Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXIII, 7

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXXIII, chapter 7
The 7th of August – A session of the Chamber of Peers – My speech – I leave the Luxembourg Palace never to return – My resignations

The 7th of August was a memorable day for me; it was the day on which I had the pleasure of finishing my political career as I had begun; a pleasure rare enough these days that one should rejoice in it. The declaration of the Chamber of Deputies concerning the vacant monarchy was carried to the Chamber of Peers. I went to sit in my place on the highest rank of chairs, facing the President. The Peers seemed to me both preoccupied and weary. If some bore the pride of their impending disloyalty on their brow, others bore the shame of a remorse they had not the courage to express. Gazing at this assembly I said: ‘So! Those who received gifts from Charles X while he prospered will now desert him in his misfortune! Shall they whose special mission was to defend the hereditary monarchy, those courtiers who enjoyed their closeness to the King, betray him? They sat at his door at Saint-Cloud; they embraced him at Rambouillet; he pressed their hands in a last farewell; will they now raise those hands, still warm from the last clasp, against him? Will that Chamber, which resounded for fifty years with their protestations of devotion, now echo to their oath-breaking? Yet, it is because of them that Charles X has fallen; it is they who urged the decrees; they stamped their feet with delight when they appeared, when they thought themselves conquerors, in that silent moment that precedes the clap of thunder.’

These thoughts swam confusedly and mournfully through my mind. The peerage had become a triple receptacle of corruptions, those of the Old Monarchy, the Republic and the Empire. As for the Republicans of 1793, transformed into Senators, and the Bonapartist Generals, from them I expected familiar behaviour: they deposed an extraordinary man to whom they owed everything: they would depose a King whom they had confirmed in possession of the goods and honours which they had heaped on their first master. Let the wind change direction and they would depose the usurper to whom they prepared to throw the crown.

I mounted the rostrum. There was a profound silence; the faces showed embarrassment, everyone turned his chair away and gazed at the ground. Save for a few Peers resolved, as I was, to resign, no one dared raise their eyes to the level of the rostrum. I record my speech here because it sums up my life, and because it is my principal title to future esteem.

The declaration brought to this Chamber is much simpler for me than for those of you who profess a different opinion to mine. One fact, in this declaration, above all others, sprang to my eyes, or rather pained them. If we were in normal times, I would doubtless examine carefully the changes that are proposed in the operation of the Charter. Several of those changes were proposed by me. I am astonished only that anyone could speak to this House of a reactionary measure concerning the Peers created by Charles X. I am not known for my liking for such creation of Peers in batches, and you know I have opposed even the threat of it; but to act as judges of our colleagues, to strike from the table of Peers whomever one wishes, when one happens to be strongest, smacks of proscription. Do you wish to destroy the Peerage? So be it: better to lose one’s life than beg for it.
I reproach myself already for uttering these few words concerning a detail which, important though it may be, is lost in the grandeur of present events. France is directionless, and I will concern myself with what adds or detracts from steering a vessel whose rudder is shattered! I will ignore therefore everything in this declaration of the elected Chamber which is of secondary interest, and, keeping to the sole fact, true or pretended, that it proclaims, that of the vacancy of the throne, I will come straight to the point.
A preliminary question must be dealt with: if the throne is vacant, we are free to choose our form of government.
Before offering the crown to some individual or other, it is helpful to know what kind of political structure will constitute the social order. Shall we establish a republic or a new monarchy?
Will a republic or a new monarchy offer France sufficient guarantee of longevity, strength and peace?
A republic would have against it first of all the memory of the Republic itself. Those memories are by no means erased. Those times are not forgotten when Death marched, between Liberty and Equality, its arms round both. When you fall into fresh anarchy will you waken Hercules from the marble, he alone capable of strangling the monster? Of men worthy to live in men’s minds there have been only five or six in our history: posterity may see another Napoleon in a thousand years or so, as for us, do not expect it.
Then, given the state of our morals, and our relations with the governments surrounding us, a republic, if I am not mistaken, does not seem to me to be viable at the moment. The first problem would be to obtain a unanimous vote from the French people. What right has the population of Paris to force the population of Marseilles or any other town to be part of a republic? Will they have one republic or twenty or thirty republics? Shall they be federated or independent? Let us pass over these obstacles. Let us suppose a single republic: with our in-born sense of familiarity, do you think that a President, however grave, however respectable, however able, could last for a year in charge of our affairs without being tempted to resign? Barely protected by the law and by tradition, thwarted, libelled, insulted morning and evening by hidden rivals and trouble-makers, he would inspire little confidence among the commercial and property-owning classes; he would possess neither the dignity needed to deal with foreign cabinets, nor the power necessary to maintain order at home. If he employs revolutionary measures, the republic will be rendered odious; a troubled Europe will profit from such divisions, foment them, and intervene, and we will find her once more involved in frightful struggles. Representative republicanism is without doubt the future state of the world, but those times have not yet arrived.
I pass to the monarchy.
A king, named by the Chambers or elected by the people, will always be a novelty, however he acts. Now, I assume that we wish for freedom, above all freedom of the Press by means of which, and for which, the people have achieved a remarkable victory. Well! Any new monarchy will be forced, sooner or later, to gag that freedom. Did not Napoleon himself confess it? Daughter of our miseries and slave of our glory, the freedom of the Press will have no security except under a government that is already deep-rooted. A monarchy, bastard child of a blood-stained night, has it nothing to dread from freely expressed opinion? If these people may preach a republic, and those some other system, do you not fear that you will soon be obliged to have recourse to the laws of ‘exception’, despite the anathema against censure added to article 8 of the Charter?
Then, friends of order and freedom, what will you have gained from the changes you propose? You will fall perforce into a republic, or into legal servitude. The monarchy will be inundated and swept away by the torrent of democratic laws, or the monarch by the work of factions.
In the first intoxication of success, you think everything is easy; you hope to meet all exigencies, all moods, all interests; you flatter yourself that everyone will set aside their personal views and vanities; you believe that superiority of intellect and the wisdom of government will surmount numberless difficulties: but, after a few months, practice refutes theory.
I only present to you, gentlemen, some of the problems associated with a republic or a new monarchy. If both have their dangers, there is a third way, and that way is well-worth my spending a few words on.
Weak government has tarnished the crown, and its ministers have capped violation of the law with murder; they have toyed with oaths sworn to heaven, and laws sworn to earth.
Foreigners, you who twice entered Paris without resistance, know the true cause of your success: you presented yourselves in the name of legalised force. If you rushed today to aid tyranny, do you think the gates of the capital of the civilised world would open so easily to you? The French nation has flourished, since your departure, under a constitutional legal frame-work, and our forty-year old offspring are now giants; our conscripts in Algeria, our colleges in Paris, will show you the sons of the conquerors of Austerlitz, Marengo, and Jena; but sons strengthened by all with which freedom enhances glory.
No defence was more legitimate or more heroic than that of the people of Paris. They did not rise against the law; as long as the social pact was respected, the people remained peaceful; they suffered insult, provocation and threats without complaint; they owed their wealth and their blood in exchange for the Charter, they have given both.
But when having lied to them to the end, suddenly the hour of slavery rang; when the conspiracy of stupidity and hypocrisy promptly emerged; when a Palace Terror organised by eunuchs thought to revive the Terror of the Republic and the iron yoke of Empire, then the people armed themselves with intelligence and courage; shopkeepers proved able to breathe powder-fumes as easily as others, and a corporal and four soldiers were needed to overcome them. A century could not have better nurtured the fate of a nation than the three suns which have just shone on France. A great crime has been committed; it has produced the energetic expression of a principle: should we overthrow the established order of things, because of that crime and the moral and political triumph that followed it? Let us reflect:
Charles X and his descendants are deposed or have abdicated, as it pleases you to hear; but the throne is not vacant: after them there is a child; would you condemn his innocence?
What blood cries out against him today? Would you dare to claim that it is his father’s? This orphan, raised in a patriotic school, with a love of constitutional government and imbued with the ideas of this century, would be a king who could relate to the needs of the future. It is to the administrator of his guardianship that the declaration on which you are about to vote should have been made; reaching his majority, the young monarch would renew the oath. The present King, the actual King would be Monsieur le Duc d’Orléans, Regent of the Kingdom, a Prince who has lived among his people, and who knows that monarchy today can only be a monarchy conducted with reason and consent. This natural combination seems to me to be a means of major conciliation, and would save France maybe from the disturbances which are the consequence of violent changes in a State.
Is it truly reasonable to say that a child, separated from his masters, would not have time to forget even their names before reaching manhood; or to say that he would remain infatuated with certain dogmas attached to his birth, after a lengthy popular education?
It is not because of some sentimental devotion or nursemaid’s tenderness transmitted from cradle to cradle, from Henri IV to the young Henri, that I plead a cause where everyone would once more be against me, if it triumphed. I do not wish to partake of romance, or chivalry, or martyrdom; I do not believe in the divine right of kings, I believe in the power of revolutions and events. I do not even invoke the Charter; I raise my sights higher; I draw on the sphere of philosophy of the age in which my life will end: I propose the Duc de Bordeaux simply as a necessity, with a better cause that that which has been argued.
I know that in removing that child, they wish to establish the principle of the sovereignty of the people: a foolishness of the ancient school, which shows that, in relation to politics, our former democrats have made no more progress than the veteran royalists. There is no absolute sovereignty anywhere; freedom does not flow from political rights, as was thought in the eighteenth century; it derives from natural rights, which can be seen to exist under any form of government, and may exist and exist more extensively under a monarchy than a republic; but this is neither the time nor the place to indulge in a course of politics.
I will content myself with remarking that, when a nation has dispossessed itself of its monarch, it has often dispossessed itself of liberty too; I will merely observe that the principle of hereditary monarchy, absurd at first sight, has been found, by custom, preferable to the principle of an elected monarchy. The reasons are so evident that I do not need to develop them. You will choose a king today: who will stop you choosing another one tomorrow? The law, you say? What law? Indeed, it is one you yourselves frame!
There is a much simpler way of deciding the issue, which is to say: ‘We do not want the elder line of Bourbons. And why do we not want it? Because we are victorious, we have triumphed in a just and holy cause; we are claiming a double right of conquest.’
Fine: proclaim the sovereignty of force. Then guard yourselves carefully against that force; since if it escapes your control in a few months time, you will have no room to complain. Such is human nature! The clearest minds and the most just do not always rise above success. They are the first, those spirits, to invoke the law against violence; they support that law with all the superiority of their talents, and, at the very moment when the truth of what they are saying is demonstrated by the most abominable abuse of force and by the overthrow of that force, the conquerors seize the weapons they have broken! Dangerous tools which will wound their hands without being of service to them.
I have carried the battle onto my adversaries’ ground; I am not going to dwell in the past beneath the banner of the dead, a banner not without its glory, but which is draped around the staff which bears it, because it lacks a breath of wind to raise it. When I stirred the dust of thirty-five Capets, I was not employing an argument one would wish solely to rely on. The idolatry of names is abolished: monarchy is no longer a religion: it is a form of politics preferable at this instant to any other, because it can better maintain order and freedom.
A vain Cassandra, I have wearied the Crown and the Peerage with my fruitless warnings; it only remains for me to sit amongst the fragments of a shipwreck I have so many times predicted. I recognise all sorts of forces in misfortune, except the force that could release me from my oaths of loyalty. I must also preserve a lifetime’s consistency: after all I have done, said and written in support of the Bourbons, I would be the lowest of wretches if I disowned them at the moment when they make their way into exile for the third and final time.
I leave fear to those generous loyalists who have never sacrificed their position or a single farthing to their loyalty; to those champions of the altar and the throne, who formerly treated me as a renegade, apostate, and revolutionary. Pious libellists, the renegade calls to you! Come then and stammer a word, a single word beside him, in support of that unfortunate master who heaped his gifts on you and whom you have ruined! Provokers of many a coup d’État, asserters of constitutional power, where are you? You are hiding in the mud from whose depths you valiantly raise your head to calumniate the true servants of the King; your silence today matches your language of yesterday. Let all those valiant knights whose projected exploits have caused the descendants of Henri IV to be chased with pitchforks tremble now as they squat beneath the tricolour cockade; it is natural enough. The noble colours with which they are adorned protect the person, but fail to conceal his cowardice.
Furthermore, in expressing myself freely at this rostrum, I do not at all consider it an act of heroism. We are no longer in an age when their opinions cost men their lives; if we were, I would have spoken a hundred times more loudly. The best shield is a breast that does not fear to find itself open to the enemy. No, gentlemen, we should not fear either a nation whose sense matches its courage, nor generous Youth, which I admire, with which I sympathise with all the power of my spirit, to whom I wish, as I do my country, honour, glory, and liberty.
Furthest from my thoughts above all is the idea of casting seeds of division throughout France, and that is why I have denied my speech too passionate a tone. If I had the personal conviction that a child should be left in the obscure and happy ranks of society, to assure the repose of thirty three million people, I would regard any opposition to the needs of the moment as a crime: I do not have that conviction. If I had the right to dispose of a crown, I would lay it willingly at the feet of Monsieur le Duc d’Orléans. But I only see a tomb in Saint-Denis vacant, and not a throne.
Whatever fate awaits the Lieutenant-General of the Kingdom, I will never be his enemy if he brings happiness to my country. I only ask to preserve my freedom of conscience and the right to go and die wherever I can find freedom and repose.
I vote against the proposals in the declaration.’

I had been calm enough when beginning my speech; but gradually emotion overcame me; when I arrived at the passage; A vain Cassandra, I have wearied the Crown and the Peerage with my fruitless warnings, words failed me, and I was forced to put my handkerchief to my eyes to wipe away tears of emotion and bitterness. Indignation gave me back my voice for the paragraph which followed: Pious libellists, the renegade calls to you! Come then and stammer a word, a single word beside him, in support of that unfortunate master who heaped his gifts on you and whom you have ruined! My gaze fell then on the ranks to which I addressed those words.

Several Peers seemed stunned; they sank into their chairs to the point where I could no longer see them behind their colleagues sitting motionless in front of them. This speech had several repercussions: all the parties there were hurt, but all kept quiet, because I had placed a great sacrifice alongside great truth. I descended from the rostrum; I left the chamber; I went to the cloakroom, I took off my Peer’s costume, my sword, and my plumed hat; I detached the white cockade from it, kissed it, and put it in the little pocket on the left side of my black frock coat which I donned, and buttoned over my heart. My servant picked up the Peer’s clothes, and I abandoned, while shaking the dust from my feet, that Palace of treason, which I have never re-entered.

On the 10th and 12th of August, I finished despoiling myself and sent in my various letters of resignation;

‘Paris, this 10th of August 1830.
‘Monsieur le Président de la Chambre des Pairs,
Unable to swear an oath of loyalty to Louis Philippe d’Orléans as King of the French, I find myself legally incapacitated such as to prevent me from attending the sessions of the hereditary Chamber. A solitary mark of King Louis XVIII’s generosity and of royal munificence remains to me: that is an income as a Peer of twelve thousand francs, which was granted to me to maintain, if not in style, but at least with the freedom to satisfy my primary needs, the high dignity to which I was called. It would not be right for me to retain a favour attached to the exercise of functions which I cannot fulfil. Consequently, I have the honour to resign into your hands my income as a Peer.’
‘Paris, this 12th of August 1830.
‘Monsieur le Ministre des Finances,
An income as a Peer remains to me, due to Louis XVIII’s generosity and the National munificence, of twelve thousand francs, arranged as a life annuity, inscribed in the grand ledger of public debts, and only transmissible to the first generation by direct title. Being unable to swear the oath of allegiance to Monseigneur le Duc d’Orléans as King of the French, it would not be right for me to continue to accept the income attached to functions I no longer exercise. Consequently, I am resigning it into your hands: it will have ceased to accrue to me on the day (10th of August) on which I wrote to Monsieur le Président de la Chambre des Pairs telling him that it was impossible for me to swear the required oath.
I have the honour to be, with the highest esteem, etc.’

‘Paris, this 12th of August 1830.
Monsieur le Grand Référendaire
I have the honour to send you a copy of two letters which I have addressed, one to Monsieur le Président de la Chambre des Pairs, the other to Monsieur le Ministre des Finances. You will see that I renounce my income as a Peer, and that in consequence my authorised representative will only draw on that income due up to the 10th of August when I announced that I could not take the oath.
I have the honour to be, with the highest esteem, etc.’

‘Paris, this 12th of August 1830.
Monsieur le Ministre de la Justice,
I have the honour to send you my resignation as Minister of State.
I am, with the highest esteem,
Monsieur le Ministre de la Justice,
Your very humble and obedient servant.’

I was as naked as a lesser St John the Baptist; but for a long time I had been accustomed to live on wild honey, and I had no fear that Herodias’ daughter would covet my grey head.

My gilded embroidery, straps, fringes, braiding and epaulettes, sold to a goldsmith, and melted down by him, brought me in seven hundred francs, the end product of all my grandeur.