The French Revolution (Belloc)/Chapter 3
THE CHARACTERS OF THE REVOLUTION
KING LOUIS XVI
As might be expected, the character of King Louis XVI has suffered more distortion at the hands of historians than has any other of the revolutionary figures; and this because he combined with that personal character of his a certain office to which were traditionally attached certain points of view and methods of action which the historian takes for granted when he deals with the character of the man. As any one thinking of a judge of some standing upon the English bench cannot but believe that he is possessed of some learning or some gravity, etc.; as any one hearing of a famous soldier cannot but believe that he has certain qualities associated with the business of soldiering, so historians tend to confuse the personality and character of Louis XVI with that of his office; they either by contrast exaggerate his unkingly defects or by sympathy exaggerate his kingly opposition to reform.
The student will do well to avoid this error and its source, and to think of Louis as of a man who had been casually introduced, almost without preparation, into the office which he held. In other words, the student will do well, in his reading of the Revolution, to consider Louis XVI simply as a man, and his character as a private character. For this last of the long, unbroken line of Capetians possessed a character essentially individual. It was of a type which, no matter what accidents of fortune might have fallen upon its possessor, would have remained the same. Nor was ever a man possessed of high office whom high office had less moulded.
Men thus impervious to their environment are commonly so from two causes: either from an intense and vivid personal initiative which may border upon madness, or from something thick and heavy in their moral accoutrement which defends against external action the inner personal temperament. The latter was the case with Louis.
He was very slow of thought, and very slow of decision. His physical movements were slow. The movement of his eyes was notably slow. He had a way of falling asleep under the effort of fatigue at the most incongruous moments. The things that amused him were of the largest and most superficial kind. Horse-play, now and then a little touched with eccentricity, and very plain but unexpected jokes. One may express him from one aspect by saying that he was one of those men whom you could never by any chance have hoped to convince of anything. The few things which he accepted he accepted quite simply, and the process of reasoning in the mouth of any who approached him was always too rapid for him to follow. But it must not be imagined on this account that the moral integument so described was wrapped about a void. On the contrary, it enclosed a very definite character. Louis possessed a number of intimate convictions upon which he was not to be shaken. He was profoundly convinced of the existence and value of a certain corporate tradition in the organism which he ruled: the French nation. He was national. In this he differed from many a pedant, many a courtier, many an ecclesiastic, and many a woman about him, especially his wife.
He was, again, possessed of all the elements of the Catholic faith.
It was, indeed, a singular thing for a man of his position at such a time to hold intimately to religion, but Louis held to it. He confessed, he communicated, he attended mass, he performed his ordinary devotions—not by way of tradition or political duty, or State function, to which religious performance was now reduced in the vast majority of his wealthy contemporaries, but as an individual for whom these things had a personal value. Had he, with precisely the same interior spirit, woken in his bed some morning to find himself a country squire, and to discover that all his past kingship had been a dream of the night, he would have continued the practice of his religion as before.
Now this is a sufficiently remarkable point, for the country squire, the noble, the lawyer, the university professor of the generation immediately preceding the Revolution had, as a rule, no conception of the Catholic Church. With them the faith was dead, save in the case of a very few who made it, if one may say so without disrespect, a mania, and in their exaggerations were themselves the proofs of the depth of decay into which the Church of Gaul had fallen.
Louis XVI was possessed, then, of religion: it appeared in many of his acts, in his hesitation to appoint not a few of the many atheist bishops of the time, in his real agony of responsibility upon the Civil Constitution of the clergy, and in nothing more than the peculiar sobriety and solid ritual whereby he prepared for a tragic, sudden, and ignominious death.
It is next to be observed that though he was a man not yet in middle age, and though he was quite devoid of ardour in any form, he had from the first matured a great basis of courage. It is well to admit that this quality in him was connected with those slow processes of thought and action which hampered him, but it is not to be explained by them. No man yet has become brave through mere stupidity.
It was not only the accidents of the Revolution that proved this quality in him: his physical habits proved it long before. He was a resolute and capable rider of the horse: an aptitude in that exercise is impossible to the coward. Again, in those by-products of courage which are apparent, even where no physical danger threatens, he was conspicuous; he had no hesitation in facing a number of men, and he had aptitude in a mechanical trade—a business by no means unconnected with virility.
Now in mentioning his virility, it is of prime importance for the student to remember, though the matter can be touched upon but lightly, that Louis, in this department of physical life, suffered from a mechanical impediment which gravely distorted the first years of his marriage, which undoubtedly wounded his self-respect, and which was perhaps the only thing that caused him permanent anxiety. He was cured by medical aid in the summer of the year 1777, but he was already three years a king and seven years a husband before that relief came to him. The tragedy affected his whole life, and, I repeat, must never be forgotten when one considers either him or Marie Antoinette in their intimate character, and in their effect as actors in the great drama.
For the rest, the character of Louis betrayed certain ineptitudes (the word ineptitude is far more accurate in this connection than the word weakness), which ineptitudes were peculiarly fatal for the military office which he held and for the belligerent crisis which he had to meet.
Few men are possessed of the eye, the subtle sympathy, the very rapid power of decision, and the comprehension of human contrasts and differences which build up the apt leader of an armed force great or small. Most men are mediocre in the combination of these qualities. But Louis was quite exceptionally hopeless where they were concerned. He could never have seen the simplest position nor have appreciated the military aspects of any character or of any body of men. He could ride, but he could not ride at the head of a column. He was not merely bad at this trade, he was nul. Drafted as a private into a conscript army, he would never have been entrusted with the duties of a corporal. He would have been impossible as a sergeant; and, possessed of commissioned rank, ridicule would have compelled him to take his discharge.
This lack did not only, or chiefly, betray itself in his inability to meet personally the armed crisis of a revolution; it was not only, or chiefly, apparent in his complete breakdown during the assault upon the palace on the 10th of August: it was also, and much more, the disastrous cause of his inability to oversee, or even to choose, military advisers.
Those who propose in the early part of the Revolution to check the mob in Paris, are excellent commanders: but Louis does not know it. Those who succeed each other at the Ministry of War, or at the head of the armies during the active part of the revolution are various in the extreme: but they all seem one to him. Between a fop like Narbonne and a subtle, trained cavalry man like Dumouriez, Louis made no distinction. The military qualities of La Fayette (which were not to be despised) meant no more to him than does music, good or bad, to a deaf man. From the beginning to the end of the movement, the whole of the military problem escaped him.
Another hole in his character, which was of prime importance at such a time, was his inability to grasp in a clear vision any general social problem. Maps he could well comprehend, and he could well retain statistics; but the landscape, as it were, of the Revolution his protuberant and lethargic eyes completely missed. He was quite unable to see where lay danger and where support, in what large masses such and such forces were grouped, and the directions in which they were advancing, or upon which they must retreat. In this matter he was, as will be seen in a moment, the very opposite of Mirabeau, and it was on account of this weakness, or rather this form of nullity, that all Mirabeau’s vision was wasted upon Louis.
Finally, he had no working comprehension of Europe. He did not even exaggerate the powers of the allies in the later phases of the Revolution when they were marching upon France. He did not either under-estimate or over-estimate the policy and naval force of Great Britain, the military resources of his own subjects, the probable sympathies of the Netherlands (anti-Austrian but Catholic), the decay of Spain, the division and impotence of the Italian Peninsula. Louis saw nothing of all these things.
One may conclude the picture (for the purposes of such a short study as this) by saying that only one coincidence could have led him through the labyrinth of the time with success. That coincidence would have been the presence at his side of a friend fully trusted from childhood, loved, as religious as himself, and yet possessing precisely those qualities which he himself lacked. Had Louis found to hand such a lieutenant, the qualities I have mentioned would have been a sort of keel and ballast which would have secured the monarchy, for he was not weak, he was not impulsive, he was not even foolish: he was only wretchedly alone in his incapacities. Certainly such a nature could trust and rely upon no one who was not of this intimate kind, and he possessed no such intimate, let alone an intimate who could command the qualities I have suggested.
Being what he was, his character is among the half-dozen which determined the Revolution to take the course which it did.
Marie Antoinette presents to history a character which it is of the highest interest to regard as a whole. It is the business of her biographers to consider that character as a whole; but in her connection with the Revolution there is but one aspect of it which is of importance, and that is the attitude which such a character was bound to take towards the French nation in the midst of which the Queen found herself.
It is the solution of the whole problem which the Queen’s action sets before us to apprehend the gulf that separated her not only from the French temperament, but from a comprehension of all French society. Had she been a woman lacking in energy or in decision, this alien character in her would have been a small matter, and her ignorance of the French in every form of their activity, or rather her inability to comprehend them, would have been but a private failing productive only of certain local and immediate consequences, and not in any way determining the great lines of the revolutionary movement. As it was, her energy was not only abundant but steadfast; it grew more secure in its action as it increased with her years, and the initiative which gave that energy its course never vacillated, but was always direct. She knew her own mind, and she attempted, often with a partial success, to realise her convictions. There was no character in touch with the Executive during the first years of the Revolution comparable to hers for fixity of purpose and definition of view.
It was due to this energy and singleness of aim that her misunderstanding of the material with which she had to deal was of such fatal importance.
It was she who chose, before the outbreak of the Revolution, the succession of those ministers both Liberal and Reactionary, whose unwise plans upon either side precipitated violence. It was she who called and then revoked, and later recalled to office the wealthy and over-estimated Necker; she who substituted for him, and then so inopportunely threw over Calonne, the most national of the precursors of the Revolution, and ever after her most bitter enemy; it was she who advised the more particularly irritating details of resistance after the meeting of the first revolutionary Parliament; it was she who presided over (and helped to warp) the plans for the flight of the royal family; it was she who, after this flight had failed, framed a definite scheme for the coercion of the French people by the Governments of Europe; it was she who betrayed to foreign chanceries the French plan of campaign when war had become inevitable; finally, it was she who inspired the declaration of Brunswick which accompanied the invasion of French territory, and she was in particular the author of the famous threat therein contained to give over Paris to military execution, and to hold all the popular authorities responsible with their lives for the restoration of the pre-revolutionary state of affairs.
As research proceeds, the capital effect of this woman’s continual and decided interference will be more and more apparent to historians.
Now Marie Antoinette’s conception of mankind in general was the conception that you will find prevalent in such societies as that domestic and warm centre which had nourished her childhood. The romantic affection of a few equals, the personal loyalty of a handful of personal servants, the vague histrionic content which permeates the poor at the sight of great equipages and rich accoutrements, the cheers of a crowd when such symbols accompanying monarchy are displayed in the streets—all these were for Marie Antoinette the fundamental political feelings of mankind. An absence of them she regarded with bewilderment, an active opposition to them she hated as something at once incomprehensible and positively evil.
There was in all this illusion, of course, a great element of what the English call middle class, and the French bourgeois. To be quite ignorant of what servitors will say of their masters behind their backs; not to appreciate that heroic devotion is the faculty of a few; never to have imagined the discontents of men in general, and the creative desire for self-expression which inspires men when they act politically; not to know that men as a whole (and particularly the French people) are not deceived by the accidents of wealth, nor attach any real inferiority to poverty; to despise the common will of numbers or to doubt its existence; to see society established in a hierarchy not of office but of leisure: all this may seem to the democrat a very unnatural and despicable mood. But it was not despicable, still less unnatural, in the case of Marie Antoinette: it was the only experience and the only conception of society which had ever been given her. She had always believed, when she gazed upon a mass of the populace, that the difference between the crowd and herself was a moral reality. The contrast in external habits between the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor—a contrast ultimately produced by differences in the opportunity and leisure which wealth affords—she thought to be fundamental. Just as children and certain domestic pet animals regard such economic accidents in society as something real which differentiates men, so did she;—but she happened to nourish this illusion in the midst of a people, and within a day’s walk of a capital, where the misconception had less hold than in any other district of Europe.
Of the traits peculiar to the French she knew nothing, or, to put it more strongly, she could not believe that they really existed.
The extremes of cruelty into which this people could fall were inconceivable to her, as were also the extremes of courage to which they can rise under the same excitements as arouse them to an excess of hatred. But that character in the French which she most utterly failed to foresee or to comprehend, was their power of corporate organisation.
That a multitude could instruct and order themselves for a common purpose, rapidly acquire and nominate the officers who should bring that purpose to fruition, and in general pass in one moment from a mere multitude to an incipient army—that was a faculty which the French had and have to a peculiar degree, and which she (like so many of our own contemporaries, and especially those of German blood) could not believe to be real. This faculty in the French, when it took action and was apparent in the physical struggles of the Revolution, seemed to her, to the very end, a sort of nightmare; something which, by all the laws of reality, ought not to be happening, but somehow or other was happening in a manner evilly miraculous. It was her ignorance upon this main point of all that caused her to rely so continually upon the use of the regular forces, and of those forces in insufficient numbers. She could not but believe that a few trained soldiery were necessarily the masters of great civilian bodies; their uniforms were a powerful argument with her, and mere civilian bodies, however numerous, were always, in her conception, a dust of disparate and inchoate humanity. She believed there was nothing to attack or resist in popular numbers but the opinion, the fear, or the cupidity of the individual. In this error of judgment concerning the French people she was not peculiar: it is an error repeated over and over again by foreigners, and even by some native commentators when they seek to account for some national movement of the Gauls. The unlearning of it is the first lesson which those who would either administrate or resist the French should learn.
In the matter of religion (which the reader may see in these pages to be of such moment in the revolutionary story), the queen was originally far more indifferent than her husband, though she observed a certain measure of personal practice. It was not until her heavy misfortunes came upon her that any degree of personal devotion appeared in her daily life, though it must be admitted that, by a sort of premonition of disaster, she turned to religion in the months immediately preceding the outbreak of the reform.
It remains to describe the personal effect she had upon those who were in her immediate presence. Most of the French aristocracy she repelled. The same misfortune which made her unable to understand the French temperament as a whole divorced her from that particular corner of it which took the shape of French aristocratic tradition. She did not understand its stiffness, its exactitude, its brilliancy or its hardness: and she heartily disliked all four.
On this account she produced on the great families of her court, and especially upon the women of them, an effect of vulgarity. Had she survived, and had her misfortunes not been of so tragic an intensity, the legend she would have left in French society would certainly have been one of off-handed carelessness, self-indulgence, and lack of dignity which have for the French of that rank the savour that a loud voice, a bad accent, an insufficient usage in the rules of daily conduct, leave upon what is left of a corresponding rank in England to-day.
She was, on the other hand, easily deceived by the flattery of place seekers, and the great power which she wielded in politics just before the Revolution broke out made her, as it were, a sort of butt of the politicians.
They haunted her presence, they depended upon her patronage, and, at the same time, they secretly ridiculed her. Her carriage, which was designed to impress onlookers and did have that effect upon most foreigners, seemed to most of the French observers (of a rank which permitted them to approach her familiarly) somewhat theatrical and sometimes actually absurd. The earnestness which she displayed in several lines of conduct, and notably in her determined animosity to certain characters (as that of La Fayette, for instance), was of an open and violent sort which seemed to them merely brutal and unintelligent; her luxury, moreover, was noticed by the refined world of Versailles to be hardly ever of her own choosing, but nearly always practised in imitation of others.
In connection with that trait of luxury, the reader must appreciate at the outset that it was grievously exaggerated by her contemporaries, and has been still more exaggerated by posterity. She was not a very frivolous, still less a dissipated, woman. She was woefully loose in tongue, but she was certainly virtuous.
She gambled, but as the times went, and the supposed unlimited fortune of the Crown, her gambling was not often excessive; her expenditure upon jewellery and dress would be thought most moderate to-day in the case of any lady of our wealthier families. On the other hand, her whims were continual and as continually changing, especially in the earlier part of her life.
Since that surrounding world of the Court which she misunderstood and which had no sympathy with her was ready to find some handle against her, that handle of dissipation was the easiest for them to seize; but the accusation was not a just one.
Had fortune made her the wife of a poor man in a lower class of society, Marie Antoinette would have been a capable housewife: her abundant energy would have found a proper channel, and she was in no way by nature extravagant.
She had a few very passionate and somewhat too sentimental friendships, some of which were returned, others of which their objects exploited to their own advantage. The two most famous were her friendship for the Princess de Lamballe and for Madame de Polignac. These moved her not infrequently to unwise acts of patronage which were immediately seized by the popular voice and turned against her. They were among the few weaknesses apparent in her general temper. They were certainly ill balanced and ill judged.
She indulged also in a number of small and unimportant flirtations which might almost be called the routine of her rank and world; she had but one great affection in her life for the other sex, and it was most ardently returned. Its object was a Swedish noble of her own age, the very opposite of the French in his temper, romantically chivalrous, unpractical in the extreme, gentle, intensely reserved; his name Count Axel de Fersen. The affair remained pure, but she loved him with her whole heart, and in the last months of her tragedy this emotion must be regarded as the chief concern of her soul. They saw each other but very rarely, often they were separated for years; it was this, perhaps, which lent both glamour and fidelity to the strange romance.
Mirabeau, the chief of the “practical” men of the Revolution (as the English language would render the most salient point in their political attitude), needs a very particular examination. His influence upon the early part of the Revolution was so considerable, the effect of his death was so determinant and final, the speculation as to what might have happened had he survived is so fruitful, so entertaining, and so common, and the positive effect of his attitude upon the development of the Revolution after his death was so wide, that to misunderstand Mirabeau is in a large measure to misunderstand the whole movement; and Mirabeau has unfortunately been ill or superficially understood by many among now three generations of historians; for a comprehension of this character is not a matter for research nor for accumulated historic detail, but rather a task for sympathy.
Mirabeau was essentially an artist, with the powers and the frailties which we properly associate with that term: that is, strong emotion appealed to him both internally and externally. He loved to enjoy it himself, he loved to create it in others. He studied, therefore, and was a master of, the material by which such emotion may be created; he himself yielded to strong emotion and sought it where it might be found. It is foolish alike to belittle and to exaggerate this type of temperament. Upon it or upon its admixture with other qualities is based the music, the plastic art, and in a large measure the permanent literature of the world. This aptitude for the enjoyment and for the creation in others of emotion clothes intellectual work in a manner which makes it permanent. This is what we mean when we say that style is necessary to a book; that a great civilisation may partly be judged by its architecture; that, as Plato says, music may be moral or immoral, and so forth. The artist, though he is not at the root of human affairs, is a necessary and proper ally in their development.
When I say that Mirabeau was an artist I mean that wherever his energies might have found play he would there have desired to enjoy and to create enjoyment through some definite medium. This medium was in part literary, but much more largely oral expression. To be a tribune, that is the voice of great numbers, to persuade, nay, to please by his very accents and the very rhythm of his sentences, these things occupied the man; but he also brought into his art that without which no great art can exist: mere intellect.
He believed in the main principles at least which underlay the revolutionary movement, he understood them and he was prepared to propagate them; but his power over men was not due to this conviction: his power over men was wholly that of the artist, and had he by some accident been engaged in maintaining the attack against democracy, he would have been nearly as famous as he became under the title of its defender. We must then always consider Mirabeau as an orator, though an orator endowed with a fine and clear intelligence and with no small measure of reasoned faith.
Much else remains to be said of him.
He was a gentleman; that is, he both enjoyed and suffered the consequences which attach to hereditary wealth and to the atmosphere that surrounds its expenditure. On this account, he being personally insufficiently provided with wealth, he was for ever in debt, and regarded the sums necessary to his station in life and to his large opportunities as things due to him, so to speak, from society. We are right when we say that he took bribes, but wrong if we imagine that those bribes bound him as they would bind a man meaner in character or less lucky in his birth. He stooped as gentlemen will to all manner of low intrigues, to obtain “the necessary and the wherewith”; that is, money for his rôle. But there was a driving power behind him, bound up with his whole character, which made it impossible for any such sums to control his diction or to make of such a man a mere advocate. He was never that dirtiest of political phenomena, the “party man.” He would never have been, had he been born a hundred years later and thrust into the nastiness of modern parliamentary life, “a parliamentary hand.”
Mirabeau had behind him a certain personal history which we must read in connection with his temperament.
He had travelled widely, he knew Englishmen and Germans of the wealthier classes well. The populace he knew ill even in his own country; abroad he knew it not at all. He had suffered from his father’s dislike of him, from the consequence of his own unbridled passions, also not a little from mere accidental misfortune. Capable of prolonged and faithful attachment to some woman, the opportunity for that attachment had never been afforded him until the last few months before his death. Capable of paying loyal and industrious service to some political system, no political system had chosen him for its servant. It is a fruitful matter of speculation to consider what he might have done for the French monarchy had Fate put him early at Court and given him some voice in the affairs of the French Executive before the Revolution broke out. As it was, the Revolution provided him with his opportunity merely because it broke down old barriers and conventions and was destructive of the framework of the State in which he lived. He was compelled to enter the Revolution as something of a destroyer, for by no other avenue could he be given his chance; but by nature he detested destruction. I mean (since this phrase is somewhat vague) he detested that spirit which will disendow a nation of certain permanent institutions serving definite ends, without a clear scheme of how those institutions should be replaced by others to serve similar ends. It was on this account that he was most genuinely and sincerely a defender of the monarchy: a permanent institution serving the definite ends of national unity and the repression of tendencies to oligarchy in the State.
Mirabeau had none of the revolutionary Vision. In mind he was prematurely aged, for his mind had worked very rapidly over a very varied field of experience. The pure doctrine of democracy which was a religion to many of his contemporaries, with all the consequences of a religion, he had never thought of accepting. But certain consequences of the proposed reforms strongly appealed to him. He loved to be rid of meaningless and dead barriers, privileges which no longer corresponded to real social differences, old traditions in the management of trade which no longer corresponded to the economic circumstances of his time, and (this is the pivotal point) the fossils of an old religious creed which, like nearly all of his rank, he simply took for granted to be dead: for Mirabeau was utterly divorced from the Catholic Church.
Much has been said and will be said in these pages concerning the religious quarrel which, though men hardly knew it at the time, cut right across the revolutionary effort, and was destined to form the lasting line of cleavage in French life. There will be repeated again and again what has already been written, that a reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the reconstruction of democracy was, though men did not know it, the chief temporal business of the time, and the reader of these pages will be made well acquainted in them with the degradation to which religion had fallen among the cultivated of that generation. But in the case of Mirabeau this absence of religion must be particularly insisted upon. It would no more have occurred to Mirabeau that the Catholic Faith had a future than it could occur to (let us say) an English politician of thirty years ago that the Irish might become a wealthy community or that an English Government might within his own lifetime find itself embarrassed for money. I use this parallel for the sake of strengthening my contention, but it is indeed a weak parallel. No contemporary parallel in our strange and rapidly changing times corresponds to the fixed certitude which permeated the whole of the end of the eighteenth century that the Catholic Faith was dead. Mirabeau had perhaps never engaged in his life in intimate conversation a single man who took the Catholic sacraments seriously, or suffered a moment’s anxiety upon the tenets of the creed.
He knew, indeed, that certain women and a much smaller number of insignificant men wrapped themselves up in old practices of an odd, superstitious kind; he knew that great, dull areas of ignorant peasantry, in proportion to their poverty and isolation, repeated by rote the old formulae of the Faith. But of the Faith as a living thing he could have no conception.
He saw on the one hand a clerical institution, economic in character, providing places and revenues for men of his own rank; he met those men and never discovered them to have any religion at all. He saw on the other hand a proposed society in which such a fossil, unjust and meaningless, must relinquish its grip upon those large revenues. But of the Faith as a social force, as a thing able to revive, he could have no conception. It would have seemed to him a mere folly to suggest that the future might contain the possibility of such a resurrection. The dissolution of the religious orders, which was largely his work, the civil constitution of the clergy which he presided over, were to him the most natural acts in the world. They were the mere sweeping away of a quantity of inorganic stuff which cumbered the modern State. He felt of them as we might feel of the purchase of waste spaces in our cities, or the confiscation of some bad landlords’ property in them. The Church served no kind of purpose, no one who counted believed in it, it was defended only by people who enjoyed large revenues from the survival of what had once been, but was now no longer, a living, social function.
In everything of the Revolution which he understood Mirabeau was upon the side of caution. He was not oblivious to the conception of popular government, he was not even mistrustful of it, but he could not conceive of it save as acting through the established strength of the wealthier classes. Of military power he judged very largely through Prussian eyes. And in long and enthusiastic passages he described the Prussian army as invincible. Had he lived to see the military enthusiasm of the Republicans he would utterly have distrusted it. He favoured in his heart an aristocratic machinery of society—though not an aristocratic theory of the State; he was quite determined to preserve as a living but diminished national organ the traditional monarchy of France; he was curious upon a number of details which were present and close to his eyes: methods of voting, constitutional checks, commercial codes and the rest of it. The little equilibriums of diplomacy interested him also, and the watching of men immediately under his eye in the Parliament.
It was in the Parliament that his whole activity lay, it was there that he began to guide the Revolution, it was his absence from the Parliament after his death that the Revolution most feels in the summer of 1791.
This very brief sketch does not present Mirabeau to the reader. He can only be properly presented in his speeches and in the more rhetorical of his documents. It is probable as time proceeds that his reputation in this department will grow. His constitutional ideas, based as they were upon foreign institutions, and especially upon the English of that time, were not applicable to his own people and are now nearly forgotten: he was wrong upon English politics as he was wrong upon the German armies, but he had art over men and his personality endures and increases with time.
The character of La Fayette has suffered chiefly from his own aloofness towards his contemporaries on the one hand, and from his rigid adherence to principle upon the other. Both these causes are clearly connected. The same quality in him which made him so tenacious of principle made him contemptuous of the run of men about him. Fundamentally, he was nearer the extreme Republicans than any other class, from the very fact of his possessing a clear political creed and a determination to follow it out to its logical consequence. But there was no chance of his comprehending the concrete side of the movement or the men engaged upon it, for his great wealth, inherited in very early life, had cut him off from experience. His moral fault was undoubtedly ambition. It was an ambition which worked in the void, as it were, and never measured itself with other men’s capacities or opportunities. He made no plans for advancement, not because he would have despised the use of intrigue in reason, but because he was incapable of working it. He was exceedingly attached to popularity, when it came he thought it his due; unpopularity in its turn seemed to him a proof of the vileness of those who despised him. He made himself too much the measure of his world.
Undoubtedly a very great part in the moulding of his character proceeded from his experience in the United States of America. He was then at the most impressionable and formative period of human life, little more than a boy, or at least just entering early manhood. He had just married, he had just come into the administration of his vast fortune. At such a moment he took part in the victorious rebellion of the English colonies, and it may be imagined how powerful was the effect of this youthful vision upon the whole of the man’s future life; because there was no proletariat in the colonies, he never saw or comprehended the dispossessed classes of Paris—for that matter he never saw or comprehended the French peasantry upon his own lands; because a chance and volunteer soldiery had, under the peculiar conditions of the half-populated Atlantic seaboard in conjunction with the French fleet and with the aid of French money and arms, got the better of the small and heterogeneous forces of George III, he believed that a military nation like the French, in the midst of powerful enemies, could make something of an amateur civic force; because a certain type of ease in social relations was the ideal of many, perhaps of most, of those with whom he had served in America, he confused so simple and mundane an ideal with the fierce crusading blast and the sacred passion for equality which was stirring his own nation when his opportunity for leadership came.
It may be said of La Fayette with justice that he never upon a single occasion did the right thing. It may also be said with justice that he never did politically any major thing for which his own conscience would later reproach him. It is noticeable that the Queen held him in particular odium. He had been a wealthy young noble about the Court, the friend of all her women friends, and his sympathy with the revolutionary movement at its inception therefore seemed to her nothing better than treason. There was also undoubtedly something in his manner which grievously repelled her; that it was self-sufficient we cannot doubt, and that it was often futile and therefore exasperating to women, events are sufficient to show. But Marie Antoinette’s violent personal antagonism towards La Fayette was not common, though several ardent spirits (Danton’s, for instance) shared it. The mass of those who came across La Fayette felt in connection with him a certain irritation or a certain contempt or a certain rather small and distant respect; he inspired no enthusiasms, and when he timidly attempted a rebellion against the new Government after the fall of the monarchy, no one would sacrifice himself or follow him.
It may be affirmed of La Fayette that if he had not existed the Revolution would have pursued much the same course as it did, with this exception: that there would not have been formed a definitely middle class armed guard to provoke friction in Paris: the National Guard would have been more open to all ranks.
In religion the man was anodyne, Catholic of course by baptism, but distinctly Protestant in morals and in general tone, in dogma (until the end of his life) freethinking, of course, like all his contemporaries. He was personally courageous but foolishly despised the duel. One anecdote out of many will help to fix his nature in the mind of the reader. Mirabeau, casting about as usual for aid in his indebtedness, sent urgently to him as to a fellow noble, a fellow politician and a fellow supporter of the Crown, begging a loan of £2000. La Fayette accorded him £1000.
Dumouriez presents a character particularly difficult for the modern Englishman to comprehend, so remote is it in circumstance and fundamentals from those of our time.
Of good birth, but born in a generation when social differences had become a jest for intelligent and active men (and he was intelligent and active), courageous, with a good knowledge of his trade of soldiering, of rapid decision and excellent judgment where troops or terrain were concerned, he was all at sea in the comprehension of men, and he bore no loyalty to the State.
It is this last feature which will particularly surprise the English reader, for it is the singular and permanent advantage of oligarchic communities such as the British that they retain under any stress and show throughout the whole commonwealth the sense of the State. To betray the State, to act against its interests, to be imperfectly conscious of its existence, are crimes or weaknesses unknown to the citizens of an oligarchy, and a citizen of this country cannot easily conceive of them to-day. In democracies and despotisms, on the other hand, to forget one’s duty to the State, to be almost oblivious of its corporate existence, is a common weakness. There is here a compensation, and by just so much as despotism and democracy permit rapid, effective and all-compelling action on the part of the State, by just so much as they permit sudden and sometimes miraculous enthusiasms which save or which confirm a State, by that also do they lack the quiet and persistent consciousness of the State which oligarchy fosters and determines.
Dumouriez’ excellence as a general can only be appreciated by those who have looked closely into the constitution of the forces which he was to command and the adversaries with whom he had to deal. It is the prime quality of a great commander that his mind stands ready for any change in circumstances or in the material to his hand, and even when we have allowed for the element of luck which is so considerable in military affairs, we must not forget that Dumouriez saved without disaster the wretched and disorganised bands, inchoate and largely mutinous as to their old units, worthless and amateur as to their new, which had to meet, in and behind the Argonne, the model army of Prussia.
We must not forget that his plan for the invasion of the Low Countries was a just and sensible one, nor with what skill, after the inevitable defeat and retreat of the spring of 1793, he saved his command intact.
As a subordinate to an armed executive, to the Government of Napoleon, for instance, the man would have been priceless. Nay, had circumstances permitted him to retain supreme command of civil as of military power, he would have made no bad dictator. His mere technical skill was so considerable as to make the large sums paid him by the English Government seem a good bargain even at our distance of time, and his plans for the defence of England and for the attack on Napoleon are a proof of the value at which he was estimated.
But Dumouriez was quite unable to act under the special circumstances in which he happened to be placed at the moment of his treason. A mere ambition had carried him from intrigue to intrigue among the politicians. He despised them as an active and capable soldier was compelled to despise them; he was too old to share any of their enthusiasms, even had his temperament permitted him to entertain any vision, political or religious. He certainly never felt the least moral bond attaching him to what was in his eyes the chance anarchy of the last six months of French Government under which he served, and if he is to be branded with the title of traitor, then we must brand with the same title all that multitude of varied men who escaped from the country in the Emigration, who left it in disgust, or even who remained in France, but despaired of French fortunes, in the turmoil of 1793.
It is perhaps a worthy excuse for Dumouriez’ failure to point out that he also was one of those whom the Court might have used had it known how to use men; but the Court had no such knowledge.
The character of Danton has more widely impressed the world than that of any other revolutionary leader, because it contained elements permanently human, independent of the democratic theory of the time, and necessary neither to the support of that theory nor to the criticism of it.
The character of Danton appeals to that sense in man which is interested in action, and which in the field of letters takes the form of drama. His vigour, his personal strength of mind and body, the individuality of his outline, arrest equally the man who loves the Revolution, and the man who hates it, and the man who is quite indifferent to its success or failure.
It is on this very account that historians, especially foreign historians, have tended to misinterpret the man. Thus Carlyle, who has great intuition in the matter, yet makes him out farmer-like—which he certainly was not; Michelet, fascinated by his energy, presents him as something uncouth, and in general those who would describe Danton stand at a distance, as it were, where his loud voice and forcible gesture may best be appreciated; but a man to be seen truly must be seen in intimacy.
Danton was essentially a compound of two powerful characters in man. He was amative or constructive, and at the same time he not only possessed but liked to exercise lucidity of thought. The combination is among the strongest of all those that go to build up human personalities.
That which was amative and constructive in him, his virility if you will, brought him into close touch with reality; he knew and loved his own country, for instance, and infinitely preferred its happy survival to the full development of any political theory. He also knew and loved his fellow countrymen in detail and as persons; he knew what made a Frenchman weak and what made him strong. The vein of Huguenotry, though he did not know it for what it was, he disliked in his compatriots. On the other hand, the salt and freshness of the French was native to him and he delighted in it; the freedom of their expression, the noise of their rhetoric, and the military subsoil of them, were things to all of which he immediately responded. He understood their sort of laughter, nor was he shocked, as a man less national would have been, at their peculiarly national vices, and in especial their lapses into rage. It is this which must account for what all impartial judgment most blames in him, which is, his indifference to the cruelties, his absorbed interest in foreign and military affairs, at the moment of the Massacres of September.
This touch with reality made him understand in some fashion (though only from without) the nature of the Germans. The foolish mania of their rulers for mere territorial expansion unaccompanied by persuasion or the spread of their ideas, he comprehended. The vast superiority of their armies over the disorganised forces of the French in 1792 he clearly seized: hence on the one hand his grasp of their foreign policy, and on the other his able negotiation of the retreat after Valmy. He also understood, however, and more profoundly, the rapid self-organisation of which his own countrymen were capable, and it was upon this knowledge that his determination to risk the continuance of the war reposed. It should be remarked that both in his military and in his quasi-military action he was himself endowed in a singular degree with that power of immediate decision which is characteristic of his nation.
His lucidity of thought permitted him to foresee the consequences of many a revolutionary decision, and at the same time inclined him to a strong sympathy with the democratic creed, with the doctrine of equality, and especially with the remoulding of the national institutions—particularly his own profession of the law—upon simple lines. He was undoubtedly a sincere and a convinced revolutionary, and one whose doctrine more permeated him than did that of many of his contemporaries their less solid minds. He was not on that account necessarily republican. Had some accident called his genius into play earlier in the development of the struggle, he might well, like Mirabeau, with whom he presents so curious a parallel, have thought it better for the country to save the Monarchy.
It must always be remembered that he was a man of wide culture and one who had achieved an early and satisfactory professional success; he was earning a sound income at the moment of his youthful marriage; he read English largely and could speak it. His dress was not inexpensive, and though somewhat disordered (as it often is with men of intense energy and constant gesture) it never gave an impression of carelessness or disarray. He had many and indifferent intellectual interests, and was capable, therefore, of intelligent application in several fields. He appreciated the rapid growth of physical science, and at the same time the complexity of the old social conditions—too widely different from contemporary truths.
To religion he was, of course, like all men of that time, utterly indifferent, but unlike many of them he seized the precise proportion of its remaining effect upon certain districts and certain sections of the countrysides. There has been a tendency latterly to exaggerate the part which Freemasonry played in the launching of him; he was indeed a member of a masonic lodge, as were, for that matter, all the men, conspicuous or obscure, democratic or utterly reactionary, who appeared upon the revolutionary stage: probably the king, certainly old aristocrats like the father of Madame de Lamballe, and the whole host of the middle class, from men like Bailly to men like Condorcet. But it is reading history backwards, and imagining the features of our own time to have been present a century ago, to make of Masonry the determining element in his career.
Danton failed and died from two combined causes: first his health gave way, secondly he obtruded his sanity and civilian sense into the heated fury and calculated martial law of the second year of the Republic. To both that fury and that calculation he was an obstacle; his opposition to the Terror lost him the support of the enthusiasts, but it was the interference which such a judgment made in the plans of the soldiers, and notably of Carnot, that determined his condemnation and death. He also, like Mirabeau, will undoubtedly increase as the years proceed, and, if only as a representative of the national temper, become more and more the typical figure of the Revolution in action.
Carnot, the predecessor of Napoleon, and the organising soldier of the early revolutionary wars, owed his power to backbone.
He had not only a good solidity of brain, but an astonishing power of using it for hours and hours on end. This he owed perhaps to the excellent physical stock of which he came, the eldest of a very large family born to a notable lawyer in Burgundy.
It was Carnot’s pride to hold a commission in the learned arms which were to transform at that moment the art of war: for as Bonaparte, his successor, was a gunner, so he was a sapper. His practice of exact knowledge in application, and the liberal education which his career demanded, further strengthened the strong character he had inherited. More important still, in his democratic views he was what none of the older officers had been, convinced and sincere. He had not come within the influence of the very wealthy or of the very powerful. He was young, and he knew his own mind not only in matters of political faith but in the general domain of philosophy, and in the particular one of military science.
It has been said of him that he invented the revolutionary method of strategical concentration and tactical massing in the field. There is some truth in this; but the method would not have been possible had he not also invented, in company with Danton, and supported after Danton left power, a universal system of conscription.
Carnot understood, as only trained soldiers can, the value of numbers, and he depended with great sagacity upon the national temper; thus at Wattignies, which was a victory directly due to his genius, though it was novel in him to have massed troops suddenly upon the right after a check on the extreme left of the field, yet the novelty would have been of no effect had he not comprehended that, with his young fellow countrymen as troopers, he could depend upon a charge delivered after thirty-six hours of vigil.
He used not only the national but also the revolutionary temper in war. One of the chief features, for instance, of the revolutionary armies when they began to be successful, was the development of lines of skirmishers who pushed out hardily before the main bodies and were the first in the history of modern warfare to learn the use of cover. This development was spontaneous: it was produced within and by each unit, not by any general command. But Carnot recognised it at Hoondschoote and used it ever after.
The stoical inflexibility of his temper is the noblest among the many noble characters of his soul. He never admitted the empire, and he suffered exile, seeming thereby in the eyes of the vilest and most intelligent of his contemporaries, Fouché, to be a mere fool. He was as hard with himself as with others, wholly military in the framework of his mind, and the chief controller of the Terror, which he used, as it was intended to be used, for the military salvation of the republic.
Marat is easily judged. The complete sincerity of the enthusiast is not difficult to appreciate when his enthusiasm is devoted to a simple human ideal which has been, as it were, fundamental and common to the human race.
Equality within the State and the government of the State by its general will: these primal dogmas, on the reversion to which the whole Revolution turned, were Marat’s creed.
Those who would ridicule or condemn him because he held such a creed, are manifestly incapable of discussing the matter at all. The ridicule and condemnation under which Marat justly falls do not attach to the patent moral truths he held, but to the manner in which he held them. He did not only hold them isolated from other truths—it is the fault of the fanatic so to hold any truth—but he held them as though no other truths existed. And whenever he found his ideal to be in practice working at a friction or stopped dead, his unnourished and acute enthusiasms at once sought a scapegoat, discovered a responsible agent, and suggested a violent outlet, for the delay.
He was often right when he denounced a political intriguer: he often would have sacrificed a victim not unjustly condemned, he often discovered an agent partially responsible, and even the violent solutions that he suggested were not always impracticable. But it was the prime error of his tortured mind that beyond victims, and sudden violent clutches at the success of democracy, there was nothing else he could conceive. He was incapable of allowing for imperfections, for stupidities, for the misapprehension of mind by mind, for the mere action of time, and for all that renders human life infinitely complex and infinitely adjustable.
Humour, the reflection of such wisdom, he lacked;—“judgment” (as the English idiom has it) he lacked still more—if a comparative term may be attached to two such absolute vacuities.
It must not be forgotten that so complete an absence of certain necessary qualities in the building up of a mind are equivalent to madness. Marat was not sane. His insanity was often generous, the creed to which it was attached was obvious enough, and in the eyes of most of us it is a creed to be accepted. But he worked with it as a madman who is mad on collectivism, let us say, or the rights of property, might work in our society, thinking of his one thesis, shrieking it and foaming at the mouth upon it, losing all control when its acceptance was not even opposed but merely delayed. He was valueless for the accomplishment of the ends of the Revolution. His doctrine and his adherence to it were so conspicuously simple and sincere that it is no wonder the populace made him (for a few months) a sort of symbol of their demand.
For the rest, his face, like his character, was tortured; he carried with him a disease of the skin that irritated perpetually his wholly unbalanced temper.
Some say (but one must always beware of so-called “Science” in the reading of history) that a mixture of racial types produced in him a perpetual physical disturbance: his face was certainly distorted and ill-balanced—but physical suggestions of that sort are very untrustworthy.
Those who met him in the management of affairs thought him worthless enough; a few who knew him intimately loved him dearly; more who came across him continually were fatigued and irritated by his empty violence. He was, among those young revolutionaries, almost an elderly man; he was (this should never be forgotten) a distinguished scholar in his own trade, that of medicine; and he effected less in the Revolution than any man to whom a reputation of equal prominence happened to attach. He must stand responsible for the massacres of September.
No character in the Revolution needs for its comprehension a wider reading and a greater knowledge of the national character than Robespierre’s.
Upon no character does the comprehension of the period more depend, and none (for reasons I will give in a moment) has been more misunderstood, not only in the popular legend but in the weighed decisions of competent historians.
So true is this that even time, which (in company with scholarship) usually redresses such errors, has not yet permitted modern authors to give a true picture of the man.
The reason of so conspicuous a failure in the domain of history is this: that side by side with the real Robespierre there existed in the minds of all his contemporaries save those who actually came across him in the functions of government, a legendary Robespierre—a Robespierre popularly imagined; and that this imaginary Robespierre, while it (or he) has proved odious to posterity, seemed, while he lived, a fascinating portrait to the man himself, and therefore he accepted it. For Robespierre, though just, lacked humility.
The problem is an exceedingly subtle as well as an exceedingly difficult one. The historian, as he reads his authorities, has perpetually to distinguish between what is strong and what is weak evidence, and to recall himself, as he reads, to reality by a recollection of what Robespierre himself was. If he does not do so he falls at once into the legend; so powerful is that legend in the numbers that supported it, and so strongly did Robespierre himself support it by his own attitude. The legendary Robespierre may be described in a very few lines.
Conceive a man sincerely convinced of the purest democratic theory, a man who cared for nothing else but the realisation of that theory, and who had never sacrificed his pursuit of its realisation in the State to any personal advantage whatsoever. This man, trusted by the people and at last idolised by them, becomes more and more powerful. He enters the governing body (the Committee of Public Safety), he is the master both within and without that body, and uses his mastery for establishing an ideal democracy which shall recognise the existence of God and repose upon civic virtue; and to establish this ideal he has recourse to terror. He finds that human defections from his ideal are increasingly numerous: he punishes them by death. The slaughter grows to be enormous; the best of Democrats are involved in it; at last it can be tolerated no longer, his immediate subordinates revolt against him in the Committee, he is outlawed, fails to raise a popular rebellion in his favour in Paris, is executed, and his system of terror falls to the ground.
This picture, though purely legendary in tone, contains not only much truth, but truth of precisely that sort which conspires to make credible what is false in the whole.
Robespierre was sincerely attached to the conception of an ideal democracy; he was incorruptible in the pursuit of it—and to be a politician and incorruptible amounts to something like what the Church calls heroic virtue in a man. He did enter the Committee of Public Safety; he did support the Terror, and when he was overthrown the Terror did come to an end. Where, then, does the legend differ from the truth?
In these capital points, which change it altogether: that Robespierre was not the chief influence in the Committee of Public Safety, i.e. the all powerful executive of the Republic; that he did not desire the Terror, that he did not use it, that he even grew disgusted with it, and that, in general, he was never the man who governed France.
It need hardly be pointed out how such a truth destroys such a legend. The whole nature of the twelve months between the summer of 1793 and the summer of 1794 must vary according as we regard them as Robespierrean or no: and they were not Robespierrean.
What were they then, and why has the error that Robespierre was then master, arisen?
Those months, which may be roughly called the months of the Terror, were, as we shall see later in this book, months of martial law; and the Terror was simply martial law in action—a method of enforcing the military defence of the country and of punishing all those who interfered with it or were supposed by the Committee to interfere with it.
No one man in the Committee was the author of this system, but the one most determined to use it and the one who had most occasion to use it, was undoubtedly the military organiser, Carnot. Side by side with him one man, such as Barrère, supported it because it kept up the Committee of Public Safety which gave him all his political position. Another, such as Saint-Just, supported it because he believed that the winning of the war (in which he took an active part) would secure democracy everywhere and for ever. Another, such as Jean Bon, supported it from the old sectarian bitterness of the Huguenot. But of all men in the Committee, Robespierre supported the Terror least, and was most suspected by his colleagues—and increasingly suspected as time went on—of desiring to interfere with the martial system of the Terror and to modify it.
Why, then, was Robespierre popularly identified with the Terror, and why, when he was executed, did the Terror cease?
Robespierre was identified with the Terror because he was identified with the popular clamour of the time, with the extreme democratic feeling of the time, and its extreme fear of a reaction. Robespierre being the popular idol, had become also the symbol of a popular frenzy which was supposed to be ruling the country. But that frenzy was not ruling the country. What was ruling the country was the Committee of Public Safety, in which Carnot’s was the chief brain. Robespierre was indeed the idol of the populace; he was in no way the agent of their power or of any power.
Why, when he fell, did the Terror cease if he were not its author? Because the Terror was acting under a strain; it was with the utmost difficulty that this absolute, intolerant and intolerable martial system could be continued when once the fear of invasion was removed. For some weeks before Robespierre fell the victories had begun to render it unnecessary. When the Committee saw to it that Robespierre should be outlawed by the Parliament, they knocked away, without knowing it, the keystone of their own policy; it was his popular position which made their policy possible. When he was destroyed they suddenly found that the Terror could no longer be maintained. Men had borne with it because of Robespierre, falsely imagining that Robespierre had desired it. Robespierre gone, men would not bear with it any more.
Now, finally, if Robespierre himself had always felt opposed to the system of the Terror, why did he not take the lead in the popular reaction against it?
He had his opportunity given him by Danton in December 1793—seven months before his own catastrophe. The Committee determined to put Danton out of the way because Danton, in appealing for mercy, was weakening the martial power of their government. Robespierre might have saved Danton: he preferred to let him be sacrificed. The reason was that Robespierre wrongly believed popularity to lie upon the side of the Terror and against Danton; he was in no way a leader (save in rhetoric and in rhetoric directed towards what men already desired), and his own great weakness or vice was the love of popular acclaim.
Later on, in the summer of 1794, when he actually began to move against the Terror, he only did so privately. He so misread men that he still believed the Terror to be popular, and dared not lose his popular name. A man by nature as sincere as crystal, he was tempted to insincerity in this major thing, during the last months of his life, and he yielded completely to the temptation. For the sake of his memory it was deplorable, and deplorable also for history. His weakness has been the cause of an historical error as grave as any that can be discovered in modern letters, and at the same time has wholly maligned him to posterity.
A factor in Robespierre’s great public position which is often forgotten is the great effect of his speeches. That men should still debate, after so vast a change in taste, whether those speeches were eloquent or no, is a sufficient proof of their effect. He spoke in an ordered and a reasoned manner, which bored the fine spirits of the earlier Parliaments, but well suited the violent convictions of the later Revolution. His phraseology, his point of view, just jumped with that of his audience. He could express what they felt, and express it in terms which they knew to be exact, and which they believed to be grand. For his manner was never excessive, and those excessive men who heard him in an excessive mood, were proud to know that their violence could be expressed with so much scholarship and moderated skill.
By birth he was of the smaller gentry, though poor. It is an indication of his character that he had thought of taking Orders, and that in early youth literary vanity had affected him. He has left no monument; but from the intensity of his faith and from his practice of it, his name, though it will hardly increase, will certainly endure.
- There is but one trustworthy monograph on Marat. It will interest the student as a proof of the enthusiasm which Marat can inspire. It is by Champfleury.