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Leon Gambetta

      Leon Michel Gambetta was born at Cahors on April 3, 1838. His father was a tradesman dealing in crockery; his mother's maiden name was Massabie. Leon's grandfather was a Genoese, who emigrated to France at the beginning of this century; and as his name signifies, in the dialect of Genoa, a liquid measure of two quarts capacity, it has been supposed that it was conferred upon one of his forefathers as a sobriquet. Leon Gambetta's grandfather was a poor man of no education, and his only son, Leon's father, thought he had done very well for himself when he set up a shop with the small dowry brought him by his wife, Mlle. Massabie. The mother of Leon died while he was a child, and he was indebted for his early teaching to his maternal aunt and to her brother, a priest, who held a small benefice in a village near Cahors. It was at first intended that Leon should follow his father's trade; but, as he was a boy very apt at learning and fond of books, his uncle and aunt decided that it would be better to put him at the seminary, with a view to his ultimately taking holy orders. Leon's father does not seem to have much liked this scheme, for he had no second son who could succeed to his business; but he had a great love for his bright-witted boy, and having conceived a high respect for his talents, yielded to the pleasing idea that he would some day become an ornament to the Church. This belief may be explained by the fact that Leon was, as a child, ardently religious. When twelve years old he wrote an ode dedicated to his "patron, St. Leon, and to all the popes called Leon," and this composition was printed in the Catholic journal of the diocese. In after-years some of his political enemies tried to get hold of a copy, but failed, and published a spurious one which they gave out for his.

      The career of Leon Gambetta must continue to exercise over young advocates and journalists the same kind of fascination as that of Napoleon I. does over young officers; and, indeed, the fact that Bonaparte and Gambetta were both of Italian origin, and came to sudden and great power while they were very young, was often quoted to draw a parallel between the two. But there is this difference between Bonaparte and Gambetta, that whereas the latter made his mark in life later by some three or four years than the former, brilliant destinies were prophesied for him by others besides his relations, when he was still a child. While Bonaparte was a pupil at the school of Brienne, his masters predicted that he would make a poor officer, because he had no aptitude for mathematics; when Gambetta was at the seminary, his tutors foretold that he would make a great figure in life, "but never," they regretfully added, "as a churchman." The boy began well, but he had evidently no vocation for the strict discipline of the Church; he was too disputatious, not meek enough about taking blows without returning them, and in short, too headstrong. Anticipating the judgment which M. Grevy passed upon him when he was thirty-three years old, his ecclesiastical masters reported of him that he was un esprit rebelle, turbulent, and they advised his removal to another school.

      Young Gambetta was accordingly sent to the lycee--that is, the lay public school--of Cahors, and here he immediately won golden opinions by his cleverness, his industry, and the happy vivacity of his character. One of the half-yearly bulletins of the lycee, which has been preserved in his family, records that he was "passionate without being vindictive, and proud without arrogance." In time he became the best Latin scholar at the school, and the most proficient in French composition. When he was in his sixteenth year, however, an accident, which destroyed his left eye, quelled for a time the exuberance of his character and suddenly gave a new direction to his studies. Fearing lest he should lose his sight altogether, he set himself to learn the alphabet for the blind, in order that he might read in books with raised letters; he also applied himself to the study of music and the violin. During a whole year he was forbidden to open a book.

      From Cahors Gambetta went to Paris to study law, and he quickly drew the attention of the Imperial police upon himself by acting as ringleader in those demonstrations which the students of the Latin Quarter were accustomed to make in time of public excitement. Peaceful demonstrations they always were, because the police would stand nothing like rioting, but it was something to march at the head of a procession carrying wreaths to the tomb of a Republican, or to lead cabals for hissing off the stage of the Theatre Francais or the Odeon pieces by unpopular writers, like M. Edmond About (for in those days M. About was a Bonapartist).

The enrollment of volunteers, 1870.

      Gambetta's first public speech was delivered in 1861, in defence of the Marquis Le Guillois, a nobleman of facetious humor, who edited a comic newspaper called Le Hanneton. He was seized with unexpected nervousness as he began, but before he had stammered out a dozen sentences he was stopped by the presiding judge, who told him mildly that no big words were required in a cause which only involved a fine of 100 francs--"all the less so," added he, "as your client is acquitted."

      Gambetta used to say after this that it took him years to recover from the effect of the judge's quiet snub. Like many other young men of talent, he had gone into court expecting to carry everything before him, and had found that the art of forensic pleading is not to be acquired without practice. He did practise most diligently, and the speeches--some thirty in all--which he delivered in unimportant cases during the next seven years, were conspicuous for their avoidance of rhetorical flourish. Adolphe Cremieux had cautioned him that the secret of oratory lies in mastering the subject of one's discourse. "Don't try gymnastic feats until you have a firm platform to spring from"--a maxim which a conceited young man, impatient of results, might have despised, but which commended itself to an ambitious man who felt that, although a chance comes to all, it is an important point to be prepared for the chance when it does come. A plutocrat once asked Horace Vernet to "do him a little thing in pencil" for his album. Vernet did the little thing and asked 1,000 francs for it. "But it only took you five minutes to draw," exclaimed the man of wealth. "Yes, but it took me thirty years to learn to do it in five minutes," replied Vernet. And so Gambetta, when someone remarked that he was very lucky in having conquered renown by a single speech, broke out impetuously, "I was years preparing that speech--twenty times I wanted to deliver it, but did not feel that I had it here (touching his head), though it palpitated here (thumping his breast) as if it would break my heart."

      The speech in question was delivered on November 17, 1868, before the notorious Judge Delesvaux (who has been called the Jeffreys of the Second Empire), in defence of Louis Charles Delescluze, editor of the Reveil. The Reveil had started a subscription for erecting a monument to the memory of the Representative Baudin, who was killed at the coup-d'etat of 1851, and the Government unwisely instituted a prosecution against the editor. It was late in the afternoon when the case was called on after a number of others, but the sixth chamber was crowded with journalists and barristers, as it always was on Fridays, when Delesvaux--a man with hawk-like features and a flaming complexion--would sit "tearing up newspaper articles with beak and talons," as Emile de Girardin said of him. Just before Gambetta rose, Delesvaux observed, "I suppose you have not much to say; so it will hardly be worth while to have the gas lighted." "Never mind the gas, sir, I will throw light enough on this affair," answered Gambetta; and it was amid the laughter produced by this joke that he began. His genius found vent that day, and he spoke from first to last without a halt. Reviewing his client's case, he brought Napoleon III. himself to book, and recalled the circumstances under which Baudin had died, "defending that Republican Constitution which President Louis Bonaparte, in contempt of his oath, had violated." At this, Judge Delesvaux half rose in his seat and endeavored to stop the speaker, but a positive roar from the whole crowd in court forced him to sit down. It was a sign of the approaching political earthquake that Delesvaux should have sat down in that way, for he was a man of great resolution; but he must have felt then as if the earth were trembling under him. So Gambetta continued to speak, denouncing with unimaginable energy the tyrannies and turpitudes of the reign which had confiscated all the liberties of France, till at last he concluded with this magnificent peroration, which was rendered most solemn by the increasing darkness of the court and the intense attentive silence of the audience: "In every country but this you see the people commemorate as a holiday the date which brought the reigning dynasty to the throne. You alone are ashamed of the day which gave you a blood-stained crown--the December 2d when Baudin died! Well, that day which you reject, we Republicans will keep holy. It shall be the day of mourning for our martyrs and the festival of our hopes!"

      When Gambetta left the court after this, it was felt by all who had heard him that he was the coming man of the Republican party; and next day opposition journals of every shade of opinion, from one end of France to the other, acclaimed him as a future leader.

      Within the next two years the Republican party made such rapid strides that to regain his prestige the French emperor felt that a glorious war was necessary. The leader of the moderate reformers, M. Ollivier, was won over, and was forced upon Prussia. Gambetta and the Republicans felt that they had every cause for fear when matters had taken this turn. Relying upon Marshal Leboeuf's assurances that "everything was ready," they saw the prospect of a short sensational campaign like that against Austria in 1859, to be followed by some high-handed stroke of home policy that would sweep most of them into prison or exile. Gambetta could not refrain from bitterly upbraiding Ollivier. "You will find that you have been fooled in all this," he said; "for when the war is over you will be thrown aside like a squeezed orange." "I think my fate will be a happier one than yours, unless you mend your manners," answered Ollivier dryly. Three weeks after this, however, everything was changed. The imperial armies had been beaten at Woerth and Forbach; the Ollivier cabinet had fallen amid popular execration (hardly deserved); and Gambetta, forced by circumstances into a position of great influence, received a private visit from Madame Bazaine, who prayed him to agitate that her husband might be appointed as the commander-in-chief of the armies. Gambetta was too sincerely patriotic to feel any partisan satisfaction at the reverse which Napoleon III.'s armies had suffered; and in stirring up the Republicans in the Chamber and in the press to clamor for the appointment of Bazaine, he believed he was urging the claims of a competent soldier who was being kept from the chief command solely by dynastic jealousies. He was to learn, a couple of months later, how much he had been mistaken in his estimate of Bazaine's talents and rectitude of purpose; and, indeed, Bazaine's conduct toward Gambetta and the Republicans from first to last was the more inexplicable, as it was unquestionably owing to their agitation that he was placed in the high position which he had coveted.

      During the three weeks between Forbach and Sedan, Gambetta had to take rather exciting precautions to insure his own safety. He was aware that the Empress-Regent's advisers were urging her to have the leaders of the opposition arrested, and he felt pretty certain that this course would be adopted if the news of a victory arrived. He used to sleep in a different house every night, and never ventured abroad unattended or without firearms. His position was one of great difficulty, for agents of the Internationale made overtures to him with a view to promote an insurrection in Paris, and he forfeited the confidence of these fanatics by declining to abet their plans. Gambetta was so little desirous of establishing a republic by revolution that, even when the tidings arrived on the night of September 3d of the emperor's surrender at Sedan, his chief concern was as to how he could get the deposition of Napoleon III. and the Empress-Regent effected by lawful methods. He hastened to M. Thiers's house, and asked him whether he would accept the presidency of a provisional government? Thiers, sitting up in bed, said he was willing, provided that this office was conferred upon him by the Corps Legislatif.

      Accordingly, Gambetta spent all the morning of Sunday, September 4th, whipping up members of the majority, and trying to persuade them to go down to the Palais Bourbon and elect a new government. But he found most of these gentlemen anxious to get off to the different railway stations as soon as possible in cabs. Going to the Chamber himself toward one o'clock, he was carried through the doors by the surging mob which invaded the palace, and in half an hour he shouted himself quite hoarse in adjuring the crowds from the tribune to let the Assembly deliberate in peace. But while he was literally croaking in his attempts to make the people hear reason, news was brought to him that M. Blanqui and some other adventurous spirits, taking time by the forelock, had repaired to the Hotel de Ville, and were setting up a government of their own. Upon this, Gambetta precipitately left the palace, jumped into a victoria, and drove to the Hotel de Ville, amid a mob of several thousands of persons who escorted him, cheering all the way. Before five o'clock the deputies for Paris, with the exception of M. Thiers, had constituted themselves into a government, which, at the suggestion of M. Rochefort, took the name of Government of the National Defence; and M. Gambetta received the appointment of Minister of the Interior. It may be remarked in passing that on the day after these events, Judge Delesvaux, fearing, perhaps needlessly, that some of the triumphant Republicans whom he had so often punished would wreak vengeance upon him, committed suicide. On the other hand, Gambetta's client in the Baudin affair--L. C. Delescluze--came to him on the morning of September 5th, and reproached him with much asperity for not having caused the empress to be arrested. "We want no rose-water Republicans to rule us," said this honest, but gloomy, zealot, who was shot a few months later during the extermination of the Commune.

      The siege of Paris brought M. Gambetta to the most romantic part of his career. The National Defence Government had delegated two of their members, MM. Cremieux and Glaiz-Bizoin, to go to Tours and govern the provinces; but being both elderly men of weak health, they were hardly up to their work; and early in October M. Gambetta was ordered by his colleagues to join them. He had to leave Paris in a balloon, and in going over the German lines nearly met with misadventure, through the balloon sinking till it came within range of some marksmen's rifles. He reached Tours in safety, however, and set to work at once with marvellous activity to organize resistance against the invasion. He was ably seconded by M. de Freycinet, and between them these two did all that was humanly possible to perform; but from the first their task was one of formidable difficulty, and all chances of repelling the Germans from French soil vanished after the shameful capitulation of Bazaine at Metz.

      Nevertheless, all who saw M. Gambetta during his proconsulate at Tours will remember with what a splendid energy he worked, how sincerely hopeful he was, and--this must not be forgotten--how uniformly generous and genial. Invested with despotic powers, he never once abused them to molest an opponent.

      In his public harangues, both at Tours and Bordeaux (whither the Provisional Government repaired in December, being driven southward by the German advance), he somehow always managed to electrify his hearers. He spoke from balconies, railway carriages, curb-stones; wherever he went the people demanded a speech of him, and his words never failed to cheer, while they conquered for him a wide popularity. Indeed, Gambetta so deluded himself while diffusing hope and combativeness into others, that when, after a five months' siege, Paris capitulated, he still persisted in thinking that resistance was possible, and rather than take any part in the national surrender he gave in his resignation. He was by that time fairly worn out, and had to go to St. Sebastian to recruit his health. It was alleged that he went there so as to avoid taking any side in the civil war between the Parliament of Versailles and the Commune; but after the Communist Government had been at work a fortnight, and when the impracticability of its aims was fully disclosed, he took care to let it be known that he was on the side of the National Assembly.

      M. Thiers did not understand Gambetta as Gambetta understood him, or he would not have resigned in 1873, saying that the Republicans were making his work too difficult. When Marshal MacMahon succeeded to the Presidency it looked as if the Republic were doomed, and nothing but M. Gambetta's wonderful suppleness and tact during the sessions of 1874-75 could have saved it. He had to keep himself in the background, to use an Italian astuteness in explaining away the blunders of his followers; and when this would not do he had to use violent language, which should frighten timid doctrinaire Orleanists with prospects of popular risings in which he would take the lead. His greatest triumphs were earned when, by dint of superhuman coaxing in the lobbies, he got the Republic proclaimed as the Government of France (in 1875, on M. Wallon's motion) by a majority of one vote; and again when, at the first election for life senators, he concluded a treaty with the Legitimists, and by giving them a dozen seats, secured fifty for the Republicans and ousted the Orleanists altogether.

      From this time the Republic was founded with at least temporary security, and although a coalition of all the reactionary parties rallied against it in 1877, when M. Jules Simon's ministry was dismissed, and when the Duc de Broglie was induced to try to destroy the new form of government by Caesarist methods, yet there was never any real danger that the Republic would succumb. From the day when M. Thiers died, M. Gambetta stood guarding it like a sentinel. Just before the general election of 1877, an emissary was sent to him from the De Broglie-Fourtou Ministry, requesting him for his own sake not to make a speech against Marshal MacMahon. He laughed when he heard that he would be prosecuted if he made the speech. He was twirling a cigarette, and laid down a copy of the Revue des Deux Mondes in which he had been reading an essay on Mr. Gladstone's speeches about the Irish Church. "Tell the Prime Minister," he said, "that I will speak from a pedestal if I can, but if not, from a housetop. In one way or another, my voice shall reach further than his, and so long as I have a drop of blood to shed the Republic shall not fall." M. Gambetta was sentenced to four months' imprisonment for the speech in which he said that Marshal MacMahon would have to yield to the popular will or resign, but before he could be put into jail the De Broglie cabinet had ceased to exist. Marshal MacMahon's resignation in 1879 was the obviously natural consequence of the complete victory which the Republicans gained in 1877; but it was greatly to M. Gambetta's credit that he quietly tolerated during fifteen months the presidency of the gallant soldier who had never been his friend. When urged to agitate for the marshal's overthrow, he always said, "It will do the Republic good if its first president serves his term of office quietly to the end."

      Had Gambetta lived till 1885 he would probably have been the next president of the Republic he had established and preserved; but it was not to be. His work was done. He died December 31, 1882.

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