Of the great incidents of History, none has attracted more attention or proved more difficult of interpretation than the French Revolution. The ultimate significance of other striking events and their place in the development of mankind can be readily estimated. It is clear enough that the barbarian invasions marked the death of the classical world, already mortally wounded by the rise of Christianity. It is clear enough that the Renaissance emancipated the human intellect from the trammels of a bastard mediaevalism, that the Reformation consolidated the victory of the "new learning" by including theology among the subjects of human debate. But the French Revolution seems to defy complete analysis. Its complexity was great, its contradictions numerous and astounding. A movement ostensibly directed against despotism culminated in the establishment of a despotism far more complete than that which had been overthrown. The apostles of liberty proscribed whole classes of their fellow-citizens, drenching in innocent blood the land which they claimed to deliver from oppression. The apostles of equality established a tyranny of horror, labouring to extirpate all who had committed the sin of being fortunate. The apostles of fraternity carried fire and sword to the farthest confines of Europe, demanding that a continent should submit to the arbitrary dictation of a single people. And of the Revolution were born the most rigid of modern codes of law, that spirit of militarism which to-day has caused a world to mourn, that intolerance of intolerance which has armed anti-clerical persecutions in all lands. Nor were the actors in the drama less varied than the scenes enacted. The Revolution produced Mirabeau and Talleyrand, Robespierre and Napoleon, Sieyes and Hebert. The marshals of the First Empire, the doctrinaires of the Restoration, the journalists of the Orleanist monarchy, all were alike the children of this generation of storm and stress, of high idealism and gross brutality, of changing fortunes and glory mingled with disaster.
To describe the whole character of a movement so complex, so diverse in its promises and fulfilment, so crowded with incident, so rich in action, may well be declared impossible. No sooner has some proposition been apparently established, than a new aspect of the period is suddenly revealed, and all judgments have forthwith to be revised. That the Revolution was a great event is certain; all else seems to be uncertain. For some it is, as it was for Charles Fox, much the greatest of all events and much the best. For some it is, as it was for Burke, the accursed thing, the abomination of desolation. If its dark side alone be regarded, it oppresses the very soul of man. A king, guilty of little more than amiable weakness and legitimate or pious affection; a queen whose gravest fault was but the frivolity of youth and beauty, was done to death. For loyalty to her friends, Madame Roland died; for loving her husband, Lucille Desmoulins perished. The agents of the Terror spared neither age nor sex; neither the eminence of high attainment nor the insignificance of dull mediocrity won mercy at their hands. The miserable Du Barri was dragged from her obscure retreat to share the fate of a Malesherbes, a Bailly, a Lavoisier. Robespierre was no more protected by his cold incorruptibility, than was Barnave by his eloquence, Hebert by his sensuality, Danton by his practical good sense. Nothing availed to save from the all-devouring guillotine. Those who did survive seem almost to have survived by chance, delivered by some caprice of fortune or by the criminal levity of "les tricoteuses," vile women who degraded the very dregs of their sex.
For such atrocities no apology need be attempted, but their cause may be explained, the factors which produced such popular fury may be understood. As he stands on the terrace of Versailles or wanders through the vast apartments of the chateau, the traveller sees in imagination the dramatic panorama of the long-dead past. The courtyard is filled with half-demented women, clamouring that the Father of his People should feed his starving children. The Well-Beloved jests cynically as, amid torrents of rain, Pompadour is borne to her grave. Maintenon, gloomily pious, urges with sinister whispers the commission of a great crime, bidding the king save his vice-laden soul. Montespan laughs happily in her brief days of triumph. And dominating the scene is the imposing figure of the Grand Monarque. Louis haunts his great creation; Louis in his prime, the admired and feared of Europe, the incarnation of kingship; Louis surrounded by his gay and brilliant court, all eager to echo his historic boast, to sink in their master the last traces of their identity.
Then a veil falls. But some can lift it, to behold a far different, a far more stirring vision, and to such the deeper causes of the Terror are revealed. For they behold a vast multitude, stained with care, haggard, forlorn, striving, dying, toiling even to their death, that the passing whim of a tyrant may be gratified. Louis commanded; Versailles arose, a palace of rare delight for princes and nobles, for wits and courtly prelates, for grave philosophers and ladies frail as fair. A palace and a hell, a grim monument to regal egoism, created to minister to the inflated vanity of a despot, an eternal warning to mankind that the abuse of absolute power is an accursed thing. Every flower, in those wide gardens has been watered with the tears of stricken souls; every stone in that vast pile of buildings was cemented with human blood. None can estimate the toll of anguish exacted that Versailles might be; none can tell all its cost, since for human suffering there is no price. The weary toilers went to their doom, unnoticed, unhonoured, their misery unregarded, their pain ignored, And the king rejoiced in his glory, while his poets sang paeans in his praise.