The French Revolution by Thomas Carlyle
Volume I. The Bastille
Book 1.VI. Consolidation
Chapter 1.6.III. The General Overturn
Of the King's Court, for the present, there is almost nothing whatever to be said. Silent, deserted are these halls; Royalty languishes forsaken of its war-god and all its hopes, till once the Oeil-de-Boeuf rally again. The sceptre is departed from King Louis; is gone over to the Salles des Menus, to the Paris Townhall, or one knows not whither. In the July days, while all ears were yet deafened by the crash of the Bastille, and Ministers and Princes were scattered to the four winds, it seemed as if the very Valets had grown heavy of hearing. Besenval, also in flight towards Infinite Space, but hovering a little at Versailles, was addressing his Majesty personally for an Order about post-horses; when, lo, 'the Valet in waiting places himself familiarly between his Majesty and me,' stretching out his rascal neck to learn what it was! His Majesty, in sudden choler, whirled round; made a clutch at the tongs: 'I gently prevented him; he grasped my hand in thankfulness; and I noticed tears in his eyes.' (Besenval, iii. 419.)
Poor King; for French Kings also are men! Louis Fourteenth himself once clutched the tongs, and even smote with them; but then it was at Louvois, and Dame Maintenon ran up.--The Queen sits weeping in her inner apartments, surrounded by weak women: she is 'at the height of unpopularity;' universally regarded as the evil genius of France. Her friends and familiar counsellors have all fled; and fled, surely, on the foolishest errand. The Chateau Polignac still frowns aloft, on its 'bold and enormous' cubical rock, amid the blooming champaigns, amid the blue girdling mountains of Auvergne: (Arthur Young, i. 165.) but no Duke and Duchess Polignac look forth from it; they have fled, they have 'met Necker at Bale;' they shall not return. That France should see her Nobles resist the Irresistible, Inevitable, with the face of angry men, was unhappy, not unexpected: but with the face and sense of pettish children? This was her peculiarity. They understood nothing; would understand nothing. Does not, at this hour, a new Polignac, first-born of these Two, sit reflective in the Castle of Ham; (A.D. 1835.) in an astonishment he will never recover from; the most confused of existing mortals?
King Louis has his new Ministry: mere Popularities; Old-President Pompignan; Necker, coming back in triumph; and other such. (Montgaillard, ii. 108.) But what will it avail him? As was said, the sceptre, all but the wooden gilt sceptre, has departed elsewhither. Volition, determination is not in this man: only innocence, indolence; dependence on all persons but himself, on all circumstances but the circumstances he were lord of. So troublous internally is our Versailles and its work. Beautiful, if seen from afar, resplendent like a Sun; seen near at hand, a mere Sun's- Atmosphere, hiding darkness, confused ferment of ruin!
But over France, there goes on the indisputablest 'destruction of formulas;' transaction of realities that follow therefrom. So many millions of persons, all gyved, and nigh strangled, with formulas; whose Life nevertheless, at least the digestion and hunger of it, was real enough! Heaven has at length sent an abundant harvest; but what profits it the poor man, when Earth with her formulas interposes? Industry, in these times of Insurrection, must needs lie dormant; capital, as usual, not circulating, but stagnating timorously in nooks. The poor man is short of work, is therefore short of money; nay even had he money, bread is not to be bought for it. Were it plotting of Aristocrats, plotting of d'Orleans; were it Brigands, preternatural terror, and the clang of Phoebus Apollo's silver bow,--enough, the markets are scarce of grain, plentiful only in tumult. Farmers seem lazy to thresh;--being either 'bribed;' or needing no bribe, with prices ever rising, with perhaps rent itself no longer so pressing. Neither, what is singular, do municipal enactments, 'That along with so many measures of wheat you shall sell so many of rye,' and other the like, much mend the matter. Dragoons with drawn swords stand ranked among the corn-sacks, often more dragoons than sacks. (Arthur Young, i. 129, &c.) Meal-mobs abound; growing into mobs of a still darker quality.
Starvation has been known among the French Commonalty before this; known and familiar. Did we not see them, in the year 1775, presenting, in sallow faces, in wretchedness and raggedness, their Petition of Grievances; and, for answer, getting a brand-new Gallows forty feet high? Hunger and Darkness, through long years! For look back on that earlier Paris Riot, when a Great Personage, worn out by debauchery, was believed to be in want of Blood-baths; and Mothers, in worn raiment, yet with living hearts under it, 'filled the public places' with their wild Rachel-cries,--stilled also by the Gallows. Twenty years ago, the Friend of Men (preaching to the deaf) described the Limousin Peasants as wearing a pain-stricken (souffre- douleur) look, a look past complaint, 'as if the oppression of the great were like the hail and the thunder, a thing irremediable, the ordinance of Nature.' (Fils Adoptif: Memoires de Mirabeau, i. 364-394.) And now, if in some great hour, the shock of a falling Bastille should awaken you; and it were found to be the ordinance of Art merely; and remediable, reversible!
Or has the Reader forgotten that 'flood of savages,' which, in sight of the same Friend of Men, descended from the mountains at Mont d'Or? Lank-haired haggard faces; shapes rawboned, in high sabots; in woollen jupes, with leather girdles studded with copper-nails! They rocked from foot to foot, and beat time with their elbows too, as the quarrel and battle which was not long in beginning went on; shouting fiercely; the lank faces distorted into the similitude of a cruel laugh. For they were darkened and hardened: long had they been the prey of excise-men and tax-men; of 'clerks with the cold spurt of their pen.' It was the fixed prophecy of our old Marquis, which no man would listen to, that 'such Government by Blind-man's-buff, stumbling along too far, would end by the General Overturn, the Culbute Generale!'
No man would listen, each went his thoughtless way;--and Time and Destiny also travelled on. The Government by Blind-man's-buff, stumbling along, has reached the precipice inevitable for it. Dull Drudgery, driven on, by clerks with the cold dastard spurt of their pen, has been driven--into a Communion of Drudges! For now, moreover, there have come the strangest confused tidings; by Paris Journals with their paper wings; or still more portentous, where no Journals are, (See Arthur Young, i. 137, 150, &c.) by rumour and conjecture: Oppression not inevitable; a Bastille prostrate, and the Constitution fast getting ready! Which Constitution, if it be something and not nothing, what can it be but bread to eat?
The Traveller, 'walking up hill bridle in hand,' overtakes 'a poor woman;' the image, as such commonly are, of drudgery and scarcity; 'looking sixty years of age, though she is not yet twenty-eight.' They have seven children, her poor drudge and she: a farm, with one cow, which helps to make the children soup; also one little horse, or garron. They have rents and quit-rents, Hens to pay to this Seigneur, Oat-sacks to that; King's taxes, Statute-labour, Church-taxes, taxes enough;--and think the times inexpressible. She has heard that somewhere, in some manner, something is to be done for the poor: "God send it soon; for the dues and taxes crush us down (nous ecrasent)!" (Ibid. i. 134.)
Fair prophecies are spoken, but they are not fulfilled. There have been Notables, Assemblages, turnings out and comings in. Intriguing and manoeuvring; Parliamentary eloquence and arguing, Greek meeting Greek in high places, has long gone on; yet still bread comes not. The harvest is reaped and garnered; yet still we have no bread. Urged by despair and by hope, what can Drudgery do, but rise, as predicted, and produce the General Overturn?
Fancy, then, some Five full-grown Millions of such gaunt figures, with their haggard faces (figures haves); in woollen jupes, with copper-studded leather girths, and high sabots,--starting up to ask, as in forest- roarings, their washed Upper-Classes, after long unreviewed centuries, virtually this question: How have ye treated us; how have ye taught us, fed us, and led us, while we toiled for you? The answer can be read in flames, over the nightly summer sky. This is the feeding and leading we have had of you: emptiness,--of pocket, of stomach, of head, and of heart. Behold there is nothing in us; nothing but what Nature gives her wild children of the desert: Ferocity and Appetite; Strength grounded on Hunger. Did ye mark among your Rights of Man, that man was not to die of starvation, while there was bread reaped by him? It is among the Mights of Man.
Seventy-two Chateaus have flamed aloft in the Maconnais and Beaujolais alone: this seems the centre of the conflagration; but it has spread over Dauphine, Alsace, the Lyonnais; the whole South-East is in a blaze. All over the North, from Rouen to Metz, disorder is abroad: smugglers of salt go openly in armed bands: the barriers of towns are burnt; toll-gatherers, tax-gatherers, official persons put to flight. 'It was thought,' says Young, 'the people, from hunger, would revolt;' and we see they have done it. Desperate Lackalls, long prowling aimless, now finding hope in desperation itself, everywhere form a nucleus. They ring the Church bell by way of tocsin: and the Parish turns out to the work. (See Hist. Parl. ii. 243-6.) Ferocity, atrocity; hunger and revenge: such work as we can imagine!
Ill stands it now with the Seigneur, who, for example, 'has walled up the only Fountain of the Township;' who has ridden high on his chartier and parchments; who has preserved Game not wisely but too well. Churches also, and Canonries, are sacked, without mercy; which have shorn the flock too close, forgetting to feed it. Wo to the land over which Sansculottism, in its day of vengeance, tramps roughshod,--shod in sabots! Highbred Seigneurs, with their delicate women and little ones, had to 'fly half- naked,' under cloud of night; glad to escape the flames, and even worse. You meet them at the tables-d'hote of inns; making wise reflections or foolish that 'rank is destroyed;' uncertain whither they shall now wend. (See Young, i. 149, &c.) The metayer will find it convenient to be slack in paying rent. As for the Tax-gatherer, he, long hunting as a biped of prey, may now get hunted as one; his Majesty's Exchequer will not 'fill up the Deficit,' this season: it is the notion of many that a Patriot Majesty, being the Restorer of French Liberty, has abolished most taxes, though, for their private ends, some men make a secret of it.
Where this will end? In the Abyss, one may prophecy; whither all Delusions are, at all moments, travelling; where this Delusion has now arrived. For if there be a Faith, from of old, it is this, as we often repeat, that no Lie can live for ever. The very Truth has to change its vesture, from time to time; and be born again. But all Lies have sentence of death written down against them, and Heaven's Chancery itself; and, slowly or fast, advance incessantly towards their hour. 'The sign of a Grand Seigneur being landlord,' says the vehement plain-spoken Arthur Young, 'are wastes, landes, deserts, ling: go to his residence, you will find it in the middle of a forest, peopled with deer, wild boars and wolves. The fields are scenes of pitiable management, as the houses are of misery. To see so many millions of hands, that would be industrious, all idle and starving: Oh, if I were legislator of France, for one day, I would make these great lords skip again!' (Arthur Young, i. 12, 48, 84, &c.) O Arthur, thou now actually beholdest them skip:--wilt thou grow to grumble at that too?
For long years and generations it lasted, but the time came. Featherbrain, whom no reasoning and no pleading could touch, the glare of the firebrand had to illuminate: there remained but that method. Consider it, look at it! The widow is gathering nettles for her children's dinner; a perfumed Seigneur, delicately lounging in the Oeil-de-Boeuf, has an alchemy whereby he will extract from her the third nettle, and name it Rent and Law: such an arrangement must end. Ought it? But, O most fearful is such an ending! Let those, to whom God, in His great mercy, has granted time and space, prepare another and milder one.
To women it is a matter of wonder that the Seigneurs did not do something to help themselves; say, combine, and arm: for there were a 'hundred and fifty thousand of them,' all violent enough. Unhappily, a hundred and fifty thousand, scattered over wide Provinces, divided by mutual ill-will, cannot combine. The highest Seigneurs, as we have seen, had already emigrated,--with a view of putting France to the blush. Neither are arms now the peculiar property of Seigneurs; but of every mortal who has ten shillings, wherewith to buy a secondhand firelock.
Besides, those starving Peasants, after all, have not four feet and claws, that you could keep them down permanently in that manner. They are not even of black colour; they are mere Unwashed Seigneurs; and a Seigneur too has human bowels!--The Seigneurs did what they could; enrolled in National Guards; fled, with shrieks, complaining to Heaven and Earth. One Seigneur, famed Memmay of Quincey, near Vesoul, invited all the rustics of his neighbourhood to a banquet; blew up his Chateau and them with gunpowder; and instantaneously vanished, no man yet knows whither. (Hist. Parl. ii. 161.) Some half dozen years after, he came back; and demonstrated that it was by accident.
Nor are the authorities idle: though unluckily, all Authorities, Municipalities and such like, are in the uncertain transitionary state; getting regenerated from old Monarchic to new Democratic; no Official yet knows clearly what he is. Nevertheless, Mayors old or new do gather Marechaussees, National Guards, Troops of the line; justice, of the most summary sort, is not wanting. The Electoral Committee of Macon, though but a Committee, goes the length of hanging, for its own behoof, as many as twenty. The Prevot of Dauphine traverses the country 'with a movable column,' with tipstaves, gallows-ropes; for gallows any tree will serve, and suspend its culprit, or 'thirteen' culprits.
Unhappy country! How is the fair gold-and-green of the ripe bright Year defaced with horrid blackness: black ashes of Chateaus, black bodies of gibetted Men! Industry has ceased in it; not sounds of the hammer and saw, but of the tocsin and alarm-drum. The sceptre has departed, whither one knows not;--breaking itself in pieces: here impotent, there tyrannous. National Guards are unskilful, and of doubtful purpose; Soldiers are inclined to mutiny: there is danger that they two may quarrel, danger that they may agree. Strasburg has seen riots: a Townhall torn to shreds, its archives scattered white on the winds; drunk soldiers embracing drunk citizens for three days, and Mayor Dietrich and Marshal Rochambeau reduced nigh to desperation. (Arthur Young, i. 141.--Dampmartin: Evenemens qui se sont passes sous mes yeux, i. 105-127.)
Through the middle of all which phenomena, is seen, on his triumphant transit, 'escorted,' through Befort for instance, 'by fifty National Horsemen and all the military music of the place,'--M. Necker, returning from Bale! Glorious as the meridian; though poor Necker himself partly guesses whither it is leading. (Biographie Universelle, para Necker (by Lally-Tollendal).) One highest culminating day, at the Paris Townhall; with immortal vivats, with wife and daughter kneeling publicly to kiss his hand; with Besenval's pardon granted,--but indeed revoked before sunset: one highest day, but then lower days, and ever lower, down even to lowest! Such magic is in a name; and in the want of a name. Like some enchanted Mambrino's Helmet, essential to victory, comes this 'Saviour of France;' beshouted, becymballed by the world:--alas, so soon, to be disenchanted, to be pitched shamefully over the lists as a Barber's Bason! Gibbon 'could wish to shew him' (in this ejected, Barber's-Bason state) to any man of solidity, who were minded to have the soul burnt out of him, and become a caput mortuum, by Ambition, unsuccessful or successful. (Gibbon's Letters.)
Another small phasis we add, and no more: how, in the Autumn months, our sharp-tempered Arthur has been 'pestered for some days past,' by shot, lead-drops and slugs, 'rattling five or six times into my chaise and about my ears;' all the mob of the country gone out to kill game! (Young, i. 176.) It is even so. On the Cliffs of Dover, over all the Marches of France, there appear, this autumn, two Signs on the Earth: emigrant flights of French Seigneurs; emigrant winged flights of French Game! Finished, one may say, or as good as finished, is the Preservation of Game on this Earth; completed for endless Time. What part it had to play in the History of Civilisation is played plaudite; exeat!
In this manner does Sansculottism blaze up, illustrating many things;-- producing, among the rest, as we saw, on the Fourth of August, that semi- miraculous Night of Pentecost in the National Assembly; semi miraculous, which had its causes, and its effects. Feudalism is struck dead; not on parchment only, and by ink; but in very fact, by fire; say, by self- combustion. This conflagration of the South-East will abate; will be got scattered, to the West, or elsewhither: extinguish it will not, till the fuel be all done.