OREALD.COM - An Old Electronic Library
eng: a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

The Opening of the Century page 2

Pages: 1 <2> 3

The writings of Rousseau were still more widely read, and exercised a more powerful influence over the growth of opinion and the course of public affairs ("It was Rousseau alone who inoculated the French with the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people, and its extremest consequences." - Mallet Dupan.). In 1753 Rousseau had written on the "Origin of Inequality among Men." His discussions of that and kindred topics so attracted the public mind, that fiction, and poetry, and the drama occupied now a subordinate place. Political and economical questions alone were regarded. Even assemblies of the merely fashionable were invaded by this passion, which, with the rapidity of growth customary in France, soon absorbed the attention of all classes. The new tendency fed itself by a close study of the policy of the government and its results. "When Necker, in 1781, published his Report on National Finance, the demand for copies was so large that for some time it could not be supplied. A few years before, the proceedings of the government commanded little attention; now, a watchfulness which, under existing circumstances, was full of peril attended every step.

While the public mind was becoming conscious of the miseries which oppressed society, and yearning vaguely for deliverance, word came to Paris that the American colonies of England were in revolt. The enthusiasm which the news enkindled was intense. The attempt to reject arbitrary power and establish popular government, awakened deep sympathy among the adherents of one of the most despotic governments in Europe. The younger nobles sought eagerly to join the insurgents. Count Segur was refused permission to do so, but went in defiance of prohibition; Lafayette was arrested in the attempt. The king was most reluctant to aid the revolted colonists; but the popular sentiment was too strong, and he had at last to declare war against England. The American deputies-Franklin and his companions-were received with boundless delight. It presents a striking contrast-the rustic plainness of apparel and speech, the massive good sense and simple honesty of the republicans, as they moved amid the splendours of Versailles, and the frivolous elegance of the courtiers. Out of the alliance between France and America there sprang a quickened perception of the evils of despotism and an enormous increase of the national burdens.

Ages of misgovernment and profligate waste had brought French finance to a crisis. For many years there had been a constant excess of expenditure, until, on the eve of the revolution, the debt of France amounted to 244,000,000. The interest on this debt and the expenses of government were 26,400,000, while the revenue for the year was only 18,800,000. Every device had been tried to increase the revenue, ending still in disappointment and dismissal of the unsuccessful minister. Ever the embarrassment deepened. * Once for a brief season the decay of the monarchy seemed to be stayed. The king, groping after a capable financier, lighted, happily as it appeared, on M. de Calonne. Calonne was a compliant, agreeable man, too frivolous to concern himself deeply about the crisis whose approach he was yet acute enough to perceive. His confidence brought sunshine back to the gloomy court. He paid the debts of the princes; he purchased new palaces for the queen; he pleased the courtiers by magnificent fetes; he began the construction of great docks at Cherbourg. Once more the treasury was full and money abundant. Even the Baron de Talleyrand was satisfied that Calonne had saved the state, and only expressed surprise that he had been able to

do it so quickly.

He had gained the confidence of the bankers, and prevailed on them to lend money,-that was all; and when that resource was exhausted, as it quickly was, deepened gloom fell upon the penniless government.

When Calonne could no longer borrow, he intimated that the nation was supporting itself by artifices whose efficacy had ceased. He proposed to the king to summon the notables,- the chief men of all ranks, whom it was customary in times of peril to convene. To this august assembly he would propose that the nobles and the clergy should yield to the service of the state their special exemption from taxation. Thus would the exchequer be replenished, and the tiers Hot relieved from a sense of wrong. The poor king was so charmed with the idea that he lost the sleep of a whole night for very pleasure. The assembly met; the awful aspect of national finance was fully disclosed; the noble and reverend senators were invited to make sacrifices for the public good. They responded with a shout of indignation against the minister who made such a request. Calonne was dismissed. After much profitless talk, the notables were sent home, having achieved nothing. The deficiency was undiminished: there was only a deeper conviction of its gravity in the public mind.

Meanwhile, Paris was devoured by a thirst for political discussion. For some years the national accounts had been published, and all men could see to what a pass the country had been brought by the misgovernment of its kings. The middle class discussed the errors of their government and the wrongs of the people, dwelling much upon the insignificance to which the citizens had been reduced that the king and the nobles might be great. The poor men heard the echo of the discussions which occupied the ranks above them, and they learned to trace to their kings the poverty which made their lives so bitter. The fever in the minds of men was expressed by an issue of pamphlets, which reached a weekly average of nearly one hundred. The cost of printing increased twofold by the unwonted demand. These writings were hawked about the streets and eagerly bought. They were read aloud to little groups of ill-fed working-men, whose upturned faces, eagers hungry, stern, reflected with ominous fidelity the fierce suggestions which were addressed to them. In every coffee-house an orator, mounted on chair or table, discoursed to as many people as could crowd within hearing about the miseries which government imposed upon them. As the steadily-deepening antagonism between government and people advanced, every step was vehemently discussed, and excitement swelled day by day into wilder excesses.

It was no longer believed by any one that the king and nobles could save the state. The nation itself must do that. A meeting of the States-general was demanded and readily ordered by the compliant king.

In the month of May 1789, there came to Versailles, gathered by universal suffrage from all parts of France, twelve hundred men, whose wisdom was to undo the mischiefs which king and nobles had wrought, and restore the sinking fortunes of France. As the chosen twelve hundred walked in procession to hear mass before entering on their duties, a vast crowd, thrilled by the hopes of a new era, looked on with wonder and joy. The clergy walked foremost, superbly clad in violet robes; the nobles followed in black, with gold vests, and white plumes in their hats; last of all came the tiers etat in simple black, unglorified by the gay colours of their superiors, but numerous as all the others put together.

"When the assembly met, the three orders went each to a separate chamber. It was the wish of the clergy and nobles to vote apart from the commons, whose purposes they could thus bridle; but it was the determination of the commons that the voting should be in one chamber, because thus their superior numbers secured them absolute predominance. Their demand was resisted, and eight weeks were spent in idleness. The public, waiting eagerly for the expected regeneration, execrated the stubbornness of the clergy and nobles. At length the commons declared themselves the National Assembly (It was believed that this important step was taken by the advice of Jefferson, one of the American deputies, whose great talents inevitably gained for him commanding influence.), and intimated their intention to proceed alone to save the country. The poor king, tremblingly anxious to please all, first exhorted the three orders to meet together; then he ordained them to meet separately; finally, he commanded the clergy and nobles to yield to the wishes of the commons, in which he was reluctantly obeyed. The commons had won their first great victory, and for a brief season Paris rejoiced. The revolution, it was said, was virtually accomplished without costing a single drop of blood!

But the secret advisers of the king were unable to accept their defeat. They failed to discover that a nation was against them, and hoped by overawing 01 dissolving the insubordinate assembly to restore the endangered supremacy. In July, thirty thousand soldiers, with one hundred pieces of cannon, were encamped between Paris and Versailles; for the court had no wiser thought than the forcible trampling out of disaffection. The assembly requested the king to withdraw the troops, but his majesty refused. Soon the march of regiments through Paris alarmed the already agitated citizens. The city burst into uncontrollable excitement: the shops were closed business was suspended; the population was in the streets discussing the crisis which had arisen. The wildest rumours were eagerly believed. A great massacre, it was said, was planned by government; cannon were pointed on the city; even now red-hot shot was being prepared in the Bastile. Paris was to be blockaded and starved. The only safety of the people was to take up arms, and oppose by force the designs of their oppressors.

Under the influence of alarms such as these, a patriot army sprang at once into existence. Forty thousand men enlisted in one day. Pikes and sword-blades were forged; scythe-blades were fastened to poles; ancient fire-arms were dragged from their retirement j-but still the supply of arms was inadequate. It was known that in the Hotel des Invalides were arms enough, slightly guarded. Thither hastened the patriot hordes. Ready entrance was gained, and an ample supply of muskets with some cannon rewarded the daring of the invaders.

A greater enterprise was now to be attempted. The Bastile was to the Parisians an expressive symbol of that despotism under which they and their fathers had groaned. A sudden impulse of the mob, now flushed with the first consciousness of strength, decreed the fall of that hated fortress. It seemed hopeless for a mob to attempt the overthrow of the famous citadel, with its ponderous drawbridges, its massive walls, its lofty towers, its artillery which could inflict injuries so terrible upon the undefended besiegers, But the garrison was feeble in number and irresolute in spirit. Both governor and garrison quailed before the countless multitude of their assailants. The Bastile was surrendered after a slight resistance, and many of its defenders were pitilessly massacred.

For many days the fallen fortress was visited by crowds of curious and horrified citizens. They pierced its dark staircases and mysterious passages; they entered its awful cells, which reminded them of graves; they shuddered at the heavy chain in each dungeon, and the great stone which served as bed and as chair. Strange instruments of torture were found, among which was particularly noted an iron suit of armour, so fashioned as to grasp every part of the victim's body and utterly forbid movement. What nameless agonies of forgotten men had that armour once infolded! But all these devilish engines had been long unused, for the rule of Louis XVI. was mild. There was not found so much as one political prisoner in the Bastile, and only seven prisoners of any description. The National Assembly decreed that the Bastile should be razed to the ground for its hateful recollections.

While these vast changes were in progress in Paris, King Louis at Versailles still suffered himself to dream of restoring tranquillity by the help of his army. Even while listening to the sound of cannon fired upon the Bastile, it was not supposed that the disorders which had arisen were of a very alarming character. But in the middle of the night a courtier entered the king's chamber and told him that Paris was in arms and the Bastile taken. The dismayed monarch sat long in silence. "Why, this is a revolt!" he said at length. " Sire," replied the courtier, "it is a revolution!" Next morning the humbled monarch announced to the assembly that his troops would be withdrawn from Paris and Versailles. The unequal combat between, the court and the people had fairly opened, and already the result to the former was defeat never to be retrieved.

Even at this early stage of the revolution, with the fierce excitement yet in its infancy, the atrocities committed by the mob of Paris were such as only the most debased savages can be guilty of. The heads of their victims were cut off and borne in triumph along the streets. Occasionally the heart of a victim was plucked out and exhibited to the crowd. Pieces of human flesh were mingled with the wine which the frantic savages quaffed to the confusion of tyrants. Dotted over France stood the pleasant homes of the old nobility. The relations between the seigneurs and the peasants who lived beside them had not been kindly. The seigneur was known mainly by his exactions. He had lorded it haughtily over his poor neighbours, caring nothing for their hopeless toil, their obscure suffering. But their hour had come at length. They burst upon the ehateau of their lord; they slaughtered its inmates with unheard of torture; the house itself they plundered and burned. The rural districts became at once uninhabitable, and the nobles fled in terror out of France.

The assembly in angry haste abolished the unjust laws which had for ages oppressed the French people. During the hours of a single evening sitting, the whole fabric of feudal privilege was thrown to the ground. Henceforth the burden of taxation was to lie equitably on all classes; personal servitude, the exclusive right to hunt and shoot, the criminal jurisdiction of the nobles, the sale of public offices,-all were instantly swept away, amidst transports of delight possible only in France. The abolition of tithes for support of the clergy followed immediately. Municipal government and universal suffrage were set up. The service of the state was no longer reserved for a favoured class; all offices, civil and military, were now open to all Frenchmen. The evil which had slowly crystallized during centuries into wicked laws was effaced at a stroke by the indignant representatives of the sufferers.

<<< Previous page <<< >>> Next page >>>
Pages: 1 <2> 3

Pictures for The Opening of the Century page 2

Home | Privacy Policy | Copyright | About