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France: The Second Empire page 5


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It has been said by Carlyle that " the thing we call French Revolution became a thing that was " on the day when Napoleon quelled the revolt of the sections. Four years later, when Napoleon obtained supreme power, he, and France with him, believed that he had then closed the era of revolution. When Louis XVIII. ascended the throne of his fathers, it was to heal the wounds of the revolution - now at length terminated. Louis Philippe came on a like errand - to give stability to the institutions of France, and finally calm the agitations of the now accomplished revolution. Years passed, and the same necessity, grim and fierce as of old, confronted the Frenchmen of a later time. Louis Napoleon announced that he had arisen to close the era of revolution. But despotism heals no wounds; it solves no great problems } it only delays their solution and enhances their complications. The gulf which had yawned since 1789 refused to close till it had swallowed down the last pretender to the throne of France.

The era of revolution in England stretched across the half-century which intervened between the breaking out of hostilities in 1642 and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in 1688. The era of revolution in France opened in 1789, and cannot close otherwise than by the establishment of a republic - the free choice of the French people.

For a century - more than, the life-time of three generations - the French people have yearned for political equality. They were sufficiently enlightened to desire liberty, but too little enlightened to use it wisely. Their early success bewildered them. After giving, as it seemed, high example to the world, and awakening the hope of oppressed humanity, they suffered their revolution to be covered with shame by crimes of unparalleled atrocity. Then they proved, for a time, disloyal to the cause of freedom, and dazzled by the glory of a brilliant soldier, became his willing slaves. They paused in their pursuit of freedom to conquer the world, and raise their emperor to the throne of a universal despotism. The restoration found them penitent, caring only for quietness after the long frenzy. In time their love of freedom regained its ascendency, and they chased from the throne two kings whose rule was becoming unduly absolute. Once more their dream of liberty and equality embodied in a republic was realized. But disappointment was still in store for them. The nephew of Napoleon robbed them of their liberties by shameful violence. They were not free to return to the government of their preference till the Napoleon despotism perished in a war which its own arrogance had provoked.

There has been charged against France a blind, aimless love of change; a mere insatiable restlessness, incapable of content. Many observers fail to discover progress in her history, and see only a barren, oft-repeated alternation of despotism and license. These impressions are, however, inconsistent with obvious facts. France has not followed liberty with wisdom or with moderation, but she has followed it tenaciously under unprecedented difficulties. If she has been led aside from the pursuit, she has not failed to return to it when the circumstances which tempted her deviation passed away. Nor are the other nations of Europe guiltless regarding the aberrations which darken her record. At the opening of her revolution the time seemed to have come for the emancipation of Europe from the political and ecclesiastical systems of the Middle Ages - now grown obsolete and injurious. France pointed the way to the great deliverance. But the nations were unprepared to follow, and their hostility provoked the excesses by which the hopes of mankind were for the time frustrated.

Perhaps the most injurious legacy bequeathed by the earlier years of the revolution was the vehement antipathy with which monarchists and republicans have been taught to regard each other. Despotism had been very cruel to its victims. Republicanism had exacted a terrible revenge. Political antagonism has been in consequence peculiarly tenacious and bitter. For well-nigh a century the adherents of the opposing principles have contended for supremacy in a spirit of mutual abhorrence, beside which the mild rivalries of England sink into insignificance. But even under this disadvantage the cause of liberty has steadily gained. There is yet a strong party which seeks for rest under a government of divine right. But its influence wanes in the growing political light; and the danger that pretenders to the throne will awaken renewed discords constantly diminishes.

Once more France is free and self-governing, with a better prospect than she has ever before enjoyed of retaining her dearly-won privileges. All her royal houses have had their opportunity - closed, in each case, by rejection which thus far appears to be final. The mob of Paris can no longer make a revolution; it can make only a riot. In 1848 the provinces complained that they had to receive their revolutions by mail from Paris. Previously they accepted such consignments without even complaint. Now they do not complain; they are able to prevent. Railways and the telegraph have taken away the usurped dominion of the capital, and summoned all France to a share in her own government. In a few hours the voice of the country pronounces with authority on political questions. Paris is no longer France. The rural population of France - industrious, peaceable, economical, although still sadly uninformed - is now a controlling power in the state. The military spirit, whose predominance has brought calamity so great, is curbed by the calmer and wiser influences originating among those classes by whom the miseries of war have been most severely felt.

Now indeed it is possible to hope that the era of revolution is at length closed, and that France, satisfied with glory, chastened by sorrow, and finally delivered from the curse of personal government, will become a stable, powerful, and peaceable republic.

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