Articles, records and resources relating to the history of the Lancashire town of Preston
A Light in the Gloom: chapter 9
“Reality seen through a prism”
A LIGHT IN THE GLOOM; OR, THE POLITICS OF THE PAST.
AN OLD MAN’S TALE
Disguise it not—ye blush for what ye hate,
And Enmity is sister unto Shame;
Look on your mind–it is the book of fate—
Ah! it is dark with many a blazoned name
Of misery—all are mirrors of the same;
But the dark fiend who with his iron pen
Dipped in scorn’s fiery poison, makes his fame
Enduring there, would o’er the heads of men
Pass harmless, if they scorned to make their hearts his den.
Yes, it is Hate, that shapeless fiendly thing
Of many names, all evil, some divine,
Whom self-contempt arms with a mortal sting;
Which, when the heart its snaky folds entwine
Is wasted quite, and when it doth repine
To gorge such bitter prey, on all beside
It turns with ninefold rage, as with its twine
When Amphisbaena some fair bird has tied,
Soon o’er the putrid mass he threats on every side.
Whilst the Convention, formed of these discordant elements, was gradually dividing itself into separate parties, each bitterly hating and daily accusing each other, Democracy was successfully repulsing the Prussians, and the activity and energy of the French people was inspiring the lovers of liberty throughout Europe with the hope, at first so feeble, that France, victorious over her own tyrants, would prove equally so against the combined forces of the European despots. Already had the enemy been repulsed from Champagne, Flanders, &c., and their own territory in Nice, Savoy, and the Palatine invaded, but these successes tended only to widen the breach of parties in the Convention. Danger and defeat could alone have had the power to reconcile them even for a time. Marat, on account of the boldness of his attacks upon the Girondists, was become the especial object of their enmity. The finances were in an embarrassed state. Paris was very ill-supplied with the necessaries of life, and the populace, supported by Marat, accused the Girondists of increasing this scarcity. Scarcely a week had passed from the assembling of the Convention before Robespierre was accused of wishing to make himself a dictator. Danton boldly defended him from the charge, and Marat acknowledged that it was him alone who was responsible for the idea, and that it was the only means by which France could be saved from the machinations of the court party and the treason of false patriots. Better, he asserted, was it that a few hundred traitors should perish than that hundreds of thousands of French citizens should fall by the hands of their opponents; it was only be the people themselves becoming dictators that Royalty had been abolished, and France saved from the horror of the myrmidons of Brunswick. “I have been accused,” said he, “of being ambitious. If I merely consented to be silent I might have been rolling in wealth, and yet I am poor! Pursued without ceasing from cellars to dungeons, half my life has been past in concealment, yet with my head upon the block I have preached truth; and had the traitors I have denounced met with the fate they deserved, we should not now have had to weep for the death of hundreds of thousands of citizens who have perished through their treachery.” This strange man, with his bold reasoning and his scientific calculations of the relative value of human life, was listened to in terrific silence, few members of the Mountain daring to applaud. Emboldened by this ominous silence, Vermond, the most eloquent of the Girondists, endeavoured to arouse the indignation of the Assembly. “He regretted that he had to reply to a man who laboured under the weight of decrees, and whose whole being distilled nothing but calumnies, gall, and blood.” Scarcely had he finished ere his partizans commenced threatening the life of Marat, some shouting, “To the Abbaye!” some “To the guillotine!” Marat only replied to these threats by a smile. Boilean demanded a decree of accusation against him amid the plaudits of the Assembly. Marat coolly demanded to be hears in reply, and gloried in the decrees passed against him, which he asserted he was absolved from by the Republicans of Paris having since elected him as their representative. Fresh accusations were made, volumes of contempt were poured upon him, but he bore it unflinchingly. Danton and Robespierre defended him, but were attacked in return. At length the Convention passed to the order of the day, thus getting rid of the accusation. A decree was then drawn up against the instigators to murder and pillage; also for forming a guard from the various departments for the protection of the Convention. The Mountain strongly opposed this last decree, well knowing the uses to which this body-guard would be put, but they were comparatively weak in the Convention, and a committee, composed chiefly of Girondists, were appointed for various objects, and the following persons were appointed to draw up the project of the constitution: Seiyes, Condorcet, Thomas Paine, Gensonne, Vergniaud, Barrere, Petion, Brissot, and Danton. This shows how powerful the Girondists were at this time in the Convention; for on this important committee the only representative of the Mountain was Danton. Robespierre, though his cast of character would seem especially to have pointed him out as a member, was indignantly rejected. Nevertheless, the Mountain, though deficient in numbers, abounded in energy; and in revolutionary times the men of energy are sure ultimately to become the dominant party. The charge of wanting to create a dictatorship was met by the Mountain with the counter accusation that the Gironde wanted to create a federal government, to sacrifice Paris to the enemy, and create a Republic in the south. In Paris, where the Mountain party were completely in the ascendant, this charge told with fearful weight against their opponents, who had on many occasions laid themselves open to the accusation. The first heavy blow which the Girondist party received was the triumphant reply of Robespierre to the charge with which he had been assailed by Louvet, Barbaroux, and others. His vindication was a masterpiece of logical eloquence, and carried away with its every torrent his opponents equally with his supporters, and from that time his influence gradually increased, and the neutral mass of the Assembly was oftener to be found voting with him than with any other party. Amid these conflicting passions the Gironde party in the Assembly were the first to broach the trial of the dethroned monarch. When, however, this was done, it was done mainly with the view of increasing their popularity; for the subject had often been warmly discussed at the Jacobins, and all the mischiefs which befel the people were ascribed to the intrigues of the royal party, and to the sanction given them by the king’s name. These quarrels of the contending parties, though apparently so disastrous to the cause of liberty, were an incentive to it. Then for the first time in the history of ages did the party of the people, the veritable multitude, enter in to deadly conflict with the Bourgeoisie, heated with triumph at its own ascendancy, and rejoicing in its wordy eloquence; then first did the men of plain ideas and mechanical precision stand forth in the dignity of manhood before those who for ages had scarcely condescended to acknowledge their political existence. Under such circumstances a conflict was unavoidable—an explosion inevitable. Privilege and principle, expediency and justice, cannot dwell together in the same camp. Sooner or later a separation is merely the prelude to warfare. These facts relative to the past must be a guide to you, my children, for the future. Already do we perceive amongst us the same elements of warfare which then devastated France, and which in times still more remote shook Rome to her centre, and replaced the colossal tribunes of the past by the glittering dwarfs of the Court of Augustus, cheating the people out of even the shadow of liberty, replacing the pure ore by the glittering tinsel, the shadowy past by the lacquered future, thus paving the way for the final extinction of the Roman Empire. How this same struggle will end in England who shall presume to say? The result of a struggle between a despot and a people needs no prophetic aid to decipher; but when we have an aristocracy kept ambitious and enterprising by its continuous struggle with a rising middle class, and each of them kept continually on the alert by the great democratic mass continually around and about them—a middle-class which is fast forgetting those ancient feelings of respect for the aristocracy which at one time rendered it liable at any crisis to bow to its authority and forget its own separate interest—a democracy throwing off every tie which anciently bound it to the other classes, and recognising nought but a common brotherhood, dreading the power of the middle-class more than that of the upper class, and yet by a strange inconsistency ever ready to increase the power of the manufacturer at the expense of that of the landholder—who with such conflicting elements can positively predict the next result? Taking France for our guide, we might naturally expect that the titled lordling will be crushed beneath the power of his younger rival; but we have so many elements in Britain mingled in the conflict, which did not exist in France, that even this guide fails us. Our aristocracy, though less warlike, is more shrewd and pliable, and stands not in the same position of isolation. Our middle-class is more wealthy and more closely connected with the junior portions of the nobility. Above all, there is a strong disposition on a part of a portion of the aristocracy to throw themselves into the arms of the People rather than allow themselves to be vanquished by their opponents; but let the result be what it will, and let the struggle come when it may, its most deadly and dangerous phase will be when aristocracy is quiescent, and capital and labour enter the arena of conflict. Compared to that all other conflicts will have been mere skirmishes heralding in the giant catastrophe. If Labour shall be successful, a new heaven and a new earth will have been created; if defeated, the dial-hand of Progress will have been arrested for centuries, and the sun of humanity will be veiled in darkness and bloodshed.