THE FRENCH REVOLUTION

By Charles S. Daveis

Never—since the period that Cæsar conquered Gaul, when the inhabitants enjoyed a barbarian license under their native chiefs and druids, had the voice of liberty been heard in France, till the 14th of July, 1789. Never before did such a note of exultation spread over the vine-covered hills,—and echo among the beautiful valleys, of that fair country. Never perhaps before was there such a burden lifted from the minds of men. In the unwonted consciousness of power, they seemed to tread a new earth. In the intoxication of triumph they burst from the bonds of morality and humanity. So very singular, and strange, indeed, was the position in which the people of France were placed by the revolution, that their vernacular language was found deficient in the appropriate phraseology of freedom; and they were obliged to resort to a foreign idiom, and to the customs of other climes, and the usages of other nations, and to ransack the regions of fancy and invention, for the vocabulary, as well as the drapery, of their new republic.

It is remarkable, that the revolution in France, beginning in fact, with the destruction of the Bastile, should end in the re-establishment of despotism. It was a revolution indeed not more remarkable for the original character of its cause, than its catastrophe; for the astonishing contrast it exhibits between the splendor of its talents and the atrocity of its crimes: for the reverence which it professed for antiquity, and the mischief it produced to posterity; for adopting the most enormous maxims, and enforcing them by the most audacious means; for the use which it made of its own freedom to enslave other nations to its law, for erecting the empire of Rome upon the democracy of Athens, for the adoption of a model of colossal grandeur, and establishing the most tremendous system of policy, that ever convulsed human kind:—a revolution, conspicuous also for the sudden appearance of a race of men springing up from the earth, as though it had been sown with dragons' teeth, and its monstrous fruits produced with hydras' heads and tigers' hearts;—resounding, together, with the tribune, and the guillotine;—not merely remarkable for tearing the priest from the altar, but for rasing the altar likewise to the ground; and distinguished for the successive destruction of some of the most ancient thrones and crowns in Europe;—for the ignominious death of the last in a royal line of seventy sovereigns, who, at any former period of the monarchy, would have been blessed as the father of his people, and canonized as the true descendant of St. Louis,—and the most affecting example on record of an anointed queen, not more famed for her charms than for her sorrows,—her errors more than atoned by her sufferings, perishing without a tear, in a land of ancient renown for chivalry, upon the scaffold! The revolution in France was a scene at which sensibility sinks. It seemed to extinguish the hopes of its friends in the blood of its martyrs; and it was hardly relieved by the virtues of its purest patriot, educated in the schools of America, banished from the air of France, and doomed to breathe the dungeons of despotism.

To what are we indebted again for our escape from that wild turmoil, which involved the elements of society and government in Europe with an overwhelming violence? Why was it, that while the storm, that shook the continent abroad, beat against our iron-bound shore, its fury was expended at our feet; and we heard it howl along our agitated coast and die away at a distance? Why did we enjoy a light, like the children of Israel, in our dwellings, while Egyptian darkness brooded around? Why, in this universal chaos, had we such reason to congratulate ourselves on the good providence of God, in ordaining us to be a world by ourselves?—It was certainly not, that we did not enter into the cause of liberty in France with enthusiasm; for our hearts were in it as warmly as they were in our own. Our sympathy was with it as long as it could be sustained; our regret pursued it in dishonor,—and our affection followed it into misfortune. We lamented to see, that all the results of that amazing movement of the human mind, contemplating the happiness of millions, and looking to the improvement of ages, should follow the fortune of foreign war; and that they should centre in a single individual, carried away into captivity, and doomed to end his days upon a solitary rock. We grieved to behold the beautiful and brilliant star of the French Revolution sink at last into mid-ocean, the mere meteor of military glory.—Feeling all the disappointment of its friends, we cannot but contrast it with the deep repose, which our own illustrious and honored patriots enjoy, in the land which gave them birth, beneath the mighty shadows of our happy political revolution.

Although, as Americans, we cease to cling to the cause of revolutionary liberty in France with the lingering fondness of early affection, we continue to follow its dying light, as though we could not believe it had entirely sunk in darkness and despair. If it be not possible to regard it uninfluenced by its unfortunate termination, if we can borrow nothing from its origin to relieve its mournful catastrophe, it behoves us still to embalm the wounds of liberty with its healing spirit, and it concerns us also, that all its sacrifices and services for the sake of man should not have perished with its victims. The vices of the ancient government rendered it unfit for the happiness of France, without essential alterations; and while we reflect with pain upon the results of the revolution, we must bear in mind that they were the excesses of men like ourselves, transported by hopes excited by our example, and exalted by a more ardent temper, untrained by the same favorable habits and beneficial institutions;—and although its transient violence may shock and repel our sympathy, it ought not to disgust us with its principles, or to alienate our attachment from its rational objects. Let us not fail to perceive, as we shall, if we are attentive to the facts, that what was good was in the cause; and what was evil was the effect of that long oppression by which it was corrupted. In this wonderful dispensation to mankind we may not perhaps pretend to scan the ways of providence; yet in common with the christian world we cannot fail to behold the dealing of a divine and overruling hand. Where the seed of liberty has been sown, and watered with the blood, as well as tears, of patriots, that seed is yet in the earth; and whether it spring up before our eyes or not, it may be the will of Him, to whom no eye is raised in vain, that nothing shall be lost!