The history of Thomas Carlyle



IN 1834 Carlyle began work upon the History of the French Revolution, and the first volume was ready in 1835 when, through an accident, the only copy of the manuscript was burnt. Carlyle set to work again and finished the third volume in January, 1837, the History being published six months later. Never has the individuality of a historian so completely permeated his work; it is inconceivable that any other man should have written a single paragraph, almost a single sentence, of the French Revolution. Although it was impossible for Carlyle to assimilate all the wealth of material even then extant, the History, considered as a prose epic, has a permanent and unique value.

[THE END OF AN ERA - CARLYLE]

ON May 10, 1774, 'with a sound absolutely like thunder,' has the horologe of time struck, and an old era passed away. Is it the healthy peace or the ominous unhealthy, that rests on France for the next ten years? Dubarrydom and its D'Aiguillons are gone for ever. There is a young, still docile, well-intentioned king; a young, beautiful and bountiful, well-intentioned queen; and with them all France, as it were, become young. For controller general, a virtuous, philosophic Turgot. Philosophism sits joyful in her glittering saloons; 'the age of revolutions approaches' (as Jean Jacques wrote), but then of happy, blessed ones.

But with the working people it is not so well, whom we lump together into a kind of dim, compendious unity, monstrous but dim, far off, as the canaille. Visible in France is no such thing as a government. But beyond the Atlantic democracy is born; a sympathetic France rejoices over the rights of man. Rochambeaus, Lameths, Lafayettes have drawn their swords in this sacred quarrel; return, to be the missionaries of freedom. But, what of the finances, having no Fortunatus purse?

For there is the palpablest discrepancy between revenue and expenditure. Are we breaking down, then, into the horrors of national bankruptcy? Turgot, Necker and others have failed. What apparition, then, could be welcomer than that of M. de Calonne? A man of indisputable genius, even fiscal genius, more or less; of intrinsically rich qualities! For all straits he has present remedy. Calonne also shall have trial! With a genius for persuading--before all things for borrowing; after three years of which, expedient heaped on expedient, the pile topples perilous.

Whereupon a new expedient once more astonishes the world, unheard of these hundred and sixty years--Convocation of the Notables. A round gross of notables, meeting in February 1787; all privileged persons. A deficit so enormous! Mismanagement, profusion, is too clear; peculation itself is hinted at. Calonne flies, storm-driven, over the horizon. To whom succeeds Lomenie-Brienne, Archbishop of Toulouse--adopting Calonne's plans, as Calonne had proposed to adopt Turgot's; and the notables are, as it were, organed out in kind of choral anthem of thanks, praises, promises.

Lomenie issues conciliatory edicts, fiscal edicts. But if the Parlement of Paris refuse to register them? As it does, entering complaints instead. Lomenie launches his thunderbolt, six score lettres de cachet; the Parlement is trundled off to Troyes, in Champagne, for a month. Yet two months later, when a royal session is held, to have edicts registered, there is no registering. Orleans has made the protest and cut his moorings.

The provincial parlements, moreover, back up the Paris Parlement with its demand for a States-General. Lomenie hatches a cockatrice egg; but it is broken in premature manner; the plot discovered and denounced. Nevertheless, the Parlement is dispersed by D'Agoust with Gardes Francaises and Gardes Suisses. Still, however, will none of the provincial parlements register.

Deputations coming from Brittany meet to take counsel, being refused audience; become the Breton Club, first germ of the Jacobins' Society. Lomenie at last announces that the States-General shall meet in the May of next year (1789). For the holding of which 'thinkers are invited' to furnish a plan.





Return to Outline of Great Books Volume I