Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 2.djvu/471

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been validated.

antipathies produce, let us take a case showing how perverted may be the estimates of the relative gravities of evils, and the relative degrees of blameworthiness of actions.

Feudalism had decayed: its benefits had died out, and only its evils had survived. While the dominant classes no longer performed their functions, they continued their exactions and maintained their privileges. Seignorial power was exercised solely for private benefit, and at every step met the unprivileged with vexatious claims and restrictions. The peasant was called from his heavily-burdened bit of land to work gratis for a neighboring noble, who gave him no protection in return. He had to bear uncomplainingly the devouring of his crops by this man's game; to hand him a toll before he could cross the river; to buy from him the liberty to sell at market—nay, such portion of grain as he reserved for his own use he could eat only after paying for the grinding of it at his seigneur's mill, and for having it baked at his bakehouse. And then, added to the seignorial exactions, came the exactions of the Church, still more mercilessly enforced. Along with all these local abuses and exasperating obstacles to living, there had gone on at the governing centre maladministration, corruption, extravagance: treasures were spent in building vast palaces, and enormous armies were sacrificed in inexcusable wars. Profuse expenditure, demanding more than could be got from crippled industry, had caused a chronic deficit. New taxes on the poor workers brought in no money, but only clamor and discontent; and to tax the rich idlers proved to be impracticable: the proposal, that the clergy and noblesse should no longer be exempt from burdens such as were borne by the people, brought from these classes "a shriek of indignation and astonishment." And then, to make more conspicuous the worthlessness of the governing agencies of all orders, there was the corrupt life led by the court, from the king downward—France lying "with a harlot's foot on its neck." Passing over the various phases of the break-up which ended this intolerable state—phases throughout which the dominant classes, good for nothing and unrepentant, strove to recover their power, and, enlisting foreign rulers, brought upon France invading armies—we come presently to a time when, in a storm of anger and fear, the people revenged themselves on such of their past tormentors as remained among them. Leagued, as many of these were, with those of their order who were levying war against liberated France—leagued, as many others were supposed to be, with these enemies to the Republic at home and abroad—incorrigible as they proved themselves by their plottings and treacheries; there at length came down upon them the September massacres and the Reign of Terror, during which nearly 10,000 of those implicated, or supposed to be implicated, were killed or formally executed. The Nemesis was sufficiently fearful. Lamentable sufferings and death fell on innocent as well as guilty. Hate and despair combined to