Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB
[blocks in formation]

Memoires d'un Temoin de la Revolution ; ou Journal des faits

qui se sont passé sous ses yeux, et qui ont preparé et fixé la Constitution Française. Ouvrage Posthume de JEAN SYLVAIN Bailly, Premier President de l'Assemblée Nationale Constituant, Premier Maire de Paris, et Meinbre des Trois Academies. 8vo. 3 tomes. Paris : 1804.*

Among the many evils which the French Revolution has inflicted on mankind, the most deplorable, perhaps, both in point of extent and of probable duration, consists in the injury which it has done to the cause of rational freedom, and the discredit in which it has involved the principles of political philosophy. The warnings which may be derived from the misfortunes of that country, and the lessons which may still be read in the tragical consequences of her temerity, are memorable, no doubt, and important: But they are such as are presented to us by the history of every period of the world; and the emotions by which they have been impressed, are in this case too violent to let their import and application be properly distinguished. From the miscarriage of a scheme of frantic innovation, we have conceived an unreasonable and undiscriminating dread of all alteration or reform. The bad success of an attempt to make government perfect, has reconciled us to imperfections that might easily be removed; and the miserable consequences of treating every thing as prejudice and injustice, which could not be reconciled to a system of fantastic equality, has given strength to prejudices, and sanction to abuses, which were gradually wearing away

* I have been tempted to let this be reprinted (though sensible enough of vices in the style) to show at how early a period those views of the character of the French Revolution, and its first effects on other countries, were adopted — which have not since received much modification.

EFFECTS OF FRENCH REVOLUTION.

39

before the progress of reason and philosophy. The French Revolution, in short, has thrown us back half a century in the course of political improvement; and driven many among us to cling once more, with superstitious terror, to those idols from which we had been nearly reclaimed by the lessons of a milder philosophy. When we look round on the wreck and ruin which the whirlwind has scattered over the prospect before us, we tremble at the rising gale, and shrink even from the wholesome air that stirs the fig-leaf on our porch. Terrified and disgusted with the brawls and midnight murders which proceed from intoxication, we are almost inclined to deny ourselves the pleasures of a generous hospitality; and scarcely venture to diffuse the comforts of light or of warmth in our dwellings, when we turn our eyes on the devastation which the flames have committed around us.

The same circumstances which have thus led us to confound what is salutary with what is pernicious in our establishments, have also perverted our judgments as to the characters of those who were connected with those memorable occurrences. The tide of popular favour, which ran at one time with a dangerous and headlong violence to the side of innovation and political experiment, has now set, perhaps too strongly, in an opposite direction; and the same misguiding passions that placed factious and selfish men on a level with patriots and heroes, has now ranked the blameless and the enlightened in the herd of murderers and madmen.

There are two classes of men, in particular, to whom it appears to us that the Revolution has thus done injustice; and who have been made to share in some measure the infamy of its most detestable agents, in consequence of venial errors, and in spite of extraordinary merits. There are none indeed who made a figure in its more advanced stages, that may not be left, without any great breach of charity, to the vengeance of public opinion: and both the descriptions of persons to whom we have alluded only existed, accordingly, at the period of its

40

APOLOGY OF LIBERAL PHILOSOPHERS

commencement. These were the philosophers or speculative men who inculcated a love of liberty and a desire of reform by their writings and conversation; and the virtuous and moderate, who attempted to act upon these principles at the outset of the Revolution, and countenanced or suggested those measures by which the ancient frame of the government was eventually dissolved. To confound either of these classes of men with the monsters by whom they were succeeded, it would be necessary to forget that they were in reality their most strenuous opponents—and their earliest victims! If they were instrumental in conjuring up the tempest, we may at least presume that their co-operation was granted in ignorance, since they were the first to fall before it; and can scarcely be supposed to have either foreseen or intended those consequences in which their own ruin was so inevitably involved. That they are chargeable with imprudence and with presumption, may be affirmed, perhaps, without fear of contradiction; though, with regard to many of them, it would be no easy task, perhaps, to point out by what conduct they could have avoided such an imputation; and this charge, it is manifest, ought at any rate to be kept carefully separate from that of guilt or atrocity. Benevolent intentions, though alloyed by vanity, and misguided by ignorance, can never become the objects of the highest moral reprobation; and enthusiasm itself, though it does the work of the demons, ought still to be distinguished from treachery or malice. The knightly adventurer, who broke the chains of the galley-slaves, purely that they might enjoy their deliverance from bondage, will always be regarded with other feelings than the robber who freed them to recruit the ranks of his banditti.

We have examined in a former article the extent of the participation which can be fairly imputed to the philosophers, in the crimes and miseries of the Revolution, and endeavoured to ascertain in how far they may be said to have made themselves responsible for its consequences, or to have deserved censure for their exertions: And, acquitting the greater part of any

mischiev

AND OF WELL-MEANING LEGISLATORS.

41

ous intention, we found reason, upon that occasion, to conclude, that there was nothing in the conduct of the majority which should expose them to blame, or deprive them of the credit which they would have certainly enjoyed, but for consequences which they could not foresee. For those who, with intentions equally blameless, attempted to carry into execution the projects which had been suggested by the others, and actually engaged in measures which could not fail to terminate in important changes, it will not be easy, we are afraid, to make so satisfactory an apology. What is written may be corrected; but what is done cannot be recalled : a rash and injudicious publication naturally calls forth an host of answers; and where the subject of discussion is such as excites a very powerful interest, the cause of truth is not always least effectually served by her opponents. But the errors of cabinets and of legislatures have other consequences and other confutations. They are answered by insurrections, and confuted by conspiracies. A paradox which might have been maintained by an author, without any other loss than that of a little leisure, and ink and paper, can only be supported by a minister at the expense of the lives and the liberties of a nation. It is evident, therefore, that the precipitation of a legislator can never admit of the same excuse with that of a speculative inquirer; that the same confidence in his opinions, which justifies the former in maintaining them to the world, will never justify the other in suspending the happiness of his country on the issue of their truth; and that he, in particular, subjects himself to a tremendous responsibility, who voluntarily takes upon himself the newmodelling of an antient constitution.

We are very much inclined to do justice to the virtuous and enlightened men who abounded in the Constituent Assembly of France. We believe that the motives of many of them were pure, and their patriotism unaffected: their talents are still more indisputable : But we cannot acquit them of blameable presumption and inexcusable imprudence. There are three points,

42

BLAMEABLE EXASPERATION AND IMPATIENCE.

it appears to us, in particular, in which they were bound to have foreseen the consequences of their proceedings.

In the first place, the spirit of exasperation, defiance, and intimidation, with which from the beginning they carried on their opposition to the schemes of the court, the clergy and the nobility, appears to us to have been as impolitic with a view to their ultimate success, as it was suspicious perhaps as to their immediate motives. The parade which they made of their popularity; the support which they submitted to receive from the menaces and acclamations of the mob; the joy which they testified at the desertion of the royal armies; and the anomalous military force, of which they patronized the formation in the city of Paris, were so many preparations for actual hostility, and led almost inevitably to that appeal to force, by which all prospect of establishing an equitable government was finally cut off

. Sanguine as the patriots of that assembly undoubtedly were, they might still have remembered the most obvious and important lesson in the whole volume of history, That the nation which has recourse to arms for the settlement of its internal affairs, necessarily falls under the iron yoke of a military government in the end; and that nothing but the most evident necessity can justify the lovers of freedom in forcing it from the hands of their governors. In France, there certainly was no such necessity. The whole weight and strength of the nation was bent upon political improvement and reform. There was no possibility of their being ultimately resisted; and the only danger that was to be apprehended was, that their progress would be too rapid. After the States-General were once fairly granted, indeed, it appears to us that the victory of the friends to liberty was certain. They could not have gone too slow afterwards; they could not have been satisfied with too little. The great object, then, should have been to exclude the agency of force, and to leave no pretext for an appeal to violence. Nothing could have stood against the force of reason, which ought to have given way; and from

« ZurückWeiter »