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COMMONS TAKE THE TITLE OF NATIONAL ASSEMBLY. 97
belong to them entirely, and show himself more and more what he was, a partisan of privilege at the head of the privileged classes. The situation of parties became clear and easy to be defined, privilege on one side and right on the other.
The Assembly had spoken out. It expected its proceeding would cause it to be joined by a part of the clergy. The curés felt they were the people, and wished to go and take their true place by the side of the people. But habits of ecclesiastical subordination, the intrigues of the prelates, their authority and menaces, with the court and the queen, on the other hand, kept them still immovable on their benches. Only three ventured, then seven,-ten in all. Great was the merriment at court about this fine conquest made by the Third Estate.
The Assembly must either perish or go on and take a second step. It was necessary for it to look boldly on the plain but terrible situation to which we alluded just now,-right opposed to privilege-the right of the nation concentrated in the Assembly. Neither was it sufficient to see that; it was necessary to show it, cause it to be promulgated, and to give to the Assembly its true name: The National Assembly.
In his famous pamphlet, which everybody knew by heart, Sieyes had said these remarkable words, which did not fall to the ground: "The Third alone, they will say, cannot form the States-General.-Well! so much the better; it shall compose a National Assembly."
To assume this title, thus to entitle itself the nation, and realize the revolutionary dogma laid down by Sieyes-The Third is everything, was too bold a step to be taken all at once. It was necessary to prepare minds for it, and march towards that goal gradually and step by step.
At first the words National Assembly were not uttered in the Assembly itself but at Paris, among the electors who had elected Sieyes, and were not afraid to speak his language.
On the 15th of May, M. Boissy d'Anglas, then obscure and without influence, pronounced the words, but only to set them aside and adjourn them, warning the Chamber that it ought to be on its guard against every kind of precipitation, and remain free from the least reproach of levity. Before the movement began, he wanted already to efface the appellation.
The Assembly finally adopted the name of Communes, which,
98 COMMONS TAKE THE TITLE OF NATIONAL ASSEMBLY.
in its humble and ill-defined signification, divested it however of the petty, inappropriate, and special name of Third Estate. The nobility strongly protested.
On the 15th of June, Sieyes, with boldness and prudence, demanded that the Commons should assume the title of Assembly of the known and acknowledged representatives of the French nation. It seemed to express only a fact impossible to be contested; the deputies of the Commons had subjected their powers to a public verification, made solemnly in the great open hall and before the crowd. The two other orders had verified among themselves with closed doors. The simple word, acknowledged deputies, reduced the others to the name of presumed deputies. Could the latter prevent the others from acting? Could the absent paralyse the present? Sieyes reminded them that the latter represented already the ninety-six hundredths (at least) of the nation.
They knew Sieyes too well not to suspect that this proposal was a step to lead to another, bolder and more decisive. Mirabeau reproached him from the very first, "with impelling the Assembly into the career, without showing it the goal to which he wanted to urge it.
And indeed, on the second day of the battle, the light burst forth. Two deputies served as precursors to Sieyes. M. Legrand proposed that the Assembly should constitute itself a General Assembly, and allow itself to be stopped by nothing that might be separate from the indivisibility of a National Assembly. M. Galand demanded that, as the clergy and nobility were simply two corporations, and the nation one and indivisible, the Assembly should constitute itself the legitimate and active Assembly of the representatives of the French nation. Sieyes then laid aside every obscurity and circumlocution, and proposed the title of National Assembly.
Since the sitting of the 10th, Mirabeau had seen Sieyes advancing under ground, and was frightened. That march led straight to a point, where it found itself face to face with royalty and the aristocracy. Would it halt out of respect for that worm-eaten idol? It did not appear likely. Now, in spite of the cruel discipline by which tyranny formed Mirabeau for liberty, we must say that the famous tribune was an aristocrat by taste and manners, and a royalist in heart he was so
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in fact by birth and blood. Two motives, one grand, and the other base, likewise impelled him. Surrounded by greedy women, he wanted money; and monarchy appeared to him with open lavish hands, squandering gold and favours. That royalty had been cruel and hard-hearted to him; but even that now interested him the more: he would have considered it noble to save a king who had so often signed the order for his imprisonment. Such was this poor great man, so magnanimous and generous, that one would wish to be able to attribute his vices to his deplorable acquaintances, and the paternal barbarity which excluded him from his family. His father persecuted him throughout his life, and yet he requested, with his dying breath, to be buried by his side.*
On the 10th, when Sieyes proposed to pronounce default for non-appearance, Mirabeau seconded that severe proposition, and spoke with firmness and energy. But, in the evening seeing the peril, he took upon himself to go and see his enemy, Necker; he wished to enlighten him on the situation of things, and offer royalty the succour of his powerful oratory. Although ill-received and offended, he did not the less undertake to block up the road against Sieyes, and he, the tribune, raised but yesterday by the Revolution, and who had no power but in her, even he wanted to throw himself before her, and imagined he could stop her.
Any other would have perished at once, without ever being able to extricate himself. That he should have fallen more than once into unpopularity, and yet been able to regain his footing, is what gives a very grand idea of the power of eloquence upon this nation, sensitive beyond all others, to the genius of oratory.
What could be more difficult than Mirabeau's thesis? In presence of that excited and transported multitude, before a people exalted above themselves by the grandeur of the crisis, he endeavoured to establish "that the people were not interested in such discussions; that all they asked for was to pay only what they could, and to bear their misery peaceably.'
After these base, afflicting, discouraging words, false more
* Mémoires de Mirabeau, édite par M. Lucas de Montigny, t. viii., liv. x. Compare the different, but reconcileable, versions of E Dumont and Droz, (who follow the oral testimony of Malouet).
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over in terms, he ventured to put the question of principle: "Who convoked you ? The king. Do your mandates and written resolutions authorize you to declare yourselves the Assembly only of the known and acknowledged representatives? and if the king refuses you his sanction? sequence is evident. You will have pillage and butcheries: you will not have even the execrable honour of a civil war." What title then was it necessary to take?
Mounier and the imitators of the English government proposed: Representatives of the Major part of the Nation, in the absence of the Minor part. That divided the nation into two parts, and led to the establishment of two Chambers.
Mirabeau preferred the formula: Representatives of the French People. That word, said he, was elastic,-might mean little or much.
This was precisely the reproach brought against him by two eminent legists, Target (of Paris), and Thouret (of Rouen). They asked him whether people meant plebs or populus. The equivocation was laid bare. The king, the clergy, and the nobility would doubtless have interpreted people in the sense of plebs, or inferior people,—a simple part of the nation.
Many had not perceived the equivocation, nor how much ground it would have caused the Assembly to lose. But they all understood it, when Malouet, Necker's friend, accepted the word people.
The fear which Mirabeau attempted to inspire with the royal veto, excited only indignation. Camus, the Jansenist, one of the firmest characters in the Assembly, replied in these strong terms: "We are what we are. Can the veto prevent truth from being one and immutable? Can the royal sanction change the order of things and alter their nature?"
Mirabeau, irritated by the contradiction, and losing all prudence, became so angry as to say: "I believe the king's veto so necessary, that I would rather live at Constantinople than in France if he had it not. Yes, I declare I know nothing more terrible than the sovereign aristocracy of six hundred persons, who might to-morrow render themselves irrevocable, hereditary the day after, and end, like the aristocracies of every country in the world, by invading everything."
Thus, of two evils, one possible, the other present, Mirabeau
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preferred the one present and certain. In the hypothesis that this Assembly might one day wish to perpetuate itself and become an hereditary tyrant, he armed, with the tyrannical power of preventing every reform, that incorrigible court which it was expedient to reform. The king! the king! Why should they ever abuse that old religion? Who did not know that since Louis XIV. there had been no king. The war was between two republics: one, sitting in the Assembly, composed of the master minds of the age, the best citizens, was France herself; the other, the republic of abuses, held its council with the old cabinets of such as Dubois, Pompadour, and Du Barry, in the house of Diana de Polignac.
Mirabeau's speech was received with thunders of indignation and a torrent of imprecations and abuse. The eloquent rhetoric with which he refuted what nobody had said (that the word people is vile) was unable to dupe his auditory.
It was nine in the evening. The discussion was closed in order to take the votes. The singular precision with which the question had been brought to bear on royalty itself, caused some apprehension that the court might do the only thing that it had to do to prevent the people from being king on the morrow; it possessed brute force,-an army round Versailles, which it might employ to carry off the principal deputies, dissolve the states, and, if Paris stirred, famish Paris. This bold crime was its last cast, and people believed that it was going to be played. They wished to prevent it by constituting the Assembly that very night. This was the opinion of more than four hundred deputies; a hundred, at most, were against it. That small majority precluded, all night, by shouts and violence, every possibility of calling over the names. this shameful sight of a majority being tyrannized over, and the Assembly endangered by a delay, together with the idea that, one moment or other, the work of liberty, the salvation of the future, might be annihilated,—all contributed to transport with fury the crowd that filled the tribunes; a man rushed forward and seized Malouet, the principal leader of the obstinate shouters, by the collar.*
The principal witness, Bailly, does not give this circumstance, which M. Droz alone relates, doubtless on the authority of Malouet.