The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 1

Grande Acceptation.

In the last nights of September, when the autumnal equinox is past, and grey September fades into brown October, why are the Champs Elysees illuminated; why is Paris dancing, and flinging fire-works? They are gala-nights, these last of September; Paris may well dance, and the Universe: the Edifice of the Constitution is completed! Completed; nay revised, to see that there was nothing insufficient in it; solemnly proferred to his Majesty; solemnly accepted by him, to the sound of cannon-salvoes, on the fourteenth of the month. And now by such illumination, jubilee, dancing and fire-working, do we joyously handsel the new Social Edifice, and first raise heat and reek there, in the name of Hope.

The Revision, especially with a throne standing on its vertex, has been a work of difficulty, of delicacy. In the way of propping and buttressing, so indispensable now, something could be done; and yet, as is feared, not enough. A repentant Barnave Triumvirate, our Rabauts, Duports, Thourets, and indeed all Constitutional Deputies did strain every nerve: but the Extreme Left was so noisy; the People were so suspicious, clamorous to have the work ended: and then the loyal Right Side sat feeble petulant all the while, and as it were, pouting and petting; unable to help, had they even been willing; the two Hundred and Ninety had solemnly made scission, before that: and departed, shaking the dust off their feet. To such transcendency of fret, and desperate hope that worsening of the bad might the sooner end it and bring back the good, had our unfortunate loyal Right Side now come! (Toulongeon, ii. 56, 59.)

However, one finds that this and the other little prop has been added, where possibility allowed. Civil-list and Privy-purse were from of old well cared for. King’s Constitutional Guard, Eighteen hundred loyal men from the Eighty-three Departments, under a loyal Duke de Brissac; this, with trustworthy Swiss besides, is of itself something. The old loyal Bodyguards are indeed dissolved, in name as well as in fact; and gone mostly towards Coblentz. But now also those Sansculottic violent Gardes Francaises, or Centre Grenadiers, shall have their mittimus: they do ere long, in the Journals, not without a hoarse pathos, publish their Farewell; ‘wishing all Aristocrats the graves in Paris which to us are denied.’ (Hist. Parl. xiii. 73.) They depart, these first Soldiers of the Revolution; they hover very dimly in the distance for about another year; till they can be remodelled, new-named, and sent to fight the Austrians; and then History beholds them no more. A most notable Corps of men; which has its place in World–History; — though to us, so is History written, they remain mere rubrics of men; nameless; a shaggy Grenadier Mass, crossed with buff-belts. And yet might we not ask: What Argonauts, what Leonidas’ Spartans had done such a work? Think of their destiny: since that May morning, some three years ago, when they, unparticipating, trundled off d’Espremenil to the Calypso Isles; since that July evening, some two years ago, when they, participating and sacreing with knit brows, poured a volley into Besenval’s Prince de Lambesc! History waves them her mute adieu.

So that the Sovereign Power, these Sansculottic Watchdogs, more like wolves, being leashed and led away from his Tuileries, breathes freer. The Sovereign Power is guarded henceforth by a loyal Eighteen hundred, — whom Contrivance, under various pretexts, may gradually swell to Six thousand; who will hinder no Journey to Saint–Cloud. The sad Varennes business has been soldered up; cemented, even in the blood of the Champ-de-Mars, these two months and more; and indeed ever since, as formerly, Majesty has had its privileges, its ‘choice of residence,’ though, for good reasons, the royal mind ‘prefers continuing in Paris.’ Poor royal mind, poor Paris; that have to go mumming; enveloped in speciosities, in falsehood which knows itself false; and to enact mutually your sorrowful farce-tragedy, being bound to it; and on the whole, to hope always, in spite of hope!

Nay, now that his Majesty has accepted the Constitution, to the sound of cannon-salvoes, who would not hope? Our good King was misguided but he meant well. Lafayette has moved for an Amnesty, for universal forgiving and forgetting of Revolutionary faults; and now surely the glorious Revolution cleared of its rubbish, is complete! Strange enough, and touching in several ways, the old cry of Vive le Roi once more rises round King Louis the Hereditary Representative. Their Majesties went to the Opera; gave money to the Poor: the Queen herself, now when the Constitution is accepted, hears voice of cheering. Bygone shall be bygone; the New Era shall begin! To and fro, amid those lamp-galaxies of the Elysian Fields, the Royal Carriage slowly wends and rolls; every where with vivats, from a multitude striving to be glad. Louis looks out, mainly on the variegated lamps and gay human groups, with satisfaction enough for the hour. In her Majesty’s face, ‘under that kind graceful smile a deep sadness is legible.’ (De Stael, Considerations, i. c. 23.) Brilliancies, of valour and of wit, stroll here observant: a Dame de Stael, leaning most probably on the arm of her Narbonne. She meets Deputies; who have built this Constitution; who saunter here with vague communings, — not without thoughts whether it will stand. But as yet melodious fiddlestrings twang and warble every where, with the rhythm of light fantastic feet; long lamp-galaxies fling their coloured radiance; and brass-lunged Hawkers elbow and bawl, “Grande Acceptation, Constitution Monarchique:” it behoves the Son of Adam to hope. Have not Lafayette, Barnave, and all Constitutionalists set their shoulders handsomely to the inverted pyramid of a throne? Feuillans, including almost the whole Constitutional Respectability of France, perorate nightly from their tribune; correspond through all Post-offices; denouncing unquiet Jacobinism; trusting well that its time is nigh done. Much is uncertain, questionable: but if the Hereditary Representative be wise and lucky, may one not, with a sanguine Gaelic temper, hope that he will get in motion better or worse; that what is wanting to him will gradually be gained and added?

For the rest, as we must repeat, in this building of the Constitutional Fabric, especially in this Revision of it, nothing that one could think of to give it new strength, especially to steady it, to give it permanence, and even eternity, has been forgotten. Biennial Parliament, to be called Legislative, Assemblee Legislative; with Seven Hundred and Forty-five Members, chosen in a judicious manner by the ‘active citizens’ alone, and even by electing of electors still more active: this, with privileges of Parliament shall meet, self-authorized if need be, and self-dissolved; shall grant money-supplies and talk; watch over the administration and authorities; discharge for ever the functions of a Constitutional Great Council, Collective Wisdom, and National Palaver, — as the Heavens will enable. Our First biennial Parliament, which indeed has been a-choosing since early in August, is now as good as chosen. Nay it has mostly got to Paris: it arrived gradually; — not without pathetic greeting to its venerable Parent, the now moribund Constituent; and sat there in the Galleries, reverently listening; ready to begin, the instant the ground were clear.

Then as to changes in the Constitution itself? This, impossible for any Legislative, or common biennial Parliament, and possible solely for some resuscitated Constituent or National Convention, — is evidently one of the most ticklish points. The august moribund Assembly debated it for four entire days. Some thought a change, or at least reviewal and new approval, might be admissible in thirty years; some even went lower, down to twenty, nay to fifteen. The august Assembly had once decided for thirty years; but it revoked that, on better thoughts; and did not fix any date of time, but merely some vague outline of a posture of circumstances, and on the whole left the matter hanging. (Choix de Rapports, &c. (Paris, 1825), vi. 239–317.) Doubtless a National Convention can be assembled even within the thirty years: yet one may hope, not; but that Legislatives, biennial Parliaments of the common kind, with their limited faculty, and perhaps quiet successive additions thereto, may suffice, for generations, or indeed while computed Time runs.

Furthermore, be it noted that no member of this Constituent has been, or could be, elected to the new Legislative. So noble-minded were these Law-makers! cry some: and Solon-like would banish themselves. So splenetic! cry more: each grudging the other, none daring to be outdone in self-denial by the other. So unwise in either case! answer all practical men. But consider this other self-denying ordinance, That none of us can be King’s Minister, or accept the smallest Court Appointment, for the space of four, or at lowest (and on long debate and Revision), for the space of two years! So moves the incorruptible seagreen Robespierre; with cheap magnanimity he; and none dare be outdone by him. It was such a law, not so superfluous then, that sent Mirabeau to the Gardens of Saint–Cloud, under cloak of darkness, to that colloquy of the gods; and thwarted many things. Happily and unhappily there is no Mirabeau now to thwart.

Welcomer meanwhile, welcome surely to all right hearts, is Lafayette’s chivalrous Amnesty. Welcome too is that hard-wrung Union of Avignon; which has cost us, first and last, ‘thirty sessions of debate,’ and so much else: may it at length prove lucky! Rousseau’s statue is decreed: virtuous Jean–Jacques, Evangelist of the Contrat Social. Not Drouet of Varennes; nor worthy Lataille, master of the old world-famous Tennis Court in Versailles, is forgotten; but each has his honourable mention, and due reward in money. (Moniteur in Hist. Parl. xi. 473.) Whereupon, things being all so neatly winded up, and the Deputations, and Messages, and royal and other Ceremonials having rustled by; and the King having now affectionately perorated about peace and tranquilisation, and members having answered “Oui! oui!” with effusion, even with tears, — President Thouret, he of the Law Reforms, rises, and, with a strong voice, utters these memorable last-words: “The National Constituent Assembly declares that it has finished its mission; and that its sittings are all ended.” Incorruptible Robespierre, virtuous Petion are borne home on the shoulders of the people; with vivats heaven-high. The rest glide quietly to their respective places of abode. It is the last afternoon of September, 1791; on the morrow morning the new Legislative will begin.

So, amid glitter of illuminated streets and Champs Elysees, and crackle of fireworks and glad deray, has the first National Assembly vanished; dissolving, as they well say, into blank Time; and is no more. National Assembly is gone, its work remaining; as all Bodies of men go, and as man himself goes: it had its beginning, and must likewise have its end. A Phantasm–Reality born of Time, as the rest of us are; flitting ever backwards now on the tide of Time: to be long remembered of men. Very strange Assemblages, Sanhedrims, Amphictyonics, Trades Unions, Ecumenic Councils, Parliaments and Congresses, have met together on this Planet, and dispersed again; but a stranger Assemblage than this august Constituent, or with a stranger mission, perhaps never met there. Seen from the distance, this also will be a miracle. Twelve Hundred human individuals, with the Gospel of Jean–Jacques Rousseau in their pocket, congregating in the name of Twenty-five Millions, with full assurance of faith, to ‘make the Constitution:’ such sight, the acme and main product of the Eighteenth Century, our World can witness once only. For Time is rich in wonders, in monstrosities most rich; and is observed never to repeat himself, or any of his Gospels:— surely least of all, this Gospel according to Jean–Jacques. Once it was right and indispensable, since such had become the Belief of men; but once also is enough.

They have made the Constitution, these Twelve Hundred Jean–Jacques Evangelists; not without result. Near twenty-nine months they sat, with various fortune; in various capacity; — always, we may say, in that capacity of carborne Caroccio, and miraculous Standard of the Revolt of Men, as a Thing high and lifted up; whereon whosoever looked might hope healing. They have seen much: cannons levelled on them; then suddenly, by interposition of the Powers, the cannons drawn back; and a war-god Broglie vanishing, in thunder not his own, amid the dust and downrushing of a Bastille and Old Feudal France. They have suffered somewhat: Royal Session, with rain and Oath of the Tennis–Court; Nights of Pentecost; Insurrections of Women. Also have they not done somewhat? Made the Constitution, and managed all things the while; passed, in these twenty-nine months, ‘twenty-five hundred Decrees,’ which on the average is some three for each day, including Sundays! Brevity, one finds, is possible, at times: had not Moreau de St. Mery to give three thousand orders before rising from his seat? — There was valour (or value) in these men; and a kind of faith, — were it only faith in this, That cobwebs are not cloth; that a Constitution could be made. Cobwebs and chimeras ought verily to disappear; for a Reality there is. Let formulas, soul-killing, and now grown body-killing, insupportable, begone, in the name of Heaven and Earth! — Time, as we say, brought forth these Twelve Hundred; Eternity was before them, Eternity behind: they worked, as we all do, in the confluence of Two Eternities; what work was given them. Say not that it was nothing they did. Consciously they did somewhat; unconsciously how much! They had their giants and their dwarfs, they accomplished their good and their evil; they are gone, and return no more. Shall they not go with our blessing, in these circumstances; with our mild farewell?

By post, by diligence, on saddle or sole; they are gone: towards the four winds! Not a few over the marches, to rank at Coblentz. Thither wended Maury, among others; but in the end towards Rome, — to be clothed there in red Cardinal plush; in falsehood as in a garment; pet son (her last-born?) of the Scarlet Woman. Talleyrand–Perigord, excommunicated Constitutional Bishop, will make his way to London; to be Ambassador, spite of the Self-denying Law; brisk young Marquis Chauvelin acting as Ambassador’s-Cloak. In London too, one finds Petion the virtuous; harangued and haranguing, pledging the wine-cup with Constitutional Reform Clubs, in solemn tavern-dinner. Incorruptible Robespierre retires for a little to native Arras: seven short weeks of quiet; the last appointed him in this world. Public Accuser in the Paris Department, acknowledged highpriest of the Jacobins; the glass of incorruptible thin Patriotism, for his narrow emphasis is loved of all the narrow, — this man seems to be rising, somewhither? He sells his small heritage at Arras; accompanied by a Brother and a Sister, he returns, scheming out with resolute timidity a small sure destiny for himself and them, to his old lodging, at the Cabinet-maker’s, in the Rue St. Honore:— O resolute-tremulous incorruptible seagreen man, towards what a destiny!

Lafayette, for his part, will lay down the command. He retires Cincinnatus-like to his hearth and farm; but soon leaves them again. Our National Guard, however, shall henceforth have no one Commandant; but all Colonels shall command in succession, month about. Other Deputies we have met, or Dame de Stael has met, ‘sauntering in a thoughtful manner;’ perhaps uncertain what to do. Some, as Barnave, the Lameths, and their Duport, will continue here in Paris: watching the new biennial Legislative, Parliament the First; teaching it to walk, if so might be; and the Court to lead it.

Thus these: sauntering in a thoughtful manner; travelling by post or diligence, — whither Fate beckons. Giant Mirabeau slumbers in the Pantheon of Great Men: and France? and Europe? — The brass-lunged Hawkers sing “Grand Acceptation, Monarchic Constitution” through these gay crowds: the Morrow, grandson of Yesterday, must be what it can, as To-day its father is. Our new biennial Legislative begins to constitute itself on the first of October, 1791.

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