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Chapter XXXVII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9


Impression produced at Paris by the receipt of the News from Sedan- Meetings of the Chamber - Jules Favre proposes the deposition of the Emperor and his Dynasty - Illegitimate character of the Motion - The Session of the 4th September - Motion of Count Palikao - Motion of M. Thiers - The Mob break in and interrupt the Proceedings - Revolution - 'The Empress leaves the Tuileries and takes refuge in England - Suppression of the Senate - The Republic proclaimed at the Hotel de Ville - Trochu stipulates that he shall be made President of the Government - The new Ministry - Failure of an attempt to continue the Corps Legislative in being - State of feeling in England - Interview of Lord Lyons with Jules Favre - Prince Metternich explains to the French Minister the position of Austria - The Chevalier Nigra excuses the neutrality of Italy - No hope for France of an armed intervention.
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The capitulation of Sedan was the occasion of one of those revolutions of Parisian manufacture which have been the curse of France during the past eighty years. The coup d'état of the 4th September was not indeed stamped by the same features of treachery and cruelty as the coup d'état of the 2nd December; it did not spring out of selfishness and ambition, but rather out of vanity and temerity; yet, considered as the illegal assumption of powers which those who grasped them had no right to appropriate, the two events stand on the same ground, and will receive a common condemnation from the verdict of history.

M. Jules Favre informs us that late in the evening of the 2nd September a reliable person came to him, and informed him that Marshal MacMahon had been wounded, that the army had been defeated, and that it, along with the Emperor, was shut up in Sedan. All the next day a feverish anxiety reigned in every part of Paris. What was known was terrible, but a just foreboding whispered that there was still worse behind. A meeting of the Chamber was summoned by the Government at three o'clock on the afternoon of the 3rd September. Count Palikao announced the failure of Bazaine's sorties (hereafter to be described) on the 31st August and 1st September, and admitted that, after a partial success, the French army, overwhelmed by numbers, had been driven back, partly upon Mezieres, partly upon Sedan, and a small portion across the Belgian frontier. In presence of these grave events the Minister declared that the Government appealed to the strength, vigour, and patriotism of the nation; he added that 200,000 Gardes Mobiles were about to enter Paris, who, united to the forces already there, would ensure the safety of the capital. Jules Favre then rose. Availing himself of an admission made by Palikao, that the Emperor was not in communication with his ministers, and gave them no orders, he rushed to the conclusion that " the Government has ceased to exist," and began to enlarge upon the means which were at hand for supplying its place. But surely this hasty conclusion was both unwise and untrue. It was unwise, because, when so much was falling to wreck, common sense would suggest that the frame of government - the organised method and channel for the transaction of public affairs - should be, repaired indeed if it needed repair, but studiously maintained erect, and invested by the self-denying zeal and labour of all with the renewed strength which the misfortunes of the country rendered necessary. It was obviously untrue, because a temporary suspension of intercourse between the Emperor and his ministers did not and could not justify the inference that the Government had ceased to exist. The orator went on to survey the resources whence the materials of a new Government might be obtained. Strength, he said, was indeed needed above all; and where must it be sought for but in the country itself p in the country endowed with power; in the country which henceforth must depend only upon itself - upon those who represented it, not on those who had ruined it. Possessed by his democratic faith, M. Jules Favre talked about " the country " as if the populace were a divinity, and could do all things; as if it was only necessary to appeal to the great body of the people, and then the forces inherent in democracy would be elicited, and deliverance from the great perils of the hour secured. How vain and false was this surmise the event speedily proved.

Before separating the Chamber voted urgency for a proposition of M. Argence, calling to arms all men between twenty and thirty-five years, whether married or single. Filled with gloom and anxious apprehension, the members separated till the following day (Sunday, September 4) at five o'clock.

But soon after the meeting certain intelligence of the capitulation reached Palikao and the ministers, and the news, coming by various channels, soon flew over Paris. Immense crowds filled the boulevards; cries were frequently heard demanding the fall of the Government. M. Favre and some of his friends went to M. Schneider, the President of the Corps Legislatif, and prevailed upon him to convene it for a midnight sitting that same night. Jules Favre did not conceal from M. Schneider that he meant to propose the deposition of the Emperor; but to this the latter would by no means give his consent. He and many other honourable members of the Chamber believed themselves, even were there no other argument against a revolution, to be restrained by their oath of fidelity to the Emperor from joining in any project which contemplated either his dethronement or the repudiation of the dynasty.

The plan of Jules Favre and his friends of the Extreme Left was this: that the deposition of the Emperor and his dynasty should be proclaimed, and that the Chambers should assume all the powers of government, exercising them through an executive commission consisting of a few members, in which not only Palikao, but also M. Schneider would be retained. The plan was embodied in three articles, which ran as follows: -

Article 1. Louis Napoleon Bonaparte and his dynasty are declared to be deposed from the power given them by the constitution.

Article 2. A parliamentary committee, consisting of -----, is entrusted with the powers of government, and with the mission to expel the enemy from France.

Article 3. General Trochu remains in his post as Governor of Paris.

A moment's consideration will show what temerity, what febrile impatience, what overwhelming presumption, were involved in the first of these articles. Who was Jules Favre that he should propose, and what was the Chamber that it should decree, the deposition of the Napoleonic dynasty? That was a question surely which only a constituent Assembly had a right to deal with, not an assembly called together for the purpose of co-operating with the power which it was asked to overthrow. True patriotism would have refrained from stirring such questions for the present; it would have allowed the government of the Regency to stand, and postponed these matters till the war was over. The great work to be done was fighting; the best military head in France, Trochu, was already in his right place; and only inordinate vanity could persuade the group of civilians who followed Jules Favre that any one of them would make a better War Minister than an experienced veteran like Palikao. But as a bystander, looking on at a fencing match, may be tempted to snatch the foil from the unsuccessful fencer, even so it was with the exaltés and enthusiastic democrats of the 4th September. They had boundless faith in themselves, in their own energy, capacity, and. resource; and they had also boundless faith in the invincible and inexhaustible potency of the popular forces to which they meant to appeal. Both persuasions, as we shall see, were equally illusory.

The articles prepared by Jules Favre were signed by twenty-seven members of the Corps Legislatif, but the name of M. Thiers was not among them. That experienced and wary politician appears to have had much confidence in the military knowledge and skill of Count Palikao, and on this account, as well as on account of the general considerations which may be urged against a revolutionary procedure, he would bear no part in a plan for overthrowing the Government. His own suggestion will be mentioned presently. M. Favre says that there was no opposition anywhere to the overthrow of the Government; that the conscience of the nation was awakened by misfortune, and, being thus awakened, resolved to put down the Imperial system, not as unsuccessful, but as wicked. That, at least, is what his reasoning comes to. A conscience enlightened after this fashion is not likely to be very calm or just, nor have the actions which it dictates any claim to be exempted from criticism. The reasoning of M. Favre is not sound. Conscience frequently tells us, on being " awakened by misfortune," that our own fault or folly produced the state of things which made the misfortune possible, but it does not always tell us to reverse that state of things. A man, for instance, may have married from cupidity, or lust, or some other unworthy motive; but when he has come to see this clearly, it does not follow that he should immediately seek the remedy of the Divorce Court.

At the midnight sitting of the Chamber, no disguise being any longer possible, Count Palikao announced that the army, having been thrown back, after heroic efforts, on Sedan, and finding resistance no longer possible, had capitulated, and that the Emperor had been made prisoner. He then demanded an adjournment till noon of the same day (September 4), that the Government might have time to mature its proposals in this alarming crisis. The adjournment was not opposed; but M. Jules Favre gave notice that he should, at the midday sitting, bring forward the motion the terms of which have been already stated. The motion, if the Count Palikao is to be believed, was ill received by the majority of the members.

Between 8 and 9 a.m., a council of ministers was held at the Tuileries, presided over by the Empress, who displayed exemplary firmness and courage. It was resolved at this council to propose to the Chambers the nomination of a Council of Regency of five members (each member to be nominated by the absolute majority of the Legislative Body), with Count Palikao as its Lieutenant-General. But when he arrived at the Corps Legislatif, shortly before noon, and communicated to a number of deputies the plan of the Government, he found that the use of the term " Regency " was generally disapproved. Under these unexampled circumstances - wit h the Emperor a prisoner in Germany, mutinous democracy rampant in the streets, and nothing clear except the duty of self-defence - the majority of the Chamber might naturally object to the use of a term which implied so much, and bound them to so much, as the word " Regency." Thiers and his friends desired that the new council should be simply described as a " Council of Government." To this Palikao was unwilling to accede, because the words seemed to betoken a breach of continuity between the new Government and the old, - to be equivalent, therefore, to sanctioning revolution. An ingenious expedient occurred to him; it was to alter the words " Council of Regency" into "a Council of the Government and of National Defence; " thus avoiding the unpopular word, and yet implying that the Government had not come to an end, but was prolonged in and transformed into the new Council. The majority of the deputies appeared to approve of the clause so worded; and the Empress, whose consent Palikao was careful to obtain, sent him word that she relied entirely on him, and approved of whatever he might do.

The hour for the meeting was now come. The approaches to the hall of the Legislative Body were occupied by troops of the line, and 600 mounted gendarmes were stationed in reserve in the Palais de l'Exposition in the Champs Elysées. Three propositions were brought before the Chamber: first, that of the Government; secondly, that of Jules Favre; and, thirdly, that of M. Thiers. This last was signed by forty-six deputies, and was conceived in the following terms: -

"In view of the existing state of affairs [' Vu les circonstances '], the Chamber names a Commission of Government and of National Defence.

" A constituent Assembly will be convoked as soon as circumstances will permit."

The three propositions were referred to the bureaux in the usual way, that a committee might be appointed to report upon them. But while deliberation was going on in the bureaux (which meet in committee-rooms distinct from the Legislative Chamber itself) events occurred which soon brought their labours to an untimely end.

Count Palikao asserts positively that while the bureaux were deliberating, several deputies of the Left, among them M. Picard and M. Pelletan, were stirring up the strangers who had made their way into the hall to raise the cry of the Republic. But how had these strangers made their way into the sanctuary of legislation? It seems that large bodies of National Guards had been parading the streets all the morning, accompanied by a turbulent mob; and that when some of these presented themselves at the entrance leading from the Quai d'Orsay into the enclosure of the Corps Legislative and demanded admission, the soldiers and gendarmes who were on duty could not bring themselves to oppose a forcible remonstrance to their entry. Possibly the orders which they had received from head-quarters were not very rigorous. In truth, the Government of the Empress had little reason to cling tenaciously to power. The strength of the nation seemed crumbling all around them; if they continued to direct affairs, what other prospect lay before them except to make peace as soon as possible? But Germany had already intimated pretty plainly that she would not make peace except on condition of a cession of territory. Now, if the Emperor's Government, within a few months of having recklessly plunged the country into war, had signed an inglorious peace, abandoning French territory to Germany, is it morally conceivable that a tempest of popular indignation would not speedily have hurled it, and the dynasty along with it, from the seats of power? On the other hand, if the democrats made a revolution, and took the administration of affairs into their own hands, the prospect for the Empire was not an utterly hopeless one. If they drove out the Germans, then the military system which the Emperor had founded would have the principal credit; if they failed to drive them out, and were obliged to consent to an ignominious peace, then the principal share of shame and discredit would fall on them, not on the Empire.

However this may be, between two and three o'clock, the Chamber was invaded by the mob, which, rushing through the ante-rooms and corridors, filled the public galleries, raising the cry of "La Déchéance," joined with cries of " Vive la France" ((Vive la République." M. Schneider was at his post in the President's chair; Count Palikao was also in his place. Then a truly ludicrous scene occurred. Instead of either looking about for the police, and insisting upon their clearing the hall, or giving up the game and going out to address King Mob in the open air, several members of the Left adopted the undignified and contemptible course of addressing the miscellaneous crowd that had surged into the galleries, and entreating them to behave themselves and let the business proceed. M. Crémieux made the first appeal, which, it is scarcely necessary to say, was ineffectual. M. Jules Favre then describes in the following terms the mellifluous address of M. Gambetta to the lawless howling roughs in the galleries: -

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Pictures for Chapter XXXVII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9

Marshal MacMahon
Marshal MacMahon >>>>
The Emperor Napoleon
The Emperor Napoleon >>>>
The Empress of the French
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