The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 5

Astraea Redux without Cash.

Observe, however, beyond the Atlantic, has not the new day verily dawned! Democracy, as we said, is born; storm-girt, is struggling for life and victory. A sympathetic France rejoices over the Rights of Man; in all saloons, it is said, What a spectacle! Now too behold our Deane, our Franklin, American Plenipotentiaries, here in position soliciting; (1777; Deane somewhat earlier: Franklin remained till 1785.) the sons of the Saxon Puritans, with their Old–Saxon temper, Old–Hebrew culture, sleek Silas, sleek Benjamin, here on such errand, among the light children of Heathenism, Monarchy, Sentimentalism, and the Scarlet-woman. A spectacle indeed; over which saloons may cackle joyous; though Kaiser Joseph, questioned on it, gave this answer, most unexpected from a Philosophe: “Madame, the trade I live by is that of royalist (Mon metier a moi c’est d’etre royaliste).”

So thinks light Maurepas too; but the wind of Philosophism and force of public opinion will blow him round. Best wishes, meanwhile, are sent; clandestine privateers armed. Paul Jones shall equip his Bon Homme Richard: weapons, military stores can be smuggled over (if the English do not seize them); wherein, once more Beaumarchais, dimly as the Giant Smuggler becomes visible, — filling his own lank pocket withal. But surely, in any case, France should have a Navy. For which great object were not now the time: now when that proud Termagant of the Seas has her hands full? It is true, an impoverished Treasury cannot build ships; but the hint once given (which Beaumarchais says he gave), this and the other loyal Seaport, Chamber of Commerce, will build and offer them. Goodly vessels bound into the waters; a Ville de Paris, Leviathan of ships.

And now when gratuitous three-deckers dance there at anchor, with streamers flying; and eleutheromaniac Philosophedom grows ever more clamorous, what can a Maurepas do — but gyrate? Squadrons cross the ocean: Gages, Lees, rough Yankee Generals, ‘with woollen night-caps under their hats,’ present arms to the far-glancing Chivalry of France; and new-born Democracy sees, not without amazement, ‘Despotism tempered by Epigrams fight at her side. So, however, it is. King’s forces and heroic volunteers; Rochambeaus, Bouilles, Lameths, Lafayettes, have drawn their swords in this sacred quarrel of mankind; — shall draw them again elsewhere, in the strangest way.

Off Ushant some naval thunder is heard. In the course of which did our young Prince, Duke de Chartres, ‘hide in the hold;’ or did he materially, by active heroism, contribute to the victory? Alas, by a second edition, we learn that there was no victory; or that English Keppel had it. (27th July, 1778.) Our poor young Prince gets his Opera plaudits changed into mocking tehees; and cannot become Grand–Admiral, — the source to him of woes which one may call endless.

Woe also for Ville de Paris, the Leviathan of ships! English Rodney has clutched it, and led it home, with the rest; so successful was his new ‘manoeuvre of breaking the enemy’s line.’ (9th and 12th April, 1782.) It seems as if, according to Louis XV., ‘France were never to have a Navy.’ Brave Suffren must return from Hyder Ally and the Indian Waters; with small result; yet with great glory for ‘six non-defeats; — which indeed, with such seconding as he had, one may reckon heroic. Let the old sea-hero rest now, honoured of France, in his native Cevennes mountains; send smoke, not of gunpowder, but mere culinary smoke, through the old chimneys of the Castle of Jales, — which one day, in other hands, shall have other fame. Brave Laperouse shall by and by lift anchor, on philanthropic Voyage of Discovery; for the King knows Geography. (August 1st, 1785.) But, alas, this also will not prosper: the brave Navigator goes, and returns not; the Seekers search far seas for him in vain. He has vanished trackless into blue Immensity; and only some mournful mysterious shadow of him hovers long in all heads and hearts.

Neither, while the War yet lasts, will Gibraltar surrender. Not though Crillon, Nassau–Siegen, with the ablest projectors extant, are there; and Prince Conde and Prince d’Artois have hastened to help. Wondrous leather-roofed Floating-batteries, set afloat by French–Spanish Pacte de Famille, give gallant summons: to which, nevertheless, Gibraltar answers Plutonically, with mere torrents of redhot iron, — as if stone Calpe had become a throat of the Pit; and utters such a Doom’s-blast of a No, as all men must credit. (Annual Register (Dodsley’s), xxv. 258–267. September, October, 1782.)

And so, with this loud explosion, the noise of War has ceased; an Age of Benevolence may hope, for ever. Our noble volunteers of Freedom have returned, to be her missionaries. Lafayette, as the matchless of his time, glitters in the Versailles Oeil-de-Beouf; has his Bust set up in the Paris Hotel-de-Ville. Democracy stands inexpugnable, immeasurable, in her New World; has even a foot lifted towards the Old; — and our French Finances, little strengthened by such work, are in no healthy way.

What to do with the Finance? This indeed is the great question: a small but most black weather-symptom, which no radiance of universal hope can cover. We saw Turgot cast forth from the Controllership, with shrieks, — for want of a Fortunatus’ Purse. As little could M. de Clugny manage the duty; or indeed do anything, but consume his wages; attain ‘a place in History,’ where as an ineffectual shadow thou beholdest him still lingering; — and let the duty manage itself. Did Genevese Necker possess such a Purse, then? He possessed banker’s skill, banker’s honesty; credit of all kinds, for he had written Academic Prize Essays, struggled for India Companies, given dinners to Philosophes, and ‘realised a fortune in twenty years.’ He possessed, further, a taciturnity and solemnity; of depth, or else of dulness. How singular for Celadon Gibbon, false swain as he had proved; whose father, keeping most probably his own gig, ‘would not hear of such a union,’ — to find now his forsaken Demoiselle Curchod sitting in the high places of the world, as Minister’s Madame, and ‘Necker not jealous!’ (Gibbon’s Letters: date, 16th June, 1777, &c.)

A new young Demoiselle, one day to be famed as a Madame and De Stael, was romping about the knees of the Decline and Fall: the lady Necker founds Hospitals; gives solemn Philosophe dinner-parties, to cheer her exhausted Controller–General. Strange things have happened: by clamour of Philosophism, management of Marquis de Pezay, and Poverty constraining even Kings. And so Necker, Atlas-like, sustains the burden of the Finances, for five years long? (Till May, 1781.) Without wages, for he refused such; cheered only by Public Opinion, and the ministering of his noble Wife. With many thoughts in him, it is hoped; — which, however, he is shy of uttering. His Compte Rendu, published by the royal permission, fresh sign of a New Era, shows wonders; — which what but the genius of some Atlas–Necker can prevent from becoming portents? In Necker’s head too there is a whole pacific French Revolution, of its kind; and in that taciturn dull depth, or deep dulness, ambition enough.

Meanwhile, alas, his Fotunatus’ Purse turns out to be little other than the old ‘vectigal of Parsimony.’ Nay, he too has to produce his scheme of taxing: Clergy, Noblesse to be taxed; Provincial Assemblies, and the rest, — like a mere Turgot! The expiring M. de Maurepas must gyrate one other time. Let Necker also depart; not unlamented.

Great in a private station, Necker looks on from the distance; abiding his time. ‘Eighty thousand copies’ of his new Book, which he calls Administration des Finances, will be sold in few days. He is gone; but shall return, and that more than once, borne by a whole shouting Nation. Singular Controller–General of the Finances; once Clerk in Thelusson’s Bank!

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30