The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 7

Constitution will not march.

To all which our poor Legislative, tied up by an unmarching Constitution, can oppose nothing, by way of remedy, but mere bursts of parliamentary eloquence! They go on, debating, denouncing, objurgating: loud weltering Chaos, which devours itself.

But their two thousand and odd Decrees? Reader, these happily concern not thee, nor me. Mere Occasional Decrees, foolish and not foolish; sufficient for that day was its own evil! Of the whole two thousand there are not, now half a score, and these mostly blighted in the bud by royal Veto, that will profit or disprofit us. On the 17th of January, the Legislative, for one thing, got its High Court, its Haute Cour, set up at Orleans. The theory had been given by the Constituent, in May last, but this is the reality: a Court for the trial of Political Offences; a Court which cannot want work. To this it was decreed that there needed no royal Acceptance, therefore that there could be no Veto. Also Priests can now be married; ever since last October. A patriotic adventurous Priest had made bold to marry himself then; and not thinking this enough, came to the bar with his new spouse; that the whole world might hold honey-moon with him, and a Law be obtained.

Less joyful are the Laws against Refractory Priests; and yet no less needful! Decrees on Priests and Decrees on Emigrants: these are the two brief Series of Decrees, worked out with endless debate, and then cancelled by Veto, which mainly concern us here. For an august National Assembly must needs conquer these Refractories, Clerical or Laic, and thumbscrew them into obedience; yet, behold, always as you turn your legislative thumbscrew, and will press and even crush till Refractories give way, — King’s Veto steps in, with magical paralysis; and your thumbscrew, hardly squeezing, much less crushing, does not act!

Truly a melancholy Set of Decrees, a pair of Sets; paralysed by Veto! First, under date the 28th of October 1791, we have Legislative Proclamation, issued by herald and bill-sticker; inviting Monsieur, the King’s Brother to return within two months, under penalties. To which invitation Monsieur replies nothing; or indeed replies by Newspaper Parody, inviting the august Legislative ‘to return to common sense within two months,’ under penalties. Whereupon the Legislative must take stronger measures. So, on the 9th of November, we declare all Emigrants to be ‘suspect of conspiracy;’ and, in brief, to be ‘outlawed,’ if they have not returned at Newyear’s-day:— Will the King say Veto? That ‘triple impost’ shall be levied on these men’s Properties, or even their Properties be ‘put in sequestration,’ one can understand. But further, on Newyear’s-day itself, not an individual having ‘returned,’ we declare, and with fresh emphasis some fortnight later again declare, That Monsieur is dechu, forfeited of his eventual Heirship to the Crown; nay more that Conde, Calonne, and a considerable List of others are accused of high treason; and shall be judged by our High Court of Orleans: Veto! — Then again as to Nonjurant Priests: it was decreed, in November last, that they should forfeit what Pensions they had; be ‘put under inspection, under surveillance,’ and, if need were, be banished: Veto! A still sharper turn is coming; but to this also the answer will be, Veto.

Veto after Veto; your thumbscrew paralysed! Gods and men may see that the Legislative is in a false position. As, alas, who is in a true one? Voices already murmur for a ‘National Convention.’ (December 1791 (Hist. Parl. xii. 257).) This poor Legislative, spurred and stung into action by a whole France and a whole Europe, cannot act; can only objurgate and perorate; with stormy ‘motions,’ and motion in which is no way: with effervescence, with noise and fuliginous fury!

What scenes in that National Hall! President jingling his inaudible bell; or, as utmost signal of distress, clapping on his hat; ‘the tumult subsiding in twenty minutes,’ and this or the other indiscreet Member sent to the Abbaye Prison for three days! Suspected Persons must be summoned and questioned; old M. de Sombreuil of the Invalides has to give account of himself, and why he leaves his Gates open. Unusual smoke rose from the Sevres Pottery, indicating conspiracy; the Potters explained that it was Necklace–Lamotte’s Memoirs, bought up by her Majesty, which they were endeavouring to suppress by fire, (Moniteur, Seance du 28 Mai 1792; Campan, ii. 196.) — which nevertheless he that runs may still read.

Again, it would seem, Duke de Brissac and the King’s Constitutional–Guard are ‘making cartridges secretly in the cellars;’ a set of Royalists, pure and impure; black cut-throats many of them, picked out of gaming houses and sinks; in all Six thousand instead of Eighteen hundred; who evidently gloom on us every time we enter the Chateau. (Dumouriez, ii. 168.) Wherefore, with infinite debate, let Brissac and King’s Guard be disbanded. Disbanded accordingly they are; after only two months of existence, for they did not get on foot till March of this same year. So ends briefly the King’s new Constitutional Maison Militaire; he must now be guarded by mere Swiss and blue Nationals again. It seems the lot of Constitutional things. New Constitutional Maison Civile he would never even establish, much as Barnave urged it; old resident Duchesses sniffed at it, and held aloof; on the whole her Majesty thought it not worth while, the Noblesse would so soon be back triumphant. (Campan, ii. c. 19.)

Or, looking still into this National Hall and its scenes, behold Bishop Torne, a Constitutional Prelate, not of severe morals, demanding that ‘religious costumes and such caricatures’ be abolished. Bishop Torne warms, catches fire; finishes by untying, and indignantly flinging on the table, as if for gage or bet, his own pontifical cross. Which cross, at any rate, is instantly covered by the cross of Te–Deum Fauchet, then by other crosses, and insignia, till all are stripped; this clerical Senator clutching off his skull-cap, that other his frill-collar, — lest Fanaticism return on us. (Moniteur, du 7 Avril 1792; Deux Amis, vii. 111.)

Quick is the movement here! And then so confused, unsubstantial, you might call it almost spectral; pallid, dim, inane, like the Kingdoms of Dis! Unruly Liguet, shrunk to a kind of spectre for us, pleads here, some cause that he has: amid rumour and interruption, which excel human patience; he ‘tears his papers, and withdraws,’ the irascible adust little man. Nay honourable members will tear their papers, being effervescent: Merlin of Thionville tears his papers, crying: “So, the People cannot be saved by you!” Nor are Deputations wanting: Deputations of Sections; generally with complaint and denouncement, always with Patriot fervour of sentiment: Deputation of Women, pleading that they also may be allowed to take Pikes, and exercise in the Champ-de-Mars. Why not, ye Amazons, if it be in you? Then occasionally, having done our message and got answer, we ‘defile through the Hall, singing ca-ira;’ or rather roll and whirl through it, ‘dancing our ronde patriotique the while,’ — our new Carmagnole, or Pyrrhic war-dance and liberty-dance. Patriot Huguenin, Ex–Advocate, Ex–Carabineer, Ex–Clerk of the Barriers, comes deputed, with Saint–Antoine at his heels; denouncing Anti-patriotism, Famine, Forstalment and Man-eaters; asks an august Legislative: “Is there not a tocsin in your hearts against these mangeurs d’hommes!” (See Moniteur, Seances in Hist. Parl. xiii. xiv.)

But above all things, for this is a continual business, the Legislative has to reprimand the King’s Ministers. Of His Majesty’s Ministers we have said hitherto, and say, next to nothing. Still more spectral these! Sorrowful; of no permanency any of them, none at least since Montmorin vanished: the ‘eldest of the King’s Council’ is occasionally not ten days old! (Dumouriez, ii. 137.) Feuillant–Constitutional, as your respectable Cahier de Gerville, as your respectable unfortunate Delessarts; or Royalist–Constitutional, as Montmorin last Friend of Necker; or Aristocrat as Bertrand–Moleville: they flit there phantom-like, in the huge simmering confusion; poor shadows, dashed in the racking winds; powerless, without meaning; — whom the human memory need not charge itself with.

But how often, we say, are these poor Majesty’s Ministers summoned over; to be questioned, tutored; nay, threatened, almost bullied! They answer what, with adroitest simulation and casuistry, they can: of which a poor Legislative knows not what to make. One thing only is clear, That Cimmerian Europe is girdling us in; that France (not actually dead, surely?) cannot march. Have a care, ye Ministers! Sharp Guadet transfixes you with cross-questions, with sudden Advocate-conclusions; the sleeping tempest that is in Vergniaud can be awakened. Restless Brissot brings up Reports, Accusations, endless thin Logic; it is the man’s highday even now. Condorcet redacts, with his firm pen, our ‘Address of the Legislative Assembly to the French Nation.’ (16th February 1792 (Choix des Rapports, viii. 375–92).) Fiery Max Isnard, who, for the rest, will “carry not Fire and Sword” on those Cimmerian Enemies “but Liberty,” — is for declaring “that we hold Ministers responsible; and that by responsibility we mean death, nous entendons la mort.”

For verily it grows serious: the time presses, and traitors there are. Bertrand–Moleville has a smooth tongue, the known Aristocrat; gall in his heart. How his answers and explanations flow ready; jesuitic, plausible to the ear! But perhaps the notablest is this, which befel once when Bertrand had done answering and was withdrawn. Scarcely had the august Assembly begun considering what was to be done with him, when the Hall fills with smoke. Thick sour smoke: no oratory, only wheezing and barking; — irremediable; so that the august Assembly has to adjourn! (Courrier de Paris, 14 Janvier, 1792 (Gorsas’s Newspaper), in Hist. Parl. xiii. 83.) A miracle? Typical miracle? One knows not: only this one seems to know, that ‘the Keeper of the Stoves was appointed by Bertrand’ or by some underling of his! — O fuliginous confused Kingdom of Dis, with thy Tantalus–Ixion toils, with thy angry Fire-floods, and Streams named of Lamentation, why hast thou not thy Lethe too, that so one might finish?

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