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Count De Mirabeau
Honore Gabriel Riquetti, Count de Mirabeau, one of the most eminent among the great authors, orators, and statesmen of France, was born on March 9, 1749 on his father's estate at Bignon, near Nemours.
The Third Estate takes refuge in the tennis court
This event marked the end of a boyhood which had been clouded by an almost entire absence of paternal favor, and wholly free from maternal care--the mother's absence having been secured by the father, by a lettre de cachet. In addition, that boyhood had been irritated and embittered by a continuous and exasperating development of his natural personal disfigurement. His enormous head grew less in harmony with his torso, his lips and nose became thick and heavy, great moles revealed themselves upon his cheeks, and in every way, physically, his growth was a perpetual disappointment.
However, he was now (1767) the eighteen-year old "Pierre Buffiere," a lieutenant of cavalry, conscious of his exceptional mental strength and somewhat vain thereof, and full of ambition and determination to win as he wished and in spite of all of his many obstacles. Unfortunately, but most naturally, considering his temperament, the first test of his will, his passion, and his determination, resulted in his victory. He won the affection of a young woman to whom his colonel had long been devoted, and the scandal resulting therefrom caused the father to obtain a lettre de cachet, by authority of which the indiscreet young man was placed in confinement in the Isle of Rhe. Immediately the prisoner began his first illustration of his ability to gain to his own purposes the ability and influence of others--one of his strongest and most useful characteristics. Within two months he had secured the esteem and confidence of his jailer, so that that official soon made a most favorable report, upon the strength of which Mirabeau was accepted as a volunteer to accompany the French expedition sent (in 1769) to conquer Corsica. So well did the young soldier conduct himself during this campaign, that he was not only promoted to a captaincy in the dragoons, but he effected a partial reconciliation with his father, returned to Provence, was permitted to assume his true name and title, and was presented at court. In June, 1772, he married, by his father's advice, Marie Emile de Covet, only daughter of the Marquis de Marignane. She came to him portionless, and he, impetuous, ambitious, and extravagant, became, during the next two years, deeply involved in debt. The marriage was a failure. Again the father utilized the lettre de cachet, and a second time was Mirabeau a prisoner (August 23, 1774), this time in the Chateau d'If, at Marseilles. Here it was that he wrote his first work of which we have any exact knowledge, its title being: "Essai sur le Despotisme."
In the following year he was transferred from the Chateau d'If to the Castle of Joux, where he was less strictly confined. He had the freedom of the place and frequent opportunities for visiting the near-by town of Pontarlier. It was in this town that he first met Marie Therese, the Marchioness de Monnier, the young and attractive wife of an aged magistrate. A love affair was the result, and it culminated in August, 1776, in an elopement, first to Switzerland and then to Amsterdam. For over nine months the fugitive pair lived together in the Dutch capital, Mirabeau, under the assumed name of St. Mathieu, earning a livelihood as a pamphleteer and by making translations for Holland publishers. Meanwhile the tribunal of Pontarlier had condemned both parties--Mirabeau to be beheaded and his companion (his "Sophie," as she is most widely known) to imprisonment for life. On May 14, 1777, they were arrested at Amsterdam, and Mirabeau was imprisoned by a lettre de cachet in the Castle of Vincennes, while Sophie was surrendered to the Pontarlier authorities.
For three and a half years thereafter Mirabeau was in confinement, a term which proved sufficient to temper his passion, and during which he wrote his well-known "Letters to Sophie," the "Erotica Biblion," and "My Conversion." He also wrote, during this time, his first worthy political production, the "Lettres de Cachet." He was released from this imprisonment on December 13, 1780, and at once sought out Sophie, to quarrel with and leave her, and so, fortunately, end the most disgraceful portion of his life.
Mirabeau, now thirty-one years old, and, according to the times, most liberally experienced in the ways of the then turbulent world, undertook, as his first task, the removal of the sentence of death which still confronted him. Not only did he succeed in this, but, by his plausibility and eloquence, he shifted the entire cost of the proceedings to the shoulders of the complainant--the aged magistrate he had so grossly wronged. His next venture was an effort before the tribunal of Aix, to compel his wife to return to him. Here he failed, as also he failed in an effort to compromise a suit pending between his father and mother. Not only that, but by his pleadings his mother became forever alienated from him, and by reason of his bitter attacks upon the rulings of the court he was forced to leave Paris. Locating at Amsterdam, he began his lasting and respectable relations with Madame de Nehra, daughter of Zwier van Haren, a Dutch writer and politician. She was a woman of education and refinement, who exercised a valuable influence over his rapidly growing celebrity, bringing out his good qualities, subduing his undesirable characteristics, and encouraging all of his better ambitions. It was at her suggestion that he went to England, after a brief stay in Holland, while she repaired to Paris. His mission--which he accomplished--was to publish his "Considerations sur l'Ordre de Cincinnatus" and his "Doutes sur la Liberte de l'Escaut;" while her mission, also successful, was to establish peace between Mirabeau and the authorities at the French capital.
During twenty years of the thirty-six years he had lived, Mirabeau had been, either through his father's intervention or by his own acts, a constant topic of consideration by the French authorities. On the other hand, by virtue of his writings, his declared enmity to all forms of tyranny and oppression, and his distaste for pretence, he had become a popular idol. He was, as Carlyle puts it, "a swallower of formulas," and it seems he had the ability to digest such food thus taken. Therefore, upon his return to Paris in April, 1785, he made a series of attacks upon agiotage, or stock jobbing, most effectively assaulting the Compagnie des Eaux and the Banque de St. Charles. While such efforts proved offensive to the government, it caused such an appreciation of his ability that he was sent, in June, 1786, on a secret mission to Berlin. He remained there for half a year, and during that time he secured the material for his notable work, "Histoire Secrete de la Cour de Berlin." Among other writings which he produced about this time were his "Moses Mendelssohn, ou la Reforme politique des Juifs," and his pamphlet "Denonciation de l'Agiotage," aimed against the policy of Calonne. Again he was in danger of the lettre de cachet, and so he repaired to Brunswick, where he finished his work "De la Monarchie Prussienne," which was published in 1788.
Up to 1789, Mirabeau had been a dramatic character, an individual revelation of theatric passion, a figure-piece single and alone; but the climax was at hand. The achievement of American independence had been an object-lesson most potent. Louis and his queen, Marie Antoinette, could not check the storm, and for the first time in one hundred and seventy-three years, France was to have an assembly of the nation by its representatives. The "third estate" was aroused and the States-General was summoned. Mirabeau, having a deep-rooted desire to provide for France a government in accord with the wishes and intent of a majority of the people, and having been rejected by the noblesse of his own district, presented himself to the "third estate," as a candidate. He was elected both for Aix and for Marseilles, and he decided to sit for Aix. Naturally an enthusiast, he was present (May 4, 1789) at the opening of the States-General, but with excellent sagacity he entered that body as an independent. To the end of his life, twenty-three months later, he maintained that independence.
When, being shut out in the rain from the great hall of the Estates, the "third estate" established themselves in the adjacent tennis-court, and when, being ejected from there, they came together again and forced the king to recognize them as the representatives of the nation; through all these earlier and wiser stages of the great revolt, Mirabeau was the leader and director. But when, on June 5, 1789, a resolution was passed by the delegates declaring themselves--the people, the Commons of France--to be the National Assembly, he spoke and worked bravely and eloquently against abandoning the old order of things before formulating an exact and sufficient policy as its successor. He declared the action a hasty one, and finally avoided the issue in the only way possible, by absenting himself when the vote was taken. And yet, eight days later, at the close of the royal sitting, he bade the grand master of ceremonies: "Go and tell your master we are here by the power of the people, and that we are only to be driven out by that of the bayonet."
He advised the Assembly against the publication of pompous proclamations, and classed the demonstration of the night of August 4th as a theoretical display of liberty wholly without practical value. He was opposed to mob-law, and in no sense was he dazzled by the fall of the Bastille. He pleaded in favor of the royal right to veto, and proclaimed that he was willing, even, to advocate a "restoration of the king's legitimate authority as the only means of saving France."
He was a leader of magnificent power, enthusiastic in the advocacy and support of his convictions; a statesman who would not speak, write or do, in politics, anything not in accord with his estimate as to what was right. True, he was accused of treason for speaking in support of the king's right to proclaim war or peace, but three days thereafter he defended himself against the charge, and with overwhelming success. He was a leader who worked prodigiously. In addition to his duties as a member of the Assembly, he was also publisher and editor of a paper first called the Journal des Etats-Generaux, later the Lettres a mes Constituants, and at last the Courrier de Provence. As clerk of the Comite Diplomatique of the Assembly and because of his thorough knowledge of foreign affairs, he was the constant adviser of Montmorin, the foreign secretary. Thus, by his wise appreciation of the subject, he established harmony between the Assembly and Montmorin, and so prevented foreign intervention, at the same time maintaining the honor of France abroad. But this bulwark to the nation's safety was about to topple and fall, precipitated by its own decay. As in all things, Mirabeau had been colossal in his excesses, and like them, the punishment was great. He wished to live, but he did not fear death. Early in 1791 the structure began to weaken, and realizing that the time was at hand, Mirabeau carefully collected all of his writings, and after classifying them, forwarded them to his firm friend and companion, Sir Gilbert Elliott, in England. So far as he was able, he continued to contribute to the guidance and protection of his country. He was patient and fearless, his only regret taking the form of a pardonable conceit that, could he but live, the Revolution could be controlled and guided, that the awful Reign of Terror, so soon to follow, could be averted. The progress of his decline was without hindrance, in spite of all that science could devise. It is reported that, as he looked out from his sick-room, on the day of his death, on the brilliant spring-time sun, he said: "If he is not God, he is at least his cousin-german." Those were, it is said, his last spoken words, although some time later when unable to articulate, he feebly held a pen in his hand as he wrote the single word: "dormir." And so, on April 2, 1791, he died. Thus ended the life of a wondrous statesman; a singular career, of which Carlyle (in his "French Revolution") says: "Strange lot! Forty years of that smouldering with foul fire-damp and vapor enough; then victory over that;--and like a burning mountain, he blazes heaven high; and for twenty-three resplendent months pours out, in flame and molten fire-torrents, all that is in him, the Pharos and the Wondersign of an amazed Europe;--and then lies hollow, cold, forever."
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