Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXI, 8

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XXXI, 7 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXXII, 1

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXXI, chapter 8
The new Chamber – I leave for Dieppe – The decrees of the 25th of July – I return to Paris – Reflections on the way – A letter to Madame Récamier

The new Chamber’s deputies arrived in Paris: of the two hundred and twenty-one, two hundred and ten had been re-elected; the opposition had two hundred and seventy votes; the government a hundred and forty-five: the party of the Court was therefore finished. The natural result was the resignation of the Government: Charles X persisted in braving all and the coup d’état was inevitable.

I left for Dieppe on the 26th of July, at four in the morning, on the very day the decrees appeared. I was quite joyful, delighted to be seeing the sea once more, and I was followed, at some hours distance, by a frightful storm. I dined and slept at Rouen without suspecting anything, regretting that I was unable to visit Saint-Ouen, and kneel before the lovely Madonna in the museum, in memory of Raphael and Rome. I arrived in Dieppe next day, the 27th, around noon. I stayed at the hotel where Monsieur le Comte de Boissy, my former secretary at the legation, had arranged lodgings for me. I dressed and went to meet Madame Récamier. She occupied an apartment whose windows opened onto the foreshore. I spent several hours there talking and watching the waves. Suddenly Hyacinthe arrived; he brought me a letter that Monsieur de Boissy had received, announcing the decrees, with a flourish of praise. A moment later, my old friend Ballanche came in; he had arrived in the coach clasping the newspapers in his hands. I opened the Moniteur and read the official news, scarcely believing my eyes. Here was a government which, with deliberate intent, was hurling itself from the towers of Notre Dame! I told Hyacinthe to request horses, so as to leave for Paris again. I took a carriage, towards seven in the evening, leaving my friends in a state of anxiety. There had been murmurings of a coup d’état for a month or so, but no one had paid attention to the rumours, which seemed absurd. Charles X had spun illusions about the throne; he had created a mirage before the Princes which deceived them by displacing objects, and inspiring them to see imaginary countries in the sky.

I brought the Moniteur with me. As soon as it was daylight, on the 28th, I read, re-read, and commented on the decrees. The report to the King serving as a prolegomenon struck me from two perspectives: the observations on the disadvantages of the Press were just; but at the same time the author of those observations showed complete ignorance of the true state of society. Doubtless the Ministries, since 1814, of whatever persuasion, had been harassed by the papers; doubtless the Press tends to smother sovereignty, and drives royalty and the Chambers to obey it; doubtless, during the final days of the Restoration, the Press, blinded by passion, had, without regard to French honour and interests, attacked the expedition to Algiers, elaborating on the reasons, means, and preparations for it, and the chances of non-success; it had divulged confidential details of the armaments, revealed the state of our forces to the enemy, tallied our troops and ships, even indicated the point of embarkation. Would Cardinal Richelieu and Bonaparte have brought Europe to its knees before France, if they had thus revealed in advance the secrets of their negotiations, or signalled the halting places of their armies?

All that is true and shameful; but what is the remedy? The Press is an element once unseen, a force previously unknown, now active in the world; it is the word as lightening; it is social electricity. Can you prevent it existing? The more you try to suppress it, the more violent the explosion will be. You must resolve to live with it, as you live with the steam-engine. You must teach it to serve you, by robbing it of its dangers, either by weakening it little by little through familiar everyday use, or by gradually adjusting your laws and manners to the principles which will rule humanity from now on. A proof of the powerlessness of the Press in certain situations emerges from the very reproach you made against it in regard to the Algiers expedition; you took Algiers, despite the freedom of the Press, just as I undertook the war in Spain in 1823 beneath the most withering fire produced by that freedom.

But what is intolerable to read in the Ministers’ reports is that pretentious effrontery: that the KING HAS POWERS THAT PRE-DATE THE LAWS. What is the point of a constitution then? Why deceive the people with false guarantees, when the monarch can alter the established order of government at will? And yet the signatories of the report were so convinced of what they said, that they took pains to cite article 14, with the benefit of which, as I had declared long ago, they could appropriate the Charter; they mentioned it, but only for the record, and as a superfluous right which they did not need to employ.

The first decree established the suppression of Press freedom in its various forms; it was the quintessence of all that had been elaborated in the cubby-holes of the police department over fifteen years.

The second decree reworked the electoral laws. Thus the two primary freedoms, the freedom of the Press and electoral freedom, were radically harmed: this emanated not from an iniquitous though legal action of a corrupt legislative authority, but by decree, as in the days of royal whim. And five men not lacking in common sense hurled themselves, their master, the monarchy, France and Europe, with unexampled rashness, into the abyss. I was unaware what was happening in Paris. I desired a resistance movement to force the Crown, without overthrowing the throne, to dismiss the Ministers and withdraw the decrees. In the event that the latter triumphed, I was resolved not to submit, but to write and speak out against these unconstitutional measures.

If the members of the diplomatic corps did not directly influence the decrees, they favoured them with their votes; Europe had an absolute horror of our Charter. When the news of the decrees arrived in Berlin and Vienna, and for twenty-four hours they were considered a success, Monsieur Ancillon proclaimed that Europe was saved, and Prince von Metternich showed inexpressible joy. After learning the truth, the latter was as concerned as he had been delighted; he declared that he was mistaken, that public opinion was decidedly liberal, and that he was accustoming himself already to the idea of an Austrian constitution.

The nominations of the Councillors of State which followed the July ordinances threw some light on the people who, in the antechambers, by their advice or their writings, had been prepared to support the decrees. The men most opposed to representative government were signalled out. Were those fatal documents penned in the very office of the King, under the monarch’s own eyes? Were they written in Monsieur de Polignac’s office? Were they agreed in a meeting solely of Ministers or were they assisted by a few loyal anti-constitutional minds? Was it under the Leads, in some secret session of the Ten, that those decisions of July were made, in virtue of which the Legitimacy was condemned to strangulation on the Bridge of Sighs? Were the decrees Monsieur de Polignac’s own idea? Perhaps that is something history will never reveal.

Arriving in Gisors, I learnt of the uprising in Paris, and heard various alarming proposals; they proved how seriously the Charter had been taken by the population of France. At Pontoise, there was more recent news still, but confusing and contradictory. At Herblay, there were no post-horses. I waited almost an hour. I was advised to avoid Saint-Denis, because I would find it barricaded. At Courbevoie, the postilion had already abandoned his jacket with its fleur-de-lis buttons. He had spent the morning with a calash which he had conducted to Paris via the Avenue des Champs-Élysees. Consequently, he told me he would not take me that way, and would head for the Barrière de Trocadero, to the right of the Barrière de l’Étoile. From this gate Paris is revealed. I saw the tricolour flag flying; I judged that it was not merely a riot, but a revolution. I had the presentiment that my role would be altered: that having hastened to defend public freedoms, I would be obliged to defend Royalty. Clouds of white smoke rose here and there among the houses. I heard cannon-shot and the sound of muskets blended with the noise of the alarm-bells. From the height of the empty plateau destined by Napoleon as the site of the palace of the King of Rome, it seemed I was watching the ancient Louvre fall. The observation post presented one of those philosophic consolations that one disaster offers another.

My carriage descended the slope. I crossed the Pont d’Iéna, and ascended the paved avenue along the Champs de Mars. All was deserted. I found a cavalry picket posted before the railings of the MilitaryCollege; the men had a sad air as if forgotten. We took the Boulevard des Invalides and the Boulevard Montparnasse. I encountered several passers-by who gazed with astonishment at a carriage led by a postilion as if these were normal times. The Boulevard d’Enfer was blocked by felled elm-trees.

In my street, my neighbours were delighted at my arrival: I seemed to offer a protection to the whole quarter. Madame de Chateaubriand was at once comforted and alarmed by my return.

On the morning of Thursday the 29th of July, I wrote this letter, lengthened by its postscript, to Madame Récamier, at Dieppe:

                                                 ‘Thursday morning, the 29th of July 1830.
I write to you without knowing if my letter will arrive, since the couriers are no longer leaving.
I entered Paris in the midst of a cannonade, a fusillade, and the sounds of the tocsin. This morning, the alarm-bell is still sounding, but I can no longer hear gunfire; it seems that there is an element of organisation and that resistance will continue until the decrees are repealed. This is the immediate result (without calling it the definitive result) of the perjury by which the Ministers have wronged the Crown, at least in appearance!
The National Guard, the École Polytechnique, all are involved. I have seen nobody as yet. You may judge in what state I found Madame de Chateaubriand. Anyone, who, like her, witnessed the 10th of August and the 2nd of September, retains a permanent memory of the Terror. One regiment, the 5th of the Line, has already gone over to the side of the Charter. Certainly Monsieur de Polignac is greatly to blame; his lack of ability is a poor excuse; an ambition for which one has not the talent is a crime. They say the Court is at Saint-Cloud and ready to flee.
I will not speak of myself; my position is tiresome but straightforward. I will betray neither the King nor the Charter, neither the Legitimacy nor freedom. I have nothing more to say or do than wait and weep for my country. God only knows what will happen in the provinces; they already speak of an insurrection at Rouen. On another front, the Congregation will arm the Chouans and the Vendée. What Empires depend on! A decree and six Ministers without talent or virtue are enough to turn the most tranquil and flourishing country into one of the most troubled and unfortunate.’
The firing has recommenced. It seems they are attacking the Louvre where the Kings troops are entrenched. The suburb I live in is beginning to revolt. They talk of a provisional government whose leaders would be General Gérard, the Duc de Choiseul and Monsieur de Lafayette.
This letter will probably not leave Paris, since the city is declared to be in a state of siege. Marshal Marmont commands for the King. They say he has been killed, but I do not believe it. Try not to worry too much. God protect you! We will meet again!’
This letter was written yesterday; there was no way of sending it. All is over: the popular victory is complete; the King has yielded on all points; but I fear they will now go way beyond the concessions made by the Crown. I wrote to His Majesty this morning. Meanwhile, I have a total scheme of future sacrifice which appeals to me. We will speak of it when you arrive.
I am going to put this letter in the post myself, and reconnoitre Paris.’