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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Adolphe Thiers (1797–1877)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Adolphe Cohn (1851–1930)
 
THIERS (Louis Adolphe, usually mentioned simply as Adolphe Thiers),—born April 15th, 1797, died September 3d, 1877,—belongs to a class of writers which was comparatively large in France during the first half of the nineteenth century; who owed to literary success an entrance to political life, and distinguished themselves as public men no less than as men of letters. Of these no one reached such eminence as the little Marseilles laborer’s son, who at the age of seventy-four was elected the first President of the French Republic.  1
  The Thiers family, though one of the humblest of the large city of Marseilles, managed to give to its brightest child as good an education as was at the disposal of French children at the beginning of the century. Adolphe Thiers was given a government scholarship in the lycée or college of his native city; and after winning distinction in his classes, studied law in the neighboring city of Aix, which possessed one of the government law schools. There he met a young student one year his senior,—François Mignet; with whom, owing partly to the many tastes they had in common, he formed a friendship which was dissolved only by death more than sixty years later. Neither of these two law students cared much for the law, both of them longed for a literary career; and both of them therefore soon moved to Paris, the center of the intellectual life of the nation. Thiers made his mark with incredible rapidity, and before long was a regular member of the staff of one of the most important liberal papers, the Constitutionnel; he even became a part owner of the paper, through the liberality of the German publisher, Cotta. There he wrote on all sorts of subjects, his best articles being on the annual exhibition of paintings known as the Salon.  2
  A proposal that came from a sort of literary hack, Félix Bodin, made him determine to write a history of the French Revolution; the first two volumes of which, bearing Bodin’s name by the side of Thiers’s, appeared in 1823. This was the beginning of the first exhaustive history of the French Revolution written by one who had not been an eye-witness of the event; and it presented therefore greater guarantees of impartiality than anything before published on the same subject. The young writer moreover possessed to a very high degree the gift of telling an interesting story, and of presenting in a clear and simple way that which seemed at first obscure and complicated. He could also work fast, so as not to allow the reader to lose his interest in the narrative. The last of the ten volumes of Thiers’s ‘History of the French Revolution’ appeared in 1827, hardly four years after the first volumes had been issued.  3
  The success of the work at once placed its author in the front rank of historical writers, at a time when France was extraordinarily rich in literary talent, and when the desire to know as accurately as possible the events of the revolutionary period was general in Europe. Thiers, who was destined to be a great parliamentarian, had also a special gift for financial explanation and military narrative; so that he possessed almost every one of the requisites for composing the history of a crisis which was financial in its causes and military in its development, no less than social and political in its nature.  4
  It is to be noted as a curious coincidence that while Thiers was publishing this exhaustive work on the Revolution, his friend Mignet was writing another and shorter narrative of the same period. These two works were the first that manifested a reaction against the anti-revolutionary sentiments which had been dominant in France, at least in appearance, since the restoration of the Bourbons. Liberal opinion was gathering strength and boldness. The accession to the throne of Charles X., the last of the surviving brothers of Louis XVI., made every one feel that a great effort would be made by the court to place the ultra-royalist and Catholic party in full control of affairs. Thiers’s ‘History of the French Revolution’ called attention to the means by which in the past the people had triumphed over an anti-patriotic cabal, and powerfully served the Liberal party in its preparations for what may be termed aggressive resistance.  5
  On January 1st, 1830, when the fight was at its hottest, Thiers for the first time assumed a prominent rank among the combatants. In connection with his friends François Mignet and Armand Carrel he established a daily political paper, Le National, which was at once recognized as the boldest of the opposition newspapers. The leader in which the policy of the paper was explained stated that, determined to possess political liberty, France was willing to find a model for her institutions across the Channel; but that should she fail in the attempt, she would not hesitate to look for another model across the Atlantic. The article had been written by Adolphe Thiers, who was destined to be before long a minister of a constitutional sovereign, and more than forty years later the President of a democratic republic.  6
  In the months that followed, many of the most striking political articles of the National were printed over the initials A. T.; and when on July 25th, 1830, Charles X. determined, by his famous Ordonnances, to challenge the Chamber of Deputies and the Liberal press to a mortal combat, it was Adolphe Thiers that wrote the strong-worded protest by which the Parisian journalists proclaimed their refusal to obey the illegal dictates of the infatuated monarch.  7
  The success of the revolution of 1830 made Thiers one of the most influential men in the kingdom. His literary productions at that time comprised, in addition to his ‘History of the French Revolution’ and to his articles in the Constitutionnel and in the National, a volume on ‘Law and his System of Finance’ (1826), reprinted in 1858 under a new title, ‘History of Law’; and an ‘Essay on Vauvenargues,’ quite an early production, written by him while still in Aix, and rewarded by a prize of the Aix Academy of Letters and Sciences under rather curious circumstances. That Academy had offered a Eulogy of Vauvenargues as a subject for a competitive essay. Young Thiers, in his eagerness to secure the prize, sent in two essays composed on two different plans,—so that the judges could not, until the name of the author was disclosed, imagine that they came from only one source; and he secured both first and second prize, over all his competitors.  8
  For nearly fifteen years after the accession of Louis Philippe there was an interruption in his labors as a man of letters. He then played an important political part, being several times a cabinet minister and twice prime minister; the last time from March to November 1840, when he strongly supported against all Europe the celebrated ruler of Egypt, Mehemet-Ali. His rival at that time was another celebrated man of letters,—the historian Guizot, who succeeded him as prime minister. Both were considered the most brilliant political orators France possessed at that time, with Berryer and Lamartine. In 1834 Thiers was elected a member of the French Academy. His speech on being received in that illustrious body is one of his most successful efforts.  9
  The opinions he represented in Parliament during the reign of Louis Philippe were those of a moderate Liberal, and especially of one who placed the authority of Parliament far above the King. That much he set forth in the famous formula: “The King reigns and does not govern.” Soon after his retirement from power, in 1840, he realized that both King and Parliament were, and were likely to remain for a long time, hostile to his ideas, and that his chances of regaining power were very slight indeed. He therefore again turned to literature, to historical writing. In his ‘History of the French Revolution’ he had conducted his narrative to the Eighteenth Brumaire of the eighth year of the French Republic (November 9th, 1799),—the date of the military revolution by which General Napoleon Bonaparte was made supreme in the State. He determined now to write the history of Napoleon himself from his accession to power to his death. The times were ripe for such an undertaking: the admiration for Napoleon was one of the strongest feelings of the generation to which Thiers belonged. When last prime minister, he had prevailed upon England to give up the remains of the great captain, and to allow them to be transported to France. Paris had known in the succeeding quarter of a century no such enthusiasm as was manifested on December 15th, 1840; when, in the midst of the most impressive military pomp, Napoleon’s coffin was laid at rest in the crypt of the Hôtel des Invalides. Thiers devoted no less than twenty years of his life to the composition of his ‘History of the Consulate and the Empire’; the first five volumes of which were published in 1845, and the twentieth and last in 1862.  10
  During that period France passed through strange vicissitudes. The throne of Louis Philippe was in February 1848 swept away by a revolution, which the King at the last moment vainly tried to stave off by calling Thiers to power. A republic was established, which soon intrusted its destiny to a nephew of Napoleon. Thiers, after supporting the candidacy of Louis Napoleon to the presidency of the republic, soon discovered his mistake, and became a determined opponent of the “Prince-President”; and so, when Louis Napoleon broke his oath of office and destroyed the republic, Thiers was not surprised at being informed that he was banished from France. He was, however, soon allowed to return and to peacefully complete his great historical undertaking. In the mean time he had written a short but important work on ‘Property,’ destined to check the growth of socialistic feeling.  11
  The ‘History of Napoleon’ is Thiers’s greatest claim to distinction as a literary man. It possesses in a high degree the merits of clearness and order; it never fails to be interesting. It may be lacking in moral power: Napoleon is too uniformly praised and admired, his opponents are too uniformly found fault with. But the author’s enthusiasm for his hero is felt to be genuine; and Thiers, moreover, does not seem to speak simply in his own name, but in the name of the millions for whom Napoleon was the image of everything that was great and striking. Whether this fulsome approval of Napoleon’s doings very well agreed with the liberal doctrines he defended in the political arena, does not seem to have troubled Thiers very much; and as soon as he had completed his history he re-entered public life, and almost suddenly passed from praising the uncle to bitterly assailing the nephew.  12
  In 1863 Thiers offered himself as an opposition candidate to the voters of one of the Paris constituencies; and after being elected a member of the Chamber of Deputies, opened against the imperial government a campaign of opposition, which became every day more intense until his predictions were verified, and the imperial throne lay shattered on the battle-field.  13
  Thiers’s political speeches between 1863 and 1870 developed with a marvelous variety of arguments the theme that the government of Napoleon III. betrayed the French people, both in denying them political liberty and in allowing French influence to become every day smaller in foreign affairs. Especially did he criticize the expedition by which the French government tried to establish an empire in Mexico, and the policy of Napoleon III. in allowing Prussia to grow at the expense of Austria. His denunciation of that policy in 1866 was nothing short of prophetic.  14
  He was of course re-elected to the Chamber in 1869; and a year later, the policy which he opposed culminated in the foolhardy declaration of war against Prussia and the disasters that followed. This, declaration of war Thiers did his utmost to prevent; he addressed the house in an impassioned speech, which the supporters of the government constantly cut with insulting interruptions, without however succeeding in stifling his voice.  15
  Thiers was now seventy-three years old, and new paths of usefulness opened before him in which he was to win more renown than he had in all his past career. On September 4th, 1870, after the reception of the news of the surrender of the imperial army at Sedan, the imperial government collapsed at Paris; a republic was proclaimed; and a new government was formed, consisting of the representatives of the various Parisian constituencies in the Chamber of Deputies. Thiers however declined to be a member of that government; but at its request undertook to visit all the capitals of Europe, and try to get some help for invaded France.  16
  He failed in his mission,—in which, indeed, failure was simply unavoidable; and when a few months later France had to sue for peace, and to elect a National Assembly which alone had the power of accepting or rejecting the terms of the victorious Germans, the country only remembered Thiers’s heroic opposition to the declaration of the war, and manifested its confidence in him by an election to the Assembly from no less than twenty-six constituencies.  17
  It was a foregone conclusion that he would be called upon by the Assembly to form a new government. On February 17th, at Bordeaux,—where the Assembly met because it was one of the spots still unoccupied by the German armies,—he was elected chief of the executive power of the French Republic, and President of the Council of Ministers; a title which was a few months later changed to President of the French Republic. His first duty was the saddest that could befall such a patriotic Frenchman as he was: he had to meet Prince Bismarck, and hear from him the terms upon which Germany was willing to grant peace to France. This duty he fulfilled with dignity, courage, and skill; and he was fortunate enough to save for France the Alsatian fortress of Belfort, without the possession of which the French frontier would have remained entirely open to any later German invasion.  18
  None the less hard was it for him to convince the Assembly that, hard as they were, the terms imposed by Germany had to be accepted, so that patriotic citizens might afterwards address themselves to the task of reorganizing the impoverished country.  19
  The task he then had to face was nothing short of appalling. Administration, army, finances—everything was in a state of complete collapse; and yet the country had to pay to Germany the unheard-of war indemnity of one thousand million dollars, before the territory of France was to be free from the presence of German armies! In addition to that, political passions were at fever heat. A majority of the members elected to the National Assembly were men of royalist proclivities, who wished to have the republic abolished, and either the Bourbon or the Orleans pretender called to the throne. On the other hand, Paris and all the large cities were enthusiastically republican, and made no secret of their determination to resist by force any attempt to re-establish a monarch in France.  20
  To reconcile these conflicting claims, to the extent of having the settlement of purely political questions postponed to a time when the country had been enabled to resume the normal tenor of its life, was the task to which Thiers then devoted himself, and in the performance of which he could make use of hardly any weapon save his oratorical power. Being a member of the Assembly, he was allowed to address it; and those of his speeches which belong to that period of his life are among the most remarkable that have been delivered before any parliament.  21
  His success was not always complete. For instance, he wished the Assembly to leave Bordeaux and come to Paris, as soon as the German forces had left the Paris forts. All he could achieve was to determine the Assembly, which disliked the intense republicanism of the capital, to move to Versailles. This slight, which the Parisians felt to be undeserved after the heroic resistance they had opposed to the Germans in a five-months’ siege, was one of the causes of the terrible insurrection which broke out on March 18th, 1871.  22
  It was while engaged in the sad task of repressing that insurrection that President Thiers, for the first time, openly stated his determination to keep away from any plans having for their object the destruction of the republic. Almost up to that time he had been known to be an advocate of constitutional monarchy. But the strength of republican sentiment in France, and the hopeless divisions of the royalists and imperialists, now convinced him that a restoration of monarchy in France would be, as he soon after stated, “the worst of revolutions.”  23
  No wonder that the friends of the pretenders, who controlled a majority of the Assembly, at once determined to treat him as an enemy, and that therefore the career of his government was not an easy one. Every day assailed by his critics, M. Theirs was constantly compelled to take part himself in the debates of the Assembly, where his personal ascendency often enabled him to secure a majority against all apparent odds. The task, moreover, that had to be performed by the government, was one which hardly made it possible to M. Thiers’s opponents to dispense with his services, even after the defeat of the Paris insurrection had re-established everywhere the sovereignty of the National Government. The German troops still occupied a considerable part of the French territory; the enormous war indemnity due to Germany had not been paid; the army had not been organized; and finally, France needed to be trusted by the other nations, and possessed then no other statesman who commanded the respect of all the European governments in anything like the same degree as M. Thiers. In addition thereto the country, which had elected a good many royalists in February 1871 simply because they more energetically than others pronounced in favor of a cessation of the war, now every day showed by its votes in by-elections, which were numerous, its growing affection for republican institutions, and made the anti-republican members of the Assembly somewhat timid in furthering plans clearly condemned by a majority of the electorate. They therefore directed their efforts to a somewhat different object. M. Thiers’s main weapon was his persuasive oratory; and the speeches that he delivered during that period of his political life are among his most interesting productions, even from a purely literary standpoint. They are wonders of simplicity, of clearness, at times of good-naturedness; but also, when needed, of dogged tenacity. If the deliberations of the Assembly could be so conducted that M. Thiers should be kept out of them, his opponents would have gained a great point. And this they achieved in a great measure. They managed to have a law framed which decided that, as M. Thiers was not simply a member of the Assembly but also President of the Republic, he would be allowed to address the Assembly only in special sessions, held solely for that purpose, at his own request.  24
  Finally the work which M. Thiers had assigned to himself was done. The enormous war indemnity was paid, thanks to the wonderful success of two five per cent. loans issued by the government. A convention was signed with Germany by virtue of which the French territory was to be freed of German troops some time in 1873, considerably before the moment at which this consummation had originally been expected. The law reorganizing the army was passed in 1872. What remained to be done now was to give France a constitution; and President Thiers, in a special message, boldly asked that that constitution should be republican.  25
  This was too much for the anti-republicans of the Assembly. They determined that M. Thiers must be compelled to resign his office. On May 24th, 1873, a memorable session took place, in which the President most impressively explained the reasons that had led him to consider it impossible and undesirable to re-establish a monarchy in France. He had never been so eloquent, so persuasive, so energetic. All was of no avail. Everything had been settled in advance. An adverse vote was carried by a majority of fourteen in a house of more than seven hundred; and in the evening he resigned his office, and Marshal MacMahon was elected by his opponents as his successor.  26
  The last four years of his life Thiers spent in comparative retirement. He remained in public life in so far as he was all the time a member of the representative assemblies; but he very seldom took part in discussions. His advice, however, was constantly sought by the leaders of the republican party, with whom he came to be almost exclusively surrounded. Once he seemed almost on the eve of returning to power. On May 16th, 1877, President MacMahon had, by means that were constitutionally questionable, got rid of a republican cabinet which possessed an undoubted majority in Parliament. The royalists were still smarting under the bitterness of their disappointment in being unable to destroy the republic, even after the resignation of President Thiers; and they were determined to give another and desperate battle to their opponents. A monarchical ministry was formed; office-holders of monarchical tendencies were everywhere substituted for the republican incumbents; and a general election was called, in which it was hoped by the royalists that an unscrupulous use of the governmental machinery might compel the country to return to the house an anti-republican majority. The republicans were led in the fight by Thiers, Gambetta, and Grévy; and their plan was, after winning at the polls a victory which seemed to them absolutely certain to come, to compel Marshal MacMahon to resign the Presidency, and to reinstate M. Thiers in that office. The success of the plan was prevented by the death of Thiers himself, who was then in his eighty-first year. It occurred in Saint-Germain, near Paris, on September 3d, 1877.  27
  The great statesman’s funeral was an imposing popular and republican demonstration. He helped the cause he had come to love so much, in death as he had done in life. Among his papers was found an important document, the last thing of any public interest that was written by him. It was a kind of political testament, the publication of which was intrusted to three of his best and oldest friends: Mignet, who although slightly his senior survived him a few years, Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire, and Jules Simon. In it the illustrious ex-President gave to the French people the advice which seemed to him most timely in the crisis through which the country was then passing; and he thus very substantially contributed to the final victory of the republic in France.  28
  All the political life here sketched is reflected in the remarkable collection of his speeches which has been published since his death, and the editor of which was one of his stanchest political and private friends, M. Calmon. To this collection must be added two very interesting volumes of memoirs covering his political activity from the breaking out of the war of 1870–71 to his resignation of the Presidency of the French Republic (May 24th, 1873).  29
  The type of men to whom Thiers belonged seems to be passing away. Literature and politics seem to get more widely apart from each other than before. No more Guizots and Thierses in France, no more Broughams and Macaulays in England, no more Daniel Websters in the United States: the more reason for paying close attention to the best specimens of a class of public men who thought that he understood his country best who understood its language best.  30
 
 
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