The World's Famous Orations/Volume 7/Better to Die than not Live Free

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The World's Famous Orations (Volume 7: Continental Europe)
Better to Die than not Live Free
by Camille Desmoulins




Born In 1760, died in 1794; his speeches in 1789 a moving cause of the storming of the Bastille; elected a Deputy to the Convention in 1792; voted for the death of the king; perished, with Danton, under the guillotine.

There is one difference between a monarchy and a republic, which alone should suffice to make people reject with horror all monarchical rule and prefer a republic regardless of the cost of its establishment. In a democracy, tho the people may be deceived, yet they at least love virtue. It is merit which they believe they put in power as substitutes for the rascals who are the very essence of monarchies. The vices, concealments, and crimes which are the diseases of republics are the very health and existence of monarchies. Cardinal Richelieu avowed openly in his political principles, that "kings should always avoid using the talents of thoroughly honest men." Long before him Sallust said: "Kings can not get along without rascals; on the contrary, they should fear to trust the honest and upright." It is, therefore, only under a democracy that the good citizen can reasonably hope to see a cessation of the triumphs of intrigue and crime; and to this end the people need only to be enlightened.

There is yet this difference between a monarchy and a republic: the reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, Nero, Caligula and Domitian all had happy beginnings. In fact, all reigns make a joyous entry, but this is only a delusion. Royalists therefore laugh at the present state of France as if because of its violent and terrible entry it could not always last.

Everything gives umbrage to a tyrant. If a citizen have popularity, he is becoming a rival to the prince. Consequently, he is stirring up civil strife, and is a suspect. If, on the contrary, he flee popularity and seclude himself in the corner of his own fireside, this retired life makes him remarked, and he is a suspect. If he is a rich man, there is an imminent peril that he may corrupt the people with his largesses, and he becomes a suspect. Are you poor? How then! Invincible emperors, this man must be closely watched; for no one is so enterprising as he who has nothing. He is a suspect! Are you in character somber, melancholy, or neglectful? Then you are afflicted by the condition of public affairs, and are a suspect.

If, on the contrary, the citizen enjoy himself and have resultant indigestion, he is only seeking diversion because his ruler has had an attack of gout, which makes his majesty realize his age. Therefore he is a suspect. Is he virtuous and austere in his habits? Ah! he is then a new Brutus with his Jacobin severity, censuring the amiable and well-groomed court, and he is a suspect. If he be a philosopher, an orator, or a poet, it will serve him ill to be of greater renown than those who govern, for can it be permitted to pay more attention to the author living on a fourth floor than to the emperor in his gilded palace? Such a one is a suspect.

Has one made a reputation as a warrior—he is but the more dangerous by reason of his talent. There are many resources with an inefficient general. If he is a traitor he can not so quickly deliver his army to the enemy. But an officer of merit like an Agricola—if he be disloyal, not one can be saved. Therefore, all such had better be removed and promptly placed at a distance from the army.

Tacitus tells us that there was anciently in Rome a law specifying the crimes of "lèse-majesté." That crime carried with it the punishment of death. Under the Roman republic treasons were reduced to four kinds, viz.: abandoning an army in the country of an enemy; exciting sedition; the maladministration of the public treasury; and the impairment by inefficiency of the majesty of the Roman people.

But the Roman emperors needed more clauses, in order that they might place cities and citizens under proscription. Augustus was the first to extend the list of offenses that were "lèse-majesté" or revolutionary, and under his successors extensions were made until none was exempt. The slightest action was a state offense. A simple look, sadness, compassion, a sigh, or even silence became "lèse-majesté" and disloyalty. One must needs show joy at the execution of a parent or friend lest one should perish. Citizens, liberty must be a great benefit, since Cato disemboweled himself rather than have a king. And what king can we compare in greatness and heroism to the Cæsar whose rule Cato would not endure? Rousseau truly says: "There is in liberty as in innocence and virtue a satisfaction one can only feel in their enjoyment and a pleasure which can cease only when they have been lost."

  1. Delivered in Paris in February, 1788. An early translation, revised for this collection.
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This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.


This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.