The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 2

The Constituent Assembly.

One thing an elected Assembly of Twelve Hundred is fit for: Destroying. Which indeed is but a more decided exercise of its natural talent for Doing Nothing. Do nothing, only keep agitating, debating; and things will destroy themselves.

So and not otherwise proved it with an august National Assembly. It took the name, Constituent, as if its mission and function had been to construct or build; which also, with its whole soul, it endeavoured to do: yet, in the fates, in the nature of things, there lay for it precisely of all functions the most opposite to that. Singular, what Gospels men will believe; even Gospels according to Jean Jacques! It was the fixed Faith of these National Deputies, as of all thinking Frenchmen, that the Constitution could be made; that they, there and then, were called to make it. How, with the toughness of Old Hebrews or Ishmaelite Moslem, did the otherwise light unbelieving People persist in this their Credo quia impossibile; and front the armed world with it; and grow fanatic, and even heroic, and do exploits by it! The Constituent Assembly’s Constitution, and several others, will, being printed and not manuscript, survive to future generations, as an instructive well-nigh incredible document of the Time: the most significant Picture of the then existing France; or at lowest, Picture of these men’s Picture of it.

But in truth and seriousness, what could the National Assembly have done? The thing to be done was, actually as they said, to regenerate France; to abolish the old France, and make a new one; quietly or forcibly, by concession or by violence, this, by the Law of Nature, has become inevitable. With what degree of violence, depends on the wisdom of those that preside over it. With perfect wisdom on the part of the National Assembly, it had all been otherwise; but whether, in any wise, it could have been pacific, nay other than bloody and convulsive, may still be a question.

Grant, meanwhile, that this Constituent Assembly does to the last continue to be something. With a sigh, it sees itself incessantly forced away from its infinite divine task, of perfecting ‘the Theory of Irregular Verbs,’ — to finite terrestrial tasks, which latter have still a significance for us. It is the cynosure of revolutionary France, this National Assembly. All work of Government has fallen into its hands, or under its control; all men look to it for guidance. In the middle of that huge Revolt of Twenty-five millions, it hovers always aloft as Carroccio or Battle–Standard, impelling and impelled, in the most confused way; if it cannot give much guidance, it will still seem to give some. It emits pacificatory Proclamations, not a few; with more or with less result. It authorises the enrolment of National Guards, — lest Brigands come to devour us, and reap the unripe crops. It sends missions to quell ‘effervescences;’ to deliver men from the Lanterne. It can listen to congratulatory Addresses, which arrive daily by the sackful; mostly in King Cambyses’ vein: also to Petitions and complaints from all mortals; so that every mortal’s complaint, if it cannot get redressed, may at least hear itself complain. For the rest, an august National Assembly can produce Parliamentary Eloquence; and appoint Committees. Committees of the Constitution, of Reports, of Researches; and of much else: which again yield mountains of Printed Paper; the theme of new Parliamentary Eloquence, in bursts, or in plenteous smooth-flowing floods. And so, from the waste vortex whereon all things go whirling and grinding, Organic Laws, or the similitude of such, slowly emerge.

With endless debating, we get the Rights of Man written down and promulgated: true paper basis of all paper Constitutions. Neglecting, cry the opponents, to declare the Duties of Man! Forgetting, answer we, to ascertain the Mights of Man; — one of the fatalest omissions! — Nay, sometimes, as on the Fourth of August, our National Assembly, fired suddenly by an almost preternatural enthusiasm, will get through whole masses of work in one night. A memorable night, this Fourth of August: Dignitaries temporal and spiritual; Peers, Archbishops, Parlement–Presidents, each outdoing the other in patriotic devotedness, come successively to throw their (untenable) possessions on the ‘altar of the fatherland.’ With louder and louder vivats, for indeed it is ‘after dinner’ too, — they abolish Tithes, Seignorial Dues, Gabelle, excessive Preservation of Game; nay Privilege, Immunity, Feudalism root and branch; then appoint a Te Deum for it; and so, finally, disperse about three in the morning, striking the stars with their sublime heads. Such night, unforeseen but for ever memorable, was this of the Fourth of August 1789. Miraculous, or semi-miraculous, some seem to think it. A new Night of Pentecost, shall we say, shaped according to the new Time, and new Church of Jean Jacques Rousseau? It had its causes; also its effects.

In such manner labour the National Deputies; perfecting their Theory of Irregular Verbs; governing France, and being governed by it; with toil and noise; — cutting asunder ancient intolerable bonds; and, for new ones, assiduously spinning ropes of sand. Were their labours a nothing or a something, yet the eyes of all France being reverently fixed on them, History can never very long leave them altogether out of sight.

For the present, if we glance into that Assembly Hall of theirs, it will be found, as is natural, ‘most irregular.’ As many as ‘a hundred members are on their feet at once;’ no rule in making motions, or only commencements of a rule; Spectators’ Gallery allowed to applaud, and even to hiss; (Arthur Young, i. 111.) President, appointed once a fortnight, raising many times no serene head above the waves. Nevertheless, as in all human Assemblages, like does begin arranging itself to like; the perennial rule, Ubi homines sunt modi sunt, proves valid. Rudiments of Methods disclose themselves; rudiments of Parties. There is a Right Side (Cote Droit), a Left Side (Cote Gauche); sitting on M. le President’s right hand, or on his left: the Cote Droit conservative; the Cote Gauche destructive. Intermediate is Anglomaniac Constitutionalism, or Two–Chamber Royalism; with its Mouniers, its Lallys, — fast verging towards nonentity. Preeminent, on the Right Side, pleads and perorates Cazales, the Dragoon-captain, eloquent, mildly fervent; earning for himself the shadow of a name. There also blusters Barrel–Mirabeau, the Younger Mirabeau, not without wit: dusky d’Espremenil does nothing but sniff and ejaculate; might, it is fondly thought, lay prostrate the Elder Mirabeau himself, would he but try, (Biographie Universelle, para D’Espremenil (by Beaulieu).) — which he does not. Last and greatest, see, for one moment, the Abbe Maury; with his jesuitic eyes, his impassive brass face, ‘image of all the cardinal sins.’ Indomitable, unquenchable, he fights jesuitico-rhetorically; with toughest lungs and heart; for Throne, especially for Altar and Tithes. So that a shrill voice exclaims once, from the Gallery: “Messieurs of the Clergy, you have to be shaved; if you wriggle too much, you will get cut.” (Dictionnaire des Hommes Marquans, ii. 519.)

The Left side is also called the d’Orleans side; and sometimes derisively, the Palais Royal. And yet, so confused, real-imaginary seems everything, ‘it is doubtful,’ as Mirabeau said, ‘whether d’Orleans himself belong to that same d’Orleans Party.’ What can be known and seen is, that his moon-visage does beam forth from that point of space. There likewise sits seagreen Robespierre; throwing in his light weight, with decision, not yet with effect. A thin lean Puritan and Precisian; he would make away with formulas; yet lives, moves, and has his being, wholly in formulas, of another sort. ‘Peuple,’ such according to Robespierre ought to be the Royal method of promulgating laws, ‘Peuple, this is the Law I have framed for thee; dost thou accept it?’ — answered from Right Side, from Centre and Left, by inextinguishable laughter. (Moniteur, No. 67 (in Hist.Parl.).) Yet men of insight discern that the Seagreen may by chance go far: “this man,” observes Mirabeau, “will do somewhat; he believes every word he says.”

Abbe Sieyes is busy with mere Constitutional work: wherein, unluckily, fellow-workmen are less pliable than, with one who has completed the Science of Polity, they ought to be. Courage, Sieyes nevertheless! Some twenty months of heroic travail, of contradiction from the stupid, and the Constitution shall be built; the top-stone of it brought out with shouting, — say rather, the top-paper, for it is all Paper; and thou hast done in it what the Earth or the Heaven could require, thy utmost. Note likewise this Trio; memorable for several things; memorable were it only that their history is written in an epigram: ‘whatsoever these Three have in hand,’ it is said, ‘Duport thinks it, Barnave speaks it, Lameth does it.’ (See Toulongeon, i. c. 3.)

But royal Mirabeau? Conspicuous among all parties, raised above and beyond them all, this man rises more and more. As we often say, he has an eye, he is a reality; while others are formulas and eye-glasses. In the Transient he will detect the Perennial, find some firm footing even among Paper-vortexes. His fame is gone forth to all lands; it gladdened the heart of the crabbed old Friend of Men himself before he died. The very Postilions of inns have heard of Mirabeau: when an impatient Traveller complains that the team is insufficient, his Postilion answers, “Yes, Monsieur, the wheelers are weak; but my mirabeau (main horse), you see, is a right one, mais mon mirabeau est excellent.” (Dumont, Souvenirs sur Mirabeau, p. 255.)

And now, Reader, thou shalt quit this noisy Discrepancy of a National Assembly; not (if thou be of humane mind) without pity. Twelve Hundred brother men are there, in the centre of Twenty-five Millions; fighting so fiercely with Fate and with one another; struggling their lives out, as most sons of Adam do, for that which profiteth not. Nay, on the whole, it is admitted further to be very dull. “Dull as this day’s Assembly,” said some one. “Why date, Pourquoi dater?” answered Mirabeau.

Consider that they are Twelve Hundred; that they not only speak, but read their speeches; and even borrow and steal speeches to read! With Twelve Hundred fluent speakers, and their Noah’s Deluge of vociferous commonplace, unattainable silence may well seem the one blessing of Life. But figure Twelve Hundred pamphleteers; droning forth perpetual pamphlets: and no man to gag them! Neither, as in the American Congress, do the arrangements seem perfect. A Senator has not his own Desk and Newspaper here; of Tobacco (much less of Pipes) there is not the slightest provision. Conversation itself must be transacted in a low tone, with continual interruption: only ‘pencil Notes’ circulate freely; ‘in incredible numbers to the foot of the very tribune.’ (See Dumont (pp. 159–67); Arthur Young, &c.) — Such work is it, regenerating a Nation; perfecting one’s Theory of Irregular Verbs!

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