporaries, what evil has arisen through forgetting it!’ ”
[20. ]Moniteur, XI. 46. Speech by Isnard in the Assembly, Jan. 5, 1792. “The people are now conscious of their dignity. They know, according to the Constitution, that every Frenchman’s motto is: Live free, the equal of all, and one of the common sovereignty.”—Guillon de Montléon, I. 445. Speech by Chalier, in the Lyons Central Club, March 21, 1793. “Know that you are kings, and more than kings. Do you not feel sovereignty circulating in your veins?”
[21. ]Moniteur, V. 136. (Celebration of the Federation, July 14, 1790.)
[22. ]Albert Babeau, “Histoire de Troyes pendant la Révolution,” I. 436 (April 10, 1790).
[23. ]Mortimer-Ternaux, “Histoire de la Terreur,” I. 353. (Pétion’s own narrative of this journey.) This pert blockhead cannot even spell: he writes aselle for aisselle, etc. He is convinced that Madame Elizabeth, the king’s sister, wants to seduce him, and that she makes advances to him: “If we had been alone, I believe that she would have fallen into my arms, and let the impulses of nature have their way.” He makes a display of virtue, however, and becomes only the more supercilious as he talks with the king, the young dauphin, and the ladies he is fetching back.
[24. ]The “Mémoires de Madame Roland” is a masterpiece of that conceit supposed to be so carefully concealed as not to be visible and never off its stilts. “I am beautiful, I am affectionate, I am sensitive, I inspire love, I reciprocate, I remain virtuous, my mind is superior, and my courage indomitable. I am philosopher, statesman, and writer, worthy of the highest success,” is constantly in her mind, and always perceptible in her phraseology. Real modesty never shows itself. On the contrary, many indecorous things are said and done by her from bravado, and to set herself above her sex. Cf. the “Memoirs of Mrs. Hutchinson,” which present a great contrast. Madame Roland wrote: “I see no part in society which suits me but that of Providence.”—The same presumption shines out in others, with less refined pretentions. The following letter, found among the papers of the iron wardrobe, is addressed to the king by the deputy Rouyer. “I have compared, examined, and foreseen everything. All I ask, to carry out my noble purposes, is that direction of forces which the law confers on you. I am aware of and brave the danger; weakness defers to this, while genius overcomes it. I have turned my attention to all the courts of Europe, and am sure that I can force peace on them.”—Robert, an obscure pamphleteer, asks Dumouriez to make him ambassador to Constantinople, while Louvet, the author of “Faublas,” declares in his memoirs that liberty perished in 1792, because he was not appointed Minister of Justice.
[25. ]Moniteur, p. 189. Speech by Collot d’Herbois, on the mitraillades at Lyons. “We, too, possess sensibility! The Jacobins have every virtue; they are compassionate, humane, generous. These virtues, however, are cherished for patriots, who are their brethren, but never for aristocrats.”—Meillan, “Mémoires,” 4. “Robespierre was one day eulogising a man named Desfieux, well known for his lack of integrity, and whom he finally sacrificed. ‘I said to him, your man Desfieux is known to be a thief.’ ‘No matter,’ he replied, ‘he is a good patriot.’ ‘But he is a fraudulent bankrupt.’ ‘He is a good patriot.’ ‘He is a robber.’ ‘He is a good patriot’—which three words were all I could get out of him.”