Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXII, 18

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXII, chapter18
The Proclamations of the Provisional Government – The Constitution proposed by the Senate



The first acts of the Provisional Government, as directed by its President, were proclamations addressed to the army and the people. ‘Soldiers,’ they said to the former, ‘France has but now broken the yoke under which it has groaned with you for so many years. Consider all you have suffered from that tyranny. Soldiers it is time to end the country’s misfortunes. You are her noblest offspring; you cannot ascribe to what has ravaged her, what has sought to make your name hateful to all nations, which would even have compromised your glory if a man who IS NOT EVEN FRENCH could ever diminish the honour of our arms and the nobility of our soldiers.’

So, in the eyes of his most servile slaves, he who brought them so many victories was not even French! When, in the days of the League, Du Bourg gave up the Bastille to Henri IV, he refused to doff the black scarf and take the money offered to him for surrendering the place. Begged to acknowledge the King, he replied ‘that he was no doubt an excellent Prince, but that he had given his word to Monsieur de Mayenne. Moreover that Brissac was a traitor, and, to support that, he would fight him between four pikes, in the King’s presence, and eat the heart from his breast.’ How different the men and the age!

On the 4th of April a new proclamation of the Provisional Government to the French nation, appeared; it said:

‘Emerging from your civil discord you chose as leader a man who appeared on the world’s stage with the character of greatness. On the ruins of anarchy, he founded only tyranny; he might at least in gratitude have become French like you; he has never done so. He has not ceased to wage pointless, unmotivated and unjust wars, in adventuring on which he sought to become famous. Perhaps he still dreams of vast designs, even though unheard-of defeats punish the vanity and abuse of conquest so emphatically. He has ruled neither in the national interest, nor even the interest of his own despotism. He has destroyed everything he sought to create, and re-vitalised everything he sought to destroy. He believes only in force; force now overcomes him: a just reward for foolish ambition.’

Incontestable truths, justifiable criticism; but who uttered this criticism? What was become of my poor little pamphlet, jostled by these virulent speeches? On the same day, the 4th of April, the Provisional Government proscribed the marks and emblems of the Imperial Government; if the Arc de Triomphe had existed, they would have torn it down. Mailhe, who had once voted for the death of Louis XVI, Cambacérès, who was first to welcome Napoleon as Emperor, greeted the Provisional Government’s actions with enthusiasm.

On the 6th, the Senate printed a constitution: it was fairly closed based on the concepts of the future Charter; the Senate was retained as the senior Chamber; the ‘nobility’ of the senators was pronounced immutable and hereditary; to their entitlement to a Majorat was added the granting of Sénatoreries; the Constitution allowed these titles and majorats to be transmitted to their possessor’s descendants: it was fortunate that these ignoble inheritances ‘involved the Fates’, as the ancients said.

The sordid effrontery of these senators who, in the midst of the invasion of their country, did not for a moment lose sight of the main chance, was striking even amidst the immensities of public events.

Would it not have been more convenient to the Bourbons to continue on their arrival with the established government, a docile Legislature, a private slavish Senate, a shackled Press? On reflection, the thing appears impossible: natural; independence, standing upright once more in the absence of the chains that bowed it, had resumed its upward path given the weakness of those bonds. If the legitimate princes had dismissed Bonaparte’s army as they should have done (that was Napoleon’s opinion on Elba), and if they had at the same time retained the Imperial mode of government, it would have been enough simply to destroy the instrument of his glory in order to retain the instrument of tyranny: the Charter was Louis XVIII’s ransom.