Chateaubriand's memoirs, V, 10

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V, 9 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> V, 11

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book V - Chapter 10
The recall of Monsieur Necker– The debate of the 4th August 1789 – The Day of the 5th October – The King is brought to Paris

Paris, November 1821.

Recalled to power on the 25th July, inaugurated, welcomed with celebrations, Monsieur Necker, the third successor to Turgot after Calonne and Taboureau, was soon overtaken by events, and fell from popularity. It is one of the oddities of the time that so weighty a personality had been raised to ministerial office through the machinations of a man as mediocre and lightweight as the Marquis de Pezay. The Royal Accounts which in France replaced the system of loans with that of taxation, stirred people’s ideas; women discussed income and expenditure; for the first time one saw, or thought one saw something in the working of numbers. These calculations, painted in clear colours à la Thomas, first established the reputation of the Director-General of Finance. A skilful manager of cash, but an economist devoid of ideas; a writer noble but bombastic; an honest man but without great virtue, the banker was one of those old actors who after introducing the play to the public from the forestage vanish as the curtain rises. Monsieur Necker was the father of Madame de Staël; his vanity would scarcely have allowed him to consider that his true claim on the memory of posterity would be his daughter’s fame.

The monarchy was destroyed, as the Bastille had been, in the speech in the National Assembly on the evening of the 4th August. Those who, through hatred of the past, cry out against nobility these days, forget that it was a member of that nobility, the Vicomte de Noailles, supported by the Duc d’Aiguillon and by Mathieu de Montmorency, who toppled the edifice, the subject of revolutionary prejudice. On a motion initiated by the latter aristocratic deputy, feudal rights, the rights of the chase, of dovecotes and fishponds, the tithes on crops, the privileges of the orders, towns and provinces, personal servitude, manorial injustice, veniality of office, were abolished. The greatest blows struck at the old constitution of the State were inflicted by noblemen. The aristocracy began the Revolution, the masses completed it: as the France of old owed its glory to the French nobility, the new France owed it its liberty, if liberty exists in France.

The soldiers camped on the outskirts of Paris had been dispersed, and by one of those perverse pieces of advice that muddled the King’s will, the Flanders Regiment was summoned to Versailles. The Lifeguards gave a dinner for the officers of that regiment; heads grew overheated; the Queen appeared at the banquet with the Dauphin; toasts were drunk to the Royal Family; the King appeared in turn; the military band played the moving and popular air: Ô Richard, ô mon roi! The news of this had hardly reached Paris before hostile views gripped the city; it was claimed that Louis was refusing to sanction the declaration of rights, and would flee to Metz with the Comte d’Estaing; Marat spread the rumour: he was already writing L’ami du peuple.

The 5th of October arrived. I did not witness the events of that day. Accounts of it reached the capital early on the 6th. We were told, at the same moment, to expect a visit from the King. Timid in the salons, I was bold in public: I felt I had been born for solitude or the forum. I hurried to the Champs-Elysées: first canon appeared, with harpies, thieves and prostitutes astride them, making the most obscene remarks and the foulest gestures. Then in the midst of a horde of people of every age and sex, the Lifeguards marched by, having exchanged their hats, swords and bandoliers with the National Guards: each of their horses carried two or three fishwives, dirty, drunk and dishevelled bacchantes. Next came the deputation from the National Assembly; followed by the Royal carriages: they rolled along in the dusty shade of a forest of pikes and bayonets. Tattered rag-pickers, and butchers, blood-stained aprons round their thighs, naked blades at their belts, shirt-sleeves rolled, clung to the carriage-doors: other dark satyrs had climbed on the roof; yet more hung on to the footboards or perched on the box. They fired muskets and pistols, shouting: ‘Here come the baker, the baker’s wife and the little baker’s boy!’ Before the descendant of Saint-Louis, as an oriflamme, Swiss halberds held high the heads of two Lifeguards, powdered and curled by some Sèvres wigmaker.

Bailly, the astronomer, told Louis XVI, in the Hôtel de Ville, that the people, humane, respectful and loyal had conquered its king, and the King on his side, greatly touched and greatly pleased, declared that he had come to Paris of his own free will: unworthy lies born of violence and fear which at that time dishonoured everyone and every party. Louis XVI was not insincere: he was weak; weakness is not insincerity, but it takes its place and fulfils its functions; the respect which the virtue and misfortune of the saintly, martyred King must inspire renders all human judgement well-nigh sacrilegious.