Tuesday, 16 September 2014
CAUSES OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
LECTURE BY E. P. McM. GLYNN.
. . . The event of 1789, said Mr. Glynn, was a great awakening and contemptible indeed was the spirit of him who read the records of those days without a sympathetic touch of the revolutionary fervour. When we remembered the causes of the revolt of the masses, the long years of popular wretchedness, the hopelessness of any justice from authority or help from privilege, the suicidal rapacity of the nobles and upper clergy, we could not help being revolutionists at heart. Besides the history of those days had its lessons. The age of revolutions was by no means past. The methods of men might change, but their instincts and aims remained pretty much the same. We heard now of old antagonisms under new names, class was still arrayed against class, and the fight was more bitter, but less honest. Formerly habit brought the upper classes to believe that they were the elect of God, who had generously suspended in their favor the obligations of the Decalogue ; now they acknowledge the universality of the law, but persuaded themselves while breaking it, that its mandates were kept. It was not easy to picture the state of things out of which the French Revolution grew. Religious intolerance, censorship of the press, profligacy of the privileged classes, and the most grinding oppression of the poor marked the social life of France during the first half of the eighteenth century. Such facts as these explained the readiness with which the French people accepted the gospel of liberty preached by the most impracticable enthusiasts. Discontent made it easy to place faith in hopeful theories and Voltaire was welcomed for his exposure of the errors of the old order and Rousseau for his unfolding or the possibilities of the new. These writers by popularising theories favorable to intellectual and social liberty created the primary force of the future. Voltaire was no democrat. He had no faith in the capacity of the masses for government and he lacked that human feeling which warmed the great heart of Shakespeare alike for mean and mighty, but he hated the hollow hypocrisies and tyrannies of those in power and denounced and satirised them with a destructive force which was as unique as it was effective and helped to clear the course for subsequent reform. Rousseau preached the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people. He held that this sovereignty could never be alienated, that governments were the agents or delegates, not the representatives of the people, and that laws only acquired their force from the direct popular ratification. The English system of choosing representatives to think and with discretion to act was to him one of popular slavery. All systems of government were purely provisional and of tenures limited by the popular will. The members of the body politic were bound together by a social contract the chief conditions of which were the absolute equality of all and the subordination of the individual to the interests of the community. Voltaire described the tenets of Rousseau as "nothing less than a code of anarchy," and Burke said "that if his principles were adopted the whole chain of continuity of the commonwealth would be broken" and "men would become little better than flies of a summer." They were, however, just the principles likely to have a great influence at a time of popular unrest and when democratic tendencies were becoming apparent throughout Europe. Besides Voltaire and Rousseau there were others whose writings exercised a great influence in preparing the public mind for action. Diderot and D'Alembert established the encyclopaedia, a universal dictionary of all the sciences. The best and most liberal writers of France contributed to this celebrated publication. They advocated equality of taxation, freedom of industry and trade, compulsory State education, and a complete change in the system of internal administration. Their political philosophy, therefore, included some of the popular principles of current politics, and a sound view of commercial intercourse, which most of the practical politicians of the present day seemed incapable of obtaining. These writers made the notion of freedom respectable, and though by no means republicans or revolutionists by design helped to create the forces which supplied the materials of subsequent activity.
The first stirrings of revolt against French despotism were to be noticed in the limitations gradually imposed by the Parliament of Paris upon the autocratic power of the king. There were contests between the Parliament, the king, and the ecclesiastical powers, and these contests roused again the dulled instincts of the people for liberty, extended political scepticism, and held out to the people, beyond the gloom of their present misery, the light of these possibilities of freedom, which were so soon to be their aim. The suspension of the Parliaments by Louis xvi. on May 8, 1788, and the creation of the "Cour Plencere" stirred the people to active remonstrance, and many of the Parliaments met in defiance of the edict suspending them. The people were thus being educated in rebellion, and displayed such unmistakable signs of continuing insubordination that on August 8, 1788, the new royal institution was itself suspended, and the States General convoked for May 1st, 1789. This may be regarded as the prologue of the revolution, Passing on to deal with social condition of France at this time the lecturer observed that there were then as now but two classes, the workers and the idlers. These were really the ultimate divisions of a nation. The privileges and the habits of the upper classes were then detailed. The profligacy and extravagance of royalty were described and commented upon. In 1751 the King's household cost, it was estimated, 68,000,000 livres. Marie Antoinette and her characteristics were also lengthily reviewed by the lecturer. Alluding to the economic condition of the nation, the relative social positions of the classes and the people. Mr. Glynn observed that half of France and that the best part belonged to the King, the nobility and the Church.
The nobility and clergy, said Taine, apart from the King and commoners owned each a fifth of the soil of France, a fifth remained to the middle classes, and a fifth to the peasantry. The nobility and the clergy practically paid no taxation. Amongst other privileges were grants to Princes of blood of the game of a district. These grants were nothing by comparison with the fact that their incidents involved the most grinding injustice to the peasantry. The game thus preserved, the wild boars and deer, played havoc with the crops of the poor. The edicts for preserving game included prevention of weeding and hoeing, lest the partridges should be disturbed, of steeping seed less it should injure the game, manuring with night-soil lest the flavor of partridges should be injured by feeding on the corn so produced, of mowing hay before a certain time and taking away the stubble lest the birds might be deprived of shelter. To kill one of the noble's doves was regarded as a criminal offence next in importance to killing a man. The signeurs and the clergy had the right to pasture their flocks one hour before the peasants on the peasants own fields. It was difficult for the unfortunate tiller of the soil to know what to do. If, said a writer, he changed his field into a meadow he deprived the cure of his dime, if he turned his meadow into a field, he diminished the commons, if he sowed clover he could not prevent the flocks of the signeur from pasturing on them. Then he was obliged to use his lord's mills, his lord's slaughterhouses, his lord's wine presses, his lords bakeries, &c, &c. The lord's monopolies did not stop at these for there were seigneurs who had the privilege of keeping private scaffolds and who were entitled as a perquisite to the property of the condemned. It was the segnorial right of all others perhaps the most degrading, when my lord or lady was laid up, to compel the peasant to keep the frogs quiet by beating the pond all night that my lord or lady might sleep (Laughter.) In those days the men with a cause to support, who had not the means of conciliating favor either by lucre or where that failed by some such consideration as the beauty of a handsome wife, might reckon on a rough time. Absenteeism, one of the worst evils of the system of dual ownership after feudalism lost its meaning, was the rule with the nobles and upper clergy.
These grand seigneurs lived in Paris, or some of the other centres of population, and there they spent the rents and dues that had been extracted from the blood and vitals of the peasantry in the whirl of civic and court life. The contrast between the cities and the rural districts was extreme. In the States General, which sat on May 1, 1789 were three orders, the nobles, the clergy, and the third estate; and the beginning of the end was precipitated by the two privileged classes insisting on a separate verification of their powers. Their object was to vote as classes, and thus destroy the advantage which the third estate had in point of numbers. When the third estate met on May 6 they had the hall to themselves. They invited the other orders to join them, waited for some days without deliberating, fruitlessly petitioned the king, who was really anxious to give the plebians their walking papers, to induce the lords and clergy to come to reason, and finally settled the matter by declaring themselves "The National Assembly." On the 19th of May the king shut the doors against them, but the legislators repaired elsewhere, and there took the oath, sat, and declared that whoever they were they constituted "The National Assembly." There were amongst them men of determined temper; amongst others were Robespierre, Barnave, and Marat.
The proceedings of the Assembly, its attitude to the king, the resort to arms by the latter, followed by the revolution itself were next referred to, and the lecturer concluded as follows : —
'It is now a hundred years since that huge imposture, the old order, went down before the force of human passion and patriotism, and who shall say that the revolution was not justified by the conditions of those times and has not been beneficient in its effects? Oppression had reached the point at which submission to it becomes a vice, and an outraged sense of justice and self-respect impels the oppressed to cast allegiance to the winds and strike the sceptre from the hand of power. There are times when a lesson must be taught authority and a salutary anger seeks force as the remedy for unbearable evils. Then the victims of abused authority must decline to follow the advice of Burke, who told them to learn their consolation in the final proportions of eternal justice. Such a time had in 1789 been reached in France. The forces had been gathering for years and the hour had come. And though, in the stirring scenes that followed, we see, as in all human affairs, right and wrong, with everything that can be referred to their standard all jumbled up together ; though in the working of the sublime ideals villainy often triumphs and patriotism goes to the wall ; though many crimes may have been committed in the name of liberty and many bright aspirations falsified by the stern logic of events, let us remember that when a nation is convulsed it is the daring and less temperate spirits who come to the front, that France had not been the training ground for legislators ; that with armed Europe approached the frontier and royalist sympathies strong at home moderation and sober wisdom gave place to popular frenzy and reckless expedients; and that with all their faults of methods and morals, the men of '89 were the instruments of a retribution at once inevitable and just, that an exalted sense of the dignity of man and of the divine in his aspirations inspired them even where they failed, and that in their successes and failures alike they taught the world a lesson of inestimable value in the work of social regeneration."
Bunyip 27 September 1895,