Chapter 23

It was one of those temperate and pleasant evenings which in this climate succeed the autumnal equinox, that the Marquis and the Captain walking out together, the subject of the conversation happened to be the right of the people of France to overthrow the monarchy, and establish a republic. The Captain had read the pamphlets of Thomas Paine, entitled, "Rights of Man," and was a good deal disposed to subscribe to the elementary principles of that work; a leading doctrine of which is, that at no time can the pact or customs of ancestors forestall or take away the right of descendants to frame whatever kind of government they think proper.

This must be understood, said the Marquis, like most other general propositions, with some limitation, or exception; or at least some explanation, before the mind of all, at least of mine, can acquiesce in the deductions. It may easily be supposed that I am not a proper person to canvass this subject, having been of that class of men, who had all to lose, and nothing to gain, by a revolution in the government of the country where I lived. Nevertheless, if my feelings do not deceive me, I ought not to be considered as a person under great prejudices. For it seems to me, that I am detached from the world, and never more expecting to be restored to my country, so as to live in it with reputation, or even with safety, I am like a person with all his senses awake, and within a few seconds of death; his vanity is asleep, his pride is gone; he looks back upon his pursuits, and his hopes, with true philosophy, and makes a proper estimate of all the acquisitions, and all the enjoyments of life. Or rather, I may be thought to resemble a disembodied spirit, who no longer capable of enjoying the false glories of life, is not liable to be seduced by the appearance of them. The shades of departed men in the elysian fields as imagined by the ancients, and painted by the poets, cannot be more abstracted from former impressions, than I feel myself to be, in this kind of elysian, and posthumous valley. When I converse with you who have come from the world, and may return to it, I am in the situation of the Grecian worthies defunct of life, when visited by Ulysses. Achilles candidly acknowledged to him, that he had rather live as a hired labourer with a poor man, who had little food, than to rule over all the ghosts. I will in like manner declare, that such is my predilection for my country, and that ravishing delight which I would take, in breathing my native air, and seeing my native soil, looking at the buildings which were accustomed to strike my eyes in better days, that I would prefer fishing along the streams for my precarious and daily food, or digging the soil, and procuring my subsistence with a peasant, than to be the President of the United States, deprived of the countenance of my countrymen, and the view of that other heaven, and that other earth. The contempt that I may have entertained, or at least the undervaluing inseparable from my situation, which I may have felt, for the undignified with nobility amongst us, is totally gone: I could lay myself down, with the meanest plebian, and call him my brother. Descent, title, and fortune, have disappeared from the eyes, and I see nothing but man, in his rude and original excellence, as a conversing and sociable animal. Nevertheless, even in this state of mind, I cannot wholly subscribe to the analysis of Paine. Let us examine his position.

The new born infant has a right to a support from its ancestor, until it shall be of years to provide for itself; but has it a right to his estate after it shall have been of a mature age? surely not a natural right; nor a right sanctioned in all cases even by the municipal law; for the ancestor may alien, or devise away from the heir. But if he claims as heir, or takes by devise, is it not under the artificial establishment of society, that he makes this claim, or takes this gift? shall he not then take this estate subject to that government in the principle and form of it, under which this estate was acquired, and by which it is preserved to him? The civil relations that exist from the aggregate to him, are a law, as well as the relations that exist from individuals. Suppose all minors of age at one hour, and all ancestors just departed at the same moment, there might be some reason then in supposing that the descendants were not bound by the former establishments, but were at liberty to introduce others; or the descendants emigrating, and occupying a new soil, are certainly at liberty to frame new structures: But not while a single ancestor exists, who has an interest in the old mansion house, and is attached to the building, however Gothic; because the ancestor had this right before the minor was born, and his birth could not take it away. I say, then, contrary to the principle of Paine, that our ancestors having established an hereditary monarchy, it is not in the power of the descendants to change it. They may remove from under it if they will, but not pull the house down about our heads.

The early feudalist, whose acquisitions and possession of them, depended on that military subordination and tenure which gave rise to the system, when he took his place in it either as a chieftain, or a vassal, submitted to it; he had his voice in this social compact; and shall his descendants be allowed to unhinge the tenure, and change the fabric which was not of his building? shall he claim the advantages of that species of government to which he has been introduced, and not submit to the inequalities of it? or shall it be changed but by universal consent? shall even a majority change it? No: because each individual is, in the language of the law, a joint tenant, and has a right, per my and per tout, in the part, and in the whole. It can no more take away the right an individual has in the system of government, than the right he has in his estate, held by a prior law. Upon investigation, it will be found a question more of power than of right; just as in these woods, I take the racoons and rabbits, not that I conceive myself to have any right to have come from the banks of the Loire to make these depredations, but that having come, I have the skill to do it.

The Captain was led to smile at these last words of the Marquis, as savouring of misanthropy, equalising the case of brute animals with men. I can easily excuse, said the Captain, this sally of your mind, and must resolve it into the wounds your feelings have received from the reverse of your fortune, and the dreadful outrages which have taken place, in the course of the revolution, from the fury of the human mind. Nor would I call in question wholly the justness of your position, with regard to the right of changing a mode of government. Nevertheless, it may admit of some discussion in the generality, and be so bounded as to leave some great cases out of the rule. I grant you that the descendant, on the principle of natural right can claim nothing more of the personal labor of the ancestor, or of his estate than support, until he shall be of an age which gives strength of mind and body to enable him to provide for himself. But does he not possess by his birth, a right to so much of the soil as is necessary for his subsistence? You will say he may emigrate. But suppose all adjoining known lands already peopled; he cannot emigrate without committing injustice upon others. He must therefore remain. How to preclude him from all right to think, or act in affairs of government, with a view to improve, and to improve is to change, is restraining the mind of man, in a particular capable of greatest extent, and upon which depends. more than on all things else, the perfection of our species. I would put it upon this point, is it conducive to an amelioration of the state of life, and likely to produce a greater sum of happiness, to innovate upon established forms, or to let them remain? It is true, indeed, that when we consider the throes and convulsions with which a change in government is usually attended, it ought not to be lightly attempted; and nothing but an extreme necessity for a reform can justify it. It is almost as impossible, comparing a physical with a moral difficulty, to change a government from despotism to liberty, without violence, as to dislodge a promontary from its base, by any other means, than mining and gun powder.

Of that I am convinced, said the Marquis; for there never was a people more generally disposed to a degree of reform, than the people of France, at the commencement of the revolution. The writings of philosophers had pervaded the minds of the highest orders, and it had become the passion of the times to lean towards a certain extent of liberty. It had become the wish of the good, and the humour of the weak, to advance the condition of the peasantry. As an instance of this, I myself had written a book, entitled"Sur le bonheur de Campagne," with the express view of depicting the depressed situation of the common people in the country, and the means of raising them from that condition.

But a reform once begun, it was found impossible to arrest it at a middle point. It may be resolved into a thousand causes, but the great cause was, the insatiable nature of the human mind, that will not be contented with what is moderate. For though there were doubtless a considerable portion of the nobility who were opposed to any diminution of their power and pageantry; yet, on the other hand, as great an evil existed in the wish of extreme equality in others; or rather, a wish to bring all things to a perfect level, that from thence they might begin to ascend themselves. There began to be insincerity on the part of the court, and licentiousness on the part of the people; and finally a contest, lurid and dreadful, like the column of dark clouds edged with blue, and fraught with lightning. A contest so terrible, that I have thought myself happy in escaping from it, even though I have been obliged to call upon the rocks and the mountains to cover me in this valley.

The above is a sample of those conversations which took place, between the Marquis and the Captain, during the space of some weeks which the Captain spent in this rural and obscure recess. In the mean time, the Count, the son of the Marquis, had been despatched occasionally through the settlement, and to the village where the late outrage had been perpetrated, in order to learn what had become of the revenue officer, as also to ascertain the state of the public mind, and when it might be safe for the Captain to show himself in public, and return by the main road to his habitation.

Nothing had been heard of O'Regan, but accounts the most unfavorable were obtained of the disposition of the people. The flame of opposition had spread generally, and the whole country appeared to be involved in a common burning. They had demolished all inspection houses, far and near; assembled in committees, and framed resolves of the utmost violence. The obnoxious were banished; and even the lukewarm in the cause were threatened with the destruction of their goods, and injury to their persons. They had begun to frame guillotines, and to talk of taking off the heads of traitors to the cause.

The Captain was not a little alarmed at these proceedings; but the Marquis who had seen the machine of the guillotine in actual operation, was seized with a horrid fear; and he almost imagined to himself that he saw it moving of its own accord towards him; and his reason told him, that it was not at all improbable but that it might be brought to approach him very speedily, as the same sans cullotte anarchy and violence began to show itself in these regions, as had broke out in regions of France.