The French People Triumph (July 14)

The French People Triumph
(The Bastille surrendered, July 14, 1789.)
What the Fourth of July is to Americans, the Fourteenth of July
is to Frenchmen. It commemorates an oppressive tyranny overthrown
by a freedom-loving people.
Read from Burke’s THE REVOLUTION IN FRANCE Vol. 24, pp. 268-273

The advocates for this Revolution, not satisfied with exaggerating
the vices of their ancient government, strike at the fame of their
country itself, by painting almost all that could have attracted the
attention of strangers, I. mean their nobility and their clergy, as objects
of horror. If this were only a libel, there had not been much
in it. But it has practical consequences. Had your nobility and
gentry, who formed the great body of your landed men, and the

36 Travaux de charite" pour subvenir au manque de      Livres.              £         s.    d.
                travail a Paris et dans les province……….. 3,866,920 — 161,121    13    4
Destruction de vagabondage et de la mendicite ……… 1,671,417 — 69,642       7     6
Primes pour l’importation de grains ………………….. 5,671,907— 236,329      9     2
Depenses relatives aux subsistances, deduction fait
des recouvrements qui ont eu lieu …………………..39,871,790 — 1,661,324    11    8
                                                      Total   Liv.   51,082,034 — £2,128,418     1    8
When I sent this book to the press, I entertained some doubt concerning the nature
and extent of the last article in the above accounts, which is only under a general
head, without any detail. Since then I have seen M. de Calonne’s work. I must
think it a great loss tome that I had not that advantage earlier. M. de Calonne thinks
this article to be on account of general subsistence; hut as he is notable to compreh-
end how so great a loss as upwards of £1,661,000 sterling could be sustained on the
difference between the price and the sale of grain, he seems to attribute this enormous
head of charge to secret expenses of the Revolution. I cannot say anything positively
on that subject. The reader is capable of judging, by the a ggregate of these im-
mense charges, on the state and condition of France; and the system of public economy
adopted in that nation. These articles of account produced no inquiry or discussion
in the National Assembly.

ON THE REVOLUTION IN FRANCE 269
whole of your military officers, resembled those of Germany, at the
period when the Hanse-towns were necessitated to confederate
against the nobles in defence of their property—had they been like the
Orsini and Vitelli in Italy, who used to sally from their fortified
dens to rob the trader and traveller—had they been such as the
Mamelukes in Egypt, or the Nayres on the coast of Malabar, I do
admit, that too critical an inquiry might not be advisable into the
means of freeing the world from such a nuisance. The statues of
Equity and Mercy might be veiled for a moment. The tenderest
minds, confounded with the dreadful exigence in which morality
submits to the suspension of its own rules in favour of its own principles,
might turn aside whilst fraud and violence were accomplishing
the destruction of a pretended nobility which disgraced, whilst
it persecuted, human nature. The persons most abhorrent from
blood, and treason, and arbitrary confiscation, might remain silent
spectators of this civil war between the vices.
But did the privileged nobility who met under the king’s precept
at Versailles, in 1789, or their constituents, deserve to be looked on
as the Nayres or Mamelukes of this age, or as the Orsini and Vitelli
of ancient times? If I had then asked the question I should have
passed for a madman. What have they since done that they were to
be driven into exile, that their persons should be hunted about,
mangled, and tortured, their families dispersed, their houses laid in
ashes, and that their order should be abolished, and the memory of
it, if possible, extinguished, by ordaining them to change the very
names by which they were usually known? Read their instructions
to their representatives. They breathe the spirit of liberty as warmly,
and they recommend reformation as strongly, as any other order.
Their privileges relative to contribution were voluntarily surrendered;
as the king, from the beginning, surrendered all pretence to a
right of taxation. Upon a free constitution there was but one opinion
in France. The absolute monarchy was at an end. It breathed its last,
without a groan, without struggle, without convulsion. All the
struggle, all the dissension, arose afterwards upon the preference of
a despotic democracy to a government of reciprocal control. The triumph
of the victorious party was over the principles of a British
constitution.

27O EDMUND BURKE
I have observed the affectation, which for many years past, has
prevailed in Paris even to a degree perfectly childish, of idolizing the
memory of your Henry the Fourth. If anything could put one out of
humour with that ornament to the kingly character, it would be this
overdone style of insidious panegyric. The persons who have worked
this engine the most busily, are those who have ended their panegyrics
in dethroning his successor and descendant; a man, as goodnatured,
at the least, as Henry the Fourth; altogether as fond of his
people; and who has done infinitely more to correct the ancient
vices of the state than that great monarch did, or we are sure he ever
meant to do. Well it is for his panegyrists that they have not him
to deal with. For Henry of Navarre was a resolute, active, and politic
prince. He possessed indeed great humanity and mildness; but
a humanity and mildness that never stood in the way of his interests.
He never sought to be loved without putting himself first in a
condition to be feared. He used soft language with determined conduct.
He asserted and maintained his authority in the gross, and
distributed his acts of concession only in the detail. He spent the
income of his prerogative nobly; but he took care not to break in
upon the capital; never abandoning for a moment any of the claims
which he made under the fundamental laws, nor sparing to shed the
blood of those who opposed him, often in the field, sometimes upon
the scaffold. Because he knew how to make his virtues respected by
the ungrateful, he has merited the praises of those, whom, if they
had lived in his time, he would have shut up in the Bastile, and
brought to punishment along with the regicides whom he hanged
after he had famished Paris into a surrender.
If these panegyrists are in earnest in their admiration of Henry
the Fourth, they must remember, that they cannot think more highly
of him than he did of the noblesse of France; whose virtue, honour,
courage, patriotism, and loyalty were his constant theme.
But the nobility of France are degenerated since the days of Henry
the Fourth. This is possible. But it is more than I can believe to
be true in any great degree. I do not pretend to know France as
correctly as some others; but I have endeavoured through my whole
life to make myself acquainted with human nature; otherwise I
should be unfit to take even my humble part in the service of mankind.
In that study I could not pass by a vast portion of our nature,

ON THE REVOLUTION IN FRANCE 271
as it appeared modified in a country but twenty-four miles from the
shore of this island. On my best observation, compared with my
best inquiries, I found your nobility for the greater part composed
of men of high spirit, and of a delicate sense of honour, both with
regard to themselves individually, and with regard to their whole
corps, over whom they kept, beyond what is common in other countries,
a censorial eye. They were tolerably well bred; very officious,
humane, and hospitable; in their conversation frank and open; with
a good military tone; and reasonably tinctured with literature, particularly
of the authors in their own language. Many had pretensions
far above this description. I speak of those who were generally
met with.
As to their behaviour to the inferior classes, they appeared to me
to comport themselves towards them with good-nature, and with
something more nearly approaching to familiarity, than is generally
practised with us in the intercourse between the higher and lower
ranks of life. To strike any person, even in the most abject condition,
was a thing in a manner unknown, and would be highly disgraceful.
Instances of other ill-treatment of the humble part of the community
were rare: and as to attacks made upon the property or the personal
liberty of the commons, I never heard of any whatsoever from
them; nor, whilst the laws were in vigour under the ancient government,
would such tyranny in subjects have been permitted. As
men of landed estates, I had no fault to find with their conduct,
though much to reprehend, and much to wish changed, in many of
the old tenures. Where the letting of their land was by rent, I could
not discover that their agreements with their farmers were oppressive;
nor when they were in partnership with the farmer, as often
was the case, have I heard that they had taken the lion’s share. The
proportions seemed not inequitable. There might be exceptions;
but certainly they were exceptions only. I have no reason to believe
that in these respects the landed noblesse of France were worse than
the landed gentry of this country; certainly in no respect more vexatious
than the landholders, not noble, of their own nation. In cities
the nobility had no manner of power; in the country very little.
You know, Sir, that much of the civil government, and the police
in the most essential parts was not in the hands of that nobility
which presents itself first to our consideration. The revenue, the

272 EDMUND BURKE
system and collection of which were the most grievous parts of the
French government, was not administered by the men of the sword;
nor were they answerable for the vices of its principle, or the vexations,
where any such existed, in its management.
Denying, as I am well warranted to do, that the nobility had any
considerable share in the oppression of the people, in cases in which
real oppression existed, I am ready to admit that they were not without
considerable faults and errors. A foolish imitation of the worst
part of the manners of England, which impaired their natural character,
without substituting in its place what perhaps, they meant to
copy, has certainly rendered them worse than formerly they were.
Habitual dissoluteness of manners continued beyond the pardonable
period of life, was more common amongst them than it is with us;
and it reigned with the less hope of remedy, though possibly with
something of less mischief by being covered with more exterior
decorum. They countenanced too much that licentious philosophy,
which has helped to bring on their ruin. There was another error
amongst them more fatal. Those of the commons, who approached
to or exceeded many of the nobility in point of wealth, were not
fully admitted to the rank and estimation which wealth, in reason
and good policy, ought to bestow in every country; though I think
not equally with that of other nobility. The two kinds of aristocracy
were too punctiliously kept asunder, less so, however, than in Germany
and some other nations.
This separation, as I have already taken the liberty of suggesting
to you, I conceive to be one principal cause of the destruction of the
old nobility. The military, particularly, was too exclusively reserved
for men of family. But, after all, this was an error of opinion, which
a conflicting opinion would have rectified. A permanent assembly,
in which the commons had their share of power, would soon abolish
whatever was too invidious and insulting in these distinctions; and
even the faults in the morals of the nobility would have been probably
corrected, by the greater varieties of occupation and pursuit to
which a constitution by orders would have given rise.
All this violent cry against the nobility I take to be a mere work
of art. To be honoured and even privileged by the laws, opinions,

ON THE REVOLUTION IN FRANCE 273
and inveterate usages of our country, growing out of the prejudice
of ages, has nothing to provoke horror and indignation in any man.
Even to be too tenacious of those privileges is not absolutely a crime.
The strong struggle in every individual to preserve possession of
what he has found to belong to him, and to distinguish him is one
of the securities against injustice and despotism implanted in our
nature. It operates as an instinct to secure property, and to preserve
communities in a settled state. What is there to shock in this?
Nobility is a graceful ornament to the civil order. It is the Corinthian
capital of polished society. Omnes boni nobilitati semper fat/emus,
was the saying of a wise and good man. It is indeed one sign of a
liberal and benevolent mind to incline to it with some sort of partial
propensity. He feels no ennobling principle in his own heart, who
wishes to level all the artificial institutions which have been adopted
for giving a body to opinion, and permanence to fugitive esteem. It
is a sour, malignant, envious disposition, without taste for the reality,
or for any image or representation of virtue, that sees with joy the
unmerited fall of what had long flourished in splendour and in
honour. I do not like to see anything destroyed; any void produced
in society; any ruin on the face of the land. It was therefore
with no disappointment or dissatisfaction that my inquiries and
observations did not present to me any incorrigible vices in the
noblesse of France, or any abuse which could not be removed by a
reform very short of abolition. Your noblesse did not deserve punishment:
but to degrade is to punish.

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