CHAPTER III. FROM THE 6TH OF OCTOBER, 1789, TO THE DEATH OF MIRABEAU, APRIL, 1791
Mirabeau now caused Necker to be invested with a complete financial dictatorship. He spoke of the urgent wants of the state, of the labours of the assembly which did not permit it to discuss the plan of the minister, and which at the same time prevented its examining any other; of Necker's skill, which ensured the success of his own measure; and urged the assembly to leave with him the responsibility of its success, by confidently adopting it. As some did not approve of the views of the minister, and others suspected the intentions of Mirabeau with respect to him, he closed his speech, one of the most eloquent he ever delivered, by displaying bankruptcy impending, and exclaiming, "Vote this extraordinary subsidy, and may it prove sufficient! Vote it; for if you have doubts respecting the means, you have none respecting the want, and our inability to supply it. Vote it, for the public circumstances will not bear delay, and we shall be accountable for all postponement. Beware of asking for time; misfortune never grants it. Gentlemen, on the occasion of a ridiculous motion at the Palais Royal, an absurd incursion, which had never had any importance, save in feeble imaginations, or the minds of men of ill designs and bad faith, you once heard these words, 'Catiline is at the gates of Rome, and yet they deliberate!' And yet there were around us neither Catiline, nor perils, nor factions, nor Rome. But now bankruptcy, hideous bankruptcy, is there; it threatens to consume you, your properties, your honour, and yet you deliberate!" Mirabeau had carried away the assembly by his oratory; and the patriotic contribution was voted with unanimous applause.
But this resource had only afforded momentary relief. The finances of the revolution depended on a more daring and more vast measure. It was necessary not only to support the revolution, but to repair the immense deficit which stopped its progress, and threatened its future destiny. One way alone remained - to declare ecclesiastical property national, and to sell it for the rescue of the state. Public interest prescribed this course; and it could be done with justice, the clergy not being the proprietors, but the simple administrators of this property, devoted to religion, and not to the priests. The nation, therefore, by taking on itself the expenses of the altar, and the support of its ministers might procure and appropriate an important financial resource, and obtain a great political result.
It was important not to leave an independent body, and especially an ancient body, any longer in the state; for in a time of revolution everything ancient is hostile. The clergy, by its formidable hierarchy and its opulence, a stranger to the new changes, would have remained as a republic in the kingdom. Its form belonged to another system: when there was no state, but only bodies, each order had provided for its own regulation and existence. The clergy had its decretals, the nobility its law of fiefs, the people its corporations; everything was independent, because everything was private. But now that functions were becoming public, it was necessary to make a magistracy of the priesthood as they had made one of royalty; and, in order to make them dependent on the state, it was essential they should be paid by it, and to resume from the monarch his domains, from the clergy its property, by bestowing on each of them suitable endowments. This great operation, which destroyed the ancient ecclesiastical regime, was effected in the following manner:
One of the most pressing necessities was the abolition of tithes. As these were a tax paid by the rural population to the clergy, the sacrifice would be for the advantage of those who were oppressed by them. Accordingly, after declaring they were redeemable, on the night of the 4th of August, they were suppressed on the 11th, without providing any equivalent. The clergy opposed the measure at first, but afterwards had the good sense to consent. The archbishop of Paris gave up tithes in the name of all his brethren, and by this act of prudence he showed himself faithful to the line of conduct adopted by the privileged classes on the night of the 4th of August; but this was the extent of his sacrifices.
A short time after, the debate respecting the possession of ecclesiastical property began. Talleyrand, bishop of Autun, proposed to the clergy that they should renounce it in favour of the nation, which would employ it in defraying the expenses of worship, and liquidating its debt. He proved the justice and propriety of this measure; and he showed the great advantages which would accrue to the state. The property of the clergy amounted to several thousand millions of francs. After paying its debts, providing for the ecclesiastical services and that of hospitals, and the endowment of its ministers, sufficient would still remain to extinguish the public debt, whether permanent or annuities, and to reimburse the money paid for judicial offices. The clergy rose against this proposition. The discussion became very animated; and it was decided, in spite of their resistance, that they were not proprietors, but simple depositaries of the wealth that the piety of kings and of the faithful had devoted to religion, and that the nation, on providing for the service of public worship, had a right to recall such property. The decree which placed it at its disposal was passed on the 2nd of December, 1789.