I have decided to break this one short chapter into two short posts. There’s an explanation. I don’t feel like giving it to you, but there is an explanation. Also, I expect next week’s post will be up on Wednesday instead of Monday. I’m about 85% sure about that. Don’t even worry about it.
The French Revolution. – II
The first period of the French Revolution, when the French people were filled with the highest ideals about liberty and community of nations, was ended in the month of June, 1791. In that fatal month the royal couple took the ill-advised measure of trying to escape from their people by a flight to Germany. The way the flight was prepared and carried out was singularly clumsy, and far from being astonished at the capture of the King by the postmaster of Varennes on the French frontier, one rather wonders that the King had not been discovered soon after leaving Paris.
He and the Queen were brought back to the capital amidst the sullen silence of an indignant nation. It now became clear that the animosity of the foreign powers was shared by the King, and that the entire nation was at the mercy of a European conspiracy. There is no nation in Europe that has, in mediæval or modern times, ever found itself in a situation so tragic, so exasperating. From all sides of the horizon the French people felt the underground and overt attacks of the rest of Europe. In Sweden and Russia, King Gustavus III. and Catherine the Great; in Austria and Prussia, Loepold II. and Frederick William II.; in England and in all other countries, threats of invasion, menaces of the most terrible kind were levelled at the people whose King had just given unmistakable proofs of treachery and cowardice, which alone are sufficient to drive a nation into despair.
Yet the French people even then, under the most trying circumstances, continued to be loyal to the King, and instead of making open war on him – as had been done in England in 1642, when King Charles I. left London – the French people, after a few weeks, intrusted Louis XVI. with the government of the country. Even then very few people seriously thought of a republic, and Louis XVI. had many a fair chance of consolidating his shaken position. However, the plans of the Powers against France became so manifest; their intention of treating France as they had dealt with Poland in the seventies became so evident; the War Party, headed by the Girondists and General Dumouriez, became by the end of 1791 so influential, that a conflict between France on the one hand and Europe on the other was only a question of days.
The actions of the Powers, more especially of Prussia and Austria, were based on a total misconception of the resources and conditions of France. The numerous émigrés (political refugees)from France had spread the belief (still shared by many historians) that the revolution in France was in reality only a local anarchy in Paris, countenanced in no wise by the bulk of the French nation. Moreover, the émigrés plausibly remarked that owing to the law of 1781 the French nation was, through the emigration of the nobles, deprived of their officers – officers in the French army since 1781 being aristocrats only.
The very atrocity of the situation, however, aroused all the latent energy of the French nation, and when in September, 1792, the Prussians and Austrians advanced on the Rhine, the French, far from being cowed and discouraged, were more than ever determined to resist the unprovoked hostility of their allied enemies.
One need only read the proclamation, signed if not drawn up by the Duke of Brunswick, and dated from Coblentz, to understand the heroic resolution of the French and their determination to defend their country – even at the most painful loss in men and money. That proclamation is unique in all history, unless we compare is with the actions of Attilla, Genghis Khan, or some other barbarous “Scourge of heaven.” Brunswick threatened the people of France to raze Paris to the ground, and to reduce their country to a desert, unless they restored the old monarchy and abandoned all the rights of the nation acquired since May, 1789.
This atrocious document was replied to by the French by the so-called September massacres. During five days, early in September, numerous individuals, many of them innocent or invalids, were massacred in the streets, hospitals, and prisons of Paris by the mob maddened by the terror of the near extinction of France at the hands of the allies.
The horrors of those massacres can certainly not be excused; they are, however, in keeping with the behaviour of most nations in times of unexampled popular excitement.
In the great Civil War in England the popular excitement vented itself in the wholesale execution of so-called witches and sorcerers, of whom, as Mr. Lecky says, a greater number was cruelly put to death during the great Civil War than during all the other periods of English history put together. From 1645 to 1647 over 150 witches were executed in the counties of Suffolk and Essex alone. The fascination of cruelty on an excited mob is a dark problem; but at any rate we may say that Danton, who did nothing to stop the September massacres, cannot seriously be held to be the author of those misdeeds. With the blind but unerring instinct of fierce animality, the people of France, who had on the 10th August, 1792, practically deposed the King, now, in the face of extreme danger, ventured to give a practical illustration of their unprecedented resolution to keep up the unity of France both against home and foreign assailants.
If we condemn the September massacres, we must, at any rate, credit them also with a considerable share in the great victory of Valmy a few days later. In that battle, in itself an insignificant engagement, a new spirit, the spirit of a united and determined nation, was proved to be stronger than the might of Prussia and Austria. The enemy was driven out of the country; Dumouriez, the victor of Valmy, marched northward, and after inflicting upon the Austrians the defeat of Jemmapes, he pushed them back on the Rhine, and occupied Belgium and parts of Holland (autumn, 1792). The great victories won by the army indefinitely increased the prestige of the Girondists – amongst whom Vergniaud, Gensonné, Guadet, and Madame Roland were most influential – and they quickly brought the King to the block. And now at last France, clearly conscious of the exasperating hostility of Europe, took measures to intensify by concentration her powers of resistance, so abundant in that old historic country.