« PreviousContinue »
DUMONT'S RECOLLECTIONS OF MIRABEAU.*
"It is a melancholy fact," says Madame de Stael, "that while the human race is continually advancing by the acquisitions of intellect, it is doomed to move perpetually in the same circle of error, from the influence of the passions." If this observation was just, even when this great author wrote, how much more is it now applicable, when a new generation has arisen, perfectly blind to the lessons of experience, and we in this free and prosperous land, have yielded to the same passions, and been seduced by the same delusions, which, three-and-forty years ago, actuated the French people, and have been deemed inexcusable by all subsequent historians, even in its enslaved population!
It would appear inconceivable, that the same errors should thus be repeated by successive nations, without the least regard to the lessons of history; that all the dictates of experience, all the conclusions of wisdom, all the penalties of weakness, should be forgotten, before the generation which has suffered under their neglect is cold in their graves; that the same vices should be repeated, the same criminal ambition indulged, to the end of the world; if we did not recollect that it is the very essence of passion, whether in nations or individuals, to be insensible to the sufferings of others, and to pursue its own headstrong inclinations, regardless alike of the admonitions of reason, and the experience of the world. It would seem that the vehemence of passion in nations, is as little liable to be influenced by considerations of prudence, or the slightest regard to the consequences, as the career of intemperance in individuals; and that in like manner, as every successive age beholds multitudes who, in the pursuit of desire,rush headlong down the gulf of perdition, so every successive generation is doomed to witness the sacrifice of national prosperity, or the extinction of national exist
ence, in the insane pursuit of democratic ambition. Providence has appointed certain trials for nations as well as individuals; and for those who, disregarding the admonitions of virtue, and slighting the dictates of duty, yield to the tempter, certain destruction is appointed in the inevitable consequences of their criminal desires, not less in the government of empires, than the paths of private life.
Forty years ago, the passion for innovation seized a great and powerful nation in Europe, illustrious in the paths of honour, grown grey in years of renown: the voice of religion was discarded, the lessons of experience rejected: visionary projects were entertained, chimerical anticipations indulged: the ancient institutions of the country were not amended, but destroyed: a new constitution introduced, amidst the unanimous applause of the people: the monarch placed himself at the head of the movement, the nobles joined the commons, the clergy united in the work of reform: all classes, by common consent, conspired in the demolition and reconstruction of the constitution. A new era was thought to have dawned on human affairs; the age of gold to be about to return from the regeneration of mankind.
The consequence, as all the world knows, was ruin, devastation, and misery, unparalleled in modern times: the king, the queen, the royal family were beheaded, the nobles exiled or guillotined, the clergy confiscated and banished, the fundholders starved and ruined, the merchants exterminated, the landholders beggared, the people decimated. The wrath of Heaven needed no destroying angel to be the minister of its vengeance: the guilty passions of men worked out their own and welldeserved punishment. The fierce passion of democracy was extinguished in blood: the Reign of Terror froze every heart with horror: the tyranny of the Directory destroyed
Souvenirs sur Mirabeau, et sur les Premières Assemblées Législatives. Etienne Dumont, de Geneve. 8vo. London: E. Bull. 1832.We have translated the quotations ourselves, not having seen the English version.
VOL. XXXI. NO. CXCIV.
the very name of freedom: the ambition of Napoleon visited every cottage with mourning, and doomed to tears every mother in France; and the sycophancy of all classes, the natural result of former license, so paved the way for military despotism, that the haughty Emperor could only exclaim with Tiberius-"O homines ad servitutem parati!
Forty years after, the same unruly and reckless spirit seized the very nation who had witnessed these horrors, and bravely struggled for twenty years to avert them from her own shores: the passion of democracy became general in all the manufacturing and trading classes: a large portion of the nobility were deluded by the infatuated idea, that by yielding to the torrent, they could regulate its movements: the ministers of the Crown put themselves at the head of the movement, and wielded the royal prerogative to give force and consistence to the ambition of the multitude: political fanaticism again reared its hydra head: the ministers of religion became the objects of odium; every thing sacred, every thing venerable, the subject of opprobrium, and, by yielding to this tempest of passion and terror, enlightened men seriously anticipated, not a repetition of the horrors of the French Revolution, but the staying of the fury of democracy, the stilling of the waves of faction, the calming the ambition of the people.
That a delusion so extraordinary, a blindness so infatuated, should have existed so soon after the great and bloody drama had been acted on the theatre of Europe, will appear altogether incredible to future ages. It is certain, however, that it exists, not only among the unthinking millions, who, being incapable of judging of the consequences of political changes, are of no weight in a philosophical view of the subject, but among thinking thousands who are capable of forming a correct judgment, and whose opinions on other subjects are highly worthy of consideration. This is the circumstance which furnishes the real phenomenon, and into the causes of which
It is no more surprising that a new generation of shopkeepers, manufacturers, and artisans, should be devoured by the passion for political power, without any regard to its recent consequences in the neighbouring kingdom, than that youth, in every successive generation, should yield to the seductions of pleasure, or the allurements of vice, without ever thinking of the miseries it has brought upon their fathers, and the old time before them. But how men of sense, talent, and information; men who really have a stake in the country, and would themselves be the first victims of revolution, should be carried away by the same infatuation, cannot be so easily explained;
and if it cannot be accounted for from some accidental circumstances, offers the most gloomy pros pects for the cause of truth, and the future destinies of mankind.
"The direction of literature and philosophy in France, during the last half of the 18th century," says Madame de Stael, was extremely bad; but, if I may be allowed the expression, the direction of ignorance has been still worse; for no one book can do much mischief to those who read all. If the idlers in the world, on the other hand, occupy themselves by reading a few moments, the work which they read makes as great an impression on them, as the arrival of a stranger in the desert; and if that work abounds in sophisms, they have no opposite arguments to oppose to it. The discovery of printing is truly fatal to those who read only by halves or chance; for knowledge, like the Lance of Argail, inflicts wounds which nothing but itself can heal."* In this observation is to be found the true solution of the extraordinary political delusions which now overspread the world; and it is much easier to discern the causes of the calamity, than perceive what remedy can be devised for it.
If you could give to all who can read the newspapers, either intellect to understand, or taste to relish, or money to buy, or time to read, works of historical informatio
future ages will anxiously enquire. philosophical wisdom, there might
• De l'Allemagne, iii. 247.
be a reasonable hope that error in the end would be banished from thought, and that political knowledge, like the Thames water in the course of a long voyage, would work itself pure. But as it is obvious to every one practically acquainted with the condition of mankind, that ninety-nine out of the hundred who peruse the daily press, are either totally incapable of forming a sound opinion on any subject of thought, or so influenced by prejudice as to be inaccessible to the force of reason, or so much swayed by passion as to be deaf to argument, or so destitute of information as to be insensible to its force, it is hardly possible to discern any mode in which, with a daily press extensively read, and political excitement kept up, as it always will be by its authors, either truth is to become generally known, or error sufficiently combated. Every one, how slender soever his intellect, how slight his information, how limited his time for study, can understand and feel gratified by abuse of his superiors. The common slang declamation against the aristocrats, the clergy, and the throne, in France, and against the boroughmongers, the bishops, and the peers, in England, is on the level of the meanest capacity; and is calculated to seduce all those who are "either," in Bacon's words, "weak in judgment, or infirm in resolution; that is, the greater proportion of mankind."
It is this circumstance of the universal diffusion of passion, and the extremely limited extent of such intellect or information as qualifies to judge on political subjects, which renders the future prospects of any nation, which has got itself involved in the whirlwind of innovation, so extremely melancholy. Every change which is proposed holds out some immediate or apparent benefit, which forms the attraction and inducement to the multitude. Every one can see and understand this immediate or imaginary benefit; and therefore the change is clamorously demanded by the people. To discern the ultimate effects again, to see how these changes are to operate on the frame of society, and the misery they are calculated to bring on the very per
sons who demand them, requires a head of more than ordinary strength, and knowledge of more than ordinary extent. Nature has not given the one, education can never give the other, to above one in an hundred. Hence the poison circulates universally, while the antidote is confined to a few; and therefore, in such periods, the most extravagant measures are forced upon government, and a total disregard of experience characterises the national councils.
It is to this cause that the extremely short duration of any institutions, which have been framed under the pressure of democratic influence, is to be ascribed, and the rapidity with which they are terminated by the tranquil despotism of the sword. Rome, in two generations, ran through the horrors of democratic convulsions, until they were stopped by the sword of the Dictator. France, since the reform transports of 1789 began, has had thirteen different constitutions; none of which subsisted two years, except such as were supported by the power of Napoleon and the bayonets of the allies. England, in five years after the people ran mad in 1642, was quietly sheltered under the despotism of Cromwell; and the convulsions of the republic of South Ame rica have been so numerous since their struggles began, that civilized nations have ceased to count them.
Historians recording events at a distance from the period of their occurrence, and ignorant of the experienced evils which led to their adoption, have often indulged in eloquent declamation against the corruption and debasement of those nations, such as Florence, Milan, Sienna, and Denmark, which have by common consent, and a solemn act, surrendered their liberties to a sovereign prince. There is nothing, however, either extraordinary or debasing about it; they surrendered their privileges, because they had never known what real freedom was; they invoked the tranquillity of despotism, to avoid the experienced ills of anarchy; they chose the lesser, to avoid the greater evil. Democracy, admirable as a spring, and when duly tempered by the other elements
of society, is utterly destructive where it becomes predominant, or is deprived of its regulating weight. The evils it produces are so excessive, the suffering it occasions so dreadful, that society cannot exist under them, and the people take refuge in despair, in the surrender of all they have been contending for, to obtain that peace which they have sought for in vain amidst its stormy convulsions. The horrors of demo cratic tyranny greatly exceed those either of regal or aristocratic oppression. History contains numerous examples of nations, who have lingered on for centuries, under the bowstring of the sultan, or the fet ters of the feudal nobility; but none in which democratic violence, when once fairly let loose, has not speedily brought about its own extirpation.
But although there is little hope that the multitude, when once infected by the deadly contagion of democracy, can right themselves, or be righted by others, by the utmost efforts of reason, argument, or eloquence, nature has in reserve one remedy of sovereign and universal efficacy, which is as universally understood, and as quick in its operation, as the poison which rendered its application necessary. This is SUFFERING. Every man cannot, indeed, understand political reasoning; but every man can feel the want of a meal. The multitude may be insensible to the efforts of reason and eloquence; but they cannot remain deaf to the dangers of murder and conflagration. These, the natural and unvarying attendants on democratic ascendency, will as certainly in the end tame the fierce spirits of the people, as winter will succeed summer; but whether they will do so in time to preserve the national freedom, or uphold the national for tunes, is a very different, and far more doubtful, question. It is seldom that the illumination of suffering comes in time to save the people from the despotism of the sword.
It is in this particular that the superior strength and efficiency of free constitutions, such as Britain, in resisting the fatal encroachments of democracy, to any possessed by a despotic government, is to be found,
The habits of union, intelligence, and political exertion, which they have developed, have given to the higher and more influential classes such a power of combining to resist the danger, that obstacles are thrown in the way of change, which retard the fatal Discussion rapidity of its course. goes on in the legislature; talent is enlisted on the side of truth; honour and patriotism are found in the post of danger; virtue receives its noblest attribute in the universal calumnies of wickedness. These generous ef forts, indeed, are totally unavailing to alter the opinion of the manyheaded monster which has started into political activity; but they combine the brave, the enlightened, and the good, into an united phalanx, which, if it cannot singly resist the torrent, may, at least, arrest its fury, till the powers of nature come to its aid. These powers do come at last with desperate and resistless effect, in the universal suffering, the farspread agony, the hopeless depression of the poor; but the danger is imminent, that before the change takes place the work of destruction has been completed, and the national liberties, deprived of the ark of the constitution, are doomed to perish under the futile attempts to reconstruct it.
There never was a mistake so deplorable, as to imagine that it is possible to give to any nation at once a new constitution; or to preserve the slightest guarantee for freedom, under institutions created at once by the utmost efforts of human wisdom. It is as impossible at once to give a durable constitution to a nation, as it is to give a healthful frame to an individual, without going through the previous changes of childhood and youth." Governments," says Sir James Mackintosh," are not framed after a model, but all their parts grow out of occasional acts, prompted by some urgent expedience, or some private interest, which in the course of time coalesce and harden into usage; and this bundle of usages is the object of respect, and the guide of conduct, long before it is embodied, defined, or enforced in written laws. Government may be, in some degree, reduced to system, but it cannot flow from it. It is not like a machine, or a building, which may
be constructed entirely, and according to a previous plan, by the art and labour of man. It is better illustrated by comparison with vegetables, or even animals, which may be, in a very high degree, improved by skill and care-which may be grievously injured by neglect, or destroyed by violence, but which cannot be produced by human contrivance. A government can, indeed, be no more than a mere draught or scheme of rule, when it is not composed of habits of obedience on the part of the people, and of an habitual exercise of certain portions of authority by the individuals or bodies who constitute the sovereign power. These habits, like all others, can only be formed by repeated acts; they cannot be suddenly infused by the lawgiver, nor can they immediately follow the most perfect conviction of their propriety. Many causes having more power over the human mind than written law, it is extremely difficult, from the mere perusal of a written scheme of government, to foretell what it will prove in action. There may be governments so bad that it is justifiable to destroy them, and to trust to the probability that a better government will grow in their stead. But as the rise of a worse is also possible, so terrible a peril is never to be incurred except in the case of a tyranny which it is impossible to reform. It may be necessary to burn a forest containing much useful timber, but giving shelter to beasts of prey, who are formidable to an infant colony in its neighbour hood, and of too vast an extent to be gradually and safely thinned by their inadequate labour. It is fit, however, that they should be apprised, before they take an irreparable step, how little it is possible to foresee, whether the earth, stripped of its vegetation, shall become an unprofitable desert or a pestilential marsh."*
The great cause, therefore, of the devastating march of revolutions, and the total subversion which they in general effect in the liberties of the people, is the fundamental changes in laws and institutions which they effect. As long as these remain untouched, or not altered in any considerable degree, any passing despo
tism, how grievous soever, is only of temporary effect; and when the tyranny is overpast, the public freedom again runs into its wonted and consuetudinary channels. Thus the successive tyrannies of Richard the Third, Henry the Eighth, and James the Second, produced no fatal effects on English freedom, because they subsisted only during the lifetime of an arbitrary or capricious sovereign; and, upon his death, the ancient privileges of the people revived, and the liberties of the nation again were as extensive as ever,
The great rebellion hardly partook at all, at least in its early stages, of a democratic movement. Its leaders were the House of Commons, who possessed four-fifths of the landed property of the kingdom, and were proprietors of three times as much territory as the Upper House; hence no considerable changes in laws, institutions, or customs, took place. "The courts of law," says Lingard, "still administered law on the old precedents, and, with the exception of a change of the dynasty on the throne, the people perceived little change in the administration of government."+ Power was not, during the course of the Revolution, transferred into other and inferior hands, from whence it never can be wrenched but at the sword's point; it remained in the House of Commons, the legal representatives of the kingdom, till it was taken from them, by the hand of Cromwell. The true democratic spirit appeared at the close of the struggles in the Fifth Monarchy men, but their numbers were too inconsiderable to acquire any preponderance before the usurpation of Cromwell, that daring soldier. Accordingly, on the Restoration, the first thing that government did, was to issue writs for all persons to return members to Parliament who were qualified prior to 1640; and after an abeyance of twenty years, the blood of the constitution was again poured into its ancient veins. The Revolution of 1688, as it is called, was not strictly speaking a revolution; it was merely a change of dynasty, accompanied by an unanimous effort of the public will, and unattended by the least change in
* Mackintosh's History of England, i. 73.
† Lingard, xi. 11, 12.