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French Revolution - Personae

Rousseau's Contrat Social was the book which gave a text for the Revolution, the document to which/ its political theory could refer. Rousseau wrote on many things: his character was of an exalted, nervous and diseased sort. Its excessive sensibility degenerated with advancing years into something not distinguishable from mania. He wrote upon education, and the glory of his style carried conviction both where he was right, and where the short experience later years proved him to have been wholly wrong. He wrote upon a project for perpetual peace, which was rubbish; and he wrote upon the government of Poland an essay which was a perfect masterpiece. Nevertheless, if it be closely read the Control Social will be discovered to say all that can be said of the moral basis of democracy. Rousseau's hundred pages are the direct source of the theory of the modern State.

What a rather clumsy epigram has called "the audacity of elected persons" is part of this truth. The evident spectacle of modern parliamentary nations driven against their will into economic conditions which appall them, proceeds again from the same truth; the conspicuous and hearty contempt into which parliamentary institutions have everywhere fallen again proceeds from it, and there proceeds from it that further derivative plague that the representatives themselves everywhere become more servile than the electorate and that in all parliamentary countries a few intriguers are the unworthy depositories of power, and by their service of finance permit the money dealers to govern all. Rousseau, the chief prophet of the Revolution, had warned the French of this danger.

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.

A successful orator, he was the leader of the moderate position among revolutionaries by favoring a constitutional monarchy built on the model of Great Britain. 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. 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.

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.

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 vigor, 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.

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 oLihought. The combination is among the strongest of all those that go to build up human personalities.

He knew and loved his fellow countrymen in detail and as persons; he knew what made a Frenchman weak and what made him strong. 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. 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.

In December 1793, 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.

Carnot, the predecessor of Napoleon, and the organizing 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.

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.

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, Fouche, 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 truthsit is the fault of the fanatic so to hold any truthbut 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.

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 has been more misunderstood, not only in the popular legend but in the weighed decisions of competent historians. 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.

Conceive a man sincerely convinced of the purest democratic theory, a man who cared for nothing else but the realization of that theory, and who had never sacrificed his pursuit of its realization in the State to any personal advantage whatsoever. This man, trusted by the people and at last idolized 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 recognize 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.

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. 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.

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Page last modified: 07-08-2018 23:39:49 ZULU