The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 2

Arrears and Aristocrats.

Indeed, as to the general outlook of things, Bouille himself augurs not well of it. The French Army, ever since those old Bastille days, and earlier, has been universally in the questionablest state, and growing daily worse. Discipline, which is at all times a kind of miracle, and works by faith, broke down then; one sees not with that near prospect of recovering itself. The Gardes Francaises played a deadly game; but how they won it, and wear the prizes of it, all men know. In that general overturn, we saw the Hired Fighters refuse to fight. The very Swiss of Chateau–Vieux, which indeed is a kind of French Swiss, from Geneva and the Pays de Vaud, are understood to have declined. Deserters glided over; Royal–Allemand itself looked disconsolate, though stanch of purpose. In a word, we there saw Military Rule, in the shape of poor Besenval with that convulsive unmanageable Camp of his, pass two martyr days on the Champ-de-Mars; and then, veiling itself, so to speak, ‘under the cloud of night,’ depart ‘down the left bank of the Seine,’ to seek refuge elsewhere; this ground having clearly become too hot for it.

But what new ground to seek, what remedy to try? Quarters that were ‘uninfected:’ this doubtless, with judicious strictness of drilling, were the plan. Alas, in all quarters and places, from Paris onward to the remotest hamlet, is infection, is seditious contagion: inhaled, propagated by contact and converse, till the dullest soldier catch it! There is speech of men in uniform with men not in uniform; men in uniform read journals, and even write in them. (See Newspapers of July, 1789 (in Hist. Parl. ii. 35), &c.) There are public petitions or remonstrances, private emissaries and associations; there is discontent, jealousy, uncertainty, sullen suspicious humour. The whole French Army, fermenting in dark heat, glooms ominous, boding good to no one.

So that, in the general social dissolution and revolt, we are to have this deepest and dismallest kind of it, a revolting soldiery? Barren, desolate to look upon is this same business of revolt under all its aspects; but how infinitely more so, when it takes the aspect of military mutiny! The very implement of rule and restraint, whereby all the rest was managed and held in order, has become precisely the frightfullest immeasurable implement of misrule; like the element of Fire, our indispensable all-ministering servant, when it gets the mastery, and becomes conflagration. Discipline we called a kind of miracle: in fact, is it not miraculous how one man moves hundreds of thousands; each unit of whom it may be loves him not, and singly fears him not, yet has to obey him, to go hither or go thither, to march and halt, to give death, and even to receive it, as if a Fate had spoken; and the word-of-command becomes, almost in the literal sense, a magic-word?

Which magic-word, again, if it be once forgotten; the spell of it once broken! The legions of assiduous ministering spirits rise on you now as menacing fiends; your free orderly arena becomes a tumult-place of the Nether Pit, and the hapless magician is rent limb from limb. Military mobs are mobs with muskets in their hands; and also with death hanging over their heads, for death is the penalty of disobedience and they have disobeyed. And now if all mobs are properly frenzies, and work frenetically with mad fits of hot and of cold, fierce rage alternating so incoherently with panic terror, consider what your military mob will be, with such a conflict of duties and penalties, whirled between remorse and fury, and, for the hot fit, loaded fire-arms in its hand! To the soldier himself, revolt is frightful, and oftenest perhaps pitiable; and yet so dangerous, it can only be hated, cannot be pitied. An anomalous class of mortals these poor Hired Killers! With a frankness, which to the Moralist in these times seems surprising, they have sworn to become machines; and nevertheless they are still partly men. Let no prudent person in authority remind them of this latter fact; but always let force, let injustice above all, stop short clearly on this side of the rebounding-point! Soldiers, as we often say, do revolt: were it not so, several things which are transient in this world might be perennial.

Over and above the general quarrel which all sons of Adam maintain with their lot here below, the grievances of the French soldiery reduce themselves to two, First that their Officers are Aristocrats; secondly that they cheat them of their Pay. Two grievances; or rather we might say one, capable of becoming a hundred; for in that single first proposition, that the Officers are Aristocrats, what a multitude of corollaries lie ready! It is a bottomless ever-flowing fountain of grievances this; what you may call a general raw-material of grievance, wherefrom individual grievance after grievance will daily body itself forth. Nay there will even be a kind of comfort in getting it, from time to time, so embodied. Peculation of one’s Pay! It is embodied; made tangible, made denounceable; exhalable, if only in angry words.

For unluckily that grand fountain of grievances does exist: Aristocrats almost all our Officers necessarily are; they have it in the blood and bone. By the law of the case, no man can pretend to be the pitifullest lieutenant of militia, till he have first verified, to the satisfaction of the Lion–King, a Nobility of four generations. Not Nobility only, but four generations of it: this latter is the improvement hit upon, in comparatively late years, by a certain War-minister much pressed for commissions. (Dampmartin, Evenemens, i. 89.) An improvement which did relieve the over-pressed War-minister, but which split France still further into yawning contrasts of Commonalty and Nobility, nay of new Nobility and old; as if already with your new and old, and then with your old, older and oldest, there were not contrasts and discrepancies enough; — the general clash whereof men now see and hear, and in the singular whirlpool, all contrasts gone together to the bottom! Gone to the bottom or going; with uproar, without return; going every where save in the Military section of things; and there, it may be asked, can they hope to continue always at the top? Apparently, not.

It is true, in a time of external Peace, when there is no fighting but only drilling, this question, How you rise from the ranks, may seem theoretical rather. But in reference to the Rights of Man it is continually practical. The soldier has sworn to be faithful not to the King only, but to the Law and the Nation. Do our commanders love the Revolution? ask all soldiers. Unhappily no, they hate it, and love the Counter–Revolution. Young epauletted men, with quality-blood in them, poisoned with quality-pride, do sniff openly, with indignation struggling to become contempt, at our Rights of Man, as at some newfangled cobweb, which shall be brushed down again. Old officers, more cautious, keep silent, with closed uncurled lips; but one guesses what is passing within. Nay who knows, how, under the plausiblest word of command, might lie Counter–Revolution itself, sale to Exiled Princes and the Austrian Kaiser: treacherous Aristocrats hoodwinking the small insight of us common men? — In such manner works that general raw-material of grievance; disastrous; instead of trust and reverence, breeding hate, endless suspicion, the impossibility of commanding and obeying. And now when this second more tangible grievance has articulated itself universally in the mind of the common man: Peculation of his Pay! Peculation of the despicablest sort does exist, and has long existed; but, unless the new-declared Rights of Man, and all rights whatsoever, be a cobweb, it shall no longer exist.

The French Military System seems dying a sorrowful suicidal death. Nay more, citizen, as is natural, ranks himself against citizen in this cause. The soldier finds audience, of numbers and sympathy unlimited, among the Patriot lower-classes. Nor are the higher wanting to the officer. The officer still dresses and perfumes himself for such sad unemigrated soiree as there may still be; and speaks his woes, — which woes, are they not Majesty’s and Nature’s? Speaks, at the same time, his gay defiance, his firm-set resolution. Citizens, still more Citizenesses, see the right and the wrong; not the Military System alone will die by suicide, but much along with it. As was said, there is yet possible a deepest overturn than any yet witnessed: that deepest upturn of the black-burning sulphurous stratum whereon all rests and grows!

But how these things may act on the rude soldier-mind, with its military pedantries, its inexperience of all that lies off the parade-ground; inexperience as of a child, yet fierceness of a man and vehemence of a Frenchman! It is long that secret communings in mess-room and guard-room, sour looks, thousandfold petty vexations between commander and commanded, measure every where the weary military day. Ask Captain Dampmartin; an authentic, ingenious literary officer of horse; who loves the Reign of Liberty, after a sort; yet has had his heart grieved to the quick many times, in the hot South–Western region and elsewhere; and has seen riot, civil battle by daylight and by torchlight, and anarchy hatefuller than death. How insubordinate Troopers, with drink in their heads, meet Captain Dampmartin and another on the ramparts, where there is no escape or side-path; and make military salute punctually, for we look calm on them; yet make it in a snappish, almost insulting manner: how one morning they ‘leave all their chamois shirts’ and superfluous buffs, which they are tired of, laid in piles at the Captain’s doors; whereat ‘we laugh,’ as the ass does, eating thistles: nay how they ‘knot two forage-cords together,’ with universal noisy cursing, with evident intent to hang the Quarter-master:— all this the worthy Captain, looking on it through the ruddy-and-sable of fond regretful memory, has flowingly written down. (Dampmartin, Evenemens, i. 122–146.) Men growl in vague discontent; officers fling up their commissions, and emigrate in disgust.

Or let us ask another literary Officer; not yet Captain; Sublieutenant only, in the Artillery Regiment La Fere: a young man of twenty-one; not unentitled to speak; the name of him is Napoleon Buonaparte. To such height of Sublieutenancy has he now got promoted, from Brienne School, five years ago; ‘being found qualified in mathematics by La Place.’ He is lying at Auxonne, in the West, in these months; not sumptuously lodged — ‘in the house of a Barber, to whose wife he did not pay the customary degree of respect;’ or even over at the Pavilion, in a chamber with bare walls; the only furniture an indifferent ‘bed without curtains, two chairs, and in the recess of a window a table covered with books and papers: his Brother Louis sleeps on a coarse mattrass in an adjoining room.’ However, he is doing something great: writing his first Book or Pamphlet, — eloquent vehement Letter to M. Matteo Buttafuoco, our Corsican Deputy, who is not a Patriot but an Aristocrat, unworthy of Deputyship. Joly of Dole is Publisher. The literary Sublieutenant corrects the proofs; ‘sets out on foot from Auxonne, every morning at four o’clock, for Dole: after looking over the proofs, he partakes of an extremely frugal breakfast with Joly, and immediately prepares for returning to his Garrison; where he arrives before noon, having thus walked above twenty miles in the course of the morning.’

This Sublieutenant can remark that, in drawing-rooms, on streets, on highways, at inns, every where men’s minds are ready to kindle into a flame. That a Patriot, if he appear in the drawing-room, or amid a group of officers, is liable enough to be discouraged, so great is the majority against him: but no sooner does he get into the street, or among the soldiers, than he feels again as if the whole Nation were with him. That after the famous Oath, To the King, to the Nation and Law, there was a great change; that before this, if ordered to fire on the people, he for one would have done it in the King’s name; but that after this, in the Nation’s name, he would not have done it. Likewise that the Patriot officers, more numerous too in the Artillery and Engineers than elsewhere, were few in number; yet that having the soldiers on their side, they ruled the regiment; and did often deliver the Aristocrat brother officer out of peril and strait. One day, for example, ‘a member of our own mess roused the mob, by singing, from the windows of our dining-room, O Richard, O my King; and I had to snatch him from their fury.’ (Norvins, Histoire de Napoleon, i. 47; Las Cases, Memoires translated into Hazlitt’s Life of Napoleon, i. 23–31.)

All which let the reader multiply by ten thousand; and spread it with slight variations over all the camps and garrisons of France. The French Army seems on the verge of universal mutiny.

Universal mutiny! There is in that what may well make Patriot Constitutionalism and an august Assembly shudder. Something behoves to be done; yet what to do no man can tell. Mirabeau proposes even that the Soldiery, having come to such a pass, be forthwith disbanded, the whole Two Hundred and Eighty Thousands of them; and organised anew. (Moniteur, 1790. No. 233.) Impossible this, in so sudden a manner! cry all men. And yet literally, answer we, it is inevitable, in one manner or another. Such an Army, with its four-generation Nobles, its Peculated Pay, and men knotting forage cords to hang their quartermaster, cannot subsist beside such a Revolution. Your alternative is a slow-pining chronic dissolution and new organization; or a swift decisive one; the agonies spread over years, or concentrated into an hour. With a Mirabeau for Minister or Governor the latter had been the choice; with no Mirabeau for Governor it will naturally be the former.

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