Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Causes of the French Revolution

The following extract comes from Edward Everett’s 1834 eulogy of Lafayette, the French aristocrat  who won the trust of General Washington during the War of the American Revolution, and whose valiant contributions to the cause were celebrated in his triumphal tour of the United States in 1824 and 1825. Everett, one of the most respected orators of the age and the quintessential voice of New England Whiggism, gives in passing a penetrating judgment of the causes of the French Revolution and its relationship to the revolution in America.  
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At length the mighty crisis came on.  The French revolution draws near, -- that stupendous event of which it is impossible to be silent, -- next to impossible to speak.  Louis XV. once said to  a courtier, "This French monarchy is fourteen hundred years old; it cannot last long."  Such was the terrific sentiment which, even in the bosom of his base pleasures, stole into the conscience of the modern Sardanapalus.  But in that mysterious and bewildering chain of connection which binds together the fortunes of states and of men, the last convulsive effort of this worn-out and decrepit monarchy, in which the spasmodic remains of her strength were exhausted, and her finances plunged into irretrievable confusion, was the American alliance.  This corrupt and feeble despotism, trembling on the verge of an abyss, towards which time and events were urging it, is made to hold out a strong and helping hand to assist the rising republic into the family of nations.  The generous spirits whom she sent to lead her armies to the triumphs of republicanism in America, came back to demand for their own country, and to assert on their own soil, those political privileges for which they had been contending in America.  The process of argument was short.  If this plan of government, administered by responsible agents, is good for America, it is good for France.  If our brethren in the United States will not submit to power assumed by men not accountable for its abuse, why should we?  If we have done wisely and well in going to shed our blood for this constitutional liberty beyond the Atlantic, let us be ready to shed it in the same great cause, for our fathers, for our friends, for ourselves, in our native land.  Is it possible to find, I will not say a sound and sufficient answer to this argument, but an answer which would be thought sound and sufficient by the majority of ardent tempers and inquisitive minds?

The atrocious, the unexampled, the ungodly abuses of the reign of terror have made the very name of the French revolution hateful to mankind.  The blood chills, the flesh creeps, the hair stands on end, at the recital of its horrors; and no slight degree of the odium they occasion is unavoidably reflected on all who had any agency in bringing it on.  The subsequent events in Europe have also involved the French revolution in a deep political unpopularity.  It is unpopular in Great Britain, in the rest of Europe, in America, in France itself; and not a little of the unpopularity falls on every one whose name is prominently connected with it.  All this is prejudice, -- natural prejudice, if you please, -- but still prejudice.  The French Revolution was the work of sheer necessity.  It began in the act of the court, casting about in despair for the means of facing the frightful dilapidation of the finances.  Louis XV. was right; the monarchy could not go on.  The revolution was inevitable as fate.

I go farther.  Penetrated as I am to heart-sickness when I peruse the tale of its atrocities, I do not scruple to declare, that the French revolution, as it existed in the purposes of Lafayette and his associates, and while it obeyed their impulse, and so long as it was controlled by them, was, notwithstanding the melancholy excesses which stained even its early stages, a work of righteous reform; that justice, humanity, and religion demanded it.  I maintain this with some reluctance, because it is a matter in respect to which all are not of one mind, and I would not willingly say any thing on this occasion which could awaken a single discordant feeling.  But I speak from a sense of duty; and, standing as I do over the grave of Lafayette, I may not, if my feeble voice can prevent it, allow the fame of one of the purest men that ever lived to be sacrificed to a prejudice; to be overwhelmed with the odium of abuses which he did not foresee, which, if he had foreseen, he could not have averted, and with which he had himself no personal connection, but as their victim.  It is for this reason I maintain that the French revolution, as conceived by Lafayette, was a work of righteous reform.  Read the history of France, from the revocation of the edict of Nantes downwards.  Reflect upon the scandalous influence which dictated that inhuman decree to the dotage of Louis XIV., a decree which cost France as much blood as flowed under the guillotine.  Trace the shameful annals of the regency, and the annals, not less shameful, of Louis XV.  Consider the overgrown wealth and dissoluteness of the clergy, and the arrogance and corruption of the nobility, possessing together a vast proportion of the property, and bearing no part of the burdens of the state.  Recollect the abuses of the law, -- high judicial places venal in the market, -- warrants of arrest issued to the number of one hundred and fifty thousand in the single reign of Louis XV., often-times in blank, to court favorites, to be filled up with what names, for what prisons, for what times they pleased.  Add to this oppression of the peasantry by iniquitous taxes that have become proverbial in the history of misgovernment, and the outlawry of one twenty-fourth part of the population of Protestants, who were forbidden to leave the kingdom, subject to be shot if they crossed the frontier, but deprived of the protection of the government at home, their contracts annulled, their children declared illegitimate, and their ministers -- who might venture in dark forests and dreary caverns, to conduct their prohibited devotions -- doomed to the scaffold.  As late as 1745, two Protestant ministers were executed in France for performing their sacred functions.  Could men bear these things in a country like France, a reading, inquiring country, with the success of the American revolution before their eyes, and at the close of the eighteenth century?  Can any man who has Anglo-Saxon blood in his veins hesitate for an answer?  Did not England shake off less abuses than these a century and a half before?  Had not a paltry unconstitutional tax, neither in amount nor in principle be named with the taille or the gabelle, just put the continent of America in a flame?  and was it possible that the young officers of the French army should come back to their native land, from the war of political emancipation waged on this continent, and sit down contented under the old abuses at home?  It was not possible.  The revolution was as inevitable as fate, and the only question was, by whose agency was it brought on.