Read Paris, June 15, 1795 of A Residence in France During the Years 1792‚ 1793‚ 1794 and 1795‚ Part IV, free online book, by An English Lady, on

I am now, after a residence of more than three years, amidst the chaos of a revolution, on the eve of my departure from France. Yet, while I joyfully prepare to revisit my own country, my mind involuntarily traces the rapid succession of calamities which have filled this period, and dwells with painful contemplation on those changes in the morals and condition of the French people that seem hitherto to be the only fruits which they have produced. In this recurrence to the past, and estimation of the present, however we may regret the persecution of wealth, the destruction of commerce, and the general oppression, the most important and irretrievable mischief of the revolution is, doubtless, the corruption of manners introduced among the middle and lower classes of the people.

The labouring poor of France have often been described as frugal, thoughtless, and happy, earning, indeed, but little, yet spending still less, and in general able to procure such a subsistence as their habits and climate rendered agreeable and sufficient.

They are now become idle, profuse, and gloomy; their poverty is embittered by fanciful claims to riches and a taste for expence. They work with despair and unwillingness, because they can no longer live by their labour; and, alternately the victims of intemperance or want, they are often to be found in a state of intoxication, when they have not been able to satisfy their hunger for, as bread cannot always be purchased with paper, they procure a temporary support, at the expence of their health and morals, in the destructive substitute of strong liquors.

Those of the next class, such as working tradesmen, artizans, and domestic servants, though less wretched, are far more dissolute; and it is not uncommon in great towns to see men of this description unite the ferociousness of savages with all the vices of systematic profligacy. The original principles of the revolution, of themselves, naturally tended to produce such a depravation; but the suspension of religious worship, the conduct of the Deputies on mission, and the universal immorality of the existing government, must have considerably hastened it. When the people were forbidden the exercise of their religion, though they did not cease to be attached to it, yet they lost the good effects which even external forms alone are calculated to produce; and while deism and atheism failed in perverting their faith, they were but too successful in corrupting their morals.

As in all countries the restraints which religion imposes are more readily submitted to by the inferior ranks of life, it is these which must be most affected by its abolition; and we cannot wonder, that when men have been once accustomed to neglect the duty they consider as most essential, they should in time become capable of violating every other: for, however it may be among the learned, qui s’aveuglent a force de lumiere, [Who blind themselves by excess of light. Destouchet.] with the ignorant the transition from religious indifference to actual vice is rapid and certain.

The Missionaries of the Convention, who for two years extended their destructive depredations over the departments, were every where guilty of the most odious excesses, and those least culpable offered examples of licentiousness and intemperance with which, till then, the people had never been familiar.

It may be admitted, that the lives of the higher Noblesse were not always edifying; but if their dissipation was public, their vices were less so, and the scenes of both were for the most part confined to Paris. What they did not practise themselves, they at least did not discourage in others; and though they might be too indolent to endeavour at preserving the morals of their dependents, they knew their own interest too well to assist in depraving them.

But the Representatives, and their agents, are not to be considered merely as individuals who have corrupted only by example; they were armed with unlimited authority, and made proselytes through fear, where they failed to produce them from inclination. A contempt for religion or decency has been considered as the test of an attachment to the government; and a gross infraction of any moral or social duty as a proof of civism, and a victory over prejudice. Whoever dreaded an arrest, or courted an office, affected profaneness and profligacy and, doubtless, many who at first assumed an appearance of vice from timidity, in the end contracted a preference for it. I myself know instances of several who began by deploring that they were no longer able to practise the duties of their religion, and ended by ridiculing or fearing them. Industrious mechanics, who used to go regularly to mass, and bestow their weekly liard on the poor, after a month’s revolutionising, in the suite of a Deputy, have danced round the flames which consumed the sacred writings, and become as licentious and dishonest as their leader.

The general principles of the Convention have been adapted to sanction and accelerate the labours of their itinerant colleagues. The sentences of felons were often reversed, in consideration of their patriotism women of scandalous lives have been pensioned, and complimented publicly and various decrees passed, all tending to promote a national dissoluteness of manners.

The evil propensities of our nature, which penal laws and moralists vainly contend against, were fostered by praise, and stimulated by reward all the established distinctions of right and wrong confounded and a system of revolutionary ethics adopted, not less incompatible with the happiness of mankind than revolutionary politics.

Thus, all the purposes for which this general demoralization was promoted, being at length attained, those who were rich having been pillaged, those who were feared massacred, and a croud of needy and desperate adventurers attached to the fate of the revolution, the expediency of a reform has lately been suggested. But the mischief is already irreparable. Whatever was good in the national character is vitiated; and I do not scruple to assert, that the revolution has both destroyed the morals of the people, and rendered their condition less happy that they are not only removed to a greater distance from the possession of rational liberty, but are become more unfit for it than ever.

As I have frequently, in the course of these letters, had occasion to quote from the debates of the Convention, and other recent publications, I ought to observe that the French language, like every thing else in the country, has been a subject of innovation new words have been invented, the meaning of old ones has been changed, and a sort of jargon, compounded of the appropriate terms of various arts and sciences, introduced, which habit alone can render intelligible. There is scarcely a report read in the Convention that does not exhibit every possible example of the Bathos, together with more conceits than are to be found in a writer of the sixteenth century; and I doubt whether any of their projects of legislation or finance would be understood by Montesquieu or Colbert.

But the style most difficult to be comprehended by foreigners, is that of the newspapers; for the dread of offending government so entirely possesses the imagination of those who compose such publications, that it is not often easy to distinguish a victory from a defeat, by the language in which it is conveyed. The common news of the day is worded as cautiously as though it were to be the subject of judicial disquisition; and the real tendency of an article is sometimes so much at variance with its comment, that the whole, to a cursory peruser, may seem destitute of any meaning at all. Time, however, has produced a sort of intelligence between news-writers and their readers and rejoicings, lamentations, praise, or censure, are, on particular occasions, understood to convey the reverse of what they express.

The affected moderation of the government, and the ascendency which some of the Brissotin party are beginning to take in it, seem to flatter the public with the hope of peace. They forget that these men were the authors of the war, and that a few months imprisonment has neither expiated their crimes, nor subdued their ambition. It is the great advantage of the Brissotins, that the revolutionary tyranny which they had contributed to establish, was wrested from them before it had taken its full effect; but those who appreciate their original claims, without regard to their sufferings under the persecution of a party, are disposed to expect they will not be less tenacious of power, nor less arbitrary in the exercise of it than any of the intervening factions. The present government is composed of such discordant elements, that their very union betrays that they are in fact actuated by no principle, except the general one of retaining their authority. Lanjuinais, Louvet, Saladin, Danou, &c. are now leagued with Tallien, Freron, Dubois de Crance, and even Carnot.

At the head of this motley assemblage of Brissotins, Orleanists, and Robespierrians, is Sieyes who, with perhaps less honesty, though more cunning, than either, despises and dupes them all. At a moment when the Convention had fallen into increased contempt, and when the public affairs could no longer be conducted by fabricators of reports and framers of decrees, the talents of this sinister politician became necessary; yet he enjoys neither the confidence of his colleagues nor that of the people the vanity and duplicity of his conduct disgust and alarm the first, while his reputation of partizan of the Duke of Orleans is a reason for suspicion in the latter. But if Sieyes has never been able to conciliate esteem, nor attain popularity, he has at length possessed himself of power, and will not easily be induced to relinquish it. Many are of opinion, that he is secretly machinating for the son of his former patron; but whether he means to govern in the name of the Duke of Orleans, or in that of the republic, it is certain, had the French any liberty to lose, it never could have found a more subtle and dangerous enemy.

Paris may, without exaggeration, be described as in a state of famine. The markets are scantily supplied, and bread, except the little distributed by order of the government, not to be obtained: yet the inhabitants, for the most part, are not turbulent they have learned too late, that revolutions are not the source of plenty, and, though they murmur and execrate their rulers, they abstain from violence, and seem rather inclined to yield to despair, than to seek revenge. This is one proof, among a variety of others, that the despotism under which the French have groaned for the last three years, has much subdued the vivacity and impatience of the national character; for I know of no period in their history, when such a combination of personal suffering and political discontent, as exists at present, would not have produced some serious convulsion.