Chateaubriand's memoirs, IX, 5

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book IX - Chapter 5
Monsieur Malesherbes opinion concerning my emigration



London, April to September 1822.

It was a great pleasure for me to meet Monsieur Malesherbes again and talk to him about my former projects. I reported on my plans for a second voyage which would last nine years; I had nothing to do before that but a little trip to Germany: I would hasten to the army of the Princes: I would hasten back to lambaste the Revolution; all that would be over in two or three months. I would hoist sail and return to the New World with a revolution the less and a marriage the more.

However, my zeal was greater than my belief; I felt that the emigration was stupid and a folly: ‘Belaboured on all sides,’ wrote Montaigne, ‘to the Ghibellines I was a Guelph, to the Guelphs a Guibelline.’ My dislike of absolute monarchy left me under no illusions concerning the party I would be choosing: I would preserve my scruples, and though resolved to sacrifice myself for honour’s sake, I would adopt Monsieur de Malesherbes opinion regarding the emigration. I found him very animated: the crimes taking place in front of his eyes had made that friend of Rousseau’s political tolerance vanish; between the victims’ cause and that of the executioners, he did not hesitate. He believed anything would be better than the state of affairs then existing; he thought, in my case in particular, that a man carrying a sword could not avoid joining the brothers of a King, oppressed and delivered up to his enemies. He approved my return to America and urged my brother to go with me.

I offered him the usual objections regarding an alliance with foreigners, the interests of the country etc. He replied; his general reasons became detailed ones, he cited me embarrassing examples. He offered me the Guelphs and the Ghibellines supporting the armies of the Pope and Emperor; in England, the barons, rising against John Lackland. Finally, in our own time, he cited the Republic of the United States, asking for the assistance of France. ‘So,’ continued Monsieur de Malesherbes, ‘the men most devoted to freedom and philosophy, republicans and Protestants, considered they were free of all guilt in borrowing a force which could grant victory to their party. Without our gold, our ships, and our soldiers, would the New World be free today? I, Malesherbes, I who speak to you, did I not welcome Franklin, in 1776, who came to renew the negotiations initiated by Silas Deane, and was Franklin a traitor? Was American liberty less honourable because it was aided by Lafayette and won by French grenadiers? Any government which, instead of guaranteeing the fundamental laws of society, itself transgresses the laws of equity, the rules of justice, ceases to exist, and returns man to a state of nature. It is then permissible to defend oneself as best one may, to resort to whatever means seem best to overthrow tyranny, and re-establish the rights of each and every one.’

The principles of natural right, previously articulated by the greatest writers, expanded upon by a man such as Monsieur de Malesherbes, and supported by numerous historical examples, silenced me without convincing me: I only yielded in reality to the events of my age, and a point of honour. –

I will add recent examples, to those examples of Monsieur de Malesherbes: during the Spanish War, in 1823, the French Republican party went to serve under the flag of the Cortes, and had no scruples about carrying arms against their own country; the Polish and Italian Constitutionalists had solicited the help of France in 1830 and 1831, and the Portuguese Chartists invaded their country using foreign money and soldiers. We have two weights and two measures: we approve on behalf of an idea, a system, an interest, a man; that which we censure on behalf of another idea, system, interest or man.