The Political Movement In France

The Political Movement In France


IN approaching this subject one naturally measures back from the Revolution of 1789. All other enquiries become secondary to that respecting the causes of the great upheaval which overturned the monarchy and the associated institutions.


Giving at once the result of our investigation, we would enumerate these causes as follows: (1) forfeiture of respect on the part of the rulers by moral turpitude; (2) the vacillating policy of the government, or its alternation between concession and despotic authority; (3) bitter religious controversies, in which the government united with a majority of the higher clergy to override the preference of the great body of the people; (4) ambition of the parliaments, and especially of the Parliament of Paris, to reach the position, and to fulfill the functions of a coordinate branch of the government; (5) political writings which discredited the notion of absolute monarchy, and set forth the superior merits of republican or democratic rule; (6) discontent in large masses of the people, provoked by poverty and hunger.


Before the burial of Louis XIV. the eyes of Frenchmen had begun to be opened to the shadowed side of his reign. Looking beyond the glory of royalty they saw the tyranny and the shame. Very few mourned the death of the magnificent despot.


The succeeding rulers were in no wise calculated to make good the deficit in esteem and veneration which had already been incurred. On the contrary, they perpetuated all the shame of the reign of Louis XIV. without reproducing aught of its glory. The Duke of Orleans, who acted as regent during the minority of the King, was an unblushing libertine. Louis XV., in his personal habits, was a disgrace to royalty throughout the greater part of his long reign. As in the times of Henry III., the mistress bore the sceptre, and religion was abased to the semblance of a vapid and despicable superstition by being mixed with moral outrage and indecency. Louis XVI. was doubtless exemplary in his general conduct, but he had not sufficient force of character to recover lost prestige.


The forfeiture of respect which had been wrought in this manner was aggravated by the unsteadiness of the administration. While the monarch affronted the growing taste for self-government by repeating the assumptions of Louis XIV. and claiming once and again to be the impersonation of the entire sovereignty of the realm, he did not maintain himself firmly upon this ground. Yielding at times to popular disquiet, he gave indulgence to the party representing opposing claims. Concessions of this sort, not having the appearance of free gifts, won no gratitude, and only served to encourage to new efforts those who, from interest or principle, were desirous to limit the authority of the crown. The people were neither crowded down to passivity by a strong despotism nor made content by a liberal treatment.


The crowning indiscretion of the government was in the management of religious affairs. Following the behests of the Jesuits and the Pope, it loaned its power to the base enterprise of enthroning a dogmatic constitution -- the bull Unigenitus -- which struck not only at the roots of Gallicanism, but at the foundations of morality itself. A partial exposition of this astonishing document has been given in the preceding volume, and further reference will be made to it presently. What we wish to emphasize here is the fact that the miserable and harassing measures by which the obnoxious constitution was enforced revolted profoundly the greater part of the thinking element in the nation, and well-nigh precipitated an outbreak more than a generation before the Revolution. This is abundantly indicated by reports which have come down to us from the middle part of the eighteenth century. The Memoirs of the Marquis d'Argenson, for example, show that, while yet the school of free-thinkers was in its incipiency, and had done comparatively little toward leavening the popular mind with innovating opinions, a revolutionary stir was in the air. As early as 1743 we find him writing: "Revolution is certain to come in this State; it is crumbling at its foundations; one has only to detach himself from his country, and to prepare to pass under other masters and some other form of government." 1 Mémoires, iv. 83. In 1751 he wrote: "There is much questioning in the minds of the people respecting this impending revolution in the government; nothing else is talked about, and all classes, even down to the peasants, are imbued with the subject." 1 Mémoires, vii. 23. A few months later he recorded this reflection: "Will despotism increase, or will it diminish in France? For my part, I hold to the second alternative, and prophesy even the coming of a republic. I have seen in my days the respect and love of the people for royalty diminish. Louis XV. has not known how to govern either as tyrant or as the good chief of a republic. Evil hour for the royal authority when one undertakes neither rôle!" 2 Ibid., vii. 242. In various passages, D'Argenson indicates with sufficient distinctness his conviction that the revolutionary ferment which he describes had its origin largely in resentments against the pressure and violence with which the theological scheme of a faction was imposed upon the nation. 3 Ibid., vi. 453, 454; viii. 35. In fine, the bull Unigenitus, or the plot which it served, fulfilled no inconspicuous part in laying the train for the explosion which was to leave palace and throne in fragments.


Aside from the general import of the Unigenitus controversy, as exasperating the minds of a large body of the people, it had a special political bearing, inasmuch as it gave to the Parliament of Paris the means of magnifying its own importance. In its proper character this body, like the several provincial parliaments, had no legislative functions. Its special office in connection with the making or promulgation of laws was the formal registration of them. But in course of time it began to esteem its function in registration as something more than simply ministerial. It assumed the prerogative to delay in the matter, and to interpose objections to royal decrees. Under the powerful absolutism of Louis XIV. it was indeed overawed and reduced to a quiescent attitude. But in the subsequent era its bent to independent action was repeatedly manifested. The odiousness of the royal policy in the controversy over the papal constitution gave to it the support of a powerful party. It was inspired, therefore, with confidence to resist the royal will again and again. This continued antagonism was naturally fruitful of political thinking. While the parliament, as actually constituted, was rather a privileged body than a representative assembly, its position over against the monarch was analogous to that of such an assembly, and helped to foster the idea, that government is a matter which belongs to the nation, and not merely to the king. Touching upon this point D'Argenson wrote in 1754: "It is observed that never before have the names of Nation and State been repeated as they are to-day. These two names were not pronounced under Louis XIV., and the very idea which belongs to them was wanting. The people have never been so well instructed as to-day in the rights of the nation and of liberty." 1 Mémoires, viii. 315.


It may be concluded from the above that the movement in favor of limited monarchy and the prerogatives of the nation did not wait for formal political treatises. Writings of this order, however, came forward to reinforce the movement. In 1748 appeared Montesquieu's "Spirit of Laws." This in its general animus was far from being an inflammatory or revolutionary book. Political problems are discussed therein with great circumspection, and with large reference to historical data. Still it requires no great keenness of insight to discover in the treatise an underlying hostility to unrestricted monarchy. Tokens of this hostility are found in the favorable judgment of Montesquieu upon the system of mutual checks appearing in the English government; in his conviction that the union in the same person of legislative with executive or judicial functions is incompatible with liberty; and in his declaration that virtue is a necessary foundation for a republic, while the principle of honor suffices for a monarchy, and that of fear answers the needs of a despotism. His reflections go to enforce the conclusion that the republican is intrinsically the higher form of government, and should be introduced wherever suitable conditions for its maintenance exist.


Fourteen years after the publication of the "Spirit of Laws," Jean Jacques Rousseau gave to France the treatise which became ere long the Bible of the ultra revolutionists. The "Social Contract" was a genuine specimen of doctrinaire politics. It takes indeed some account of the diverse requisites of different stages in the progress of nations, as also of the characteristics resulting from special experiences and environments. Still the practical difficulties which are likely to be encountered in the application of theories are but lightly regarded. General maxims are enthroned, and pushed boldly to their consequences.


According to Rousseau, the State originates in a convention or contract. For the sake of the greater good of order, protection, and secure sustenance, men resign the independence belonging to them in the state of nature. Thus the community is constituted. As in forming the community all make an entire surrender of their separate rights, they stand in their new relations upon a precise legal equality. The surrender being made, not to this or that individual, but to the whole body, no place is left for personal precedence as respects rights or authority. Inasmuch as an entire surrender is made by all, an unrestricted sovereignty is constituted. This sovereignty inheres in the whole body. The people in their collective capacity are the sovereign. The general will is the supreme authority. The executive, whether king or president, has only to fulfill the general will. He is but the agent of the sovereign. For this agent to act in any wise as the principal, or to usurp any part of the sovereignty, is to break the pact on which the community is founded. When the people are in assembly, as they hold the undivided sovereignty, they can cancel any delegated authority, and adopt any new plan of administration which may command their suffrage or the suffrage of a majority. In fine, as is evident from this outline, the political ideal set forth by Rousseau, was that of an omnipotent democracy, held within no definite limits by organic laws, and unembarrassed by any positive guaranties of historical continuity in its action. Grant that he was not himself a revolutionary zealot, and that he spoke of the dangers which accrue from sudden transitions in government, his book was nevertheless well adapted to be the delight of any hasty and impassioned theorists who should determine to establish at once a political millennium. Amid the great hopes and enthusiasms which were evoked by the assembling of the States-General, or the national representatives, in 1789, the "Social Contract " was thoroughly adapted to gratify and to stimulate a throng of eager minds.


If the presentation of new and alluring ideals kindled the desire of change in some minds, there were large numbers in France who needed no speculative incentive to make them long for a different order of things. Their misery was so near the utmost extremity that the notion of change could hardly signify to them anything else than the possibility of relief. The great body of the peasantry lived on the border of abject penury, so that any unusual dearth exposed them to starvation. Many died of want in 1739 and 1740. The like misery was experienced in 1750, 1751, and 1753. There was also a famine in 1770 and in 1773. The winter of 1789, which preceded the opening of the States-General, was a time of great distress. Now it lay in the nature of the case that so much misery should provoke a popular ferment. Men cannot remain quiet under an intolerable lot. The peasantry too had some excuse for revolutionary fever, since no small part of their hardships was due to a most oppressive and unequal system of taxation, which granted large exemptions to the wealthy, and so threw the principal burden upon the poor laborers.


These causes of political crisis were reinforced in some measure by the successful struggle of the American colonies, and the close association of France with them in that struggle. "The American war," says Henri Martin, "at once postponed and paved the way for the Revolution; it afforded a temporary diversion abroad to the most energetic sentiments of France; but these sentiments returned to us, defined and strengthened by the sight of facts more powerful than books and theories." 1 Histoire de France, tome xvi, p. 442 in Eng. translation.


The years which followed the accession of Louis XVI. (1774) were less stormy than some of those which had preceded. The relative calm might have led an observer to think that the forces of upheaval had been dissipated. But it only needed a special occasion to reveal their presence and energy. When the discovery of a serious deficit in the treasury brought the government into embarrassment, and made it willing to issue the call for the assembling of the States-General, it was speedily made manifest that the idea of a great political regeneration was in many minds.


The barriers of conservatism in the States-General were at once broken down by the successful contention of the commons that the nobles and the clergy should unite with them, instead of forming separate houses. The Constituent Assembly which was thus organized yielded more and more to an impetuous demand for change. Many useful reforms were indeed accomplished. Overgrown privileges were canceled, and various elements of crudity and arbitrariness were eliminated from the judicial system of the realm. But the prudent mean failed to be observed. Legislation so far outran the inclination of a large part of the nation that a fearful discord was made inevitable. Not content to take from the nobility anomalous rights which had been transmitted from the feudal system, the Assembly proceeded to sweep away the estate itself. The clergy were treated with almost as scant forbearance, and the Church was remodeled in defiance of its traditions and preferences.


The Legislative Assembly, which met in October, 1791, had less of the restraints of sober wisdom and prudence than its predecessor. The National Convention of the next year marked a still further descent. The enthusiast, the theorist, and the demagogue were now at the front. Men with no political education and no equipment for the task of statesmen except a stock of phrases and abstractions undertook to make over society from top to bottom. With the King sent to the scaffold (January, 1793), and the old institutions overturned, they esteemed themselves ready to bring in the golden age of liberty and equality. Before the glory of the new regime the meagre past faded completely out of sight, and it was thought best to reckon time from the autumnal equinox of 1792, and in place of the weekly festival of the resurrection to substitute the decade of days.


Meanwhile the presence of insurrection and the danger of foreign invasion gave a sombre tinge to enthusiasm. Those who had been most voluble in praise of brotherhood and liberty were quick to assail with inquisitorial rigor any who dared to think otherwise than themselves. To secure liberty for the future, it was thought necessary to smite it to the earth in the present. So the "reign of terror" was inaugurated. Government became the spoil of the most unscrupulous and inexorable. The National Convention was subordinated to the revolutionary club. "Paris holds France down while a handful of revolutionists tyrannize over Paris." H.A. Taine, The French Revolution. The words of Madame de Staël are scarcely too strong to describe the course of events during the fourteen months which followed the proscription of the Girondists at the hands of the Jacobins (May 31, 1793). "There seemed," she writes, "to be a constant descent, like that which Dante describes, from circle to circle, toward a lower plane in hell. To the fierce hate against the nobles and the priests one saw succeed the irritation against land-owners, then against talents, then against beauty itself; finally against everything which remained of the great and the generous in human nature." 2 Considérations sur les Principaux Evénements de la Révolution Française, ii. 112. The number of lives sacrificed by massacre or execution, though far from inconsiderable, may not have been without its parallels. Indeed, for that matter, the unbridled ambition of Napoleon was vastly more cruel than the fury of the Jacobin chiefs. For the thousands who were destroyed at their beck, there were tens of thousands of Frenchmen who found their graves in Spain and Russia. It was the vindictiveness with which all eminence and merit were assailed that made "the reign of terror" a period of unique horror.


As might have been prophesied, and in fact was prophesied, the excesses of the Revolution prepared for the return of despotism. The rule of the Directory was not such as to assure or reconcile the large number who had been alienated by the preceding violence. From a state of fever and over tension there followed naturally a condition of relaxation or relative political indifference. At the same time a new idol was brought forward to share the homage which had been rendered at the shrine of liberty and equality. The eyes of Frenchmen were dazzled by the military glory which the marvelous generalship of Napoleon Bonaparte had secured for their armies. They interposed, therefore, no serious obstacle to the several steps by which the military captain ascended to the imperial dignity (1799-1804).


The rule of Napoleon, whatever elements of respectability it may have embraced, was the nullification of all that the more generous and liberal minds of France had been striving for in the preceding generations. Never before the fall of the Bastile had there been a more thorough despotism than that which he introduced. Intrinsically the Napoleonic regime was a dwarfing absolutism, and had not its effects been offset in a measure by the great enterprise of exterior conquests, it would stand clearly revealed as such in the history of France.