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The Life of Napoleon I (Volume 1 of 2) by Rose

Did the men of 1789 follow them by practical methods


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CHAPTER II

THE FRENCH REVOLUTION AND CORSICA

"They seek to destroy the Revolution by attacking my person: I will defend it, for I am the Revolution." Such were the words uttered by Buonaparte after the failure of the royalist plot of 1804. They are a daring transcript of Louis XIV.'s "L'etat, c'est moi." That was a bold claim, even for an age attuned to the whims of autocrats: but this of the young Corsican is even more daring, for he thereby equated himself with a movement which claimed to be wide as humanity and infinite as truth. And yet when he spoke these words, they were not scouted as presumptuous folly: to most Frenchmen they seemed sober truth and practical good sense. How came it, one asks in wonder, that after the short space of fifteen years a world-wide movement depended on a single life, that the infinitudes of 1789 lived on only in the form, and by the pleasure, of the First Consul? Here surely is a political incarnation unparalleled in the whole course of human history. The riddle cannot be solved by history alone. It belongs in part to the domain of psychology, when that science shall undertake the study, not merely of man as a unit, but of the aspirations, moods, and whims of communities and nations. Meanwhile it will be our far humbler task to strive to point out the relation of Buonaparte

to the Revolution, and to show how the mighty force of his will dragged it to earth.

The first questions that confront us are obviously these. Were the lofty aims and aspirations of the Revolution attainable? And, if so, did the men of 1789 follow them by practical methods? To the former of these questions the present chapter will, in part at least, serve as an answer. On the latter part of the problem the events described in later chapters will throw some light: in them we shall see that the great popular upheaval let loose mighty forces that bore Buonaparte on to fortune.

Here we may notice that the Revolution was not a simple and therefore solid movement. It was complex and contained the seeds of discord which lurk in many-sided and militant creeds. The theories of its intellectual champions were as diverse as the motives which spurred on their followers to the attack on the outworn abuses of the age.

Discontent and faith were the ultimate motive powers of the Revolution. Faith prepared the Revolution and discontent accomplished it. Idealists who, in varied planes of thought, preached the doctrine of human perfectibility, succeeded in slowly permeating the dull toiling masses of France with hope. Omitting here any notice of philosophic speculation as such, we may briefly notice the teachings of three writers whose influence on revolutionary politics was to be definite and practical. These were Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau. The first was by no means a revolutionist, for he decided in favour of a mixed form of government, like that of England, which guaranteed the State against the dangers of autocracy, oligarchy, and mob-rule. Only by a ricochet did he assail the French monarchy. But he re-awakened critical inquiry; and any inquiry was certain to sap the base of the _ancien regime_ in France. Montesquieu's teaching inspired the group of moderate reformers who in 1789 desired to re-fashion the institutions of France on the model of those of England. But popular sentiment speedily swept past these Anglophils towards the more attractive aims set forth by Voltaire.


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