The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 4

Lomenie’s Edicts.

Thus, then, have the Notables returned home; carrying to all quarters of France, such notions of deficit, decrepitude, distraction; and that States–General will cure it, or will not cure it but kill it. Each Notable, we may fancy, is as a funeral torch; disclosing hideous abysses, better left hid! The unquietest humour possesses all men; ferments, seeks issue, in pamphleteering, caricaturing, projecting, declaiming; vain jangling of thought, word and deed.

It is Spiritual Bankruptcy, long tolerated; verging now towards Economical Bankruptcy, and become intolerable. For from the lowest dumb rank, the inevitable misery, as was predicted, has spread upwards. In every man is some obscure feeling that his position, oppressive or else oppressed, is a false one: all men, in one or the other acrid dialect, as assaulters or as defenders, must give vent to the unrest that is in them. Of such stuff national well-being, and the glory of rulers, is not made. O Lomenie, what a wild-heaving, waste-looking, hungry and angry world hast thou, after lifelong effort, got promoted to take charge of!

Lomenie’s first Edicts are mere soothing ones: creation of Provincial Assemblies, ‘for apportioning the imposts,’ when we get any; suppression of Corvees or statute-labour; alleviation of Gabelle. Soothing measures, recommended by the Notables; long clamoured for by all liberal men. Oil cast on the waters has been known to produce a good effect. Before venturing with great essential measures, Lomenie will see this singular ‘swell of the public mind’ abate somewhat.

Most proper, surely. But what if it were not a swell of the abating kind? There are swells that come of upper tempest and wind-gust. But again there are swells that come of subterranean pent wind, some say; and even of inward decomposion, of decay that has become self-combustion:— as when, according to Neptuno–Plutonic Geology, the World is all decayed down into due attritus of this sort; and shall now be exploded, and new-made! These latter abate not by oil. — The fool says in his heart, How shall not tomorrow be as yesterday; as all days, — which were once tomorrows? The wise man, looking on this France, moral, intellectual, economical, sees, ‘in short, all the symptoms he has ever met with in history,’ — unabatable by soothing Edicts.

Meanwhile, abate or not, cash must be had; and for that quite another sort of Edicts, namely ‘bursal’ or fiscal ones. How easy were fiscal Edicts, did you know for certain that the Parlement of Paris would what they call ‘register’ them! Such right of registering, properly of mere writing down, the Parlement has got by old wont; and, though but a Law–Court, can remonstrate, and higgle considerably about the same. Hence many quarrels; desperate Maupeou devices, and victory and defeat; — a quarrel now near forty years long. Hence fiscal Edicts, which otherwise were easy enough, become such problems. For example, is there not Calonne’s Subvention Territoriale, universal, unexempting Land-tax; the sheet-anchor of Finance? Or, to show, so far as possible, that one is not without original finance talent, Lomenie himself can devise an Edit du Timbre or Stamp-tax, — borrowed also, it is true; but then from America: may it prove luckier in France than there!

France has her resources: nevertheless, it cannot be denied, the aspect of that Parlement is questionable. Already among the Notables, in that final symphony of dismissal, the Paris President had an ominous tone. Adrien Duport, quitting magnetic sleep, in this agitation of the world, threatens to rouse himself into preternatural wakefulness. Shallower but also louder, there is magnetic D’Espremenil, with his tropical heat (he was born at Madras); with his dusky confused violence; holding of Illumination, Animal Magnetism, Public Opinion, Adam Weisshaupt, Harmodius and Aristogiton, and all manner of confused violent things: of whom can come no good. The very Peerage is infected with the leaven. Our Peers have, in too many cases, laid aside their frogs, laces, bagwigs; and go about in English costume, or ride rising in their stirrups, — in the most headlong manner; nothing but insubordination, eleutheromania, confused unlimited opposition in their heads. Questionable: not to be ventured upon, if we had a Fortunatus’ Purse! But Lomenie has waited all June, casting on the waters what oil he had; and now, betide as it may, the two Finance Edicts must out. On the 6th of July, he forwards his proposed Stamp-tax and Land-tax to the Parlement of Paris; and, as if putting his own leg foremost, not his borrowed Calonne’s-leg, places the Stamp-tax first in order.

Alas, the Parlement will not register: the Parlement demands instead a ‘state of the expenditure,’ a ‘state of the contemplated reductions;’ ‘states’ enough; which his Majesty must decline to furnish! Discussions arise; patriotic eloquence: the Peers are summoned. Does the Nemean Lion begin to bristle? Here surely is a duel, which France and the Universe may look upon: with prayers; at lowest, with curiosity and bets. Paris stirs with new animation. The outer courts of the Palais de Justice roll with unusual crowds, coming and going; their huge outer hum mingles with the clang of patriotic eloquence within, and gives vigour to it. Poor Lomenie gazes from the distance, little comforted; has his invisible emissaries flying to and fro, assiduous, without result.

So pass the sultry dog-days, in the most electric manner; and the whole month of July. And still, in the Sanctuary of Justice, sounds nothing but Harmodius–Aristogiton eloquence, environed with the hum of crowding Paris; and no registering accomplished, and no ‘states’ furnished. “States?” said a lively Parlementeer: “Messieurs, the states that should be furnished us, in my opinion are the STATES-GENERAL.” On which timely joke there follow cachinnatory buzzes of approval. What a word to be spoken in the Palais de Justice! Old D’Ormesson (the Ex–Controller’s uncle) shakes his judicious head; far enough from laughing. But the outer courts, and Paris and France, catch the glad sound, and repeat it; shall repeat it, and re-echo and reverberate it, till it grow a deafening peal. Clearly enough here is no registering to be thought of.

The pious Proverb says, ‘There are remedies for all things but death.’ When a Parlement refuses registering, the remedy, by long practice, has become familiar to the simplest: a Bed of Justice. One complete month this Parlement has spent in mere idle jargoning, and sound and fury; the Timbre Edict not registered, or like to be; the Subvention not yet so much as spoken of. On the 6th of August let the whole refractory Body roll out, in wheeled vehicles, as far as the King’s Chateau of Versailles; there shall the King, holding his Bed of Justice, order them, by his own royal lips, to register. They may remonstrate, in an under tone; but they must obey, lest a worse unknown thing befall them.

It is done: the Parlement has rolled out, on royal summons; has heard the express royal order to register. Whereupon it has rolled back again, amid the hushed expectancy of men. And now, behold, on the morrow, this Parlement, seated once more in its own Palais, with ‘crowds inundating the outer courts,’ not only does not register, but (O portent!) declares all that was done on the prior day to be null, and the Bed of Justice as good as a futility! In the history of France here verily is a new feature. Nay better still, our heroic Parlement, getting suddenly enlightened on several things, declares that, for its part, it is incompetent to register Tax-edicts at all, — having done it by mistake, during these late centuries; that for such act one authority only is competent: the assembled Three Estates of the Realm!

To such length can the universal spirit of a Nation penetrate the most isolated Body-corporate: say rather, with such weapons, homicidal and suicidal, in exasperated political duel, will Bodies-corporate fight! But, in any case, is not this the real death-grapple of war and internecine duel, Greek meeting Greek; whereon men, had they even no interest in it, might look with interest unspeakable? Crowds, as was said, inundate the outer courts: inundation of young eleutheromaniac Noblemen in English costume, uttering audacious speeches; of Procureurs, Basoche–Clerks, who are idle in these days: of Loungers, Newsmongers and other nondescript classes, — rolls tumultuous there. ‘From three to four thousand persons,’ waiting eagerly to hear the Arretes (Resolutions) you arrive at within; applauding with bravos, with the clapping of from six to eight thousand hands! Sweet also is the meed of patriotic eloquence, when your D’Espremenil, your Freteau, or Sabatier, issuing from his Demosthenic Olympus, the thunder being hushed for the day, is welcomed, in the outer courts, with a shout from four thousand throats; is borne home shoulder-high ‘with benedictions,’ and strikes the stars with his sublime head.

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