Page images

gieat transaction, and though its history may therefore be written with most advantage very long alter its occurrence, it does not follow that such a history will not be deficient iu many qualities which it would be desirable for it to possess. All we say is, that they are qualities which will generally be found incompatible with those larger and sounder views, which can hardly be matured while the subjects of them are recent. That this is an imperfection in our histories and historians, is sufficiently obvious; but it is an imperfection to which we must patiently resign ourselves, if it appear to be an unavoidable consequence of the limitation of our faculties. We cannot both enjoy the sublime effect of a vast anil various landscape, and at the same time discern the form of every leaf in the forest, or the movements of every living creature that breathes within its expanse. Beings of a higher order may be capable of this;— and it would be very desirable to be so: But, constituted as we are, it is impossible; aiid. in our delineation of such a scene, all that is minute and detached, however interesting or important to those who are at hand, must therefore be omitted—while the general effect is entrusted to masses in which nothing but the great outlines of great objects are preserved, and the details left to be inferred from the character of their resulls, or the larger features of their usual accompaniments.

It is needless to apply this to the case of history; in which, when it records even!s of permanent interest, it is equally impossible to retain those particular details which engrossed the attention of contemporaries—both because the memory of them is necessarily lost in the course of that period which must elapse before the just value of the whole can be known—and because, even if it were otherwise, no human memory could retain, or human judgment discriminate, the infinite number of particulars which must have been presented in such an interval. We shall only observe, further, that though that which is preserved is generally the most material and truly important part of the story, it not unfrequently happens, that too little is preserved to afford materials for a satisfactory narrative, or to justify any general conclusion; and that, in such cases, the historian often yields to the temptation of connecting the scanty materials that have reached him by a sort of general and theoretical reasoning, which naturally takes its colour from the prevailing views and opinions of the individual writer, or of the age to which he beloncs. If an author of consummate judgment, and with a thorough knowledge of the unchangeable principles of human nature, undertake this task, it is wonderful indeed to see how much he may make of a subject that appears so unpromising—and it is almost certain that the view he will give to his readers, of such an obscure period, will, at all events, be at least as instructive and interesting as if he had had its entire annals before him. In other hands, however, the result is very different ; and, instead of a masterly picture of rude or remote

ages, true at least to the general features ел such periods, we have nothing but a Iranscript of the author's own most recent laiiia sies and follies, ill disguised under the masquerade character of a few traditional names.—It is only necessary to call to mind such books as Zouche's Life of Sir PhiLp Sydney, or Godwin's Life of Chaucer, to feel this much more strongly than we can now express it. These, no doubt, are extreme cases ;—but we suspect that our impression of almost all remote characters and event», and the general notions we have of the time« or societies which produced them, are much more dependent on the peculiar temper and habits of the popular writers in whom the memory of them is chiefly preserved, than il is very pleasant to think of. If we ever late the trouble of looking for ourselves into iu? documents and materials out of which those histories are made, we feel at once how iLtiL room there is for a very different repreeentttion of all those things from that which :s current iu the world: And accordingly «t1 occasionally have very opposite representations. Compare Bossuet's Universal гЫогу with Voltaire's—Rollin with Milford—Hun* or Clarendon with Ralph or Mrs. M-Aula\: and it will be difficult to believe that tht* different writers aje speaking of the sim? persons and things.

The work before us, we have already said, is singularly free from faults of this description. It is written, we do think, in the irtt spirit and temper of historical impartialii} But it has faults of a different character ¿and, with many of the merits, combines fame of the appropriate defects, bolh of a contemporary and philosophical history. Its detailsaic too few and too succinct for the former—they are too numerous and too rashly selected fot the latter;—while the reasonings and spi-tvilations in which perhaps its chief value «..sists, seem already to be too often thio»:: away upon matters that cannot long be had in remembrance. We must take care noi ¡» get entangled loo far among the anecdutrs— but the general reasoning cannot detain в» very long.

It is the scope of the book to show liai France must have a free government—» limited monarchy—in express words, a cw.stitution like that of England. This, Staël says, was all that the body of the nation aimed at iu 1789—and this shesa;s the great majority of the nation are reached to have still—undeterred by the falal miscarriage of the last experiment, and undisíuíti-i by the revival of ancient pretensions »hen has signalised its close. Still, though she maintains this to be the prevailing gentimeni of the French people, she thinks it not au-j gether unnecessary to combat this diicour agement and this disgust;—and the pri-as object of all that is argumentative in ¡» г book, is to show that there is nothing in 'I'1' character or condition, or late or early history of her countrymen, to render this regulate! freedom unattainable by them, or to Disqualify liem fiom the enjoyment of a repre «ciitative government, or the functions of free citizens.

For this purpose she takes a rapid and masterly view of the progress of the different European kingdoms, from their primitive condition of feudal aristocracies, to their present eUle of monarchies limited by law, or mitigated by the force of public opinion; and endearoura to show, that the course has been the same in all ; and that its unavoidable termination is in a balanced constitution like that of England. The first change was the reduction of ihe Nobles,—chiefly by the aid which tie Commons, then first pretending to wealth or intelligence, afforded to the Crown—and. on this basis, some small states, in Italy and Germany especially, erected a permanent system of freedom. But the necessities of war, and the substitution of hired forces for the feudal militia, led much more generally to the establishment of an arbitrary or despolical authority ; which was accomplished in France. Spain, and England, under Louie XL, Philip II.. and Henry VIII. Then came the age of commerce, luxury, and taxes,—which necessarily ripened into the age of general intelligence, individual wealth, and a sense both of right and of power in the people :— ami those led irresistibly to a limitation on the powers of the Crown, by a representative assembly.

England having less occasion for a land army—and having been the first in the career o; commercial prosperity, led the way in this great amelioration. But the same general principles have been operating in all the Continental kingdoms, and must ultimately produi-e the same effects. The peculiar advantages which she enjoyed did not prevent England from being enslaved by the tyranny oi Henry VIII., and Mary;—and she also experienced the hazards, and paid the penalties which are perhaps inseparable from the assertion of popular rights.—She also overthrew the monarchy, and sacrificed the monarch in her first attempt to set limits to his power. The English Commonwealth of 1648, originated in as wild speculations as the French of 1792—and ended, like it, in the establishment of a military tyranny, and a restoration wh.'ch seemed to confound all the asserters of liberty in the general guilt of rebellion :— Yet all the world is now agreed that this was but the first explosion of a flame that could neither be extinguished nor permanently repressed; and that what took place in 1688, was but the sequel and necessary consummation of what had been begun forty years beture—and which might and would have been accomplished without even the slightest shock ind disturbance that was then experienced, if the Court had profited as much as the leaders of the people by the lessons of that first experience. Such too, Madame de Staël assures us, is the unalterable destiny of France; —and it is the great purpose of her book to show, that but for circumstances which cannot recur—mistakes that cannot be repeated, and accidents which never happened twice, even ihe last attempt would have led to that blessed

consummation—and that every thing is now in the fairest train to secure it, without any great effort or hazard of disturbance.

That these views are supported with infinite talent, spirit, and eloquence, no one who has read the book will probably dispute: and we should be sorry indeed to think that they were not substantially just. Yet we are not, we confess, quite so sanguine as the distinguished writer before us; and though we do not doubt either that her principles are true, or that her predictions will be ultimately accomplished, we tear that the period of their triumph is not yet at hand ; and that it is far more doubtful than she will allow it to be. whether that triumph will be easy, peaceful, and secure. The example of England is her great, indeed her only authority ; but we are afraid that she has run the parallel with more boldness than circumspection, and overlooked a variety of particulars in our case, to which she could not easily find any thing equivalent in that of her country. It might be invidious to dwell much on the opposite character and temper of the two nations; though it is no answer to say, that this character is the work of the government. But can Madame de Staël have forgotten, that England had a parliament and a representative legislature for five hundred years before 1648; and that it was by that organ, and the widely spread and deeply founded machinery of the elections on which it rested, that the struggle was made, and the victory won, which ultimately secured to из the blessings of political freedom? The least reflection upon the nature of government, and the true foundations of all liberty, will show what an immense advantage this was in the contest; and with what formidable obstacles those must have to struggle, who are obliged to engage in a similar conflict without it.

All political power, even the most despotic, rests at last, as was profoundly observed by Hume, upon Opinion. A government is Jvst, or otherwise, according as it promotes, more or less, the true interests of the people who live under it. But it is Stable and secure, exactly as it is directed by the opinion of those who really possess, and know that they possess, the power of enforcing it, and upon whose opinion, therefore, it constantly depends;— that is, in a military despotism, on the opinion of the soldiery;—in all rude and ignorant communities, on the opinion of those who monopolise the intelligence, the wealth, or the discipline which constitute power—the priesthood—the landed proprietors—the armed and inured to war ;—and, in civilised societies, on the opinion of that larger proportion of the people who can bring their joint talents, wealth, and strength, to act in concert when occasion requires. A government may indeed subsist for a time, although opposed to the opinion of those classes of persons; but its existence must always be precarious, and it probably will not subsist long. The natural and appropriate Constitution, therefore, is, in every case, that which enables those who ac tually administer the government, to ascertain and conform themselves in time to the opinion of those who have the power to overturn it; and no government whatever can possibly be secure where there are no arrangements for this purpose. Thus it is plainly for want of a proper Despotic Constitution—for want of a regular and safe way of getting at the opinions of their armies, that the Sultans and other Asiatic sovereigns are so frequently beheaded by their janissaries or insurgent soldiery: and, in like manner, it \vas for want of a proper Feudal Constitution, that, in the decline of that system, the King was so often dethroned by his rebellious barons, or excommunicated by an usurping priesthood. In more advanced times, there is the same necessity of conforming to the prevailing opinion of those more extended and diversified descriptions of persons in whom the power of enforcing and resisting has come to reside; and the natural and only safe constitution for such societies, must therefore embrace a representative assembly. A government may no doubt go on. in opposition to the opinion of th:s virtual aristocracy, for a long time after it has come into existence. For it is not enough that there is wealth, and intelligence, and individual influence enough in a community to overbear all pretensions opposed to them. It is necessary that the possessors of this virtual power should be aware of their own numbers, and of the conformity of their sentiments or views: and it is very late in the progress of society before the means of communication are so multiplied and improved, as to render this practicable in any tolerable degree. Trade and the press, however, have now greatly facilitated those communications; and in all the central countries of Europe, they probably exist in a degree quite sufficient to give one of the parties, at least, very decided impressions bom as to its interests and its powers.

In such a situation of things, we cannot hesitate to say that a representative government is the natural, and will be the ultimate remedy ; but if we find, that even where euch an institution existed from antiquity, it was possible so fatally to miscalculate and misjudge the opinions of the nation, as proved to be the case in the reign of our King Charles, is it not manifest that there must be tenfold risk of such miscalculation in a country where no such constitution has been previously known, and where, from a thousand causes. the true state of the public mind is so apt to be oppositely misconceived by the opposite parties, as it is up to the present hour in France ? j

The great and cardinal use of a representa- ¡ live body in the legislature is to afford a di- , reel, safo, and legitimate channel, by which the public opinion may be bronchi to act on the government: But. to enable it to perform this function with success, it is by no 'means enough, that a certain number of deputies are sent into the legislature by a certain number of electors. Without a good deal of previous training, the public opinion itself can neither be formed, collected, nor expressed in any authentic or effectual manner; and the first establishment of the representative system must be expected to occasion very nearly as loach disturbance as it may ultimately pre-1

vent. In countries where Inere never Ьате been any political elections¡ and few local magistracies, or occasions of provincial ai.d parochial assemblages for public purposes, lae real state of opinion must be substantially unknown even to the most observant re.-iut i.i in each particular district;—and its general bearing all over the country can never poisbly be learned by the most diligent inquirn v or even guessed at with any reasonable titgree of probability. The first deputies, therefore, are necessarily relumed, without any firm or assured kjiowledge of the sentimc;.:s of their constituents—and they again u.:i have nolhing but the most vague notion« u¡ the lemper in which ihese senliments are to be enforced—while the whole deputies саше together withoul any notion of the dispositions, or talents, or designs of each other, and are left to scramble for distinction and inliuence, according to the measure of iheir individual zeal, knowledge, or assurance. I:. England, ihere were no such novelties to be hazarded, either in 1640 or in 1688. The people of this country have had an electrre parliament from the earliest period of their history—and, long before eil her of the period» in question, had been Irained in everyhamkt to the exercises of various political franchi* ^ and taught to consider ihemselves as contused, by known and honourable ties, with aD the persons of influence and consideration ;a iheir neighbourhood, and. ihrough them, by an easy gradalion wilh the political leader» of ihe Stale ;—while, in Parliament itsell. the place and pretensions of every man were pretly accuralely known, and the strength oí each party reasonably well ascertained by long and repealed experimente, made ur.iier all variety of circumstances. The organization and machinery, in short, for coùt-сиц the public opinion, and bringing it into ctttact with the administration, was perfect, ai.d in daily operation among us, from very indent times. The various conduits and chair neis by which it was to be conveyed from ¡'-' first faint springs in the villages and burghs, and conducted in gradually increasing stnanjf to the central wheels of the government, wert all deep worn in the soil, and familiarly known, wilh all their levels and conneclioni. lo every one who could be affected by their condition. In France, when the new sluice« were opened, nol only were ihe waters universally foul and turbid, bul the quantity tod the currents were all irregular and unknown: and some stagnated or trickled feebly aio;; while others rushed and roared with the violence and the mischief of a torrent. But it i* time to leave these perplexing genera!;!.« f. and come a little closer to the work betöre i'.?. It was the Cardinal de Richelieu, according to Madame de Staël, who completed the degradation of the French nobility, begun by Louis XL ;—and ihe arrogance and Spanish gravily of Louis XIV., assumed, as f-he si>f; i!pour éloigner de lui la familiarilé des ju::i'mens." fixed ihem in ihe capacity of courtiers j and put an end to that gay and tafv tone of communication, which, in the daya « Henri IV.. had made the task of a conrtier both less wearisome anil less degrading. She has no partiality, indeed, for the memory of that buckram hero—and is very indignant at his being regarded as the patron of literature. •• 11 persécuta Port-Royal, dont Pascal étoit le chef: il fit mourir de chagrin Racine; il exila Fénélon; il s'opposa constamment aux honneurs qu'on vouloit rendre à La Fontaine, et ne professa de l'admiration que pour Boileau. La littérature, en l'exaltant avec excès, a bien plus fait pour lui qu'il n'a fait pour elle."— (Vol. i. p. 36.) In his own person, indeed, he oudived his popularity, if not his fame. The brilliancy of his early successes \vas lost in hie later reverses. The debts he had contracted lav like a load on the nation; and the rigour and gloominess of his devotion was one cause of the alacrity with which the nation plunged into all the excesses and profligacy of :hf гегепсу and the suceeding reign.

That reijrn—the weakness of Louis XV.— the avowed and disgusting influence of his mistresses and all their relations, and the national disasters which they occasioned—toGt--ther with the general spread of intelligence among the body of the people, and the bold and rigorous spirit displayed in the writings of Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau, created a general feeling of discontent and contempt for the government, and prepared the way for those more intrepid reformers who were so soon destined to succeed.

Louis XVI., pays Madame de Staël, would hare been the mildest and most equitable of depots, and the most constitutional of constilutional kings—had he been born to administer either an established despotism, or a constitutional monarchy. But he was not fitted to fill the throne during the difficult and trying crisis of a transition from the one state to the other. He was sincerely anxious for the happiness and even the rights of his people; but he had a hankering after the absolu te power which seemed to be his lawful inheritance: and was too easily persuaded by those about him to cling to it too long, for his own safety, or that of the country. The Queen, with the same amiable dispositions, had still more of those natural prejudices. M. de Maurepa«, a minister of the old school, was compelled, by the growing disorders of the finance«, to call to his aid the talents of Turen; and Necker about the year 1780. We • hear enough, of course, in this book, of the latter: But though we can pardon the filial piety which has led the author to discuss, at so irreat length, the merit of his plans of finance and government, and to dwell on the pravhttic spirit in which he foresaw and foretoU a)I the consequences that have flowed from rejecting them, we have too much regard for our readers to oppress them, at this time of day, with an analysis of the Compte Rendu, or the scheme for provincial assemblies. As an historical personage, he must have hie due share of notice; and no fame can be purer than that to which he is entitled. His daughter, we think, has truly described the scope of hie endeavours, in his first minis

try, to have been, "to persuade the King to do of himself that justice to the people, to obtain which they afterwards insisted for representatives." Such a counsellor, of course, had no chance in 1780; and, the year after, M. Necker was accordingly dismissed. The great objection to him was, that he proposed innovations—" et de toutes les innovations, celle que les courtisans et les financiers détestent le plus, c'est I'economie." Before going out, however, he did a great deal of good; and found means, while M. de Maurepas had a bad fit of gout, to get M. de Sartine removed from the ministry of marine—a personage so extremely diligent in the studies belonging to his department, that when M. Necker went to see him soon after his appointment, he found him in a chamber all hung round with maps; and boasting with much complacency, that "he could already put his hand upon the largest of them, and point, with his eyes shut, to the four quarters of the world!"

Calonne succeeded—a frivolous, presumptuous person,—and a financier, in so far as we can judge, after the fashion of our poet-laureate: For he too, it seems, was used to call prodigality "a large economy;" and to assure the King, that the more lavish he and his court were in their expenses, so much the better would it fare with the country. The consequence was, that the disorder soon became irremediable; and this sprightly minister was forced at last to adopt Turgot's proposal of subjecting the privileged orders to their share of the burdens—and finally to ad vise the convocation of the Notables, in 1787.

The Notables, however, being all privileged persons, refused to give up any of their im munitics—and they and M. de Calonne were dismissed accordingly. Then came the wavering and undecided administration of M. de Brientie, which ended with the resolution to assemble the States-General ;—and this was the Revolution!

Hitherto, says Madame de Staël, the nation at large, and especially the lower orders, had taken no share in those discussions. The resistance to the Court—the complaints—Ihe call for reformation, originated and was confined to the privileged orders—to the Parliaments—the Nobles and the Clergy. No revolution indeed can succeed in a civilised country, which does not begin at least with the higher orders. It was in the parliament of Paris, in which the peers of France had seats, and which had always been most tenacious of the privileges of its members, that the suggestion was first made which set fire to tho four quarters of the kingdom. In that kingdom, indeed, it could hardly fail, as it was made in Ihe form of a pun or bon mot. They were clamouring against the minister for not exhibiting his account of the public expenses, when the Abbé Sabatier said— Vous demandez, messieurs, lea étais de recette et de depense—et ce sont 1rs Etats-Généraux qu'il nous faut !"—This was eagerly repeated in every order of society; addresses to that effect were poured in, in daily heaps; and at


last M. le Brienne was obliged to promise, in the King's name, that the States-General should assemble at the end of five years. This delay only inflamed the general impatience : and the clergy having solemnly declaimed againstit, the King wasat last obliged to announce that they should meet early in the following year. M. Necker at the same time was recalled to the ministry.

The States-General were demanded by the privileged orders : and, if they really expected to find them as they were in 1614, which was their last meeting, (though it is not very conceivable that they should have overlooked the lifference of the times,) we can understand that they might have urged this demand without any design of being very liberal to the other orders of the community. This is the edifying abstract which Madame de Staël has given of the proceedings of that venerable assembly.

" Le Clergé demanda qu'il lui fût permis de lever des dîmes sur toute espèce de fruits et de grains, et qu'on défendît de lui faire payer des droits à l'entrée des villes, ou de lui imposer sa part des contributions pour les chemins ; il réclama de nouvelles entraves à la liberté de la presse. La Noblesse demanda que les principaux emplois fussent tous donnés exclusivement aux gentilshommes, qu'on interdît aux roturiers les arquebuses, les pistolets, et l'usage des chiens, à moins qu'ils n'eussent les jarrets coupés. Elle demanda de plus que les roturiers payassent de nouveaux droits seigneuriaux aux gentilshommes possesseurs de fiefs ; que l'on supprimât toutes les pensions accordées aux membres du tiers état ; mais que les gentilshommes fussent exempts de la contrainte par corps, et de tout subside sur les denrées de leurs terres; qu'ils pussent prendre du sel dans les greniers du roi au même prix que les marchands; enfin que le tiers état fut obligé de porter un habit différent de celui des gentilshommes.''-Vol. i. p. 162.

TheStates-General, however, were decreed; —and, that the whole blame of innovation might still lie upon the higher orders, M. de Brienne, in the name of the King, invited all and sundry to make public their notions upon the manner in which that great body should be arranged. By the old form, the Nobles, the Clergy, and the Commons, each deliberated apart-andeach hadbut one voice inthe enactment of laws;-so that the privileged orders were always two to one against the other— and the course of legislation had always been to extend the privileges of the one, and increase the burdens of the other. Accordingly, the tiers état had long been defined, o la gent corvéable et taillable, à merci et à miséricorde;o -and Madame de Staël, in one of those passages that already begin to be valuable to the forgetful world, bears this striking testimony as to the effect on their actual condition.

" Les jeunes gens et les étrangers qui n'ont pas connu la France avant la révolution, et qui voient aujourd'hui le peuple enrichi par la division des propriétés et la suppression des dîmes et du régime féodal, ne peuvent avoir l'idée de la situation de ce pays, lorsque la nation portoit le poids de tous les priviléges. Les partisans de l'esclavage, dans les colonies, ont souvent dit qu'un paysan de France étoit plus malheureux † nègre. C'étoit un argument pour soulager les blancs, mais non pour s'endurcir contre les noirs. La misère accroît

l'ignorance, l'ignorance accroît la misère ; et, quand on se demande pourquoi le peuple françois a été si cruel dans la révolution, on ne peut en trouver la cause que dans l'absence de bonheur, qui conduit à l'absence de moralité.''-Vol. i. p. 79.

But what made the injustice of this strange system of laying the heaviest pecuniary burdens on the poorest a thousand times more oppressive, and ten thousand times more provoking, was, that the invidious right of exemption came at last to be claimed, not by the true ancient noblesse of France, which, Madame de Staël says, did not extend to two hundred families, but by hundredsofthousands of persons of all descriptions, who had bought patents of nobility for the very purpose of obtaining this exemption. There was nothing in the structure of French society that was more revolting, or called more loudly for reformation, than the multitude and the pretensions of this anomalous race. They were most jealously distinguished from the true † 'Noblesse; which guarded its purity indeed with such extreme rigour, that no person was allowed to enter any of the royal carriages whose patent of nobility was not certified by the ð heralds to bear date prior to the year 1400; and yet they not only assumed the name and title of nobles, but were admitted, as against the people, into a full participation of all their most offensive privileges. It is with justice, therefore, that Madame de Staël reckons as one great cause of the Revolution,—

" Cette foule de gentilshommes du second ordre, anoblis de la veille, soit par les lettres de noblesse ue les rois donnoient comme faisant suite à l'atranchissement des Gaulois, soit par les charges vénales de secrétaire du roi, etc., qui associoient de nouveaux individus aux droits et aux priviléges des anciens gentilshommes. La nation se seroit soumise volontiers à la prééminence des familles historiques ; et je n'exagère pas en affirmant qu'il n'y en a pas plus de deux cents en France. M§ les cent mille nobles et les cent mille prêtres qui vouloient avoir des priviléges, à l'égal de ceux de MM. de Montmorenci, de Grammont, de Crillon, etc., révoltoient généralement; car des négocians, des hommes de lettres, des propriétaires, des capitalistes, ne pouvoient comprendre la supériorité qu'on vouloit accorder à cette noblesse acquise à prix de révérences ou d'argent, et à laquelle vingt-cinq ans de date suffisoient pour siégre dans la chambre des nobles, et pour jouir des priviléges dont les plus honorables membres du tiers état se voyoient privés. " La chambre des pairs en Angleterre est une magistrature patricienne, fondée sans doute sur les anciens souvenirs de la chevalerie, mais tout-à-fait associée à des institutions d'une nature très-diffé. rente. Un mérite distingué dans le commerce, et surtout dans la jurisprudence, en ouvre journellement l'entrée; et les droits représentatifs que les pairs exercent dans l'état, attestent à la nation que c'est pour le bien public que leurs rangs sont institués. Mais quel avantage les François pouvoientils trouver dans ces vicomtes de la Garonne, ou dans ces marquis de la Loire, qui ne payoient pas seulement leur part des impôts de l'état, et que le roi lui-même ne recevoit pas à sa cour; puisqu'il falloit faire des preuves de plus de quatre siècles pour y être admis, et qu'ils étoient à peine anoblis depuis cinquante ans ? " La vanité des gens de cette classe ne pouvoit s'exercer que sur leurs inférieurs, et ces inférieurs, c'étoient vingt-quatre millions d'hommes.''-Vol. i. p. 166-168.

Strange as it may appear, there was no law

« PreviousContinue »