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 3


Pages: 1 2 <3>

The revolution had been very glorious, but it began to prove very costly. The people of Paris were too much elated to return to vulgar toil. They wandered about the streets, engaged in heated debate upon the rights of man and the iniquities of kings and nobles. And soon they found that as they earned no money so they could buy no food. The municipality had to feed the idle people. Baffly, the mayor of Paris, whom his thankless constituents ultimately hanged, often did not know at midnight how the city was to be fed next day.

And thus also the revenue fell off by the decay of commerce, till it was smaller by one-third than it had been before. The deficit yawned wider and more devouring than it had done when the notables were summoned to close the awful gulf. But measures were possible now of which the notables dared not to have dreamed. The possessions of the church, amounting to one-third of all the soil of France, were seized. Henceforth the priests were to be paid their painfully reduced salaries by the state (The church held property valued at 80,000,000, and yielding an annual revenue of over 3,000,000).

The meek Louis was swept almost unresistingly along by the torrent which surged around. A crowd of women, pressed by want, marched out to Versailles, and brought the king and his family back with them to Paris,-away from the splendours of Versailles, which no French monarch has since enjoyed. He tried to escape with his wife and children from the thickening horrors which beset him. He got as far as Varennes, where he was to meet an escort which would secure his safety. But, alas! the poor king stopped to wait at one end of the little town, while the horses and escort were waiting at the other. Alarm was raised, and the king was taken back to his palace. An English traveller saw him shortly after at the Tuileries: " The king as plump as ease can make him; the dauphin, working with his little hoe and rake, a good-natured looking boy of five or six, guarded by two grenadiers."

The amazing events which followed each other in so swift succession in Trance were watched with profound interest in other lands. By many they were hailed with exultation as the dawn of a brighter era for mankind (
"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven! 0 times
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!
Not favoured spots alone, but the whole earth
The beauty wore of promise."-Wordsworth
). There was hope for all oppressed states when France, most oppressed of all, had so quickly and so thoroughly -vindicated her liberties. The lower class-too much oppressed in all countries-began to cherish extravagant hopes. Inequality was to be effaced; poverty and suffering were to be things of the past. Mr. Fox spoke the sentiment of many Englishmen when he pronounced the new constitution of France the most glorious edifice of liberty which had been erected on the basis of human integrity in any age or country.

The kings and nobles of Europe looked on these transactions with a different eye. The overthrow of their orders in France was an inexpressible shock to their long-established beliefs about themselves. In every court the opinion still prevailed that the king ruled by divine right, and that any invasion of his authority was an act of profane violence.

The relations of France with the neighbouring powers could not but be troubled. The audacious temper of the revolutionary government was certain to lead to offences which monarchs, outraged by the violence offered to one of their own order, would be swift to resent. And so it proved. The Emperor of Austria-brother-in-law to King Louis-and the King of Prussia openly asserted their right to maintain the French throne by force of arms. The emigrant nobles gathered on German soil (They and their families numbered over one hundred thousand persons), and intrigued, as it was natural they should, against the revolutionary government. The irritated French demanded redress of these grievances, but got none. They were eager for war. The fierce energy which the revolution had evoked could not otherwise find due scope. War with Austria and Prussia was declared in April 1792.

England remained for some time neutral. But as the excitement of the French became more ungovernable, they followed a course which made every government their enemy. Perceiving that similar revolutions in other countries were the surest guarantee for the success of their own, they laboured to awaken discontent and promote everywhere the establishment of republican institutions. They offered assistance to any people so disposed. They announced hostility to any people who adhered to their prince and nobility. These measures caused reasonable anxiety in England. The English government, with a higher intelligence than Germany evinced, emphatically disavowed any claim to dictate to the French, and demanded only that Prance should keep within her own frontiers, and leave to other nations that freedom which she asserted for herself. An angry correspondence passed between the governments, terminating when the execution of the king rendered war inevitable. England closed diplomatic relations with her excited neighbour; impatient and reckless France declared war against England. Russia made common cause with England, so soon as she heard of the execution of the king.

In the summer months of 1792 the Duke of Brunswick was marching towards Paris with a vast force (One hundred and forty thousand men.) of Prussians and Austrians. In this train swarmed emigrant nobles burning for revenge,-eager to contribute to the restoration of the old abuses which they had found so pleasant. The French were making ready to fight, but their enthusiasm was not yet fully enkindled, and their preparations were backward. They were busy celebrating the triumphs they had won,-planting trees of liberty-listening to fervid expositions of the rights of man- marching in great procession to impress their sentiments upon the legislature. As they were thus occupied, the Duke of Brunswick, moving on towards Paris, issued for the instruction of men a declaration of the objects which he proposed to gain. He was to put an end to the anarchy which prevailed in France, -he was to defend the church and the throne,-he was to restore to the king the liberty and dignity which he had lost, and inflict signal vengeance upon all who dared to insult or wrong his majesty. In a word, he would snatch from the rejoicing Frenchmen the liberty which they had just achieved, and restore the ancient, lately overthrown tyranny which their souls loathed.

So, then, it was plain that king and nobles were in their hearts opposed to liberty, and allied with foreigners to suppress it. All Frenchmen now were brothers, leagued to resist the avowed enemies of human freedom. The foolish proclamation evoked a deep and indignant defiance, and men rushed to arms. But with a powerful enemy approaching their gates, was a traitor to the great cause to occupy the throne 1 The proclamation sealed the fate of the monarchy. A cry arose for the dethronement of the king. One party wished it to be accomplished in a formal and orderly way, by decree of the assembly; another preferred that it should be achieved by the uprising of an outraged people. The advocates of insurrection gave prompt decision in favour of their own views. Thirty thousand men, with a suitable artillery, stormed the Tuileries, and massacred the Swiss guards. The king with his wife and children sought refuge in the National Assembly, whence they were transferred to a prison.

Meanwhile, the Duke of Brunswick was moving on. By the 30th August he was before Verdun, the last fortification which barred his road to Paris. The rage and fear of the excited people made them cruel. The king and his friends were the cause of this invasion. On them it was surely fitting that vengeance for the woes of the nation should fall. Danton, with a fierce energy and boundless audacity of speech, which roused a fury unknown before in the Parisian heart, urged the necessity of putting the royalists in fear. They must paralyze by terror those who still favoured monarchy. Not otherwise could the machinations of wicked persons be baffled, and the country saved.

Verdun fell almost at the first breath of bombardment, and on the night of the 1st September, it was known in Paris that the progress of the enemy was unopposed. The prisons were full of royalists, in whose interest Trance was enduring the miseries of invasion. The mob crowded around the prisons, clamouring fiercely for the blood of the unhappy inmates. A mock tribunal was extemporized. The victims were hurriedly interrogated, almost invariably condemned, and then thrust forth into the armed crowd-resembling fiends rather than men who swarmed in the courtyard. Men who had never even in thought sinned against their country-men whose lives had been devoted to the relief of the poor and suffering, passed un-pitied through the fatal gateway to a death of horror. Women, young and beautiful-women in helpless, unoffending age, were hewn to pieces by savages. Eleven hundred persons were thus slaughtered. When all was over, the murderers were duly paid for their service by the municipality of Paris. By atrocities such as these the maddened Parisians sought to lay upon the royalists the restraint of fear.

The French army of defence, under Dumouriez, encountered the Prussians at Valmy. After a slight engagement, in which the French fought with unexpected spirit, the Duke of Brunswick fell back, discouraged, and France was delivered from her danger.

And now that the invader was driven away, what was to be done with the discrowned king whom he had come to restore, and who was known to have plotted, or allowed others to plot, for the overthrow of the revolution ? The Prussian invasion sealed the ruin not -merely of the throne, but of Louis and his family.

The king had been for four months a prisoner, entertaining the most gloomy anticipations regarding his fate, reading much of a history sadly resembling his own-that of Charles I. of England. He was brought to the bar of the Convention, charged with offences against the republic. By a narrow majority he was doomed to die. Two days after he was led forth. From his prison to the place of execution was a journey of an hour, between double rows of armed men, amid countless hostile faces, without one look or word of sympathy. On the scaffold

he sought to address the people. But his voice was drowned by the beating of drums; the executioners seized their struggling victim, and bound him to the plank. The axe fell, and the sorrows of poor King Louis were ended.

"The kings threaten us," said Danton; "we hurl at their feet as gage of battle the head of a king."

The internal history of France during a period of two years from the fall of the monarchy, is perhaps the most appalling record which the annals of the human family present. There was much suffering among the people, and the pressure of hunger helped to make them fierce. They were agitated by fears for the success of the revolution, which, if it gave them scant supply of bread, had undeniably freed them from the intolerable oppression of their superiors. A diseased suspicion filled their minds. They believed that they lived on " a volcano of conspiracies." Every man against whom a word or even a look of disapproval was alleged, was an ally of the discarded system, and therefore a traitor. This continual suspicion, acting on a national character formed under cruel oppression and prone to extremes, produced results at which successive generations of men will shudder so long as history endures. A fury, incomprehensible and almost incredible-a thirst of blood absolutely insatiable, possessed the minds of the people. There were eight or ten thousand suspected persons crowded into the horrible prisons of Paris. Every afternoon carts laden with unhappy men and women, condemned for imaginary offences, passed along the streets to the place of death. The daily average at first was low, not exceeding eight or ten. A little later it stood at forty or fifty. Towards the close of the Reign of Terror it ranged sometimes as high as eighty. In the provinces scenes equally dreadful were constantly enacted. It was reckoned that net fewer than a million of persons were murdered by the infuriated French people before the merciful reaction occurred which terminated the unutterable horrors of the time.

All the great parties possessed themselves of supreme power-now the Girondists, now the Communists, now the Jacobins Each, as it fell, suffered without pity the agonies which it had inflicted. When the Girondists were overthrown, their leaders were conveyed together to the guillotine. They numbered twenty-one persons, and the execution occupied thirty-eight minutes. The doomed men sang patriot songs as they waited their fate- the strain becoming ever feebler as man after man was snatched away, till it ceased when the last survivor was bound to the plank.

For two years France had suffered Robespierre to work his own fiendish will in the slaughter of thousands of unoffending persons. But the inevitable reaction came at length, and the murderer with his chief accomplices were hurried to the scaffold. And then it was found that men were wearied with the horrid work of which they had seen so much. The prisons were gradually emptied. Two months after Robespierre's death there was not one suspected person in the prisons. The guillotine ceased to have its daily victims, and the public mind was set free from that burden of terror under which it had so long been crushed.

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

Pictures for The Opening of the Century page 3


Home | Privacy Policy | Copyright | About