The Worlds Famous Orations. Continental Europe (3801906). 1906.
On the Situation in France
Pierre Victurnien Vergniaud (175393)
Born in 1753, died in 1793; elected to the Assembly in 1791, and became its President and Leader of the Girondists; elected to the Convention, he was opposed by Robespierre, arrested, tried and condemned to the guillotine.
WHAT,1 then, is the strange position in which the National Assembly finds itself? What fatality pursues us and signalizes each day with great events, carrying disorder into our works and giving us over to the tumultuous agitation of apprehensions, hopes, and passions? What fates prepare for France this terrible ebullition, in the midst of which, did we understand less well the imperishable love of the people for liberty, we should be tempted to doubt whether the Revolution is retrograding, or whether it will ran its proper course?
At the moment when your armies of the north seemed to be making progress in Brabant and flattered our courage with auguries of victory, suddenly they were forced to fall back before the enemy; they abandon advantageous positions which they have conquered; they are led back to our own territory, whence the theater of war is fixed; and nothing of us will remain with the unfortunate Belgians but the memory of the fires which will have lighted our retreat. On another side and on the banks of the Rhine our frontiers are threatened by Prussian troops, whose march the ministerial reports have made us hope would not be so sudden. Such is our political and military situation, and never were so necessary the wise arrangement of plans, the prompt execution of means, the union, the accord of all authorities to whom the Constitution delegates the use of armed force; never might become so disastrous the least misinformation, the slightest suspension, the most trifling missteps.
How does it happen that precisely at the last period of the most violent crisis, on the edge of the abyss into which the nation may plunge, the movement of our armies is suspended; that by a sudden disorganization of the ministry the chain of works has been shattered, the bonds of confidence broken, the safety of the empire given up to the inexperience of hands chosen at random, the difficulties of execution multiplied, and its success jeopardized by mistakes which must happen, even with the most enlightened patriotism, in the apprenticeship of a great administration? If plans are conceived which may expedite the completion of our armies, for increasing our means of conquest, or of making our defeats lea disastrous, why are they preceded to the throne by calumny and there stifled by the most perfidious malevolence? Can it be true that our triumphs are dreaded? Is it of the blood of the army of Coblentz or of our own that they are sparing?
And you, gentlemen, what great thing are you going to undertake for the commonwealth? You whose courage the enemies of the Constitution insolently flatter themselves that they have shaken; you whose consciences they try each day to alarm by styling the love of liberty as the spirit of factionas if you could have forgotten that a despotic court also gave the name of factionists to the representatives of the people who went to take the oath of the Tennis-Court;2 that the cowardly heroes of the aristocracy have constantly lavished it upon the conquerors of the Bastile, upon all those who made and maintained the Revolution, and which the Constituent Assembly believed it to be its duty to honor it by proclaiming in one of its addresses that the nation was composed of twenty-four millions of factionists; you who have been so calumniated because you are almost all foreign to the caste which the Revolution threw down into the dust, and because the intriguers who desired to reestablish it, and the degraded men who regret the infamous pleasure of groveling before it, have not hoped to find accomplices in you; you, against whom they let loose with so much fury only because you form a truly popular assembly, and because in you they wished to dishonor the people; you who have been so cowardly accused of tarnishing the glory of the constitutional throne, because several times your avenging hand struck those who wished to make it the throne of a despot; you to whom has been infamously and absurdly attributed intentions contrary to your oaths, as if your well-being was not attached to the Constitutionas if, invested with another power than that of the law, you had a civil list to hire counter-revolutionary satellites; you whom, by the perfidious use of calumny and the language of a hypocritical moderation, they wished to chill toward the interests of the people, because they know that you hold your mission from the people, that the people is your support, and that if by a guilty desertion of its cause you deserved to be abandoned by it, in turn it would be easy to dissolve you; you whom they wanted and, it must be said with sorrow, whom they have succeeded in weakening by fatal divisions, but who doubtless in the present crisis, when the nation is fixing her anxious gaze on you, will feel the need of gathering together all your forces; who will postpone until after the war our noisy quarrels and our wretched dissensions; who will lay down at the foot of the altar of liberty our pride, our jealousies, and our passions; who will not find this mutual hatred so sweet that you will prefer its infernal enjoyment to the welfare of the country; you whom they wanted to terrify with armed petitions as if you did not know that in the beginning of the Revolution the sanctuary of liberty was surrounded by the satellites of despotism, that Paris was besieged by an army, and that those days of danger were those of veritable glory for the Constituent Assembly; you, to whom I have believed I ought to present these swift reflections because at the moment when it is important to stir deeply public opinion it seemed to me indispensable to do away with all the illusions, all the errors which might lessen the effect of your measures; you, finally, to whom each day discloses a vast horizon of conspiracies, treacheries, dangers; who are placed on the crater of Ætna to ward off the thunderboltwhat are your resources? What does necessity command you? What does the Constitution allow you?
First, I will call your attention to interior troubles. They have two causes: aristocratic maneuvers, and priestly maneuvers. Both tend to the same endcounter-revolution. You will prevent the action of the first by means of a wise and vigorous police. We must hasten to discuss the bases of it; but when you have done everything that in you lay to save the people from the terrible influence of the second, the Constitution leaves at your further disposal only a last resort: it is simple; nevertheless, I believe that it is just and efficacious. This is it:
The king has refused his sanction to your resolution upon the religious troubles.3 I do not know whether the somber spirit of the Medicis and the Cardinal de Lorraine still wanders beneath the arches of the palace of the Tuileries; if the sanguinary hypocrisy of the Jesuits La Chaise and Le Tellier lives again in the soul of some monster burning to see a revival of Saint Bartholomew and the Dragonades; I do not know whether the kings heart is disturbed by the fantastic ideas suggested to him and his conscience disordered by the religious terrors with which he is environed.
But it is not possible to believe, without wronging him and accusing him of being the most dangerous enemy of the Revolution, that he wishes to encourage, by impunity, the criminal attempts of pontifical ambition, and to give to the proud agents of the tiara the disastrous power with which they have equally oppressed peoples and kings. It is not possible to believe, without wronging him and accusing him of being the enemy of the people, that he approves or even looks with indifference on the underhanded schemes employed to divide the citizens, to cast the leaven of hatred into the bosoms of sensitive souls, and to stifle in the name of the Divinity the sweetest sentiments of which He has composed the felicity of mankind. It is impossible to believe, without wronging him and accusing him of being the enemy of the law, that he with. holds his consent to the adoption of repressive measures against fanaticism, in order to drive citizens to excesses which despair inspires and the laws condemn; that he prefers to expose unsworn priests, even when they do not disturb the peace, to arbitrary vengeance, rather than to subject them to a law which, affecting only agitators, would cover the innocent with an inviolable egis. Finally it is not possible to believe, without wronging him and accusing him of being the enemy of the Empire, that he wishes to perpetuate sedition and to eternalize the disorders and all the revolutionary movements which are urging the empire toward civil war, and which, through civil war, would plunge it into dissolution.
It is in the name of the king that the French princes have tried to enlist all the courts of Europe against the nation; it is to avenge the dignity of the king that the treaty of Pilnitz was concluded and the monstrous alliance between the courts of Vienna and Berlin formed; it is to defend the king that we have seen the old companies of life-guards, under the colors of rebellion, hastening to Germany; it is in order to come to the kings aid that the emigrants are soliciting and obtaining places in the Austrian army and are prepared themselves to rend their country; it is to join those valiant knights of the royal prerogative that other worthies full of honor and delicacy abandon their post in the face of the enemy, violate their oaths, steal the military chests, strive to corrupt their soldiers and thus plunge their glory in dastardliness, perjury, subordination, theft, and assassination; it is against the nation, or the National Assembly alone, and in order to maintain the splendor of the throne, that the king of Bohemia and Hungary4 makes war upon us, and the king of Prussia marches upon our frontiers; it is in the name of the king that liberty is attacked, and if they succeeded in its overthrow it would be in his name that they indemnify the allied powers for their expenses; because we understand the generosity of kings; we know with what disinterestedness they dispatch their armies to desolate a foreign land, and up to what point they would exhaust their treasuries to maintain a war which could not be profitable to them. Finally, of all the evils which they are striving to heap upon our heads, and of all those which we have to fear, the name alone of the king is the pretext or the cause.
If the king, charged with watching over the external safety of the State, with notifying the legislative body of imminent hostilities, informed of the movements of the Prussian army and not making it known in any way to the National Assembly; informed, or at least able to presume, that this army would attack us in a month, was slow in making preparations for repulsion; if there was a just anxiety about the progress the enemy might make into the interior of France, and if a reserve camp were evidently necessary to check or stop this progress; if there was a resolution making the formation of this camp an immediate certainty; if the king rejected this resolution and substituted for it a plan whose success was uncertain and which demanded so much time for its execution that the enemy would have time to make it impossible; if the legislative body passed resolutions of general safety; if the imminence of the peril allowed no delay; if nevertheless the royal assent was refused or deferred for two months; if the king should trust the command of an army to an intriguing general,5 suspected by the nation because of the most serious faults, and the most pronounced attempts upon the Constitution; if another general,6 bred far from the corruption of courts, and familiar with victory, should ask, for the glory of our arms, a reinforcement which it would be easy to grant him; if, by refusing, the king should clearly say to him: I forbid you to conquer; if, profiting by this baleful temporizing, by so much incoherence in our political course, or rather such constant perseverance in treachery, the league of tyrants should strike fatal blows at libertycould it be said that the king had made the constitutional resistance, that he had taken, for the defense of the State, the steps contemplated by the Constitution which he had made along the line of the formal act which it prescribes?
Coming to present circumstances, I do not think that if our armies are not yet at their full complement, it is through the malevolence of the king. I hope that he will soon increase our means of resistance by a useful employment of battalions so uselessly scattered in the interior of the kingdom; finally I hope that the march of the Prussians through our national guards will not be as triumphal as they have the proud madness to imagine. I am not tormented by the fear of seeing realized the horrible suppositions that I have made; however, as the dangers with which we are invested impose upon us the obligation to foresee everything; as the facts that I have supposed are not devoid of striking conformity with several of the kings speeches; as it is certain that the false friends surrounding him have sold themselves to the conspirators of Coblentz;7 as they are burning to ruin him in order that some one of their chiefs may reap the fruit of the conspiracy; as it is important for his personal safety, as well as for the tranquillity of the kingdom, that his conduct be no longer encompassed with suspicions; as only great frankness in his proceedings and in his explanations can prevent extreme measures and the bloody quarrels which the latter would give rise to, I should propose a message in which, after such interpellations as circumstances may make it advisable to address to him, would be presented the truths that I have stated; in which it would be demonstrated that the system of neutrality which they seem to be anxious to have him adopt toward Coblentz and France would be arrant treason in the king of the French; that it would bring him no other glory than profound horror from the nation and signal contempt from the conspirators; that, having already chosen France, he should loudly proclaim his unshakable resolution to triumph or perish with her and the Constitution.
Will you wait until weary of the hardships of the Revolution or corrupted by the habit of groveling around a castle and the insidious preachings of moderantism8until weak man become accustomed to speak of liberty without enthusiasm and slavery without horror? How does it happen that the constituted authorities block one another in their course; that armed forces forget that they exist to obey; that soldiers or generals undertake to influence the legislative body, and distempered citizens to direct, by the machinery of violence, the action of the chief of the executive authority? Do they wish to establish a military government? That is perhaps the most imminent, the most terrible of our dangers. Murmurs are arising against the court: who shall dare to say they are unjust? It is suspected of treacherous plans; what facts can be cited to dispel these suspicions?
They speak of popular movements, of martial law; they try to familiarize the imagination with the blood of the people; the palace of the king of the French is suddenly changed to a redoubt; yet where are his enemies? Against whom are these cannons and these bayonets pointed? The defenders of the Constitution have been repulsed by the ministry; the reins of the Empire have been hanging loose at the moment when it needed as much vigor as patriotism to hold them. Everywhere discord is fomenting, fanaticism triumphing. Instead of taking a firm and patriotic attitude to save it from the storm, the government lets itself be driven before the tempest; its instability inspires foreign powers with scorn; the boldness of those who vomit armies and swords against us chills the good will of the peoples who wish in secret for the triumph of liberty.
This means is worthy of the august mission which you fill, of the generous people whom you represent; it might even gain some celebrity for the name of that people and make you worthy to live in the memory of men: it will be to imitate the brave Spartans who sacrificed themselves at Thermopylæ; those venerable men who, leaving the Roman senate, went to await, at the thresholds of their homes, the death which marched in the van of the savage conqueror. No, you will not need to offer up prayers that avengers may spring from your ashes. Ah! The day when your blood shall redden the earth, tyranny, its pride, its protectors, its palaces, its satellites, will vanish away for ever before the national omnipotence. And if the sorrow of not having made your country happy embitters your last moments you will at least take with you the consolation that your death will hasten the rain of the peoples oppressors and that your devotion will have saved liberty.9
Note 1. From a speech delivered in the National Assembly on July 3, 1792, after disasters had befallen the French in the war with Austria, and before an immense concourse, says Thiers. Translated for this edition by Scott Robinson, from H. Morse Stephenss Orators of the French Revolution. The first of the four great speeches on which Vergniauds reputation as an orator mainly rests, says Mr. Stephens. [back]