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Nobility and Revolution

Taine estimated that the noblesse, in the latter half of the eighteenth century, numbered about 140,000 members. In pursuance of their absolutist system of government, the Bourbons had steadily set themselves to undermine the power of the nobility. Absenteeism on the part of the great nobles had been deliberately encouraged, and they had been taught to look to the King's favour as the object of their highest ambition. The conditions which reduced them to political nullity produced, in the course of years, an aristocracy which had lost all instinct of government.

At the time of the Revolution the nobles were still a privileged, but they had long ceased to be a governing class. In addition to loss of power, the noblesse. during the eighteenth century had gradually been growing poorer. Marriages with heiresses outside their own class were expedients little in favour with the nobles of those days. The prejudices of their order debarred even the cadets of an aristocratic family from embarking on a lucrative calling. Under pain of loss of caste they had no option but to enter the Army, the Navy, or the Diplomatic service. The disunion which existed among them was a further source of weakness to their class. The "nobility of the Court" despised the provincial aristocracy, the "nobility of the sword" looked down upon the " nobility of the robe," as those families were termed of which the members, from father to son, filled the high places in the judicature.

With the rest of their fellow-countrymen the nobles were highly unpopular. The middle classes were jealous of their privileges, and smarted under their insolence and pride of birth. The peasants had no liking for them. From the circumstances and habits of their lives they were, generally, indifferent landlords. The majority of the great nobles had no thoughts beyond extracting as much money as they could from their estates, which they seldom visited except when in disgrace at Court. The members of the lesser aristocracy, who usually lived on their properties, were, as a rule, poor and narrow-minded men who did little either to ameliorate the conditions of the peasants or to improve the land. Many, moreover, of the seigniorial rights, from which they chiefly derived their incomes, were serious obstacles in the way of a more enlightened system of agriculture.

In 1789 the nobility had become one of the institutions in an antiquated system which France was determined to abolish. Most of the members of the higher aristocracy themselves were, no doubt, dimly aware that changes had become necessary. But though some of them were strongly imbued with the philosophic spirit and had devoted attention to the study of social questions, the great crisis in their country's history was to find them singularly lacking in political intelligence and in constructive ability.

That strange feature of the Revolution, known as the emigration, began with the flight of the Comte d'Artois, the Prince de Conde, and the Polignac elique after the fall of the Bastille. This step was dictated far less by fear than by a desire for revenge. At the small Courts in Germany and in the other countries which they visited, the emigres presented themselves, not as fugitives asking for shelter, but as a political party seeking allies. After the departure of these forerunners of the emigration the movement slackened.3 The march of the women to Versailles and the events of October 6th, 1789, gave it a fresh impulse. Henceforward the stream of voluntary exiles flowed, without interruption, across the northern and eastern frontiers. In the army the rapid spread of the revolutionary spirit had made the position of the officers difficult and, in some cases, dangerous. Under these circumstances they were ready to follow the example set them by the Princes and great nobles who had fled from their country. By August 1791, so large a number of officers had deserted from their regiments, that the reorganization became necessary, which may be said to have converted the old Royal into the new revolutionary army.

At the Courts of the ecclesiastical Princes in the Rhine country the emigres had met with a cordial welcome. Frederick von Erthal, Elector of Mainz, and Clement Wenceslas, Elector of Trier, vied with each other in extending a lavish hospitality to their noble guests.4 Ever since the summer of 1790 it had become very much the fashion in polite society to " emigrate." In the course of the next year many thousands of French nobles left their country and assembled chiefly on German territory, to await the moment when the Sovereigns should set in motion the armies which were to sweep away the Revolution and to give them back their privileges. In the meantime they amused themselves as best they could, laughing immoderately at the dull Germans and the petty Princes whose dominions they honoured with their presence.

The German towspeople were, in the first instance, much pleased with the noisy brilliant throng of Frenchmen who suddenly descended upon them. The newcomers spent their money freely, so long as they had any. Few of them, unfortunately, had brought more than would last them for three months, by which time they calculated that they would be home again in triumph. Supplying fine gentlemen on credit, who only laughed in their faces when they presented their bills, was not at all to the German taste. Before long the tradesmen and innkeepers in the Rhine country began to think that perhaps, after all, the French people were not so much mistaken in deciding to make political changes. The insolence which they had to put up with, and the scenes which they daily saw enacted in their own towns during the emigration, brought home to them the real causes of the Revolution more forcibly than the most violent propagandism could ever have succeeded in doing.

The war which began in 1792 and which was to last, with little intermission, for twenty-three years was precipitated but not caused by the emigres. While in Paris the Monarchy was in its death throes, an army of 4500 emigres, commanded by the Prince de Conde and officered by the flower of the French nobility, was entering France in the wake of the invading hosts of Austria and Prussia. But by the middle of October 1792, Prussia and Austria had abandoned all idea of restoring the Monarchy in France. The emigres had to bear the brunt of the displeasure which (his unexpected result provoked among the Allies. All the reverses were ascribed to their misleading statements and to their ridiculous stories that revolutionary France would be incapable of putting an army into the field. During the two months' campaign they had not won the respect of their German brothers-in-arms.

An intense hatred of the old regime and a determination never to submit to -its revival was the spirit which animated the majority of Frenchmen. This the Royal Family and the emigres completely failed to realise. The nobles as a class had been unpopular before the Revolution ; they became odious during the course of it. They had shown plainly that they were determined to set up again conditions which were detestable to the great mass of the people, and that, to attain their ends, they were prepared to subject their country to invasion and to the risk of dismemberment. Under the influence of the indignation which this conduct evoked terrible atrocities were committed. The nobles as a class were proscribed and, as was inevitable, many innocent persons suffered for the guilty.

It was the policy of Bonaparte to consolidate the nation by uniting all classes. After Brumaire those who applied to have their names removed from the list of proscribed persons, that is asked for their " radiation," to quote the official term, found that in most cases their request was complied with. In the course of the next few years a large proportion of the emigres found their way back to France. If their forfeited properties had not been sold, they were restored to them after they had taken the oath of fidelity and fulfilled the prescribed formalities.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:58:21 ZULU