European Statesmen

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"Among the nobles are Liancourt, and La Rochefoucauld, and pious Lally, and Lafayette, whom Mirabeau calls Grandison Cromwell, and the Viscount Mirabeau, called Barrel Mirabeau, on account of his rotundity, and the quantity of strong liquor he contains. Among the clergy is the Abbe Maury, who does not want for audacity, and the Cure Gregoire who shall be a bishop, and Talleyrand-Pericord, his reverence of Autun, with sardonic grimness, a man living in falsehood, and on falsehood, yet not wholly a false man.

"So, in stately procession, the elected of France pass on, some to honor, others to dishonor; not a few towards massacre, confusion, emigration, desperation."

For several weeks this famous States-General remain inactive, unable to agree whether they shall deliberate in a single hall or in three separate chambers. The deputies, of course, wish to deliberate in a single chamber, since they equal in number both the clergy and nobles, and some few nobles had joined them, and more than a hundred of the clergy. But a large majority of both the clergy and the noblesse insist with pertinacity on the three separate chambers, since, united, they would neutralize the third estate. If the deputies prevailed, they would inaugurate reforms to which the other orders would never consent.

Long did these different bodies of the States-General deliberate, and stormy were the debates. The nobles showed themselves haughty and dogmatical; the deputies showed themselves aggressive and revolutionary. The King and the ministers looked on with impatience and disgust, but were irresolute. Had the King been a Cromwell, or a Napoleon, he would have dissolved the assemblies; but he was timid and hesitating. Necker, the prime minister, was for compromise; he would accept reforms, but only in a constitutional way.

The knot was at last cut by the Abbe Sieyes, a political priest, and one of the deputies for Paris,--the finest intellect in the body, next to Mirabeau, and at first more influential than he, since the Count was generally distrusted on account of his vices. Nor had he as yet exhibited his great powers. Sieyes said, for the Deputies alone, "We represent ninety-six per cent of the whole nation. The people is sovereign; we, therefore, as its representatives, constitute ourselves a national assembly." His motion was passed by acclamation, on June 17, and the Third Estate assumed the right to act for France.

In a legal and constitutional point of view, this was a usurpation, if ever there was one. "It was," says Von Sybel, the able German historian of the French Revolution, "a declaration of open war between arbitrary principles and existing rights." It was as if the House of Representatives in the United States, or the House of Commons in England, should declare themselves the representatives of the nation, ignoring the Senate or the House of Lords. Its logical sequence was revolution.

The prodigious importance of this step cannot be overrated. It transferred the powers of the monarchy to the Third Estate. It would logically lead to other usurpations, the subversion of the throne, and the utter destruction of feudalism,--for this last was the aim of the reformers. Mirabeau himself at first shrank from this violent measure, but finally adopted it. He detested feudalism and the privileges of the clergy. He wanted radical reforms, but would have preferred to gain them in a constitutional way, like Pym, in the English Revolution. But if reforms could not be gained constitutionally, then he would accept revolution, as the lesser evil. Constitutionally, radical reforms were hopeless. The ministers and the King, doubtless, would have made some concessions, but not enough to satisfy the deputies. So these same deputies took the entire work of legislation into their own hands. They constituted themselves the sole representatives of the nation. The nobles and the clergy might indeed deliberate with them; they were not altogether ignored, but their interests and rights were to be disregarded. In that state of ferment and discontent which existed when the States-General was convened, the nobles and the clergy probably knew the spirit of the deputies, and therefore refused to sit with them. They knew, from the innumerable pamphlets and tracts which were issued from the press, that radical changes were desired, to which they themselves were opposed; and they had the moral support of the Government on their side.

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