I am about to take a rapid review of the history of the French revolution, which began the era of new societies in Europe, as the English revolution had begun the era of new governments. This revolution not only modified the political power, but it entirely changed the internal existence of the nation. The forms of the society of the middle ages still remained. The land was divided into hostile provinces, the population into rival classes. The nobility had lost all their powers, but still retained all their distinctions: the people had no rights, royalty no limits; France was in an utter confusion of arbitrary administration, of class legislation and special privileges to special bodies. For these abuses the revolution substituted a system more conformable with justice, and better suited to our times. It substituted law in the place of arbitrary will, equality in that of privilege; delivered men from the distinctions of classes, the land from the barriers of provinces, trade from the shackles of corporations and fellowships, agriculture from feudal subjection and the oppression of tithes, property from the impediment of entails, and brought everything to the condition of one state, one system of law, one people.
In order to effect such mighty reformation as this, the revolution had many obstacles to overcome, involving transient excesses with durable benefits. The privileged sought to prevent it; Europe to subject it; and thus forced into a struggle, it could not set bounds to its efforts, or moderate its victory. Resistance from within brought about the sovereignty of the multitude, and aggression from without, military domination. Yet the end was attained, in spite of anarchy and in spite of despotism: the old society was destroyed during the revolution, and the new one became established under the empire.
When a reform has become necessary, and the moment for accomplishing it has arrived, nothing can prevent it, everything furthers it. Happy were it for men, could they then come to an understanding; would the rich resign their superfluity, and the poor content themselves with achieving what they really needed, revolutions would then be quietly effected, and the historian would have no excesses, no calamities to record; he would merely have to display the transition of humanity to a wiser, freer, and happier condition. But the annals of nations have not as yet presented any instance of such prudent sacrifices; those who should have made them have refused to do so; those who required them have forcibly compelled them; and good has been brought about, like evil, by the medium and with all the violence of usurpation. As yet there has been no sovereign but force.
In reviewing the history of the important period extending from the opening of the states-general to 1814, I propose to explain the various crises of the revolution, while I describe their progress. It will thus be seen through whose fault, after commencing under such happy auspices, it so fearfully degenerated; in what way it changed France into a republic, and how upon the ruins of the republic it raise the empire. These various phases were almost inevitable, so irresistible was the power of the events which produced them. It would perhaps be rash to affirm that by no possibility could the face of things have been otherwise; but it is certain that the revolution, taking its rise from such causes, and employing and arousing such passions, naturally took that course, and ended in that result. Before we enter upon its history, let us see what led to the convocation of the states-general, which themselves brought on all that followed. In retracing the preliminary causes of the revolution, I hope to show that it was as impossible to avoid as to guide it.
From its establishment the French monarchy had had no settled form, no fixed and recognised public right. Under the first races the crown was elective, the nation sovereign, and the king a mere military chief, depending on the common voice for all decisions to be made, and all the enterprises to be undertaken. The nation elected its chief, exercised the legislative power in the Champs de Mars under the presidentship of the king, and the judicial power in the courts under the direction of one of his officers. Under the feudal regime, this royal democracy gave way to a royal aristocracy. Absolute power ascended higher, the nobles stripped the people of it, as the prince afterwards despoiled the nobles. At this period the monarch had become hereditary; not as king, but as individually possessor of a fief; the legislative authority belonged to the seigneurs, in their vast territories or in the barons' parliaments; and the judicial authority to the vassals in the manorial courts. In a word, power had become more and more concentrated, and as it had passed from the many to the few, it came at last from the few to be invested in one alone. During centuries of continuous efforts, the kings of France were battering down the feudal edifice, and at length they established themselves on its ruins, having step by step usurped the fiefs, subdued the vassals, suppressed the parliaments of barons, annulled or subjected the manorial courts, assumed the legislative power, and effected that judicial authority should be exercised in their name and on their behalf, in parliaments of legists.