The true cause of the disappearance of the ancien regime was simply the weakening of the traditions which served as its foundations. When after repeated criticism it could find no more defenders, the ancien regime crumbled like a building whose foundations have been destroyed.
2. The Inconveniences of the Ancien Regime
A long-established system of government will always finally seem acceptable to the people governed. Habit masks its inconveniences, which appear only when men begin to think. Then they ask how they could ever have supported them. The truly unhappy man is the man who believes himself miserable.
It was precisely this belief which was gaining ground at the time of the Revolution, under the influence of the writers whose work we shall presently study. Then the imperfections of the ancien regime stared all men in the face. They were numerous; it is enough to mention a few.
Despite the apparent authority of the central power, the kingdom, formed by the successive conquest of independent provinces, was divided into territories each of which had its own laws and customs, and each of which paid different imposts. Internal customs-houses separated them. The unity of France was thus somewhat artificial. It represented an aggregate of various countries which the repeated efforts of the kings, including Louis XIV., had not succeeded in wholly unifying. The most useful effect of the Revolution was this very unification.
To such material divisions were added social divisions constituted by different classes—nobles, clergy, and the Third Estate, whose rigid barriers could only with the utmost difficulty be crossed.
Regarding the division of the classes as one of its sources of power, the ancien regime had rigorously maintained that division. This became the principal cause of the hatreds which the system inspired. Much of the violence of the triumphant bourgeoisie represented vengeance for a long past of disdain and oppression. The wounds of self-love are the most difficult of all to forget. The Third Estate had suffered many such wounds. At a meeting of the States General in 1614, at which its representatives were obliged to remain bareheaded on their knees, one member of the Third Estate having dared to say that the three orders were like three brothers, the spokesman of the nobles replied "that there was no fraternity between it and the Third; that the nobles did not wish the children of cobblers and tanners to call them their brothers.''
Despite the march of enlightenment the nobles and the clergy obstinately preserved their privileges and their demands, no longer justifiable now that these classes had ceased to render services.
Kept from the exercise of public functions by the royal power, which distrusted them, and progressively replaced by a bourgeoisie which was more and more learned and capable, the social role of nobility and clergy was only an empty show. This point has been luminously expounded by Taine:—
"Since the nobility, having lost its special capacity, and the Third Estate, having acquired general capacity, were now on a level in respect of education and aptitudes, the inequality which divided them had become hurtful and useless. Instituted by custom, it was no longer ratified by the consciousness, and the Third Estate was with reason angered by privileges which nothing justified, neither the capacity of the nobles nor the incapacity of the bourgeoisie.''
By reason of the rigidity of castes established by a long past we cannot see what could have persuaded the nobles and the clergy to renounce their privileges. Certainly they did finally abandon them one memorable evening, when events forced them to do so; but then it was too late, and the Revolution, unchained, was pursuing its course.
It is certain that modern progress would successively have established all that the Revolution effected—the equality of citizens before the law, the suppression of the privileges of birth, &c. Despite the conservative spirit of the Latins, these things would have been won, as they were by the majority of the peoples. We might in this manner have been saved twenty years of warfare and devastation; but we must have had a different mental constitution, and, above all, different statesmen.
The profound hostility of the bourgeoisie against the classes maintained above it by tradition was one of the great factors of the Revolution, and perfectly explains why, after its triumph, the first class despoiled the vanquished of their wealth. They behaved as conquerors—like William the Conqueror, who, after the conquest of England, distributed the soil among his soldiers.
But although the bourgeoisie detested the nobility they had no hatred for royalty, and did not regard it as revocable. The maladdress of the king and his appeals to foreign powers only very gradually made him unpopular.
The first Assembly never dreamed of founding a republic. Extremely royalist, in fact, it thought simply to substitute a constitutional for an absolute monarchy. Only the consciousness of its increasing power exasperated it against the resistance of the king; but it dared not overthrow him.
3. Life under the Ancien Regime.
It is difficult to form a very clear idea of life under the ancien regime, and, above all, of the real situation of the peasants.
The writers who defend the Revolution as theologians defend religious dogmas draw such gloomy pictures of the existence of the peasants under the ancien regime that we ask ourselves how it was that all these unhappy creatures had not died of hunger long before. A good example of this style of writing may be found in a book by M. A. Rambaud, formerly professor at the Sorbonne, published under the title History of the French Revolution. One notices especially an engraving bearing the legend, Poverty of Peasants under Louis XIV. In the foreground a man is fighting some dogs for some bones, which for that matter are already quite fleshless. Beside him a wretched fellow is twisting himself and compressing his stomach. Farther back a woman lying on the ground is eating grass. At the back of the landscape figures of which one cannot say whether they are corpses or persons starving are also stretched on the soil. As an example of the administration of the ancien regime the same author assures us that "a place in the police cost 300 livres and brought in 400,000.'' Such figures surely indicate a great disinterestedness on the part of those who sold such productive employment! He also informs us "that it cost only 120 livres to get people arrested,'' and that "under Louis XV. more than 150,000 lettres de cachet were distributed.''
The majority of books dealing with the Revolution are conceived with as little impartiality and critical spirit, which is one reason why this period is really so little known to us.
Certainly there is no lack of documents, but they are absolutely contradictory. To the celebrated description of La Bruyere we may oppose the enthusiastic picture drawn by the English traveller Young of the prosperous condition of the peasants of some of the French provinces.
Were they really crushed by taxation, and did they, as has been stated, pay four-fifths of their revenue instead of a fifth as to-day? Impossible to say with certainty. One capital fact, however, seems to prove that under the ancien regime the situation of the inhabitants of the rural districts could not have been so very wretched, since it seems established that more than a third of the soil had been bought by peasants.
We are better informed as to the financial system. It was very oppressive and extremely complicated. The budgets usually showed deficits, and the imposts of all kinds were raised by tyrannical farmers-general. At the very moment of the Revolution this condition of the finances became the cause of universal discontent, which is expressed in the cahiers of the States General. Let us remark that these cahiers did not represent a previous state of affairs, but an actual condition due to a crisis of poverty produced by the bad harvest of 1788 and the hard winter of 1789. What would these cahiers have told us had they been written ten years earlier?
Despite these unfavourable circumstances the cahiers contained no revolutionary ideas. The most advanced merely asked that taxes should be imposed only with the consent of the States General and paid by all alike. The same cahiers sometimes expressed a wish that the power of the king should be limited by a Constitution defining his rights and those of the nation. If these wishes had been granted a constitutional monarchy could very easily have been substituted for the absolute monarchy, and the Revolution would probably have been avoided.
Unhappily, the nobility and the clergy were too strong and Louis XVI. too weak for such a solution to be possible.
Moreover, it would have been rendered extremely difficult by the demands of the bourgeoisie, who claimed to substitute themselves for the nobles, and were the real authors of the Revolution. The movement started by the middle classes rapidly exceeded their hopes, needs, and aspirations. They had claimed equality for their own profit, but the people also demanded equality. The Revolution thus finally became the popular government which it was not and had no intention of becoming at the outset.
4. Evolution of Monarchical Feeling during the Revolution.
Despite the slow evolution of the affective elements, it is certain that during the Revolution the sentiments, not of the people only, but also of the revolutionary Assemblies with regard to the monarchy, underwent a very rapid change. Between the moment when the legislators of the first Assembly surrounded Louis XVI. with respect and the moment when his head was cut off a very few years had elapsed.
These changes, superficial rather than profound, were in reality a mere transposition of sentiments of the same order. The love which the men of this period professed for the king was transferred to the new Government which had inherited his power. The mechanism of such a transfer may easily be demonstrated.
Under the ancien regime, the sovereign, holding his power by Divine right, was for this reason invested with a kind of supernatural power. His people looked up to him from every corner of the country.
This mystic belief in the absolute power of royalty was shattered only when repeated experience proved that the power attributed to the adored being was fictitious. He then lost his prestige. Now, when prestige is lost the crowd will not forgive the fallen idol for deluding them, and seek anew the idol without which they cannot exist.
From the outset of the Revolution numerous facts, which were daily repeated, revealed to the most fervent believers the fact that royalty no longer possessed any power, and that there were other powers capable, not only of contending with royalty, but possessed of superior force.
What, for instance, was thought of the royal power by the multitudes who saw the king held in check by the Assembly, and incapable, in the heart of Paris, of defending his strongest fortress against the attacks of armed bands?
The royal weakness thus being obvious, the power of the Assembly was increasing. Now, in the eyes of the crowd weakness has no prestige; it turns always to force.
In the Assemblies feeling was very fluid, but did not evolve very rapidly, for which reason the monarchical faith survived the taking of the Bastille the flight of the king, and his understanding with foreign sovereigns.
The royalist faith was still so powerful that the Parisian riots and the events which led to the execution of Louis XVI. were not enough finally to destroy, in the provinces, the species of secular piety which enveloped the old monarchy.
 As an instance of the depth of this hereditary love of the people for its kings, Michelet relates the following fact, which occurred in the reign of Louis XV.: "When it was known in Paris that Louis XV., who had left for the army, was detained ill at Metz, it was night. People got up and ran tumultuously hither and thither without knowing where they were going; the churches were opened in the middle of the night . . . people assembled at every cross-road, jostling and questioning one another without knowing what they were after. In several churches the priest who was reciting the prayer for the king's health was stopped by his tears, and the people replied by sobs and cries. . . . The courier who brought the news of his convalescence was embraced and almost stifled; people kissed his horse, and led him in triumph. . . . Every street resounded with a cry of joy: 'The king is healed.' ''
It persisted in a great part of France during the whole of the Revolution, and was the origin of the royalist conspiracies and insurrections in various departments which the Convention had such trouble to suppress. The royalist faith had disappeared in Paris, where the weakness of the king was too plainly visible; but in the provinces the royal power, representing God on earth, still retained its prestige.
The royalist sentiments of the people must have been deeply rooted to survive the guillotine. The royalist movements persisted, indeed, during the whole of the Revolution, and were accentuated under the Directory, when forty-nine departments sent royalist deputies to Paris, which provoked the Directory to the coup d'etat of Fructidor.
This monarchical-feeling, with difficulty repressed by the Revolution, contributed to the success of Bonaparte when he came to occupy the throne of the ancient kings, and in great measure to re-establish the ancien regime.
MENTAL ANARCHY AT THE TIME OF THE REVOLUTION AND THE INFLUENCE ATTRIBUTED TO THE PHILOSOPHERS
1. Origin and Propagation of Revolutionary Ideas.
The outward life of men in every age is moulded upon an inward life consisting of a framework of traditions, sentiments, and moral influences which direct their conduct and maintain certain fundamental notions which they accept without discussion.
Let the resistance of this social framework weaken, and ideas which could have had no force before will germinate and develop. Certain theories whose success was enormous at the time of the Revolution would have encountered an impregnable wall two centuries earlier.
The aim of these considerations is to recall to the reader the fact that the outward events of revolutions are always a consequence of invisible transformations which have slowly gone forward in men's minds. Any profound study of a revolution necessitates a study of the mental soil upon which the ideas that direct its course have to germinate.
Generally slow in the extreme, the evolution of ideas is often invisible for a whole generation. Its extent can only be grasped by comparing the mental condition of the same social classes at the two extremities of the curve which the mind has followed. To realise the different conceptions of royalty entertained by educated men under Louis XIV. and Louis XVI., we must compare the political theories of Bossuet and Turgot.
Bossuet expressed the general conceptions of his time concerning the absolute monarchy when he based the authority of a Government upon the will of God, "sole judge of the actions of kings, always irresponsible before men.'' Religious faith was then as strong as the monarchical faith from which it seemed inseparable, and no philosopher could have shaken it.
The writings of the reforming ministers of Louis XVI., those of Turgot, for instance, are animated by quite another spirit. Of the Divine right of kings there is hardly a word, and the rights of the peoples begin to be clearly defined.
Many events had contributed to prepare for such an evolution— unfortunate wars, famines, imposts, general poverty at the end of the reign of Louis XV., &c. Slowly destroyed, respect for monarchical authority was replaced by a mental revolt which was ready to manifest itself as soon as occasion should arise.
When once the mental framework commences to crumble the end comes rapidly. This is why at the time of the Revolution ideas were so quickly propagated which were by no means new, but which until then had exerted no influence, as they had not fallen on fruitful ground.
Yet the ideas which were then so attractive and effectual had often been expressed. For a long time they had inspired the politics of England. Two thousand years earlier the Greek and Latin authors had written in defence of liberty, had cursed tyrants, and proclaimed the rights of popular sovereignty.
The middle classes who effected the Revolution, although, like their fathers, they had learned all these things in text-books, were not in any degree moved by them, because the moment when such ideas could move them had not arrived. How should the people have been impressed by them at a time when all men were accustomed to regard all hierarchies as natural necessities?
The actual influence of the philosophers in the genesis of the Revolution was not that which was attributed to them. They revealed nothing new, but they developed the critical spirit which no dogma can resist once the way is prepared for its downfall.
Under the influence of this developing critical spirit things which were no longer very greatly respected came to be respected less and less. When tradition and prestige had disappeared the social edifice suddenly fell.
This progressive disaggregation finally descended to the people, but was not commenced by the people. The people follows examples, but never sets them.
The philosophers, who could not have exerted any influence over the people, did exert a great influence over the enlightened portion of the nation. The unemployed nobility, who had long been ousted from their old functions, and who were consequently inclined to be censorious, followed their leadership. Incapable of foresight, the nobles were the first to break with the traditions that were their only raison d'etre. As steeped in humanitarianism and rationalism as the bourgeoisie of to- day, they continually sapped their own privileges by their criticisms. As to-day, the most ardent reformers were found among the favourites of fortune. The aristocracy encouraged dissertations on the social contract, the rights of man, and the equality of citizens. At the theatre it applauded plays which criticised privileges, the arbitrariness and the incapacity of men in high places, and abuses of all kinds.
As soon as men lose confidence in the foundations of the mental framework which guides their conduct they feel at first uneasy and then discontented. All classes felt their old motives of action gradually disappearing. Things that had seemed sacred for centuries were now sacred no longer.
The censorious spirit of the nobility and of the writers of the day would not have sufficed to move the heavy load of tradition, but that its action was added to that of other powerful influences. We have already stated, in citing Bossuet, that under the ancien regime the religious and civil governments, widely separated in our days, were intimately connected. To injure one was inevitably to injure the other. Now, even before the monarchical idea was shaken the force of religious tradition was greatly diminished among cultivated men. The constant progress of knowledge had sent an increasing number of minds from theology to science by opposing the truth observed to the truth revealed.
This mental evolution, although as yet very vague, was sufficient to show that the traditions which for so many centuries had guided men had not the value which had been attributed to them, and that it would soon be necessary to replace them.
But where discover the new elements which might; take the place of tradition? Where seek the magic ring which would raise a new social edifice on the remains of that which no longer contented men?
Men were agreed in attributing to reason the power that tradition and the gods seemed to have lost. How could its force be doubted? Its discoveries having been innumerable, was it not legitimate to suppose that by applying it to the construction of societies it would entirely transform them? Its possible function increased very rapidly in the thoughts of the more enlightened, in proportion as tradition seemed more and more to be distrusted.
The sovereign power attributed to reason must be regarded as the culminating idea which not only engendered the Revolution but governed it throughout. During the whole Revolution men gave themselves up to the most persevering efforts to break with the past, and to erect society upon a new plan dictated by logic.
Slowly filtering downward, the rationalistic theories of the philosophers meant to the people simply that all the things which had been regarded as worthy of respect were now no longer worthy.
Men being declared equal, the old masters need no longer be obeyed.
The multitude easily succeeded in ceasing to respect what the upper classes themselves no longer respected. When the barrier of respect was down the Revolution was accomplished.
The first result of this new mentality was a general insubordination. Mme. Vigee Lebrun relates that on the promenade at Longchamps men of the people leaped on the footboards of the carriages, saying, "Next year you will be behind and we shall be inside.''
The populace was not alone in manifesting insubordination and discontent. These sentiments were general on the eve of the Revolution. "The lesser clergy,'' says Taine, "are hostile to the prelates; the provincial gentry to the nobility of the court; the vassals to the seigneurs; the peasants to the townsmen,'' &c.
This state of mind, which had been communicated from the nobles and clergy to the people, also invaded the army. At the moment the States General were opened Necker said: "We are not sure of the troops.'' The officers were becoming humanitarian and philosophical. The soldiers, recruited from the lowest class of the population, did not philosophise, but they no longer obeyed.
In their feeble minds the ideas of equality meant simply the suppression of all leaders and masters, and therefore of all obedience. In 1790 more than twenty regiments threatened their officers, and sometimes, as at Nancy, threw them into prison.
The mental anarchy which, after spreading through all the classes of society, finally invaded the army was the principal cause of the disappearance of the ancien regime. "It was the defection of the army affected by the ideas of the Third Estate,'' wrote Rivarol, "that destroyed royalty.''
2. The supposed Influence of the Philosophers of the Eighteenth Century upon the Genesis of the Revolution—Their dislike of Democracy.
Although the philosophers who have been supposed the inspirers of the French Revolution did attack certain privileges and abuses, we must not for that reason regard them as partisans of popular government. Democracy, whose role in Greek history was familiar to them, was generally highly antipathetic to them. They were not ignorant of the destruction and violence which are its invariable accompaniments, and knew that in the time of Aristotle it was already defined as "a State in which everything, even the law, depends on the multitude set up as a tyrant and governed by a few declamatory speakers.''
Pierre Bayle, the true forerunner of Voltaire, recalled in the following terms the consequences of popular government in Athens:—
"If one considers this history, which displays at great length the tumult of the assemblies, the factions dividing the city, the seditious disturbing it, the most illustrious subjects persecuted, exiled, and punished by death at the will of a violent windbag, one would conclude that this people, which so prided itself on its liberty, was really the slave of a small number of caballers, whom they called demagogues, and who made it turn now in this direction, now in that, as their passions changed, almost as the sea heaps the waves now one way, now another, according to the winds which trouble it. You will seek in vain in Macedonia, which was a monarchy, for as many examples of tyranny as Athenian history will afford.''
Montesquieu had no greater admiration for the democracy. Having described the three forms of government—republican, monarchical, and despotic—he shows very clearly what popular government may lead to:—
"Men were free with laws; men would fain be free without them; what was a maxim is called severity; what was order is called hindrance. Formerly the welfare of individuals constituted the public wealth, but now the public wealth becomes the patrimony of individuals. The republic is spoil, and its strength is merely the power of a few citizens and the licence of all.''
". . . Little petty tyrants spring up who have all the vices of a single tyrant. Very soon what is left of liberty becomes untenable; a single tyrant arises, and the people loses all, even the advantages of corruption.
"Democracy has therefore two extremes to avoid; the extreme of the spirit of equality leads to the despotism of a single person, as the despotism of a single person leads to conquest.''
The ideal of Montesquieu was the English constitutional government, which prevented the monarchy from degenerating into despotism. Otherwise the influence of this philosopher at the moment of the Revolution was very slight.
As for the Encyclopaedists, to whom such a considerable role is attributed, they hardly dealt with politics, excepting d'Holbach, a liberal monarchist like Voltaire and Diderot. They wrote chiefly in defence of individual liberty, opposing the encroachments of the Church, at that time extremely intolerant and inimical to philosophers. Being neither Socialists nor democrats, the Revolution could not utilise any of their principles.
Voltaire himself was by no means a partisan of democracy.
"Democracy,'' he said, "seems only to suit a very small country, and even then it must be fortunately situated. Little as it may be, it will make many mistakes, because it will be composed of men. Discord will prevail there as in a convent full of monks; but there will be no St. Bartholomew's day, no Irish massacres, no Sicilian Vespers, no Inquisition, no condemnation to the galleys for having taken water from the sea without paying for it; unless we suppose this republic to be composed of devils in a corner of hell.''
All these men who are supposed to have inspired the Revolution had opinions which were far from subversive, and it is really difficult to see that they had any real influence on the development of the revolutionary movement. Rousseau was one of the very few democratic philosophers of his age, which is why his Contrat Social became the Bible of the men of the Terror. It seemed to furnish the rational justification necessary to excuse the acts deriving from unconscious mystic and affective impulses which no philosophy had inspired.
To be quite truthful, the democratic instincts of Rousseau were by no means above suspicion. He himself considered that his projects for social reorganisation, based upon popular sovereignty, could be applied only to a very small State; and when the Poles asked him for a draft democratic Constitution he advised them to choose a hereditary monarch.
Among the theories of Rousseau that relating to the perfection of the primitive social state had a great success. He asserted, together with various writers of his time, that primitive mankind was perfect; it was corrupted only by society. By modifying society by means of good laws one might bring back the happiness of the early world. Ignorant of all psychology, he believed that men were the same throughout time and space and that they could all be ruled by the same laws and institutions. This was then the general belief. "The vices and virtues of the people,'' wrote Helvetius, "are always a necessary effect of its legislation. . . . How can we doubt that virtue is in the case of all peoples the result of the wisdom, more or less perfect, of the administration?''
There could be no greater mistake.
3. The Philosophical Ideas of the Bourgeoisie at the Time of the Revolution.
It is by no means easy to say just what were the social and political conceptions of a Frenchman of the middle classes at the moment of the Revolution. They might be reduced to a few formulae concerning fraternity, equality, and popular government, summed up in the celebrated Declaration of the Rights of Man, of which we shall have occasion to quote a few passages.
The philosophers of the eighteenth century do not seem to have been very highly rated by the men of the Revolution. Rarely are they quoted in the speeches of the time. Hypnotised by their classical memories of Greece and Rome, the new legislators re- read their Plato and their Plutarch. They wished to revive the constitution of Sparta, with its manners, its frugal habits, and its laws.
Lycurgus, Solon, Miltiades, Manlius Torquatus, Brutus, Mucius Scaevola, even the fabulous Minos himself, became as familiar in the tribune as in the theatre, and the public went crazy over them. The shades of the heroes of antiquity hovered over the revolutionary assemblies. Posterity alone has replaced them by the shades of the philosophers of the eighteenth century.
We shall see that in reality the men of this period, generally represented as bold innovators guided by subtle philosophers, professed to effect no innovations whatever, but to return to a past long buried in the mists of history, and which, moreover, they scarcely ever in the least understood.
The more reasonable, who did not go so far back for their models, aimed merely at adopting the English constitutional system, of which Montesquieu and Voltaire had sung the praises, and which all nations were finally to imitate without violent crises.
Their ambitions were confined to a desire to perfect the existing monarchy, not to overthrow it. But in time of revolution men often take a very different path from that they propose to take. At the time of the convocation of the States General no one would ever have supposed that a revolution of peaceful bourgeoisie and men of letters would rapidly be transformed into one of the most sanguinary dictatorships of history.
PSYCHOLOGICAL ILLUSIONS RESPECTING THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
1. Illusions respecting Primitive Man, the Return to a State of Nature, and the Psychology of the People.
We have already repeated, and shall again repeat, that the errors of a doctrine do not hinder its propagation, so that all we have to consider here is its influence upon men's minds.
But although the criticism of erroneous doctrines is seldom of practical utility, it is extremely interesting from a psychological point of view. The philosopher who wishes to understand the working of men's minds should always carefully consider the illusions which they live with. Never, perhaps, in the course of history have these illusions appeared so profound and so numerous as during the Revolution.
One of the most prominent was the singular conception of the nature of our first ancestors and primitive societies. Anthropology not having as yet revealed the conditions of our remoter forbears, men supposed, being influenced by the legends of the Bible, that man had issued perfect from the hands of the Creator. The first societies were models which were afterwards ruined by civilisation, but to which mankind must return. The return to the state of nature was very soon the general cry. "The fundamental principle of all morality, of which I have treated in my writings,'' said Rousseau, "is that man is a being naturally good, loving justice and order.''
Modern science, by determining, from the surviving remnants, the conditions of life of our first ancestors, has long ago shown the error of this doctrine. Primitive man has become an ignorant and ferocious brute, as ignorant as the modern savage of goodness, morality, and pity. Governed only by his instinctive impulses, he throws himself on his prey when hunger drives him from his cave, and falls upon his enemy the moment he is aroused by hatred. Reason, not being born, could have no hold over his instincts.
The aim of civilisation, contrary to all revolutionary beliefs, has been not to return to the state of nature but to escape from it. It was precisely because the Jacobins led mankind back to the primitive condition by destroying all the social restraints without which no civilisation can exist that they transformed a political society into a barbarian horde.
The ideas of these theorists concerning the nature of man were about as valuable as those of a Roman general concerning the power of omens. Yet their influence as motives of action was considerable. The Convention was always inspired by such ideas.
The errors concerning our primitive ancestors were excusable enough, since before modern discoveries had shown us the real conditions of their existence these were absolutely unknown. But the absolute ignorance of human psychology displayed by the men of the Revolution is far less easy to understand.
It would really seem as though the philosophers and writers of the eighteenth century must have been totally deficient in the smallest faculty of observation. They lived amidst their contemporaries without seeing them and without understanding them. Above all, they had not a suspicion of the true nature of the popular mind. The man of the people always appeared to them in the likeness of the chimerical model created by their dreams. As ignorant of psychology as of the teachings of history, they considered the plebeian man as naturally good, affectionate, grateful, and always ready to listen to reason.
The speeches delivered by members of the Assembly show how profound were these illusions. When the peasants began to burn the chateaux they were greatly astonished, and addressed them in sentimental harangues, praying them to cease, in order not to "give pain to their good king,'' and adjured them "to surprise him by their virtues.''
2. Illusions respecting the Possibility of separating Man from his Past and the Power of Transformation attributed to the Law.
One of the principles which served as a foundation for the revolutionary institutions was that man may readily be cut off from his past, and that a society may be re-made in all its parts by means of institutions. Persuaded in the light of reason that, except for the primitive ages which were to serve as models, the past represented an inheritance of errors and superstitions, the legislators of the day resolved to break entirely with that past.
The better to emphasise their intention, they founded a new era, transformed the calendar, and changed the names of the months and seasons.
Supposing all men to be alike, they thought they could legislate for the human race. Condorcet imagined that he was expressing an evident truth when he said: "A good law must be good for all men, just as a geometrical proposition is true for all.''
The theorists of the Revolution never perceived, behind the world of visible things, the secret springs which moved them. A century of biological progress was needed to show how grievous were their mistakes, and how wholly a being of whatever species depends on its past.
With the influence of the past, the reformers of the Revolution were always clashing, without ever understanding it. They wanted to annihilate it, but were annihilated by it instead.
The faith of law-makers in the absolute power of laws and institutions, rudely shaken by the end of the Revolution, was absolute at its outbreak. Gregoire said from the tribune of the Constituent Assembly, without provoking the least astonishment: "We could if we would change religion, but we do not want to.'' We know that they did want to later, and we know how miserably their attempt failed.
Yet the Jacobins had in their hands all the elements of success. Thanks to the completest of tyrannies, all obstacles were removed, and the laws which it pleased them to impose were always accepted. After ten years of violence, of destruction and burning and pillage and massacre and general upheaval, their impotence was revealed so startlingly that they fell into universal reprobation. The dictator then invoked by the whole of France was obliged to re-establish the greater part of that which had been destroyed.
The attempt of the Jacobins to re-fashion society in the name of pure reason constitutes an experiment of the highest interest. Probably mankind will never have occasion to repeat it on so vast a scale.
Although the lesson was a terrible one, it does not seem to have been sufficient for a considerable class of minds, since even in our days we hear Socialists propose to rebuild society from top to bottom according to their chimerical plans.
3. Illusions respecting the Theoretical Value of the great Revolutionary Principles.
The fundamental principles on which the Revolution was based in order to create a new dispensation are contained in the Declarations of Rights which were formulated successively in 1789, 1793, and 1795. All three Declarations agree in proclaiming that "the principle of sovereignty resides in the nation.''
For the rest, the three Declarations differ on several points, notably in the matter of equality. That of 1789 simply states (Article 1): "Men are born and remain free and having equal rights.'' That of 1793 goes farther, and assures us (Article 3):
"All men are equal by nature.'' That of 1795 is more modest and says (Article 3): "Equality consists in the law being the same for all.'' Besides this, having mentioned rights, the third Declaration considers it useful to speak of duties. Its morality is simply that of the Gospel. Article 2 says: "All the duties of a man and a citizen derive from these two principles engraved on all hearts by nature: do not do unto others that which you would not they should do unto you; do constantly unto others the good you would wish to receive from them.''
The essential portions of these proclamations, the only portions which have really survived, were those relating to equality and popular sovereignty.
Despite the weakness of its rational meaning, the part played by the Republican device, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, was considerable.
This magic formula, which is still left engraven on many of our walls until it shall be engraven on our hearts, has really possessed the supernatural power attributed to certain words by the old sorcerers.
Thanks to the new hopes excited by its promises, its power of expansion was considerable. Thousands of men lost their lives for it. Even in our days, when a revolution breaks out in any part of the world, the same formula is always invoked.
Its choice was happy in the extreme. It belongs to the category of indefinite dream-evoking sentences, which every one is free to interpret according to his own desires, hatreds, and hopes. In matters of faith the real sense of words matters very little; it is the meaning attached to them that makes their importance.
Of the three principles of the revolutionary device, equality was most fruitful of consequences. We shall see in another part of this book that it is almost the only one which still survives, and is still productive of effects.
It was certainly not the Revolution that introduced the idea of equality into the world. Without going back even to the Greek republics, we may remark that the theory of equality was taught in the clearest fashion by Christianity and Islamism. All men, subjects of the one God, were equal before Him, and judged solely according to their merits. The dogma of the equality of souls before God was an essential dogma with Mohammedans as well as with Christians.
But to proclaim a principle is not enough to secure its observation. The Christian Church soon renounced its theoretical equality, and the men of the Revolution only remembered it in their speeches.
The sense of the term "equality'' varies according to the persons using it. It often conceals sentiments very contrary to its real sense, and then represents the imperious need of having no one above one, joined to the no less lively desire to feel above others. With the Jacobins of the Revolution, as with those of our days, the word "equality'' simply involves a jealous hatred of all superiority. To efface superiority, such men pretend to unify manners, customs, and situations. All despotisms but that exercised by themselves seem odious.
Not being able to avoid the natural inequalities, they deny them.
The second Declaration of Rights, that of 1793, affirms, contrary to the evidence, that "all men are equal by nature.''
It would seem that in many of the men of the Revolution the ardent desire for equality merely concealed an intense need of inequalities. Napoleon was obliged to re-establish titles of nobility and decorations for their benefit. Having shown that it was among the most rabid revolutionists that he found the most docile instruments of domination, Taine continues:—
"Suddenly, through all their preaching of liberty and equality, appeared their authoritative instincts, their need of commanding, even as subordinates, and also, in most cases, an appetite for money or for pleasure. Between the delegate of the Committee of Public Safety and the minister, prefect, or subprefect of the Empire the difference is small: it is the same man under the two costumes, first en carmagnole, then in the braided coat.''
The dogma of equality had as its first consequence the proclamation of popular sovereignty by the bourgeoisie. This sovereignty remained otherwise highly theoretical during the whole Revolution.
The principle of authority was the lasting legacy of the Revolution. The two terms "liberty'' and "fraternity'' which accompany it in the republican device had never much influence. We may even say that they had none during the Revolution and the Empire, but merely served to decorate men's speeches.
Their influence was hardly more considerable later. Fraternity was never practised and the peoples have never cared much for liberty. To-day our working-men have completely surrendered it to their unions.
To sum up: although the Republican motto has been little applied it has exerted a very great influence. Of the French Revolution practically nothing has remained in the popular mind but the three celebrated words which sum up its gospel, and which its armies spread over Europe.
THE RATIONAL, AFFECTIVE, MYSTIC, AND COLLECTIVE INFLUENCES ACTIVE DURING THE REVOLUTION
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY
1. Psychological Influences active during the French Revolution.
The genesis of the French Revolution, as well as its duration, was conditioned by elements of a rational, affective, mystic, and collective nature, each category of which was ruled by a different logic. It is, as I have said, because they have not been able to dissociate the respective influences of these factors that so many historians have interpreted this period so indifferently
The rational element usually invoked as an explanation exerted in reality but a very slight influence. It prepared the way for the Revolution, but maintained it only at the outset, while it was still exclusively middle-class. Its action was manifested by many measures of the time, such as the proposals to reform the taxes, the suppression of the privileges of a useless nobility, &c.
As soon as the Revolution reached the people, the influence of the rational elements speedily vanished before that of the affective and collective elements. As for the mystic elements, the foundation of the revolutionary faith, they made the army fanatical and propagated the new belief throughout the world.
We shall see these various elements as they appeared in events and in the psychology of individuals. Perhaps the most important was the mystic element. The Revolution cannot be clearly comprehended—we cannot repeat it too often—unless it is considered as the formation of a religious belief. What I have said elsewhere of all beliefs applies equally to the Revolution. Referring, for instance, to the chapter on the Reformation, the reader will see that it presents more than one analogy with the Revolution.
Having wasted so much time in demonstrating the slight rational value of beliefs, the philosophers are to-day beginning to understand their function better. They have been forced to admit that these are the only factors which possess an influence sufficient to transform all the elements of a civilisation.
They impose themselves on men apart from reason and have the power to polarise men's thoughts and feelings in one direction. Pure reason had never such a power, for men were never impassioned by reason.
The religious form rapidly assumed by the Revolution explains its power of expansion and the prestige which it possessed and has retained.
Few historians have understood that this great monument ought to be regarded as the foundation of a new religion. The penetrating mind of Tocqueville, I believe, was the first to perceive as much.
"The French Revolution,'' he wrote, "was a political revolution which operated in the manner of and assumed something of the aspect of a religious revolution. See by what regular and characteristic traits it finally resembled the latter: not only did it spread itself far and wide like a religious revolution, but, like the latter, it spread itself by means of preaching and propaganda. A political revolution which inspires proselytes, which is preached as passionately to foreigners as it is accomplished at home: consider what a novel spectacle was this.''
The religious side of the Revolution being granted, the accompanying fury and devastation are easily explained. History shows us that such are always the accompaniments of the birth of religions. The Revolution was therefore certain to provoke the violence and intolerance the triumphant deities demand from their adepts. It overturned all Europe for twenty years, ruined France, caused the death of millions of men, and cost the country several invasions: but it is as a rule only at the cost of such catastrophes that a people can change its beliefs.
Although the mystic element is always the foundation of beliefs, certain affective and rational elements are quickly added thereto. A belief thus serves to group sentiments and passions and interests which belong to the affective domain. Reason then envelops the whole, seeking to justify events in which, however, it played no part whatever.
At the moment of the Revolution every one, according to his aspirations, dressed the new belief in a different rational vesture. The peoples saw in it only the suppression of the religious and political despotisms and hierarchies under which they had so often suffered. Writers like Goethe and thinkers like Kant imagined that they saw in it the triumph of reason. Foreigners like Humboldt came to France "to breathe the air of liberty and to assist at the obsequies of despotism.''
These intellectual illusions did not last long. The evolution of the drama soon revealed the true foundations of the dream.
2. Dissolution of the Ancien Regime. The assembling of the States General.
Before they are realised in action, revolutions are sketched out in men's thoughts. Prepared by the causes already studied, the French Revolution commenced in reality with the reign of Louis XVI. More discontented and censorious every day, the middle classes added claim to claim. Everybody was calling for reform.
Louis XVI. thoroughly understood the utility of reform, but he was too weak to impose it on the clergy and the nobility. He could not even retain his reforming ministers, Malesherbes and Turgot. What with famines and increased taxation, the poverty of all classes increased, and the huge pensions drawn by the Court formed a shocking contrast to the general distress.
The notables convoked to attempt to remedy the financial situation refused a system of equal taxation, and granted only insignificant reforms which the Parliament did not even consent to register. It had to be dissolved. The provincial Parliaments made common cause with that of Paris, and were also dissolved. But they led opinion, and in all parts of France promoted the demand for a meeting of the States General, which had not been convoked for nearly two hundred years.
The decision was taken: 5,000,000 Frenchmen, of whom 100,000 were ecclesiastics and 150,000 nobles, sent their representatives. There were in all 1,200 deputies, of whom 578 were of the Third Estate, consisting chiefly of magistrates, advocates, and physicians. Of the 300 deputies of the clergy, 200, of plebeian origin, threw in their lot with the Third Estate against the nobility and clergy.
From the first sessions a psychological conflict broke out between the deputies of different social conditions and (therefore) different mentalities. The magnificent costumes of the privileged deputies contrasted in a humiliating fashion with the sombre fashions of the Third Estate.
At the first session the members of the nobility and the clergy were covered, according to the prerogatives of their class, before the king. Those of the Third Estate wished to imitate them, but the privileged members protested. On the following day more protests of wounded self-love were heard. The deputies of the Third Estate invited those of the nobility and the clergy who were sitting in separate halls to join them for the verification of their powers. The nobles refused. The negotiations lasted more than a month. Finally, the deputies of the Third Estate, on the proposition of the Abbe Sieyes, considering that they represented 95 per cent. of the nation, declared themselves constituted as a National Assembly. From that moment the Revolution pursued its course.
3. The Constituent Assembly.
The power of a political assembly resides, above all, in the weakness of its adversaries. Astonished by the slight resistance encountered, and carried away by the ascendancy of a handful of orators, the Constituent Assembly, from its earliest sessions, spoke and acted as a sovereign body. Notably it arrogated to itself the power of decreeing imposts, a serious encroachment upon the prerogatives of the royal power.
The resistance of Louis XVI. was feeble enough. He simply had the hall in which the States assembled closed. The deputies then met in the hall of the tennis-court, and took the oath that they would not separate until the Constitution of the kingdom was an established fact.
The majority of the deputies of the clergy went with them. The king revoked the decision of the Assembly, and ordered the deputies to retire. The Marquis de Dreux-Breze, the Grand Master of Ceremonies, having invited them to obey the order of the sovereign, the President of the Assembly declared "that the nation assembled cannot receive orders,'' and Mirabeau replied to the envoy of the sovereign that, being united by the will of the people, the Assembly would only withdraw at the point of the bayonet. Again the king gave way.
On the 9th of June the meeting of deputies took the title of the Constituent Assembly. For the first time in centuries the king was forced to recognise the existence of a new power, formerly ignored—that of the people, represented by its elected representatives. The absolute monarchy was no more.
Feeling himself more and more seriously threatened, Louis XVI. summoned to Versailles a number of regiments composed of foreign mercenaries. The Assembly demanded the withdrawal of the troops.
The king refused, and dismissed Necker, replacing him by the Marshal de Broglie, reputed to be an extremely authoritative person.
But the Assembly had able supporters. Camille Desmoulins and others harangued the crowd in all directions, calling it to the defence of liberty. They sounded the tocsin, organised a militia of 12,000 men, took muskets and cannon from the Invalides, and on the 14th of July the armed bands marched upon the Bastille. The fortress, barely defended, capitulated in a few hours. Seven prisoners were found within it, of whom one was an idiot and four were accused of forgery.
The Bastille, the prison of many victims of arbitrary power, symbolised the royal power to many minds; but the people who demolished it had not suffered by it. Scarcely any but members of the nobility were imprisoned there.
The influence exercised by the taking of this fortress has continued to our days. Serious historians like M. Rambaud assure us that "the taking of the Bastille is a culminating fact in the history, not of France only but of all Europe, and inaugurates a new epoch in the history of the world.''
Such credulity is a little excessive. The importance of the event lay simply in the psychological fact that for the first time the people received an obvious proof of the weakness of an authority which had lately been formidable.
When the principle of authority is injured in the public mind it dissolves very rapidly. What might not one demand of a king who could not defend his principal fortress against popular attacks? The master regarded as all-powerful had ceased to be so.
The taking of the Bastille was the beginning of one of those phenomena of mental contagion which abound in the history of the Revolution. The foreign mercenary troops, although they could scarcely be interested in the movement, began to show symptoms of mutiny. Louis XVI. was reduced to accepting their disbandment. He recalled Necker, went to the Hotel de Ville, sanctioned by his presence the accomplished facts, and accepted from La Fayette, commandant of the National Guard, the new cockade of red, white, and blue which allied the colours of Paris to those of the king.
Although the riot which ended in the taking of the Bastille can by no means be regarded as "a culminating fact in history,'' it does mark the precise moment of the commencement of popular government. The armed people thenceforth intervened daily in the deliberations of the revolutionary Assemblies, and seriously influenced their conduct.
This intervention of the people in conformity with the dogma of its sovereignty has provoked the respectful admiration of many historians of the Revolution. Even a superficial study of the psychology of crowds would speedily have shown them that the mystic entity which they call the people was merely translating the will of a few leaders. It is not correct to say that the people took the Bastille, attacked the Tuileries, invaded the Convention, &c., but that certain leaders—generally by means of the clubs—united armed bands of the populace, which they led against the Bastille, the Tuileries, &c. During the Revolution the same crowds attacked or defended the most contrary parties, according to the leaders who happened to be at their heads. A crowd never has any opinion but that of its leaders.
Example constituting one of the most potent forms of suggestion, the taking of the Bastille was inevitably followed by the destruction of other fortresses. Many chateaux were regarded as so many little Bastilles, and in order to imitate the Parisians who had destroyed theirs the peasants began to burn them. They did so with the greater fury because the seigneurial homes contained the titles of feudal dues. It was a species of Jacquerie.
The Constituent Assembly, so proud and haughty towards the king, was, like all the revolutionary assemblies which followed it, extremely pusillanimous before the people.
Hoping to put an end to the disorders of the night of August 4th, it voted, on the proposition of a member of the nobility, the Comte de Noailles, the abolition of seigneurial rights. Although this measure suppressed at one stroke the privileges of the nobles, it was voted with tears and embracings. Such accesses of sentimental enthusiasm are readily explained when we recall how contagious emotion is in a crowd, above all in an assembly oppressed by fear.
If the renunciation of their rights had been effected by the nobility a few years earlier, the Revolution would doubtless have been avoided, but it was now too late. To give way only when one is forced to do so merely increases the demands of those to whom one yields. In politics one should always look ahead and give way long before one is forced to do so.
Louis XVI. hesitated for two months to ratify the decisions voted by the Assembly on the night of the 4th of August. He had retired to Versailles. The leaders sent thither a band of 7,000 or 8,000 men and women of the people, assuring them that the royal residence contained great stores of bread. The railings of the palace were forced, some of the bodyguard were killed, and the king and all his family were led back to Paris in the midst of a shrieking crowd, many of whom bore on the ends of their pikes the heads of the soldiers massacred. The dreadful journey lasted six hours. These events constituted what are known as the "days'' of October.
The popular power increased, and in reality the king, like the whole assembly, was henceforth in the hands of the people—that is, at the mercy of the clubs and their leaders. This popular power was to prevail for nearly ten years, and the Revolution was to be almost entirely its work.
While proclaiming that the people constituted the only sovereign, the Assembly was greatly embarrassed by riots which went far beyond its theoretical expectations. It had supposed that order would be restored while it fabricated a Constitution destined to assure the eternal happiness of mankind.
We know that during the whole duration of the Revolution one of the chief occupations of the assemblies was to make, unmake, and remake Constitutions. The theorists attributed to them then, as they do to-day, the power of transforming society; the Assembly, therefore, could not neglect its task. In the meantime it published a solemn Declaration of the Rights of Man which summarised its principles.
The Constitution, proclamations, declarations, and speeches had not the slightest effect on the popular movements, nor on the dissentients who daily increased in number in the heart of the Assembly. The latter became more and more subjected to the ascendancy of the advanced party, which was supported by the clubs. Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and later Marat and Hebert, violently excited the populace by their harangues and their journals. The Assembly was rapidly going down the slope that leads to extremes.
During all these disorders the finances of the country were not improving. Finally convinced that philanthropic speeches would not alter their lamentable condition, and seeing that bankruptcy threatened, the Assembly decreed, on the 2nd of November, 1789, the confiscation of the goods of the Church. Their revenues, consisting of the tithes collected from the faithful, amounted to some L8,000,000, and their value was estimated at about L120,000,000. They were divided among some hundreds of prelates, Court abbes, &c., who owned a quarter of all France. These goods, henceforth entitled is "national domains,'' formed the guarantee of the assignats, the first issue of which was for 400,000,000 francs (L16,000,000 sterling). The public accepted them at the outset, but they multiplied so under the Directory and the Convention, which issued 45,000,000,000 francs in this form (L1,800,000,000 sterling), that an assignat of 100 livres was finally worth only a few halfpence.
Stimulated by his advisers, the feeble Louis attempted in vain to struggle against the decrees of the Assembly by refusing to sanction them.
Under the influence of the daily suggestions of the leaders and the power of mental contagion the revolutionary movement was spreading everywhere independently of the Assembly and often even against it.
In the towns and villages revolutionary municipalities were instituted, protected by the local National Guards. Those of neighbouring towns commenced to make mutual arrangements to defend themselves should need arise. Thus federations were formed, which were soon rolled into one; this sent 14,000 National Guards to Paris, who assembled on the Champ-de-Mars on the 14th of July, 1790. There the king swore to maintain the Constitution decreed by the National Assembly.
Despite this vain oath it became more evident every day that no agreement was possible between the hereditary principles of the monarchy and those proclaimed by the Assembly.
Feeling himself completely powerless, the king thought only of flight. Arrested at Varennes and brought back a prisoner to Paris, he was shut up in the Tuileries. The Assembly, although still extremely royalist, suspended him from power, and decided to assume the sole charge of the government.
Never did sovereign find himself in a position so difficult as that of Louis at the time of his flight. The genius of a Richelieu would hardly have extricated him. The only element of defence on which he could have relied had from the beginning absolutely failed him.
During the whole duration of the Constituent Assembly the immense majority of Frenchmen and of the Assembly remained royalist, so that had the sovereign accepted a liberal monarchy he could perhaps have remained in power. It would seem that Louis had little to promise in order to come to an agreement with the Assembly.
Little, perhaps, but with his structure of mind that little was strictly impossible. All the shades of his forbears would have risen up in front of him had he consented to modify the mechanism of the monarchy inherited from so many ancestors. And even had he attempted to do so, the opposition of his family, the clergy, the nobles, and the Court could never have been surmounted. The ancient castes on which the monarchy rested, the nobility and the clergy, were then almost as powerful as the monarch himself. Every time it seemed as though he might yield to the injunctions of the Assembly it was because he was constrained to do so by force, and to attempt to gain time. His appeals to alien Powers represented the resolution of a desperate man who had seen all his natural defences fail him.
He, and especially the queen, entertained the strangest illusions as to the possible assistance of Austria, for centuries the rival of France. If Austria indolently consented to come to his aid, it was only in the hope of receiving a great reward. Mercy gave him to understand that the payment expected consisted of Alsace, the Alps, and Navarre.
The leaders of the clubs, finding the Assembly too royalist, sent the people against it. A petition was signed, inviting the Assembly to convoke a new constituent power to proceed to the trial of Louis XVI.
Monarchical in spite of all, and finding that the Revolution was assuming a character far too demagogic, the Assembly resolved to defend itself against the actions of the people. A battalion of the National Guard, commanded by La Fayette, was sent to the Champ-de-Mars, where the crowd was assembled, to disperse it. Fifty of those present were killed.
The Assembly did not long persist in its feeble resistance. Extremely fearful of the people, it increased its arrogance towards the king, depriving him every day of some part of his prerogatives and authority. He was now scarcely more than a mere official obliged to execute the wishes of others.
The Assembly had imagined that it would be able to exercise the authority of which it had deprived the king, but such a task was infinitely above its resources. A power so divided is always weak. "I know nothing more terrible,'' said Mirabeau, "than the sovereign authority of six hundred persons.''
Having flattered itself that it could combine in itself all the powers of the State, and exercise them as Louis XVI. had done, the Assembly very soon exercised none whatever.
As its authority failed anarchy increased. The popular leaders continually stirred up the people. Riot and insurrection became the sole power. Every day the Assembly was invaded by rowdy and imperious delegations which operated by means of threats and demands.
All these popular movements, which the Assembly, under the stress of fear, invariably obeyed, had nothing spontaneous about them. They simply represented the manifestations of new powers—the clubs and the Commune—which had been set up beside the Assembly.
The most powerful of these clubs was the Jacobin, which had quickly created more than five hundred branches in the country, all of which were under the orders of the central body. Its influence remained preponderant during the whole duration of the Revolution. It was the master of the Assembly, and then of France, its only rival the insurrectionary Commune, whose power was exercised only in Paris.
The weakness of the national Assembly and all its failures had made it extremely unpopular. It became conscious of this, and, feeling that it was every day more powerless, decided to hasten the creation of the new Constitution in order that it might dissolve. Its last action, which was tactless enough, was to decree that no member of the Constituent Assembly should be elected to the Legislative Assembly. The members of the latter were thus deprived of the experience acquired by their predecessors.
The Constitution was completed on the 3rd of September, 1791, and accepted on the 13th by the king, to whom the Assembly had restored his powers.
This Constitution organised a representative Government, delegating the legislative power to deputies elected by the people, and the executive power to the king, whose right of veto over the decrees of the Assembly was recognised. New departmental divisions were substituted for the old provinces. The imposts were abolished, and replaced by direct and indirect taxes, which are still in force.
The Assembly, which had just altered the territorial divisions and overthrown all the old social organisation, thought itself powerful enough to transform the religious organisation of the country also. It claimed notably that the members of the clergy should be elected by the people, and should be thus withdrawn from the influence of their supreme head, the Pope.
This civil constitution of the clergy was the origin of religious struggles and persecutions which lasted until the days of the Consulate. Two-thirds of the priests refused the oath demanded of them.
During the three years which represented the life of the Constituent Assembly the Revolution had produced considerable results. The principal result was perhaps the beginning of the transference to the Third Estate of the riches of the privileged classes. In this way while interests were created to be defended fervent adherents were raised up to the new regime. A Revolution supported by the gratification of acquired appetites is bound to be powerful. The Third Estate, which had supplanted the nobles, and the peasants, who had bought the national domains, would readily understand that the restoration of the ancien regime would despoil them of all their advantages. The energetic defence of the Revolution was merely the defence of their own fortunes.
This is why we see, during part of the Revolution, nearly half the departments vainly rising against the despotism that crushed them. The Republicans triumphed over all opposition. They were extremely powerful in that they had to defend, not only a new ideal, but new material interests. We shall see that the influence of these two factors lasted during the whole of the Revolution, and contributed powerfully to the establishment of the Empire.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY
1. Political Events during the Life of the Legislative Assembly.
Before examining the mental characteristics of the Legislative Assembly let us briefly sum up the considerable political events which marked its short year's life. They naturally played an important part in respect of its psychological manifestations.
Extremely monarchical, the Legislative Assembly had no more idea than its predecessor of destroying the monarchy. The king appeared to it to be slightly suspect, but it still hoped to be able to retain him on the throne.
Unhappily for him, Louis was incessantly begging for intervention from abroad. Shut up in the Tuileries, defended only by his Swiss Guards, the timid sovereign was drifting among contrary influences. He subsidised journals intended to modify public opinion, but the obscure "penny-a-liners'' who edited them knew nothing of acting on the mind of the crowd. Their only means of persuasion was to menace with the gallows all the partisans of the Revolution, and to predict the invasion of France by an army which would rescue the king.
Royalty no longer counted on anything but the foreign Courts. The nobles were emigrating. Prussia, Austria, and Russia were threatening France with a war of invasion. The Court favoured their lead. To the coalition of the three kings against France the Jacobin Club proposed to oppose a league of peoples. The Girondists were then, with the Jacobins, at the head of the revolutionary movement. They incited the masses to arm themselves—600,000 volunteers were equipped. The Court accepted a Girondist minister. Dominated by him, Louis XVI. was obliged to propose to the Assembly a war against Austria. It was immediately agreed to.
In declaring war the king was not sincere. The queen revealed the French plans of campaign and the secret deliberations of the Council to the Austrians.
The beginnings of the struggle were disastrous. Several columns of troops, attacked by panic, disbanded. Stimulated by the clubs, and persuaded—justly, for that matter—that the king was conspiring with the enemies of France, the population of the faubourgs rose in insurrection. Its leaders, the Jacobins, and above all Danton, sent to the Tuileries on the 20th of June a petition threatening the king with revocation. It then invaded the Tuileries, heaping invectives on the sovereign.
Fatality impelled Louis toward his tragic destiny. While the threats of the Jacobins against royalty had roused many of the departments to indignation, it was learned that a Prussian army had arrived on the frontiers of Lorraine.
The hope of the king and queen respecting the help to be obtained from abroad was highly chimerical. Marie-Antoinette suffered from an absolute illusion as to the psychology of the Austrian and the French peoples. Seeing France terrorised by a few energumens, she supposed that it would be equally easy to terrify the Parisians, and by means of threats to lead them back under the king's authority. Inspired by her, Fersen undertook to publish the manifesto of the Duke of Brunswick, threatening Paris with "total subversion if the royal family were molested.''
The effect produced was diametrically opposite to that intended. The manifesto aroused indignation against the monarch, who was regarded as an accomplice, and increased his unpopularity. From that day he was marked for the scaffold.
Carried away by Danton, the delegates of the sections installed themselves at the Hotel de Ville as an insurrectionary Commune, which arrested the commandant of the National Guard, who was devoted to the king, sounded the tocsin, equipped the National Guard, and on the 10th of August hurled them, with the populace, against the Tuileries. The regiments called in by Louis disbanded themselves. Soon none were left to defend him but his Swiss and a few gentlemen. Nearly all were killed. Left alone, the king took refuge with the Assembly. The crowds demanded his denouncement. The Legislative Assembly decreed his suspension and left a future Assembly, the Convention, to decide upon his fate.
2. Mental Characteristics of the Legislative Assembly.
The Legislative Assembly, formed of new men, presented quite a special interest from the psychological point of view. Few assemblies have offered in such a degree the characteristics of the political collectivity.
It comprised seven hundred and fifty deputies, divided into pure royalists, constitutional royalists, republicans, Girondists, and Montagnards. Advocates and men of letters formed the majority. It also contained, but in smaller numbers, superior officers, priests, and a very few scientists.
The philosophical conceptions of the members of this Assembly seem rudimentary enough. Many were imbued with Rousseau's idea of a return to a state of nature. But all, like their predecessors, were dominated more especially by recollections of Greek and Latin antiquity. Cato, Brutus, Gracchus, Plutarch, Marcus Aurelius, and Plato, continually evoked, furnished the images of their speech. When the orator wished to insult Louis XVI. he called him Caligula.
In hoping to destroy tradition they were revolutionaries, but in claiming to return to a remote past they showed themselves extremely reactionary.
For the rest, all these theories had very little influence on their conduct. Reason was continually figuring in their speeches, but never in their actions. These were always dominated by those affective and mystic elements whose potency we have so often demonstrated.
The psychological characteristics of the Legislative Assembly were those of the Constituent Assembly, but were greatly accentuated. They may be summed up in four words: impressionability, mobility, timidity, and weakness.
This mobility and impressionability are revealed in the constant variability of their conduct. One day they exchange noisy invective and blows. On the following day we see them "throwing themselves into one another's arms with torrents of tears.'' They eagerly applaud an address demanding the punishment of those who have petitioned for the king's dethronement, and the same day accord the honours of the session to a delegation which has come to demand his downfall.
The pusillanimity and weakness of the Assembly in the face of threats was extreme. Although royalist it voted the suspension of the king, and on the demand of the Commune delivered him, with his family, to be imprisoned in the Temple,
Thanks to its weakness, it was as incapable as the Constituent Assembly of exercising any power, and allowed itself to be dominated by the Commune and the clubs, which were directed by such influential leaders as Hebert, Tallien, Rossignol, Marat, Robespierre, &c.
Until Thermidor, 1794, the insurrectionary Commune constituted the chief power in the State, and behaved precisely as if it had been charged with the government of Paris.
It was the Commune that demanded the imprisonment of Louis XVI. in the tower of the Temple, when the Assembly wished to imprison him in the palace of the Luxembourg. It was the Commune again that filled the prisons with suspects, and then ordered them to be killed.
We know with what refinements of cruelty a handful of some 150 bandits, paid at the rate of 24 livres a day, and directed by a few members of the Commune, exterminated some 1,200 persons in four days. This crime was known as the massacre of September. The mayor of Paris, Petion, received the band of assassins with respect, and gave them drink. A few Girondists protested somewhat, but the Jacobins were silent.
The terrorised Assembly affected at first to ignore the massacres, which were encouraged by several of its more influential deputies, notably Couthon and Billaud-Varenne. When at last it decided to condemn them it was without attempting to prevent their continuation.
Conscious of its impotence, the Legislative Assembly dissolved itself a fortnight later in order to give way to the Convention.
Its work was obviously disastrous, not in intention but in fact. Royalist, it abandoned the monarchy; humanitarian, it allowed the massacres of September; pacific, it pushed France into a formidable war, thus showing that a weak Government always ends by bringing ruin upon its country.
The history of the two previous revolutionary Assemblies proves once more to what point events carry within them their inevitable consequences. They constitute a train of necessities of which we can sometimes choose the first, but which then evolve without consulting us. We are free to make a decision, but powerless to avert its consequences.
The first measures of the Constituent Assembly were rational and voluntary, but the results which followed were beyond all will or reason or foresight.
Which of the men of 1789 would have ventured to desire or predict the death of Louis XVI., the wars of La Vendee, the Terror, the permanent guillotine and the final anarchy, or the ensuing return to tradition and order, guided by the iron hand of a soldier?
In the development of events which ensued from the early actions of the revolutionary Assemblies the most striking, perhaps, was the rise and development of the government of the crowd—of mob rule.
Behind the facts which we have been considering—the taking of the Bastille, the invasion of Versailles, the massacres of September, the attack on the Tuileries, the murder of the Swiss Guards, and the downfall and imprisonment of the king—we can readily perceive the laws affecting the psychology of crowds and their leaders.
We shall now see that the power of the multitude will progressively increase, overcome all other powers, and finally replace them.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE CONVENTION
1. The Legend of the Convention.
The history of the Convention is not merely fertile in psychological documents. It also shows how powerless the witnesses of any period and even their immediate successors are to form an exact idea of the events which they have witnessed, and the men who have surrounded them.
More than a century has elapsed since the Revolution, and men are only just beginning to form judgments concerning this period which, if still often doubtful enough, are slightly more accurate than of old.
This happens, not only because new documents are being drawn from the archives, but because the legends which enveloped that sanguinary period in a magical cloud are gradually vanishing with the passage of time.
Perhaps the most tenacious legend of all was that which until formerly used to surround the personages to whom our fathers applied the glorious epithet, "the Giants of the Convention.''
The struggles of the Convention against France in insurrection and Europe in arms produced such an impression that the heroes of this formidable struggle seemed to belong to a race of supermen or Titans.
The epithet "giant'' seemed justified so long as the events of the period were confused and massed together. Regarded as connected when it was simply simultaneous, the work of the armies was confounded with that of the Convention. The glory of the first recoiled upon the second, and served as an excuse for the hecatombs of the Terror, the ferocity of the civil war, and the devastation of France.
Under the penetrating scrutiny of modern criticism, the heterogeneous mass of events has been slowly disentangled. The armies of the Republic have retained their old prestige, but we have been forced to recognise that the men of the Convention, absorbed entirely by their intestine conflicts, had very little to do with their victories. At the most two or three members of the committees of the Assembly were concerned with the armies, and the fact that they were victorious was due, apart from their numbers and the talents of their young generals, to the enthusiasm with which a new faith had inspired them.
In a later chapter, devoted to the revolutionary armies, we shall see how they conquered Europe in arms. They set out inspired by the ideas of liberty and equality which constituted the new gospel, and once on the frontiers, which were to keep them so long, they retained a special mentality, very different from that of the Government, which they first knew nothing of and afterwards despised.
Having no part whatever in their victories, the men of the Convention contented themselves with legislating at hazard according to the injunctions of the leaders who directed them, and who claimed to be regenerating France by means of the guillotine.
But it was thanks to these valiant armies that the history of the Convention was transformed into an apotheosis which affected several generations with a religious respect which even to-day is hardly extinct.
Studying in detail the psychology of the "Giants'' of the Convention, we find their magnitude shrink very rapidly. They were in general extremely mediocre. Their most fervent defenders, such as M. Aulard, are obliged to admit as much.
This is how M. Aulard puts it in his History of the French Revolution:—
"It has been said that the generation which from 1789 to 1799 did such great and terrible things was a generation of giants, or, to put it more plainly, that it was a generation more distinguished than that which preceded it or that which followed.
This is a retrospective illusion. The citizens who formed the municipal and Jacobin or nationalist groups by which the Revolution was effected do not seem to have been superior, either in enlightenment or in talents, to the Frenchmen of the time of Louis XV. or of Louis Philippe. Were those exceptionally gifted whose names history has retained because they appeared on the stage of Paris, or because they were the most brilliant orators of the various revolutionary Assemblies? Mirabeau, up to a certain point, deserved the title of genius; but as to the rest— Robespierre, Danton, Vergniaud—had they truly more talent, for example, than our modern orators? In 1793, in the time of the supposed 'giants,' Mme. Roland wrote in her memoirs: 'France was as though drained of men; their dearth during this revolution is truly surprising; there have scarcely been any but pigmies.' ''
If after considering the men of the Convention individually we consider them in a body, we may say that they did not shine either by intelligence or by virtue or by courage. Never did a body of men manifest such pusillanimity. They had no courage save in their speeches or in respect of remote dangers. This Assembly, so proud and threatening in its speech when addressing royalty, was perhaps the most timid and docile political collectivity that the world has ever known. We see it slavishly obedient to the orders of the clubs and the Commune, trembling before the popular delegations which invaded it daily, and obeying the injunctions of the rioters to the point of handing over to them its most brilliant members. The Convention affords the world a melancholy spectacle, voting, at the popular behest, laws so absurd that it is obliged to annul them as soon as the rioters have quitted the hall.
Few Assemblies have given proof of such weakness. When we wish to show how low a popular Government can fall we have only to point to the Convention.
2. Results of the Triumph of the Jacobin Religion
Among the causes that gave the Convention its special physiognomy, one of the most important was the definite establishment of a revolutionary religion. A dogma which was at first in process of formation was at last finally erected.
This dogma was composed of an aggregate of somewhat inconsistent elements. Nature, the rights of man, liberty, equality, the social contract, hatred of tyrants, and popular sovereignty formed the articles of a gospel which, to its disciples, was above discussion. The new truths had found apostles who were certain of their power, and who finally, like believers all the world over, sought to impose them by force. No heed should be taken of the opinion of unbelievers; they all deserved to be exterminated.
The hatred of heretics having been always, as we have seen, in respect of the Reformation, an irreducible characteristic of great beliefs, we can readily comprehend the intolerance of the Jacobin religion.
The history of the Reformation proves also that the conflict between two allied beliefs is very bitter. We must not, therefore, be astonished that in the Convention the Jacobins fought furiously against the other republicans, whose faith hardly differed from their own.
The propaganda of the new apostles was very energetic. To convert the provinces they sent thither zealous disciples escorted by guillotines. The inquisitors of the new faith would have no paltering with error. As Robespierre said, "The republic is the destruction of everything that is opposed to it.'' What matter that the country refused to be regenerated? It should be regenerated despite itself. "We will make a cemetery of France,'' said Carrier, "rather than fail to regenerate it in our own way.''
The Jacobin policy derived from the new faith was very simple. It consisted in a sort of equalitarian Socialism, directed by a dictatorship which would brook no opposition.
Of practical ideas consistent with the economic necessities and the true nature of man, the theorists who ruled France would have nothing to say. Speech and the guillotine sufficed them. Their speeches were childish. "Never a fact,'' says Taine, "nothing but abstractions, strings of sentences about Nature, reason, the people, tyrants, liberty: like so many puffed-out balloons uselessly jostling in space. If we did not know that it all ended in practical and dreadful results, we should think they were games of logic, school exercises, academical demonstrations, ideological combinations.''
The theories of the Jacobins amounted practically to an absolute tyranny. To them it seemed evident that a sovereign State must be obeyed without discussion by citizens rendered equal as to conditions and fortune.
The power with which they invested themselves was far greater than that of the monarchs who had preceded them. They fixed the prices of merchandise and arrogated the right to dispose of the life and property of citizens.
Their confidence in the regenerative virtues of the revolutionary faith was such that after having declared war upon kings they declared war upon the gods. A calendar was established from which the saints were banished. They created a new divinity, Reason, whose worship was celebrated in Notre-Dame, with ceremonies which were in many ways identical with those of the Catholic faith, upon the altar of the "late Holy Virgin.'' This cult lasted until Robespierre substituted a personal religion of which he constituted himself the high priest.
The sole masters of France, the Jacobins and their disciples were able to plunder the country with impunity, although they were never in the majority anywhere.
Their numbers are not easy to determine exactly. We know only that they were very small. Taine valued them at 5,000 in Paris, among 700,000 inhabitants; in Besancon 300 among 300,000; and in all France about 300,000.
"A small feudality of brigands, set over a conquered France,'' according to the words of the same author, they were able, in spite of their small numbers, to dominate the country, and this for several reasons. In the first place, their faith gave them a considerable strength. Then, because they represented the Government, and for centuries the French had obeyed those who were in command. Finally, because it was believed that to overthrow them would be to bring back the ancien regime, which was greatly dreaded by the numerous purchasers of the national domains. Their tyranny must have grown frightful indeed to force so many departments to rise against them.
The first factor of their power was very important. In the conflict between powerful faiths and weak faiths victory never falls to the latter. A powerful faith creates strong wills, which will always overpower weak wills. That the Jacobins themselves did finally perish was because their accumulated violence had bound together thousands of weak wills whose united weight overbalanced their own strong wills.
It is true that the Girondists, whom the Jacobins persecuted with so much hatred, had also well-established beliefs, but in the struggle which ensued their education told against them, together with their respect for certain traditions and the rights of others, scruples which did not in the least trouble their adversaries.
"The majority of the sentiments of the Girondists,'' writes Emile Ollivier, "were delicate and generous; those of the Jacobin mob were low, gross, and brutal. The name of Vergniaud, compared with that of the 'divine' Marat, measures a gulf which nothing could span.''
Dominating the Convention at the outset by the superiority of their talents and their eloquence, the Girondists soon fell under the domination of the Montagnards—worthless energumens, who carried little weight, but were always active, and who knew how to excite the passions of the populace. It was violence and not talent that impressed the Assemblies.
3. Mental Characteristics of the Convention.
Beside the characteristics common to all assemblies there are some created by influences of environment and circumstances, which give any particular assembly of men a special physiognomy. Most of the characteristics observable in the Constituent and Legislative Assemblies reappeared, in an exaggerated form, in the Convention.
This Assembly comprised about seven hundred and fifty deputies, of whom rather more than a third had sat in the Constituent or the Legislative Assembly. By terrorising the population the Jacobins contrived to triumph at the elections. The majority of the electors, six millions out of seven, preferred to abstain from voting.
As to the professions, the Assembly contained a large number of lawyers, advocates, notaries, bailiffs, ex-magistrates, and a few literary men.
The mentality of the Convention was not homogeneous. Now, an assembly composed of individuals of widely different characters soon splits up into a number of groups. The Convention very early contained three—the Gironde, the Mountain, and the Plain. The constitutional monarchists had almost disappeared.
The Gironde and the Mountain, extreme parties, consisted of about a hundred members apiece, who successively became leaders. In the Mountain were the most advanced members: Couthon, Herault de Sechelles, Danton, Camille Desmoulins, Marat, Collot d'Herbois, Billaud-Varennes, Barras, Saint-Just, Fouche, Tallien, Carrier, Robespierre, &c. In the Gironde were Brissot, Petion, Condorcet, Vergniaud, &c.
The five hundred other members of the Assembly—that is, the great majority—constituted what was known as the Plain.
This latter formed a floating mass, silent, undecided, and timid; ready to follow every impulse and to be carried away by the excitement of the moment. It gave ear indifferently to the stronger of the two preceding groups. After obeying the Gironde for some time it allowed itself to be led away by the Mountain, when the latter triumphed over its enemy. This was a natural consequence of the law already stated, by which the weak invariably fall under the dominion of the stronger wills.
The influence of great manipulators of men was displayed in a high degree during the Convention. It was constantly led by a violent minority of narrow minds, whose intense convictions lent them great strength.
A brutal and audacious minority will always lead a fearful and irresolute majority. This explains the constant tendency toward extremes to be observed in all revolutionary assemblies. The history of the Convention verifies once more the law of acceleration studied in another chapter.
The men of the Convention were thus bound to pass from moderation to greater and greater violence. Finally they decimated themselves. Of the 180 Girondists who at the outset led the Convention 140 were killed or fled, and finally the most fanatical of the Terrorists, Robespierre, reigned alone over a terrified crowd of servile representatives.
Yet it was among the five hundred members of the majority, uncertain and floating as it was, that the intelligence and experience were to be found. The technical committees to whom the useful work of the Convention was due were recruited from the Plain.
More or less indifferent to politics, the members of the Plain were chiefly anxious that no one should pay particular attention to them. Shut up in their committees, they showed themselves as little as possible in the Assembly, which explains why the sessions of the Convention contained barely a third of the deputies.
Unhappily, as often happens, these intelligent and honest men were completely devoid of character, and the fear which always dominated them made them vote for the worst of the measures introduced by their dreaded masters.
The men of the Plain voted for everything they were ordered to vote for—the creation of the Revolutionary Tribunal, the Terror, &c. It was with their assistance that the Mountain crushed the Gironde, and Robespierre destroyed the Hebertists and Dantonists. Like all weak people, they followed the strong. The gentle philanthropists who composed the Plain, and constituted the majority of the Assembly, contributed, by their pusillanimity, to bring about the frightful excesses of the Convention.
The psychological note always prevailing in the Convention was a horrible fear. It was more especially through fear that men cut off one another's heads, in the doubtful hope of keeping their own on their shoulders.
Such a fear was, of course, very comprehensible. The unhappy deputies deliberated amid the hootings and vociferations of the tribunes. At every moment veritable savages, armed with pikes, invaded the Assembly, and the majority of the members no longer dared to attend the sessions. When by chance they did go it was only to vote in silence according to the orders of the Mountain, which was only a third as numerous.
The fear which dominated the latter, although less visible, was just as profound. Men destroyed their enemies, not only because they were shallow fanatics, but because they were convinced that their own existence was threatened. The judges of the revolutionary Tribunals trembled no less. They would have willingly acquitted Danton, and the widow of Camille Desmoulins, and many others. They dared not.
But it was above all when Robespierre became the sole master that the phantom of fear oppressed the Assembly. It has truly been said that a glance from the master made his colleagues shrink with fear. On their faces one read "the pallor of fear and the abandon of despair.''
All feared Robespierre and Robespierre feared all. It was because he feared conspiracies against him that he cut off men's heads, and it was also through fear that others allowed him to do so.
The memoirs of members of the Convention show plainly what a horrible memory they retained of this gloomy period. Questioned twenty years later, says Taine, on the true aim and the intimate thoughts of the Committee of Public Safety, Barrere replied:—
"We had only one feeling, that of self-preservation; only one desire, that of preserving our lives, which each of us believed to be threatened. You had your neighbour's head cut off so that your neighbour should not have you yourself guillotined.''
The history of the Convention constitutes one of the most striking examples that could be given of the influence of leaders and of fear upon an assembly.
THE GOVERNMENT OF THE CONVENTION
1. The activity of the Clubs and the Commune during the Convention.
During the whole of its existence the Convention was governed by the leaders of the clubs and of the Commune.
We have already seen what was their influence on the preceding Assemblies. It became overwhelming during the Convention. The history of this latter is in reality that of the clubs and the Commune which dominated it. They enslaved, not only the Convention, but also all France. Numerous little provincial clubs, directed by that of the capital, supervised magistrates, denounced suspects, and undertook the execution of all the revolutionary orders.
When the clubs or the Commune had decided upon certain measures they had them voted by the Assembly then and there. If the Assembly resisted, they sent their armed delegations thither— that is, armed bands recruited from the scum of the populace. They conveyed injunctions which were always slavishly obeyed. The Commune was so sure of its strength that it even demanded of the Convention the immediate expulsion of deputies who displeased it.
While the Convention was composed generally of educated men, the members of the Commune and the clubs comprised a majority of small shopkeepers, labourers, and artisans, incapable of personal opinions, and always guided by their leaders—Danton, Camille Desmoulins, Robespierre, &c.