Englishmen in the French Revolution/Preface

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The history of the French Revolution has been written with greater fullness and from a greater variety of standpoints than any other event on the globe, yet this book takes up untrodden ground. It is well known, indeed, that the Revolution attracted to Paris men from all parts of the world, and of almost all categories—enthusiasts, adventurers, sensation-hunters; some of the best specimens of humanity and some of the worst; some of the most generous minds and some of the most selfish; some of the busiest brains and some of the idlest. Not a few of these moths perished in the flame which they had imprudently approached; others escaped with a singeing of their wings; others, again, were fortunate enough to pass unscathed. Some died in their beds just before the Terror ended, but without any assurance of its ending; others only just saw the end.

The foreigners, like the natives, who fairly survived the Revolution, had very various fortunes. Some were thoroughly disillusioned, became vehement reactionaries, or abjured politics and were transformed into sober or enterprising men of business. Others crossed or recrossed the Atlantic, and lived to a green and honoured old age, or gave way to degrading vices. Some, remaining in France, hailed the rising star of Napoleon, and lived long enough to be disenchanted, but perhaps not long enough to see the restoration of the Bourbons.

The characters of these men are an interesting chapter in psychology. The honest among them had left house and parents and brethren, if not wife and children, for the sake of what they believed to be in its way a kingdom of heaven. They appeal to our sympathies more than the cold observers, if indeed there were any such, who foresaw the lamentable collapse of all these highly-wrought expectations. No doubt some of these immigrants were restless agitators, empty demagogues, pretentious egotists; but even these are not undeserving of study. There was much base metal, but there was also genuine gold. If of some who underwent imprisonment or death we can hardly avoid thinking that they deserved their fate, there are others whom we must sincerely pity, men to whom the Revolution was a religion overriding all claims of country and kindred.

French historians have not taken, and could not be expected to take, much notice of aliens, even of those more or less actors in the Revolution. In their eyes they are but imperceptible specks in the great eddy. Their attention is absorbed by their own countrymen; they have none to spare for interlopers, none of whom appreciably influenced the course of events. If they devote a few lines to Cloots, who had to wait till 1876 for a biographer, or to Paine, whom they often describe as an American, they consider they have done quite enough.

French readers, moreover, while anxious for the minutest details on Mirabeau, or Madame Roland, or Danton, and while familiar at least with the names of the principal Girondins and Montagnards, do not care to hear about a foreigner who here and there sat in the Assemblies, commanded on battlefields, or fell a victim to the guillotine. Yet for us, surely, our fellow-countrymen have an especial interest. We would fain single them out on the crowded stage of the Revolution. They are more to us, not than the actors of the first rank, but than secondary characters like Brissot or Vergniaud. Here, however, English writers will not help us. If they have not surveyed the field with French eyes, they have at least used French spectacles. French artists have painted the panorama; English connoisseurs give us their opinion of the panorama, but not of the actual scene which it represents. To vary the metaphor, or rather to state a fact, they work up the materials collected by French authors; they do not go in search of materials for themselves. Not a single English book on the Revolution tells us who represented our own country in Cloots's deputation of the human race, explains who was the hero of the Jacobin Club in December 1791, gives an accurate account of Paine's experiences, or states the number, much less the names, of the British victims to the guillotine.

If we turn from actors in the Revolution to mere spectators of it, their name is legion. There were old residents in Paris who stayed till it was too late to flee, either because they sympathised with the movement or because they took it for a mere passing storm. There were travellers, attracted by curiosity or going through France on their way to Italy. There were youths sent by their families to learn French, and suddenly immersed in the whirlpool. There were pamphleteers and insolvent debtors, fleeing English prisons only to fall into French ones. On the other hand, there were prisoners in France whom the Revolution set at liberty. There were soldiers of fortune who offered their services to the Republic. There were "bluestockings" who employed their pens or their purses in its defence; nuns who underwent captivity and privations; and ex-mistresses of royal personages. There were diplomatists astounded at the collapse of the oldest dynasty in Europe. There were two future prime ministers, one a mere child, the other a young man, destined to the longest premierships of this century. There was a future poet laureate, enraptured with the Revolution, but eventually to become an ultra-Conservative. There were versifiers who chanted the triumphs of the Revolution, philosophers who early discerned the clouds on its horizon, materialists who were stupefied at the results of their theories, inventors who counted on prompt appreciation of their merits, clubbists whose congratulations to the Convention did not avert imprisonment. There were persons of all stations, peers and grooms, baronets and tradesmen, authors and artisans, fine ladies and seamstresses, the antipodes of society being sometimes hustled together into one cell. Some had narrow escapes from detention, others spent long months of anxious suspense in the numberless improvised prisons necessitated by the improvident demolition of the spacious and nearly empty Bastille.

It may seem strange that so many British subjects, or at least those in no danger of molestation at home, should have remained in France during the Terror, but it is easy to be wise after the event. The Revolution was like a day in early spring. It commences with brilliant sunshine, light showers then pass over, black clouds next begin to collect, but there are still occasional gleams of sunshine; presently the hail pelts, the wind howls, there is a rumbling of distant thunder, yet there seems still a chance that the sky will clear, till at last the clouds lower, the horizon narrows, the thunder peals, the lightning flashes, the rain falls in sheets, and the day ends in blackness and darkness and tempest.

The capture of the Bastille was the brilliant dawn, arousing an enthusiasm in which even the English ambassador, the Duke of Dorset, shared. Before the first anniversary arrived, clouds had chequered the sky, but till the September massacres hope predominated; even after Louis XVI.'s execution it appeared still probable that the Revolution would be appeased by the blood of its foes; and there were alternations of hope and fear till the Terror commenced. We see all along what the end was to be, but these English enthusiasts were literally ignorant of the morrow, and did not easily renounce their illusions. Not till they were fairly in the toils did they recognise the gravity of their position. Flight, moreover, became increasingly difficult. Passports were refused or granted grudgingly; to depart without them was perilous in the extreme, and even with them there was constant liability to detention as French aristocrats in disguise. After the occupation of Toulon by the English, all British subjects were actual prisoners of war; and although about February 1795 there was a general liberation, Lord Malmesbury in 1797 found countrymen in Paris anxious, but still unable, to return home. It is easy to say they should never have gone to Paris during the Revolution, or should have left before the Terror commenced, but how natural was it that those whose sympathy had drawn them thither, like numbers who watched the Revolution from this side the Channel, should hope and believe that every atrocity was the last, and that these excesses were the inevitable transition to the triumph of liberty. The wonder indeed is, not that they remained till it was too late to flee, but that they suffered nothing beyond imprisonment, coupled, however, with constant apprehension of another fearful gaol delivery like that of September 1792. It must be presumed that many of them altered their opinion of their own country's stability and institutions, and learned to prefer even an unreformed Parliament to the French Convention. They cannot at any rate have failed to contrast the revolutionary tribunal with a British jury, and the guillotine with the heaviest English penalties for sedition.

The experiences of these countrymen of ours are more interesting to us than the monotonously stormy debates of the assemblies. It is true that many of them are commonplace people, justifying the remark that eye-witnesses of the greatest events, like constant beholders of the finest scenery, are the least capable of appreciation. Yet in other cases the spectators are more to us than the spectacle. Whereas, however, a multitude of French memoirs, authentic or spurious, are in existence, scarcely any English observers committed their recollections to writing. Only here and there have we an opportunity of seeing through English eyes what went on. Even the few who ventured into print mostly give us reflections in lieu of facts, and the researches of the Historical Manuscripts Commission have in this field yielded but a meagre harvest. Some who printed and even wrote nothing, yet whose character interests us, left no issue, and their collateral descendants, regarding them as the black sheep of the family, are unwilling or unable to supply any information—oftener, perhaps, unable than unwilling, for the probability is that these emigrants mostly broke off all intercourse with their kinsmen, especially as after a certain date war rendered communication very uncertain and difficult. There are, indeed, sources of information in France, contemporary newspapers and pamphlets, local and national archives, but even these are incomplete, and as regards manuscripts, rarely catalogued. The Commune of 1871, moreover, created an irreparable gap, for in the burning of the Palais de Justice and Hotel de Ville the municipal records, the registers of deaths, and many of the prison lists were consumed. I have, however, profited by every still available source of information. I have skimmed a multitude of journals and tracts, rummaged musty documents, made inquiries of relatives which have not always proved fruitless, and collected materials which afford some idea of the enthusiasms and terrors, the festivities and privations, the honours and insults, the thrills of exultation and anguish, of the Englishmen who were voluntary or involuntary eye-witnesses of the Revolution.

This book is not written to point a moral, though it may induce moralising. It passes no judgment on the Revolution, albeit an Englishman can happily do so with as perfect impartiality as if it had taken place in a distant planet, whereas every Frenchman is more or less biassed. The Revolution is the touchstone of French politicians, not so much that their view of the Revolution governs their opinion on questions of the day, as that the latter governs their opinion of the Revolution. More deliberate falsehood, too, has been written on the Revolution than on any other historical event. Happily this ocean of falsehood but very slightly affects that side of it delineated in this book. The well of English testimony is comparatively unpolluted. We may leave Louis Blanc to credit the ridiculous story of English emissaries in the September massacres, and Michelet to regard these phantoms as eccentric Britons in search of a sensation. I have neither to justify nor impeach the conduct of the English Government towards the Revolution. International controversies have no place here. I have simply to deal with individual experiences.