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FrRevol_101-150.indd 29 3/16/12 1:03 PM CHAPTER XVI Opening ofthe Estates General on the 5th ofMay, z:;89. I shall never forget the hour that I saw the twelve hundred deputies of France1 pass in procession to church to hear mass, the daybefore the opening of the assembly. It was a very imposing sight, and very new to the French; all the inhabitants of Versailles, and many persons attracted by curiosity from Paris, collected to see it. This new kind of authority in the state, ofwhich neither the nature nor the strength was as yet known, astonished the greater part of those who had not reflected on the rights of nations. The higher clergy had lost a portion of its influence with the public, because a number of prelates had been irregular in their moral conduct, and a still greater number employed themselves only in political affairs. The people are strict in regard to the clergy, as in regard to women; they require from both a close observance oftheir duties. Military fame, which is the foundation of reputation to the nobility, as piety is to the clergy, could now only appear in the past. A long peace had deprived those noblemen who would have most desired it of the opportunity of rivaling their ancestors; and all the great lords of France were now illustrious obscures . The nobility of the second rank had been equally deprived ofopportunities ofdistinction, as the nature ofthe government left no opening to nobles but the military profession. The nobles of recent origin were seen in great numbers in the ranks of the aristocracy; but the plume and sword did not become them; and people asked why they took their station with the first class in the country, merely because they had obtained an 1. T he Estates General consisted of twelve hundred deputies. For more information, see Doyle, The Oxford History ofthe French Revolution, 93- 111. Z2!) FrRevol_101-150.indd 30 3/16/12 1:03 PM PART I exemption from their share of the taxes; for in fact their political rights were confined to this unjust privilege. The nobility having fallen from its splendor by its courtier habits, by its intermixture with those of recent creation, and by a long peace; the clergy possessing no longer that superiority of information which had marked it in days ofbarbarism, the importance ofthe deputies ofthe Third Estate had augmented from all these considerations. Their black cloaks and dresses, imposing numbers, and confident looks fixed the attention of the spectators. Literary men, merchants, and a great number of lawyers formed the chiefpart ofthis order.2 Some ofthe nobles had got themselves elected deputies of the Third Estate, and of these the most conspicuous was the Comte de Mirabeau.3 The opinion entertained of his talents was remarkably increased by the dread excited by his immorality; yet it was that very immorality that lessened the influence which his surprising abilities ought to have obtained for him. The eye that was once fixed on his countenance was not likely to be soon withdrawn: his immense head of hair distinguished him from amongst the rest, and suggested the idea that, like Samson, his strength depended on it; his countenance derived expression even from its ugliness; and his whole person conveyed the idea of irregular power, but still such power as we should expect to find in a tribune of the people. His name was as yet the only celebrated one among the six hundred deputies of the Third Estate; but there were a number ofhonorable men, and not a few that were to be dreaded. The spirit offaction began to hover over France, and was not to be overcome but by wisdom or power. If therefore public opinion had by this time undermined power, what was to be accomplished without wisdom? 2. The reader may find it interesting to compare Madame de Stael's ideas on this topic with Burke's sarcastic description ofthe nefarious role played by lawyers in the Constituent Assembly. 3ยท Honore Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau (1749- 91), was a prominent French orator and statesman who played a leading role in the debates ofthe Constituent Assembly until his untimely death in April 1791. For an excellent selection of his political writings (discourses and notes), see Chaussinand-Nogaret, ed., Mirabeau entre le roi et la Revolution. ZJO FrRevol_101-150.indd 31 3/16/12 1:03 PM cHAPTER X v 1. Opening ofEstates General in...


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