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ART. I. The History of the French Revolution. From the French of A. THIERS and F. BODIN. 3 Vols. 8vo. London. Whittaker. 1825.
THE HE French Revolution has exercised a greater influence on the affairs of mankind than any other circumstance in the annals of the modern world. It has afforded an example, which should never be forgotten, of the dreadful retribution of popular vengeance upon the despotism of ages; it has exhibited the vain theories of equality and the unbridled licence of democracy; and it has proved that, while the only safeguards of public prosperity and virtue consist in the union of good government and religion, the only security for property and true freedom must be sought in the wellbalanced powers of a mixed constitution.
As long as that convulsion agitated our times, it was vain to expect, that its phænomena could meet with that calm examination, which was necessary in order to ascertain their real character and tendency. But the period has at length arrived when they must be consigned to the page of philosophic history, as they are to appear to posterity. Though the catastrophe is yet recent and fresh in our recollections, we have lived to contemplate it with as little passion and prejudice as human action can ever excite; and it remains for APP. REV. VOL. CVII. Hh the
the present generation, the witnesses and survivors of that moral deluge, to explore and estimate the changes which it has produced. The work before us is the earliest of many attempts, which will follow, to accomplish this purpose: we have hailed its appearance as a first sign that the waters are finally subsiding; and we have been led, with some curiosity, to examine the traces of popular opinion left by the inundation on that soil which it especially overwhelmed.
The general execution of the work is far above mediocrity. The transitions of the Revolution, from the justifiable overthrow of despotism to the short-lived limited monarchy, the gradual encroachments on the recognized powers of the crown, the visionary creation of a republic, the inevitable termination of popular licence in anarchy, and the "lower deep profound" of demoniac lawless ferocity, are all portrayed in simple and forcible coloring. If we are not uniformly disposed to assent to the views, which the authors have taken of different political parties, their peculiar shades of opinion will be found to affect the value of their work but in a very slight degree. The credit of that general integrity in the relation of facts, which is the sacred and paramount duty of the historian, must be freely conceded to MM. THIERS and BODIN: the rest is of little import.
When the authors justify the original efforts of the constitutional party in the States-General against the arbitrary government, no Englishman, we hope, will be prepared to dissent from their opinions. When it may be implied that they advocate the union of the states of the French kingdom in a single legislative assembly, in preference to the separation of the nobility, the clergy, and the commons into distinct chambers, we doubt the soundness of their views. When they proceed farther in the stream of popular encroachments, and evince no displeasure at the usurpations and crimes of the republican faction, we enter an indignant protest against this compromise with enormous iniquity. We know not why our commiseration should be demanded for the fate of Roland, and Brissot, and their companions, merely because they sank a prey in turn to the more 'unmeasured guilt and the deeper ferocity of Danton, and Robespierre, and Marat.
The condition of France, during the eighteenth century, and the train of circumstances which had prepared the way for the Revolution, are introduced in natural succession: the course of action by which the public mind was first wrought to enthusiasm, and then to frenzy, is detailed with perspicuity and truth; and the real grievances of the people
are exposed with good sense and moderation. The enormous public abuses, under which the mass of the French nation were crushed by the privileged orders, form, indeed, an unanswerable apology for the early stages of the Revolution.
All was privilege, in individuals, in classes, cities, provinces, and trades. The industry and genius of man were every where shackled. Civil, ecclesiastical, and military dignities were exclusively reserved for certain classes, and in those classes for certain individuals. No one could enter into a profession without certain titles and certain pecuniary conditions. Cities had their privileges for the assessment, receipt, and proportion of taxes, and for the choice of magistrates. Even crown-gifts, converted by reversions into family-property, hardly permitted the monarch to indulge in preferences. The expences of the state weighed on one class alone. The nobility and clergy possessed nearly two-thirds of the land. The remainder, the property of the people, paid a multitude of feudal fees to the nobility, and tithes to the clergy, and was exposed to the devastations of game and hunting parties.''Justice was slow, often partial, always ruinous.'
In the midst of such sources of national discontent, which were inherent in the existing system of government, the state of the finances, since the close of the American war, had become utterly desperate. The people were goaded by an intolerable weight of taxation; and, to crown the measure of their miseries, the year 1788 was marked by a general scarcity. Thus every thing conspired to foment a revolution: but the process by which a disaffected nation and a famishing populace were thrown into action is not the less curious, because the event was inevitable. We have always had the impression, and the simple narrative of facts in this work has confirmed it, that the privileged orders were themselves the original agitators of the Revolution. Louis XVI., a well-intentioned, though a weak, monarch, unquestionably desired to exert his arbitrary power for the relief of the public sufferings: but, as often as he attempted the equalization of the national burdens, or any other measure of reform, the nobility and clergy ranged themselves against his authority. The aristocracy were especially interested in preserving all kinds of abuses, and they instigated the parliaments to resist the financial reformations of the government.
Those courts of law, and particularly the parliament of Paris, were the only bodies in the kingdom which, by refusing to register royal decrees, their privilege rather by usage than acknowleged right,-could interpose some barrier between the despotic pleasure of the monarch and the implicit obedience of the nation. The parliaments, secretly moved by the aristocracy, and courting popular favour against Hh 2
the King, succeeded in embarrassing every scheme of equable taxation, while they pretended to desire the suppression of abuses, and inveighed against the prodigality of the court. Thus they successively drove from the royal counsels both Turgot and Necker, whom the King had called to his aid. A succeeding minister endeavored, but with no better fortune, to obtain the support of the privileged orders, by uniting them in an assembly of notables or principal men of the kingdom. Still the nobles and clergy proved as intractable as ever, and as unwilling to sacrifice their selfish interests to the public necessities; and, finally, by depriving the King of all other resource than an appeal to the people, they compelled him to convoke the States-General of France, and sealed their own ruin and that of the monarchy.
We must not attempt to refer in detail to the striking circumstances which followed the assembly of the States-General in the memorable year 1789. That body, having scarcely been convened by the despotic government for above a century and a half, had long fallen into disuse and contempt. But the public mind of the kingdom had now, within two years, been suddenly awakened and electrified by the spectacle of resistance to royal authority, and by exhortations to imitate the opposition of the higher classes. At this juncture the crown, imprudently for its own interests and those of the aristocracy, consented that the deputies of the tiers état the third order, or commons,
in the States-General, should equal in number those of the other two orders - the nobles and clergy-united. Here the preponderance was at once given to the democratic over the aristocratic elements of the states. This was the first real step of the Revolution; and thenceforward, however the struggle of the crown and the privileged orders might protract or accelerate the triumph of the people, the foundations of arbitrary power rocked to their centre. The old aristocracy had soon full occasion to discover the fatal imprudence of their opposition to the court; and the nobility and higher clergy hastened to evince their repentance, and to seek a reconciliation with the King. The sense of common danger soon secured their re-union with the throne, but it was too late.
That coalition might not have been without some useful results, if the King had been more sincere and consistent in adhering to the first constitution which was offered to him, and more resolute in resisting the subsequent encroachments of the commons: if the aristocracy had shown a disposition to keep faith with the constitutionalists; and if the honest and courageous partizans of a limited monarchy had formed
the majority of the popular deputies. But it is the misfortune of all contests between antient usurpations and recovered rights, that there can be no confidence between the people and their former oppressors. It is so natural that an absolute monarch and a privileged aristocracy should cling to powers, which, in their eyes, have been legitimatized by the possession of ages: it is so inevitable that a people, long debarred of their rights, should waste their rescued inheritance in licence and anarchy; and that the voice of real patriotism and public virtue should be drowned in the clamour of designing demagogues.
In the work before us ample justice is rendered to the character of Louis XVI.:- to his pacific virtues, his benevolent intentions for the public good, and the passive heroism which supported him in the last appalling scenes of his melancholy career. But he was only a good, feeble man, without active energy or consistency of conduct. At one moment he was anxious to redress the grievances of his people, in the next, seized with panic, he saw only impiety in toleration and anarchy in freedom. Thus he was constantly yielding his own judgment to the suggestions of the ultraaristocratic party; and it is incontestable that, from first to last, his secret approbation was given to the attempts of that faction to restore the old despotism. In this, indeed, he acted under the absolute dominion of the Queen; and here, with whatever indignation we may reject the foul calumnies which were levelled against that unfortunate and lovely woman, it cannot be denied that her influence had a fatal effect in urging matters to extremities. Exercising around her person the empire of her charms, she might, in happier times, have pursued her innocent, though too thoughtless, career of splendor, and governed by the adoration of her husband and his people. But, surrounded by the flatteries of an exclusive court, she could, after the opening of the Revolution, see no friend of the King in any but the interested partizans of the old system; and in their selfish and violent counsels she reposed all her confidence.
The impossibility of trusting to the faith or quietude of such a faction, is the only palliation for the rash and precipitate efforts by which the popular party destroyed all balance of powers in the state. Yet, even the danger with which the new representative system was menaced, will not, in the eyes of posterity, absolve the partizans of a limited monarchy, in the first National Assembly, from the guilt of suffering their country to be plunged into the abyss of anarchy, for the indulgence of their own passions and fears. By yielding Hh 3