A Few Observations on the French Revolution

John Stuart Mill

From a review of the first two volumes of Alison's History of Europe, published in the Monthly Repository, August, 1833

History is interesting under a two-fold aspect; it has a scientific interest, and a moral or biographic interest. A scientific, inasmuch as it exhibits the general laws of the moral universe acting in circumstances of complexity, and enables us to trace the connexion between great effects and their causes. A moral or biographic interest, inasmuch as it displays the characters and lives of human beings, and calls upon us, according to their deservings or to their fortunes, for sympathy, admiration, or censure.

Without entering at present, more than to the extent of a few words, into the scientific aspect of the history of the French Revolution, or stopping to define the place which we would assign to it as an event in universal history, we need not fear to declare utterly unqualified for estimating the French Revolution, any one who looks upon it as arising from causes peculiarly French, or otherwise than as one turbulent passage in a progressive transformation embracing the whole human race. All political revolutions, not effected by foreign conquest, originate in moral revolutions. The subversion of established institutions is merely one consequence of the previous subversion of established opinions. The political revolutions of the last three centuries were but a few outward manifestations of a moral revolution, which dates from the great breaking loose of the human faculties commonly described as the `revival of letters', and of which the main instrument and agent was the invention of printing. How much of the course of that moral revolution yet remains to be run, or how many political revolutions it will yet generate before it be exhausted, no one can foretell. But it must be the shallowest view of the French Revolution, which can now consider it as anything but a mere incident in a great change in man himself---in his beliefs, in his principles of conduct, and therefore in the outward arrangements of society; a change so far from being completed, that it is not yet clear, even to the more advanced spirits, to what ultimate goal it is tending.

Now if this view be just (which we must be content for the present to assume), surely for an English historian, writing at this particular time concerning the French Revolution, there was something pressing for consideration, of greater interest and importance than the degree of praise or blame due to the few individuals who, with more or less consciousness of what they were about, happened to be personally implicated in that strife of the elements.

But also, if, feeling his incapacity for treating history from the scientific point of view, an author thinks fit to confine himself to the moral aspect; surely some less commonplace moral result, some more valuable and more striking practical lesson, might admit of being drawn from this extraordinary passage of history, than merely this, that men should beware how they begin a political convulsion, because they never can tell how or when it will end; which happens to be the one solitary general inference, the entire aggregate of the practical wisdom, deduced therefrom in Mr. Alison's book.

Of such stuff are ordinary people's moralities composed. Be good, be wise, always do right, take heed what you do, for you know not what may come of it. Does Mr. Alison, or any one, really believe that any human thing, from the fall of man to the last bankruptcy, ever went wrong for want of such maxims as these?

A political convulsion is a fearful thing: granted. Nobody can be assured beforehand what course it will take: we grant that too. What then? No one ought ever to do anything which has any tendency to bring on a convulsion: is that the principle? But there never was an attempt made to reform any abuse in Church or State, never any denunciation uttered or mention made of any political or social evil, which had not some such tendency. Whatever excites dissatisfaction with any one of the arrangements of society, brings the danger of a forcible subversion of the entire fabric so much the nearer. Does it follow that there ought to be no censure of anything which exists? Or is this abstinence, peradventure, to be observed only when the danger is considerable? But that is whenever the evil complained of is considerable; because the greater the evil, the stronger is the desire excited to be freed from it, and because the greatest evils are always those which it is most difficult to get rid of by ordinary means. It would follow, then, that mankind are at liberty to throw off small evils, but not great ones; that the most deeply-seated and fatal diseases of the social system are those which ought to be left for ever without remedy.

Men are not to make it the sole object of their political lives to avoid a revolution, no more than of their natural lives to avoid death. They are to take reasonable care to avert both those contingencies when there is a present danger, but not to forbear the pursuit of any worthy object for fear of a mere possibility.

Unquestionably it is possible to do mischief by striving for a larger measure of political reform than the national mind is ripe for; and so forcing on prematurely a struggle between elements, which, by a more gradual progress, might have been brought to harmonize. And every honest and considerate person, before he engages in the career of a political reformer, will inquire whether the moral state and intellectual culture of the people are such as to render any great improvement in the management of public affairs possible. But he will inquire too, whether the people are likely ever to be made better, morally or intellectually, without a previous change in the government. If not, it may still be his duty to strive for such a change at whatever risk.

What decision a perfectly wise man, at the opening of the French Revolution, would have come to upon these several points, he who knows most will be most slow to pronounce. By the Revolution, substantial good has been effected of immense value, at the cost of immediate evil of the most tremendous kind. But it is impossible, with all the light which has been, or probably ever will be, obtained on the subject, to do more than conjecture whether France could have purchased improvement cheaper; whether any course which could have averted the Revolution, would not have done so by arresting all improvement, and barbarizing down the people of France into the condition of Russian boors.

A revolution, which is so ugly a thing, certainly cannot be a very formidable thing, if all is true that Conservative writers say of it. For, according to them, it has always depended upon the will of some small number of persons, whether there should be a revolution or not. They invariably begin by assuming that great and decisive immediate improvements, with a certainty of subsequent and rapid progress, and the ultimate attainment of all practicable good, may be had by peaceable means at the option of the leading reformers, and that to this they voluntarily prefer civil war and massacre, for the sake of marching somewhat more directly and rapidly towards their ultimate ends. Having thus made out a revolution to be so mere a bagatelle, that, except by the extreme of knavery or folly, it may always be kept at a distance; there is little difficulty in proving all revolutionary leaders knaves or fools. But unhappily theirs is no such enviable position; a far other alternative is commonly offered to them. We will hazard the assertion, that there has scarcely ever yet happened a political convulsion, originating in the desire of reform, where the choice did not, in the full persuasion of every person concerned, lie between all and nothing; where the actors in the revolution had not thoroughly made up their minds, that, without a revolution, the enemies of all reform would have the entire ascendancy, and that not only there would be no present improvement, but the door would for the future be shut against every endeavour towards it.

Unquestionably, such was the conviction of those who took part in the French Revolution, during its earlier stages. They did not choose the way of blood and violence in preference to the way of peace and discussion. Theirs was the cause of law and order. The States General at Versailles were a body, legally assembled, legally and constitutionally sovereign of the country, and had every right which law and opinion could bestow upon them, to do all that they did. But as soon as they did anything disagreeable to the king's courtiers (at that time they had not even begun to make any alterations in the fundamental institutions of the country), the king and his advisers took steps for appealing to the bayonet. Then, and not till then, the adverse force of an armed people stood forth in defence of the highest constituted authority---the Legislature of their country---menaced with illegal violence. The Bastille fell; the popular party became the stronger; and success, which so often is said to be a justification, has here proved the reverse: men who would have been ranked with Hampden and Sidney if they had quietly waited to have their throats cut, passed for odious monsters because they had been victorious.

We have not now time nor space to discuss the quantum of the guilt which attaches, not to the authors of the Revolution, but to the various subsequent revolutionary governments, for the crimes of the Revolution. Much was done which could not have been done except by bad men. But whoever examines faithfully and diligently the records of those times---whoever can conceive the circumstances and look into the minds even of the men who planned and perpetrated those enormities, will be the more fully convinced, the more he considers the facts, that all which was done had one sole object. That object was, according to the phraseology of the time, to save the Revolution; to save it, no matter by what means; to defend it against its irreconcilable enemies, within and without; to prevent the undoing of the whole work, the restoration of all that had been demolished, and the extermination of all who had been active in demolishing; to keep down the royalists, and drive back the foreign invaders; as the means to these ends, to erect all France into a camp, subject the whole French people to the obligations and the arbitrary discipline of a besieged city, and to inflict death, or suffer it, with equal readiness---death or any other evil---for the sake of succeeding in the object.

But nothing of all this is dreamed of in Mr. Alison's philosophy: he knows not enough, either of his professed subject, or of the universal subject, the nature of man, to have got even thus far, to have made this first step towards understanding what the French Revolution was. In this he is without excuse, for had he been even moderately read in the French literature subsequent to the Revolution, he would have found this view of the details of its history familiar to every writer and to every reader.

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