Historical Essays and Studies/A History of the French Revolution

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XIX

A HISTORY OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION. By H. Morse Stephens. Vol. II[1]

Mr. Morse Stephens's French Revolution owes its success to an immense body of accurate detail. He has been the first of our countrymen to consult the whole recent literature of France, including tracts, reviews, and provincial publications. If he has left in comparative neglect the dusty and discoloured prints of the time itself, he may be trusted as a master of the newest knowledge and of the facts as they now are. His clear, plain, un pretentious narrative seldom rises above an even level unbroken by perspective or reflection, and the reader who is never stirred or dazzled or distracted, feels that he has got at last behind the north wind of fine writing and calculated pathos. The reserve and moderation of language, the directness of the appeal to reason, constitute a very real advance.

The difficulty has been to select from the mass of information, and of course there are not two men who would choose alike. At times the author indicates, and seems to announce, something which we should be glad to know, and then disappoints us. Vergniaud, he says, was a far more profound thinker than his associates. This is a good opening. For Vergniaud has been allowed to pass for no more than a superb rhetorician, and everybody would wish to learn what his profound thoughts were. But they do not appear. If the sentence upon him is unfair to any associate it is to Buzot, of whom Mr. Stephens dimly affirms that he had a system of his own, but leaves us to find out, when the dogs are devouring his remains, that he was a federalist. The fact is no doubt true, in theory as well as in policy ; but, as it has been questioned by the high authority of M. Taine, there was room for more, and the ugly word used in referring to the relations between Buzot and Madame Roland ought to be corrected or made good. Again, we are told that the iron safe furnished fresh arguments against the king. But it is not stated what they were. Now it chances that they were very serious arguments indeed, and they have been slurred over by so respectable a royalist as Barante. The list of omissions might be prolonged ; but, although the author's French is not entirely above reproach, inaccuracies are extremely rare. There is hardly anything in the Argonne that can fairly be called a mountain pass ; and Leopold of Tuscany is not fitly described when he is called one of the benevolent and intelligent despots of that epoch. The thing that distinguishes him from the rest, that distinguishes him favourably even from the King of England, is that, without necessity or even pressure, he desired to diminish his own despotic power. Following Lanfrey, Mr. Stephens has the courage to say that Carnot was no better than the rest ; and he follows still more illustrious examples when he calls Sieyès a shallow theorist. If he holds the supposed opinion of Burke, and means that in politics a theorist is shallow of necessity, because politics are insoluble by theory, the idea has a right to pass unchallenged in these pages ; otherwise it ought to be remembered that in the little band of true theorists, composed of Harrington and Locke, Rousseau and Jefferson, Hamilton and Mill, the rank of Sieyès is very far from being the lowest.

The philosophy of the Revolution, its causes in the region of thought, its long ancestry, its connection with like events, and its position in the series are not things to be inquired for from a writer absorbed in the difficult labour of discovering the event as it has come to appear under the fostering hand of a new republic. We may well be grateful for what we have got, for the most minute and careful account in the language of all that Ted to the establishment of the Reign of Terror. But the comfort derived from the praiseworthy avoidance of emotion and abuse is tempered by the fact that the author's moderation is not all due to self-government, but apparently to a rare and remarkable ethical indifference. Urbanity towards Robespierre and Marat is unquestionably meritorious. But the repose of reading about them without nickname or epithet is spoilt, when it appears that, if they are not treated like monsters at a show, it is because the author does not think them so very monstrous after all, but knows a good deal that may be said in their favour. He rightly holds that the royalists were often no better than their exterminators, and that the monotonous and interested representations of conservative writers call for redress. He is more shocked at their exaggerations than at those of Michelet or Hamel, and his sympathies with the latter lead him when he goes astray. He judges that the plot for seizing Strasburg justifies the decrees of the legislative assembly against the émigrés. In point of time the decree preceded the plot. It was vetoed by the king, and was renewed afterwards. Still the assembly was committed to the cruel policy before the transaction by which Mr. Stephens summarily justifies it. He is sorry for the king, and judges him, on the whole, equitably. But he insists that he was kindly treated in prison, and he calls attention to an item of twenty-two livres for the queen's washing. For her, indeed, he has little to urge, and he asks whether she would have been merciful had she conquered.

From the massacres of September the book degenerates. First, we are assured that the prisoners arrested on 30th August were men who, from their position, naturally disliked the progress of the Revolution. Afterwards it appears that they were murdered for fear they should break out and destroy their enemies, and that any one who was not a priest or a forger was able to save his life if he kept his wits about him. The massacres were not much minded at Paris, but were disapproved in England by the aristocracy. Political murder is, no doubt, a regrettable circumstance ; but it is common to all revolutions. "There is an apology for the great revolutionary leaders who ought to have interfered, but who yet confidently believed the death of a thousand poor creatures who were foully murdered in the prisons of Paris would pave the way for a stronger and more glorious France." There were two thousand victims at Lyons ; yet, terrible as this severity may seem, it must be remembered that it attained its object. Robespierre is described as a highly moral man, and an opponent of bloodshed who had a sincere love of liberty. He did not much care whether the king was guilty, but he held it clearly expedient that he should die. Like Marat, he had his faults ; but he was very nearly a great man. As to Marat, it is true that he libelled many innocent men and encouraged the Parisians to shed blood ; but at other times his words were full of the wisdom of the statesman. Another personage worthy of honour is Maillard, for it was he who gave to massacre the consecrating forms of law, and he saved quite as many lives as he destroyed. At last one is not in the least surprised to read that life was nowhere more happy and gay than in the prisons of Paris. Once, it is true, Mr. Morse Stephens encounters a deed of violence which he cannot palliate, a delinquent for whom he feels no compassion. A generous indignation stifles his love of mercy, and he admits that Charlotte Corday was only a cold-blooded murderess.

It is agreed that a critic says very much less than he means, and with this provision against misconstruction and the perils of understatement I may safely say that the methods of this book would be fatal to history. Our judgment of men, and parties, and systems, is determined by the lowest point they touch. Murder, as the conventional low-water mark, is invaluable as our basis of measurement. It is the historian's interest that it shall never be tampered with. If we have no scientific zero to start from, it is idle to censure corruption, mendacity, or treason to one's country or one's party, and morality and history go asunder.

Notes[edit]

  1. English Historical Review, vol. vii. 1892.