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- The Eve of the French Revolution - 60/64 -

is a French virtue.

Under the kings of France its aspirations were satisfied. The country was great and glorious.

That loyalty was held to be a duty will perhaps be less generally recognized, but I think that enough has been written in this book to show it. The evidence of the cahiers is chiefly on that side. Most Frenchmen believed that a king should govern, and that they had a good and well-meaning king. Toward him their hearts were still warm and their sense of duty alive. He was misled, thwarted, overruled, by selfish and designing courtiers. If he could but have his way all would be well. Only a very few persons had eyes strong enough to see that they were worshiping a stuffed scarecrow. A man inside those clothes could really have led them.

Next among the ideals of France, and far above loyalty in many bosoms, came liberty and equality. They were not very clearly comprehended. By liberty was chiefly meant a share of political power; few Frenchmen believed then, or ever have believed, in letting every man do what seemed good in his eyes. Such a theory of liberty does not take a very strong hold on a race so sociable as theirs; nor does such unbridled liberty seem consistent with civilization to men accustomed to the rigid system of Continental police. Equality of rights was an ideal, but most people in France were not prepared to demand its entire carrying out. Equality of property and of enjoyment many persons, especially such as considered themselves Philosophers,--persons who had read Rousseau or Montesquieu,--considered desirable; but no one of any weight had the most distant intention of trying to bring about such a state of things in the work-a-day world. Communistic schemes were not quite unknown in the eighteenth century, but they belong to the nineteenth.[Footnote: See for eighteenth century communism the curious essay of Morelly.]

With the general growth of comfort, with the general hope of an improved world, _humanity_, the hatred of seeing others suffer, had begun to bestir itself. For many ages people had believed that another life, and not this one, was really to be considered. Kind-hearted men had tried to draw souls to heaven, stern men to drive them thither. The effort had absorbed the energy and enthusiasm of a great proportion of those persons who were willing to think of anything but their own concerns. But in the eighteenth century heaven was clouded. Men's eyes were fixed on a promised land nearer their own level. This world, which was known by experience to be but too often a vale of tears, was soon, very soon, by the operation of the fashionable philosophy, to be turned into something like a paradise. To bring about so desirable a condition of things, the tears must be stopped at their source. Nor was this all. The world had acquired a new interest. It was capable of improvement. Hope in temporal matters had led to Faith,--Faith in progress and happiness here below. The new direction given to Faith and Hope was followed by Charity. The task of relieving human pain was fairly undertaken. Sickness and insanity were better cared for; torture was abolished, punishment lightened. In these matters the government rather followed than led the popular aspirations. In its general inefficiency, it came halting behind the good intentions of the people.

The virtues toward which the government of old France tried to lead the French nation were not, as we have seen, exactly the virtues toward which the national conscience led. The government upheld loyalty and humanity, and the people agreed with it; the government upheld a centralized despotism and privileges, and the popular conscience called for liberty and equality. In religion there was both agreement and divergence. The country, in spite of Voltaire and the Encyclopaedists, believed itself to be fervently Catholic; but its ideal of Catholicism was of a reformed and regenerated type; while that maintained by the government was corrupt and lifeless in high places. The country wanted provincial councils, resident bishops, a purified church.

And in so far as the ideals of the government differed from those of the people, the monarchy did not stand for something nobler and higher than the moral forces that attacked it. The French nation was in fact better than its government, more honest and more generous. The country priests were more self-devoted than the bishops who ruled over them; the poorer nobles were more public-spirited and more moral than the favored nobility of the court; the citizens of the Third Estate conducted their private business more honorably than the administration conducted the business of the country.

If the stability and legitimacy of government depend on its correspondence with the real powers of the nation and with the national conscience, the functions of government embrace something harder to attain even than this agreement. No sovereign power, be it that of an autocrat on his throne or of a nation in its councils, can directly carry out the policy which it desires to adopt. The sovereign must act through agents; and on the proper selection of these the success of his undertakings will largely depend. Jurists must draft the laws, judges must interpret them, officers must enforce obedience. Generals, commanding soldiers, must defend the land. Engineers must construct forts and roads; marine architects must furnish plans for practical ship-builders. Financiers must devise schemes of taxation, to be submitted to the sovereign; collectors of various kinds must levy the taxes on the people. All these should be experts, trained to do their especial work. The choice of experts, then, is one of the most important functions of government.

In this respect the administration of King Louis XVI. and his immediate predecessor was usually, although not uniformly bad. The army and navy, until the last years of disorganization, were reasonably efficient, the naval engineers in particular being the best then at work in the world. The civil and criminal laws were chaotic, more from a defect of legislation than of administration. Old privileges and anomalies were supported by the government, but good jurists and magistrates were produced. Those lawyers can hardly have been incompetent in whose school were trained the framers of the Code Napoleon, the model of modern Europe. Internal order and police were maintained with a thoroughness that was remarkable in an age when the possession of a good horse put the highwayman very nearly on an equality with the officer. The worst experts employed by the government appear to have been those connected with taxation and expenditure, from the Controller of the Finances to the last clerk in the Excise. The schemes of most of them were blundering, their actions were too often dishonest. They never reached the art of keeping accurate accounts.

The condition of the people of France, both in Paris and in the provinces, was far less bad than it is often represented to have been. The foregoing chapters should have given the impression of a great, prosperous, modern country. The face of Europe has changed since 1789 more through the enormous number and variety of mechanical inventions that have marked the nineteenth century than through a corresponding increase in mental or moral growth. While production and wealth have advanced by strides, education has taken a few faltering steps forward. Pecuniary honesty has probably increased, honesty and industry being the virtues especially fostered by commerce and manufactures. Bigotry, the unwillingness to permit in others thought and language unpalatable to ourselves, has become less virulent, but has not disappeared. It is shown alike by the church and by her enemies. Yet the tone of controversy has softened even in France. There are fewer Voltairean sneers, fewer episcopal anathemas. Humanity has been growing; the rich and prosperous becoming more alive to the suffering around them. But it is the material progress that is most striking, after all. The poor are better off than they were a hundred years ago, and the rich also. The minimum required by custom for the decent support of life has risen. The earners of wages are better housed, fed, and clothed in return for fewer hours of labor. In France, as in the world, there are many more things to divide, and things are, on the whole, more evenly divided.

If we compare the France of 1789 no longer with the France of 1892, but with the other countries of Continental Europe as they were in the days preceding the great Revolution, we find that she was worse governed than a few of them. The administration of Prussia while the great King Frederick sat on the throne was probably better than that of France. After his death it rapidly fell off, until a series of defeats had been earned by mis-government at Berlin. In a few of the smaller states, such as Holland, the Swiss cantons, or Tuscany, the citizen was perhaps better governed than in France. But in general, life and property appear to have been less safe beyond the French border than within it. A small despotism, when it is bad, is more searching and interfering than a large one. The lords of France were tyrannous enough at times, but there were always courts of law and a royal court above them, and appeals for justice, although doubtful, might yet be attempted with a hope of success.

The intellectual leadership of France in Europe was very clearly marked under Louis XV. French was unquestionably the language of the well-born and the witty as it was the favorite language of the learned all over the Continent. The reputation of Voltaire, Diderot, d'Alembert, and Rousseau, was distinctly European. Frederick of Prussia was glad to compose his academy at Berlin of second-rate French men of letters, and to make his own attempts at literary distinction in the French language. Smaller German princes modeled their courts on that of Versailles, and ruined themselves in palaces and gardens that were distant copies of those of that famous suburb. This spirit lasted well down to 1789, although the masterpieces of Lessing were already twenty years old, and those of Goethe and Schiller had begun to appear.

But while France was great, prosperous, and growing, and a model to her neighbors, she was deeply discontented. The condition of other countries was less good than hers, but the minds of the people of those countries had not risen above their condition. France had become conscious that her government did not correspond to her degree of civilization. The fact was emphasized in the national mind by the mediocrity of Louis XV. as a sovereign and by the utter incompetence of his well-meaning successor. In hands so feeble, the smallest excess of expenditure over income was important as a symptom of weakness, and for many years the deficit had in fact been increasing. The financial situation gave the nation a ground of attack against its government; it was not the cause of the Revolution, but its occasion. All the machinery of the state needed to be inspected, repaired, or renewed. The people entered into the task with good will, and the warmest interest. But they were entirely without experience. They knew and believed that old forms were to be respected as far as might be compatible with new conditions; they thought that the improvements needed were so obvious that nothing but fairness was required to recognize them. In their ignorance of the working of popular assemblies they supposed them to be inspired with wisdom and virtue beyond that of the individuals who compose them.

This is a mistake not likely to occur to any one who has experience of public meetings; but among the twelve hundred deputies to the Estates General, and among their constituents all over France, no one had much experience. A hundred and forty Notables, in 1787 and 1788, had deliberated on public questions; but their work had been done principally in committee, and their conclusions were without binding force on anybody, their functions being merely advisory. A good many delegates had been members of provincial assemblies or provincial estates; but these, in most of the provinces, had met but a few times, and their powers had been very limited. Such assemblies could do some good, and were carefully hedged from doing much harm. As training for membership in a body which was to discuss all sorts of questions and possess almost absolute power, experience among the Notables or in the provincial assemblies and estates, although valuable, was insufficient, and comparatively few of the members had even so much. Nor was foreign

The Eve of the French Revolution - 60/64

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