Letters of Horace Walpole

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Date: 1880

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CHAPTER XXI

The French Revolution in Horace Walpole’s Letters

1

103.

1789

2

July 9. The crisis in France is advanced far beyond orations, and wears all the aspect of civil war. For can one imagine that the whole nation is converted at once, and in some measure without provocation from the king, who, far from enforcing the prerogative like Charles I, canceled the despotism obtained for his grandfather by Chancellor Maupeou, has exercised no tyranny, and has shown a disposition to let the constitution be amended. It did want it indeed; but I fear the present want of temper grasps at so much, that they defeat their own purposes; and where loyalty has for ages been the predominant characteristic of a nation, it cannot be eradicated at once. Pity will soften the tone of the moment; and the nobility and clergy have more interest in wearing a royal than a popular yoke; for great lords and high-priests think the rights of mankind a defalcation of their privileges. No man living is more devoted to liberty than I am; yet blood is a terrible price to pay for it! A martyr to liberty is the noblest of characters; but to sacrifice the lives of others, though for the benefit of all, is a strain of heroism that I could never ambition.

July 15. I write a few lines only to confirm the truth of much of what you will read in the papers from Paris. Worse may already be come, or is expected every hour. . . . I may fancy I shall hear of the king and queen leaving Versailles, like Charles I, and then skips imagination six-and-forty years lower, and figures their fugitive Majesties taking refuge in this country. I have besides another idea. If the Bastile conquers, still is it impossible, considering the general spirit in the country, and the numerous fortified places in France, but some may be seized by the dissidents, and whole provinces be torn from the Crown? On the other hand, if the king prevails, what heavy despotism will the états1, by their want of temper and moderation, have drawn on their country! They might have obtained many capital points, and removed great oppression. No French monarch will ever summon états again, if this moment has been thrown away.

July 29. Of French news I can give you no fresher or more authentic account, than you can collect in general from the newspapers; but my present visitants and everybody else confirm the veracity of Paris being in that anarchy that speaks the populace domineering in the most cruel and savage manner, and which a servile multitude broken loose calls liberty; and which in all probability will end . . . in their being more abject slaves than ever; and chiefly by the crime of their états, who, had they acted with temper and prudence, might have obtained from their poor and undesigning king a good and permanent constitution. Who may prove their tyrant, if reviving loyalty does not in a new frenzy force him to be so, it is impossible to foresee; but much may happen first. The rage seems to gain the provinces, and threatens to exhibit the horrors of those times when the peasants massacred the gentlemen.

Aug. 23. In the midst of the horrors one reads from France I could but smile at one paragraph. An abbé de Sieyès excuses himself to the états from accepting the post of speaker, as he is busy in forming a Bill of Rights and a new Constitution. One would think he was writing a prologue to a new play!

Sept. 10. I congratulate you on the demolition of the Bastile; I mean as you do, of its functions. For the poor soul itself, I had no ill will to it: on the contrary, it was a curious sample of ancient castellar dungeons, which the good folks the founders took for palaces: yet I always hated to drive by it, knowing the miseries it contained. Of itself it did not gobble up prisoners to glut its maw, but received them by command. The destruction of it was silly, and agreeable to the ideas of a mob, who do not know stones and bars and bolts from a lettre de cachet. If the country remains free, the Bastile would be as tame as a ducking-stool, now that there is no such thing as a scold. If despotism recovers, the Bastile will rise from its ashes! — recover, I fear, it will. The états cannot remain a mob of kings, and will prefer a single one to a larger mob of kings and greater tyrants. The nobility, the clergy, and people of property will wait, till by address and money they can divide the people; or, whoever gets the larger or more victorious army into his hands, will be a Cromwell or a Monk.1 In short, a revolution procured by a national vertigo does not promise a crop of legislators. It is time that composes a good constitution: it formed ours.

Sept. 26. Is the whole kingdom of France to remain always in such blessed liberty, that every individual is to murder, plunder, and trample on every law? Or out of this lawless and savage scene is order, justice, and temper to arise? Nay, when some constitution is voted, will it take place? and if it does, how long will be its duration? Will a new Assembly of états, elected every two years, corroborate the ordinances of their predecessors? Will they not think themselves as wise, and prove as foolish? What an absurdity is it not to strip the king of all his power, and yet maintain that it is necessary by the laws that he should assent to every act of violence they pass against him? And compelled, will he think himself bound by that forced assent? . . .

I think they have lost a glorious moment for obtaining a considerable amendment of their constitution, and perhaps a lasting one, by their intemperance; and that they have either entailed endless civil wars on, perhaps, a division of their country, or will sink under worse despotism than what they have shaken off. To turn a whole nation loose from all restraint, and tell them that every man has a right to be his own king, is not a very sage way for preparing them to receive a new code, which must curtail that boundless prerogative of free will, and probably was not the first lesson given on the original institution of government. The present host of lawgivers must, I doubt, cut the throats of half their pupils, before they persuade the other half to go to school again to any regular system.

1 , edited by Peter Cunningham. 9 vols. London, 1880. Bickers and Son.

2 , vol. ix, pp. 189–191, 192–193, 200, 211, 219, 223–224.

1i.e., the Estates-General.

1 General Monk, who brought about the restoration of Charles II in 1660.

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Chicago: Peter Cunningham, ed., "1789," Letters of Horace Walpole in Readings in Modern European History, ed. Webster, Hutton (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1926), 217–219. Original Sources, accessed July 21, 2024, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=C8KJGN5TB4BXAXZ.

MLA: . "1789." Letters of Horace Walpole, edited by Peter Cunningham, Vol. ix, in Readings in Modern European History, edited by Webster, Hutton, Boston, D.C. Heath, 1926, pp. 217–219. Original Sources. 21 Jul. 2024. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=C8KJGN5TB4BXAXZ.

Harvard: (ed.), '1789' in Letters of Horace Walpole. cited in 1926, Readings in Modern European History, ed. , D.C. Heath, Boston, pp.217–219. Original Sources, retrieved 21 July 2024, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=C8KJGN5TB4BXAXZ.