Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
The Constituent Assembly and the Fourth of August
By Thomas Carlyle (17951881)
From French Revolution
ONE thing an elected Assembly of Twelve Hundred is fit for: Destroying. Which indeed is but a more decided exercise of its natural talent for doing nothing. Do nothing, only keep agitating, debating; and things will destroy themselves.
So and not otherwise proved it with an august National Assembly. It took the name Constituent, as if its mission and function had been to construct or build; which also, with its whole soul, it endeavoured to do: yet, in the fates, in the nature of things, there lay for it precisely of all functions the most opposite to that. Singular, what Gospels men will believe; even Gospels according to Jean Jacques! It was the fixed Faith of these National Deputies, as of all thinking Frenchmen, that the Constitution could be made; that they, there and then, were called to make it. How, with the toughness of old Hebrews or Ishmaelite Moslem, did the otherwise light unbelieving People persist in this their Credo quia impossibile; and front the armed world with it, and grow fanatic and even heroic, and do exploits by it! The Constituent Assemblys Constitution, and several others, will, being printed and not manuscript, survive to future generations, as an instructive well-nigh incredible document of the Time: the most significant Picture of the then existing France; or at lowest, Picture of these mens Picture of it.
But in truth and seriousness, what could the National Assembly have done? The thing to be done was, actually as they said, to regenerate France; to abolish the old France, and make a new one, quietly or forcibly, by concession or by violence: this by the Law of Nature has become inevitable. With what degree of violence, depends on the wisdom of those that preside over it. With perfect wisdom on the part of the National Assembly, it had all been otherwise; but whether, in any wise, it could have been pacific, nay other than bloody and convulsive, may still be a question.
Grant, meanwhile, that this Constituent Assembly does to the last continue to be something. With a sigh, it sees itself incessantly forced away from its infinite divine task of perfecting the Theory of Irregular Verbs,to finite terrestrial tasks, which latter have still a significance for us. It is the cynosure of revolutionary France, this National Assembly. All work of Government has fallen into its hands, or under its control; all men look to it for guidance. In the middle of that huge revolt of Twenty-five millions, it hovers always aloft as Carroccia or Battle Standard, impelling and impelled, in the most confused way: if it cannot give much guidance, it will seem to give some. It emits pacificatory Proclamations not a few; with more or with less result. It authorises the enrolment of National Guards,lest Brigands come to devour us, and reap the unripe crops. It missions to quell effervescences; to deliver men from the Lanterne. It can listen to congratulatory Addresses, which arrive daily by the sackful; mostly in King Cambyses vein: also to Petitions and complaints from all mortals; so that every mortals complaint, if it cannot get redressed, may at least hear itself complain. For the rest an august National Assembly can produce Parliamentary Eloquence; and appoint Committees. Committees of the Constitution, of Reports, of Researches; and of much else: which again yield mountains of Printed Paper; the theme of new Parliamentary Eloquence, in bursts or in plenteous smooth-flowing floods. And so, from the waste vortex whereon all things go whirling and grinding, Organic Laws or the similitude of such, slowly emerge.
With endless debating, we get the Rights of Man written down and promulgated: true paper basis of all paper Constitutions. Neglecting, cry the opponents, to declare the Duties of Man! Forgetting, answer we, to ascertain the Mights of Man;one of the fatalest omissions!Nay sometimes, as on the Fourth of August, our National Assembly, fired suddenly by an almost preternatural enthusiasm, will get through whole masses of work in one night. A memorable night, this Fourth of August: Dignitaries temporal and spiritual; Peers, Archbishops, Parlement-Presidents, each outdoing the other in patriotic devotedness, come successively to throw their now untenable possessions on the altar of the fatherland. With louder and louder vivats,for indeed it is after dinner too,they abolish Tithes, Seignorial Dues, Gabelle, excessive Preservation of Game; nay Privilege, Immunity, Feudalism root and branch; then appoint a Te Deum for it; and so, finally, disperse about three in the morning, striking the stars with their sublime heads. Such night, unforeseen but forever memorable, was this of the Fourth of August 1789. Miraculous, or semi-miraculous, some seem to think it. A new Night of Pentecost, shall we say, shaped according to the new Time, and new Church of Jean Jacques Rousseau? It had its causes; also its effects.