Readings from the French Revolution
While the American Revolution remained a remote affair in the lives of most Europeans, the French Revolution of 1789 exercised a profound influence on the society and politics of the following centuries. It gave rise to modern conceptions of nationhood and citizenship and, equally important, it served as the model and archetype for a revolutionary tradition that has marked Europe to the present day.
To grasp the nature of the revolution it is necessary to comprehend the basic social structure of pre-Revolutionary France. The French ancien regime was formally divided into three legal orders or "estates." The clergy and the nobility comprised the First and Second Estates, respectively, while the Third Estate served as a broad category encompassing much of the rest of the population. Members of the first two estates enjoyed numerous privileges, such as freedom from taxation, monopoly rights to certain offices, and entitlement to various pensions. Since their traditional functions were ecclesiastical and military, they were legally discouraged from joining the liberal or commercial professions. For these reasons, the productive and fiscal burdens of the absolutist regime tended to fall heavily on members of the Third Estate, principally upon the peasantry that made up roughly 80% of the population.
The immediate causes of the revolution lay in the financial crisis of the monarchy, due in large part to the vast sums it sunk into military projects, including France's support for the American Revolution. By 1788, a reluctant Louis XVI was compelled to summon a representative body, known as the Estates General, in order to levy emergency funds. This meeting of the Estates General was to be the first of its kind since 1614. In the months leading up to it, a substantial number of political pamphlets articulated the resentment felt by many members of the Third Estate against the antiquated system of privileges that protected the "sloth" of the nobility and blocked the ascendancy of the most productive elements in French society. In their view, France should be reformed into a constitutional monarchy, with rewards based on individual merit rather than inherited privileges.
Events in the spring and summer of 1789 seemed to reinforce these arguments: the upper orders refused to reform the voting structure of the Estates General in order to give the Third Estate a voice more commensurate with its numbers and contributions. On 17 June 1789, disgruntled representatives of the Third Estate took matters into their own hands by reconstituting the Estates General as a sovereign National Assembly, thereby making manifest the principle that the Third Estate constituted the nation as a whole.
At the same time, uprisings of the peasantry and the urban classes pushed the National Assembly into abolishing many of the most onerous aspects of the old order. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, promulgated on 26 August 1789, legally enshrined the principles of popular sovereignty and equality under the law. It also insisted that civil distinctions could be legitimately founded "only on the basis of public utility," a further indication of the meritocratic aims of the revolution in its early period.
In subsequent years, the revolution passed through numerous phases as different social and political elements contended for control. The "Constitution of 1791" highlights the liberal period of the revolution, with its emphasis on individual rights, private property, representative government, constitutional monarchy, and a restrictive franchise. A more radical "Jacobin" phase began in 1792, primarily as the result of continued peasant and urban unrest, growing internal opposition, military threats from abroad, the recalcitrance of Louis XVI, and the ideological "logic" of the revolution itself. Louis was deposed in August of that year and a republic declared in September. The Constitution of 1793 reflects the more radical character of this period in its proclamation of universal male suffrage and in its provisions for broad public education and social welfare. However, the mounting conditions of war, inflation and political unrest led the revolutionary government to suspend this Constitution until peace could be established. In fact, this constitution was never put into effect.
By the late summer of 1793, the many palpable threats to the survival of the revolution served to legitimize a Reign of Terror by a governmental committee (the second Committee of Public Safety, otherwise known as the "twelve who ruled") dominated by Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794). A lawyer from the provincial city of Arras who had been elected deputy to the Estates General in 1789 and a great advocate of democratic egalitarianism in his capacity as leader of the Paris Jacobin Club, Robespierre was elected to the National Convention after the fall of the monarchy and soon emerged as the leader in the revolutionary government. He was also the most powerful and controversial figure during the Terror, which lasted from 1 June 1793 to 27 July 1794 and which constituted the most violent phase of the Revolution (approximately 40,000 were killed).
An admirer of Rousseau's political thought, Robespierre developed several fundamental ideas, above all the linkage between virtue and terror, and elaborated a theory of collective, civilian, revolutionary dictatorship. Viewing a unified general will as essential, and moral virtue as synonymous with revolution, Robespierre tried to "force men to be free," to convert or eliminate the "enemies of the people." He not only championed "virtue and terror" as principles of revolutionary government, but argued, contrary to Rousseau, for a representative rather than a direct democracy.
Written long before the Reign of Terror, Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) has endured as one of the most important anti-revolutionary statements. Born in Dublin, Burke (1729-97) became secretary in 1765 to the Marquis of Rockingham, leader of the Whig party, and entered Parliament in the same year. For a generation, he was the most eloquent spokesman of the Whigs. Although he defended the American colonies in their right to revolt against George III, Burke denounced the revolution in France, even during its early, moderate phase, and wrote the Reflections in hopes of preventing its revolutionary ideas from gaining support in England. Its conservatism (and despite Burke's own Whiggery, it was to become the foundational work of the conservative tradition) rested upon his conviction
that society was too massively complex an organism to be subjected to merely rational control: "One sure symptom of an ill-conducted state is the propensity of the people to theories.... No rational man ever did govern himself by abstractions and universals."
C H A P T E R 1 2
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, 1789
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen drew heavily on Rousseau and the Declaration of Independence of the United States, as well as on the various bills of rights that had been worked out for individual American colonies. The document was the work of a committee made up of more than twenty leaders of the National Assembly. In addition to its proclumation of individual rights which have since served as watchwords for liberals and radicals of many ideologies and economic interests, it expressed the commitment of the then dominant group in the Revolution to the rights of property. The Jacobins alone of the major parties dissented in this respect. Robespierre said: "You have . . . afford[ed] the largest possible latitude to the right to one's property, and yet you have not added a word in limitation of this right, with the result that your Declaration of the Rights of Man might make the impression of having been created not for the poor, but for the rich, the speculators, for the stock exchange jobbers." However much rooted it was in the interests of the middle classes, the Declaration was soon taken as a universal invitation to liberty.
The Declaration was promulgated in 1789 and attached to the Constitution of 1793. Throughout the nineteenth century it served as a symbol of revolutionary effort against the Old Regime in Europe and as a model for liberal constitutions. Its influence, furthermore, was wielded in circles far outside the propertied classes. The following translation from the French appears in Thomas Paine's Rights of Man (1790).
The representatives of the people of France, formed into a National Assembly, considering that ignorance, neglect, or contempt of human rights, are the sole causes of public misfortunes and corruptions of Government, have resolved to set forth in a solemn declaration, these natural, imprescriptible, and inalienable rights: that this declaration being constantly present to the minds of the members of the body social, they may be for ever kept attentive to their rights and their duties; that the acts of the legislative and executive powers of government, being capable of being every moment compared with the end of political institutions, may be more respected; and also, that the future claims of the citizens, being directed by simple and incontestable principles, may tend to the maintenance of the Constitution, and the general happiness.
For these reasons, the National Assembly doth recognize and declare, in the presence of the Supreme Being, and with the hope of his blessing and favour, the following sacred rights of men and of citizens:
I. Men are born, and always continue, free and equal in respect of their rights. Civil distinctions, therefore, can be founded only on public utility.
II. The end of all political associations, is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man; and these rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance of oppression.
III. The nation is essentially the source of all sovereignty; nor can any individual, or any body of men, be entitled to any authority which is not expressly derived from it.
IV. Political liberty consists in the power of doing whatever does not injure another. The exercise of the natural rights of every man, has no other limits than those which are necessary to secure to every other man the free exercise of the same rights; and these limits are determinable only by the law.
V. The law ought to prohibit only actions hurtful to society. What is not prohibited by the law, should not be hindered; nor should any one be compelled to that which the law does not require.
VI. The law is an expression of the will of the community. All citizens have a right to concur, either personally, or by their representatives, in its formation. It should be the same to all, whether it protects or punishes; and all being equal in its sight, are equally eligible to all honours, places, and employments, according to their different abilities, without any other distinction than that created by their virtues and talents.
VII. No man should be accused, arrested, or held in confinement, except in cases determined by the law, and according to the forms which it has prescribed. All who promote, solicit, execute, or cause to be executed, arbitrary orders, ought to be punished, and every citizen called upon, or apprehended by virtue of the law, ought immediately to obey, and renders himself culpable by resistance.
VIII. The law ought to impose no other penalties but such as are absolutely and evidently necessary; and no one ought to be punished, but in virtue of a law promulgated before the offence, and legally applied.
IX. Every man being presumed innocent till he has been convicted, whenever his detention becomes indispensable, all rigour to him, more than is necessary to secure his person, ought to be provided against by the law.
X. No man ought to be molested on account of his opinions, not even on account of his religious opinions, provided his avowal of them does not disturb the public order established by law.
XI. The unrestrained communication of thoughts and opinions being one of the most precious rights of man, every citizen may speak, write, and publish freely, provided he is responsible for the abuse of this liberty, in cases determined by law.
XII. A public force being necessary to give security to the rights of men and of citizens, that force is instituted for the benefit of the community and not for the particular benefit of the persons to whom it is intrusted.
XIII. A common contribution being necessary for the support of the public force, and for defraying the other expenses of government, it ought to be divided equally among the members of the community, according to their abilities.
XIV. Every citizen has a right, either by himself or his representative, to a free voice in determining the necessity of public contributions, the appropriation of them, and their account, mode of assessment, and duration.
XV. Every community has had a right to demand of all its agents an account of their conduct.
XVI. Every community in which a separation of powers and a security of rights is not provided for, wants a constitution.
XVII. The right to property being inviolable and sacred, no one ought to be deprived of it, except in cases of evident public necessity, legally ascertained, and on condition of a previous just indemnity.
C H A P T E R 1 3
Preface to the Constitution of 1793
The Constitution of 1793 (or Constitution of the Year I, as it is sometimes called) provided France for the first time with a democratic, republican form of government -- at least on paper; and after the fall of Robespierre it was to reappear as the gospel of political democracy. Its chief defect was the omission of satisfactory provision for social democracy. This may be appreciated by comparing the declaration of rights prefaced to the Constitution with the one proposed by Robespierre. The Constitution as a whole should be compared with that of 1791 and with the proposed Girondin one.
In general the Constitution of 1793 realized the aims of the Montagnards. Its popular ratification and the provisions concerning the executive tended to restore unity in France. Its adequate recognition of property rights reassured the bourgeoisie. Unfortunately, the Constitution was never put into effect. By the month of August, when the delegates of the departments came to Paris to affirm the almost unanimous approval of the 2,000,000 citizens who had voted on ratification, it had become evident that, in view of the critical circumstances, the dissolution of the Convention and the election of a new government would be a hazardous procedure. Accordingly, the application of the new Constitution was postponed indefinitely, and the Convention was declared in permanent session until the end of the war. By the time the emergency was past, the Constitution was to prove too radical for those in power, and it was supplanted by the more moderate Constitution of the Year III.
The French people, convinced that the forgetfulness of and contempt for the natural rights of man are the sole causes of the misfortunes of the world, have resolved to set forth these sacred and inalienable rights in a solemn declaration, in order that all citizens, being able constantly to compare the acts of the government with the aim of every social institution, may never permit themselves to be oppressed and degraded by tyranny, in order that the people may always have before their eyes the bases of their liberty and their happiness, the magistrate the guide to his duties, the legislator the object of his mission.
Accordingly, in the presence of the Supreme Being, they proclaim the following declaration of the rights of man and citizen.
1. The aim of society is the general welfare.
Government is instituted to guarantee man the enjoyment of his natural and inalienable rights.
2. These rights are equality, liberty, security, and property.
3. All men are equal by nature and before the law.
4. Law is the free and solemn expression of the general will; it is the same for all, whether it protects or punishes; it may order only what is just and useful to society; it may prohibit only what is injurious thereto.
5. All citizens are equally admissible to public office. Free peoples recognize no grounds for preference in their elections other than virtues and talents.
6. Liberty is the power appertaining to man to do whatever is not injurious to the rights of others. It has nature for its principle, justice for its rule, law for its safeguard. Its moral limit lies in this maxim: Do not to others that which you do not wish to be done to you.
7. The right of manifesting ideas and opinions, either through the press or in any other manner, the right of peaceful assembly, and the free exercise of worship may not be forbidden.
The necessity of enunciating these rights implies either the presence or the recent memory of despotism.
8. Security consists of the protection accorded by society to each one of its members for the preservation of his person, his rights, and his property.
9. The law must protect public and individual liberty against the oppression of those who govern.
10. No one is to be accused, arrested, or detained, except in the cases determined by law and according to the forms prescribed thereby. Any citizen, summoned or seized by authority of the law, must obey immediately; he renders himself culpable by resistance.
11. Any act directed against a person, apart from the cases and without the forms determined by law, is arbitrary and tyrannical; if attempt is made to execute such act by force, the person who is the object thereof has the right to resist it by force.
12. Those who incite, dispatch, sign, or execute arbitrary acts, or cause them to be executed, are guilty and must be punished.
13. Since every man is presumed innocent until declared guilty, if his arrest is deemed indispensable, all severity unnecessary for securing his person must be severely curbed by law.
14. No one is to be tried and punished until after having been heard or legally summoned, and except by virtue of a law promulgated prior to the offense. A law that would punish offenses committed before it existed would be tyranny; the retroactive effect of such a law would be a crime.
15. The law is to enact only penalties which are strictly and obviously necessary. Penalties must be proportionate to offenses and useful to society.
16. The right of property is the right appertaining to every citizen to enjoy and dispose at will of his goods, his income, and the product of his labor and skill.
17. No kind of labor, tillage, or commerce may be forbidden the industry of citizens.
18. Every man may contract his services or his time; but he may not sell himself or be sold; his person is not an alienable property. The law does not recognize the status of servant; only a bond of solicitude and acknowledgment may exist between the employee and his employer.
19. No one may be deprived of the least portion of his property without his consent, unless a legally established public necessity requires it, and upon condition of a just and previous indemnity.
20. No tax may be established except for general utility. All citizens have the right to concur in the establishment of taxes, to supervise their use, and to have an account rendered thereof.
21. Public relief is a sacred obligation. Society owes subsistence to unfortunate citizens, either by procuring work for or by providing the means of existence for those unable to work.
22. Education is necessary for everyone. Society must promote with all its power the advancement of public reason, and must place education within reach of all citizens.
23. The social guarantee consists of the effort of all to assure to each the enjoyment and preservation of his rights; this guarantee is based upon national sovereignty.
24. It cannot exist if the limits of public functions are not clearly determined by law, and if the responsibility of all functionaries is not assured.
25. Sovereignty resides in the people; it is one and indivisible, imprescriptible, and inalienable.
26. No portion of the people may exercise the power of the entire people; but every section of the sovereign assembled is to enjoy the right to express its will with complete liberty.
27. Let any individual who would usurp sovereignty be put to death instantly by free men.
28. A people always has the right to review, reform, and amend its constitution. One generation may not subject future generations to its laws.
29. Every citizen has an equal right to concur in the formation of the law and in the selection of its mandataries or agents.
30. Public functions are essentially temporary; they may be considered as neither distinctions nor rewards, but only as duties.
31. Offenses of mandataries and agents of the people must never go unpunished. No one has the right to consider himself more inviolable than others.
32. The right of presenting petitions to the depositaries of public authority may not be forbidden, suspended, or limited under any circumstances.
33. Resistance to oppression is the consequence of the other rights of man.
34. There is oppression against the social body when a single one of its members is oppressed. There is oppression against every member when the social body is oppressed.
35. When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is for the people, and for every portion thereof, the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties.
24 June 1793
Citizens, representatives of the people:
We set forth, some time ago, the principles of our foreign policy. We came today to develop the principles of our domestic policy.
After operating for a long time at random and as if impelled by the movement of factions opposing one another, the representatives of the French people have finally shown a character and a government. A sudden change in the Nation's fortune told Europe that there had been a regeneration among the national representatives. But, up to the very moment when I am speaking, it must be agreed, we have been guided, in such stormy circumstances, by love of the good and by awareness of our country's needs rather than by a correct theory and precise rules of conduct, which we did not even have time to sketch.
It is time to mark clearly the aim of the revolution and the end we want to reach; it is time to take account of the obstacles which still separate us from it and of the means that we ought to adopt to attain it: a simple and important idea which seems never to have been noticed. Well, how could a weak and corrupt government have dared to implement it? A king, a proud senate, a Caesar, a Cromwell, must first of all cover their plans with a religious veil, compromise with all the vices, caress all the parties, crush the party of the good men, oppress or deceive the people, to attain the aim of their perfidious ambition. If we had not had a greater task to perform, if nothing were involved but interests of a faction or of a new aristocracy, we could have believed, like certain writers even more ignorant than they are perverse, that the plan of the French revolution was plainly written in the books of Tacitus and Machiavelli, and we could have looked for the duties of the people's representatives in the history of Augustus, Tiberius, or Vespasian, or even in that of certain French legislators; for, except for a few nuances of perfidy or cruelty, all tyrants are alike.
For our part, we come today to reveal to the whole world your
political secrets, in order that all the friends of our country can rally
to the voice of reason and the public interest; in order that the French
nation and its representatives may be respected in all the countries
where the knowledge of their real
1. Translated by faculty members of Columbia College
Farsighted precautions are needed to make liberty's destiny depend on the truth, which is eternal, more than on men, who are ephemeral, so that if the government forgets the people's interests or if it falls back into the hands of corrupt men, in accordance with the natural course of things, the light of recognized principles will make clear its betrayals, and so that every new faction will meet death in the mere thought of crime.
Happy the people who can reach that point! For, whatever new outrages are prepared against it, what resources are presented by an order of things in which the public reason is the guarantee of liberty!
What is the end toward which we are aiming? The peaceable enjoyment of liberty and equity; the reign of that eternal justice whose laws have been graven not on marble and stone but in the hearts of all men, even the slave who forgets them and the tyrant who denies them. (Applause)....
We want to substitute, in our land, morality for egotism; probity for honor; principles for customs; ethics for propriety; the rule of reason for the tyranny of fashion; disdain for vice for disdain for misfortune; self-respect for insolence; spiritual grandeur for vanity; love of glory for love of money; good men for good society; merit for intrigue; genius for wit; truth for brilliance; the charm of happiness for the boredom of sensual pleasure; human greatness for the pettiness of the great; a magnanimous, powerful, happy people for an easy, frivolous, and miserable people: that is, all the virtues and all the miracles of the republic for all the vices and all the absurdities of the monarchy. (Applause)....
What is the nature of the government that can effect these prodigies? Only that government which is democratic or republican: these two words are synonyms, despite the abuses of common diction; for aristocracy is no more republican than is monarchy. Democracy is not a state in which the whole people, continually assembled, itself rules on all public business, still less is it one in which a hundred thousand factions of the people decide, by unrelated, hasty, and contradictory measures, on the fate of the entire society; such a government has never existed, and it could exist only to lead the people back to despotism.
Democracy is a state in which the sovereign people, guided by laws which are its own work, itself does all it can do well, and through delegates all it cannot do itself.
It is, then, in the principles of democratic government that you must look for the rules of your political conduct.
But, to found and consolidate democracy, to achieve the peaceable reign of the constitutional laws, we must end the war of liberty against tyranny and pass safely across the storms of the revolution: such is the aim of the revolutionary system that you have enacted. Your conduct, then, ought also to be regulated by the stormy circumstances in which the republic is placed; and the plan of your administration must result fran the spirit of the revolutionary government combined with the general principles of democracy.
Now, what is the fundamental principle of the democratic or popular government -- that is, the essential spring which makes it move? It is virtue; I am speaking of the public virtue which effected so many prodigies in Greece and Rome and which ought to produce much more surprising ones in republican France; of that virtue which is nothing other then the love of country and of its laws.
But as the essence of the republic or of democracy is equality, it
follows that the love of country necessarily includes the love of
It is also true that this sublime sentiment assumes a preference for the public interest over every particular interest; hence the love of country presupposes or produces all the virtues: for what are they other than that spiritual strength which renders one capable of those sacrifices? And how could the slave of avarice or ambition, for example, sacrifice his idol to his country?
Not only is virtue the soul of democracy; it can exist only in that government. . .
Only in democracy is the state really the patrie of all the individuals who compose it and can it count as many interested defenders of its cause as it has citizens. That is the source of the superiority of free peoples over all others. If Athens and Sparta triumphed over the tyrants of Asia, and the Swiss over the tyrants of Spain and Austria, we need not look for any other cause.
But the French are the first people of the world who have established real democracy, by calling all men to equality and to the full rights of the citizen; and there, in my opinion, is the real reason why all the tyrants in league against the Republic will be vanquished.
There are great consequences to be drawn immediately from the principles that we have just set forth.
Since the soul of the Republic is virtue, equality, and since your aim is to found, to consolidate the Republic, it follows that the first rule of your political conduct must be to relate all your operations to the maintenance of equality and the development of virtue; for the first care of the legislator ought to be to fortify the principle of the government. Thus all that tends to stir the love of country, to purify morals and customs, to elevate souls, to direct the passions of the human heart toward the public interest, ought to be rejected or suppressed. In the system of the French revolution, what is immoral is impolitic, what is corruptive is counter-revolutionary. Weakness, vice, prejudice are the road to royalty. Drawn along too often, perhaps by the weight of our old usages, as well as by the imperceptible tendency of human weakness, toward false ideas and pusillanimous feelings, we have to guard against excessive energy much less than against excessive weakness. Perhaps the greatest peril we have to avoid is not being fervent from zeal, but rather becoming tired of the good and intimidated by our own courage. So, turn ever tighter the spring of republican government, instead of letting it run down. I have no need to say here that I do not want to justify any excess. The most sacred principles are abused; it is for the government's wisdom to consider cireumstances, to seize the right moment, to choose the method; to prepare great things is an essential part of doing them, as wisdom itself is part of virtue.
We do not claim to cast the French republic in the Spartan mold; we want neither the austerity nor the corruption of a cloister. What we have just presented to you, in all its purity, is the moral and political principle of popular government. You have a compass by which you can test all laws, all proposals, suggested to you. By ceaselessly comparing them with that principle, you can henceforward avoid the usual peril of great assemblies, the danger of being surprised and of hasty, incoherent, and contradictory measures. You can give all your operations the cohesion, unity, wisdom, and dignity that ought to distinguish the representatives of the first people of the world.
It is not the obvious consequences of the principle of democracy that need to be presented in detail; it is rather the simple and fertile principle itself that deserves to be expounded.
Republican virtue can be considered in relation to the people and
to the government; it is necessary in both. When only the government lacks
virtue, there remains a resource in the people's virtue; but when the people itself is corrupted, liberty is already lost.
Fortunately virtue is natural to the people, notwithstanding aristocratic prejudices. A nation is truly corrupted when, having by degrees lost its character and its liberty, it passes from democracy to aristocracy or to monarchy, that is the decrepitude and death of the body politic....
But when, by prodigious efforts of courage and reason, a people breaks the chains of despotism to make them into trophies of liberty; when by the force of its moral temperament it comes, as it were, out of the arms of death, to recapture all the vigor of youth; when by turns it is sensitive and proud, intrepid and docile, and can be stopped neither by impregnable ramparts nor by the innumerable armies of the tyrants against it, but stops of itself upon confronting the law's image; then if it does not climb rapidly to the summit of its destinies, this can only be the fault of those who govern it.
Besides, in a sense, one can say that to love justice and equality, the people does not need great virtue; it has only to love itself.
But the magistrate is obliged to sacrifice his interest to the people's interest, and his pride, derived from power, to equality. The law must speak imperiously above all to him who is its voice. The government must weigh heavily on all its parts, to hold them in harmony. If there exists a representative body, a primary authority constituted by the people, it must exercise ceaseless surveillance and control over all the public functionaries. But what will control it, if not its own virtue? The higher the source of public order is placed, the purer it ought to be; the representative body, then, must begin in its own midst by subduing all private passions to the general passion for the public zeal. Fortunate are the representatives, when their glory and their interest itself, as much as their duties, attach them to the cause of liberty!
From all this let us deduce a great truth: the characteristic of popular government is confidence in the people and severity towards itself.
The whole development of our theory would end here if you had only to pilot the vessel of the Republic through calm waters; but the tempest roars, and the revolution imposes on you another task.
This great purity of the French revolution's basis, the very
sublimity of its
objective, is precisely what causes both our strength and our weakness. Our
strength, because it gives to us truth's ascendancy over imposture, and the rights
of the public interest over private interests; our weakness, because it rallies all
vicious men against us, all those who in their hearts contemplated despoiling the
people and all those who intend to let it be despoiled with impunity, both those
who have rejected freedom as a personal calamity and those who have embraced
the revolution as a career and the Republic as prey. Hence the defection of so
many ambitious or greedy men who since the point of departure have aban-
doned us along the way because they did not begin the journey with the same
destination in view. The two opposing spirits that have been represented in a
struggle to rule nature might be said to be fighting in this great period of human
history to fix irrevocably the world's destinies, and France is the scene of this
fearful combat. Without, all the tyrants encircle you; within, all tyranny's friends
conspire; they will conspire until hope is wrested from crime. We must smother
the internal and external enemies of the Republic or perish with it; now in this
situation, the first maxim of your policy ought to be to lead the people by reason
and the people's enemies by terror.
If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country's most urgent needs.
It has been said that terror is the principle of despotic government. Does your government therefore resemble despotism? Yes, as the sword that gleams in the hands of the heroes of liberty resembles that with which the henchmen of tyranny are armed. Let the despot govern by terror his brutalized subjects; he is right, as a despot. Subdue by terror the enemies of liberty, and you will be right, as founders of the Republic. The government of the revolution is liberty's despotism against tyranny. Is force made only to protect crime? And is the thunderbolt not destined to strike the heads of the proud?
Nature imposes on every physical and moral being the law of striving for its own preservation: to reign, crime slaughters innocence; and in crime's hands, innocence resists with all its might. . . .
And yet one or the other must succumb. Indulgence for the royalists, cry certain men, mercy for the villains! No! Mercy for the innocent, mercy for the weak, mercy for the weak, mercy for humanity.
Society owes protection only to peaceable citizens; the only citizens in the Republic are the republicans. For it, the royalists, the conspirators are null strangers or, rather, enemies. This terrible war waged by liberty against tyranny -- is it not indivisible? Are the enemies within not the allies of the enemies without? The assassins who tear our country apart, the intriguers who buy the consciences that hold the people's mandate; the traitors who sell them; the mercenary pamphleteers hired to dishonor the people's cause, to kill public virtue, to stir up the fire of civil discord, and to prepare political counter-revolution -- are all those men less guilty or less dangerous than the tyrants whom they serve? All who interpose their treasonous gentleness between those villains and the avenging sword of national justice resemble those who would throw themselves between the tyrants' henchmen and our soldiers' bayonets; all the impulses of their false sensitivity appear to me only sighs of longing for England and Austria....
With what good humor are we still duped by words! How aristocracy and moderatism still govern us through the murderous maxims they gave us!
Aristocracy defends itself better by intrigue than patriotism does by service. We try to control revolutions with the quibbles of the courtroom; we treat conspiracies against the Republic like lawsuits between individuals. Tyranny kills, and liberty argues; and the code made by the conspirators themselves is the law by which we judge them.
Though it involves our country's safety, general report cannot be substituted for the evidence of testimony, nor obviousness itself for literal proof.
Justice delayed means immunity from punishment; possible impunity
encourages all the guilty; and yet there are complaints against the
severity of justice; there are complaints against the imprisonment of
enemies of the Republic. Examples are sought in the histories of tyrants,
because those who complain do not want to choose them in the histories of
peoples, nor derive them from the natural tendency of liberty
It is clemency to mankind to punish its oppressors; it is barbarism to pardon them. Tyrants' rigor has no principle but rigor; the republican government's rigor begins in charity....
What frivolity it would be to regard a few victories won by patriotism as the end of all our dangers. Glance at our real situation. You will be aware that you need vigilance and energy more than ever. Sullen ill-will everywhere acts contrary to the government's operations. The fatal influence of the foreign, while it is more effectively hidden, is thereby neither less active nor less deadly. Crime, intimidated, has done nothing but cover its operations more adroitly.
The internal enemies of the French people are divided into two factions like two army corps. They march under banners of different colors and by separate routes; but they are marching to the same destination: their purpose is the disorganization of popular government, the ruin of the Convention -- that is, the triumph of tyranny. One of these two factions urges us to commit excesses; the other to be weak. One wants to change liberty into drunken frenzy, the other into prostitution.
One faction has been called the moderates, the other has been designated -- more cleverly perhaps than precisely -- as the ultra-revolutionaries. This denomination can in no case be applied to the men of good faith who may be carried away by zeal and ignorance to actions beyond the sound policy of the revolution and it does not characterize accurately the perfidious men whom tyranny hires to practice false and deadly applications that compromise the sacred principles of our revolution.
The false revolutionary is deficient more often than excessive in (his response to) the revolution. He is moderate or insanely patriotic, according to the circumstances. What he will think tomorrow is decided for him today by committees of Prussians, English, Austrians, even Muscovites. He opposes energetic measures and exaggerates them when he has been unable to block them. He is severe toward innocence but indulgent toward crime, accusing even the guilty who are not rich enough to purchase his silence nor important enough to merit his zeal, but carefully refraining from ever compromising himself to the point of defending virtue that has been slandered; now and then discovering plots that have already been discovered, ripping the masks off traitors who are already unmasked and even decapitated but extolling traitors who are living and still influential; always eager to embrace the opinion of the moment and as alert never to enlighten it, and above all never to clash with it; always ready to adopt bold measures provided they have many drawbacks; falsely attacking the measures that have only advantages, or adding all the amendments that can render them harmful; speaking the truth sparingly but as much as he must in order to acquire the right to lie with impunity; giving forth driblets of good and torrents of evil; full of fire for great resolutions which signify nothing; worse than indifferent to those which can honor the people's cause and save our country; giving much attention to the forms of patriotism; very much attached, like the devout whose enemy he declares himself to be, to formal observances, he would prefer to wear out a hundred red caps than to accomplish one good deed. (Applause) . . .
Do you want to put (such men) to the test? Ask them, not for oaths and declamations, but for real services.
Is action needed? They orate. Is deliberation required? They want
with action. Are the times peaceful? They will oppose every useful change. Are
the times stormy? They will speak of reforming everything, in order to throw
everything into confusion. Do you want to keep sedition in check? They remind you of Caesar's clemency. Do you want to deliver patriots from persecution? They propose to you as a model the firmness of Brutus. They discover that so- and-so was a noble when he is serving the Republic; they no longer remember this as soon as he betrays it. Is peace advantageous? They display the rewards of victory. Is war necessary? They praise the delights of peace. Must our territory be defended? They want to go and punish the tyrants beyond the mountains and seas. Must our forts be recaptured? They want to take the Churches by assault and scale heaven itself. (Applause) They forget the Austrians in order to make war on the devout. Do we need the support of faithful allies? They will declaim against all the governments in the world and propose that you put on trial the great himself. (Applause) Do the people go to the Capitol to give thanks to the gods for their victories? They intone lugubrious chants over our previous reverses. Is it a matter of winning new victories? In our midst they sow hatreds, divisions, persecutions, and discouragement. Must we make the sovereignty of the people a reality and concentrate its strength by a strong, respected government? They discover that the principles of government injure popular sovereignty. Must we call for the rights of the people oppressed by the government? They talk only of respect for the laws and of obedience owed to the constituted authorities.
They have found an admirable expedient for promoting the efforts of the republican government: it is to disorganize it, to degrade it completely, to make war on the patriots who have contributed to our successes....
Thus, for example, after having disseminated everywhere the germ of civil war by a violent attack on religious prejudices, they will seek to fortify fanaticism and aristocracy by the very measures, in favor of freedom of religious observances, that sound policy has prescribed to you. If you had left free play to the conspiracy, it would have produced, sooner or later, a terrible and universal reaction but if you stop it, they will still seek to turn this to their account by urging that you protect the priests and the moderates. You must not even be surprised if the authors of this strategy are the very priests who most boldly confess their charlatanism.
If the patriots, carried away by a pure but thoughtless zeal, have somewhere been made the dupes of their intrigues, they will throw all the blame upon the patriots; because the principal point of their machiavellian doctrine is to ruin the Republic by ruining the republicans, as one conquers a country by overthrowing the army which defends it. One can thereby appreciate one of their favorite principles, which is: men must count as nothing -- a maxim of royal origin, which means that all the friends of liberty must be abandoned to them.
It is to be noticed that the men who seek only the public good are to be the victims of those who seek to advance themselves, and this comes from two causes: first, that the intriguers attack using the vices of the old regime, second, that the patriots defend themselves only with the virtues of the new. Such an internal situation ought to appear worthy of all your attention, above all if you reflect that at the same time you have the tyrants of Europe to combat, 1,200,000 men under arms to maintain; and that the government is constantly obliged to repair, with energy and vigilance, all the evils which the innumerable multitude of our enemies has prepared for us during the course of five years.
What is the remedy for all these evils? We know no other than the
extension of that mainspring of the Republic: virtue.
Democracy perishes by two kinds of excess: the aristocracy of those who govern or the people's scorn for the authorities whom the people itself has established, scorn which makes each clique, each individual take over the public power and lead the people, through excessive disorders, to its destruction or to the power of one man.
The double effort of the moderates and the false revolutionaries is to drive us back and forth perpetually between these two perils.
But the people's representatives can avoid them both, because government is always able to be just and wise; and when it has that character, it is sure of the confidence of the people....
It is a truth which ought to be regarded as commonplace in politics that a great body invested with the confidence of a great people can be lost only through its own failings. Your enemies know this; therefore you can be sure that they are applying themselves above all to reawaken in your midst all the passions which can further their sinister designs.
What can they do against the national representation if they do not succeed in beguiling it into politic acts which can supply pretexts for their criminal declamations? They are therefore necessarily obliged to obtain two kinds of agents, those who will seek to degrade it by their speeches and those, in its very midst, who will do their utmost to deceive it in order to compromise its glory and the interests of the Republic....
Far from us is the idea that there still exists in our midst a single man weakling enough to intend to serve the tyrants' cause! But farther from us still is the crime, for which we would not be pardoned, of deceiving the National Convention and betraying the French people by a culpable silence. For it is the good fortune of a free people that truth, which is the scourge of despots, is always its strength and salvation. Now it is true that there still exists a danger for our liberty, perhaps the only serious danger which remains for it to confront. That danger is a plan which has existed for rallying all the enemies of the Republic by reviving party spirit; for persecuting the patriots, defeating and disheartening the faithful agents of the republican government, rendering inadequate the most essential parts of public service. They have intended to deceive the Convention about men about conditions; they have sought to put it on the wrong track about the causes of abuses, which they have exaggerated so as to make them irremediable; they have studiously filled it with false terrors, in order to lead it astray or paralyze it; they seek to divide it above all to create division between the representatives sent out to the departments and the Committee of Public Safety. They have songht to influence those representatives to contradict the measures of the central authority, in order to make them the instruments of a cabal. The foreigners turn to their profit all private passions, even abused patriotism.
They first adopted the plan of going straight to their goal, by
slandering the Committee of Public Safety; they flattered themselves aloud
that it would succumb under the weight of its laborious duties. Victory
and the good fortune of the French people defended it. Since that time
they have adopted the plan of praising it while paralyzing it and
destroying the results of its work. All those vague declamations against
necessary agents of the Committee; all the proposals for disorganization,
disguised under the name of reforms, already rejected by the Convention
and reproduced today with a strange artificiality; that eagerness to
extol the intriguers whom the committee of Public Safety was obliged to
remove; that terror inspired in good citizens; that indulgence with
which conspirators are favored; a man whom you have driven from your midst, is directed against the National Convention and tends to give effect to the resolutions of all the enemies of France.
It is since the time when this system was put forward in pamphlets and given effect in public acts that aristocracy and royalism have again begun to raise their insolent heads, that patriotism has again been persecuted in a part of the Republic, that the national authority has encountered a resistance which the intriguers had begun to abandon. If these indirect attacks had served only to divide the attention and energy of those who have to carry the immense burden that you have assigned them and distract them too often from the great measures for the public salvation in order to occupy themselves with thwarting dangerous intrigues; even so, they could be considered as a diversion useful to our enemies.
But let us be reassured, it is here that the truth has its sanctuary; it is here that the founders of the Republic reside, the avengers of humanity, and the destroyers of tyrants. (Applause)
Here, to destroy an abuse it suffices to point it out. It suffices for us to appeal, in the name of our country, from counsels of self-love or from the weaknesses of individuals, to the virtue and the glory of the National Convention.
We call for a solemn debate upon all the subjects of its anxiety and upon everything that can influence the progress of the revolution. We adjure it not to permit any hidden particular interest to use ascendancy here over the general will of the assembly and indestructible power of reason.
We will limit ourselves today to proposing that by your formal approval you sanction the moral and political truths upon which your internal administration and the stability of the Republic ought to be founded, as you have already sanctioned the principles of your conduct toward foreign peoples. Thereby you will rally all good citizens, you will take hope away from the conspirators, you will assure your progress and confound the kings' intrigues and slanders, you will honor your cause and your character in the eyes of all people.
Give the French people this new gage of your zeal to protect
patriotism, of your inflexible justice for the guilty, and of your
devotion to the people's cause. Order that the moral and political
principles which we have just expounded will be proclaimed, in your name,
within and without the Republic. (Applause)
C H A P T E R 1 5
Selections from Reflections on the Revolution in France
Edmund Burke (1729-97) was born in Dublin. In 1765, he became secretary to the Marquis of Rockingham, leader of the Whig party, and during the same year he entered Parliament. He was for a generation the most eloquent spokesman of the Whigs.
Burke's general principles were developed in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), from which selections follow. On the whole, however he distrusted abstract inquiries into political questions. His spiritual father was Montesquieu, and his conservatism rested upon his conviction that society was too massively complex an organism to be subjected to merely rational control. "One sure symptom of an ill conducted state is the propensity of the people to theories. . . No rational man ever did govern himself by abstractions and universals."
That this philosopher of conservatism was a Whig is not so strange as it may seem. His opinions on specifically English questions were those of one who looked back to the days of a forceful Whig nobility, and he was concerned, consequently, to save the Constitution of 1689 from the subversive influence of France and from attack at the hands of George III. It was as a Whig that he defended the colonies in the American Revolution, and it was as a Whig that he attacked the abuses of government in India and fought the wealthy "nabobs" whose purchase of English pocket boroughs threatened the continuing balance of power (that is, the power of the gentry).
It appears to me as if I were in a great crisis, not of the affairs of France alone, but of all Europe, perhaps of more than Europe. All circumstances taken together, the French Revolution is the most astonishing that has hitherto happened in the world. The most wonderful things are brought about in many instances by means the most absurd and ridiculous; in the most ridiculous modes; and, apparently, by the most contemptible instruments. Everything seems out of nature in this strange chaos of levity and ferocity, and of all sorts of crimes jumbled together with all sorts of follies. In viewing this monstrous tragic-comic scene, the most opposite passions necessarily succeed, and sometimes mix with each other in the mind; alternate contempt and indignation; alternate laughter and tears; alternate scorn and horror.
It cannot, however, be denied, that to some this strange scene
appeared in quite another point of view. Into them it inspired no other
sentiments than those of exultation and rapture. They saw nothing in what
has been done in France, but a firm and temperate exertion of freedom: so
consistent, on the whole, with
morals and with piety as to make it deserving not only of the secular applause of dashing Machiavellian politicians, but to render it a fit theme for all the devout effusions of sacred eloquence.
On the forenoon of the 4th of November last, Doctor Richard Price, a nonconforming minister of eminence, preached at the dissenting meeting-house of the Old Jewry, to his club or society, a very extraordinary miscellaneous sermon, in which there are some good moral and religious sentiments, and not ill expressed, mixed up in a sort of porridge of various political opinions and reflections; but the Revolution in France is the grand ingredient in the cauldron.... His doctrines affect our constitution in its vital parts. He tells the Revolution Society in this political sermon, that his Majesty "is almost the only lawful king in the world, because the only one who owes his crown to the choice of his people." . . .
This doctrine, as applied to the prince now on the British throne, either is nonsense, and therefore neither true nor false, or it affirms a most unfounded, dangerous, illegal, and unconstitutional position. According to this spiritual doctor of politics, if his Majesty does not owe his crown to the choice of his people, he is no lawful king. Now nothing can be more untrue than that the crown of this kingdom is so held by his Majesty. Therefore if you follow their rule, the king of Great Britain, who most certainly does not owe his high office to any form of popular election, is in no respect better than the rest of the gang of usurpers, who reign, or rather rob, all over the face of this our miserable world, without any sort of right or title to the allegiance of their people.... If you admit this interpretation, how does their idea of election differ from our idea of inheritance? And how does the settlement of the crown in the Brunswick line derived from James the First come to legalize our monarchy, rather than that of any of the neighboring countries? At some time or other, to be sure, all the beginners of dynasties were chosen by those who called them to govern. There is ground enough for the opinion that all the kingdoms of Europe were, at a remote period, elective, with more or fewer limitations in the objects of choice. But whatever kings might have been here, or elsewhere, a thousand years ago, or in whatever manner the ruling dynasties of England or France may have begun, the king of Great Britain, is, at this day, king by a fixed rule of succession, according to the laws of his country; and whilst the legal conditions of the compact of sovereignty are performed by him (as they are performed), he holds his crown in contempt of the choice of the Revolution Society, who have not a single vote for a king amongst them, either individually or collectively; though I make no doubt they would soon erect themselves into an electoral college, if things were ripe to give effect to their claim. His Majesty's heirs and successors, each in his time and order, will come to the crown with the same contempt of their choice with which his Majesty has succeeded to that he wears.
Whatever may be the success of evasion in explaining away the gross
error of fact, which supposes that his Majesty (though he holds it
in concurrence with the wishes) owes his crown to the choice of his
people; yet nothing can evade their full explicit declaration, concerning
the principle of a right in the people to choose; which right is directly
maintained, and tenaciously adhered to. All the oblique insinuations
concerning election bottom in this proposition, and are referable to it.
Lest the foundation of the king's exclusive legal title should pass for a
mere rant of adulatory freedom, the political divine proceeds dogmatically
to assert, that, by the principles of the Revolution, the people of
England have acquired three fundamental rights, all which, with him,
compose one system, and lie together in one short sentence; namely, that
we have acquired a right,
1. "To choose our own governors."
2. "To cashier them for misconduct."
3. "To frame a government for ourselves."
This new, and hitherto unheard-of, bill of rights, though made in the name of the whole people, belongs to those gentlemen and their faction only. The body of the people of England have no share in it. They utterly disclaim it. They will resist the practical assertion of it with their lives and fortunes. They are bound to do so by the laws of their country, made at the time of that very Revolution which is appealed to in favor of the fictitious rights claimed by the society which abuses its name.
These gentlemen of the Old Jewry, in all their reasonings on the Revolution of 1688, have a Revolution which happened in England about forty years before, and the late French Revolution, so much before their eyes, and in their hearts, that they are constantly confounding all the three together. It is necessary that we should separate what they confound. We must recall their erring fancies to the acts of the Revolution which we revere, for the discovery of its true principles. If the principles of the Revolution of 1688 are anywhere to be found, it is in the statute called the Declaration of Right. In that most wise, sober, and considerate declaration, drawn up by great lawyers and great statesmen, and not by warm and inexperienced enthusiasts, not one word is said, nor one suggestion made, of a general right "to choose our own governors; to cashier them for misconduct; and to form a government for ourselves." . . .
You will observe, that from Magna Charta to the Declaration of Right, it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties, as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity; as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom, without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right. By this means our constitution preserves a unity in so great a diversity of its parts. We have an inheritable crown; an inheritable peerage; and a House of Commons and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties, from a long line of ancestors.
This policy appears to me to be the result of profound reflection; or
rather the happy effect of following nature, which is wisdom without
reflection, and above it. A spirit of innovation is generally the result
of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to
posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors. Besides, the people
of England well know, that the idea of inheritance furnishes a sure
principle of conservation and a sure principle of transmission; without
at all excluding a principle of improvement. It leaves acquisition free;
but it secures what it acquires. Whatever advantages are obtained by a
state proceeding on these maxims, are locked fast as in a sort of family
settlement; grasped as in a kind of mortmain for ever. By a
constitutional policy, working after the pattern of nature, we receive, we
hold, we transmit our government and our privileges, in the same manner in
which we enjoy and transmit our property and our lives. The institutions
of policy, the goods of fortune, the gifts of providence, are handed
down to us, and from us, in the same course and order. Our political
system is placed in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of
the world, and with the mode of existence decreed to a permanent body
composed of transitory parts; wherein, by the disposition of a stupendous
wisdom, moulding together the great mysterious incorporation of the human
race, the whole, at one time, is never old, or middle-aged, or young, but,
in a condition of unchangeable constancy, moves on through the varied
tenor of perpetual decay, fall, renovation, and progression. Thus, by
method of nature in the conduct of the state, in what we improve, we are never wholly new; in what we retain, we are never wholly obsolete. By adhering in this manner and on those principles to our forefathers, we are guided not by the superstition of antiquarians, but by the spirit of philosophic analogy. In this choice of inheritance we have given to our frame of polity the image of a relation in blood; binding up the constitution of our country with our dearest domestic ties; adopting our fundamental laws into the bosom of our family affections; keeping inseparable, and cherishing with the warmth of all their combined and mutually reflected charities, our state, our hearths, our sepulchres, and our altars.
Through the same plan of a conformity to nature in our artificial institutions, and by calling in the aid of her unerring and powerful instincts, to fortify the fallible and feeble contrivances of our reason, we have derived several other, and those no small benefits, from considering our liberties in the light of an inheritance. Always acting as if in the presence of canonized forefathers, the spirit of freedom, leading in itself to misrule and excess, is tempered with an awful gravity. This idea of a liberal descent inspires us with a sense of habitual native dignity which prevents that upstart insolence almost inevitably adhering to and disgracing those who are the first acquirers of any distinction. By this means our liberty becomes a noble freedom. It carries an imposing and majestic aspect. It has a pedigree and illustrious ancestors. It has its bearings, and its ensigns armorial. It has its gallery of portraits; its monumental inscriptions; its records, evidences, and titles. We procure reverence to our civil institutions on the principle upon which nature teaches us to revere individual men; on account of their age, and on account of those from whom they are descended. All your sophisters cannot produce anything better adapted to preserve a rational and manly freedom than the course that we have pursued, who have chosen our nature rather than our speculations, our breasts rather than our inventions, for the great conservatories and magazines of our rights and privileges.
You might, if you pleased, have profited of our example, and have
given to your recovered freedom a correspondent dignity. Your privileges,
though discontinued, were not lost to memory. Your constitution, it is
true, whilst you were out of possession, suffered waste and dilapidation;
but you possessed in some parts the walls, and, in all, the foundations,
of a noble and venerable castle. You might have repaired those walls; you
might have built on those old foundations. Your constitution was suspended
before it was perfected; but you had the elements of a constitution very
nearly as good as could be wished. In your old states you possessed that
variety of parts corresponding with the various descriptions of which your
community was happily composed; you had all that combination, and all that
opposition of interests, you had that action and counteraction, which, in
the natural and in the political world, from the reciprocal struggle of
discordant powers, draws out the harmony of the universe. These opposed
and conflicting interests, which you considered as so great a blemish in
your old and in our present constitution, interpose a salutary check to
all precipitate resolu- tions. They render deliberation a matter not of
choice, but of necessity; they make all change a subject of
compromise, which naturally begets moderation; they produce
temperaments preventing the sore evil of harsh, crude, unqualified
reformations; and rendering all the headlong exertions of arbitrary
power, in the few or in the many, for ever impracticable. Through that
diversity of members and interests, general liberty had as many securities
as there were separate views in the several orders; whilst by pressing
down the whole by the weight of a real
monarchy, the separate parts would have been prevented from warping, and starting from their allotted places.
You had all these advantages in your ancient states; but you chose to act as if you had never been moulded into civil society, and had everything to begin anew. You began ill, because you began by despising everything that belonged to you. You set up your trade without a capital. If the last generations of your country appeared without much lustre in your eyes, you might have passed them by, and derived your claims from a more early race of ancestors. Under a pious predilection for those ancestors, your imaginations would have realized in them a standard of virtue and wisdom, beyond the vulgar practice of the hour: and you would have risen with the example to whose imitation you aspired. Respecting your forefathers, you would have been taught to respect yourselves. You would not have chosen to consider the French as a people of yesterday, as a nation of low-born servile wretches until the emancipating year of 1789....
Compute your gains: see what is got by those extravagant and presumptuous speculations which have taught your leaders to despise all their predecessors, and all their contemporaries, and even to despise themselves, until the moment in which they became truly despicable. By following those false lights, France has bought undisguised calamities at a higher price than any nation has purchased the most unequivocal blessings! France has bought poverty by crime! France has not sacrificed her virtue to her interest, but she has abandoned her interest, that she might prostitute her virtue. All other nations have begun the fabric of a new government, or the reformation of an old, by establishing originally, or by enforcing with greater exactness, some rites or other of religion. All other people have laid the foundations of civil freedom in severer manners, and a system of a more austere and masculine morality. France, when she let loose the reins of regal authority, doubled the license of a ferocious dissoluteness in manners, and of an insolent irreligion in opinions and practices; and has extended through all ranks of life, as if she were communicating some privilege, or laying open some secluded benefit, all the unhappy corruptions that usually were the disease of wealth and power. This is one of the new principles of equality in France....
Believe me, Sir, those who attempt to level, never equalise. In all societies, consisting of various descriptions of citizens, some description must be uppermost. The levellers, therefore, only change and pervert the natural order of things; they lead the edifice of society, by setting up in the air what the solidity of the structure requires to be on the ground. The associations of tailors and carpenters, of which the republic (of Paris, for instance) is composed, cannot be equal to the situation, into which, by the worst of usurpations, an usurpation on the prerogatives of nature, you attempt to force them.
The Chancellor of France at the opening of the States, said, in a tone
of oratorical flourish, that all occupations were honourable. If he meant
only, that no honest employment was disgraceful, he would not have gone
beyond the truth. But in asserting that anything is honourable, we imply
some distinction in its favor. The occupation of a hair-dresser, or of a
working tallow-chandler, cannot be a matter of honor to any person -- to
say nothing of a number of other more servile employments. Such
descriptions of men ought not to suffer oppression from the state; but the
state suffers oppression, if such as they, either individually or
collectively, are permitted to rule. In this you think you are combating
prejudice, but you are at war with nature.
I do not, my dear Sir, conceive you to be of that sophistical, captious spirit, or of that uncandid dulness, as to require, for every general observation or sentiment, an explicit detail of the correctives and exceptions, which reason will presume to be included in all the general propositions which come from reasonable men. You do not imagine, that I wish to confine power, authority, and distinction to blood, and names, and titles. No, Sir. There is no qualification for government but virtue and wisdom, actual or presumptive. Wherever they are actually found, they have, in whatever state, condition, profession or trade, the passport of Heaven to human place and honor. Woe to the country which would madly and impiously reject the service of the talents and virtues, civil, military, or religious, that are given to grace and to serve it; and would condemn to obscurity everything formed to diffuse lustre and glory around a state! Woe to that country too, that, passing into the opposite extreme, considers a low education, a mean contracted view of things, a sordid, mercenary occupation, as a preferable title to command! Everything ought to be open; but not indifferently to every man. No rotation; no appointment by lot; no mode of election operating in the spirit of sortition, or rotation, can be generally good in a government conversant in extensive objects. Because they have no tendency, direct or indirect, to select the man with a view to the duty, or to accommodate the one to the other. I do not hesitate to say, that the road to eminence and power from obscure condition, ought not to be made too easy, nor a thing too much of course. If rare merit be the rarest of all rare things, it ought to pass through some sort of probation. The temple of honor ought to be seated on an eminence. If it be opened through virtue, let it be remembered too, that virtue is never tried but by some difficulty and some struggle.
Nothing is a due and adequate representation of a state, that does not represent its ability, as well as its property. But as ability is a vigorous and active principle, and as property is sluggish, inert, and timid, it never can be safe from the invasions of ability, unless it be, out of all proportion, predominant in the representation. It must be represented too in great masses of accumulation, or it is not rightly protected. The characteristic essence of property, formed out of the combined principles of its acquisition and conservation, is to be unequal. The great masses therefore which excite envy, and tempt rapacity, must be put out of the possibility of danger. Then they form a natural rampart about the lesser properties in all their gradations. The same quantity of property, which is by the natural course of things divided among many, has not the same operation. Its defensive power is weakened as it is diffused. In this diffusion each man's portion is less than what, in the eagerness of his desires, he may flatter himself to obtain by dissipating the accumulations of others. The plunder of the few would indeed give but a share inconceivably small in the distribution to the many. But the many are not capable of making this calculation; and those who lead them to rapine never intend this distribution....
It is said, that twenty-four millions ought to prevail over two
hundred thousand. True; if the constitution of a kingdom be a problem of
arithmetic. This sort of discourse does well enough with the lamp-post for
its second: to men who may reason calmly, it is ridiculous. The
will of the many and their interest must very often differ; and great will
be the difference when they make an evil choice. A government of five
hundred country attorneys and obscure curates is not good for twenty-four
millions of men, though it were chosen by eight-and-forty millions; nor is
it the better for being guided by a dozen of persons of quality, who have
betrayed their trust in order to obtain that power. At present, you seem
everything to have strayed out of the high road of nature. The property of France does not govern it. Of course property is destroyed, and rational liberty has no existence. All you have got for the present is a paper circulation and a stock-jobbing constitution: and as to the future, do you seriously think that the territory of France, upon the republican system of eighty-three independent municipalities (to say nothing of the parts that compose them), can ever be governed as one body, or can ever be set in motion by the impulse of one mind? When the National Assembly has completed its work, it will have accomplished its ruin. These commonwealths will not long bear a state of subjection to the republic of Paris. They will not bear that this one body should monopolize the captivity of the king, and the dominion over the Assembly calling itself national. Each will keep its own portion of the spoil of the church to itself; and it will not suffer either that spoil, or the more just fruits of their industry, or the natural produce of their soil, to be sent to swell the insolence, or pamper the luxury, of the mechanics of Paris. In this they will see none of the equality, under the pretence of which they have been tempted to throw off their allegiance to their sovereign, as well as the ancient constitution of their country. There can be no capital city in such a constitution as they have lately made. They have forgot, that when they framed democratic governments, they had virtually dismembered their country. The person, whom they persevere in calling king, has not power left to him by the hundredth part sufficient to hold together this collection of republics. The republic of Paris will endeavor indeed to complete the debauchery of the army, and illegally to perpetuate the Assembly, without resort to its constituents, as the means of continuing its despotism. It will make efforts, by becoming the heart of a boundless paper circulation, to draw everything to itself; but in vain. All this policy in the end will appear as feeble as it is now violent....
Far am I from denying in theory, full as far is my heart from withholding in practice (if I were of power to give or to withhold), the real rights of men. In denying their false claims of right, I do not mean to injure those which are real, and are such as their pretended rights would totally destroy. If civil society be made for the advantage of man, all the advantages for which it is made become his right. It is an institution of beneficence; and law itself is only beneficence acting by a rule. Men have a right to live by that rule; they have a right to do justice, as between their fellows, whether their fellows are in public function or in ordinary occupation. They have a right to the fruits of their industry; and to the means of making their industry fruitful. They have a right to the acquisition of their parents; to the nourishment and improvement of their offspring; to instruction in life, and to consolation in death. Whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself; and he has a right to a fair portion of all which society, with all its combinations of skill and force, can do in his favor. In this partnership all men have equal rights; but not to equal things. He that has but five shillings in the partnership, has as good a right to it, as he that has five hundred pounds has to his larger proportion. But he has not a right to an equal dividend in the product of the joint stock; and as to the share of power, authority, and direction which each individual ought to have in the management of the state, that I must deny to be amongst the direct original rights of man in civil society; for I have in my contemplation the civil social man, and no other. It is a thing to be settled by convention.
If civil society be the offspring of convention, that convention must
be its law. That convention must limit and modify all the descriptions of
which are formed under it. Every sort of legislative, judicial, or executory power are its creatures. They can have no being in any other state of things; and how can any man claim under the conventions of civil society, rights which do not so much as suppose its existence? rights which are absolutely repugnant to it? One of the first motives to civil society, and which becomes one of its fundamental rules, is, that no man should be judge in his own cause. By this each person has at once divested himself of the first fundamental right of uncovenanted man, that is, to judge for himself, and to assert his own cause. He abdicates all right to be his own governor. He inclusively, in a great measure, abandons the right of self-defence, the first law of nature. Men can not enjoy the rights of an uncivil and of a civil state together. That he may obtain justice, he gives up his right of determining what it is in points the most essential to him. That he may secure some liberty, he makes a surrender in trust of the whole of it.
Government is not made in virtue of natural rights, which may and do exist in total independence of it; and exist in much greater clearness, and in a much greater degree of abstract perfection: but their abstract perfection is their practical defect. By having a right to everything they want everything. Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom. Among these wants is to be reckoned the want, out of civil society, of a sufficient restraint upon their passions. Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body, as well as in the individuals, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. This can only be done by a power out of themselves; and not, in the exercise of its function, subject to that will and to those passions which it is its office to bridle and subdue. In this sense the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights. But as the liberties and the restrictions vary with times and circumstances, and admit of infinite modifications, they cannot be settled upon any abstract rule; and nothing is so foolish as to discuss them upon that principle.
The moment you abate anything from the full rights of men, each to govern himself, and suffer any artificial, positive limitation upon those rights, from that moment the whole organization of government becomes a consideration of convenience. This it is which makes the constitution of a state, and the due distribution of its powers, a matter of the most delicate and complicated skill. It requires a deep knowledge of human nature and human necessities, and of the things which facilitate or obstruct the various ends, which are to be pursued by the mechanism of civil institutions. The state is to have recruits to its strength, and remedies to its distempers. What is the use of discussing a man's abstract right to food or medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them. In that deliberation I shall always advise to call in the aid of the farmer and the physician, rather than the professor of metaphysics.
The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or
reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught
à priori. Nor is it a short experience that can instruct us
in that practical science; because the real effects of moral causes are
not always immediate; but that which in the first instance is prejudicial
may be excellent in its remoter operation; and its excellence may arise
even from the ill effects it produces in the beginning. The reverse also
happens: and very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements,
have often shameful and lamentable conclusions. In states there are often
some obscure and almost latent causes, things which appear at first view
moment, on which a very great part of its prosperity or adversity may most essentially depend. The science of government being therefore so practical in itself, and intended for such practical purposes, a matter which requires experience, and even more experience than any person can gain in his whole life, however sagacious and observing he may be, it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice, which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again, without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes.
These metaphysic rights entering into common life, like rays of light which pierce into a dense medium, are, by the laws of nature, refracted from their straight line. Indeed in the gross and complicated mass of human passions and concerns, the primitive rights of men undergo such a variety of refractions and reflections, that it becomes absurd to talk of them as if they continued in the simplicity of their original direction. The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity: and therefore no simple disposition or direction or power can be suitable either to man's nature, or to the quality of his affairs. When I hear the simplicity of contrivance aimed at and boasted of in any new political constitutions, I am at no loss to decide that the artificers are grossly ignorant of their trade, or totally negligent of their duty. The simple governments are fundamentally defective, to say no worse of them. If you were to contemplate society in but one point of view, all these simple modes of polity are infinitely captivating. In effect each would answer its single end much more perfectly than the more complex is able to attain in its complex purposes. But it is better that the whole should be imperfectly and anomalously answered, than that, while some parts are provided for with great exactness, others might be totally neglected, or perhaps materially injured, by the overcare of a favorite member.
The pretended rights of these theorists are all extremes: and in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false. The rights of men are in a sort of middle, incapable of definition, but not impossible to be discerned. The rights of men in governments are their advantages; and these are often in balances between differences of good; in compromises sometimes between good and evil, and sometimes between evil and evil. Political reason is a computing principle; adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing, morally and not metaphysically, or mathematically, true moral denominations.
By these theorists the right of the people is almost always sophistically confounded with their power. The body of the community, whenever it can come to act, can meet with no effectual resistance; but till power and right are the same, the whole body of them has no right inconsistent with virtue, and the first of all virtues, prudence. Men have no right to what is not reasonable, and to what is not for their benefit....
History will record, that on the morning of the 6th of October, 1789,
the king and queen of France, after a day of confusion, alarm, dismay, and
slaughter, lay down, under the pledged security of public faith, to
indulge nature in a few hours of respite, and troubled, melancholy repose.
From this sleep the queen was first startled by the voice of the sentinel
at her door, who cried out to her to save herself by flight -- that this
was the last proof of fidelity he could give -- that they were upon him,
and he was dead. Instantly he was cut down. A band of cruel ruffians and
assassins, reeking with his blood, rushed into the chamber of the queen,
and pierced with a hundred strokes of bayonets and poniards the bed, from
whence this persecuted woman had but just time to fly almost naked, and,
through ways unknown to the murderers, had escaped to seek refuge at the feet of a king and husband, not secure of his own life for a moment.
This king, to say no more of him, and this queen, and their infant children (who once would have been the pride and hope of a great and generous people), were then forced to abandon the sanctuary of the most splendid palace in the world, which they left swimming in blood, polluted by massacre, and strewed with scattered limbs and mutilated carcasses. Thence they were conducted into the capital of their kingdom. Two had been selected from the unprovoked, unresisted, promiscuous slaughter, which was made of the gentlemen of birth and family who composed the king's body guard. These two gentlemen, with all the parade of an execution of justice, were cruelly and publicly dragged to the block, and beheaded in the great court of the palace. Their heads were stuck upon spears, and led the procession; whilst the royal captives who followed in the train were slowly moved along, amidst the horrid yells, and shrilling screams, and frantic dances, and infamous contumelies, and all the unutterable abominations of the furies of hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women. After they had been made to taste, drop by drop, more than the bitterness of death, in the slow torture of a journey of twelve miles, protracted to six hours, they were, under a guard, composed of those very soldiers who had thus conducted them through this famous triumph, lodged in one of the old palaces of Paris, now converted into a bastille for kings....
It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in, -- glittering like the morning-star, full of life, and splendor, and joy. Oh! what a revolution! and what a heart must I have to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream when she added titles of veneration to those of enthu- siastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor, and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.
This mixed system of opinion and sentiment had its origin in the
ancient chivalry; and the principle, though varied in its appearance by
the varying state of human affairs, subsisted and influenced through a
long succession of generations, even to the time we live in. If it should
ever be totally extinguished, the loss I fear will be great. It is this
which has given its character to modern Europe. It is this which has
distinguished it under all its forms of government, and distinguished it
to its advantage, from the states of Asia, and possibly from those states
which flourished in the most brilliant periods of the antique world. It
which, without confounding ranks, had produced a noble equality, and handed it down through all the gradations of social life. It was this opinion which mitigated kings into companions, and raised private men to be fellows with kings. Without force or opposition, it subdued the fierceness of pride and power; it obliged sovereigns to submit to the soft collar of social esteem, compelled stern authority to submit to elegance, and gave a dominating vanquisher of laws to be subdued by manners.
But now all is to be changed. All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.
On this scheme of things, a king is but a man, a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal, and an animal not of the highest order. All homage paid to the sex in general as such, and without distinct views, is to be regarded as romance and folly. Regicide, and parricide, and sacrilege, are but fictions of superstition, corrupting jurisprudence by destroying its simplicity. The murder of a king, or a queen, or a bishop, or a father, are only common homicide; and if the people are by any chance, or in any way, gainers by it, a sort of homicide much the most pardonable, and into which we ought not to make too severe a scrutiny.
On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations, or can spare to them from his own private interests. In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows. Nothing is left which engages the affections on the part of the commonwealth. On the principles of this mechanic philosophy, our institutions can never be embodied, if I may use the expression, in persons; so as to create in us love, veneration, admiration, or attachment. But that sort of reason which banishes the affections is incapable of filling their place. These public affections, combined with manners, are required sometimes as supplements, sometimes as correctives, always as aids to law.... When the old feudal and chivalrous spirit of fealty, which, by freeing kings from fear, freed both kings and subjects from the precautions of tyranny, shall be extinct in the minds of men, plots and assassinations will be anticipated by preventive murder and preventive confiscation, and that long roll of grim and bloody maxims, which form the political code of all power, not standing on its own honor, and the honor of those who are to obey it. Kings will be tyrants from policy, when subjects are rebels from principle.
When ancient opinions and rules of life are taken away, the loss
cannot possibly be estimated. From that moment we have no compass to
govern us; nor can we know distinctly to what port we steer. Europe,
undoubtedly, taken in a mass, was in a flourishing condition the day on
which your revolution was completed. How much of that prosperous state was
owing to the spirit of our old manners and opinions is not easy to say;
but as such causes cannot be indifferent in their operation, we must
presume, that, on the whole, their operation was beneficial.
We are but too apt to consider things in the state in which we find them, without sufficiently adverting to the causes by which they have been produced, and possibly may be upheld. Nothing is more certain than that our manners, our civilization, and all the good things which are connected with manners and with civilization, have, in this European world of ours, depended for ages upon two principles; and were indeed the result of both combined; I mean the spirit of a gentleman, and the spirit of religion. The nobility and the clergy, the one by profession, the other by patronage, kept learning in existence, even in the midst of arms and confusions, and whilst governments were rather in their causes, than formed. Learning paid back what it received to nobility and to priesthood; and paid it with usury, by enlarging their ideas, and by furnishing their minds. Happy if they had all continued to know their indissoluble union, and their proper place! Happy if learning, not debauched by ambition, had been satisfied to continue the instructor, and not aspired to be the master! Along with its natural protectors and guardians, learning will be cast into the mire, and trodden down under the hoofs of a swinish multitude....
I hear it is sometimes given out in France, that what is doing among you is after the example of England. I beg leave to affirm, that scarcely anything done with you has originated from the practice or the prevalent opinions of this people, either in the act or in the spirit of the proceeding. Let me add, that we are as unwilling to learn these lessons from France, as we are sure that we never taught them to that nation. The cabals here, who take a sort of share in your transactions, as yet consist of but a handful of people....
The whole [frame of our constitution] has been done under the auspices, and is confirmed by the sanctions, of religion and piety. The whole has emanated from the simplicity of our national character, and from a sort of native plainness and directness of understanding, which for a long time characterized those men who have successively obtained authority amongst us. This disposition still remains; at least in the great body of the people.
We know, and what is better, we feel inwardly, that religion is the basis of civil society, and the source of all good and of all comfort. In England we are so convinced of this, that there is no rust of superstition, with which the accumulated absurdity of the human mind might have crusted it over in the course of ages, that ninety-nine in a hundred of the people of England would not prefer to impiety. We shall never be such fools as to call in an enemy to the substance of any system to remove its corruptions, to supply its defects, or to perfect its construction. If our religious tenets should ever want a further elucidation, we shall not call on atheism to explain them. We shall not light up our temple from that unhallowed fire. It will be illuminated with other lights. It will be perfumed with other incense, than the infectious stuff which is imported by the smugglers of adulterated metaphysics. If our ecclesiastical establishment should want a revision, it is not avarice or rapacity, public or private, that we shall employ for the audit, or receipt, or application of its consecrated revenue. Violently condemning neither the Greek nor the Armenian, nor, since heats are subsided, the Roman system of religion, we prefer the Protestant; not because we think it has less of the Christian religion in it, but because, in our judgment, it has more. We are Protestants, not from indifference, but from zeal.
We know, and it is our pride to know, that man is by his constitution
a religious animal; that atheism is against, not only our reason, but our
instincts; and that it cannot prevail long. But if, in the moment of riot,
and in a drunken delirium from the hot spirit drawn out of the alembic of
hell, which in France is
now so furiously boiling, we should uncover our nakedness by throwing off that Christian religion which has hitherto been our boast and comfort, and one great source of civilization amongst us, and amongst many other nations, we are apprehensive (being well aware that the mind will not endure a void) that some uncouth, pernicious, and degrading superstition might take place of it.
For that reason, before we take from our establishment the natural, human means of estimation, and give it up to contempt, as you have done, and in doing it have incurred the penalties you well deserve to suffer, we desire that some other may be presented to us in the place of it. We shall then form our judgment.
On these ideas, instead of quarrelling with establishments, as some do, who have made a philosophy and a religion of their hostility to such institutions, we cleave closely to them. We are resolved to keep an established church, an established monarchy, an established aristocracy, and an established democracy, each in the degree it exists, and in no greater....
Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure -- but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primaeva1 contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place. This law is not subject to the will of those, who by an obligation above them, and infinitely superior, are bound to submit their will to that law. The municipal corporations of that universal kingdom are not morally at liberty at their pleasure, and on their speculations of a contingent improvement, wholly to separate and tear asunder the bands of their subordinate community, and to dissolve it into an unsocial, uncivil, unconnected chaos of elementary principles. It is the first and supreme necessity only, a necessity that is not chosen, but chooses, a necessity paramount to deliberation, that admits no discussion, and demands no evidence, which alone can justify a resort to anarchy. This necessity is no exception to the rule; because this necessity itself is a part too of that moral and physical disposition of things, to which man must be obedient by consent or force; but if that which is only submission to necessity should be made the object of choice, the law is broken, nature is disobeyed, and the rebellious are outlawed, cast forth, and exiled, from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow....
When all the frauds, impostures, violences, rapines, burnings,
murders, confiscations, compulsory paper currencies, and every description
of tyranny and cruelty employed to bring about and to uphold this
Revolution, have their natural effect, that is, to shock the moral
sentiments of all virtuous and sober minds, the abettors of this
philosophic system immediately strain their throats in a declaration
against the old monarchial government of France.... Have these
gentlemen never heard, in the whole circle of the worlds of theory and practice, of anything between the despotism of the monarch and the despotism of the multitude? Have they never heard of a monarchy directed by laws, controlled and balanced by the great hereditary wealth and hereditary dignity of a nation; and both again controlled by a judicious check from the reason and feeling of the people at large, acting by a suitable and permanent organ? Is it then impossible that a man may be found, who, without criminal ill intention, or pitiable absurdity, shall prefer such a mixed and tempered government to either of the extremes; and who may repute that nation to be destitute of all wisdom and of all virtue, which, having in its choice to obtain such a government with ease, or rather to confirm it when actually possessed, thought proper to commit a thousand crimes, and to subject their country to a thousand evils, in order to avoid it? Is it then a truth so universally acknowledged, that a pure democracy is the only tolerable form into which human society can be thrown, that a man is not permitted to hesitate about its merits, without the suspicion of being a friend to tyranny, that is, of being a foe to mankind?
I do not know under what description to class the present ruling authority in France. It affects to be a pure democracy, though I think it in a direct train of becoming shortly a mischievous and ignoble oligarchy. But for the present I admit it to be a contrivance of the nature and effect of what it pretends to. I reprobate no form of government merely upon abstract principles. There may be situations in which the purely democratic form will become necessary. There may be some (very few, and very particularly circumstanced) where it would be clearly desirable. This I do not take to be the case of France, or of any other great country. Until now, we have seen no examples of considerable democracies. The ancients were better acquainted with them. Not being wholly unread in the authors, who had seen the most of those constitutions, and who best understood them, I cannot help concurring with their opinion, that an absolute democracy, no more than absolute monarchy, is to be reckoned among the legitimate forms of government. They think it rather the corruption and degeneracy, than the sound constitution of a republic. If I recollect rightly, Aristotle observes, that a democracy has many striking points of resemblance with a tyranny. Of this I am certain, that in a democracy, the majority of the citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority, whenever strong divisions prevail in that kind of polity, as they often must; and that oppression of the minority will extend to far greater numbers, and will be carried on with much greater fury, than can almost ever be apprehended from the dominion of a single sceptre. In such a popular persecution, individual sufferers are in a much more deplorable condition than in any other. Under a cruel prince they have the balmy compassion of mankind to assuage the smart of their wounds; they have the plaudits of the people to animate their generous constancy under their sufferings: but those who are subjected to wrong under multitudes, are deprived of all external consolation. They seem deserted by mankind, overpowered by a conspiracy of their whole species....
Corporate bodies are immortal for the good of the members, but not for
their punishment. Nations themselves are such corporations. As well might
we in England think of waging inexpiable war upon all Frenchmen for the
evils which they have brought upon us in the several periods of our mutual
hostilities. You might, on your part, think yourselves justified in
falling upon all Englishmen on account of the unparalleled calamities
brought on the people of France by the unjust invasions of our Henrys and
our Edwards. Indeed we should be mutually
justified in this exterminatory war upon each other, full as much as you are in the unprovoked persecution of your present countrymen, on account of the conduct of men of the same name in other times.
We do not draw the moral lessons we might from history. On the contrary, without care it may be used to vitiate our minds and to destroy our happiness. In history a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind. It may, in the perversion, serve for a magazine, furnishing offensive and defensive weapons for parties in church and state, and supplying the means of keeping alive, or reviving, dissensions and animosities, and adding fuel to civil fury. History consists, for the greater part, of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites, which shake the public with the same
troublous storms that toss The private state, and render life unsweet....
Your citizens of Paris formerly had lent themselves as the ready instruments to slaughter the followers of Calvin, at the infamous massacre of St. Bartholomew. What should we say to those who could think of retaliating on the Parisians of this day the abominations and horrors of that time? They are indeed brought to abhor that massacre. Ferocious as they are, it is not difficult to make them dislike it; because the politicians and fashionable teachers have no interest in giving their passions exactly the same direction. Still, however, they find it their interest to keep the same savage dispositions alive. It was but the other day that they caused this very massacre to be acted on the stage for the diversion of the descendants of those who committed it. In this tragic farce they produced the cardinal of Lorraine in his robes of function, ordering general slaughter. Was this spectacle intended to make the Parisians abhor persecution, and loathe the effusion of blood? -- No; it was to teach them to persecute their own pastors; it was to excite them, by raising a disgust and horror of their clergy, to an alacrity in hunting down to destruction an order, which, if it ought to exist at all, ought to exist not only in safety, but in reverence. It was to stimulate their cannibal appetites (which one would think had been gorged sufficiently) by variety and seasoning; and to quicken them to an alertness in new murders and massacres, if it should suit the purpose of the Guises of the day. An Assembly, in which sat a multitude of priests and prelates, was obliged to suffer this indignity at its door. The author was not sent to the galleys, nor the players to the house of correction. Not long after this exhibition, those players came forward to the Assembly to claim the rites of that very religion which they had dared to expose, and to show their prostituted faces in the senate, whilst the archbishop of Paris, whose function was known to his people only by his prayers and benedictions, and his wealth only by his alms, is forced to abandon his house, and to fly from his flock (as from ravenous wolves), because, truly, in the sixteenth century, the cardinal of Lorraine was a rebel and a murderer.
Such is the effect of the perversion of history, by those, who, for
the same nefarious purposes, have perverted every other part of learning.
But those who will stand upon that elevation of reason, which places
centuries under our eye, and brings things to the true point of
comparison, which obscures little names, and effaces the colors of little
parties, and to which nothing can ascend but the spirit and moral quality
of human actions, will say to the teachers of the Palais Royal, -- The
cardinal of Lorraine was the murderer of the sixteenth century, you
have the glory of being the murderers in the eighteenth; and this is the only difference between you. But history in the nineteenth century, better understood, and better employed, will, I trust, teach a civilized posterity to abhor the misdeeds of both these barbarous ages. It will teach future priests and magistrates not to retaliate upon the speculative and inactive atheists of future times, the enormities committed by the present praclical zealots and furious fanatics of that wretched error, which, in its quiescent state, is more than punished, whenever it is embraced. It will teach posterity not to make war upon either religion or philosophy, for the abuse which the hypocrites of both have made of the two most valuable blessings conferred upon us by the bounty of the universal Patron, who in all things eminently favors and protects the race of man.
Selections from the CC Reader