Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXV, 2

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXV, chapter 2
The years 1815,1816 in my life – I am appointed a Peer of France – My debut at the rostrum – Various speeches



After the King’s second return and Bonaparte’s final disappearance, the Government being in the hands of Monsieur the Duke of Otranto and Monsieur le Prince de Talleyrand, I was appointed President of the Electoral College for the department of Loiret. The elections of 1815 gave the King the introuvable (unparalleled) Chamber. Everyone in Orléans made a fuss of me, when the decree which appointed me to the Chamber of Peers arrived. My career as a man of action which had barely commenced suddenly changed direction: what might I have become if I had taken my seat in the Elected Chamber? It is quite probable that a career there, if successful, would have ended with my joining the Interior Ministry, instead of my being led to the Foreign Ministry. My habits and manners were more in tune with the peerage, and though the latter was hostile to me from the first, because of my liberal opinions, it is still the fact that my views on the freedom of the Press and against subservience to foreigners gave that noble Chamber the popularity it enjoyed as long as it tolerated my opinions.

On arrival I received the only honour my colleagues have ever granted me during my fifty years residence among them: I was appointed as one of the four secretaries during the session of 1816. Lord Byron obtained no more favour when he appeared in the Lords, and he chose to distance himself from it forever; I should have gone back to my wilderness.

My debut at the rostrum was a speech on the permanence of judges; I praised the principle, but criticised its immediate application. During the Revolution of 1830 the men of the left most committed to that Revolution wished to suspend the decree of permanence for a while.

On the 22nd of February 1816, the Duc de Richelieu brought us the signed will of the former Queen; I mounted the rostrum and said:

‘He who preserved the will of Marie-Antoinette purchased the estate of Montboissier. A judge who tried Louis XVI, he erected on that estate a monument to a defender of Louis XVI; he himself engraved an epitaph in French verse on that monument in praise of Monsieur de Malesherbes. That astonishing impartiality tells us that everything is askew in the moral world.’

On the 12th of March 1816 the question of ecclesiastical pensions was raised. ‘You would refuse food,’ I said, ‘to some poor vicar the rest of whose life is consecrated to the altar, and yet you would grant pensions to Joseph Lebon, who made so many heads roll, to Francis Chabot, who demanded a law for emigrés so biased that a child could have sent them to the guillotine, and to Jacques Roux, who, refusing to accept Louis XVI’s last testament in the Temple, replied to that unfortunate monarch: ‘I am only charged with conducting you to your death.’

A proposed law regarding the electoral process was brought before the hereditary Chamber; I declared myself in favour of the total renewal of the Chamber of Deputies; it was only in 1824, when a Minister, that I was able to make it law.

It was also during this first speech on electoral law in 1816 that I replied to an adversary: ‘I do not accept what has been said regarding Europe’s interest in our discussions. For myself, Gentlemen, I doubtless owe to the French blood flowing in my veins that impatience I experience when, in order to influence my vote, people speak to me of opinions expressed beyond my country’s borders; if civilised Europe wished to impose the Charter on me, I should go and live at Constantinople.’

On the 9th of April 1816, I put a proposal to the Chamber regarding the Barbary Pirates. The Chamber decided that it was necessary to concern itself with the matter. I had already thought of opposing forced slavery, before I obtained this favourable decision of the peerage, the first political intervention of a great power in favour of the Greeks: ‘I have viewed the ruins of Carthage;’ I said to my colleagues, ‘I have encountered, among those ruins, the successors to those unfortunate Christians for whose deliverance St Louis sacrificed his life. Philosophy will be able to share in the glory attached to the success of my proposal, and boast of having achieved in an age of enlightenment what religion attempted in vain to achieve in an age of darkness.’

I had taken my seat in an assembly where, three quarters of the time, my words were turned against me. One can influence a popular Chamber: an aristocratic Chamber is deaf. Away from the rostrum, in camera, before those old men, the desiccated remains of the Old Monarchy, the Revolution, and the Empire, what strayed from the most commonplace of tones appeared folly. One day the first row of chairs, close to the rostrum, was filled with respectable Peers, each one deafer than the rest, heads drooping, clasping their ear-trumpets with horns directed towards the rostrum. I put them to sleep, which was natural. One of them let slip his ear-trumpet; his neighbour, woken by the noise, wished, politely, to recover his colleague’s aid; he fell over. The problem was that I began laughing, though I should have been speaking movingly on who knows what touching subject.

The orators who were successful in that Chamber were those who spoke, lacking ideas, in a level monotone, or who had the sense only to be moved by the wretched Ministers. Monsieur de Lally-Tollendal thundered on in favour of public freedoms: he would make our solitary vaults echo, he claimed, in praise of three or four English Lord Chancellors, his ancestors. When his panegyric on the liberty of the Press ended, a ‘but’ emerged dictated by circumstances, which ‘but’ kept our honour intact, beneath the beneficial gaze of the censor.

The Restoration gave an impetus to intellectual thought; it freed reflections stifled by Bonaparte: wit, like a caryatid liberated from some building which bowed down its brow, raised its head once more. The Empire struck France mute; liberty, once restored, dubbed her and restored her speech: it discovered talented orators who took up again where Mirabeau and Cazalès had left off, and the Revolution continued its course.