TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE LOWER EsfPIRE.
WICATEVER honour can be awarded in our time to successful crime—successful thus far—belongs of right to President Bona- parte. Of course he has violated his country's Constitution, and outraged France in the persons of her Representatives, with the best of all possible motives—to prevent an otherwise inevitable civil war. Most of us remember the fireman who set houses on fire to claim the reward of being first with his engine ; and some of us may think the precedent not without its faithful imitation in this case of M. Louis Napoleon. With those who really believe, or profess to believe in his honest motives or his pa- triotic intentions, we have no wish to argue. If the study of his career during the last three years, from the time when, yet an exile in London, he audaciously anticipated, in a letter to the President of the Constituent Assembly, the duties that the French people might impose upon him, to his last lugubrious and mendacious complaint of the plots that were in agitation to seize his person and carry him prisoner to Vincennes—if the events included be- tween these dates do not open to them Louis Napoleon's real cha- racter, no arguments from us or anybody can have that effect. We are perfectly willing to leave him to the verdict of History; in whose temple he and his tame eagle will occupy a niche with John Law and his Mississippi bonds, and Count Cagliostro and his magic, with whatever and whoever remain on record of gigantic swindlin' effected by no mightier agency than impu- dent assumption and unblushing falsehood. He may be one of those impostors who are dupes to their own pretensions : he may really believe, as he says, that the glory and safety of France are bound up with his name; that the empty name of the great man who won Austerlitz and ruled Continental Europe can suffice to raise again the fabric of imperial grandeur and still the agitated passions and infuriated factions of France—he is vain enough aid silly enough to credit all that his own fancy or his basest flatterers may suggest. Or he may be a simply selfish adventurer, who be- lieves nothing of himself, but that he has a name upon which he can trade, and gain for hitaself a power which he has neither talent nor desire to use for its noblest ends, but which, to judge from experience, he,COvets only for the pomps and the sensual luxuries that are its usual accompaniments. The character of the man who has France prostrate, gagged, and bleeding at his feet, may indeed "point a moral and adorn a tale," but can add little force to the political lesson which the humiliating spectacle is fitted to elicit and enforce.
Ever since Louis the Fourteenth could say with perfect truth, " L'etat c'est moi," down to the 2d of December 1851, English poli- ticians have repeated, till one is tired of hearing it, that political freedom was sacrificed in France to an excess of centralization in the government. It has in truth been so alike under all the forms through which that government has passed. It was not more ap- parent when all authority and power was centered in the descend- ant of St. Louis, than when the butchers of Paris made the name of the Convention a word of terror; not more clear when the edicts of the Emperor went forth from Versailles, than when the Republic was established by a mistake, and the electric tele- graph made Ledru-Rollin's missives law through every depart- ment of France in a few hours. The municipal bodies, which in England have been and would again become, if necessary, centres of resistance to a tyrannous despotism, or centres of au- thority if the central government were suddenly overthrown, are in France but the extremities of the nerves and muscles of metropolitan action and sensation ; and Paris, in spite of friendly warning often given and apparently appreciated for the moment, is still France for all political purposes. The Government func- tionaries in the provinces are of course so many hinderances to the- formation of an intelligent and independent public opinion ; which cannot, besides, grow up effectively where no scope is allowed for its action. Nor are there, as in England, great landed proprietors to form a counteracting influence to the Mayors and Prefects and all their subordinates. The whole action of the Executive is set in motion at Paris, and communicated to the provincial function- aries like so many puppets pulled by a string. In no single act of political life is the Frenchman allowed to take a part except as an employe of government, or at the rare intervals of the elections : and even now, that universal suffrage is the law of the land, except for that one day on which he deposits his ballot the political life of the French citizen is a suspended animation. If the interest of the masses in political questions rises to a certain height, and the popular will fancies itself balked of its just expectations, the barricade is the only means that readily suggests itself to the imagination. For, closely. connected with and perhaps originating in the absence of that daily political activity familiar to our people, we are struck in French recent his- tory with the utter insensibility to the value and utility of public meetings, in which public opinion may be openly and peacefully expressed, concentrated on particular measures, and brought to bear upon the Government. The right of such meetings has been guaranteed by each successive constitution, subject to legal restric- tions, which are of course necessary ; but the guarantees have turned out, practically, like those for the freedom of the press,
of no validity; and in both cases for the same reason—that nei- ther statesmen nor the great mass of the people see in either an indispensable support of authority as well as freedom, and a condition in fact without which constitutional government is sure to result in practical absolutism or anarchy. Consti- tutional government must rest on public opinion, whether it be under the form of republic or monarchy : and these are the only two agencies which can form and consolidate public opinion ; habituating the people to moderation, self-restraint, and that compromise which a great historian has pronounced to be the soul of political action ; and, on the other hand, giving the rulers the support of the good sense and intelligence of the nation, or the benefit of timely warning if they are inclined to deviate from the right path. But a government in France is de- prived of the aid thus derived for wise and popular measures, and has no certain warning of measures that are giving deep offence. For a press that has for years been subject to the intimidation and corrupt influences that have both been freely used in France is no sure thermometer of the political atmosphere,—if, indeed, journal- ists themselves could ascertain genuine public opinion in the ab- sence of those political demonstrations which make it known in England. We are compelled to sketch without the necessary qualifications that would modify the colouring of the complete pic- ture, but the broad truth is as we have stated it ; and the result may be shortly summed up by saying that the French citizen knows no mean between passive obedience and armed insurrection, and the Government alternates between a harsh despotism and panic-stricken concession. Is it possible to conceive, that if the habit of political discussion in public meetings had been familiar to France, as it is among ourselves, there could have been room for the intrigues that have brought that unhappy country to her present condition? The question was, whether Louis Napoleon was to be allowed to stand in May 1852 for the Presidency. The difficulty was, that the Constitution rendered his candidature illegal, while it was supposed that the great majority of French- men saw in it an escape from dreaded evils ; yet the Constitution allowed no dissolution of the Assembly, and consequently no direct appeal to the people on the question. Is it possible that the in- trigues which have agitated the country and handed her over to an usurper could have taken place in the face of an opinion one way or the other pronounced by the people in public meeting assembled, when a free press would have transmitted their decisions from one part of the country to another, and so have enabled each intriguer to comprehend the actual force ihat was arrayed against or for him? Is it possible that the people themselves, had they enjoyed such an opportunity of knowing each other's wishes, and of feeling their own united strength, would have allowed themselves to be made the tools of either Parliamentary chiefs or military dictators ? The fact is, there are no parties in France, in our English sense of the word, but only cliques—no parties, that is, based upon the openly- expressed opinions of large bodies of the people, and guided to their results by experienced leaders, though there are clubs in which the so-called leaders make the necessary Parliamentary arrangements and compromises. We trace the possibility of such events as have just happened in France to the want of a real political life among the people, nurtured by and acting on public meetings and a free press; and the first requisite of such political life seems, for the thousandth time, to lie in the development of elective municipal bodies constituted for the management of local affairs, and re- sponsible to the citizens who elect them. Apart from this general cause, which allows France to be sur- prised into revolutions and counter-revolutions in neither of which has she any hearty concurrence or sympathy,—and a series of which has so politically demoralized her people, that, either in des- pair or indifference, they submit to such a monstrous usurpation as has just been carried into operation, and seem for the moment pleased rather than not with it—gratified, at any rate, at the retribution which has overtaken arch-intriguers like M. Thiers, and at the theatrical suddenness and effect of the coup,—there are special causes which have brought about this last blow, neither recondite nor actually unforeseen. The Constitution itself was an instrument of diabolic ingenuity for the prevention of harmony be- tweein_ the two powers of government. Not only were they rendered perfectly independent of each other, but, in the almost unavoidable case of a collision, orat least a difference such as to paralyze all politi- cal progress, no provision was made for an appeal to the nation from which both sprung and to which both were responsible. The Assem- bly could not dissolve itself, nor could the President dissolve it; but both were compelled to fight their quarrel out during the whole term of their legal existence ; and, to make the matter worse, the powers of both were to expire simultaneously, so that neither could look forward to a peaceful solution of their differences, and the entrance upon a new and harmonious course of action when the country had finally pronounced its verdict by the choice of a successor to the defunct power. Surely the very genius of malice must have prompted such a device,—if one did not know that it was framed with great care by a select committee of statesmen more or less experienced, and approved after much debate and deliberation by some hundreds of men, the representatives of the wishes and intelligence of France. And, as if confident of the safe and easy working of their machine, and jealous lest any other hand should intrude and mar the perfection of which they were so proud, they riveted the mischief by enacting, that, however necessary experience might find a change to be, no change should be made, except under conditions which the smallest amount of foresight might have anticipated, as experience has shown them, to be impossible. Altogether, this French Constitution of 1848 is the most sin- gular monument of a country famous for such. It may serve as a warning to all of us, how our schemes are likely to fare when they are constructed in utter defiance of the facts on and among which they have to be worked. It was the work of a party already feeling the symptoms, of rapid decay, seeking, in spite of that feeling, to perpetuate its existence, or its influence after actual extinction, by the force of parchment; and hoping to baffie the wishes of a nation, to bind down the struggles of fac- tions, and to quell the passions of individuals, by that weakest of all spells a Parliamentary formula. Such a notion could not have been entertained where political life had been a reality, and po- litical experience anything more than a thing learnt from books.
To the causes hitherto mentioned as paving the way for Louis Napoleon's usurpation, must be added that which extenuates it more than any other circumstance, and in which alone any plausible apology can be found—we mean the selfish and unpatriotic conduct of that large party calling themselves Orleanist, Regentist, or Le- gitimist, which includes almost every distinguished name in French politics. Had these men been able to postpone their selfish rivalries and personal predilections, and in the face of a common danger to combine heartily and honestly in any one line of policy, that danger might and must have been warded off, or at least so modi- fied as to have been comparatively harmless. One name stands preeminent among them as responsible for the mischief which has been done, but upon them all rests a portion of the blame ; and history will record of them, that among the elite of French statesmen, there was not enough genius or enough virtue to save their country from the meanest adventurer who has, from the days of Clovis to the death of Louis Philippe, wielded the power and represented the greatness of any European state. They are sufficiently punished by their own reflections, and the fate that has befallen them,—unless, indeed, there are any of them base enough to cringe to the usurper whom they have failed to baffie. We will not indulge that suspicion, in spite of all that has occurred to tarnish their political characters, but trust that they will remember, that the best service they can now render their country is to abstain from accepting appointment or emolu- ment from such hands as have either to bestow in France.