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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Mirabeau (1749–1791)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Francis Newton Thorpe (1857–1926)
 
THAT unparalleled social upheaval and reorganization called the French Revolution was as productive of literature as of violence and change. To us it seems only literature, and its actors only characters in comedy or tragedy. They believed that they were thinking and doing for mankind, and their eloquence of speech and action moved the world. Revolutionists who take charge of such an upheaval inspire literature. Rarely do they themselves produce it. There are exceptions. Such was Gabriel-Honoré de Riquetti, Count of Mirabeau, born on the 9th of March, 1749, at Bignon. The record of his life is stranger and more fascinating than fiction. Its episodes have been the quarry of novelists and playwrights; its various fortunes, its immoral depths, its political heights, have furnished figures of speech for modern literature. Judged by the standards of any other time than his own, Mirabeau is a monster. Judged by the standard of the half-century he filled, he was the savior of the French, the father of a people. From his birth to his death his career was an open letter. He had no privacy. All is preserved,—sorrow, ambition, sin, power, eloquence, action, letters, pamphlets, octavos, and the climax,—revolution. The world would scarcely produce such a being now. His was the course of nature. It was possible in 1749, in France.  1
  Never was there child more ugly in face and feature; nor more passionate and uncontrollable. Nature seemed to have played a prank on the world in producing him. He defied law, morals, authority; and because of defiance, was sent by his father to the dungeons of Castles If, and Joux, and Vincennes, in hopes of his death by sickness, or starvation, or despair, or suicide. Yet from each he managed to get release, and ever through grosser immoralities, as would now be said; through intrigue, and friendships, and the collusion of officials, as was said then. “Escape; flight into Switzerland, to Holland, to England, and desperate poverty ever at his elbow. He must write or starve. Whence there issued pamphlets, as on the Order of Cincinnatus; on the Bank of Spain, called of St. Charles; on the Bank of Discount; on the Water Company of Paris, and many more.” The pamphlets on French finance attacked the rotten system of the ministry and compelled a reform—and the author’s further flight from arrest.  2
  At thirty-one he was done with prison life; at thirty-seven he went to Berlin with hope of making a living there by his writings. He invaded the acquaintance of the Great Frederick, who broke his rule against foreigners and met him, and recognized the man of power at once. But the dying King had other questions on hand than those Mirabeau might raise. To his successor, Frederick William II., Mirabeau sent a pamphlet of some eighty-four octavo pages, being advice how to govern.  3
  Meanwhile French finances were becoming more hopeless. Mirabeau attacked the system which had been followed by Necker and by his successor Calonne, in a fierce pamphlet called ‘A Denunciation of Stock-Jobbing to the King and the Assembly of Notables.’ A decree in council suppressed the pamphlet, and Mirabeau fled from Paris. He knew that he had caused the banishment of two of the most disreputable speculators in the credit of the government.  4
  During his imprisonment at If and Joux he had restlessly written an essay on ‘Despotism,’ and a pamphlet on ‘Lettres-de-Cachet,’ whose publication had been quickly suppressed. But the time was ready for them, and they were widely circulated and read. Mirabeau was thinking aloud, as the French people were thinking in silence and fiercely.  5
  It was now 1787, and the meeting of the States-General probable. De Brienne, the prime minister, was resolved not to summon them. He was an embodiment of the ancien régime which was fast coming to a close. Mirabeau returned to Paris, restless, discerning keenly and accurately the condition of affairs; ambitious to direct them. From this time his letters are the record of revolutionary directions. His insight made his opinions prophetic. But though the fruit was ripe, it still hung on the tree of monarchy. A zephyr would bring it to the ground. Mirabeau at this time published his most important work, on the Prussian monarchy under Frederick the Great, with an inquiry into the condition of the principal countries of Germany. It was in eight octavo volumes, and reads like an extemporaneous speech—but, a speech by Mirabeau. The world has accepted his portrait of Frederick.  6
  The States-General, so ran the ministerial decree, shall meet on the 1st of May, 1789. This was opportunity. Mirabeau sought a constituency and an election. He found them in Aix. “War with the privileged and with privileges.”—“I myself shall be personally very monarchic.” This was his platform. His campaign was a succession of speeches and pamphlets. The people of Aix made him their idol because he was their hope. His election decided the fate of France. It was now 1789, the year of the Notables. The 4th of May, and all Paris was out to behold this procession from Notre Dame. All eyes were looking for Mirabeau. His ideas were well known; his career had been most scandalous in an age of scandals. The strong man, with the immense head and the lion’s mane,—that was he. But there were others in the line. France did not yet know Mirabeau. The King’s address is over; the discussions begin. Everybody is full of speech. What name shall the Assembly take? Mirabeau proposed “The Representatives of the People of France,” and delivered the first oration that ever was heard by that people. He spoke a second time, but in vain. The Members assumed the title of “National Assembly.” This was the beginning of the Reign of Terror. The National Assembly was composed of a few men of landed estate; a few eminent lawyers; but chiefly of adventurers without fortune. “I should not be surprised,” remarked Mirabeau, “if civil war were the result of their beautiful decree.”  7
  Meanwhile the King had been tampered with. On the 23d he came into the Assembly in royal pomp. “I command you, gentlemen, to disperse immediately, and to repair to-morrow morning to your respective chambers, there to resume your sitting”—and the King withdrew. Some of the clergy had joined the Assembly. There was strong inclination to obey the royal command. Mirabeau was quickly on his feet. “I call upon you, gentlemen, to assert your dignity and legislative power, and to remember your oath [at the Tennis Court] which will not permit you to disperse till you have established the constitution.” While he was sitting down, amidst applause, the Marquis de Brézé, grand master of ceremonies, entered, and turning to the President, Bailli, said, “You have heard the King’s orders.”  8
  “Yes, sir,” flashed out Mirabeau: “we have heard the intentions that have been suggested to the King; and you, sir, who cannot be his organ with the National Assembly,—you, who have here neither place, nor voice, nor right of speech,—you are not the person to remind us thereof. Go, and tell those who sent you that we are here by the will of the people, and that we will only be driven hence by the power of the bayonet.”  9
  That reply overthrew absolute monarchy in France, and began the era of constitutional liberty. From the moment of that utterance, Mirabeau became a political party in France; and he stood alone. Then followed in quick succession his orations, unparalleled in French annals, rarely equaled and still more seldom surpassed in those of any other country.  10
  Oratory is a form of genius; but it makes great demands of those who follow it when the man and the occasion are past. Great indeed is he whose reputation, based on eloquence, survives the ravages of time. To Demosthenic eloquence, Mirabeau gave the full force of a masterful genius for practical politics. Because he was a practical statesman he stood alone, and was an enigma to his colleagues and to the people whom he loved and served. His reputation does not rest merely on a series of dazzling utterances, but on the sound ideas he scattered so lavishly before the Assembly. He foresaw the death of the King and Queen; the overthrow of monarchy and the Reign of Terror. He knew the centuries of wrongs that must be righted to save France from utter disintegration. Yet no word of vengeance or anarchy dropped from him. He would save the monarchy, and make it the center of a constitutional system. Therefore his orations dealt wholly with practical matters: civil organization; the veto power; finance; trade; slavery; the landed estates; taxation; the balance of powers under a constitution. He was neither of the Right nor of the Left, but of the whole estate of the people. His speech on the inviolability of letters ranks with Milton’s defense of unlicensed printing. From his first conception of a constitutional monarchy, as announced by him in his appeal to the electors of Aix, he never departed. Like Montesquieu, he had learned from the British constitution, but his efforts to secure a like balance of functions for France were unsuccessful. The Radicals demanded a general proscription; Paris was with the Radicals, and Paris was France.  11
  In the midst of his career, while yet in his second youth, he was suddenly cut off, the victim of his uncontrollable passions. The revolution was completing its twenty-third month. Mirabeau was dead. Unparalleled honors were paid to his memory. The Assembly voted him a public funeral. St. Généviève should be devoted to the reception of his ashes, and the birthday of French liberty should be his monument. Paris was in mourning. All parties followed the illustrious dead to the Pantheon. Swiftly the shadow of grief passed over France, and departments and cities held funeral services in his memory. The poets and pamphleteers issued their formal lamentations; the theatres brought out Mirabeau in life and Mirabeau in death.  12
  He had struggled to save the monarchy, and to construct a national government based on constitutional liberty.  13
  After the King’s death the royal papers were found in the iron chest; and among them several that disclosed Mirabeau’s plans. He had been dead two years. His honors were re-examined, his memory put under arrest, his bust destroyed; and from the Assembly there went forth a decree that the body of Honoré Gabriel Riquetti Mirabeau should be withdrawn from the French Pantheon, and that the body of Marat should be put in its place. Soon after, rude hands flung his remains into the burying-place for criminals, in the Faubourg of St. Marcel. To this day no sign marks his grave.  14
 
 
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