The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 2

The Election.

Up, then, and be doing! The royal signal-word flies through France, as through vast forests the rushing of a mighty wind. At Parish Churches, in Townhalls, and every House of Convocation; by Bailliages, by Seneschalsies, in whatsoever form men convene; there, with confusion enough, are Primary Assemblies forming. To elect your Electors; such is the form prescribed: then to draw up your ‘Writ of Plaints and Grievances (Cahier de plaintes et doleances),’ of which latter there is no lack.

With such virtue works this Royal January Edict; as it rolls rapidly, in its leathern mails, along these frostbound highways, towards all the four winds. Like some fiat, or magic spell-word; — which such things do resemble! For always, as it sounds out ‘at the market-cross,’ accompanied with trumpet-blast; presided by Bailli, Seneschal, or other minor Functionary, with beef-eaters; or, in country churches is droned forth after sermon, ‘au prone des messes paroissales;’ and is registered, posted and let fly over all the world, — you behold how this multitudinous French People, so long simmering and buzzing in eager expectancy, begins heaping and shaping itself into organic groups. Which organic groups, again, hold smaller organic grouplets: the inarticulate buzzing becomes articulate speaking and acting. By Primary Assembly, and then by Secondary; by ‘successive elections,’ and infinite elaboration and scrutiny, according to prescribed process — shall the genuine ‘Plaints and Grievances’ be at length got to paper; shall the fit National Representative be at length laid hold of.

How the whole People shakes itself, as if it had one life; and, in thousand-voiced rumour, announces that it is awake, suddenly out of long death-sleep, and will thenceforth sleep no more! The long looked-for has come at last; wondrous news, of Victory, Deliverance, Enfranchisement, sounds magical through every heart. To the proud strong man it has come; whose strong hands shall no more be gyved; to whom boundless unconquered continents lie disclosed. The weary day-drudge has heard of it; the beggar with his crusts moistened in tears. What! To us also has hope reached; down even to us? Hunger and hardship are not to be eternal? The bread we extorted from the rugged glebe, and, with the toil of our sinews, reaped and ground, and kneaded into loaves, was not wholly for another, then; but we also shall eat of it, and be filled? Glorious news (answer the prudent elders), but all-too unlikely! — Thus, at any rate, may the lower people, who pay no money-taxes and have no right to vote, (Reglement du Roi in Histoire Parlementaire, as above, i. 267–307.) assiduously crowd round those that do; and most Halls of Assembly, within doors and without, seem animated enough.

Paris, alone of Towns, is to have Representatives; the number of them twenty. Paris is divided into Sixty Districts; each of which (assembled in some church, or the like) is choosing two Electors. Official deputations pass from District to District, for all is inexperience as yet, and there is endless consulting. The streets swarm strangely with busy crowds, pacific yet restless and loquacious; at intervals, is seen the gleam of military muskets; especially about the Palais, where Parlement, once more on duty, sits querulous, almost tremulous.

Busy is the French world! In those great days, what poorest speculative craftsman but will leave his workshop; if not to vote, yet to assist in voting? On all highways is a rustling and bustling. Over the wide surface of France, ever and anon, through the spring months, as the Sower casts his corn abroad upon the furrows, sounds of congregating and dispersing; of crowds in deliberation, acclamation, voting by ballot and by voice, — rise discrepant towards the ear of Heaven. To which political phenomena add this economical one, that Trade is stagnant, and also Bread getting dear; for before the rigorous winter there was, as we said, a rigorous summer, with drought, and on the 13th of July with destructive hail. What a fearful day! all cried while that tempest fell. Alas, the next anniversary of it will be a worse. (Bailly, Memoires, i. 336.) Under such aspects is France electing National Representatives.

The incidents and specialties of these Elections belong not to Universal, but to Local or Parish History: for which reason let not the new troubles of Grenoble or Besancon; the bloodshed on the streets of Rennes, and consequent march thither of the Breton ‘Young Men’ with Manifesto by their ‘Mothers, Sisters and Sweethearts;’ (Protestation et Arrete des Jeunes Gens de la Ville de Nantes, du 28 Janvier 1789, avant leur depart pour Rennes. Arrete des Jeunes Gens de la Ville d’Angers, du 4 Fevrier 1789. Arrete des Meres, Soeurs, Epouses et Amantes des Jeunes Citoyens d’Angers, du 6 Fevrier 1789. (Reprinted in Histoire Parlementaire, i. 290–3.)) nor suchlike, detain us here. It is the same sad history everywhere; with superficial variations. A reinstated Parlement (as at Besancon), which stands astonished at this Behemoth of a States–General it had itself evoked, starts forward, with more or less audacity, to fix a thorn in its nose; and, alas, is instantaneously struck down, and hurled quite out, — for the new popular force can use not only arguments but brickbats! Or else, and perhaps combined with this, it is an order of Noblesse (as in Brittany), which will beforehand tie up the Third Estate, that it harm not the old privileges. In which act of tying up, never so skilfully set about, there is likewise no possibility of prospering; but the Behemoth–Briareus snaps your cords like green rushes. Tie up? Alas, Messieurs! And then, as for your chivalry rapiers, valour and wager-of-battle, think one moment, how can that answer? The plebeian heart too has red life in it, which changes not to paleness at glance even of you; and ‘the six hundred Breton gentlemen assembled in arms, for seventy-two hours, in the Cordeliers’ Cloister, at Rennes,’ — have to come out again, wiser than they entered. For the Nantes Youth, the Angers Youth, all Brittany was astir; ‘mothers, sisters and sweethearts’ shrieking after them, March! The Breton Noblesse must even let the mad world have its way. (Hist. Parl. i. 287. Deux Amis de la Liberte, i. 105–128.)

In other Provinces, the Noblesse, with equal goodwill, finds it better to stick to Protests, to well-redacted ‘Cahiers of grievances,’ and satirical writings and speeches. Such is partially their course in Provence; whither indeed Gabriel Honore Riquetti Comte de Mirabeau has rushed down from Paris, to speak a word in season. In Provence, the Privileged, backed by their Aix Parlement, discover that such novelties, enjoined though they be by Royal Edict, tend to National detriment; and what is still more indisputable, ‘to impair the dignity of the Noblesse.’ Whereupon Mirabeau protesting aloud, this same Noblesse, amid huge tumult within doors and without, flatly determines to expel him from their Assembly. No other method, not even that of successive duels, would answer with him, the obstreperous fierce-glaring man. Expelled he accordingly is.

‘In all countries, in all times,’ exclaims he departing, ‘the Aristocrats have implacably pursued every friend of the People; and with tenfold implacability, if such a one were himself born of the Aristocracy. It was thus that the last of the Gracchi perished, by the hands of the Patricians. But he, being struck with the mortal stab, flung dust towards heaven, and called on the Avenging Deities; and from this dust there was born Marius, — Marius not so illustrious for exterminating the Cimbri, as for overturning in Rome the tyranny of the Nobles.’ (Fils Adoptif, v. 256.) Casting up which new curious handful of dust (through the Printing-press), to breed what it can and may, Mirabeau stalks forth into the Third Estate.

That he now, to ingratiate himself with this Third Estate, ‘opened a cloth-shop in Marseilles,’ and for moments became a furnishing tailor, or even the fable that he did so, is to us always among the pleasant memorabilities of this era. Stranger Clothier never wielded the ell-wand, and rent webs for men, or fractional parts of men. The Fils Adoptif is indignant at such disparaging fable, (Memoires de Mirabeau, v. 307.) — which nevertheless was widely believed in those days. (Marat, Ami-du-Peuple Newspaper (in Histoire Parlementaire, ii. 103), &c.) But indeed, if Achilles, in the heroic ages, killed mutton, why should not Mirabeau, in the unheroic ones, measure broadcloth?

More authentic are his triumph-progresses through that disturbed district, with mob jubilee, flaming torches, ‘windows hired for two louis,’ and voluntary guard of a hundred men. He is Deputy Elect, both of Aix and of Marseilles; but will prefer Aix. He has opened his far-sounding voice, the depths of his far-sounding soul; he can quell (such virtue is in a spoken word) the pride-tumults of the rich, the hunger-tumults of the poor; and wild multitudes move under him, as under the moon do billows of the sea: he has become a world compeller, and ruler over men.

One other incident and specialty we note; with how different an interest! It is of the Parlement of Paris; which starts forward, like the others (only with less audacity, seeing better how it lay), to nose-ring that Behemoth of a States–General. Worthy Doctor Guillotin, respectable practitioner in Paris, has drawn up his little ‘Plan of a Cahier of doleances;’ — as had he not, having the wish and gift, the clearest liberty to do? He is getting the people to sign it; whereupon the surly Parlement summons him to give an account of himself. He goes; but with all Paris at his heels; which floods the outer courts, and copiously signs the Cahier even there, while the Doctor is giving account of himself within! The Parlement cannot too soon dismiss Guillotin, with compliments; to be borne home shoulder-high. (Deux Amis de la Liberte, i. 141.) This respectable Guillotin we hope to behold once more, and perhaps only once; the Parlement not even once, but let it be engulphed unseen by us.

Meanwhile such things, cheering as they are, tend little to cheer the national creditor, or indeed the creditor of any kind. In the midst of universal portentous doubt, what certainty can seem so certain as money in the purse, and the wisdom of keeping it there? Trading Speculation, Commerce of all kinds, has as far as possible come to a dead pause; and the hand of the industrious lies idle in his bosom. Frightful enough, when now the rigour of seasons has also done its part, and to scarcity of work is added scarcity of food! In the opening spring, there come rumours of forestalment, there come King’s Edicts, Petitions of bakers against millers; and at length, in the month of April — troops of ragged Lackalls, and fierce cries of starvation! These are the thrice-famed Brigands: an actual existing quotity of persons: who, long reflected and reverberated through so many millions of heads, as in concave multiplying mirrors, become a whole Brigand World; and, like a kind of Supernatural Machinery wondrously move the Epos of the Revolution. The Brigands are here: the Brigands are there; the Brigands are coming! Not otherwise sounded the clang of Phoebus Apollos’s silver bow, scattering pestilence and pale terror; for this clang too was of the imagination; preternatural; and it too walked in formless immeasurability, having made itself like to the Night (Greek.)!

But remark at least, for the first time, the singular empire of Suspicion, in those lands, in those days. If poor famishing men shall, prior to death, gather in groups and crowds, as the poor fieldfares and plovers do in bitter weather, were it but that they may chirp mournfully together, and misery look in the eyes of misery; if famishing men (what famishing fieldfares cannot do) should discover, once congregated, that they need not die while food is in the land, since they are many, and with empty wallets have right hands: in all this, what need were there of Preternatural Machinery? To most people none; but not to French people, in a time of Revolution. These Brigands (as Turgot’s also were, fourteen years ago) have all been set on; enlisted, though without tuck of drum, — by Aristocrats, by Democrats, by D’Orleans, D’Artois, and enemies of the public weal. Nay Historians, to this day, will prove it by one argument: these Brigands pretending to have no victual, nevertheless contrive to drink, nay, have been seen drunk. (Lacretelle, 18me Siecle, ii. 155.) An unexampled fact! But on the whole, may we not predict that a people, with such a width of Credulity and of Incredulity (the proper union of which makes Suspicion, and indeed unreason generally), will see Shapes enough of Immortals fighting in its battle-ranks, and never want for Epical Machinery?

Be this as it may, the Brigands are clearly got to Paris, in considerable multitudes: (Besenval, iii. 385, &c.) with sallow faces, lank hair (the true enthusiast complexion), with sooty rags; and also with large clubs, which they smite angrily against the pavement! These mingle in the Election tumult; would fain sign Guillotin’s Cahier, or any Cahier or Petition whatsoever, could they but write. Their enthusiast complexion, the smiting of their sticks bodes little good to any one; least of all to rich master-manufacturers of the Suburb Saint–Antoine, with whose workmen they consort.

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