The French Revolution— Volume 1

Author: Hippolyte Adolphe Taine


Inadequacy of its information - Its composition - The social standing and culture of the larger number - Their incapacity. Their presumption - Fruitless advice of competent men.- Deductive politics - Parties - The minority; its faults - The majority; its dogmatism.

If reason could only resume its empire during the lucid intervals! But reason must exist before it can govern, and in no French Assembly, except the two following this, have there ever been fewer political intellects. - Strictly speaking, with careful search, there could undoubtedly be found in France, in 1789, five or six hundred experienced men, such as the intendants and military commanders of every province; next to these the prelates, administrators of large dioceses the members of the local "parlements," whose courts gave them influence, and who, besides judicial functions, possessed a portion of administrative power; and finally, the principal members of the Provincial Assemblies, all of them influential and sensible people who had exercised control over men and affairs, at once humane, liberal, moderate, and capable of understanding the difficulty, as well as the necessity, of a great reform; indeed, their correspondence, full of facts, stated with precision and judgment, when compared with the doctrinaire rubbish of the Assembly, presents the strongest possible contrast. - But most of these lights remain under a bushel; only a few of them get into the Assembly; these burn without illuminating, and are soon extinguished in the tempest.’ I. The venerable Machault is not there, nor Malesherbes; there are none of the old ministers or the marshals of France. Not one of the intendants is there, except Malouet, and by the superiority of this man, the most judicious of the Assembly, one can judge the services which his colleagues would have rendered. Out of two hundred and ninety-one members of the clergy,[17] there are indeed forty-eight bishops or archbishops and thirty-five abbots or canons, but, being prelates and with large endowments, they excite the envy of their order, and are generals without any soldiers. We have the same spectacle among the nobles. Most of them, the gentry of the provinces, have been elected in opposition to the grandees of the Court. Moreover, neither the grandees of the Court, devoted to worldly pursuits, nor the gentry of the provinces, confined to private life, are practically familiar with public affairs. A small group among them, twenty-eight magistrates and about thirty superior officials who have held command or have been connected with the administration, probably have some idea of the peril of society; but it is precisely for this reason that they seem to be behind the age and remain without influence. - In the Third-Estate, out of five hundred and seventy-seven members, only ten have exercised any important functions, those of intendant, councillor of state, receiver-general, lieutenant of police, director of the mint, and others of the same category. The great majority is composed of unknown lawyers and people occupying inferior positions in the profession, notaries, royal attorneys, register commissaries, judges and assessors of; the présidial, bailiffs and lieutenants of the bailiwick, simple practitioners confined from their youth to the narrow circle of an inferior jurisdiction or to a routine of scribbling, with no escape but philosophical excursions in imaginary space under the guidance of Rousseau and Raynal. There are three hundred and seventy-three of this class, to whom may be added thirty-eight farmers and husbandmen, fifteen physicians, and, among the manufacturers, merchants, and capitalists, some fifty or sixty who are their equals in education and in political capacity. Scarcely one hundred and fifty proprietors are here from the middle class.[18] To these four hundred and fifty deputies, whose condition, education, instruction, and mental range qualified them for being good clerks, prominent men in a commune, honorable fathers of a family, or, at best, provincial academicians, add two hundred and eight curés, their equals; this makes six hundred and fifty out of eleven hundred and eighteen deputies, forming a positive majority, which, again, is augmented by about fifty philosophical nobles, leaving out the weak who follow the current, and the ambitious who range themselves on the strong side. - We may divine what a chamber thus made up can do, and those who are familiar with such matters prophesy what it will do.[19]

"There are some able men in the National Assembly," writes the American minister, "yet the best heads among them would not be injured by experience, and, unfortunately, there are great numbers who, with much imagination, have little knowledge, judgment, or reflection."

It would be just as sensible to select eleven hundred notables from an inland province and entrust them to the repair of an old frigate. They would conscientiously break the vessel up, and the frigate they would construct in its place would founder before it left port.

If they would only consult the pilots and professional shipbuilders! — There are several of such to be found around them, whom they cannot suspect, for most of them are foreigners, born in free countries, impartial, sympathetic, and, what is more, unanimous. The Minister of the United States writes, two months before the convocation of the States-General:[20]

"I, a republican, and just, as it were, emerged from that Assembly which has formed one of the most republican of republican constitutions, - I preach incessantly respect for the prince, attention to the rights of the nobility, and moderation, not only in the object, but also in the pursuit of it."

Jefferson, a democrat and radical, expresses himself no differently. At the time of the oath of the Tennis Court, he redoubles his efforts to induce Lafayette and other patriots to make some arrangement with the King to secure freedom of the press, religious, liberty, trial by jury, the habeas corpus, and a national legislature, - things which he could certainly be made to adopt, - and then to retire into private life, and let these institutions act upon the condition of the people until they had rendered it capable of further progress, with the assurance that there would be no lack of opportunity for them to obtain still more.

"This was all," he continues, "that I thought your countrymen able to bear soberly and usefully."

Arthur Young, who studies the moral life of France so conscientiously, and who is so severe in depicting old abuses, cannot comprehend the conduct of the Commons.

"To set aside practice for theory . . . in establishing the interests of a great kingdom, in securing freedom to 25,000,000 of people, seems to me the very acme of imprudence, the very quintessence of insanity."

Undoubtedly, now that the Assembly is all-powerful, it is to be hoped that it will be reasonable:

"I will not allow myself to believe for a moment that the representatives of the people can ever so far forget their duty to the French nation, to humanity, and their own fame, as to suffer any inordinate and impracticable views - any visionary or theoretic systems - . . . to turn aside their exertions from that security which is in their hands, to place on the chance and hazard of public commotion and civil war the invaluable blessings which are certainly in their power. I will not conceive it possible that men who have eternal fame within their grasp will place the rich inheritance on the cast of a die, and, losing the venture, be damned among the worst and most profligate adventurers that ever disgraced humanity."

As their plan becomes more definite the remonstrances become more decided, and all the expert judges point out to them the importance of the wheels which they are willfully breaking.

"As they have[21] hitherto felt severely the authority exercised over them in the name of their princes, every limitation of that authority seems to them desirable. Never having felt the evils of too weak an executive, the disorders to be apprehended from anarchy make as yet no impression" — "They want an American Constitution,[22] but with a King instead of a President, without reflecting they have no American citizens to support that Constitution. . . If they have the good sense to give the nobles, as nobles, some portion of the national power, this free constitution will probably last, But otherwise it will degenerate either into a pure monarchy, or a vast republic, or a democracy. Will the latter last? I doubt it. I am sure that it will not, unless the whole nation is changed."

A little later, when they renounce a parliamentary monarchy to put in its place "a royal democracy," it is at once explained to them that such an institution applied to France can produce nothing but anarchy, and finally end in despotism.

"Nowhere[23] has liberty proved to be stable without a sacrifice of its excesses, without some barrier to its own omnipotence. . . . Under this miserable government . . . the people, soon weary of storms, and abandoned without legal protection to their seducers or to their oppressors, will shatter the helm, or hand it over to some audacious hand that stands ready to seize it."

Events occur from month to month in fulfillment of these predictions, and the predictions grow gloomier and more gloomy. It is a flock of wild birds:[24]

"It is very difficult to guess whereabouts the flock will settle when it flies so wild. . . . This unhappy country, bewildered in the pursuit of metaphysical whims, presents to our moral view a mighty ruin. The Assembly, at once master and slave, new in power, wild in theory, raw in practice, engrossing all functions without being able to exercise any, has freed that fierce, ferocious people from every restraint of religion and respect. . . . Such a state of things cannot last . . . The glorious opportunity is lost and for this time, at least, the Revolution has failed."

We see, from the replies of Washington, that he is of the same opinion. On the other side of the Channel, Pitt, the ablest practician, and Burke, the ablest theorist, of political liberty, express the same judgment. Pitt, after 1789, declares that the French have overleaped freedom. After 1790, Burke, in a work which is a prophecy as well as a masterpiece, points to military dictatorship as the termination of the Revolution, "the most completely arbitrary power that has ever appeared on earth." Nothing is of any effect. With the exception of the small powerless group around Malouet and Mounier, the warnings of Morris, Jefferson, Romilly, Dumont, Mallet du Pan, Arthur Young, Pitt and Burke, all of them men who have experience of free institutions, are received with indifference or repelled with disdain. Not only are our new politicians incapable, but they think themselves the contrary, and their incompetence is aggravated by their infatuation.

"I often used to say, "writes Dumont,[25] "that if a hundred persons were stopped at haphazard in the streets of London, and a hundred in the streets of Paris, and a proposal were made to them to take charge of the Government, ninety-nine would accept it in Paris and ninety-nine would refuse it in London . . . The Frenchman thinks that all difficulties can be overcome by a little quickness of wit. Mirabeau accepted the post of reporter to the Committee on Mines without having the slightest tincture of knowledge on the subject."

In short, most of them enter politics "like the gentleman who, on being asked if he knew how to play on the harpsichord, replied, ’I cannot tell, I never tried, but I will see.’ "

"The Assembly had so high an opinion of itself, especially the left side of it, that it would willingly have undertaken the framing of the Code of Laws for all nations. . . Never has so many men been seen together, fancying that they were all legislators, and that they were there to correct all the errors of the past, to remedy all mistakes of the human mind, and ensure the happiness of all ages to come. Doubt had no place in their minds, and infallibility always presided over their contradictory decrees." —

This is because they have a theory and because, according to their notion, this theory renders special knowledge unnecessary. Herein they are thoroughly sincere, and it is of set purpose that they reverse all ordinary modes of procedure. Up to this time a constitution used to be organized or repaired like a ship. Experiments were made from time to time, or a model was taken from vessels in the neighborhood; the first aim was to make the ship sail; its construction was subordinated to its work; it was fashioned in this or that way according to the materials on hand; a beginning was made by examining these materials, and trying to estimate their rigidity, weight, and strength. - All this is reactionary; the age of Reason has come and the Assembly is too enlightened to drag on in a rut. In conformity with the fashion of the time it works by deduction, after the method of Rousseau, according to an abstract notion of right, of the State and of the social compact.[26] According to this process, by virtue of political geometry alone, they shall have the perfect vessel and since it perfect it follows that it will sail, and that much better than any empirical craft. - They legislate according to this principle, and one may imagine the nature of their discussions. There are no convincing facts, no pointed arguments; nobody would ever imagine that the speakers were gathered together to conduct real business. Through speech after speech, strings of hollow abstractions are endlessly renewed as in a meeting of students in rhetoric for the purpose of practice, or in a society of old bookworms for their own amusement. On the question of the veto "each orator in turn, armed with his portfolio, reads a dissertation which has no bearing whatever" on the preceding one, which makes a "sort of academical session,"[27] a succession of pamphlets fresh every morning for several days. On the question of the Rights of Man fifty-four speakers are placed on the list.

"I remember," says Dumont, "that long discussion, which lasted for weeks, as a period of deadly boredom, — vain disputes over words, a metaphysical jumble, and most tedious babble; the Assembly was turned into a Sorbonne lecture-room,"

and all this while chateaux were burning, while town-halls were being sacked, and courts dared no longer hold assize, while the distribution of wheat was stopped, and while society was in course of dissolution. In the same manner the theologians of the Easter Roman Empire kept up their wrangles about the uncreated light of Mount Tabor while Mahomet II was battering the walls of Constantinople with his cannon. - Ours, of course, are another sort of men, juvenile in feeling, sincere, enthusiastic, even generous, and further, more devoted, laborious, and in some cases endowed with rare talent. But neither zeal, nor labor, nor talent are of any use when not employed in the service of a sound idea; and if in the service of a false one, the greater they are the more mischief they do.

Towards the end of the year 1789, there can be not doubt of this; and the parties now formed reveal their presumption, improvidence, incapacity, and obstinacy. "This Assembly," writes the American ambassador,[28] "may be divided into three parties; —

one called the aristocrats, consists of the high clergy, the parliamentary judges, and such of the nobility as think they ought to form a separate order." This is the party which offers resistance to follies and errors, but with follies and errors almost equally great. In the beginning "the prelates,[29] instead of conciliating the curés, kept them at a humiliating distance, affecting distinctions, exacting respect," and, in their own chamber, "ranging themselves apart on separate benches." The nobles, on the other hand, the more to alienate the commons, began by charging these with, "revolt, treachery, and treason," and by demanding the use of military force against them. Now that the victorious Third-Estate has again overcome them and overwhelms them with numbers, they become still more maladroit, and conduct the defense much less efficiently than the attack. "In the Assembly," says one of them, "they do not listen, but laugh and talk aloud;" they take pains to embitter their adversaries and the galleries by their impertinence. "They leave the chamber when the President puts the question and invite the deputies of their party to follow them, or cry out to them not to take part in the deliberation : through this desertion, the clubbists become the majority, and decree whatever they please." It is in this way that the appointment of judges and bishops is withdrawn from the King and assigned to the people. Again, after the return from Varennes, when the Assembly finds out that the result of its labors is impracticable and wants to make it less democratic, the whole of the right side refuses to share in the debates, and, what is worse, votes with the revolutionaries to exclude the members of the Constituent from the Legislative Assembly. Thus, not only does it abandon its own cause, but it commits self-destruction, and its desertion ends in suicide. —

A second party remains, "the middle party,"[30] which consists of well-intentioned people from every class, sincere partisans of a good government; but, unfortunately, they have acquired their ideas of government from books, and are admirable on paper. But as it happens that the men who live in the world are very different from imaginary men who dwell in the heads of philosophers, it is not to be wondered at if the systems taken out of books are fit for nothing but to be upset by another book. Intellects of this stamp are the natural prey of utopians. Lacking the ballast of experience they are carried away by pure logic and serve to enlarge the flock of theorists. - The latter form the third party, which is called the "enragés (the wild men), and who, at the expiration of six months, find themselves "the most numerous of all."

"It is composed," says Morris, "of that class which in America is known by the name of pettifogging lawyers, together with a host of curates and many of those persons who in all revolutions throng to the standard of change because they are not well.[31] This last party is in close alliance with the populace and derives from this circumstance very great authority."

All powerful passions are on its side, not merely the irritation of the people tormented by misery and suspicion, not merely the ambition and self-esteem of the bourgeois, in revolt against the ancient régime, but also the inveterate bitterness and fixed ideas of so many suffering minds and so many factious intellects, Protestants, Jansenists, economists, philosophers, men who, like Fréteau, Rabout-Saint-Etienne, Volney, Sieyès, are hatching out a long arrears of resentments or hopes, and who only await the opportunity to impose their system with all the intolerance of dogmatism and of faith. To minds of this stamp the past is a dead letter; example is no authority; realities are of no account; they live in their own Utopia. Sieyès, the most important of them all, judges that "the whole English constitution is charlatanism, designed for imposing on the people;"[32] he regards the English "as children in the matter of a constitution," and thinks that he is capable of giving France a much better one. Dumont, who sees the first committees at the houses of Brissot and Clavières, goes away with as much anxiety as "disgust."

"It is impossible," he says, "to depict the confusion of ideas, the license of the imagination, the burlesque of popular notions. One would think that they saw before them the world on the day after the Creation."

They seem to think, indeed, that human society does not exist, and that they are appointed to create it. Just as well might ambassadors "of hostile tribes, and of diverse interests, set themselves to arrange their common lot as if nothing had previously existed." There is no hesitation. They are satisfied that the thing can be easily done, and that, with two or three axioms of political philosophy, the first man that comes may make himself master of it. Immoderate conceit of this kind among men of experience would seem ridiculous; in this assembly of novices it is a strength. A flock which has lost its way follows those who appears to forge ahead; they are the most irrational but they are the most confident, and in the Chamber as in the nation it is the daredevils who become leaders.


Related Resources

French Revolution

Download Options

Title: The French Revolution— Volume 1

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: The French Revolution— Volume 1

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Hippolyte Adolphe Taine, "II.," The French Revolution— Volume 1, ed. Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853 and trans. Ingram, J. H. (James Henry) in The French Revolution—Volume 1 (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1909), Original Sources, accessed March 25, 2019,

MLA: Taine, Hippolyte Adolphe. "II." The French Revolution— Volume 1, edited by Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853, and translated by Ingram, J. H. (James Henry), in The French Revolution—Volume 1, Vol. 36, New York, Doubleday, Page, 1909, Original Sources. 25 Mar. 2019.

Harvard: Taine, HA, 'II.' in The French Revolution— Volume 1, ed. and trans. . cited in 1909, The French Revolution—Volume 1, Doubleday, Page, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 25 March 2019, from