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Ch. 7: The Revolution

1. Attempts at Reform.--It was evident that a change must be made. Louis XVI. himself knew it, and slurred over the words in his coronation oath that bound him to extirpate heresy; but he was a slow, dull man, and affairs had come to such a pass that a far abler man than he could hardly have dealt with the dead-lock above, without causing a frightful outbreak of the pent-up masses below. His queen, Marie Antoinette, was hated for being of Austrian birth, and, though a spotless and noble woman, her most trivial actions gave occasion to calumnies founded on the crimes of the last generation. Unfortunately, the king, though an honest and well-intentioned man, was totally unfit to guide a country through a dangerous crisis. His courage was passive, his manners were heavy, dull, and shy, and, though steadily industrious, he was slow of comprehension and unready in action; and reformation was the more difficult because to abolish the useless court offices would have been utter starvation to many of their holders, who had nothing but their pensions to live upon. Yet there was a general passion for reform; all ranks alike looked to some change to free them from the dead-lock which made improvement impossible. The Government was bankrupt, while the taxes were intolerable, and the first years of the reign were spent in experiments. Necker, a Swiss banker, was invited to take the charge of the finances, and large loans were made to Government, for which he contrived to pay interest regularly; some reduction was made in the expenditure; but the king's old minister, Maurepas, grew jealous of his popularity, and obtained his dismissal. The French took the part of the American colonies in their revolt from England, and the war thus occasioned brought on an increase of the load of debt, the general distress increased, and it became necessary to devise some mode of taxing which might divide the burthens between the whole nation, instead of making the peasants pay all and the nobles and clergy nothing. Louis decided on calling together the Notables, or higher nobility; but they were by no means disposed to tax themselves, and only abused his ministers. He then resolved on convoking the whole States-General of the kingdom, which had never met since the reign of Louis XIII.

2. The States-General.--No one exactly knew the limits of the powers of the States-General when it met in 1789. Nobles, clergy, and the deputies who represented the commonalty, all formed the assembly at Versailles; and though the king would have kept apart these last, who were called the Tiers Etât, or third estate, they refused to withdraw from the great hall of Versailles. The Count of Mirabeau, the younger son of a noble family, who sat as a deputy, declared that nothing short of bayonets should drive out those who sat by the will of the people, and Louis yielded. Thenceforth the votes of a noble, a bishop, or a deputy all counted alike. The party names of democrat for those who wanted to exalt the power of the people, and of aristocrat for those who maintained the privileges of the nobles, came into use, and the most extreme democrats were called Jacobins, from an old convent of Jacobin friars, where they used to meet. The mob of Paris, always eager, fickle, and often blood-thirsty, were excited to the last degree by the debates; and, full of the remembrance of the insolence and cruelty of the nobles, sometimes rose and hunted down persons whom they deemed aristocrats, hanging them to the iron rods by which lamps were suspended over the streets. The king in alarm drew the army nearer, and it was supposed that he was going to prevent all change by force of arms. Thereupon the citizens enrolled themselves as a National Guard, wearing cockades of red, blue, and white, and commanded by La Fayette, a noble of democratic opinions, who had run away at seventeen to serve in the American War. On a report that the cannon of the Bastille had been pointed upon Paris, the mob rose in a frenzy, rushed upon it, hanged the guard, and absolutely tore down the old castle to its foundations, though they did not find a single prisoner in it. "This is a revolt," said Louis, when he heard of it. "Sire, it is a revolution," was the answer.

3. The New Constitution.--The mob had found out its power. The fishwomen of the markets, always a peculiar and privileged class, were frantically excited, and were sure to be foremost in all the demonstrations stirred up by Jacobins. There was a great scarcity of provisions in Paris, and this, together with the continual dread that reforms would be checked by violence, maddened the people. On a report that the Guards had shown enthusiasm for the king, the whole populace came pouring out of Paris to Versailles, and, after threatening the life of the queen, brought the family back with them to Paris, and kept them almost as prisoners while the Assembly, which followed them to Paris, debated on the new constitution. The nobles were viewed as the worst enemies of the nation, and all over the country there were risings of the peasants, headed by democrats from the towns, who sacked their castles, and often seized their persons. Many fled to England and Germany, and the dread that these would unite and return to bring back the old system continually increased the fury of the people. The Assembly, now known as the Constituent Assembly, swept away all titles and privileges, and no one was henceforth to bear any prefix to his name but citizen; while at the same time the clergy were to renounce all the property of the Church, and to swear that their office and commission was derived from the will of the people alone, and that they owed no obedience save to the State. The estates thus yielded up were supposed to be enough to supply all State expenses without taxes; but as they could not at once be turned into money, promissory notes, or assignats, were issued. But, as coin was scarce, these were not worth nearly their professed value, and the general distress was thus much increased. The other oath the great body of the clergy utterly refused, and they were therefore driven out of their benefices, and became objects of great suspicion to the democrats. All the old boundaries and other distinctions between the provinces were destroyed, and France was divided into departments, each of which was to elect deputies, in whose assembly all power was to be vested, except that the king retained a right of veto, i.e., of refusing his sanction to any measure. He swore on the 13th of August, 1791, to observe this new constitution.

4. The Republic.--The Constituent Assembly now dissolved itself, and a fresh Assembly, called the Legislative, took its place. For a time things went on more peacefully. Distrust was, however, deeply sown. The king was closely watched as an enemy; and those of the nobles who had emigrated began to form armies, aided by the Germans, on the frontier for his rescue. This enraged the people, who expected that their newly won liberties would be overthrown. The first time the king exercised his right of veto the mob rose in fury; and though they then did no more than threaten, on the advance of the emigrant army on the 10th of August, 1792, a more terrible rising took place. The Tuilleries was sacked, the guards slaughtered, the unresisting king and his family deposed and imprisoned in the tower of the Temple. In terror lest the nobles in the prisons should unite with the emigrants, they were massacred by wholesale; while, with a vigour born of the excitement, the emigrant armies were repulsed and beaten. The monarchy came to an end; and France became a Republic, in which the National Convention, which followed the Legislative Assembly, was supreme. The more moderate members of this were called Girondins from the Gironde, the estuary of the Garonne, from the neighbourhood of which many of them came. They were able men, scholars and philosophers, full of schemes for reviving classical times, but wishing to stop short of the plans of the Jacobins, of whom the chief was Robespierre, a lawyer from Artois, filled with fanatical notions of the rights of man. He, with a party of other violent republicans, called the Mountain, of whom Danton and Marat were most noted, set to work to destroy all that interfered with their plans of general equality. The guillotine, a recently invented machine for beheading, was set in all the chief market-places, and hundreds were put to death on the charge of "conspiring against the nation." Louis XVI. was executed early in 1793; and it was enough to have any sort of birthright to be thought dangerous and put to death.

5. The Reign of Terror.--Horror at the bloodshed perpetrated by the Mountain led a young girl, named Charlotte Corday, to assassinate Marat, whom she supposed to be the chief cause of the cruelties that were taking place; but his death only added to the dread of reaction. A Committee of Public Safety was appointed by the Convention, and endeavoured to sweep away every being who either seemed adverse to equality, or who might inherit any claim to rank. The queen was put to death nine months after her husband; and the Girondins, who had begun to try to stem the tide of slaughter, soon fell under the denunciation of the more violent. To be accused of "conspiring against the State" was instantly fatal, and no one's life was safe. Danton was denounced by Robespierre, and perished; and for three whole years the Reign of Terror lasted. The emigrants, by forming an army and advancing on France, assisted by the forces of Germany, only made matters worse. There was such a dread of the old oppressions coming back, that the peasants were ready to fight to the death against the return of the nobles. The army, where promotion used to go by rank instead of merit, were so glad of the change, that they were full of fresh spirit, and repulsed the army of Germans and emigrants all along the frontier. The city of Lyons, which had tried to resist the changes, was taken, and frightfully used by Collot d'Herbois, a member of the Committee of Public Safety. The guillotine was too slow for him, and he had the people mown down with grape-shot, declaring that of this great city nothing should be left but a monument inscribed, "Lyons resisted liberty--Lyons is no more!" In La Vendée--a district of Anjou, where the peasants were much attached to their clergy and nobles--they rose and gained such successes, that they dreamt for a little while of rescuing and restoring the little captive son of Louis XVI.; but they were defeated and put down by fire and sword, and at Nantes an immense number of executions took place, chiefly by drowning. It was reckoned that no less than 18,600 persons were guillotined in the three years between 1790 and 1794, besides those who died by other means. Everything was changed. Religion was to be done away with; the churches were closed; the tenth instead of the seventh day appointed for rest. "Death is an eternal sleep" was inscribed on the schools; and Reason, represented by a classically dressed woman, was enthroned in the cathedral of Notre Dâme. At the same time a new era was invented, the 22nd of September, 1792; the months had new names, and the decimal measures of length, weight, and capacity, which are based on the proportions of the earth, were planned. All this time Robespierre really seems to have thought himself the benefactor of the human race; but at last the other members of the Convention took courage to denounce him, and he, with five more, was arrested and sent to the guillotine. The bloodthirsty fever was over, the Committee of Public Safety was overthrown, and people breathed again.

6. The Directory.--The chief executive power was placed in the hands of a Directory, consisting of more moderate men, and a time of much prosperity set in. Already in the new vigour born of the strong emotions of the country the armies won great victories, not only repelling the Germans and the emigrants, but uniting Holland to France. Napoleon Buonaparte, a Corsican officer, who was called on to protect the Directory from being again overawed by the mob, became the leading spirit in France, through his Italian victories. He conquered Lombardy and Tuscany, and forced the Emperor to let them become republics under French protection, also to resign Flanders to France by the Treaty of Campo Formio. Buonaparte then made a descent on Egypt, hoping to attack India from that side, but he was foiled by Nelson, who destroyed his fleet in the battle of the Nile, and Sir Sydney Smith, who held out Acre against him. He hurried home to France on finding that the Directory had begun a fresh European war, seizing Switzerland, and forcing it to give up its treasures and become a republic on their model, and carrying the Pope off into captivity. All the European Powers had united against them, and Lombardy had been recovered chiefly by Russian aid; so that Buonaparte, on the ground that a nation at war needed a less cumbrous government than a Directory, contrived to get himself chosen First Consul, with two inferiors, in 1799.

7. The Consulate.--A great course of victories followed in Italy, where Buonaparte commanded in person, and in Germany under Moreau. Austria and Russia were forced to make peace, and England was the only country that still resisted him, till a general peace was made at Amiens in 1803; but it only lasted for a year, for the French failed to perform the conditions, and began the war afresh. In the mean time Buonaparte had restored religion and order, and so entirely mastered France that, in 1804, he was able to form the republic into an empire, and affecting to be another Charles the Great, he caused the Pope to say mass at his coronation, though he put the crown on his own head. A concordat with the Pope reinstated the clergy, but altered the division of the dioceses, and put the bishops and priests in the pay of the State.

8. The Empire.--The union of Italy to this new French Empire caused a fresh war with all Europe. The Austrian army, however, was defeated at Ulm and Austerlitz, the Prussians were entirely crushed at Jena, and the Russians fought two terrible but almost drawn battles at Eylau and Friedland. Peace was then made with all three at Tilsit, in 1807, the terms pressing exceedingly hard upon Prussia. Schemes of invading England were entertained by the Emperor, but were disconcerted by the destruction of the French and Spanish fleets by Nelson at Trafalgar. Spain was then in alliance with France; but Napoleon, treacherously getting the royal family into his hands, seized their kingdom, making his brother Joseph its king. But the Spaniards would not submit, and called in the English to their aid. The Peninsular War resulted in a series of victories on the part of the English under Wellington, while Austria, beginning another war, was again so crushed that the Emperor durst not refuse to give his daughter in marriage to Napoleon. However, in 1812, the conquest of Russia proved an exploit beyond Napoleon's powers. He reached Moscow with his Grand Army, but the city was burnt down immediately after his arrival, and he had no shelter or means of support. He was forced to retreat, through a fearful winter, without provisions and harassed by the Cossacks, who hung on the rear and cut off the stragglers, so that his whole splendid army had become a mere miserable, broken, straggling remnant by the time the survivors reached the Prussian frontier. He himself had hurried back to Paris as soon as he found their case hopeless, to arrange his resistance to all Europe--for every country rose against him on his first disaster--and the next year was spent in a series of desperate battles in Germany between him and the Allied Powers. Lützen and Bautzen were doubtful, but the two days' battle of Leipzic was a terrible defeat. In the year 1814, four armies--those of Austria, Russia, England, and Prussia--entered France at once; and though Napoleon resisted, stood bravely and skilfully, and gained single battles against Austria and Prussia, he could not stand against all Europe. In April the Allies entered Paris, and he was forced to abdicate, being sent under a strong guard to the little Mediterranean isle of Elba. He had drained France of men by his constant call for soldiers, who were drawn by conscription from the whole country, till there were not enough to do the work in the fields, and foreign prisoners had to be employed; but he had conferred on her one great benefit in the great code of laws called the "Code Napoléon," which has ever since continued in force.

9. France under Napoleon.--The old laws and customs, varying in different provinces, had been swept away, so that the field was clear; and the system of government which Napoleon devised has remained practically unchanged from that time to this. Everything was made to depend upon the central government. The Ministers of Religion, of Justice, of Police, of Education, etc., have the regulation of all interior affairs, and appoint all who work under them, so that nobody learns how to act alone; and as the Government has been in fact ever since dependent on the will of the people of Paris, the whole country is helplessly in their hands. The army, as in almost all foreign nations, is raised by conscription--that is, by drawing lots among the young men liable to serve, and who can only escape by paying a substitute to serve in their stead; and this is generally the first object of the savings of a family. All feudal claims had been done away with, and with them the right of primogeniture; and, indeed, it is not possible for a testator to avoid leaving his property to be shared among his family, though he can make some small differences in the amount each receives, and thus estates are continually freshly divided, and some portions become very small indeed. French peasants are, however, most eager to own land, and are usually very frugal, sober, and saving; and the country has gone on increasing in prosperity and comfort. It is true that, probably from the long habit of concealing any wealth they might possess, the French farmers and peasantry care little for display, or what we should call comfort, and live rough hard-working lives even while well off and with large hoards of wealth; but their condition has been wonderfully changed for the better ever since the Revolution. All this has continued under the numerous changes that have taken place in the forms of government.


Charlotte M. Yonge

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