Essays and Reviews

by Archibald Lampman

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley


 

Gambetta


 

On Sunday, February 4th, 1883, at Newton Hall, in London, where the new Religion of Humanity, that strange last offspring of an age of wonders, has been placed upon a sort of ceremonial and devotional basis, was delivered by Frederick [sic] Harrison, one of the most active of its apostles, a lecture or rather sermon, which appears in the March number of the Contemporary Review, on the subject of Leon Gambetta, whom he places as last, but in no wise least, upon the curious list of heroes who make up the Humanitarian Calendar. It is an interesting subject for reflection to place the two Calendars, the old and the new, side by side. On the one hand the Christ, the Perfect One, as head, with such sainted figures as St. John, St. Stephen and St. Paul, numbering among their followers men like Irenæus and Augustine of Hippo; on the other hand Humanity, with all that it includes, and such strange Titans as Danton, Hoch[e], Condorcet, Carrell [sic], and finally Leon Gambetta.

However, though we do not sympathize with Mr. Harrison in placing Gambetta on any questionable calendar of a new religion, yet we must all admire and revere, as much as he does, the great and singular qualities which have gained for the founder of the Third French Republic the noble and foremost place he holds among the popular heroes of his country—his disinterestedness, his indomitable courage, his clear good sense, his marvellous eloquence, his power. All these have been the divine gifts which have raised the son of the grocer of Cahors to the glorious position of Father and Defender of the Republic—the sacred Carroc[c]io, round which all the burning patriotism of France has centred, in its earnestness and its strength, for thirteen years. Indeed from all that can be gathered from the innumerable good and bad words, which are being spoken of him now that he is dead, he seems to have been one of the supreme and seemingly-original characters which only arise now and then at long intervals as guiding lights in the world’s dimmed and confused ways—the very nature’s kings—men of the stamp of Luther, of Cromwell and of Mirabeau. There are times in every nation, especially that of the French with their vehement and sensitive, but at the same time light and changeable character, when some ill-government, some hollow "formula," has rested so long upon the people, that all the pulses of the national spirit are deadened, and life itself to every active thinking man becomes a heavy, wearisome, unbearable thing, and men begin to cry to one another in their different, dim ways for something living, something human, they know not what—but know that some new thing must come—times in which the old and known leaders of the people have lost all heart or know not in what way to set themselves to the gigantic work. Then rises the brave, powerful, original man whose soul is carried away in the untrammeled tide of energy and hope, who knows no fear or any other retarding impulse—the man too with an "eye," as Carlyle would say—and tells the people in words of fire, that are borne upon the four winds to every corner of the earth, just what it is they all want. He may not tell them perhaps what each man in the hour of cool deliberation would propose to himself; but he tells them what they all acknowledge to be in the aggregate true. They see that he is the one man who has the truth and nothing else in his heart, and has above all the innate power and fearlessness to work it out, and that their salvation is in following him implicitly.

In 1867 Gambetta was a young, struggling, advocate, quite unknown and poor—nothing but the clever son of the small grocer of Cahors. It happened that in that year an action was instituted by the government of Louis Napoleon against certain popular editors, who had advocated the erection of a monument in memory of Baudin, one of the martyrs of the barricade in the time of the coup d’ etat, and the young Gambetta was employed to speak in behalf of the defendants. Carried away by the impulse of the hour, and the indignation and hope, which the circumstances of the trial stirred within him, without paying the slightest heed to the subject in hand, the fiery young Gascon rushed off into a torrent of enthusiasm, and uttered a speech so full of burning invective, wild admonition and resistless logic, that in one day he was famous; his name became a household word and he was known to every patriot as the coming leader of the Revolution and the great enemy before whom the Empire trembled to its base. This was Gambetta’s first oration, and it passed like a whirlwind over France. The whole republican element of the country was aroused and gathered round its hero, armed and steadied for the fight. In 1870 came the miserable collapse, in which all the boasted might and splendour of the "Napoleonic Idea" crumbled away like a layer of burnt paper at a touch, and out of the confused and shapeless wreck, the genius, energy and eloquence of Gambetta succeeded in constructing the Republic. And with great, untold toil was it done. The general feeling among statesmen, and indeed in a great part of the country at the end of the war, and especially after the delirium and excesses of the Commune, seems to have been in favor of Monarchy, the revival of the Legitimist claim, and Gambetta saw that the establishment of a Republic upon the purely democratic basis of 1792 was at present altogether impossible; but he knew also that the foundation of a Republican system of popular government, of however imperfect a kind, if it were once firmly rooted in the affections of the people, would lead in the natural development of things to something better. So he sacrificed many of his own prejudices; he did not sit idly by in silent, sour inactivity like Louis Blanc and the other visionary leaders of rigid democracy, who, because they could not gain everything at once, would have no hand in establishing a part; but went vehemently to work, organizing and repressing his own party, working incessantly among his opponents and among all factions with bribes, industry and resistless eloquence, laboring manfully in a thousand intrigues—and the result of all was that he so prevailed over his enemies that he brought most of them to his own view, and so drilled and handled his own uncompromising followers that the long-wished for Republic was at length gained by a compromise in which the Royalists sacrificed much more than the Democrats. In these events Gambetta displayed most unmistakably that main ground-work of his political theories, which has gained for him the admiration of Mr. Frederick [sic] Harrison and many other able writers, viz., his love of order, his active belief in the necessity of social development. He was not a man of the narrow order of "People’s Friend" Marat, or the dreamer Robespierre, or even of the "irreconcilable" dogmatist, Louis Blanc; he would have no hand in an impossible endeavour to establish Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality, all at once, as an uncompromising theory of government, or rather, of non-government—above all things he would have order and progress developed through order.

Again in 1877 when French freedom was menaced by M[a]cMahon’s insidious conspiracy for the establishment of what, as men subsequently found out, really meant a military despotism, Gambetta saw the danger, though it was carefully concealed, and it was by his activity and marvellous skill, his absolute command of the popular party, which had grown wide and powerful under his hands, that M[a]cMahon was defeated and overthrown, and the Republic saved. In all such cases, if we consider the almost insurmountable difficulties against which he had to contend—in 1867, the mysterious sense of fear that an apparently firm-rooted authority must always inspire—in 1871, the astonishing apathy of the people, which was in part produced by a twenty years’ endurance of the villainous Napoleonic system of centralization, the almost absolute power at that moment in the hands of the military commanders, who were mostly monarchists or imperialists, the prejudices of the Conservative party, the vehement and "irreconcilable" disposition of his own followers, the confusion and dismay attending the communistic outbreak of March—in 1877, the insidious character of M[a]cMahon’s plans, the care taken to conceal their real purport from the people, and the blindly Conservative instincts of the peasant districts—if, I say, we consider all these enormous difficulties in his way, the genius, the self-command, the energy, the devotion and the intricate skill of the master-hand, cannot but fill us with wonder and astonishment, and we must agree unreservedly with those who rank him not only as one of the leading statesmen of his time, but as one of the greatest the world has ever seen.

A German writer in the February number of the Contemporary Review objects to a comparison that has been made between Gambetta and Mirabeau. But to us it seems as just as any that can be made between two great historical characters. All comparisons of this kind fail if they are followed up in the least degree minutely; yet we often meet with famous figures in the world’s story that bear to one another a sort of rude similarity in the main outlines. Gambetta and Mirabeau were alike in possessing the rare power of reducing order out of utter chaos, and we can well enough compare the great statesman, who in 1871, by dint of his extraordinary eloquence and sheer personal influence, reduced even opponents to his will, with the resistless Titan of the Assembly of 1791, a greater than he, whose voice was as a clarion call out of all that shrieking confusion and darkness sounding to the muster—whose "we shall" was the clear note, which brought chaos and tumult into silent obedience, and his "we shall not," a mysterious barrier, which the most turbulent dared not pass. They were the two men with eyes—the nature’s kings of their time. Whilst all other mortals were wrangling out the days in empty discord, harping each eternally on his own cracked string, they were the men who had the instinctive vision which told them what was wanted and the sublime sole power to do it. They were the "swallowers of formulas." There is another point of less importance in which an interesting comparison may be found between these two men. They were both of Italian ancestry, and possessed, each of them, a sort of double nature, at once Italian and French—South French at that. As Mirabeau, the descendant and last leonine flower on the worn stem of the fire-blooded Riquetti, possesses, at the same time, the eloquent and poetic spirit of the Provencal, and the astuteness and policy of the Italian; so, too, Gambetta inherited these latter qualities from his Trans-Alpine ancestors, and united them to the reckless Gascon fire and daring, which made him, in 1870, the most French of Frenchmen. He was, however, as he said of himself, more Gascon than Italian.

It is this aspect of Gambetta’s history, as founder and nourisher of the Republic, which Mr. Harrison takes most pains to impress upon his hearers. He dwells most upon the broad statesmanship, the clear sense and humanity of the man. But that part of his character which strikes most deeply the imagination of the romantic lover of history, which gives to his figure the brightest poetic touch, is his patriotism—a patriotism which was his whole life and his whole religion. In this he reminds us of Danton; he reminds us of the most significant, perhaps the most memorable scene in Danton’s life. At a time when the whole structure of French society was rushing down into ruin, when there was nothing but anarchy, conspiracy and apparent powerlessness within, and the banding together and heavy marching of innumerable enemies without, in an hour of rage, and fear, and distraction—one morning the gigantic figure of Danton strode from the municipality of Paris into the pale and confused Hall of the Convention and uttered there those tremendous words, which were the revelation of the man, and in the light of which his life and character are to be read, "Legislators, it is the pas-de-charge against our enemies. To conquer them, to hurl them back, what do we require? To dare, and again to dare, and without end to dare!" The stentorian words that rang in that hour above the glowing throng of the Convention, formed the whole poetry, the main gist of the whole rude and much-stained epic of Danton’s days, and whenever vehement, effervescent French hearts have risen in the time of their despair from the living death of a selfish government against the oncoming of overwhelming foes, we can imagine, as of old, that rude Titan shadow striding dimly before them, and that tremendous voice echoing among them, more or less clearly, forever. It was the great cry of the Republic out of the lips of him who understood it best for "our little mother Mirabeau" was dead, and besides, as Carlyle hints, he was, perhaps, not so complete a swallower of formulas as Danton. It was the voice of a risen people; there was more in it than a mere truculent defiance of a gathering foe. There lay beneath it the wild hope and despair that is akin to hope, which prompted it; the deep sense of the utter falseness, hollowness and wrongness of all the existing network of authority, and the vague, but wild and intense hope and longing for something more brotherly, more human, more just—a hope which no historian or poet has ever completely expressed, or can express, which is only witnessed in the deeds which make such a time terrible, is only read in the eager faces of gathered men, heard in the murmur of a multitude. Man has never been gifted with such iron nerve to fight as when his arm has been inspired with this grand passion—the ground-work of human thought. Witness the thousand battle fields of the First Revolution and the strange heroes that won them. It was this same deep and devoted inspiration that nerved Gambetta and his scattered followers in the last dark days of 1870. It was the spirit of the First Republic—devoted love of country, love of people—which followed the hero in his famous balloon escape from Paris across the memory-haunted barrier of the Loire, and told the scarred and weather-beaten veteran of the Empire, and the young fiery conscript of the Republic that there was yet another Hoche come to lead them, if not to victory, yet to honour, and that there still lingered in that hot south corner of France some remnant of the marvellous fervour, which, seventy-eight years before, had swept like a fire-tide over the host of their enemies on every cannon-girt barrier of the Republic. All rallied round him; his name became the watch-word of every patriot, known of all Frenchmen. Army after army, ill-trained and ill-provided, but animated with the mighty spirit of this French Leonidas, crossed the Loire, and many of them died there, hardly ever victorious—it was impossible—but ever brave, ever ready "without end to dare" and die. Long weeks and months they marched and fought in the midst of hunger, and cold, and death, and more than once their shattered and dragging columns had to get back again, worn and beaten, over the straining bridges of Orleans through the storms of that bitter winter; but ever they had the master-spirit behind, and ever, as the fire burned pale and cold at the extremities, came the flash of Gambetta’s lip and eye, and the quenchless vigor of his hand. Again and again this fronted the foe and held them, tiger-like, at bay. Four great battles were fought on four successive days, if we remember right, about Beaugency, in which the French retired bit by bit, grappling to the death for every inch of soil, and the Duke of Mecklinburg [sic] confessed that he had got but bloody and fierce-won victories. These men became the wonder and admiration of Germany, and Gambetta her secret fear. But they were no longer fighting for an effete and selfish Empire, it was for their now "Vive la Republique," "Vive la Patrie," and that made much of the difference.

The old cry of Vive la Roi, once in days such as those of the sainted Louis, or Louis XII, "the people’s King," or even of the Grand Monarch had had its power; vive l’Empereur had once been the resistless spell of a sort of terrible, misunderstood, part benignant, more than half malignant genie; but what were these, or what can they ever be to the sweet and loving power and pathos of that grand Vive la Patrie, live the Fatherland, that bursting in the hour of their great love and despair from ten thousand throats around the shattered mill of Valony, caused the multitude of their enemies to vanish like the smoke of their own cannon; or the more triumphant and threatening Vive la Republique, which swept over the redoubts of Jenappe, and across the bridge of Lodi. "There is an Unconquerable in man when he stands on the rights of man." Gambetta gained one victory, that of Coulmier, and out of the darkness of all that dishonor and defeat his countrymen remember it still, and remember, above all, the fiery spirit that gave it them. He was the living incarnation of the Marseillaise.

But the ancient spirit was well nigh dead for the time, in the greater part of France, and Gambetta could not be every where—the German occupying most. The heartless and narrow regime of Empire had done well its work, acting like a tourniquet on every limb of the nation, deadening all. Poor materialized Frenchmen, but dimly remember[ed] the time, when two hundred and fifty-eight forges went clanging through the autumn days in all the open places of Paris and sho[n]e, lurid-gleaming with their sooty Vulcans about them through the long nights, hammering musket barrels and tempering sabres hour by hour; when, to save time in bringing them down, the bells were shot from the steeples with heavy guns to make the patriots cannon, and every cellar was raked to get them saltpetre; when all souls that could hold a musket gathered in the towns and villages and wended away to the battlefield chanting the Marseillaise; when the bands of girls and old women gr[e]w weary scraping lint and sewing canvas night and day, and the old men sat like venerable Romans in the market places, giving benediction to the heroes that were to fight and die for la Patrie; when bread and fire-locks were deemed the only two requisites for victory—such old time they remembered but dimly, for the spirit had left them long. The Germans spread themselves farther and farther: the sound of their cannon swept over the walls of Leman in the North West, crossed even the dark waters of the Loire, and the men of Lyons saw from their towers the gleam of Uhlan helmets plundering in the South. Paris was bound with a girdle of fire, and in the end fell. Gambetta would have carried on the war—the unconquerable hero that he was—to the last extremity, as in old days, but the people’s hearts had died within them—only his followers, his army, remained true; and they could gain but their one poor victory of Coulmier. "In a long conversation on the war," says Frederick [sic] Harrison, "I asked him, years after all was over, ‘could then the defence have been continued in 1871?’ ‘Certainly,’ he ground out bitterly, crunching his clasped hands, ‘of course it could.’ ‘Then why did they give in?’ said I. ‘Because they were out of heart,’ he roared out, bounding off his seat and his face purple with shame and rage. And I felt," says Mr. Harrison, "what Danton had been in ’93."

This great and all-providing passion of patriotism which was the life of Gambetta’s soul, was the leading and most admirable characteristic of his statesmanship. He was a noble and peculiar instance in our modern days of faction, of a politician who was not a party leader, but wholly and above all things a patriot. He looked not to the advancement of clique, but to general welfare of the state, and sought as means to that end, men of every shade of opinion, even sometimes his declared foes. "We differ in political creed," he would say, "but we have one common object, the prosperity and greatness of this country. Strive toward that object. I ask no more of you." Is there not in that a lesson, simple and beautiful, for those men in every state, who are ready to sacrifice daily the interest of their country to the triumph or chagrin of a selfish party? One of the facts which prove most conclusively not only Gambetta’s supreme importance to France as her daring defender in time of need and the father of her Republic, but also his wider status as one of the most powerful of European statesmen, is that he has been regarded by the Germans ever since the war as the most formidable of her enemies and as Bismarck’s most dreaded skeleton in the closet—the only man who might have undertaken a war of revenge with success. The circumstances attending and succeeding Gambetta’s death have also shown, as nothing else could have done, the wonderful influence he had upon the affections and destinies of his country[men]. His funeral, followed by a hundred thousand mourners, and witnessed by the millions of Paris, reminded every one of that other sadder day when all France had hung her head in lamentation and wept in bitter mourning for her nature’s king and father in that time—the one of all that might have brought her, as a dauntless pilot, safe through the storm—her "Little Mother Mirabeau" passed out of the light with his rugged force of strength, his power and hi[s] generous eloquence in the hour of her extreme need. Mr. Harrison exults in the fact that there were no religious ceremonies in that saddest funeral. We have no good to say of that: but we are only at present looking at the deep grief of the people, who had lost their earnest friend[-]defender and showed it as they had never done before for any other, since the burial of his mighty prototype. Again in the lamentable weakness and timidity which have displayed themselves in the Republican Government of France since Gambetta’s death, every writer has observed the withdrawal of the master-hand—the hand that held all opinions in restraint, that was not the Dagon of a party, but the centre spirit of all. "O had Mirabeau lived one other year!" cried Carlyle and most Frenchmen are moaning a like regret for the dead Gambetta now.

In his personal appearance, from all we can gather of him, Gambetta seems to have been of a short, corpulent, clumsy but powerful build—bull-necked, with an enormous head set deep between tremendous shoulders— a being not beautiful to look upon at first sight, but the light and beauty were all in his face. From the portraits of him that can be had we should judge that his countenance possessed, in the width, protuberance and elevation of the brows, and the deep light of the eye beneath, no small share of that ideal radiance, which makes the face of genius in excitement so fascinating to any one who possesses a nature in the least degree sympathetic with it. His glass eye, which we should imagine to be on the whole no improvement to him, gave, we are told, to his glance a steadfastness and fascination, which impressed those who were brought into conversation with him. In his oratory he is described as the very child of passion—often wandering confusedly, even clumsily at first, entangled in a maze of half-formed sentences, like the sluggish winding and eddying of a slow river: then would come the slant of the rapid: some swift passion would shoot into him and he would rush off into a torrent of beautiful, powerful words and vehement thought, carrying himself and everyone else utterly away with him; when the fire cooled he would return to a calm flow of careful and laborious argument and finish off with a final storm of eloquence that brought all hearers to his feet. Whenever these gusts of passion swept over him, his great head would thrust itself forward, his eye flash, brimming with light; he would pace the Tribune like a lion, or grasp the balustrade with both his hands "as if he would grind it to powder,"[—]he became for a moment the incarnation of his thought, beautiful or terrible as it. We can well imagine the effect produced by such oratory as this, especially outside the Chamber and upon an audience of working people, impulsively French and not sufficiently educated to pry very narrowly into the logical strength of the argument. The German writer speaks rather sneeringly of Gambetta’s speeches, and says that in their printed form no cultivated man will trouble himself to read them, which may possibly be to some extent true, if he is an uninterested, perhaps biased foreigner reading them coldly and intellectually in his study, but the wonderful work which the orator accomplished by them is an undisputable proof of their perfect efficiency among his own people and on his own occasions. In the political life of Gambetta there are, of course, several circumstances which may be regarded as stains upon his record. We do not speak so much of his antipathy to Christianity, which is not peculiar to him—most French politicians are the same, and then, when we consider the circumstances of his education, how could he have been otherwise? but of his active hostility to the church and his extraordinary scheme of a state religion or no religion. It is needless to make any comment upon this last, even Mr. Harrison condemns it. In his persecution of "clericalism" however he was to some extent, if not altogether, justified. The church in France, it appears does not confine itself as it should to the spiritual concerns of the people, but has always as a body adopted a largely and increasingly meddlesome attitude toward the state, especially under Republican institutions, plotting with feudalism, laboring for the restoration of Monarchy, and striving against the advance of education, even to the extent of disregarding the advice and admonition of the present Pope. "Clericalism, there is the enemy!" said Gambetta, and doubtless, politically speaking, he was right. Clericalism however does not mean the church, but the state policy of its clergy.

Against a man of Gambetta’s genius, the charge of personal ambition is always brought up with much bitterness by men of a certain narrow stamp. He was ambitious of course, and what ever so disinterested a man in his position would not have been? As Carlyle says of another greater man, "They say he was ambitious—that he would be Minister. It is most true, and was he not simply the one man in France who could have done any good as Minister." Of Gambetta we may say that he was the one man in France who could have done incomparably the most as the head of the Republic, and he knew it. The desire of power in him was no vulgar pride, but a sense of the supreme strength he had to do great good to his country and a generous longing to have the opportunity of accomplishing it. There is no doubt however that this ambition of his—noble as it was—together with the nervous uneasiness which accompanied it, as even his friends allow, led him into some serious errors, such as the pains he took to fill all offices of state with men subservient to his influence, that when the day of his power came he might be able to use it to best purpose, and with the least hindrance and meddlesome, dictatorial, quasi-dog-in-the-manger attitude which he adopted toward all the Ministers which had followed one another in rapid succession, while he was President of the Chamber—and which were obliged to stand or fall according to his will. Gambetta, it seems, was not strong enough at the time to govern himself, but he had full power and determination to prevent any one governing without him. He was however in the end bitterly punished for all. When circumstances at last obliged him to form a Ministry of his own, his grand measure of the Scrutin de Liste, which however was a just and necessary one, was defeated and thrown out. The members were afraid of him. With great toil he dragged it through the Lower House by a scant majority of four votes, and lost it utterly in the Upper one. In regard to the charges of loose morality, which have been brought against the great Frenchman, and the disagreeable stories that are told (by his enemies of course) about his private life, most of which however, as Mr. Harrison observes, are not yet proven to be true, we can have little to say. Mr. Harrison says that "a public man has no private life," which is in a certain sense true, though it looks like a dangerous maxim from the lips of one who holds up as a light and example to men the calendar of Humanity. Besides, are we not all such fate-driven mortals on this earth, moulded in body and soul by the necessity of our surroundings—that inevitable necessity which Victor Hugo makes the text of a great and powerful novel. When a man has been shewn only the clean and perfect side of life and yet turns out in the end a reprobate, let us speak ill of him if we will, but when only its loose and irregular types have been thrown about him from his infancy, and yet out of it all, he displays, as Gambetta certainly did, the high and generous impulses of a nature fundamentally noble, it were better for us to be silent about his faults. Gambetta was by his education and surroundings, in the words of Frederick [sic] Harrison nothing but a "jovial, unabashed son of Paris." All this will seem but a weak argument to the pure and careful searchers of character; yet let it stand for some slight extenuation. But before we leave him let us repeat what I find eagerly testified in everything that I have read of him and what can be said of so few statesmen of his especially, or any other age or country, that though he was placed in positions in which he had abundant opportunities of making himself wealthy by means often considered quite honest, he never made use of his power to augment his fortune by a single farthing. He died indeed comparatively poor, and all that he left behind him was the proceeds of his share in two great Republican journals. It is said of him also that during his life time, whilst most men looked upon him as immensely rich, he was often in a condition of pecuniary necessity. We are told, too, of his indefatigable industry, of his perpetual endeavour to learn, of the long weary hours he devoted to study and the work of state, reserving only four for sleep, of how he toiled thus for his country unceasingly with all his might, and as it proved much more than his might, and so shattered his once powerful constitution that a slight wound slew him in the end, as a much greater one could not have done in earlier years of less weary care and better regarded health.

In taking leave of the reader we would recommend him, if he has the different copies of the reviews about him, and has not done so already, to read Mr. Harrison’s lecture on Leon Gambetta. He may set on one side the reflections on his religion which are to be found in it, if nothing else, for the ease and beauty of its style. Other articles well worth reading are "Contemporary Life and Thought in France," by Gabriel Monod, in the Contemporary Review for February, and another in the same number, written in a very sweet and affectionate tone by one who styles himself Gambetta’s Friend and Follower, "M. Gambetta: Positiveness and Christianity," by R.W. Dale, M.A., in the Contemporary Review for March, and lastly a rather caustic and skeptical paper by "A German," in the Fortnightly Review for February, which will serve as an antidote to all.