The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 1

The Deliberative.

France therefore has done two things very completely: she has hurled back her Cimmerian Invaders far over the marches; and likewise she has shattered her own internal Social Constitution, even to the minutest fibre of it, into wreck and dissolution. Utterly it is all altered: from King down to Parish Constable, all Authorities, Magistrates, Judges, persons that bore rule, have had, on the sudden, to alter themselves, so far as needful; or else, on the sudden, and not without violence, to be altered: a Patriot ‘Executive Council of Ministers,’ with a Patriot Danton in it, and then a whole Nation and National Convention, have taken care of that. Not a Parish Constable, in the furthest hamlet, who has said De Par le Roi, and shewn loyalty, but must retire, making way for a new improved Parish Constable who can say De par la Republique.

It is a change such as History must beg her readers to imagine, undescribed. An instantaneous change of the whole body-politic, the soul-politic being all changed; such a change as few bodies, politic or other, can experience in this world. Say perhaps, such as poor Nymph Semele’s body did experience, when she would needs, with woman’s humour, see her Olympian Jove as very Jove; — and so stood, poor Nymph, this moment Semele, next moment not Semele, but Flame and a Statue of red-hot Ashes! France has looked upon Democracy; seen it face to face. — The Cimmerian Invaders will rally, in humbler temper, with better or worse luck: the wreck and dissolution must reshape itself into a social Arrangement as it can and may. But as for this National Convention, which is to settle every thing, if it do, as Deputy Paine and France generally expects, get all finished ‘in a few months,’ we shall call it a most deft Convention.

In truth, it is very singular to see how this mercurial French People plunges suddenly from Vive le Roi to Vive la Republique; and goes simmering and dancing; shaking off daily (so to speak), and trampling into the dust, its old social garnitures, ways of thinking, rules of existing; and cheerfully dances towards the Ruleless, Unknown, with such hope in its heart, and nothing but Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood in its mouth. Is it two centuries, or is it only two years, since all France roared simultaneously to the welkin, bursting forth into sound and smoke at its Feast of Pikes, “Live the Restorer of French Liberty?” Three short years ago there was still Versailles and an Oeil-de-Boeuf: now there is that watched Circuit of the Temple, girt with dragon-eyed Municipals, where, as in its final limbo, Royalty lies extinct. In the year 1789, Constituent Deputy Barrere ‘wept,’ in his Break-of-Day Newspaper, at sight of a reconciled King Louis; and now in 1792, Convention Deputy Barrere, perfectly tearless, may be considering, whether the reconciled King Louis shall be guillotined or not.

Old garnitures and social vestures drop off (we say) so fast, being indeed quite decayed, and are trodden under the National dance. And the new vestures, where are they; the new modes and rules? Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: not vestures but the wish for vestures! The Nation is for the present, figuratively speaking, naked! It has no rule or vesture; but is naked, — a Sansculottic Nation.

So far, therefore, in such manner have our Patriot Brissots, Guadets triumphed. Vergniaud’s Ezekiel-visions of the fall of thrones and crowns, which he spake hypothetically and prophetically in the Spring of the year, have suddenly come to fulfilment in the Autumn. Our eloquent Patriots of the Legislative, like strong Conjurors, by the word of their mouth, have swept Royalism with its old modes and formulas to the winds; and shall now govern a France free of formulas. Free of formulas! And yet man lives not except with formulas; with customs, ways of doing and living: no text truer than this; which will hold true from the Tea-table and Tailor’s shopboard up to the High Senate-houses, Solemn Temples; nay through all provinces of Mind and Imagination, onwards to the outmost confines of articulate Being, — Ubi homines sunt modi sunt! There are modes wherever there are men. It is the deepest law of man’s nature; whereby man is a craftsman and ‘tool-using animal;’ not the slave of Impulse, Chance, and Brute Nature, but in some measure their lord. Twenty-five millions of men, suddenly stript bare of their modi, and dancing them down in that manner, are a terrible thing to govern!

Eloquent Patriots of the Legislative, meanwhile, have precisely this problem to solve. Under the name and nickname of ‘statesmen, hommes d’etat,’ of ‘moderate-men, moderantins,’ of Brissotins, Rolandins, finally of Girondins, they shall become world-famous in solving it. For the Twenty-five millions are Gallic effervescent too; — filled both with hope of the unutterable, of universal Fraternity and Golden Age; and with terror of the unutterable, Cimmerian Europe all rallying on us. It is a problem like few. Truly, if man, as the Philosophers brag, did to any extent look before and after, what, one may ask, in many cases would become of him? What, in this case, would become of these Seven Hundred and Forty-nine men? The Convention, seeing clearly before and after, were a paralysed Convention. Seeing clearly to the length of its own nose, it is not paralysed.

To the Convention itself neither the work nor the method of doing it is doubtful: To make the Constitution; to defend the Republic till that be made. Speedily enough, accordingly, there has been a ‘Committee of the Constitution’ got together. Sieyes, Old–Constituent, Constitution-builder by trade; Condorcet, fit for better things; Deputy Paine, foreign Benefactor of the Species, with that ‘red carbuncled face, and the black beaming eyes;’ Herault de Sechelles, Ex–Parlementeer, one of the handsomest men in France: these, with inferior guild-brethren, are girt cheerfully to the work; will once more ‘make the Constitution;’ let us hope, more effectually than last time. For that the Constitution can be made, who doubts, — unless the Gospel of Jean Jacques came into the world in vain? True, our last Constitution did tumble within the year, so lamentably. But what then, except sort the rubbish and boulders, and build them up again better? ‘Widen your basis,’ for one thing, — to Universal Suffrage, if need be; exclude rotten materials, Royalism and such like, for another thing. And in brief, build, O unspeakable Sieyes and Company, unwearied! Frequent perilous downrushing of scaffolding and rubble-work, be that an irritation, no discouragement. Start ye always again, clearing aside the wreck; if with broken limbs, yet with whole hearts; and build, we say, in the name of Heaven, — till either the work do stand; or else mankind abandon it, and the Constitution-builders be paid off, with laughter and tears! One good time, in the course of Eternity, it was appointed that this of Social Contract too should try itself out. And so the Committee of Constitution shall toil: with hope and faith; — with no disturbance from any reader of these pages.

To make the Constitution, then, and return home joyfully in a few months: this is the prophecy our National Convention gives of itself; by this scientific program shall its operations and events go on. But from the best scientific program, in such a case, to the actual fulfilment, what a difference! Every reunion of men, is it not, as we often say, a reunion of incalculable Influences; every unit of it a microcosm of Influences; — of which how shall Science calculate or prophesy! Science, which cannot, with all its calculuses, differential, integral, and of variations, calculate the Problem of Three gravitating Bodies, ought to hold her peace here, and say only: In this National Convention there are Seven Hundred and Forty-nine very singular Bodies, that gravitate and do much else; — who, probably in an amazing manner, will work the appointment of Heaven.

Of National Assemblages, Parliaments, Congresses, which have long sat; which are of saturnine temperament; above all, which are not ‘dreadfully in earnest,’ something may be computed or conjectured: yet even these are a kind of Mystery in progress, — whereby we see the Journalist Reporter find livelihood: even these jolt madly out of the ruts, from time to time. How much more a poor National Convention, of French vehemence; urged on at such velocity; without routine, without rut, track or landmark; and dreadfully in earnest every man of them! It is a Parliament literally such as there was never elsewhere in the world. Themselves are new, unarranged; they are the Heart and presiding centre of a France fallen wholly into maddest disarrangement. From all cities, hamlets, from the utmost ends of this France with its Twenty-five million vehement souls, thick-streaming influences storm in on that same Heart, in the Salle de Manege, and storm out again: such fiery venous-arterial circulation is the function of that Heart. Seven Hundred and Forty-nine human individuals, we say, never sat together on Earth, under more original circumstances. Common individuals most of them, or not far from common; yet in virtue of the position they occupied, so notable. How, in this wild piping of the whirlwind of human passions, with death, victory, terror, valour, and all height and all depth pealing and piping, these men, left to their own guidance, will speak and act?

Readers know well that this French National Convention (quite contrary to its own Program) became the astonishment and horror of mankind; a kind of Apocalyptic Convention, or black Dream become real; concerning which History seldom speaks except in the way of interjection: how it covered France with woe, delusion, and delirium; and from its bosom there went forth Death on the pale Horse. To hate this poor National Convention is easy; to praise and love it has not been found impossible. It is, as we say, a Parliament in the most original circumstances. To us, in these pages, be it as a fuliginous fiery mystery, where Upper has met Nether, and in such alternate glare and blackness of darkness poor bedazzled mortals know not which is Upper, which is Nether; but rage and plunge distractedly, as mortals, in that case, will do. A Convention which has to consume itself, suicidally; and become dead ashes — with its World! Behoves us, not to enter exploratively its dim embroiled deeps; yet to stand with unwavering eyes, looking how it welters; what notable phases and occurrences it will successively throw up.

One general superficial circumstance we remark with praise: the force of Politeness. To such depth has the sense of civilisation penetrated man’s life; no Drouet, no Legendre, in the maddest tug of war, can altogether shake it off. Debates of Senates dreadfully in earnest are seldom given frankly to the world; else perhaps they would surprise it. Did not the Grand Monarque himself once chase his Louvois with a pair of brandished tongs? But reading long volumes of these Convention Debates, all in a foam with furious earnestness, earnest many times to the extent of life and death, one is struck rather with the degree of continence they manifest in speech; and how in such wild ebullition, there is still a kind of polite rule struggling for mastery, and the forms of social life never altogether disappear. These men, though they menace with clenched right-hands, do not clench one another by the collar; they draw no daggers, except for oratorical purposes, and this not often: profane swearing is almost unknown, though the Reports are frank enough; we find only one or two oaths, oaths by Marat, reported in all.

For the rest, that there is ‘effervescence’ who doubts? Effervescence enough; Decrees passed by acclamation to-day, repealed by vociferation to-morrow; temper fitful, most rotatory changeful, always headlong! The ‘voice of the orator is covered with rumours;’ a hundred ‘honourable Members rush with menaces towards the Left side of the Hall;’ President has ‘broken three bells in succession,’ — claps on his hat, as signal that the country is near ruined. A fiercely effervescent Old–Gallic Assemblage! — Ah, how the loud sick sounds of Debate, and of Life, which is a debate, sink silent one after another: so loud now, and in a little while so low! Brennus, and those antique Gael Captains, in their way to Rome, to Galatia, and such places, whither they were in the habit of marching in the most fiery manner, had Debates as effervescent, doubt it not; though no Moniteur has reported them. They scolded in Celtic Welsh, those Brennuses; neither were they Sansculotte; nay rather breeches (braccae, say of felt or rough-leather) were the only thing they had; being, as Livy testifies, naked down to the haunches:— and, see, it is the same sort of work and of men still, now when they have got coats, and speak nasally a kind of broken Latin! But on the whole does not TIME envelop this present National Convention; as it did those Brennuses, and ancient August Senates in felt breeches? Time surely; and also Eternity. Dim dusk of Time, — or noon which will be dusk; and then there is night, and silence; and Time with all its sick noises is swallowed in the still sea. Pity thy brother, O Son of Adam! The angriest frothy jargon that he utters, is it not properly the whimpering of an infant which cannot speak what ails it, but is in distress clearly, in the inwards of it; and so must squall and whimper continually, till its Mother take it, and it get — to sleep!

This Convention is not four days old, and the melodious Meliboean stanzas that shook down Royalty are still fresh in our ear, when there bursts out a new diapason, — unhappily, of Discord, this time. For speech has been made of a thing difficult to speak of well: the September Massacres. How deal with these September Massacres; with the Paris Commune that presided over them? A Paris Commune hateful-terrible; before which the poor effete Legislative had to quail, and sit quiet. And now if a young omnipotent Convention will not so quail and sit, what steps shall it take? Have a Departmental Guard in its pay, answer the Girondins, and Friends of Order! A Guard of National Volunteers, missioned from all the Eighty-three or Eighty-five Departments, for that express end; these will keep Septemberers, tumultuous Communes in a due state of submissiveness, the Convention in a due state of sovereignty. So have the Friends of Order answered, sitting in Committee, and reporting; and even a Decree has been passed of the required tenour. Nay certain Departments, as the Var or Marseilles, in mere expectation and assurance of a Decree, have their contingent of Volunteers already on march: brave Marseillese, foremost on the Tenth of August, will not be hindmost here; ‘fathers gave their sons a musket and twenty-five louis,’ says Barbaroux, ‘and bade them march.’

Can any thing be properer? A Republic that will found itself on justice must needs investigate September Massacres; a Convention calling itself National, ought it not to be guarded by a National force? — Alas, Reader, it seems so to the eye: and yet there is much to be said and argued. Thou beholdest here the small beginning of a Controversy, which mere logic will not settle. Two small well-springs, September, Departmental Guard, or rather at bottom they are but one and the same small well-spring; which will swell and widen into waters of bitterness; all manner of subsidiary streams and brooks of bitterness flowing in, from this side and that; till it become a wide river of bitterness, of rage and separation, — which can subside only into the Catacombs. This Departmental Guard, decreed by overwhelming majorities, and then repealed for peace’s sake, and not to insult Paris, is again decreed more than once; nay it is partially executed, and the very men that are to be of it are seen visibly parading the Paris streets, — shouting once, being overtaken with liquor: “A bas Marat, Down with Marat!” (Hist. Parl. xx. 184.) Nevertheless, decreed never so often, it is repealed just as often; and continues, for some seven months, an angry noisy Hypothesis only: a fair Possibility struggling to become a Reality, but which shall never be one; which, after endless struggling, shall, in February next, sink into sad rest, — dragging much along with it. So singular are the ways of men and honourable Members.

But on this fourth day of the Convention’s existence, as we said, which is the 25th of September 1792, there comes Committee Report on that Decree of the Departmental Guard, and speech of repealing it; there come denunciations of anarchy, of a Dictatorship, — which let the incorruptible Robespierre consider: there come denunciations of a certain Journal de la Republique, once called Ami du Peuple; and so thereupon there comes, visibly stepping up, visibly standing aloft on the Tribune, ready to speak, the Bodily Spectrum of People’s-Friend Marat! Shriek, ye Seven Hundred and Forty-nine; it is verily Marat, he and not another. Marat is no phantasm of the brain, or mere lying impress of Printer’s Types; but a thing material, of joint and sinew, and a certain small stature: ye behold him there, in his blackness in his dingy squalor, a living fraction of Chaos and Old Night; visibly incarnate, desirous to speak. “It appears,” says Marat to the shrieking Assembly, “that a great many persons here are enemies of mine.” “All! All!” shriek hundreds of voices: enough to drown any People’s-Friend. But Marat will not drown: he speaks and croaks explanation; croaks with such reasonableness, air of sincerity, that repentant pity smothers anger, and the shrieks subside or even become applauses. For this Convention is unfortunately the crankest of machines: it shall be pointing eastward, with stiff violence, this moment; and then do but touch some spring dexterously, the whole machine, clattering and jerking seven-hundred-fold, will whirl with huge crash, and, next moment, is pointing westward! Thus Marat, absolved and applauded, victorious in this turn of fence, is, as the Debate goes on, prickt at again by some dexterous Girondin; and then and shrieks rise anew, and Decree of Accusation is on the point of passing; till the dingy People’s-Friend bobs aloft once more; croaks once more persuasive stillness, and the Decree of Accusation sinks, Whereupon he draws forth — a Pistol; and setting it to his Head, the seat of such thought and prophecy, says: “If they had passed their Accusation Decree, he, the People’s-Friend, would have blown his brains out.” A People’s Friend has that faculty in him. For the rest, as to this of the two hundred and sixty thousand Aristocrat Heads, Marat candidly says, “C’est la mon avis, such is my opinion.” Also it is not indisputable: “No power on Earth can prevent me from seeing into traitors, and unmasking them,” — by my superior originality of mind? (Moniteur Newspaper, Nos. 271, 280, 294, Annee premiere; Moore’s Journal, ii. 21, 157, &c. which, however, may perhaps, as in similar cases, be only a copy of the Newspaper.) An honourable member like this Friend of the People few terrestrial Parliaments have had.

We observe, however, that this first onslaught by the Friends of Order, as sharp and prompt as it was, has failed. For neither can Robespierre, summoned out by talk of Dictatorship, and greeted with the like rumour on shewing himself, be thrown into Prison, into Accusation; — not though Barbarous openly bear testimony against him, and sign it on paper. With such sanctified meekness does the Incorruptible lift his seagreen cheek to the smiter; lift his thin voice, and with jesuitic dexterity plead, and prosper: asking at last, in a prosperous manner: “But what witnesses has the Citoyen Barbaroux to support his testimony?” “Moi!” cries hot Rebecqui, standing up, striking his breast with both hands, and answering, “Me!” (Moniteur, ut supra; Seance du 25 Septembre.) Nevertheless the Seagreen pleads again, and makes it good: the long hurlyburly, ‘personal merely,’ while so much public matter lies fallow, has ended in the order of the day. O Friends of the Gironde, why will you occupy our august sessions with mere paltry Personalities, while the grand Nationality lies in such a state? — The Gironde has touched, this day, on the foul black-spot of its fair Convention Domain; has trodden on it, and yet not trodden it down. Alas, it is a well-spring, as we said, this black-spot; and will not tread down!

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