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The Opening of the Century


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At the opening of the Nineteenth Century all Europe was occupied with war. The European people then numbered one hundred and seventy million, and of these four million were set apart, by their own choice or the decree of their governments, to the business of fighting. They were withdrawn from the occupations of peace, and maintained at enormous cost, expressly to harm their fellow-men. The interests of peace withered in the storm; the energies of all nations, the fruits of all industries were poured forth in the effort to destroy. From the utmost North to the shores of the Mediterranean, from the confines of Asia to the Atlantic, men toiled to burn each other's cities, to waste each other's fields, to destroy each other's lives. In some lands there was heard the shout of victory, in some the wail of defeat. In all lands the ruinous waste of war had produced bitter poverty; grief and fear were in every home. This had lasted already for ten years, and was yet to last for fifteen years more. It was not to cease till millions of men had perished.

Peace, it has been said, is the dream of the wise, but war is the history of man. It has been even so. It need not surprise us to find the men of Europe enduring unutterable miseries, sustained only by the hope that they would be able to inflict yet greater miseries upon their neighbours-for Europe has spent the larger portion of her time in fighting. But yet the wars which occupied the early years of the century do excite our wonder. They were gigantic beyond example. They wasted life and treasure with a profusion to which Europe, with her bloody experience of centuries, knows no parallel. They were so prolonged that before the close men were fighting in the quarrel who had been unborn when it broke out. Whence came these monstrous wars, and what were the questions which the men of this time sought, by methods so coarse, to solve?

It was in France-always the most unquiet member of the European family-that these huge and mournful disorders originated. France contained then, a population of twenty-five million, and she had long been the victim of misgovernrnent so base and cruel that it had now become intolerable (It is not, however, to be supposed that the condition of the French people was worse than that of the other Continental nations. On the contrary, De Tocqueville shows that it was better).

In course of ages liberty had become wholly extinct in France. The king held in his hands the unquestioned right to dispose, at his will, of the lives and property of the people. He was the sole legislator; his own pleasure was his only rule. He levied taxes, asking no consent of those who had to pay. He waged war to avenge personal slights, to gain personal ends; and thousands of his subjects laid down their lives that his frivolous antipathies might find gratification. He sent men to prison without any crime being laid to their charge, and kept them there, without trial, till they died. Within the walls of his capital stood the Bastile-a prison vast and grim-the slow growth of ages of despotism. The king's order filled those gloomy towers and dungeons with prisoners, many of whom never knew wherefore this dreadful fate had befallen them. An Englishman was once found who had suffered thirty years of captivity, and it could not, by any diligence of inquiry, be discovered what he had done, or whom he had offended. Nor was it enough that the king avenged himself upon his own enemies. An agreeable courtier was requited with a gift of lettres de cachet already signed by the king, but with a blank left for the name of the victim. The rich man could purchase for money the power to destroy those whom he hated.

During sixty years of the eighteenth century the king of France was Louis XV.-one of the meanest and basest of human creatures. It was the belief of this unworthy person that France was his, and that she and her twenty-five million of people were of no value, otherwise than as they ministered to his enjoyment. No one about him ever, in all his long life, suggested another view of the subject. The great nobles went daily to see him dressed and undressed (Several of the great nobles shared the daily honour of handing to their sovereign his shirt, or reverentially denuding him of that garment)-regaling him the while with the obscene gossip which he loved so well to hear. The king " had not an hour in the day for attention to important matters." He wasted the resources of France upon his filthy pleasures. His mistresses made him sign drafts on the treasury for such amounts as they desired. Even to this most debased of men it became evident that a change was near. Voltaire and the others, he said, were ruining the monarchy; but it was consolation enough to believe that it would last out his time. Under Louis XV. France ripened apace for her doom.

Next to the throne stood the noble families, numbering one hundred and fifty thousand persons. All positions of dignity were held by members of these families. The superior clergy were nobles; the officers of the army, the judges, the ambassadors-all were noble. They enjoyed exemption from most of the taxation which pressed so heavily upon their inferiors. They possessed strange powers to oppress, which they mercilessly exercised. For the most part they were poor-ages of extravagance having wasted their substance; and they were known to the people only by the unsparing severity of their exactions. With revolution about to burst forth, that was not a desirable introduction. They lived in utter idleness. "They absolutely did nothing," said Edmund Burke. "Their very look wearied me. They could only die of war or of ennui."

Beyond the nobles were the French people. A gulf impassable separated them from the awful splendours of the aristocracy. They might grow rich, but they could not rise out of the original degradation of their origin; they could never cease to be despised.

Three-fourths of the French people lived in the country, and earned their living by lowly peasant toil. Their lot was hard- harder than we in this happier time are able fully to understand. The laws had not been made with any thought of their interests. The laws were made and administered by men who regarded the people of France as born for the uses of the higher class.

The tax-gatherer was everywhere, and among the simple peasantry he could work his cruel will without fear of detection or rebuke. The great lords preserved game for their lordly sport (For thirty leagues around Paris game was strictly protected for the use of the royal family) Droves of wild boars, herds of deer ranged the country, trampling the crops into ruin. The peasant who slew one of! these invaders expiated his offence by imprisonment. The weeding and hoeing of crops were forbidden, as tending to disturb the young partridges. Limitations were imposed upon the use of manures, lest the flavour of the game should be injuriously affected. Now and then the ruined peasantry in their despair demanded, "with a great cry," the abolition of all sorts of game; but their cry was unheeded. Men were bound to grind their corn only at the seigneur's mill; to press their grapes only in his press; to bake their bread only in his oven. Hand-mills were forbidden; but sometimes the great lord sold for money to the wretched peasant permission to crush his handful of wheat between two stones. Services the most intolerable were exacted, or exemption from them obtained by payment. When the lady of the seigneur was ill, it became the duty of the peasants to beat the marshes all night and terrify the frogs into silence, lest the great lady should be disturbed by their clamour. This obligation was, in course of ages, commuted into an annual payment. Many seigneurs had their principal revenue from such exactions.

It pleased the government of France to encourage manufactures and commerce, and to overburden agriculture. In some cases the poor cultivator paid to the tax-gatherer five-eighths of the produce of his ground. In many cases cultivation ceased- utterly crushed out by intolerable taxation. Everywhere the pressure of taxation and the oppression of the nobles kept the farmer hopelessly poor, and cultivation rude and unproductive (Smollett speaks of the French farmers as he saw them in 1765-" Without cattle to furnish manure, without horses to execute the plans of agriculture; their farm-houses mean, their furniture wretched, their apparel beggarly; themselves and their beasts the images of famine." French agriculture at the breaking out of the revolution was not beyond that of the tenth century. The plough used was that of Virgil's time. But even then the habit of economy was firmly rooted. The peasant was said to starve himself, hoard his money, and buy land.).

Justice was vilely administered. The judges were ignorant, and dependent on the seigneurs. Men were not ashamed to sit as judges in a cause in which they were interested. Bribes were essential to the satisfactory issue of litigation. Indeed, it grew to be an accepted truth that it was folly to appeal to a court of law without some better support than the mere justice of a cause.

The roads near the great cities of France were perhaps the finest in Europe. The traveller remarked with grateful wonder upon their unexpected smoothness. Alas! he knew little of the sufferings by which it had been gained. Roads were made by the forced labour of the country people; and the labour was so mercilessly imposed that many persons sank and died under the intolerable severity.

It was a savage age in which these things were inflicted and endured. Men not yet old had seen the torture to which Damiens was subjected for attempting to murder the king. The wretched man's flesh was torn from his bones by red-hot pincers, and molten lead was poured into his wounds. Almost to the close of the century criminals endured the torture of the wheel. The limbs were broken by blows of a heavy iron bar, and then the mangled body was hung across the edge of an upright wheel, till the poor remains of life ebbed in agony away. With all these horrors the men and women of France were familiar from their youth. When they rose to avenge the wrongs which made their lives bitter, it was not probable that they would use milder expedients than those in the practice of which their superiors had so amply instructed them.

The time came at length when the cruel wrongs which had been patiently borne for centuries ceased to be longer tolerable. France had enjoyed an unusually lengthened repose. The exhaustion produced by the mad wars of Louis XIV. had been the defence of the country against the repetition upon any great scale of similar iniquities. France had given herself, with energy unknown before, to the pursuits of peace; and her vast resources were being developed with a rapidity which, tried by the standard of the time, was altogether satisfactory. Her commerce was flourishing; her manufactures prospered and extended. She had founded colonies, and her commercial marine approached in extent to that of England herself. Her cities were becoming large; her middle classes were becoming wealthy and intelligent. The education of her merchants was superior to that of the nobles, who yet looked with unconcealed and offensive disdain upon the wisest and wealthiest of the classes beneath them.

The silent pressure of opinion would gradually have wrested from the nobles a redress of grievances which the altered circumstances of the country rendered unendurable. But, strangely enough, the protest against the blind tyranny of ages found voice first among the nobility themselves.

Among the younger nobles there sprang up a sentimental love of liberty and detestation of tyranny. Those speculations regarding equality which are so frequently the solace of the poor, were at this time in France the occupation of the privileged classes. The heroes of ancient Greece and Rome were objects of passionate admiration to the young nobility of France. Count Segur recalled, fifty years after, the thunders of applause with which the courtiers in the theatre at Versailles received the lines of Yoltaire: "I am the son of Brutus, and bear graven on my heart the love of liberty and horror of kings." The influence of England, too, became - powerful among the higher classes of France. Montesquieu had already taught to his countrymen the superiority of English institutions. The perception of this superiority was expressed in a manner sufficiently fanciful. A rage for English fashions sprang up, and for a time possessed society. The fantastic dresses of the old court were replaced by the simpler costumes of the islanders (Count Segur was troubled by the reign of frock-coats, which, as he foretold, would be found to indicate a dangerous passion for equality. So strong was the reaction in favour of simplicity that men now buttoned their coats to conceal the stars and other decorations which they had formerly been proud to exhibit.). French gardens were remodelled after English designs. English horses and horse-races, English gigs, English grooms, and the English mode of riding, were indispensable to a man of fashion. The export of English goods to France rose from 90,000 to 830,000. It was justly held that this grotesque passion expressed French admiration of the liberty and independence which the English form of government secured to the people.

The literary influences of the time were singularly powerful and vehemently hostile to the old order of things. In the later years of Louis XV. the men of letters combined to produce an Encyclopaedia which should instruct mankind in regard to nearly every object of human thought. It was a vast enterprise carried out with extraordinary ability. The Encyclopaedia became at once a great power in France. It claimed a huge enlargement of human liberty in thought and action; it execrated the cruel despotisms under which the world groaned; it advocated representation and self-government. Every educated Frenchman read the Encyclopedia, to learn there how he had been robbed of his birthright by the government whose duty it was to protect him.

The writings of Voltaire exercised a prodigious influence upon French thought. His reproduction of ancient heroes who had defied tyrants stirred the French heart to its depths. Voltaire had spent three years in England, whose institutions he learned to admire. In innumerable writings he expressed his abhorrence of tyranny. He expressed, with especial energy, his abhorrence of the tyranny of priests-unhappily for France including the Christian religion itself in his condemnation (The primary object of Voltaire's attack was Christianity as represented by the Roman Catholic Church of his day. His error lay in confounding two things so dissimilar as the Church and the Christianity of the New Testament, and in indiscriminately denouncing both. Christianity, as Voltaire saw it around him, was not deserving of better treatment than it received at his hands). His words reached the hearts of the upper classes in France with unexampled authority. He became a power which it is not easy for us now to comprehend. A few weeks before his death he revisited Paris from his retirement at Ferney. He was now a man of eighty, bent, shrivelled, recalling by his antique dress the manners of an extinct generation; the deep piercing eye alone asserting his old supremacy. The learned, and the noble, and the beautiful worshipped at the shrine of the withered unbeliever, who had uttered so vividly their protest against the evils of the time.

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