M. TAINE ON THE JACOBIN- CONQUEST.*
IT may reasonably be suspected that, even yet, M. Taine ía generally known and admired among us more for his style than as a philosopher, a historian, or as he prefers in the preface to- this volume modestly to describe himself, the unbiassed, and even unsophisticated, though open-eyed, and open-minded inves- tigator of the phenomena of modern society, more especially ía France. He would probably consider it as a compliment, rather than the reverse, to be called the French—though thoroughly French—Macaulay, for have we not the confession of hin
literary faith in this sentence, which closes his estimate of Carlyle, in his History of English Literature ? "There is,.
perhaps, less genius in Macaulay than in Carlyle; but when we have fed for some time on this exaggerated and demoniac.
style, this marvellous and sickly philosophy, this contorted and prophetic history, these sinister and furious politics, we gladly return to the continuous eloquence, to the vigorous reasoning, to the moderate prognostications, to the demon- strated theories of the generous and solid mind which Europe' has list, who brought honour to England, and whose place none-
can fill ?" Now, in spite of the great sociological and political importance of this, in some respects, terrible book, we confess, that the first questions the reading of it suggests are,—What of M. Paine as a naturalised English writer ? Has he got be- yond Macaulay ; and if so, how far? The answer is an obvious
one. M. Taine's style is still essentially Macanlayese, but he. has got beyond Macaulay to Burke, who, after all, was more-
lifacanlay's master than any other of his predecessors. As a contribution to political history, this indictment of the Jacobins-
is quite in the vein of the author of Reflections on the Revolution- in. Prance, and would have delighted his soul, had it appeared in his life-time. But looked at from the stand-point of style- merely, it recalls Burke even more than Macaulay,—Burke, too,. when the French Revolution had produced in him that " dis- trust of the people, tempered by fear," which Mr. Gladstone. has declared to be the distinguishing characteristic of a Con- servative. Take this description of Marseilles, the true home of the Jacobins :—
"If we would see the first complete planting of the Revolutionary' tree, we must observe it in the Department of the Bouches-du-Rh8ne ; nowhere was it so precocious, nowhere were local circumstances and' native temperament so well adapted to hastening its growth.—' torrid sky, climatic extremes, an arid soil, rocks . . . . wasting rivers, torrents either dry or bursting their banks,' blinding dust,. nerves irritated by steady northern blasts or by the intermittent gusts of the sirocco ; a sensual race, choleric and impetuous, with no- intellectual or moral ballast, in which the mixture of Celt and Latin, has destroyed the humane suavity of the Celt and the serious earnest- ness of the Roman; complete, powerful, rugged, and restless men,' and yet gay, spontaneous, eloquent, dupes of their own bombast sud-- denly carried away by a flow of words and superficial enthusiasm ; their principal city numbering 120,000 souls, in which commercial and maritime risks foster innovating and adventurous spirits; in which the sight of suddenly-acquired fortunes expended on sensual enjoyments constantly undermines all stability of character ; in which politics, like speculation, is a lottery offering its prizes to- audacity ; besides all this, a free port and a rendezvous for nomadic interlopers, vagabonds, persons without fixed callings, the lawless, bullies, and blackguards, who, like uprooted, decaying seaweed, drift from coast to coast the entire circle of the Mediterranean Sea ; a- veritable sink, filled with the dregs of twenty corrupt and semi-bar- barous civilisations, where the froth of crime cast forth from the- prisons of Genoa, Piedmont, Sicily, indeed, of all Italy, of Spain, of the Archipelago, and of Barbary, accumulates and ferments ; no wonder that, in such a time the reign of the populace should be established' there sooner than elsewhere."
This smacks of Macaulay, who, however "moderate in his prog- nostications," was the reverse of moderate in his statements,. but tried rather to win arguments much as Napoleon I. and Moltke won their battles, by massing strong statements on weak points. It is, indeed, just such another big battalion of vigorous characterisations as Macaulay's description of the High- lands before the battle of Killiecrankie. But there is a bitterness in it which M. Paine does not get from his first English master, who never became a Conservative or a pessimist, but died in the belief that the true political paradise for his country is the government of it by a vigorous and eupeptic middle-class.
That bitterness, so far as it is English, is Burke's. His French Revolution overflows with it. It is altogether impossible not to trace a family resemblance between such sentences as we
* La &volution,: les Origines de la France Contimporaine. By H. A. Taine, D.C.L. Translated by John Darand. Vol. II. London: Sampson Low and CO. 182e,
have quoted, and this description by Burke of the clergy who were sent to the original National Assembly,--" men who had never seen the State so much as in a picture ; men who knew
nothing of the world beyond the bounds of an obscnre village ; _who, immersed in hopeless poverty, could regard all property, whether secular or ecclesiastical, with no other eye than that of envy; among whom must be many who, for the smallest hope of the meanest dividend in plunder, would readily join in any attempts upon a body of wealth, in which they could hardly look to have any share, except in a general scramble." M. Taine has not, to our thinking, improved his style by infusing this bitterness into it. In spite of Carlyle's "exaggerated and demoniac style," and. "sinister and furious politics," he would have done well to have "rectified" Burke with the author whom he considers inferior to Macaulay. The truth that underlies the maxim, De mortuis nil, nisi bonum, is ever present to Carlyle—when he writes of the excesses of the Septembriseurs, no less than when he tells the tragedy of Marie Antoinette ; "their baseness and wickedness was not they, was but the heavy and unmanageable environment that lay round them, with which they fought, nnprevailing." M. Taine him- self sometimes feels this chastening Carlylean spirit stealing
over him, as when he allows that some, at least, of the authors of the great massacres were mad for the time being. But he does not let it dominate him or pervade him; rather, in genuine French fashion., he slays the slain once too often ; and hence the book leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
Let M. Taine be granted his style and spirit, however, and it
must be admitted that this volume, which is on the whole well translated, though not translated well in all parts, is the best account that has yet been given of how the fanaticism of Jacobinism, starting in the well-known club in Paris, spread by means of affiliated societies over• France, and subjugated all accredited political powers. The most marvellous thing in connection with Jacobinism is that, like Puritanism, its con- quests were accomplished by so small a minority of the French people :—
"At Besancon, in November, 1791, the Revolutionists of every shade of opinion and degree, whether Girondists or Montagnards, consist of about 500 or 600 out of 3,000 electors ; and in November, 1792, of not more than the same number out of 6,000 or 7,000. At Paris, in November, 1791, there are 6,700 out of more than 81,000 on the rolls; in October, 1792, there are less than 14,000 out of 160,000. At Troyes, in 1792, there are found only 400 or 500 out of 7,000 electors, and at Strasbourg the same number out of 8,000 electors. Accordingly, only about one-tenth of the electoral population are Revolutionists, and if we leave out the Girondists and the semi-Con- servatives, the number is reduced by one-half. Towards the end of 1762, at Besancon, scarcely more than 300 pure Jacobins are found in a population of from 25,000 to 30,000; while at Paris, out of
700,000 inhabitants, only 5,000 are Jacobins Taking the whole of France, all the Jacobins put together, they do not amount to 300,000."
Of course, the main reason why such a minority triumphed, as M. Paine showed in his first volume, and as, indeed, all the world knows, is that it carried on its operations in a society in a state of dissolution, and in face of a Government which was no Government, and derived its sole moral support from people whom now-a-days we should consider no better than "arm-chair politicians." Bat M. Taine would not be M. TaMe, if he did not conduct his historical investigation on the psycho- logical method, and seek to find the roots of Jacobinism in human nature :—
" Exaggerated self-conceit and dogmatism are not rare in the human species. These two roots of the Jacobin intellect exist everywhere, underground and indestructible. Everywhere they are kept from sprouting by the established order of things ; everywhere are they striving to upheave old historic foundations which press them down. Now, as formerly, students live in garrets, bohemians in lodgings, physicians without patients and lawyers without clients in lonely offices, so many Brissots, Dantons, Marats, Robespierree, and St. Justs in embryo ; only, for lack of air and sunshine, they never come • to maturity. At twenty, on entering society, a young man's judg- ment and self-esteem are extremely sensitive ; let the society in which he is comprised be what it will, it is for him a scandal to right reason ; it was not organised by a legislative philosopher according to a sound principle, but is the work of one generation after another, according to manifold and changing necessities. It is not a product of logic, but of history ; and the new-fledged thinker shrugs his shoulders as he looks up and sees what the ancient tenement is, the foundations of which are arbitrary, its architecture confused, and its many repairs plainly visible. . . . It is not surprising that he is tempted to kick against social barriers within which, willingly or not, he is enrolled, and which predestine him to subordination. It is not surprising that on emerging from traditional influences he should accept a theory which subjects these arrangements to his arbitrament and gives him authority over his superiors. And all the more because there is no doctrine more simple and better adapted to his inexpe- rience ; it is the only one he can comprehend and manage offhand.. Hence it is that young men on leaving college, especially those who have their way to make in the world, are more or less Jacobin,—it is a distemper which belongs to growth."
The truth of this doctrine, that Jacobinism is, in the last resort,. undisciplined youth, is confirmed by facts of our own national history. During the Revolutionary period, all young English men of genius and an ardent temperament were Jacobins. Burns and Byron died young, and died in that faith, such as it was. Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey survived it, to become, like Burke, its bitter opponents. Jacobinism has its. religious, or at least its quasi-religious, side, as the concluding, kindliest, and not least eloquent page in this volume proves:—
" In the ramp without, before the enemy, those noble generalisa- tions which among the Parisian demagogues had become sanguinary harlots, remain virgin in the imagination of the officer and the soldier. Liberty, equality, the rights of man, the reign of reason, all these vague and sublime images moved before their eyes when they climbed the escarpment of Jemmapes under a storm of grapeshot, or when they wintered, with naked feet, among the snows of the Vosges. These ideas, in descending from heaven to earth, were not smirched and trodden under their feet ; they did not see them transformed in. their hands to frightful caricatures. These men are not pillars of clubs, nor brawlers in the sections, nor the inquisitors of a committee, nor hired denunciators, nor providers for the scaffold. Apart from the demonism of revolution, brought back to common-sense by the presence of danger, perceiving the inequality of talents, the neces- sity of obedience, they do the work of men ; they suffer, they fast,. they face bullets, they are conscious of their disinterestedness and their sacrifices ; they are heroes, and they look upon themselves as liberators. Over this idea their pride exalts itself. According to a great observer who knew their survivors, many of them believed that the French alone were reasonable beings. To our eyes, the inhabit- ants of the rest of Europe, who were fighting to keep their chains,. were only pitiable imbeciles, or knaves sold to the despots who were attacking us.'. . . . When the heart of a nation is so high it will de- liver itself, in spite of its rulers, whatever their excesses may be, whatever their crimes; for the nation atones for their follies by its courage; it hides their crimes beneath its great achievements."
These extracts contain the soul and kernel of M. Taine's reading of the most portentous chapter in modern history. in his pre- face he explains that while "almost all of his countrymen have political principles which serve them in forming their judgments of the past," he had none. "Indeed," he says, "if I had any motive in undertaking this work, it was to seek for political principles." The only principle that he has found he fears may seem "puerile," and it is certainly innocent, being nothing more than that "human society, especially a modern society, is a vast and complicated thing." This principle has, however, been fruitful enough in M. Taine's mind of bitterness against the guiding spirits among the Jacobins, who would never recognise it; they had "the Rights of Man" and the Social Contract, and they organised themselves to force them down the throats of France. M. Taine comes to his history of the Jacobin conquest not only without political principles, but without a hero. Other writers have figured. Robespierre, or Danton, or Marat, as the central figure or genius of Jacobinism. M. Taine, indeed, gives us a picture of the "great anarch " at work which Carlyle himself does not surpass, and which we cannot refrain from quoting, as an example of the author's great power as a histori- cal dramatist :— " During the months of August and September, Denton was King, and, later on, he may well say of the 2nd of September, as he did of the 10th of August,' I did it !' Not that he is naturally vindictive or sanguinary ; on the contrary, with a butcher's temperament, he has a man's heart, and, at the risk of compromising himself, against the wills of Marat and Robespierre, he will, by-and-by, save his political adversaries, Duport, Brissot, the Girondists, and the old party of the Right.' Nor is he blinded by fear, enmities, or the theory ; with the transports of the clubbist, he has the clear-sightedness of the poli- tician; he is not the dupe of his own rhetoric, he knows the value of the rogues he employs ; he has no illusions about men or about things, about other people or about himself ; if he slays, it is with a full consciousness of what he is doing, of his party, of the situation, of the Revolution, while the crude expressions which, in the tones of his ball's voice, he flings out as he passes along, are but a vivid state- ment of the precise truth : We are the rabble ! We spring from the gutters!' With the ordinary feeling of humanity, we should soon get back into them. We can only rule through fear!' 'The Parisians are so many — —; a river of blood must flow between. them and the Emigres.' 'The tocsin about to be rang is not a signal
of alarm, bat a charge on the enemies of the country What is necessary to overcome them ? Boldness, boldness, always bold- ness! I have brought my mother here, seventy years of age ; I have sent for my children, and they came last night. Berm e the Prussians enter Paris, I want my family to die with me. Let twenty thousand torches be applied, and Paris instantly reduced to ashes ! We musts maintain ourselves in Paris at all hazards. Republicans are in an extreme minority, and, for fighting, we can rely only on them. The rest of France is devoted to Royalty. The Royalists must be terrified !' "
But all through we are impressed with the idea that the fanati-
cism of Jacobinism is greater than any man whom it pro- 'daces, and is bound to devour all its children, before it exhausts itself.
This volume is mainly valuable, not as a theory, but as a store-house of facts regarding the history of this fanaticism from 1789, till through its organisation of twelve hundred oli- garchies, and the weakness of the Girondists, Constitutionalists, and moderate men of all shades of opinion, it laid the King, the Government, and the Legislative Assembly at the feet of itself and of anarchy, and established its supremacy in the Con- vention of 1793. Every page bristles with details illustrative of the enormous labour M. TaMe must have given himself, and -to which even Carlyle's " buck-washing " when preparing his Cromwell seems a trifle. When it is added that M. Taine is as realistic as M. Zola, though for different and higher reasons, it may well be believed that here we have a supper of horrors, —one, too, so satiating that we cannot help hoping that, in its character as a treasure-house of facts relating to the Jacobin supremacy, it may be considered by Frenchmen and English- men alike as final. M. TaMe says that the next and concluding portion of his great historical enterprise, that dealing with Jacobinism in possession, or the Revolutionary Government, will be as long as this. Until the translation of that appears, it would be premature to pronounce on the value of the work from the English point of view, but in the meantime two things may safely be said. As a mere piece of industry, there is nothing in contemporary historical literature to surpass this volume,—and we do not forget that Mr. Freeman and Mr. Lecky are con- tributors to that literature. In the second place, what must not the crimes of that ancien regime have been, rather than endure a return of which, the French nation fought and conquered, under the unworthy Government of social ban- 4litti the establishment of which was the first and superficial -result of the Jacobin conquest ! Mr. Huxley, in the pleasing volume of essays and addresses he has just published, says truly that Englishmen are apt "to forget that from the meeting of the Long Parliament in 1640, to the last Stuart rebellion in 1745, is a hundred and five years, and that in the middle of the last century we had but just safely freed ourselves from our Bourbons, and all that they represented." After reading this terrible volume, every reasonable Englishman will allow that it will only be fair to the French to let the centenary of the great Revolution come and go, before declaring dogmatically that they have an inherent incapacity for self-government.