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Acton on the French Revolution

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Source: Acton's Lectures on Modern History, ed. John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence (London: Macmillan, 1906).

Appendix. The Literature of the Revolution

Before embarking on the stormy sea before us, we ought to be provided with chart and compass. Therefore I begin by speaking about the histories of the Revolution, so that you may at once have some idea what to choose and what to reject, that you may know where we stand, how we have come to penetrate so far and no farther, what branches there are that already bear ripe fruit and where it is still ripening on the tree of knowledge. I desire to rescue you from the writers of each particular school and each particular age, and from perpetual dependence on the ready-made and conventional narratives that satisfy the outer world.

With the growing experience of mankind, the larger curiosity and the increased resource, each generation adds to our insight. Lesser events can be understood by those who behold them, great events require time in proportion to their greatness.

Lamartine once said that the Revolution has mysteries but no enigmas. It is humiliating to be obliged to confess that those words are no nearer truth now than when they were written. People have not yet ceased to dispute about the real origin and nature of the event. It was the deficit; it was the famine; it was the Austrian Committee; it was the Diamond Necklace, and the humiliating memories of the Seven Years’ War; it was the pride of nobles or the intolerance of priests; it was philosophy; it was freemasonry; it was Mr. Pitt; it was the incurable levity and violence of the national character; it was the issue of that struggle between classes that constitutes the unity of the history of France.

Amongst these interpretations we shall have to pick our way; but there are many questions of detail on which I shall be forced to tell you that I have no deciding evidence.

After the contemporary memoirs, the first historian who wrote with authority was Droz. He was at work for thirty years, having begun in 1811, when Paris was still full of floating information, and he knew much that otherwise did not come out until long after his death. He had consulted Lally Tollendal, and he was allowed to use the memoirs of Malouet, which were in manuscript, and which are unsurpassed for wisdom and good faith in the literature of the National Assembly. Droz was a man of sense and experience, with a true if not a powerful mind; and his book, in point of soundness and accuracy, was all that a book could be in the days when it was written. It is a history of Lewis XVI. during the time when it was possible to bring the Revolution under control; and the author shows, with an absolute sureness of judgment, that the turning-point was the rejection of the first project of Constitution, in September 1789. For him, the Revolution is contained in the first four months. He meant to write a political treatise on the natural history of revolutions, and the art of so managing just demands that unjust and dangerous demands shall acquire no force. It became a history of rejected opportunities, and an indictment of the wisdom of the minister and of the goodness of the king, by a constitutional royalist of the English school. His service to history is that he shows how disorder and crime grew out of unreadiness, want of energy, want of clear thought and definite design. Droz admits that there is a flaw in the philosophy of his title-page. The position lost in the summer of 1789 was never recovered. But during the year 1790 Mirabeau was at work on schemes to restore the monarchy, and it is not plain that they could never have succeeded. Therefore Droz added a volume on the parliamentary career of Mirabeau, and called it an appendix, so as to remain true to his original theory of the fatal limit. We know the great orator better than he could be known in 1842, and the value of Droz’s excellent work is confined to the second volume. It will stand undiminished even if we reject the idea which inspired it, and prefer to think that the cause might have been won, even when it came to actual fighting, on the 10th of August. Droz’s book belongs to the small number of writings before us which are superior to their fame, and it was followed by one that enjoyed to the utmost the opposite fate.

For our next event is an explosion. Lamartine, the poet, was one of those legitimists who believed that 1830 had killed monarchy, who considered the Orleans dynasty a sham, and set themselves at once to look ahead of it towards the inevitable Republic. Talleyrand warned him to hold himself ready for something more substantial than the exchange of a nephew for an uncle on a baseless throne. With the intuition of genius he saw sooner than most men, more accurately than any man, the signs of what was to come. In six years, he said, we shall be masters. He was mistaken only by a few weeks. He laid his plans that, when the time came, he should be the accepted leader. To chasten and idealise the Revolution, and to prepare a Republic that should not be a terror to mankind, but should submit easily to the fascination of a melodious and sympathetic eloquence, he wrote the History of the Girondins. The success was the most instantaneous and splendid ever obtained by a historical work. People could read nothing else; and Alexandre Dumas paid him the shrewd compliment of saying that he had lifted history to the level of romance. Lamartine gained his purpose. He contributed to institute a Republic that was pacific and humane, responsive to the charm of phrase, and obedient to the master hand that wrote the glories of the Gironde. He always believed that, without his book, the Reign of Terror would have been renewed.

From early in the century to the other day there was a succession of authors in France who knew how to write as scarcely any but Mr. Ruskin or Mr. Swinburne have ever written in England. They doubled the opulence and the significance of language, and made prose more sonorous and more penetrating than anything but the highest poetry. There were not more than half a dozen, beginning with Chateaubriand, and, I fear, ending with Saint Victor. Lamartine became the historian in this Corinthian school of style, and his purple patches outdo everything in effectiveness. But it would appear that in French rhetoric there are pitfalls which tamer pens avoid. Rousseau compared the Roman Senate to two hundred kings, because his sensitive ear did not allow him to say three hundred— trois cents rois. Chateaubriand, describing in a private letter his journey to the Alps, speaks of the moon along the mountain tops, and adds: “It is all right; I have looked up the Almanac, and find that there was a moon.” Paul Louis Courier says that Plutarch would have made Pompey conquer at Pharsalus if it would have read better, and he thinks that he was quite right. Courier’s exacting taste would have found contentment in Lamartine. He knows very well that Marie Antoinette was fifteen when she married the Dauphin in 1770; yet he affirms that she was the child the Empress held up in her arms when the Magyar magnates swore to die for their queen, Maria Theresa. The scene occurred in 1741, fourteen years before she was born. Histories of literature give the catalogue of his amazing blunders.

In his declining years he reverted to this book, and wrote an apology, in which he answered his accusers, and confessed to some passages which he exhorted them to tear out. There was good ground for recantation. Writing to dazzle the democracy by means of a bright halo, with himself in the midst of it, he was sometimes weak in exposing crimes that had a popular motive. His republicanism was of the sort that allows no safeguard for minorities, no rights to men but those which their country gives them. He had been the speaker who, when the Chamber wavered, rejected the Regency which was the legal government, and compelled the Duchess of Orleans to fly. When a report reached him that she had been seized, and he was asked to order her release, he refused, saying, “If the people ask for her, she must be given up to them.”

In his own defence he showed that he had consulted the widow of Danton, and had found a witness of the last banquet of the Girondins. In his book he dramatised the scene, and displayed the various bearing of the fallen statesmen during their last night on earth. Granier de Cassagnac pronounced the whole thing a fabrication. It was told by Nodier who was a professional inventor, and by Thiers who gave no authority, and none could be found. But there was a priest who sat outside the door, waiting to offer the last consolations of religion to the men about to die. Fifty years later he was still living, and Lamartine found him and took down his recollections. An old Girondin, whom Charlotte Corday had requested to defend her, and who died a senator of the Second Empire, Pontécoulant, assured his friends that Lamartine had given the true colour, had reproduced the times as he remembered them. In the same way General Dumas approved of Thiers’s 10th of August. He was an old soldier of the American war, a statesman of the Revolution, a trusted servant of Napoleon, whose military history he wrote, and he left memoirs which we value. But I suspect that these lingering veterans were easily pleased with clever writers who brought back the scenes of their early life. There may be truth in Lamartine’s colouring, but on the whole his Girondins live as literature not as history. And his four volumes on the National Assembly are a piece of book-making that requires no comment.

Before the thunder of the Girondins had rolled away, they were followed by two books of more enduring value on the same side. Louis Blanc was a socialist politician, who helped, after 1840, to cement that union of socialists and republicans which overthrew the monarchy, and went to pieces on the barricades of June 1848. Driven into exile, he settled in London, and spent several years at work in the British Museum. It was not all a misfortune, as this is what he found there: it will give you an encouraging idea of the resources that await us on our path. When Croker gave up his house at the Admiralty on the accession of the Whigs, he sold his revolutionary library of more than 10,000 pieces to the Museum. But the collector’s fever is an ailment not to be laid by change of government or loss of income. Six years later Croker had made another collection as large as the first, which also was bought by the Trustees. Before he died, this incurable collector had brought together as much as the two previous lots, and the whole was at last deposited in the same place. There, in one room, we have about five hundred shelves crowded, on an average, with more than one hundred and twenty pamphlets, all of them belonging to the epoch that concerns us. Allowing for duplicates, this amounts to forty or fifty thousand Revolution tracts; and I believe that there is nothing equal to it at Paris. Half of them were already there, in time to be consulted both by Louis Blanc and Tocqueville. Croker’s collection of manuscript papers on the same period was sold for £50 at his death, and went to what was once the famous library of Middle Hill.

Louis Blanc was thus able to continue in England the work he had begun at home, and he completed it in twelve volumes. It contains much subsidiary detail and many literary references, and this makes it a useful book to consult. The ponderous mass of material, and the power of the pen, do not compensate for the weary obtrusion of the author’s doctrine and design.

An eminent personage once said to me that the parliament of his country was intent on suppressing educational freedom. When I asked what made them illiberal, he answered, “It is because they are liberal.” Louis Blanc partook of that mixture. He is the expounder of Revolution in its compulsory and illiberal aspect. He desires government to be so constituted that it may do everything for the people, not so restricted that it can do no injury to minorities. The masses have more to suffer from abuse of wealth than from abuse of power, and need protection by the State, not against it. Power, in the proper hands, acting for the whole, must not be restrained in the interest of a part. Therefore Louis Blanc is the admirer and advocate of Robespierre; and the tone of his pleading appears at the September massacres, when he bids us remember St. Bartholomew.

Michelet undertook to vindicate the Revolution at the same time as Louis Blanc, without his frigid passion, his ostentatious research, his attention to particulars, but with deeper insight and a stronger pinion. His position at the archives gave him an advantage over every rival; and when he lost his place, he settled in the west of France and made a study of La Vendée. He is regardless of proof, and rejects as rubbish mere facts that contribute nothing to his argument or his picture. Because Arras was a clerical town, he calls Robespierre a priest. Because there are Punic tombs at Ajaccio, he calls Napoleon a countryman of Hannibal. For him the function of history is judgment, not narrative. If we submit ourselves to the event, if we think more of the accomplished deed than of the suggested problem, we become servile accomplices of success and force. History is resurrection. The historian is called to revise trials and to reverse sentences, as the people, who are the subject of all history, awoke to the knowledge of their wrongs and of their power, and rose up to avenge the past. History is also restitution. Authorities tyrannised and nations suffered; but the Revolution is the advent of justice, and the central fact in the experience of mankind. Michelet proclaims that at his touch the hollow idols were shattered and exposed, the carrion kings appeared, unsheeted and unmasked. He says that he has had to swallow too much anger and too much woe, too many vipers and too many kings; and he writes sometimes as if such diet disagreed with him. His imagination is filled with the cruel sufferings of man, and he hails with a profound enthusiasm the moment when the victim that could not die, in a furious act of retribution, avenged the martyrdom of a thousand years. The acquisition of rights, the academic theory, touches him less than the punishment of wrong. There is no forgiveness for those who resist the people rising in the consciousness of its might. What is good proceeds from the mass, and what is bad from individuals. Mankind, ignorant in regard to nature, is a righteous judge of the affairs of man. The light which comes to the learned from reflection comes to the unlearned more surely by natural inspiration; and power is due to the mass by reason of instinct, not by reason of numbers. They are right by dispensation of heaven, and there is no pity for their victims, if you remember the days of old. Michelet had no patience with those who sought the pure essence of the Revolution in religion. He contrasts the agonies with which the Church aggravated the punishment of death with the swift mercy of the guillotine, and prefers to fall into Danton’s hands rather than into those of Lewis IX. or Torquemada.

With all this, by the real sincerity of his feeling for the multitude, by the thoroughness of his view and his intensely expressive language, he is the most illuminating of the democratic historians. We often read of men whose lives have been changed because a particular book has fallen into their hands, or, one might say, because they have fallen into the hands of a particular book. It is not always a happy accident; and one feels that things would have gone otherwise with them if they had examined Sir John Lubbock’s List of Best Books, or what I would rather call the St. Helena library, containing none but works adequate and adapted to use by the ablest man in the full maturity of his mind. Of such books, that are strong enough, in some eminent quality, to work a change and form an epoch in a reader’s life, there are two, perhaps, on our revolutionary shelf. One is Taine, and the other Michelet.

The fourth work of the revolutionary party, that was written almost simultaneously with these, is that of Villiaumé. Lamartine esteemed Vergniaud. Louis Blanc esteemed Robespierre, Michelet, Danton. Villiaumé went a step farther, and admired Marat. He had lived much in the surviving families of revolutionary heroes, and received, he says, the last breath of an expiring tradition. He had also gathered from Chateaubriand what he remembered; and Thierry, who was blind, caused his book to be read to him twice over.

The account of Marat in the 28th volume of Buchez was partly written by Villiaumé, and was approved by Albertine Marat. The great bibliographical curiosity in the literature of the Revolution is Marat’s newspaper. It was printed often in hiding-places and under difficulties, and is so hard to find that, a few years ago, the Paris library did not possess a complete set. A bookseller once told me that he had sold it to an English statesman for £240. Marat’s own copy, corrected in his handwriting, and enriched with other matter, was preserved by his sister. In 1835 she made it over to Villiaumé, who, having finished his book, sold it in 1859 for £80 to the collector Solar. Prince Napoleon afterwards owned it; and at last it made its way to an ancient Scottish castle, where I had the good fortune to find it.

Whilst the revolutionary historians, aided by public events, were predominating in France, the conservatives competed obscurely, and at first without success. Genoude was for many years editor of the leading royalist journal, and in that capacity initiated a remarkable phase of political thought. When the Bourbons were cast out under the imputation of incurable absolutism, the legitimists found themselves identified with a grudging liberality and a restricted suffrage, and stood at a hopeless disadvantage. In the Gazette de France Genoude at once adopted the opposite policy, and overtrumped the liberal Orleanists. He argued that a throne which was not occupied by right of inheritance, as a man holds his estate, could only be made legitimate by the expressed will of France. Therefore he insisted on an appeal to the nation, on the sovereignty of the people, on the widest extension of the franchise. When his friend Courmenin drew up the Constitution of 1848, it was Genoude who induced him to adopt the new practice of universal suffrage, which was unknown to the Revolution. Having lost his wife, he took orders. All this, he said one day, will presently come to an end, not through the act of a soldier or an orator, but of a Cardinal. And he drank to the memory of Richelieu.

The notion of a legitimate throne, restored by democracy, which was borrowed from Bolingbroke, and which nearly prevailed in 1873, gives some relief and originality to his work on the Revolution. You are not likely to meet with it. When Talleyrand’s Memoirs appeared, most people learnt for the first time that he went at night to offer his services to the king, to get the better of the Assembly. The editor placed the event in the middle of July. Nobody seemed to know that the story was already told by Genoude, and that he fixed the midnight bid for power at its proper date, a month earlier.

The history of Amédée Gabourd is a far better book, and perhaps the best of its kind. Gabourd had previously written a history of France, and his many volumes on the nineteenth century, with no pretension in point of research, are convenient for the lower range of countries and events. He writes with the care, the intelligence, the knowledge of the work of other men, which distinguish Charles Knight’s Popular History of England. I have known very deep students indeed who were in the habit of constantly using him. He says, with reason, that no writer has sought truth and justice with more perfect good faith, or has been more careful to keep aloof from party spirit and accepted judgments. As he was a constitutionalist, the revolution of February was the ruin of a system which he expected to last for ever, and to govern the last age of the world. But Gabourd remained true to his principles. He wrote: “I shall love the people, and honour the king; and I shall have the same judgment on the tyranny from above and the tyranny from below. I am not one of those who set a chasm between liberty and religion, as if God would accept no worship but that of servile hearts. I shall not oppose the results of the event which I describe, or deny the merit of what had been won at the price of so much suffering.”

The Doctrinaires were of all men in the best position to understand the Revolution and to judge it rightly. They had no weakness for the ancient monarchy, none for the republic; and they accepted the results rather than the motives. They rejoiced in the reign of reason, but they required the monarchy duly limited, and the church as established by the Concordat, in order to resume the chain of history and the reposing influence of custom. They were the most intellectual group of statesmen in the country; but, like the Peelites, they were leaders without followers, and it was said of them that they were only four, but pretended to be five, to strike terror by their number. Guizot, the greatest writer among them, composed, in his old age, a history of France for his grandchildren. It was left incomplete, but his discourses on the Revolution, the topic he had thought about all his life, were edited by his family. These tales of a grandfather are not properly his work, and, like the kindred and coequal lectures of Niebuhr, give approximately the views of a man so great that it is a grief not to possess them in authentic form.

Instead of Guizot, our Doctrinaire historian is Barante. He had the distinction and the dignity of his friends, their book learning, and their experience of public affairs; and his work on the dukes of Burgundy was praised, in the infancy of those studies, beyond its merit. In early life he had assisted Madame de la Rochejaquelein to bring out her Memoirs. His short biography of Saint Priest, Minister of the Interior in the first revolutionary year, is a singularly just and weighty narrative. After 1848 he published nine volumes on the Convention and the Directory. Like the rest of his party, Barante had always acknowledged the original spirit of the Revolution as the root of French institutions. But the movement of 1848, directed as it was against the Doctrinaires, against their monarchy and their ministry, had much developed the conservative element which was always strong within them.

In those days Montalembert succeeded Droz at the Academy, and took the opportunity to attack, as he said, not 1793 but 1789. He said that Guizot, the most eloquent of the immortals, had not found a word to urge in reply. On this level, and in opposition to the revival of Jacobin ideas and the rehabilitation of Jacobin character, Barante composed his work. It was a great occasion, as the tide had been running strongly the other way; but the book, coming from such a man, is a disappointment. In the trial of the king adverse points are slurred over, as if a historian could hold a brief. A more powerful writer of conservative history appeared about the same time in Heinrich von Sybel.

About the middle of the fifties, when Sybel’s earlier volumes were coming out, the deeper studies began in France with Tocqueville. He was the first to establish, if not to discover, that the Revolution was not simply a break, a reversal, a surprise, but in part a development of tendencies at work in the old monarchy. He brought it into closer connection with French history, and believed that it had become inevitable, when Lewis XVI. ascended the throne, that the success and also the failure of the movement came from causes that were at work before. The desire for political freedom was sincere but adulterated. It was crossed and baffled by other aims. The secondary and subordinate liberties embarrassed the approach to the supreme goal of self-government. For Tocqueville was a Liberal of the purest breed—a Liberal and nothing else, deeply suspicious of democracy and its kindred, equality, centralisation and utilitarianism. Of all writers he is the most widely acceptable, and the hardest to find fault with. He is always wise, always right, and as just as Aristides. His intellect is without a flaw, but it is limited and constrained. He knows political literature and history less well than political life; his originality is not creative, and he does not stimulate with gleams of new light or unfathomed suggestiveness.

Two years later, in 1858, a work began to appear which was less new and less polished than Tocqueville’s, but is still more instructive for every student of politics. Duvergier de Hauranne had long experience of public life. He remembered the day when he saw Cuvier mount the tribune in a black velvet suit and speak as few orators have spoken, and carry the electoral law which was the Reform Bill of 1817. Having quarrelled with the Doctrinaires, he led the attack which overthrew Guizot, and was one of three on whom Thiers was relying to save the throne, when the king went away in a cab and carried the dynasty with him. He devoted the evening of his life to a history of parliamentary government in France, which extends in ten volumes to 1830, and contains more profound ideas, more political science, than any other work I know in the compass of literature. He analyses every constitutional discussion, aided by much confidential knowledge, and the fullest acquaintance with pamphlets and leading articles. He is not so much at home in books; but he does not allow a shade of intelligent thought or a valid argument to escape him. During the Restoration, the great controversy of all ages, the conflict between reason and custom was fought out on the higher level. The question at that time was not which of the two should prevail, but how they should be reconciled, and whether rational thought and national life could be made to harmonise. The introductory volume covers the Revolution, and traces the progress and variation of views of government in France, from the appearance of Sieyès to the elevation of Napoleon.

Laboulaye was a man of like calibre and measurements, whom Waddington, when he was minister, called the true successor of Tocqueville. Like him he had saturated himself with American ideas, and like him he was persuaded that the revolutionary legacy of concentrated power was the chief obstacle to free institutions. He wrote, in three small volumes, a history of the United States, which is a most intelligent abstract of what he had learnt in Bancroft and Hildreth. He wrote with the utmost lucidity and definiteness, and never darkened counsel with prevaricating eloquence, so that there is no man from whom it is so easy and so agreeable to learn. His lectures on the early days of the Revolution were published from time to time in a review, and, I believe, have not been collected. Laboulaye was a scholar as well as a statesman, and always knew his subject well, and as a guide to the times we can have none more helpful than his unfinished course.

The event of the English competition is the appearance of Carlyle. After fifty years we are still dependent on him for Cromwell, and in Past and Present he gave what was the most remarkable piece of historical thinking in the language. But the mystery of investigation had not been revealed to him when he began his most famous book. He was scared from the Museum by an offender who sneezed in the Reading Room. As the French pamphlets were not yet catalogued, he asked permission to examine them and to make his selection at the shelves on which they stood. He complained that, having applied to a respectable official, he had been refused. Panizzi, furious at being described as a respectable official, declared that he could not allow the library to be pulled about by an unknown man of letters. In the end, the usual modest resources of a private collection satisfied his requirements. But the vivid gleam, the mixture of the sublime with the grotesque, make other opponents forget the impatient verdicts and the poverty of settled fact in the volumes that delivered our fathers from thraldom to Burke. They remain one of those disappointing storm-clouds that give out more thunder than lightning.

The proof of advancing knowledge is the improvement in compendiums and school books. There are three which must be mentioned. In the middle of the century Lavallée wrote a history of France for his students at the Military College. Quoting Napoleon’s remark, that the history of France must be in four volumes or in a hundred, he pronounces in favour of four. During a generation his work passed for the best of its kind. Being at St. Cyr, once the famous girls’ school, for which Racine composed his later tragedies, he devoted many years to the elucidation of Madame de Maintenon, and the recovery of her interpolated letters. His Revolution is contained in 230 pages of his fourth volume. There is an abridgment of the like moderate dimensions by Carnot. He was the father of the President, and the son of the organiser of victory, who, in 1815, gave the memorable advice to Napoleon that, if he made a rush at the English, he would find them scattered and unprepared. He was a militant republican, editor of the Memoirs of his father, of Grégoire, and of Barère, and M. Aulard praises his book, with the sympathy of a co-religionist, as the best existing narrative. Other good republicans prefer what Henri Martin wrote in continuation of his history of France. I should have no difficulty in declaring that the seventh volume of the French history by Dareste is superior to them all; and however far we carry the process of selection and exclusion, I would never surrender it.

We have seen that there are many able works on either side, and two or three that are excellent. And there are a few sagacious and impartial men who keep the narrow path between them: Tocqueville for the origin, Droz and Laboulaye for the decisive period of 1789, Duvergier de Hauranne for all the political thinking, Dareste for the great outline of public events, in peace and war. They amount to no more than five volumes, and are less than the single Thiers or Michelet, and not half as long as Louis Blanc. We can easily read them through; and we shall find that they have made all things clear to us, that we can trust them, and that we have nothing to unlearn. But if we confine ourselves to the company of men who steer a judicious middle course, with whom we find that we can agree, our wisdom will turn sour, and we shall never behold parties in their strength. No man feels the grandeur of the Revolution till he reads Michelet, or the horror of it without reading Taine. But I have kept the best for the end, and will speak of Taine, and two or three more who rival Taine, next week.

After much partial and contentious writing, sagacious men attained a reasonable judgment on the good and evil, the truth and error, of the Revolution. The view established by constitutional royalists, like Duvergier de Hauranne, and by men equidistant from royalist or republican exclusiveness, such as Tocqueville and Laboulaye, was very largely shared by intelligent democrats, more particularly by Lanfrey, and by Quinet in his two volumes on the genius of the Revolution. At that time, under the Second Empire, there was nothing that could be called an adequate history. The archives were practically unexplored, and men had no idea of the amount of labour serious exploration implies. The first writer who produced original matter from the papers of the Paris Commune was Mortimer Ternaux, whose eight volumes on the Reign of Terror came out between 1862 and 1880. What he revealed was so decisive that it obliged Sybel to rewrite what he had written on the scenes of September.

When I describe the real study of the Revolution as beginning with Tocqueville and Ternaux, I mean the study of it in the genuine and official sources. Memoirs, of course, abounded. There are more than a hundred. But memoirs do not supply the certainty of history. Certainty comes with the means of control, and there is no controlling or testing memoirs without the contemporary document. Down to the middle of the century, private letters and official documents were rare. Then, in the early summer of 1851, two important collections appeared within a few weeks of each other.

First came the Memoirs of Mallet du Pan, a liberal, independent, and discerning observer, whom, apart from the gift of style, Taine compares to Burke, and who, like Burke, went over to the other side.

This was followed by Mirabeau’s Secret Correspondence with the Court. His prevarication and double-dealing as a popular leader in the pay of the king had long been known. At least twenty persons were in the secret. One man, leaving Paris hurriedly, left one paper, the most important of all, lying about in his room. Unmistakable allusions were found among the contents of the Iron Chest. One of the ministers told the story in his Memoirs, and a letter belonging to the series was printed in 1827. La Marck, just before his death, showed the papers to Montigny, who gave an account of them in his work on Mirabeau, and Droz moreover knew the main facts from Malouet when he wrote in 1842. For us the interest of the publication lies not in the exposure of what was already known, but in the details of his tortuous and ingenious policy during his last year of life, and of his schemes to save the king and the constitution. For the revolutionary party, the posthumous avowal of so much treachery was like the story of the monk who, dying with the fame of a saint, rose under the shroud during the funeral service, and confessed before his brethren that he had lived and died an unrepentant hypocrite.

Still, no private papers could make up for the silence of the public archives; and the true secrets of government, diplomacy and war, remained almost intact until 1865. The manner in which they came to be exhumed is the most curious transaction in the progress of revolutionary history. It was a consequence of the passion for autographs and the collector’s craze. Seventy thousand autographs were sold by auction in Paris in the twenty-eight years from 1822 to 1850. From the days of the Restoration no letters were more eagerly sought and prized than those of the queen. Royalist society regarded her as an august, heroic, and innocent victim, and attributed the ruin of the monarchy to the neglect of her high-minded counsels. It became a lucrative occupation to steal letters that bore her signature, in order to sell them to wealthy purchasers. Prices rose steadily. A letter of the year 1784, which fetched fifty-two francs in 1850, was sold for one hundred and seven in 1857, and for one hundred and fifty in 1861. In 1844 one was bought for two hundred francs, and another for three hundred and thirty. A letter to the Princess de Lamballe, which fetched seven hundred francs in 1860, went up to seven hundred and sixty in 1865, when suspicion was beginning to stir. In all, forty-one letters from the queen to Mme. de Lamballe have been in the market, and not one of them was genuine. When it became worth while to steal, it was still more profitable to forge, for then there was no limit to the supply.

In her lifetime the queen was aware that hostile émigrés imitated her hand. Three such letters were published in 1801 in a worthless book called Madame de Lamballe’s Memoirs. Such forgeries came into the market from the year 1822. The art was carried to the point that it defied detection, and the credulity of the public was insatiable. In Germany a man imitated Schiller’s writing so perfectly that Schiller’s daughter bought his letters as fast as they could be produced. At Paris the nefarious trade became active about 1839.

On March 15, 1861, a facsimilist, Betbeder, issued a challenge, undertaking to execute autographs that it would be impossible to detect, by paper, ink, handwriting, or text. The trial came off in the presence of experts, and in April 1864 they pronounced that his imitations could not be distinguished from originals. In those days there was a famous mathematician whose name was Chasles. He was interested in the history of geometry, and also in the glory of France, and a clever genealogist saw his opportunity. He produced letters from which it appeared that some of Newton’s discoveries had been anticipated by Frenchmen who had been robbed of their due fame. M. Chasles bought them, with a patriotic disregard for money; and he continued to buy, from time to time, all that the impostor, Vrain Lucas, offered him. He laid his documents before the Institute, and the Institute declared them genuine. There were autograph letters from Alexander to Aristotle, from Caesar to Vercingetorix, from Lazarus to St. Peter, from Mary Magdalen to Lazarus. The fabricator’s imagination ran riot, and he produced a fragment in the handwriting of Pythagoras, showing that Pythagoras wrote in bad French. At last other learned men, who did not love Chasles, tried to make him understand that he had been befooled. When the iniquity came to light, and the culprit was sent to prison, he had flourished for seven years, had made several thousand pounds, and had found a market for 27,000 unblushing forgeries.

About the time when this mysterious manufacture was thriving, Count Hunolstein bought one hundred and forty-eight letters from Marie Antoinette, of a Paris dealer, for £3400, and he published them in June 1864. Napoleon III. and the Empress Eugénie, whose policy it was to conciliate legitimists whom the Italian Revolution offended, exhibited a cultivated interest in the memory of the unhappy queen; and it happened that a high official of their Court, M. Feuillet de Conches, was zealous in the same cause. He began his purchases as early as 1830, and had obtained much from the Thermidorean, Courtois, who had had Robespierre’s papers in his hands. Wachsmuth, who went to Paris in 1840 to prepare his historical work, reported in German reviews on the value of Feuillet’s collection; and in 1843 he was described as the first of French autographophiles—the term is not of my coining. It was known that he meditated a publication on the royal family. He travelled all over Europe, and was admitted to make transcripts and facsimiles in many places that were jealously guarded against intruders. His first volume appeared two months later than Hunolstein’s, and his second in September. During that summer and autumn royalism was the fashion, and enjoyed a season of triumph. Twenty-four letters were common to both collections; and as they did not literally agree, troublesome people began to ask questions.

The one man able to answer them was Arneth, then deputy keeper of the archives at Vienna, who was employed laying down the great history of Maria Theresa that has made him famous. For the letters written by Marie Antoinette to her mother and her family had been religiously preserved, and were in his custody. Before the end of the year Arneth produced the very words of the letters, as the Empress received them; and then it was discovered that they were quite different from those which had been printed at Paris.

An angry controversy ensued, and in the end it became certain that most of Hunolstein’s edition, and part of Feuillet’s, was fabricated by an impostor. It was whispered that the supposed originals sold by Charavay, the dealer, to Hunolstein came to him from Feuillet de Conches. Sainte Beuve, who had been taken in at first, and had applauded, thereupon indignantly broke off his acquaintance, and published the letter in which he did it. Feuillet became more wary. His four later volumes are filled with matter of the utmost value; and his large collection of the illegible autographs of Napoleon were sold for £1250 and are now at The Durdans.

It is in this way that the roguery of a very dexterous thief resulted in the opening of the imperial archives, in which the authentic records of the Revolution are deposited. For the emperors, Joseph and Leopold, were the queen’s brothers; her sister was regent in the Low Countries, the family ambassador was in her confidence, and the events that brought on the great war, and the war itself, under Clerfayt, Coburg, and the Archduke Charles, can be known there and there only. Once opened, Arneth never afterwards allowed the door to be closed on students. He published many documents himself, he encouraged his countrymen to examine his treasures, and he welcomed, and continues to welcome, the scholars of Berlin. Thirty or forty volumes of Austrian documents, which were brought to light by the act of the felonious Frenchman, constitute our best authority for the inner and outer history of the Revolution, and of the time that preceded it. The French Foreign Office is less communicative. The papers of their two ablest diplomatists, Barthélemy and Talleyrand, have been made public, besides those of Fersen, Maury, Vaudreuil, and many émigrés; and the letters of several deputies to their constituents are now coming out.

Next to the Austrian, the most valuable of the diplomatists are the Americans, the Venetians, and the Swede, for he was the husband of Necker’s illustrious daughter. This change in the centre of gravity which went on between 1865 and 1885 or 1890, besides directing renewed attention to international affairs, considerably reduced the value of the memoirs on which the current view of our history was founded. For memoirs are written afterwards for the world, and are clever, apologetic, designing and deceitful. Letters are written at the moment, and are confidential, and therefore they enable us to test the truth of the memoirs. In the first place, we find that many of them are not authentic, or are not by the reputed author. What purports to be the memoirs of Prince Hardenberg is the composition of two well-informed men of letters, Beauchamp and d’Allouville. Beauchamp also wrote the book known as the Memoirs of Fouché. Those of Robespierre are by Reybaud, and those of Barras by Rousselin. Roche wrote the memoirs of Levasseur de la Sarthe, and Lafitte those of Fleury. Cléry, the king’s confidential valet, left a diary which met with such success that somebody composed his pretended memoirs. Six volumes attributed to Sanson, the executioner, are of course spurious.

When Weber’s Memoirs were republished in the long collection of Baudoin, Weber protested and brought an action. The defendant denied his claim, and produced evidence to prove that the three first chapters are by Lally Tollendal. It does not always follow that the book is worthless because the title-page assigns it to a man who is not the author. The real author very often is not to be trusted. Malouet is one of those men, very rare in history, whose reputation rises the more we know him; and Dumont of Geneva was a sage observer, the confidant, and often the prompter, of Mirabeau. Both are misleading, for they wrote long after, and their memory is constantly at fault. Dumouriez wrote to excuse his defection, and Talleyrand to cast a decent veil over actions which were injurious to him at the Restoration. The Necker family are exasperating, because they are generally wrong in their dates. Madame Campan wished to recover her position, which the fall of the Empire had ruined. Therefore some who had seen her manuscript have affirmed that the suppressed passages were adverse to the queen; for the same reason that, in the Fersen correspondence, certain expressions are omitted and replaced by suspicious asterisks. Ferrières has always been acknowledged as one of the most trustworthy witnesses. It is he who relates that, at the first meeting after the oath, the deputies were excluded from the tennis-court in order that the Count d’Artois might play a match. We now find, from the letters of a deputy recently published, that the story of this piece of insolence is a fable. The clergy had made known that they were coming, and it was thought unworthy of such an occasion to receive a procession of ecclesiastics in a tennis-court; so the deputies adjourned to a neighbouring church.

Montlosier, who was what Burke called a man of honour and a cavalier, tells us that his own colleague from Auvergne was nearly killed in a duel, and kept his bed for three months. Biauzat, the fellow-townsman of the wounded man, writes home that he was absent from the Assembly only ten days. The point of the matter is that the adversary whose hand inflicted the wound was Montlosier himself.

The narrative which Madame Roland drew up in prison, as an appeal to posterity, is not a discreet book, but it does not reveal the secret of her life. It came out in 1863, when three or four letters were put up for sale at auction, and when, shortly after, a miniature, with something written on it, was found amid the refuse of a greengrocer’s shop. They were the letters of Madame Roland, which Buzot had sent to a place of safety before he went out and shot himself; and the miniature was her portrait, which he had worn in his flight.

Bertrand, the Minister of Marine, relates that the queen sent to the emperor to learn what he would do for their deliverance, and he publishes the text of the reply which came back. For a hundred years that document has been accepted as the authentic statement of Leopold’s intentions. It was the document which the messenger brought back, but not the reply which the emperor gave. That reply, very different from the one that has misled every historian, was discovered by Arneth, and was published two years ago by Professor Lenz, who lectures on the Revolution to the fortunate students of Berlin. Sybel inserted it in his review, and rewrote Lenz’s article, which upset an essential part of his own structure.

The Marquis de Bouillé wrote his recollections in 1797, to clear himself from responsibility for the catastrophe of Varennes. The correspondence, preserved among Fersen’s papers, shows that the statements in his Memoirs are untrue. He says that he wished the king to depart openly, as Mirabeau had advised; that he recommended the route by Rheims, which the king rejected; and that he opposed the line of military posts, which led to disaster. The letters prove that he advised secret departure, the route of Varennes, and the cavalry escort.

The general characteristic of the period I am describing has been the breakdown of the Memoirs, and our emancipation from the authority of the writers who depended on them. That phase is represented by the three historians, Sybel, Taine, and Sorel. They distanced their predecessors, because they were able to consult much personal, and much diplomatic, correspondence. They fell short of those who were to come, because they were wanting in official information.

Sybel was Ranke’s pupil, and he had learnt in the study of the Middle Ages, which he disliked, to root out the legend and the fable and the lie, and to bring history within the limits of evidence. In early life he exploded the story of Peter the Hermit and his influence on the Crusades, and in the same capacity it was he who exposed the fabrication of the queen’s letters. Indeed he was so sturdy a critic that he scorned to read the fictitious Hardenberg, although the work contains good material. He more than shared the unspiritual temper of the school, and fearing alike the materialistic and the religious basis of history, he insisted on confining it to affairs of state. Having a better eye for institutions than his master, and an intellect adapted to affairs, he was one of the first to turn from the study of texts to modern times and burning questions. In erudition and remote research he fully equalled those who were scholars and critics, and nothing else; but his tastes called him to a different career. He said of himself that he was three parts a politician, so that only the miserable remnant composed the professor. Sybel approached the Revolution through Burke, with essays on his French and Irish policy. He stood firmly to the doctrine that men are governed by descent, that the historic nation prevails invincibly over the actual nation, that we cannot cast off our pedigree. Therefore the growth of things in Prussia seemed to him to be almost normal, and acceptable in contrast with the condition of a people which attempted to constitute itself according to its own ideas. Political theory as well as national antagonism allowed him no sympathy with the French, and no wonder he is generally under-estimated in France. He stands aloof from the meridian of Paris, and meditates high up in Central Europe on the conflagration of 1789, and the trouble it gave to the world in general. The distribution of power in France moves him less than the distribution of power in Europe, and he thinks forms of government less important than expansion of frontier. He describes the fall of Robespierre as an episode in the partition of Poland. His endeavour is to assign to the Revolution its place in international history.

Once it was said, in disparagement of Niebuhr and other historians, that when you ask a German for a black coat he offers you a white sheep, and leaves you to effect the transformation yourself. Sybel belongs to a later age, and can write well, but heavily, and without much light or air. His introduction, published in 1853, several years before the volume of Tocqueville, has so much in common with it, that it was suggested that he might have read the earlier article by Tocqueville, which John Mill translated for the Westminster Review. But Sybel assured me that he had not seen it. He had obtained access to important papers, and when he became a great public personage, everything was laid open before him. In diplomatic matters he is very far ahead of all other writers, except Sorel. Having been an opposition leader, and what in Prussia is called a Liberal, he went over to Bismarck, and wrote the history of the new German Empire under his inspiration, until the Emperor excluded him from the archives, of which, for many active years, he had been the head. His five volumes, not counting various essays written in amplification or defence, stand, in the succession of histories, by dint of constant revision, at a date near the year 1880. For a time they occupied the first place. In successive editions errors were weeded out as fast as they could be found; and yet, even in the fourth, Mounier, who, as everybody knows, was elected for Dauphiné, is called the deputy from Provence. Inasmuch as he loves neither Thiers nor Sieyès, Sybel declares it absurd to compare, as Thiers has done, the Constitution of 1799 to the British Constitution. In the page alluded to, one of the most thoughtful in the Consulate and Empire, Thiers is so far from putting the work of Sieyès on the British level, that his one purpose is to display the superiority of a government which is the product of much experiment and incessant adaptation to the artificial outcome of political logic.

Sybel’s view is that the Revolution went wrong quite naturally, that the new order was no better than the old, because it proceeded from the old, rose from an exhausted soil, and was worked by men nurtured in the corruption of the old régime. He uses the Revolution to exhibit the superiority of conservative and enlightened Germany. And as there is little to say in favour of Prussia, which crowned an inglorious war by an inglorious peace, he produced his effect by piling up to the utmost the mass of French folly and iniquity. And with all its defects, it is a most instructive work. A countryman, who had listened to Daniel Webster’s Bunker Hill oration, described it by saying that every word weighed a pound. Almost the same thing might be said of Sybel’s history, not for force of language or depth of thought, but by reason of the immense care with which every passage was considered and all the evidence weighed. The author lived to see himself overtaken and surpassed, for internal history by Taine, and for foreign affairs by Sorel.

Taine was trained in the systems of Hegel and Comte, and his fundamental dogma was the denial of free will and the absolute dominion of physical causes over the life of mankind. A violent effort to shape the future by intention and design, and not by causes that are in the past, seemed to him the height of folly. The idea of starting fresh, from the morrow of creation, of emancipating the individual from the mass, the living from the dead, was a defiance of the laws of nature. Man is civilised and trained by his surroundings, his ancestry, his nationality, and must be adapted to them. The natural man, whom the Revolution discovered and brought to the surface, is, according to Taine, a vicious and destructive brute, not to be tolerated unless caught young, and perseveringly disciplined and controlled.

Taine is not a historian, but a pathologist, and his work, the most scientific we possess, and in part the most exhaustive, is not history. By his energy in extracting formulas and accumulating knowledge, by the crushing force with which he masses it to sustain conclusions, he is the strongest Frenchman of his time, and his indictment is the weightiest that was ever drawn up. For he is no defender of the Monarchy or of the Empire, and his cruel judgments are not dictated by party. His book is one of the ablest that this generation has produced. It is no substitute for history. The consummate demonstrator, concentrated on the anatomy of French brains, renounces much that we need to be told, and is incompetent as to the literature and the general affairs of Europe. Where Taine failed Sorel has magnificently succeeded, and he has occupied the vacant place both at the Academy and in his undisputed primacy among writers on the Revolution. He is secretary to the Senate, and is not an abstract philosopher, but a politician, curious about things that get into newspapers and attract the public gaze. Instead of investigating the human interior, he is on the look-out across the Alps and beyond the Rhine, writing, as it were, from the point of view of the Foreign Office. He is at his best when his pawns are diplomatists. In the process of home politics, and the development of political ideas, he does not surpass those who went before him. Coming after Sybel, he is somewhat ahead of him in documentary resource. He is more friendly to the principles of the Revolution, without being an apologist, and is more cheerful, more sanguine, and pleasanter to read. A year ago I said that, Sybel and Taine being dead, Sorel is our highest living authority. To-day I can no longer use those words.

On Ranke’s ninetieth birthday, Mommsen paid him this compliment: “You are probably the last of the universal historians. Undoubtedly you are the first.” This fine saying was double-edged, and intended to disparage general histories; but it is with a general history that I am going to conclude what I have to say on the literature of the Revolution. In the eighth volume of the General History, now appearing in France, Aulard gives the political outline of the Revolution. It may be called the characteristic product of the year 1889. When the anniversary came round, for the hundredth time, and found the Republic securely established, and wielding a power never dreamed of by the founders, men began to study its history in a new spirit. Vast pains and vast sums were expended in collecting, arranging, printing, the most authentic and exact information; and there was less violence and partiality, more moderation and sincerity, as became the unresisted victor. In this new school the central figure was M. Aulard. He occupies the chair of revolutionary history at Paris; he is the head of the society for promoting it; the editor of the review, La Révolution, now in its thirty-first volume; and he has published the voluminous acts of the Jacobin Club and of the Committee of Public Safety. Nobody has ever known the printed material better than he, and nobody knows the unpublished material so well. The cloven hoof of party preference appears in a few places. He says that the people wrought vengeance after the manner of their kings; and he denies the complicity of Danton in the crimes of September. As Danton himself admitted his guilt to no less a witness than the future king of the French, this is a defiance of a main rule of criticism that a man shall be condemned out of his own mouth. Aulard’s narrative is not complete, and lacks detail; but it is intelligent and instructive beyond all others, and shows the standard that has been reached by a century of study.

Where then do we now stand, and what is the elevation that enables us to look down on men who, the other day, were high authorities? We are at the end, or near the end, of the supply of Memoirs; few are known to exist in manuscript. Apart from Spain, we are advanced in respect of diplomatic and international correspondence; and there is abundant private correspondence, from Fersen downwards. But we are only a little way in the movement for the production of the very acts of the government of revolutionary France.

To give you an idea of what that means. Thirty years ago the Cahiers, or Instructions, of 1789 were published in six large volumes. The editors lamented that they had not found everything, and that a dozen cahiers were missing in four provinces. The new editor, in his two volumes of introduction, knows of 120 instructions that were overlooked by his predecessors in those four regions alone; and he says that there were 50,000 in the whole of France. One collection is coming out on the Elections for Paris, another on the Paris Electors, that is, the body entrusted with the choice of deputies, who thereupon took over the municipal government of the city and made themselves permanent. Then there is the series of the acts of the Commune, of the several governing committees, of the Jacobins, of the war department, and seven volumes on Vendée alone.

In a few years all these publications will be completed, and all will be known that ever can be known. Perhaps some one will then compose a history as far beyond the latest that we possess as Sorel, Aulard, Rambaud, Flammermont are in advance of Taine and Sybel, or Taine and Sybel of Michelet and Louis Blanc; or of the best that we have in English, the three chapters in the second volume of Buckle, or the two chapters in the fifth volume of Lecky. In that golden age our historians will be sincere, and our history certain. The worst will be known, and then sentence need not be deferred. With the fulness of knowledge the pleader’s occupation is gone, and the apologist is deprived of his bread. Mendacity depended on concealment of evidence. When that is at an end, fable departs with it, and the margin of legitimate divergence is narrowed.

Don’t let us utter too much evil of party writers, for we owe them much. If not honest, they are helpful, as the advocates aid the judge; and they would not have done so well from the mere inspiration of disinterested veracity. We might wait long if we watched for the man who knows the whole truth and has the courage to speak it, who is careful of other interests besides his own, and labours to satisfy opponents, who can be liberal towards those who have erred, who have sinned, who have failed, and deal evenly with friend and foe—assuming that it would be possible for an honest historian to have a friend.

Last modified April 10, 2014