The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 1

Dishonoured Bills.

While the unspeakable confusion is everywhere weltering within, and through so many cracks in the surface sulphur-smoke is issuing, the question arises: Through what crevice will the main Explosion carry itself? Through which of the old craters or chimneys; or must it, at once, form a new crater for itself? In every Society are such chimneys, are Institutions serving as such: even Constantinople is not without its safety-valves; there too Discontent can vent itself, — in material fire; by the number of nocturnal conflagrations, or of hanged bakers, the Reigning Power can read the signs of the times, and change course according to these.

We may say that this French Explosion will doubtless first try all the old Institutions of escape; for by each of these there is, or at least there used to be, some communication with the interior deep; they are national Institutions in virtue of that. Had they even become personal Institutions, and what we can call choked up from their original uses, there nevertheless must the impediment be weaker than elsewhere. Through which of them then? An observer might have guessed: Through the Law Parlements; above all, through the Parlement of Paris.

Men, though never so thickly clad in dignities, sit not inaccessible to the influences of their time; especially men whose life is business; who at all turns, were it even from behind judgment-seats, have come in contact with the actual workings of the world. The Counsellor of Parlement, the President himself, who has bought his place with hard money that he might be looked up to by his fellow-creatures, how shall he, in all Philosophe-soirees, and saloons of elegant culture, become notable as a Friend of Darkness? Among the Paris Long-robes there may be more than one patriotic Malesherbes, whose rule is conscience and the public good; there are clearly more than one hotheaded D’Espremenil, to whose confused thought any loud reputation of the Brutus sort may seem glorious. The Lepelletiers, Lamoignons have titles and wealth; yet, at Court, are only styled ‘Noblesse of the Robe.’ There are Duports of deep scheme; Freteaus, Sabatiers, of incontinent tongue: all nursed more or less on the milk of the Contrat Social. Nay, for the whole Body, is not this patriotic opposition also a fighting for oneself? Awake, Parlement of Paris, renew thy long warfare! Was not the Parlement Maupeou abolished with ignominy? Not now hast thou to dread a Louis XIV., with the crack of his whip, and his Olympian looks; not now a Richelieu and Bastilles: no, the whole Nation is behind thee. Thou too (O heavens!) mayest become a Political Power; and with the shakings of thy horse-hair wig shake principalities and dynasties, like a very Jove with his ambrosial curls!

Light old M. de Maurepas, since the end of 1781, has been fixed in the frost of death: “Never more,” said the good Louis, “shall I hear his step overhead;” his light jestings and gyratings are at an end. No more can the importunate reality be hidden by pleasant wit, and today’s evil be deftly rolled over upon tomorrow. The morrow itself has arrived; and now nothing but a solid phlegmatic M. de Vergennes sits there, in dull matter of fact, like some dull punctual Clerk (which he originally was); admits what cannot be denied, let the remedy come whence it will. In him is no remedy; only clerklike ‘despatch of business’ according to routine. The poor King, grown older yet hardly more experienced, must himself, with such no-faculty as he has, begin governing; wherein also his Queen will give help. Bright Queen, with her quick clear glances and impulses; clear, and even noble; but all too superficial, vehement-shallow, for that work! To govern France were such a problem; and now it has grown well-nigh too hard to govern even the Oeil-de-Boeuf. For if a distressed People has its cry, so likewise, and more audibly, has a bereaved Court. To the Oeil-de-Boeuf it remains inconceivable how, in a France of such resources, the Horn of Plenty should run dry: did it not use to flow? Nevertheless Necker, with his revenue of parsimony, has ‘suppressed above six hundred places,’ before the Courtiers could oust him; parsimonious finance-pedant as he was. Again, a military pedant, Saint–Germain, with his Prussian manoeuvres; with his Prussian notions, as if merit and not coat-of-arms should be the rule of promotion, has disaffected military men; the Mousquetaires, with much else are suppressed: for he too was one of your suppressors; and unsettling and oversetting, did mere mischief — to the Oeil-de-Boeuf. Complaints abound; scarcity, anxiety: it is a changed Oeil-de-Boeuf. Besenval says, already in these years (1781) there was such a melancholy (such a tristesse) about Court, compared with former days, as made it quite dispiriting to look upon.

No wonder that the Oeil-de-Boeuf feels melancholy, when you are suppressing its places! Not a place can be suppressed, but some purse is the lighter for it; and more than one heart the heavier; for did it not employ the working-classes too, — manufacturers, male and female, of laces, essences; of Pleasure generally, whosoever could manufacture Pleasure? Miserable economies; never felt over Twenty-five Millions! So, however, it goes on: and is not yet ended. Few years more and the Wolf-hounds shall fall suppressed, the Bear-hounds, the Falconry; places shall fall, thick as autumnal leaves. Duke de Polignac demonstrates, to the complete silencing of ministerial logic, that his place cannot be abolished; then gallantly, turning to the Queen, surrenders it, since her Majesty so wishes. Less chivalrous was Duke de Coigny, and yet not luckier: “We got into a real quarrel, Coigny and I,” said King Louis; “but if he had even struck me, I could not have blamed him.” (Besenval, iii. 255–58.) In regard to such matters there can be but one opinion. Baron Besenval, with that frankness of speech which stamps the independent man, plainly assures her Majesty that it is frightful (affreux); “you go to bed, and are not sure but you shall rise impoverished on the morrow: one might as well be in Turkey.” It is indeed a dog’s life.

How singular this perpetual distress of the royal treasury! And yet it is a thing not more incredible than undeniable. A thing mournfully true: the stumbling-block on which all Ministers successively stumble, and fall. Be it ‘want of fiscal genius,’ or some far other want, there is the palpablest discrepancy between Revenue and Expenditure; a Deficit of the Revenue: you must ‘choke (combler) the Deficit,’ or else it will swallow you! This is the stern problem; hopeless seemingly as squaring of the circle. Controller Joly de Fleury, who succeeded Necker, could do nothing with it; nothing but propose loans, which were tardily filled up; impose new taxes, unproductive of money, productive of clamour and discontent. As little could Controller d’Ormesson do, or even less; for if Joly maintained himself beyond year and day, d’Ormesson reckons only by months: till ‘the King purchased Rambouillet without consulting him,’ which he took as a hint to withdraw. And so, towards the end of 1783, matters threaten to come to still-stand. Vain seems human ingenuity. In vain has our newly-devised ‘Council of Finances’ struggled, our Intendants of Finance, Controller–General of Finances: there are unhappily no Finances to control. Fatal paralysis invades the social movement; clouds, of blindness or of blackness, envelop us: are we breaking down, then, into the black horrors of NATIONAL BANKRUPTCY?

Great is Bankruptcy: the great bottomless gulf into which all Falsehoods, public and private, do sink, disappearing; whither, from the first origin of them, they were all doomed. For Nature is true and not a lie. No lie you can speak or act but it will come, after longer or shorter circulation, like a Bill drawn on Nature’s Reality, and be presented there for payment, — with the answer, No effects. Pity only that it often had so long a circulation: that the original forger were so seldom he who bore the final smart of it! Lies, and the burden of evil they bring, are passed on; shifted from back to back, and from rank to rank; and so land ultimately on the dumb lowest rank, who with spade and mattock, with sore heart and empty wallet, daily come in contact with reality, and can pass the cheat no further.

Observe nevertheless how, by a just compensating law, if the lie with its burden (in this confused whirlpool of Society) sinks and is shifted ever downwards, then in return the distress of it rises ever upwards and upwards. Whereby, after the long pining and demi-starvation of those Twenty Millions, a Duke de Coigny and his Majesty come also to have their ‘real quarrel.’ Such is the law of just Nature; bringing, though at long intervals, and were it only by Bankruptcy, matters round again to the mark.

But with a Fortunatus’ Purse in his pocket, through what length of time might not almost any Falsehood last! Your Society, your Household, practical or spiritual Arrangement, is untrue, unjust, offensive to the eye of God and man. Nevertheless its hearth is warm, its larder well replenished: the innumerable Swiss of Heaven, with a kind of Natural loyalty, gather round it; will prove, by pamphleteering, musketeering, that it is a truth; or if not an unmixed (unearthly, impossible) Truth, then better, a wholesomely attempered one, (as wind is to the shorn lamb), and works well. Changed outlook, however, when purse and larder grow empty! Was your Arrangement so true, so accordant to Nature’s ways, then how, in the name of wonder, has Nature, with her infinite bounty, come to leave it famishing there? To all men, to all women and all children, it is now indutiable that your Arrangement was false. Honour to Bankruptcy; ever righteous on the great scale, though in detail it is so cruel! Under all Falsehoods it works, unweariedly mining. No Falsehood, did it rise heaven-high and cover the world, but Bankruptcy, one day, will sweep it down, and make us free of it.

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