« VorigeDoorgaan »
TAINE’S “ FRENCH REVOLUTION.”*
I TISTORIANS are apt to gauge human progress by some favorite U theory, and judge of characters and events according as they square with this theory. There is some line of progress to which they are partial, and which more or less warps their judgment. Mr. Grote, for instance, in his history of Greece, advocates democracy as the line of Grecian progress, while Bishop Thirlwall, writing on the same subject, advocates aristocracy. Mr. Greene states that "the whole history of English progress since the Restoration, on its moral and spiritual side, has been the history of Puritanism.” Mr. Carlyle, in his prose rhapsody on the French Revolution, throws an ideal glamour over its leaders, in spite of their crimes. French historians, generally, do not care what occurred during this revoution, nor how it was done, so long as the end was accomplished. Progress, it might be said in passing, is about as difficult to define as truth. But it is a question whether any of these theories will serve in the long run, as it can be shown that progress has been quite as dependent upon aristocracy as democracy; that the "moral and spiritual side” of England since 1660 is not by any means “the history of Puritanism;" that the cause of liberty, as far as progress rests on that, needs no gloss over massacres, nor any sanction whatever of ignorance and infatuation. M. Taine, at all events, is not a historian of this stamp. Metaphysical standards of thought and deed are not his tests. Intelligence, sound culture, wise ambition, judicious action, are more important factors in historical evolution, than blind faith, egotism, brutal energy, and mere good intentions. If the “ideal” can be shown by cause and effect to develop through the actual, this is much more useful than abstractions fructified by the imagination and enforced by logic. The real conduct of the human species in a secular order of things is of the most significance.
With such a theory in mind, the facts he states convey their true import. It is easy to state facts, but it is not so easy to arrange them properly. M. Taine's method is original; his facts are
* Les Origines de la France Contemporaine, par H. Taine, La Revulution. Tome II. La Conquête Jacobine. Paris : Hachette & Co.
classified in relation to obvious aims and require no argument to help them along. A bloody insurrection, a massacre, is the subject in hand. The import of this event depends not on its political relationship, but on the limit and degree of human responsibility which it involves. It may proceed from an inflammatory leader by Marat in his journal, from a meeting of loungers in a Palais-Royal café, from frantic discussions in the sectional and other Jacobin clubs. M. Taine shows Marat's way of thinking, the order of his mind in relation to profound subjects, by quotations from his journal and speeches ; he sets before us the café disputes and oratory of the morbid and the vile, the bombast, the turgid eloquence, the venom, the absolute spirit of the majorities in the Jacobin clubs. With such a tableau of character, motive and action before us, we perfectly comprehend the irrelevance of such agencies in a reformatory crisis. Brissot brings about a war “which is to destroy six millions of lives.” Who is Brissot, that he should have such responsibility ? M. Taine gives us the antecedents of this Bohemian publicist, coupled with a clear exposition of the internal and external affairs of the country, by which we fully realize the anomaly of a political quack like Brissot bringing about such a catastrophe.
On several occasions, a little firmness on the part of Louis XVI. would have forestalled destruction and perhaps have averted the Revolution ; a sentimental dread of maintaining his authority by force, even in defence of the law, prevents the monarch from acting. The king is on trial for his life. Refined deputies, like Vergniaud and others of the Girondist party, shrink from voting for his death ; yells and shouts from the streets outside, coupled with similar vociferations and threats within, from the Assembly galleries filled with “ the people,” compel them to obey their Jacobin opponents. And so on—a murderous fanaticism, lust of power, lack of courage, over-refinement, all the energy of bad qualities and all the defects of good ones, contribute to produce and impel onward this blind, headlong revolution. M. Taine does not treat it as a sacrifice to a political ideal, but he shows it to be a slow evolution of utter demoralization.
This psychological method explains every remarkable feature of the Revolution, spiritually as well as objectively. It shows the nature of public opinion, and how this was formed. Some species of faith, prior to these events, must have existed to account for such moral and intellectual degeneracy. Where look for it, in the absence of the usual religious stimulants of popular enthusiasm ? It is represented by Rousseau's Contrat-Social, the political Bible of the epoch. Society, according to this instrument, is all wrong from the beginning. If it had started right, there would have been no king, no class, no privileges, no misery. Individuals are born free, equal and independent; they collectively constitute society, and may at any time or place ignore, at pleasure, all obligations or forms entered into, or imposed by, anterior communities. Property rights and old-established institutions may be set aside when it pleases “the people,” as well as contemporary magistrates and Government officials. A man must merge his personality, himself, his children, his possessions, into that of the State; he must answer the call instanter, whenever the State, or, in other words,“ the people,"claim his time, his energies and his money. Such is the sum of the teachings, direct and indirect, of this reformatory document. It is no wonder that demagogues,playing upon public opinion thus fashioned, should undermine authority through the help of the wretched, the corrupt and the idle,—all who have anything to gain by social dissolutions. We of the present day know, orat all events are controlled by those who do, that society is not formed out of personal units, but out of a recognition of various rights growing out of private interests and sentiments; that a right involves a duty; that there is no such thing as equality and independence, other than before the law; that the conception of liberty is restraint for the common weal; that government is founded on certain conditions of time and place which are not of mere temporary force, but which bind. together a long series of generations. The notions of the ContratSocial accordingly strike us as whimsical. At that time, however, they were converted into stern realities. M. Taine shows us how, step by step, they changed order into anarchy. He shows us laws made and broken to suit the occasion. He shows us legal forms illegally misapplied through violence and corruption; ballot-boxes are stuffed, fradulent returns are made, and voters “bull-dozed” and frightened away from the polls. We see eloquent, imaginative men, like the Girondists, capable of arousing the passions but impotent to control them,—these very men truckling to their inferiors and at last becoming their instruments and their victims. We see
how through this pseudo-faith an immense majority of the population of France, opposed to violence and fraud, are made subject to a small minority of dreamers and desperadoes; "a population of twenty-six millions ruled by five thousand Jacobins.” The book is one long, elaborate, irrefutable analysis of misrule growing out of submitting the leading idea of the Contrat-Social—“sovereignty of the people,”--to an absolutely practical demonstration.
Subsequent stages of society gained, it is true, by this epoch of destruction. But so does any old city gain by being partially consumed by fire; on the burned district being rebuilt, its streets may be made wider and more salubrious, and its edifices more convenient and more magnificent. But no thanks to the incendiaries who have kindled and fanned the flames under, at best, a chimerical impulse. There was no need of a general conflagration in France at this time. Were we to admit this as an historical necessity, we might as well turn fatalists at once. M. Taine's method applied to an analogous revolution, that in England under Cromwell, which stopped midway in a similar attempt, saves us our historical acumen and a sate “ideal.” We all know that the Contrat-Social of the Cromwellian Revolution was the Bible; we know that the “godly men” who fought the battles of that revolution intended to upset society entirely, to create a “ kingdom of the righteous.” The same method shows us that this ideal proved a failure before it could fall through of its own weight, because Cromwell willed otherwise. Certain it is that Cromwell did not desire to uproot old institutions and face anarchy.* He was intelligent enough to know that the place, if not the title, of king would answer his purpose; and that the old monarchical theory carried him along safely is proved by “the people " gladly welcoming the true king when the Protectorate ended in Cromwell's death.
Instead of regarding the French Revolution in itself as a forward step in progress, now that its negative course is so clearly revealed, it may be regarded as a backward one. Abuses could have been
- -** The Barebones Parliament . .... was charged with a design to ruin property, the Church and the Law, with enmity to knowledge, and a blind and ignorant fanati. cism. Cromwell himself shared the general uneasiness at its proceedings. ..... He had no sympathy whatever with the revolutionary theories which were filling the air around him.” ..... “ Nothing (says Cromwell,) was in the hearts of these men but • overturn! overturn!'”-A Short History of the English l'eople, by J. R. Greene, M. A.
removed without such a cataclysm, the best evidence of which is the actual reforms which Turgot effected before it began. Had Mirabeau lived, the analogue of Cromwell, it might still have been averted. To esteem either Girondists or Jacobins for the part they played in it, is to make statesmanship a matter of opinion or chance, weakness a virtue, and crime an error of judgment. The real fact before us is that the Revolution, in the hands of Girondists and Jacobins, became a despotism of the worst class,—much worse than the despotism of the Ancient Régime, which it displaced, and worse, again, than the Napoleonic despotism for which it payed the way, and which M. Taine is yet to treat.
Critics of the old metaphysical school, who hold all objective realities in ideal solution, and that class of critics who see only what suits present ambition in past events, do all they can to depreciate M. Taine's work. The former gravely conclude that he is not qualified to treat the subject, while the latter charge him with being at least too dispassionate, if not inimical, to“ progress”-a reactionist, in short. Fortunately for M. Taine, he is independent of the critics of either school. Capable judges of the events and the men he analyzes, contemporary with them, fully confirm the conclusions he arrives at. Eminent French writers like Malouet and MalletDupan, themselves Liberals and advocates of reform, actors in and almost victims of the great upheaval, form unquestionable authorities. To these must be added the evidence of foreign ambassadors, travellers and residents, especially Englishmen and Americans. Among the former may be found Arthur Young, Dr. Moore and Thomas Paine, who did what he could to stem the torrent, although one of the Revolutionists and a friend of Danton, while conspicuous among the latter is Gouverneur Morris, whom M. Taine often quotes and highly commends. M. Taine's method and its revelations are only to be set aside by some counter-presentation of facts equal in importance equally well attested and equally wellknit together.
The French Revolution commends itself especially to the thoughtful men of our community. M. Taine's work is more profound than the common run of political commentaries. It is a complete exposition of the resources of demagogy, and is as instructive here as in France. Our cities are in reality governed by clubs. Our electoral sentiment is played upon by designing