This series has six easy five minute installments. This first installment: Guizot’s Repugnance and Sorrow of Those Painful Days.
The French Revolution of 1848 stands as an object lesson of what can happen when a nation becomes too polarized. The left got its revolution; it lost its power for decades to come.
This selection is fromPopular History of France From the Earliest Times by by François P.G. Guizot and by his daughter Mme. Guizot De Witt published in 1869. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Guizot, whose account of the “February Revolution” is here given, was the chief minister of Louis Philippe; and however partisan the author’s narrative may seem, it rests upon an intimate knowledge of the events recorded.
I come with profound repugnance and sorrow to those painful days by the faults and misfortunes of which France was launched into dangerous enterprises, such that men of the greatest foresight could not discern their end. Our country has paid very dearly for the fatal error which overthrew the throne of the King who had for eighteen years governed it with a wisdom, prudence, and moderation acknowledged even by his enemies when attacking him.
“The Cabinet of October 29, 1847, and its political friends, had a clearly defined idea and purpose. They aspired to bring to a close the French era of revolutions by establishing the free government which France had in 1789 promised herself as the consequence and political guarantee of the social revolution which she was completing.” This policy, formerly the object of their youthful hopes, had become theirs, whether in power or in the opposition. “It was in fact both liberal and antirevolutionary — antirevolutionary both in home and foreign affairs, since it wished to maintain the peace of Europe abroad, and the constitutional monarchy at home; liberal, since it fully accepted and respected the essential conditions of free government; the decisive intervention of the country in its affairs, with a constant and well-sustained discussion, in public as well as in the Chambers, of the ideas and acts of the Government. In fact, this twofold object was attained from 1830 to 1848.
“Abroad, peace was maintained without any loss to the influence or reputation of France in Europe. At home, from 1830 to 1848, political liberty was great and powerful; from 1840 to 1848, in particular, it was displayed without any new legal limit being imposed. It was this policy that the opposition — all the oppositions, monarchical and dynastic as well as republican — blindly or knowingly attacked, and tried to change. It was to change it that they demanded electoral and parliamentary reforms. In principle, the Government had no absolute or permanent objections whatever to such reforms; the extension of the right of suffrage, and the incompatibility of certain functions with the office of Deputy, might and must be the natural and legitimate consequences of the upward movement of society and political liberty. They did not think the reforms necessary or well-timed, and were therefore justified in delaying them as much as possible, provided they should one day allow to be accomplished by others what they thought themselves still strong enough to refuse.” “We have too much and too long maintained a good policy,” said Guizot afterward.
A frequent and formidable sign that men’s minds are secretly agitated is the anxiety by which they are seized with reference to intrigues and vices which they suppose around them. It would be a serious error to see always a symptom of moral improvement in the clamors against electoral or parliamentary corruption. Immediately after the ministerial success in the general elections of 1846, this precursory indication of storms appeared on the horizon. Guizot raised the question to its proper point of view. “Leave to countries which are not free,” said he, “leave to absolute governments, that explanation of great results by small, feeble, or dishonorable human acts. In free countries, when great results are produced it is from great causes that they spring. A great fact has been shown in the elections just completed; the country has given its adhesion, its earnest and free adhesion, to the policy presented before it. Do not attribute this fact to several pretended electoral maneuvers. You have no right to come to explain, or qualify by wretched suppositions, a grand idea of the country thus grandly and freely manifested.” The rumors of electoral corruptions were soon followed by rumors of parliamentary corruptions; but the majority of the Chamber declared themselves “content” with the ministerial explanations. The “Contents” figured in the opposition attacks by the side of the “Pritchardists.”
Several improper abuses of long standing existed in certain branches of the Administration; some posts in the Treasury had been the object of pecuniary transactions between those who held the posts and were resigning, and the candidates who presented themselves to replace them. A bill proposed on January 20, 1848, by Hebert, who had become keeper of the seals, formally forbade any such transaction, under assigned penalties. Several months previously (June, 1847) M. Teste, formerly Minister of Public Works, and then president of the Cour de Cassation, was seriously compromised in the scandalous trial of General Cubiares and Pellapra. Convicted of having received a large sum of money in connection with the mining concession, he was brought before the Peers, and being led from question to question and from discussion to discussion, soon made a confession of his crime. He, as well as his accomplices, underwent the just penalty.
“It was, on the part of the Cabinet, one of those acts the merit of which is only perceived afterward, and in which the Government bears the weight of the evil at the moment when it is trying most sincerely and courageously to repress it. There were several deplorable incidents — the shocking murder of the Duchess of Praslin, some scandalous trials and violent deaths following hard one upon another, and aggravating the momentary depression and the excited state of the popular imagination. The air seemed infected with moral disorder and unlooked-for misfortunes, coming to join in party attacks and the false accusations which the Cabinet were subjected to. It was one of those unhealthy hurricanes often met in the lives of governments.” It was certainly culpable on the part of the opposition to try to take advantage of this disturbed state of men’s minds to gain the end they were pursuing. Seven times was parliamentary reform, and three times was electoral reform, refused by the Chambers, from February 20, 1841, to April 8, 1847; the question being then displaced, it changed its ground. The opposition made an appeal to popular passion; and parliamentary discussions were succeeded by the banquets.
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