The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 2

The Book of the Law.

If the august Constituent Assembly itself, fixing the regards of the Universe, could, at the present distance of time and place, gain comparatively small attention from us, how much less can this poor Legislative! It has its Right Side and its Left; the less Patriotic and the more, for Aristocrats exist not here or now: it spouts and speaks: listens to Reports, reads Bills and Laws; works in its vocation, for a season: but the history of France, one finds, is seldom or never there. Unhappy Legislative, what can History do with it; if not drop a tear over it, almost in silence? First of the two-year Parliaments of France, which, if Paper Constitution and oft-repeated National Oath could avail aught, were to follow in softly-strong indissoluble sequence while Time ran, — it had to vanish dolefully within one year; and there came no second like it. Alas! your biennial Parliaments in endless indissoluble sequence; they, and all that Constitutional Fabric, built with such explosive Federation Oaths, and its top-stone brought out with dancing and variegated radiance, went to pieces, like frail crockery, in the crash of things; and already, in eleven short months, were in that Limbo near the Moon, with the ghosts of other Chimeras. There, except for rare specific purposes, let them rest, in melancholy peace.

On the whole, how unknown is a man to himself; or a public Body of men to itself! Aesop’s fly sat on the chariot-wheel, exclaiming, What a dust I do raise! Great Governors, clad in purple with fasces and insignia, are governed by their valets, by the pouting of their women and children; or, in Constitutional countries, by the paragraphs of their Able Editors. Say not, I am this or that; I am doing this or that! For thou knowest it not, thou knowest only the name it as yet goes by. A purple Nebuchadnezzar rejoices to feel himself now verily Emperor of this great Babylon which he has builded; and is a nondescript biped-quadruped, on the eve of a seven-years course of grazing! These Seven Hundred and Forty-five elected individuals doubt not but they are the First biennial Parliament, come to govern France by parliamentary eloquence: and they are what? And they have come to do what? Things foolish and not wise!

It is much lamented by many that this First Biennial had no members of the old Constituent in it, with their experience of parties and parliamentary tactics; that such was their foolish Self-denying Law. Most surely, old members of the Constituent had been welcome to us here. But, on the other hand, what old or what new members of any Constituent under the Sun could have effectually profited? There are First biennial Parliaments so postured as to be, in a sense, beyond wisdom; where wisdom and folly differ only in degree, and wreckage and dissolution are the appointed issue for both.

Old–Constituents, your Barnaves, Lameths and the like, for whom a special Gallery has been set apart, where they may sit in honour and listen, are in the habit of sneering at these new Legislators; (Dumouriez, ii. 150, &c.) but let not us! The poor Seven Hundred and Forty-five, sent together by the active citizens of France, are what they could be; do what is fated them. That they are of Patriot temper we can well understand. Aristocrat Noblesse had fled over the marches, or sat brooding silent in their unburnt Chateaus; small prospect had they in Primary Electoral Assemblies. What with Flights to Varennes, what with Days of Poniards, with plot after plot, the People are left to themselves; the People must needs choose Defenders of the People, such as can be had. Choosing, as they also will ever do, ‘if not the ablest man, yet the man ablest to be chosen!’ Fervour of character, decided Patriot–Constitutional feeling; these are qualities: but free utterance, mastership in tongue-fence; this is the quality of qualities. Accordingly one finds, with little astonishment, in this First Biennial, that as many as Four hundred Members are of the Advocate or Attorney species. Men who can speak, if there be aught to speak: nay here are men also who can think, and even act. Candour will say of this ill-fated First French Parliament that it wanted not its modicum of talent, its modicum of honesty; that it, neither in the one respect nor in the other, sank below the average of Parliaments, but rose above the average. Let average Parliaments, whom the world does not guillotine, and cast forth to long infamy, be thankful not to themselves but to their stars!

France, as we say, has once more done what it could: fervid men have come together from wide separation; for strange issues. Fiery Max Isnard is come, from the utmost South–East; fiery Claude Fauchet, Te–Deum Fauchet Bishop of Calvados, from the utmost North–West. No Mirabeau now sits here, who had swallowed formulas: our only Mirabeau now is Danton, working as yet out of doors; whom some call ‘Mirabeau of the Sansculottes.’

Nevertheless we have our gifts, — especially of speech and logic. An eloquent Vergniaud we have; most mellifluous yet most impetuous of public speakers; from the region named Gironde, of the Garonne: a man unfortunately of indolent habits; who will sit playing with your children, when he ought to be scheming and perorating. Sharp bustling Guadet; considerate grave Censonne; kind-sparkling mirthful young Ducos; Valaze doomed to a sad end: all these likewise are of that Gironde, or Bourdeaux region: men of fervid Constitutional principles; of quick talent, irrefragable logic, clear respectability; who will have the Reign of Liberty establish itself, but only by respectable methods. Round whom others of like temper will gather; known by and by as Girondins, to the sorrowing wonder of the world. Of which sort note Condorcet, Marquis and Philosopher; who has worked at much, at Paris Municipal Constitution, Differential Calculus, Newspaper Chronique de Paris, Biography, Philosophy; and now sits here as two-years Senator: a notable Condorcet, with stoical Roman face, and fiery heart; ‘volcano hid under snow;’ styled likewise, in irreverent language, ‘mouton enrage,’ peaceablest of creatures bitten rabid! Or note, lastly, Jean–Pierre Brissot; whom Destiny, long working noisily with him, has hurled hither, say, to have done with him. A biennial Senator he too; nay, for the present, the king of such. Restless, scheming, scribbling Brissot; who took to himself the style de Warville, heralds know not in the least why; — unless it were that the father of him did, in an unexceptionable manner, perform Cookery and Vintnery in the Village of Ouarville? A man of the windmill species, that grinds always, turning towards all winds; not in the steadiest manner.

In all these men there is talent, faculty to work; and they will do it: working and shaping, not without effect, though alas not in marble, only in quicksand! — But the highest faculty of them all remains yet to be mentioned; or indeed has yet to unfold itself for mention: Captain Hippolyte Carnot, sent hither from the Pas de Calais; with his cold mathematical head, and silent stubbornness of will: iron Carnot, far-planning, imperturbable, unconquerable; who, in the hour of need, shall not be found wanting. His hair is yet black; and it shall grow grey, under many kinds of fortune, bright and troublous; and with iron aspect this man shall face them all.

Nor is Cote Droit, and band of King’s friends, wanting: Vaublanc, Dumas, Jaucourt the honoured Chevalier; who love Liberty, yet with Monarchy over it; and speak fearlessly according to that faith; — whom the thick-coming hurricanes will sweep away. With them, let a new military Theodore Lameth be named; — were it only for his two Brothers’ sake, who look down on him, approvingly there, from the Old–Constituents’ Gallery. Frothy professing Pastorets, honey-mouthed conciliatory Lamourettes, and speechless nameless individuals sit plentiful, as Moderates, in the middle. Still less is a Cote Gauche wanting: extreme Left; sitting on the topmost benches, as if aloft on its speculatory Height or Mountain, which will become a practical fulminatory Height, and make the name of Mountain famous-infamous to all times and lands.

Honour waits not on this Mountain; nor as yet even loud dishonour. Gifts it boasts not, nor graces, of speaking or of thinking; solely this one gift of assured faith, of audacity that will defy the Earth and the Heavens. Foremost here are the Cordelier Trio: hot Merlin from Thionville, hot Bazire, Attorneys both; Chabot, disfrocked Capuchin, skilful in agio. Lawyer Lacroix, who wore once as subaltern the single epaulette, has loud lungs and a hungry heart. There too is Couthon, little dreaming what he is; — whom a sad chance has paralysed in the lower extremities. For, it seems, he sat once a whole night, not warm in his true love’s bower (who indeed was by law another’s), but sunken to the middle in a cold peat-bog, being hunted out; quaking for his life, in the cold quaking morass; (Dumouriez, ii. 370.) and goes now on crutches to the end. Cambon likewise, in whom slumbers undeveloped such a finance-talent for printing of Assignats; Father of Paper-money; who, in the hour of menace, shall utter this stern sentence, ‘War to the Manorhouse, peace to the Hut, Guerre aux Chateaux, paix aux Chaumieres!’ (Choix de Rapports, xi. 25.) Lecointre, the intrepid Draper of Versailles, is welcome here; known since the Opera–Repast and Insurrection of Women. Thuriot too; Elector Thuriot, who stood in the embrasures of the Bastille, and saw Saint–Antoine rising in mass; who has many other things to see. Last and grimmest of all note old Ruhl, with his brown dusky face and long white hair; of Alsatian Lutheran breed; a man whom age and book-learning have not taught; who, haranguing the old men of Rheims, shall hold up the Sacred Ampulla (Heaven-sent, wherefrom Clovis and all Kings have been anointed) as a mere worthless oil-bottle, and dash it to sherds on the pavement there; who, alas, shall dash much to sherds, and finally his own wild head, by pistol-shot, and so end it.

Such lava welters redhot in the bowels of this Mountain; unknown to the world and to itself! A mere commonplace Mountain hitherto; distinguished from the Plain chiefly by its superior barrenness, its baldness of look: at the utmost it may, to the most observant, perceptibly smoke. For as yet all lies so solid, peaceable; and doubts not, as was said, that it will endure while Time runs. Do not all love Liberty and the Constitution? All heartily; — and yet with degrees. Some, as Chevalier Jaucourt and his Right Side, may love Liberty less than Royalty, were the trial made; others, as Brissot and his Left Side, may love it more than Royalty. Nay again of these latter some may love Liberty more than Law itself; others not more. Parties will unfold themselves; no mortal as yet knows how. Forces work within these men and without: dissidence grows opposition; ever widening; waxing into incompatibility and internecine feud: till the strong is abolished by a stronger; himself in his turn by a strongest! Who can help it? Jaucourt and his Monarchists, Feuillans, or Moderates; Brissot and his Brissotins, Jacobins, or Girondins; these, with the Cordelier Trio, and all men, must work what is appointed them, and in the way appointed them.

And to think what fate these poor Seven Hundred and Forty-five are assembled, most unwittingly, to meet! Let no heart be so hard as not to pity them. Their soul’s wish was to live and work as the First of the French Parliaments: and make the Constitution march. Did they not, at their very instalment, go through the most affecting Constitutional ceremony, almost with tears? The Twelve Eldest are sent solemnly to fetch the Constitution itself, the printed book of the Law. Archivist Camus, an Old–Constituent appointed Archivist, he and the Ancient Twelve, amid blare of military pomp and clangour, enter, bearing the divine Book: and President and all Legislative Senators, laying their hand on the same, successively take the Oath, with cheers and heart-effusion, universal three-times-three. (Moniteur, Seance du 4 Octobre 1791.) In this manner they begin their Session. Unhappy mortals! For, that same day, his Majesty having received their Deputation of welcome, as seemed, rather drily, the Deputation cannot but feel slighted, cannot but lament such slight: and thereupon our cheering swearing First Parliament sees itself, on the morrow, obliged to explode into fierce retaliatory sputter, of anti-royal Enactment as to how they, for their part, will receive Majesty; and how Majesty shall not be called Sire any more, except they please: and then, on the following day, to recal this Enactment of theirs, as too hasty, and a mere sputter though not unprovoked.

An effervescent well-intentioned set of Senators; too combustible, where continual sparks are flying! Their History is a series of sputters and quarrels; true desire to do their function, fatal impossibility to do it. Denunciations, reprimandings of King’s Ministers, of traitors supposed and real; hot rage and fulmination against fulminating Emigrants; terror of Austrian Kaiser, of ‘Austrian Committee’ in the Tuileries itself: rage and haunting terror, haste and dim desperate bewilderment! — Haste, we say; and yet the Constitution had provided against haste. No Bill can be passed till it have been printed, till it have been thrice read, with intervals of eight days; — ‘unless the Assembly shall beforehand decree that there is urgency.’ Which, accordingly, the Assembly, scrupulous of the Constitution, never omits to do: Considering this, and also considering that, and then that other, the Assembly decrees always ‘qu’il y a urgence;’ and thereupon ‘the Assembly, having decreed that there is urgence,’ is free to decree — what indispensable distracted thing seems best to it. Two thousand and odd decrees, as men reckon, within Eleven months! (Montgaillard, iii. 1. 237.) The haste of the Constituent seemed great; but this is treble-quick. For the time itself is rushing treble-quick; and they have to keep pace with that. Unhappy Seven Hundred and Forty-five: true-patriotic, but so combustible; being fired, they must needs fling fire: Senate of touchwood and rockets, in a world of smoke-storm, with sparks wind-driven continually flying!

Or think, on the other hand, looking forward some months, of that scene they call Baiser de Lamourette! The dangers of the country are now grown imminent, immeasurable; National Assembly, hope of France, is divided against itself. In such extreme circumstances, honey-mouthed Abbe Lamourette, new Bishop of Lyons, rises, whose name, l’amourette, signifies the sweetheart, or Delilah doxy, — he rises, and, with pathetic honied eloquence, calls on all august Senators to forget mutual griefs and grudges, to swear a new oath, and unite as brothers. Whereupon they all, with vivats, embrace and swear; Left Side confounding itself with Right; barren Mountain rushing down to fruitful Plain, Pastoret into the arms of Condorcet, injured to the breast of injurer, with tears; and all swearing that whosoever wishes either Feuillant Two–Chamber Monarchy or Extreme–Jacobin Republic, or any thing but the Constitution and that only, shall be anathema marantha. (Moniteur, Seance du 6 Juillet 1792.) Touching to behold! For, literally on the morrow morning, they must again quarrel, driven by Fate; and their sublime reconcilement is called derisively Baiser de L’amourette, or Delilah Kiss.

Like fated Eteocles–Polynices Brothers, embracing, though in vain; weeping that they must not love, that they must hate only, and die by each other’s hands! Or say, like doomed Familiar Spirits; ordered, by Art Magic under penalties, to do a harder than twist ropes of sand: ‘to make the Constitution march.’ If the Constitution would but march! Alas, the Constitution will not stir. It falls on its face; they tremblingly lift it on end again: march, thou gold Constitution! The Constitution will not march. — “He shall march, by —!” said kind Uncle Toby, and even swore. The Corporal answered mournfully: “He will never march in this world.”

A constitution, as we often say, will march when it images, if not the old Habits and Beliefs of the Constituted; then accurately their Rights, or better indeed, their Mights; — for these two, well-understood, are they not one and the same? The old Habits of France are gone: her new Rights and Mights are not yet ascertained, except in Paper-theorem; nor can be, in any sort, till she have tried. Till she have measured herself, in fell death-grip, and were it in utmost preternatural spasm of madness, with Principalities and Powers, with the upper and the under, internal and external; with the Earth and Tophet and the very Heaven! Then will she know. — Three things bode ill for the marching of this French Constitution: the French People; the French King; thirdly the French Noblesse and an assembled European World.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/carlyle/thomas/french_revolution/v2.5.2.html

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