The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 1

Inertia.

That exasperated France, in this same National Assembly of hers, has got something, nay something great, momentous, indispensable, cannot be doubted; yet still the question were: Specially what? A question hard to solve, even for calm onlookers at this distance; wholly insoluble to actors in the middle of it. The States–General, created and conflated by the passionate effort of the whole nation, is there as a thing high and lifted up. Hope, jubilating, cries aloud that it will prove a miraculous Brazen Serpent in the Wilderness; whereon whosoever looks, with faith and obedience, shall be healed of all woes and serpent-bites.

We may answer, it will at least prove a symbolic Banner; round which the exasperating complaining Twenty–Five Millions, otherwise isolated and without power, may rally, and work — what it is in them to work. If battle must be the work, as one cannot help expecting, then shall it be a battle-banner (say, an Italian Gonfalon, in its old Republican Carroccio); and shall tower up, car-borne, shining in the wind: and with iron tongue peal forth many a signal. A thing of prime necessity; which whether in the van or in the centre, whether leading or led and driven, must do the fighting multitude incalculable services. For a season, while it floats in the very front, nay as it were stands solitary there, waiting whether force will gather round it, this same National Carroccio, and the signal-peals it rings, are a main object with us.

The omen of the ‘slouch-hats clapt on’ shows the Commons Deputies to have made up their minds on one thing: that neither Noblesse nor Clergy shall have precedence of them; hardly even Majesty itself. To such length has the Contrat Social, and force of public opinion, carried us. For what is Majesty but the Delegate of the Nation; delegated, and bargained with (even rather tightly), — in some very singular posture of affairs, which Jean Jacques has not fixed the date of?

Coming therefore into their Hall, on the morrow, an inorganic mass of Six Hundred individuals, these Commons Deputies perceive, without terror, that they have it all to themselves. Their Hall is also the Grand or general Hall for all the Three Orders. But the Noblesse and Clergy, it would seem, have retired to their two separate Apartments, or Halls; and are there ‘verifying their powers,’ not in a conjoint but in a separate capacity. They are to constitute two separate, perhaps separately-voting Orders, then? It is as if both Noblesse and Clergy had silently taken for granted that they already were such! Two Orders against one; and so the Third Order to be left in a perpetual minority?

Much may remain unfixed; but the negative of that is a thing fixed: in the Slouch-hatted heads, in the French Nation’s head. Double representation, and all else hitherto gained, were otherwise futile, null. Doubtless, the ‘powers must be verified;’ — doubtless, the Commission, the electoral Documents of your Deputy must be inspected by his brother Deputies, and found valid: it is the preliminary of all. Neither is this question, of doing it separately or doing it conjointly, a vital one: but if it lead to such? It must be resisted; wise was that maxim, Resist the beginnings! Nay were resistance unadvisable, even dangerous, yet surely pause is very natural: pause, with Twenty-five Millions behind you, may become resistance enough. — The inorganic mass of Commons Deputies will restrict itself to a ‘system of inertia,’ and for the present remain inorganic.

Such method, recommendable alike to sagacity and to timidity, do the Commons Deputies adopt; and, not without adroitness, and with ever more tenacity, they persist in it, day after day, week after week. For six weeks their history is of the kind named barren; which indeed, as Philosophy knows, is often the fruitfulest of all. These were their still creation-days; wherein they sat incubating! In fact, what they did was to do nothing, in a judicious manner. Daily the inorganic body reassembles; regrets that they cannot get organisation, ‘verification of powers in common, and begin regenerating France. Headlong motions may be made, but let such be repressed; inertia alone is at once unpunishable and unconquerable.

Cunning must be met by cunning; proud pretension by inertia, by a low tone of patriotic sorrow; low, but incurable, unalterable. Wise as serpents; harmless as doves: what a spectacle for France! Six Hundred inorganic individuals, essential for its regeneration and salvation, sit there, on their elliptic benches, longing passionately towards life; in painful durance; like souls waiting to be born. Speeches are spoken; eloquent; audible within doors and without. Mind agitates itself against mind; the Nation looks on with ever deeper interest. Thus do the Commons Deputies sit incubating.

There are private conclaves, supper-parties, consultations; Breton Club, Club of Viroflay; germs of many Clubs. Wholly an element of confused noise, dimness, angry heat; — wherein, however, the Eros-egg, kept at the fit temperature, may hover safe, unbroken till it be hatched. In your Mouniers, Malouets, Lechapeliers in science sufficient for that; fervour in your Barnaves, Rabauts. At times shall come an inspiration from royal Mirabeau: he is nowise yet recognised as royal; nay he was ‘groaned at,’ when his name was first mentioned: but he is struggling towards recognition.

In the course of the week, the Commons having called their Eldest to the chair, and furnished him with young stronger-lunged assistants, — can speak articulately; and, in audible lamentable words, declare, as we said, that they are an inorganic body, longing to become organic. Letters arrive; but an inorganic body cannot open letters; they lie on the table unopened. The Eldest may at most procure for himself some kind of List or Muster-roll, to take the votes by, and wait what will betide. Noblesse and Clergy are all elsewhere: however, an eager public crowds all galleries and vacancies; which is some comfort. With effort, it is determined, not that a Deputation shall be sent, — for how can an inorganic body send deputations? — but that certain individual Commons Members shall, in an accidental way, stroll into the Clergy Chamber, and then into the Noblesse one; and mention there, as a thing they have happened to observe, that the Commons seem to be sitting waiting for them, in order to verify their powers. That is the wiser method!

The Clergy, among whom are such a multitude of Undignified, of mere Commons in Curates’ frocks, depute instant respectful answer that they are, and will now more than ever be, in deepest study as to that very matter. Contrariwise the Noblesse, in cavalier attitude, reply, after four days, that they, for their part, are all verified and constituted; which, they had trusted, the Commons also were; such separate verification being clearly the proper constitutional wisdom-of-ancestors method; — as they the Noblesse will have much pleasure in demonstrating by a Commission of their number, if the Commons will meet them, Commission against Commission! Directly in the rear of which comes a deputation of Clergy, reiterating, in their insidious conciliatory way, the same proposal. Here, then, is a complexity: what will wise Commons say to this?

Warily, inertly, the wise Commons, considering that they are, if not a French Third Estate, at least an Aggregate of individuals pretending to some title of that kind, determine, after talking on it five days, to name such a Commission, — though, as it were, with proviso not to be convinced: a sixth day is taken up in naming it; a seventh and an eighth day in getting the forms of meeting, place, hour and the like, settled: so that it is not till the evening of the 23rd of May that Noblesse Commission first meets Commons Commission, Clergy acting as Conciliators; and begins the impossible task of convincing it. One other meeting, on the 25th, will suffice: the Commons are inconvincible, the Noblesse and Clergy irrefragably convincing; the Commissions retire; each Order persisting in its first pretensions. (Reported Debates, 6th May to 1st June, 1789 in Histoire Parlementaire, i. 379–422.)

Thus have three weeks passed. For three weeks, the Third–Estate Carroccio, with far-seen Gonfalon, has stood stockstill, flouting the wind; waiting what force would gather round it.

Fancy can conceive the feeling of the Court; and how counsel met counsel, the loud-sounding inanity whirled in that distracted vortex, where wisdom could not dwell. Your cunningly devised Taxing–Machine has been got together; set up with incredible labour; and stands there, its three pieces in contact; its two fly-wheels of Noblesse and Clergy, its huge working-wheel of Tiers–Etat. The two fly-wheels whirl in the softest manner; but, prodigious to look upon, the huge working-wheel hangs motionless, refuses to stir! The cunningest engineers are at fault. How will it work, when it does begin? Fearfully, my Friends; and to many purposes; but to gather taxes, or grind court-meal, one may apprehend, never. Could we but have continued gathering taxes by hand! Messeigneurs d’Artois, Conti, Conde (named Court Triumvirate), they of the anti-democratic Memoire au Roi, has not their foreboding proved true? They may wave reproachfully their high heads; they may beat their poor brains; but the cunningest engineers can do nothing. Necker himself, were he even listened to, begins to look blue. The only thing one sees advisable is to bring up soldiers. New regiments, two, and a battalion of a third, have already reached Paris; others shall get in march. Good were it, in all circumstances, to have troops within reach; good that the command were in sure hands. Let Broglie be appointed; old Marshal Duke de Broglie; veteran disciplinarian, of a firm drill-sergeant morality, such as may be depended on.

For, alas, neither are the Clergy, or the very Noblesse what they should be; and might be, when so menaced from without: entire, undivided within. The Noblesse, indeed, have their Catiline or Crispin D’Espremenil, dusky-glowing, all in renegade heat; their boisterous Barrel–Mirabeau; but also they have their Lafayettes, Liancourts, Lameths; above all, their D’Orleans, now cut forever from his Court-moorings, and musing drowsily of high and highest sea-prizes (for is not he too a son of Henri Quatre, and partial potential Heir–Apparent?) — on his voyage towards Chaos. From the Clergy again, so numerous are the Cures, actual deserters have run over: two small parties; in the second party Cure Gregoire. Nay there is talk of a whole Hundred and Forty-nine of them about to desert in mass, and only restrained by an Archbishop of Paris. It seems a losing game.

But judge if France, if Paris sat idle, all this while! Addresses from far and near flow in: for our Commons have now grown organic enough to open letters. Or indeed to cavil at them! Thus poor Marquis de Breze, Supreme Usher, Master of Ceremonies, or whatever his title was, writing about this time on some ceremonial matter, sees no harm in winding up with a ‘Monsieur, yours with sincere attachment.’ — “To whom does it address itself, this sincere attachment?” inquires Mirabeau. “To the Dean of the Tiers–Etat.” — “There is no man in France entitled to write that,” rejoins he; whereat the Galleries and the World will not be kept from applauding. (Moniteur (in Histoire Parlementaire, i. 405).) Poor De Breze! These Commons have a still older grudge at him; nor has he yet done with them.

In another way, Mirabeau has had to protest against the quick suppression of his Newspaper, Journal of the States–General; — and to continue it under a new name. In which act of valour, the Paris Electors, still busy redacting their Cahier, could not but support him, by Address to his Majesty: they claim utmost ‘provisory freedom of the press;’ they have spoken even about demolishing the Bastille, and erecting a Bronze Patriot King on the site! — These are the rich Burghers: but now consider how it went, for example, with such loose miscellany, now all grown eleutheromaniac, of Loungers, Prowlers, social Nondescripts (and the distilled Rascality of our Planet), as whirls forever in the Palais Royal; — or what low infinite groan, first changing into a growl, comes from Saint–Antoine, and the Twenty-five Millions in danger of starvation!

There is the indisputablest scarcity of corn; — be it Aristocrat-plot, D’Orleans-plot, of this year; or drought and hail of last year: in city and province, the poor man looks desolately towards a nameless lot. And this States–General, that could make us an age of gold, is forced to stand motionless; cannot get its powers verified! All industry necessarily languishes, if it be not that of making motions.

In the Palais Royal there has been erected, apparently by subscription, a kind of Wooden Tent (en planches de bois); (Histoire Parlementaire, i. 429.) — most convenient; where select Patriotism can now redact resolutions, deliver harangues, with comfort, let the weather but as it will. Lively is that Satan-at-Home! On his table, on his chair, in every cafe, stands a patriotic orator; a crowd round him within; a crowd listening from without, open-mouthed, through open door and window; with ‘thunders of applause for every sentiment of more than common hardiness.’ In Monsieur Dessein’s Pamphlet-shop, close by, you cannot without strong elbowing get to the counter: every hour produces its pamphlet, or litter of pamphlets; ‘there were thirteen to-day, sixteen yesterday, nine-two last week.’ (Arthur Young, Travels, i. 104.) Think of Tyranny and Scarcity; Fervid-eloquence, Rumour, Pamphleteering; Societe Publicole, Breton Club, Enraged Club; — and whether every tap-room, coffee-room, social reunion, accidental street-group, over wide France, was not an Enraged Club!

To all which the Commons Deputies can only listen with a sublime inertia of sorrow; reduced to busy themselves ‘with their internal police.’ Surer position no Deputies ever occupied; if they keep it with skill. Let not the temperature rise too high; break not the Eros-egg till it be hatched, till it break itself! An eager public crowds all Galleries and vacancies! ‘cannot be restrained from applauding.’ The two Privileged Orders, the Noblesse all verified and constituted, may look on with what face they will; not without a secret tremor of heart. The Clergy, always acting the part of conciliators, make a clutch at the Galleries, and the popularity there; and miss it. Deputation of them arrives, with dolorous message about the ‘dearth of grains,’ and the necessity there is of casting aside vain formalities, and deliberating on this. An insidious proposal; which, however, the Commons (moved thereto by seagreen Robespierre) dexterously accept as a sort of hint, or even pledge, that the Clergy will forthwith come over to them, constitute the States–General, and so cheapen grains! (Bailly, Memoires, i. 114.) — Finally, on the 27th day of May, Mirabeau, judging the time now nearly come, proposes that ‘the inertia cease;’ that, leaving the Noblesse to their own stiff ways, the Clergy be summoned, ‘in the name of the God of Peace,’ to join the Commons, and begin. (Histoire Parlementaire, i. 413.) To which summons if they turn a deaf ear, — we shall see! Are not one Hundred and Forty-nine of them ready to desert?

O Triumvirate of Princes, new Garde-des-Sceaux Barentin, thou Home–Secretary Breteuil, Duchess Polignac, and Queen eager to listen, — what is now to be done? This Third Estate will get in motion, with the force of all France in it; Clergy-machinery with Noblesse-machinery, which were to serve as beautiful counter-balances and drags, will be shamefully dragged after it, — and take fire along with it. What is to be done? The Oeil-de-Boeuf waxes more confused than ever. Whisper and counter-whisper; a very tempest of whispers! Leading men from all the Three Orders are nightly spirited thither; conjurors many of them; but can they conjure this? Necker himself were now welcome, could he interfere to purpose.

Let Necker interfere, then; and in the King’s name! Happily that incendiary ‘God-of-Peace’ message is not yet answered. The Three Orders shall again have conferences; under this Patriot Minister of theirs, somewhat may be healed, clouted up; — we meanwhile getting forward Swiss Regiments, and a ‘hundred pieces of field-artillery.’ This is what the Oeil-de-Boeuf, for its part, resolves on.

But as for Necker — Alas, poor Necker, thy obstinate Third Estate has one first-last word, verification in common, as the pledge of voting and deliberating in common! Half-way proposals, from such a tried friend, they answer with a stare. The tardy conferences speedily break up; the Third Estate, now ready and resolute, the whole world backing it, returns to its Hall of the Three Orders; and Necker to the Oeil-de-Boeuf, with the character of a disconjured conjuror there — fit only for dismissal. (Debates, 1st to 17th June 1789 (in Histoire Parlementaire, i. 422–478).)

And so the Commons Deputies are at last on their own strength getting under way? Instead of Chairman, or Dean, they have now got a President: Astronomer Bailly. Under way, with a vengeance! With endless vociferous and temperate eloquence, borne on Newspaper wings to all lands, they have now, on this 17th day of June, determined that their name is not Third Estate, but — National Assembly! They, then, are the Nation? Triumvirate of Princes, Queen, refractory Noblesse and Clergy, what, then, are you? A most deep question; — scarcely answerable in living political dialects.

All regardless of which, our new National Assembly proceeds to appoint a ‘committee of subsistences;’ dear to France, though it can find little or no grain. Next, as if our National Assembly stood quite firm on its legs, — to appoint ‘four other standing committees;’ then to settle the security of the National Debt; then that of the Annual Taxation: all within eight-and-forty hours. At such rate of velocity it is going: the conjurors of the Oeil-de-Boeuf may well ask themselves, Whither?

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