CHAPTER XVIII. THE FORMATION OF THE THIRD REPUBLIC.
When the Commune put forth its decree for this act of vandalism, Thiers' consternation was pathetic. The ladies of his family did everything that feminine energy and ingenuity could suggest to avert the calamity. But when the destruction had taken place, Thiers bore his loss with dignity. His collections were very fine, but he had always been afraid of their being damaged, and did not show them to strangers. When the Commune sent the painter Courbet to appraise their value, he estimated the bronzes alone at $300,000. M. Thiers' collection of Persian, Chinese, and Japanese curios was also almost unique. After the overthrow of the Commune, Madame Thiers and her sister did their utmost to recover such of these treasures as had passed into the hands of dealers. Many of these men gave back their purchases, and none demanded extravagant prices. A great deal was recovered, and the house on the Place Saint-Georges was rebuilt at the public cost.
[Footnote 1: Le Figaro.]
It was on the 5th of September, 1872, that the last German soldier quitted France and the five milliards of francs (in our money a thousand millions of dollars) had been paid.
[Footnote 1: When looking over letters and papers concerning this period, I found among them many original notes from M. and Madame Thiers. They all had broad black borders. I learned afterwards that Thiers and his family used mourning paper so long as a single German soldier remained on French soil. Thiers' writing was thick and splashy. He always wrote with a quill pen. Early in life he had, like Sir Walter Raleigh, projected a History of the World; and as he never wrote of anything whose locality he had not seen, he had made his preparations to circumnavigate the globe, when he was arrested by the state of public affairs while on his way to Havre.]
I borrow the words of another writer speaking of this supreme effort on the part of France: -
"After the most frightful defeat of modern times, with one third of her territory in the enemy's hands, with her capital in insurrection, and her available army all required to restore order, France in eighteen months paid a fine equal to one fourth of the English National Debt; elected a bourgeois of genius to her head; obeyed him on points on which she disagreed with him; and endured a foreign occupation without giving one single pretext for real severity.... The people of France had no visible chiefs; the only two men who rose to the occasion were M. Thiers and Gambetta. If M. Thiers showed tact, wisdom, and above all courage and firmness, in probably the most difficult position in which man was ever placed, surely we may pause to admire Gambetta.... Daring in all things, under the Empire he denounced Napoleonism, and by his eloquence and courage he guided timid millions and rival factions from the day when Napoleon III. was deposed. Under the Empire he had yearned to restore the true life of the nation; when the Empire was overturned he could not believe that that life was impaired. He thought it would be easy for France to rise as one man and drive out the invader. As each terrible defeat was experienced, he regarded it as only a momentary reverse. He had such abounding faith in his cause, - the cause of France, the cause of French Republicanism, - that he could not believe in failure. Of course, to have been a more clear-sighted statesman, like M. Thiers, would have been best; but there is something very noble in the blind zeal of this disappointed man."
It moves one to pity to think of Gambetta weeping in the streets of Bordeaux, as we are told he did, when the bitter news of the surrender of Paris made all his labors useless, and dashed to the ground his cherished hopes. Without one word to trouble the flow of events that were taking a course contrary to all his expectations, he resigned his dictatorship when it could no longer be of service to his country, and took himself out of the way of intrigues in his favor, passing over the Spanish frontier. As soon as the Germans were out of France, M. Thiers also was prepared to resign his power. He called a National Assembly to determine the form of government.
There were several points of primary importance to be settled at once; first: should France be a monarchy, or a republic?
That she would again become a monarchy was generally anticipated; but the Comte de Chambord had, as we have seen, forfeited his chances for the moment. If France were a republic, who should be her president? Should there be a vice-president? Should the president be elected by the Chamber, or by a vote of the people? Should there be one Chamber, or two?
M. Thiers was opposed to having any vice-president, and was in favor of two Chambers. He vehemently urged the continuance of the Republic, saying that a monarchy was impossible. There was but one throne, and there were three dynasties to dispute it. On one occasion he said: "Gentlemen, I am an old disciple of the monarchy [he was probably alluding to the opinions which his mother and his grandmother had endeavored to instil into him]. I am what is called a Monarchist who practises Republicanism for two reasons, - first, because he agreed to do so, secondly, because practically he can do nothing else."
The Assembly proclaimed the continuance of the Republic, and likewise the continuance of M. Thiers as its president for seven years.
On several occasions after this, M. Thiers carried his point with the Assembly by threatening to resign; and as the Assembly was quite aware how difficult it would be to put anyone in his place, the threat always resulted in his victory.