The Eve of the French Revolution

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There are two ways in which the French Revolution may be considered. We may look at the great events which astonished and horrified Europe and America: the storming of the Bastille, the march on Versailles, the massacres of September, the Terror, and the restoration of order by Napoleon. The study of these events must always be both interesting and profitable, and we cannot wonder that historians, scenting the approaching battle, have sometimes hurried over the comparatively peaceful country that separated them from it. They have accepted easy and ready-made solutions for the cause of the trouble. Old France has been lurid in their eyes, in the light of her burning country-houses. The Frenchmen of the eighteenth century, they think, must have been wretches, or they could not so have suffered. The social fabric, they are sure, was rotten indeed, or it would never have gone to pieces so suddenly.

There is, however, another way of looking at that great revolution of which we habitually set the beginning in 1789. That date is, indeed, momentous; more so than any other in modern history. It marks the outbreak in legislation and politics of ideas which had already been working for a century, and which have changed the face of the civilized world. These ideas are not all true nor all noble. They have in them a large admixture of speculative error and of spiritual baseness. They require to-day to be modified and readjusted. But they represent sides of truth which in 1789, and still more in 1689, were too much overlooked and neglected. They suited the stage of civilization which the world had reached, and men needed to emphasize them. Their very exaggeration was perhaps necessary to enable them to fight, and in a measure to supplant, the older doctrines which were in possession of the human mind. Induction, as the sole method of reasoning, sensation as the sole origin of ideas, may not be the final and only truth; but they were very much needed in the world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and they found philosophers to elaborate them, and enthusiasts to preach them. They made their way chiefly on French soil in the decades preceding 1789.

The history of French society at that time has of late years attracted much attention in France. Diligent scholars have studied it from many sides. I have used their work freely, and acknowledgment will be found in the foot-notes; but I cannot resist the pleasure of mentioning in this preface a few of those to whom I am most indebted; and first M. Albert Babeau, without whose careful researches several chapters of this book could hardly have been written. His studies in archives, as well as in printed memoirs and travels, have brought much of the daily life of old France into the clearest light. He has in an eminent degree the great and thoroughly French quality of telling us what we want to know. His impartiality rivals his lucidity, while his thoroughness is such that it is hard gleaning the old fields after him.

Hardly less is my indebtedness to the late M. Aime Cherest, whose unfinished work, "La Chute de l'ancien regime," gives the most interesting and philosophical narrative of the later political events preceding the meeting of the Estates General. To the great names of de Tocqueville and of Taine I can but render a passing homage. The former may be said to have opened the modern mind to the proper method of studying the eighteenth century in France, the latter is, perhaps, the most brilliant of writers on the subject; and no one has recently written, or will soon write, about the time when the Revolution was approaching without using the books of both of them. And I must not forget the works of the Vicomte de Broc, of M. Boiteau, and of M. Rambaud, to which I have sometimes turned for suggestion or confirmation.

Passing to another branch of the subject, I gladly acknowledge my debt to the Right Honorable John Morley. Differing from him in opinion almost wherever it is possible to have an opinion, I have yet found him thoroughly fair and accurate in matters of fact. His books on Voltaire, Rousseau, and the Encyclopaedists, taken together, form the most satisfactory history of French philosophy in the eighteenth century with which I am acquainted.

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