Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXIV, 3

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXXIV, chapter 3
My pamphlet on The Restoration and the Elective Monarchy

Paris, End of March 1831.

I was far from correct in thinking that by leaving the July days behind me I would be entering a realm of peace. The fall of three sovereigns obliged me to justify myself to the Chamber of Peers. The proscription of those kings did not allow me to remain silent. From another direction, Philippe’s newspapers demanded to know why I had refused to serve a revolution which had consecrated the principles I propagated and defended. I was forced to utter universal truths and explain my personal conduct. An extract from a little pamphlet which was wasted (De la Restauration et de la Monarchie élective) will continue the thread of my story and that of the history of my times:

‘Stripped of the present, and having only an uncertain future this side of the tomb, it is important that my memory is not harmed by my silence. I ought not to be reticent about a Restoration in which I played so great a part, which is insulted every day, and which was finally proscribed before my eyes. In the Middle Ages, in times of disaster, they imprisoned a churchman in a tower where he lived on bread and water for the good of the people. I bear a fair resemblance to that twelfth century monk: through the skylight of my expiatory cell, I preached my last sermon to the passers-by. Here is the gist of that sermon; I foreshadowed it in my last speech at the rostrum of the Chamber of Peers: the July Monarchy has to be in a state of utter glory or one of laws of ‘exception’; it lives and dies by the Press; without glory it will be devoured by liberty; if it attacks that liberty, it will perish. It would be a fine thing to see us, after we chased three kings beyond the barricades to win Press freedom, raising new barricades against that freedom! And yet, what else is there to do? Will the redoubled action of the tribunes and the laws suffice to contain the writers? A new government is a child that cannot walk without support. Shall we return the nation to its swaddling clothes? Can the dreadful infant that sucked blood, while held in the arms of victory in so many bivouacs, not throw them off? Only an old tree-stump rooted deeply in the past can brave with impunity the storms of liberty and the Press………………..

To hear the proclamations these days, one would think the exiles in Edinburgh were the nicest people in the world, and had never done anything wrong. Today, the present is lacking only one thing: the past, a small matter! As though the centuries were not resting on one another and the last one to arrive could hang there in mid-air! Our pride has to be shocked by the memories, erasing of the fleur-de-lis, proscribing of the people and names, that family, heir of a thousand years, has left an immense void by its removal: it is felt everywhere. Those individuals, so weak in our eyes, have weakened Europe by their fall. If events ever produce their natural effects, and lead to serious consequences, then Charles X in abdicating will have taken with him in his abdication all the Gothic kings, the great vassals of the past in suzerainty to the Capets…………………………………

We are marching towards universal revolution. If the transformation which is taking place follows its course and meets with no obstacles, if popular understanding continues its progressive development, if the education of the middle classes is not interrupted, the nations will achieve an equal level of freedom; if that transformation is halted, the nations will achieve an equal level of tyranny. The tyranny will not last, because of the advance of enlightenment in this age, but it will be harsh, and a lengthy period of social dissolution will follow.

Preoccupied as I am with these ideas, one can see why I have remained faithful, as an individual, to what would seem to best safeguard public freedoms, the least perilous path by which we might achieve the remainder of those freedoms.

It is not that I wish to be a whining prophet of sentimental politics, sporting the white feather and reiterating the commonplaces of Henri IV’s age. Traversing with my eyes the space which separates the tower of the Temple from the Palace in Edingburgh I would find, doubtless, as many heaped-up calamities as there are centuries accumulated by a noble race. A grieving woman above all was charged with the heaviest burden, and the greatest; there is not a heart which does not break on remembering her: her sufferings mounted so high they became one of the grandeurs of the Revolution. But in the end one is not forced to be a king. Providence sends personal afflictions to whom it wishes, always brief, because life itself is short; and those afflictions hardly count in the general destiny of nations……………

But the proposition that banishing the deposed family forever from French territory is a corollary to deposing that family, that corollary does not hold conviction with me. It would be pointless for me to seek a place among the various categories of people who are attached to the present order of things…..

There are men, who, after preaching sermons to the one and indivisible Republic, to the Directory of five persons, to the Consulate of three, to the Empire of one alone, to the first Restoration, the Act additional to the Imperial constitution, and the second Restoration, still have something left to utter regarding Louis-Philippe: I am not that well-stocked.

There are men who broke their word on the Place de Grève, in July, like those Roman knights who play at odd or even, among the ruins: they consider anyone who does not reduce politics to private interest as a fool and a madman: I am a fool and a madman.

There are timorous people who would have preferred not to take the oath, but who imagined themselves, their grandparents, their grandchildren and all property owners murdered if they did not stutter it out: that is a physical infirmity which I have not yet experienced; I will wait, and if it afflicts me, I will tell you.

There are great lords of the Empire, tied to their pensions by sacred and indissoluble bonds, whoever’s hands they themselves might fall into: a pension is a sacrament in their eyes; it is stamped with the cachet of priesthood or marriage; no pensioned head can cease to be: pensions being in the care of the Treasury, they remain in the care of that same Treasury: I make it a habit to divorce myself from fortune; too old for her, I desert her, for fear lest she will not leave me.

There are noble Barons of the Throne and Altar, who did not betray the decrees; no, but the inadequate means employed to execute those decrees heated their bile; indignant that tyranny had failed, they went to seek another ante-chamber: it is impossible for me to share their indignation and their hearth.

There are men of conscience who were only oath-breakers in breaking their oath, who having yielded to force are nevertheless on the side of right; they wept for poor Charles X, whom they had first led to his doom with their advice, and then put to death according to their oath; but if ever he or his race return, they will be warriors of the Legitimacy: I have always been devoted to death, and I am the whole cortege of the old monarchy as his dog is a poor man’s.

Finally there are the loyal knights who in their pockets keep dispensations of honour and permits for disloyalty: I am not one of them.

I was a man of the potential Restoration, the Restoration of all kinds of freedom. That Restoration took me for an enemy; it is gone: I must submit to its fate. Should I attach the few years left to me to a new fortune, like the hems of those robes that women trail from place to place, and on which all the world may tread? As the leader of the younger generation, I would be suspect; to follow them is not my role. I know very well that none of my faculties have aged; I understand my century better than ever; I penetrate the future more boldly than anyone; but fate has made its pronouncement; to end one’s life fittingly is an essential task for a public man.