Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXVIII, 17

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXVIII, chapter 17
An examination of the reproach against me.



Before changing the subject, I request permission to backtrack and relieve myself of a burden. It is not without pain that I enter into the details of my lengthy differences with Monsieur de Villèle. I have been accused of contributing to the fall of the Legitimacy; it befits me to examine that reproach.

The events which occurred during the Ministry of which I was part possess an importance which makes them part of France’s common destiny: there is no French person whose fate has not been touched by the good I may have done, or the ill I suffered. Through strange and inexplicable connections, through private communications which sometimes intertwine the highest and lowest of fortunes, the Bourbons prospered whenever they deigned to listen to me, though I am far from the belief, attested by the poet, that my eloquence has given alms to Royalty. Just as one was thinking it necessary to break that reed which grew at the foot of a throne, the crown tilted, and quickly tumbled: sometimes, in pulling at a blade of grass one makes a great ruin collapse.

These incontestable facts one can explain as one will; if they give my political career a value it does not in itself possess, I feel no vanity as a result; I take no malicious joy in those chances which involved my transient name in the events of an age. Whatever the various accidents of my adventurous course have been, or whatever names and events have revealed to me, the landscape’s last horizon is always sad and threatening.

‘…Juga coepta moveri
Silvarum, visaeque canes ululare per umbram:
…The wooded hills began to move,
and dogs seemed to howl from the shadows.’

But if the public scene has altered, I must, they say, accuse myself alone: in order to take vengeance for what seemed to me an injury, I caused division everywhere, and that division produced in the final analysis the overthrow of the throne. Let us see.

Monsieur de Villèle has claimed that one could not govern with me or without me. With me, that was his error; without me, at the moment when Monsieur de Villèle spoke the words, he spoke truly, since the most diverse opinions made up my majority.

Monsieur the President of the Council never understood me. I was sincerely attached to him; I had helped him to his first Ministry, as the letter of thanks from Monsieur le Duc de Richelieu and the other letters I have cited prove. I gave in my resignation as Plenipotentiary at Berlin when Monsieur de Villèle was dismissed. He was persuaded on his return to office that I had desired his place. I had no such desire. I am not of that dauntless race, deaf to the voice of devotion and reason. The truth is I have no ambition; it is precisely a motivation I lack, because I have another which dominates me. When I begged Monsieur de Villèle to take an important despatch to the King, in order to avoid the distress of going to the Palace, and to leave me free to visit a Gothic chapel in the Rue Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, he might have been reassured about my ambitions if he had been a better judge of my childish candour or the depth of my disdain.

Nothing in public life agreed with me, except perhaps the Foreign Ministry. I was not insensible to the idea the country owed to me, at home liberty, abroad independence. Far from seeking to overthrow Monsieur de Villèle, I told the King: ‘Sire, Monsieur de Villèle is a President full of intelligence; Your Majesty must keep him at the head of your Councils forever.’

Monsieur de Villele did not perceive that my mind tends towards domination, but it is subject to my character; I take pleasure in obedience, because it takes away the need for willpower. My capital fault is boredom, disgust with everything, perpetual doubt. If I had met with a Prince who, understanding me, had forced me to keep working for him, perhaps he would have got something out of me; but Heaven rarely sees the birth of both the man who wishes to and the man who can. In the final analysis, is it something one would give oneself the trouble of getting out of bed for today? One falls asleep to the sound of kingdoms falling in the night that are swept away each morning from one’s doorstep.

Moreover, after Monsieur de Villele split with me, politics was in disorder; the ultras against whom the wisdom of the President of the Council still struggled overwhelmed him. The opposition he experienced from opinion at home and the trend of opinion abroad made him irritable: hence the Press hobbled, the National Guard disbanded, etc. Should I have allowed the monarchy to perish, in order to acquire a reputation as a moderate, hypocritically lying in wait? I thought, quite sincerely, that I was fulfilling a duty in fighting at the head of the Opposition, too attentive to the danger I saw on one side, not apprised enough of the opposite risk. When Monsieur de Villèle was overthrown, they consulted me on the nomination of one of the other Ministers. If they had accepted, as I proposed, Monsieur Casimir Périer, General Sébastiani, and Monsieur Royer-Collard, things might have been different. I did not wish to accept the Navy Department and I had it given to my friend Hyde de Neuville; equally I refused the Education brief twice; I would never have entered Government again without being in control. I went to Rome to find my other self among the ruins, since there are two distinct beings within me, which have no communication with each other.

Yet I faithfully confess excess of resentment does not justify me according to the word and ancient rule of virtue, though my whole life serves as my excuse.

An officer in the Navarre Regiment, I returned from the forests of America to become a fugitive with the Legitimacy, to fight in its ranks against my own instincts, always without conviction, only as a dutiful soldier. I remained on foreign soil for eight years, overwhelmed with wretchedness.

That large tribute paid, I returned to France in 1800. Bonaparte found me and gave me a place; on the death of the Duke d’Enghien, I devoted myself once more to the memory of the Bourbons. My words on the tomb of Mesdames at Trieste stirred the anger of that Dispenser of Empires; he threatened to have me cut down on the steps of the Tuileries. My pamphlet De Bonaparte et des Bourbons was worth a hundred thousand men to Louis XVIII on his own admission.

With the help of the popularity I then enjoyed, anti-constitutional France was taught the institutions of the Legitimate Royalty. During the Hundred Days, the monarchy saw me alongside it in its second exile. Finally, by the War in Spain, I contributed to stifling conspiracy, reuniting opinion under the same cockade, and giving scope to our cannon. The rest of my projects are known: to push back our frontiers, and grant new Crowns in the New World to the family of Saint Louis.

That long perseverance in the same sentiments merits perhaps some regard. Sensible to affront, it was also impossible for me to ignore what I should be worth, to forget absolutely that I was a restorer of religion, author of Le Génie du Christianisme.

My agitation further increased of necessity at the thought that a petty quarrel could lose our country a moment of the greatness it would not find again. If someone had said to me: ‘Your scheme will be followed; we will execute without you what you have planned’, I would have suppressed all for France. Unfortunately I believed they would not adopt my ideas; events proved it so.

I was wrong perhaps, but I was persuaded that Monsieur de Villèle did not understand the society he was in charge of; I am convinced that the solid qualities of that skilful Minister were inadequate to his hour of government: he came too early in the Restoration. The operations of finance, commercial groups, industrialisation, canals, steamships, railways, arterial roads, a materialistic society which only wanted peace, which only dreamed of a comfortable life, which wanted to make of the future a perpetual today, in that scheme of things, Monsieur de Villèle would have been King. Monsieur de Villèle wished for an age which could not be his, and, honourably, could not accept the age that was made for him. Under the Restoration, all the faculties of the spirit were alive; every party dreamed of realities or chimeras; all, advancing or retreating, jostled about in tumult; no one intended to stay where he was; the constitutional Legitimacy did not appear to any active mind the last word in republicanism or monarchy. One could feel armies and revolutions moving the earth under one’s feet, offering themselves to extraordinary destinies. Monsieur de Villèle was alive to this stirring; he saw the fledgling wings, that urging on the nation, would release it to its element, the air, to space, immense and light as that is. Monsieur de Villèle wanted to hold the nation to the ground, fasten it down here, but he had not the strength to do so. I wished to occupy the French with glory, attach them to the heights, and try to lead them to reality by dreams: that is what they love.

It would have been better to be humbler, bow more, and be more of a Christian. Unfortunately, I am subject to error; I lack angelic perfection; if a man strikes me, I do not turn the other cheek.

If I had divined the outcome, I would certainly have abstained; the majority who voted for the clause regarding the ‘refusal to contest’ would not have voted if they had foreseen the consequences of their vote. No one seriously wanted a disaster, except a few solitary individuals. It was only a revolt at first, and the Legitimacy alone transformed it into a revolution: when the moment came, it abandoned intelligence, prudence, and the willpower that might still have saved it. After all, it was merely a fallen monarchy; plenty of others will fall: I owed it only my loyalty; it will have that forever.

Devoted to the monarchy in its first adversities, I am consecrated to it in its final misfortunes: wretchedness always finds a second in me. I have forsaken everything, place, pension, and honours; and in order not to have to ask anyone for anything, I have even contracted against my coffin. Austere and unbending judges, virtuous and infallible Royalists, who have added an oath to your riches, as you sprinkle salt on the meat for your table to preserve it, show a little indulgence in respect of my past bitterness, I expiate it today in my own way, which is not yours. Do you think that at the evening hour, at that hour when the labouring man rests, he no longer feels the weight of life, when that weight is shifted onto his arms? And yet, I could have not borne the burden, I saw Louis-Philippe in his Palace, from the 1st to the 6th of August 1830, and I will speak of it in its proper place; it was for me to decide whether to listen to generous words.

Later, if I had happened to repent of having done the right thing, it was still possible for me to retreat from the first actions dictated by my conscience. Monsieur Benjamin Constant, then in power, wrote to me on the 20th of September 1830: ‘I would much prefer to write to you about yourself than about myself, that being a subject of greater importance. I would like to be able to speak about the loss you force the whole of France to suffer by retiring from her affairs, you who exercised so noble and salutary an influence on her! But it would be an indiscretion to treat personal matters thus, and I must, while grieving like all French people, respect your scruples.’

Not feeling that my debts had yet been paid, I defended the widow and the orphan, I suffered prosecution and imprisonment, which even Bonaparte, at his most angered, had spared me. I am present from my resignation on the death of the Duc d’Enghien to my outcry for the disinherited child; I am there in support of a Prince who was shot and a Prince who was banished; they sustain my old arms interlinked with their powerless ones: Royalists are you as well companioned?

But the more I bound my life with ties of devotion and honour, the more I exchanged freedom of action for independence of thought; that thought has returned to its natural self. Now, free of it all, I appreciate government for what it is worth. Can one believe in future kings? Must one believe in the people of our age? The wise man un-reconciled to this century without conviction, finds wretched peace only in political atheism. Let the younger generations lull themselves with hope: before reaching their goal, they will have to wait many years; the ages are tending towards a universal levelling, but they will not hasten their march at our beck and call: time is the measure of eternity appropriate to mortal things; it counts nations and their sorrows as nothing while accomplishing its work.

The deduction from what you have just read is that if what I had counselled had been done; that if the satisfaction of narrow desires had not been preferred to the interests of France; that if the powerful had better appreciated their relative capabilities, that if Foreign governments had judged, as Alexander did, that the health of the monarchy lay in liberal institutions; that if those governments had not supported established authority in defiance of the principles embodied in the Charter, the Legitimacy would still occupy the throne! Ah, what is done is done! One may well return to the past, journey back to the place one departed from, one will find nothing of what one left behind: men, ideas, and circumstances, all have vanished.