Story of the French Revolution - Alice Birkhead

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Dreamer

The old order passed, though life at Court wore its atmosphere of chivalrous frivolity long after the eighteenth century had begun a new era for the French.

In 1712, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, son of a watchmaker of Geneva, was born into a world that he would do much to change. His childhood gave promise of the future—ardent, exaggerated, undisciplined; he was his father's companion, and had never known his mother. In the evening the child devoured romances, filling his mind with strange pictures of life as it was not. When he was only five years old, he began to know the heroes of fiction. He was two years older when he first studied Plutarch's lives of the Greeks and Romans, and was fired with the ambition to mould his character by theirs. "I believed myself Greek or Roman," he says. "I became the persons of whom I read; the story of traits of constancy and intrepidity which struck me made my eyes sparkle and my voice firm."

The child's imagination was vivid. He lived in the books he read; and sleep was often but a brief hour of dreams. Far into the night, the watchmaker and his little son would sit together, and when morning was announced by the twitter of the birds, the elder only roused himself to say; "Go to bed; I am more a child than thou."

The watchmaker was indeed not capable of guiding the son he made the associate of his pleasures. He left the child to the care of his uncle Bernard at Bossey, and troubled very little further about his education. In this quiet village near Geneva, Jean-Jacques learnt the real love of country leisure that was always to be the accompaniment of his restless life. To be quite happy, he must have "an orchard on the bank, a firm friend, an amiable wife, a cow, and a little boat." These seem simple tastes, but the genius of his age was often too poor to indulge them.

Soon the peaceful times at Bossey were ended. Jean-Jacques had learnt something of music that was to be of use in later life. He had begun to feel that interest in the soil which was to make him famous, for without it he could hardly have written the books that inspired the world-weary Court to betake itself to Trianon and play the rustic.

Apprenticed to an engraver and treated most brutally, Jean-Jacques ran away. He was only sixteen, and had not a penny in his pocket. He had no trade that would enable him to earn a living; he had no friends save those he left. Yet he faced the world cheerfully, enjoying freedom and careless of his future. He was attractive to many people by reason of his strange appearance. His eyes were fiery and told of a passionate nature, his hair was black and his figure well-proportioned. He had become timid through harsh treatment, and awkward, almost stupid, in his manners. It was surprising that he made his way easily and never suffered starvation or the worst experiences of poverty.

Mme. Warens, a kindly lady of means, received him into her household and gave him time to think without the necessity of selling his thoughts before they were mature. He copied music to support himself partially, and refused to write for bread since he thought that talent was killed and genius most surely stifled by such service. He who might have been rich dared to be poor, and always sympathized with the poor and understood them. When he did write later, the reward was worth the long apprenticeship. Even the wicked city of Paris listened to words straight from the heart of the man who had waited long to utter them.

The peaceful days with his benefactress ended, and Jean-Jacques set out on his journeyings again. The hardships of the road were pleasant to one of his temper. He could not be kept within a household, but must see the France, neglected by Versailles. One day he entered a cottage to ask for refreshment, since he had walked a great distance and was very tired. It was a poor enough place to outward seeming. Peasants were not disposed to do much for their dwellings, when their rents would be raised if they looked too comfortable.

The master eyed Jean-Jacques suspiciously. Strangers were rare and might be spies, sent by the lord or his agent, to find out resources hidden from the tax-collector. A meal of coarse bread and the cheapest sort of wine wits set before the visitor. He ate it thankfully, and began to discuss with his host many things of interest to all Frenchmen. The host grew uneasy. He was generous in his humble way and wished to be more truly hospitable to the wayfarer with the kindly manners and the shabby clothes. He scanned Jean-Jacques furtively, and decided to risk ruin. With a muttered word of apology, he produced some fine bread and some sparkling that had a flavor. They were hidden in a cellar, entered by a trap-door. It would be folly to expose such dainties to an excise-man who would exact duty for the wine, a commissioner who would remind him harshly that there was a tax on bread. He would be a lost man unless he pretended to die of hunger, he said, and Jean-Jacques, questioning this peasant, felt the hatred quicken that was to lead him always to be the defender of the poor.

The Haves and the Have-nots were the two orders, more commonly known as the rich and poor. Taxation fell on the luckless Have-nots and reduced them to a state of beggary. They were slaves to the Haves, who paid nothing to the State. One-half of all the land was in the possession of the King, the Church, and the great nobles. Such a division was monstrously unequal. The bulk of the people belonged to the Commons or Third Estate. The First Estate and the Second Estate numbered about the one-hundredth part of the actual population. Yet, apart from the public lands, they must own half France, and that the half which held the stateliest buildings, the richest works of art, the finest hunting, parks, pleasure-haunts, gardens, and all the beauty of the cultivated earth.

A few nobles paid some sort of tribute, assessing themselves at what they chose. The clergy paid no direct taxes at all. They were supposed to make a Free Gift, and they were seldom generous. When France was in distress they got money from the public treasury, and gave not a fraction in the woeful year of 1789. The whole country-side was covered with customs-houses and tolls, which made smuggling a pardonable crime and raised the price of necessities to luxuries. The imposition of duties hampered trade in every way. A man bringing goods from south to north would take three months to perform a journey of three weeks. Even a worker going across some river to his work was forced to pay a duty on the dinner he carried in his humble pocket!

The Gabelle  was the tax resented more than any other imposition. The country people were patient, but their blood boiled as they related the story of this salt-tax. It was, in truth, a poll-tax levied on every person of seven years and upward. Every member of a household was obliged to purchase seven pounds yearly, and the price varied according to the province, since the sale of salt was a monopoly. It might cost but a few shillings in one province and two or three pounds in another. This quantity was to be used for cooking only. If it were required for salting pork or fish, it must be bought specially for that purpose. Any evasion of the tax was punished with severity. Fines and personal chastisement were inflicted, and men and women were sent to prison to endure the cruelest hardships, if they were found to have defied the Government.

The Corve  was another grievous burden of the farmer. Many were brought to abject poverty by the compulsory labor on the roads, which meant leaving work of a more profitable nature. The path must be made smooth for the lord's heavy carriage, the way must be even over which the King drove. More than three hundred prosperous men were brought to abject beggary by filling up one vale in Lorraine, and, in later times, the crowning of Louis the Sixteenth was accomplished at the sacrifice of poor wretches, who fell down at their task from sheer starvation, or disgraced the day of splendor by piteously entreating alms from the nobles who returned from Rheims to Versailles.

The Taille  was a tax on property so unjust that it varied year by year. It fell with the greatest weight on the small proprietors, who were afraid to indulge in comfort, lest they should be discovered to owe more, and lose their temporary prosperity. It was said that the Peasant locked his door and shuttered his window on the rare occasions when he was able to enjoy the "fowl in the pot," which became the ideal of the Have-nots, as the time of reckoning approached. The fowl might assuredly have been wrested from him when half-way to his mouth! He was obliged to give part of the fruit of his labor to his lord, no matter how meager the wage be earned and how paltry the contents of his farmyard. The noble insisted that tenants should bake in his great ovens, should make wine in his presses, kill cattle in his slaughter-house, and pay handsomely for the privilege of doing these things.

The rights of the chase were hard on the men whose land was ravaged. The deer were sacred, and guarded from vengeance by laws too cruel to be infringed by any who valued his life. The peasant had to bear the odious sight of stags browsing on his fruit-trees, rabbits gnawing his corn, and pigeons pecking the crops he had sown for his own scanty harvest. The "right of dovecote" belonged to the lord, who made it penal to kill a single pigeon. Other rights there were which might well have survived from the remote ages of barbarity. Among these was the "silence des grenouilles,"  by which the unfortunate tenant must stand in marshy places the night long and risk his own health in flogging the waters to prevent the croaking of the frogs, thereby preserving the silence that was necessary for the lady of the manor.

The women suffered such toil that they knew nothing of youth, and paid dearly for beauty, did they happen to possess it. An English traveler met a haggard wretch one day and took her for an old woman who had known the privations of a lifetime. She was twenty-eight, and was prematurely aged through the cares and poverty which fell to the lot of the typical mother of a French family, bound to the service of a noble who ruffled it at Versailles.

Not all this did Rousseau learn in the house of the peasant where he received a meal. But he began from that hour to take note of such glaring contrasts, and it was through his writing that the new humanity was introduced to bridge the awful gulf between the seigneur and his tenant.

The happiest period of Jean-Jacques' life was passed at Les Charmettes, a cottage near Paris, which he occupied through the favor of a friend. Here he explored the hills and valleys, helped in the labors of the household, gathered fruit and worked in the garden. He was persuaded that a return to Nature would be the salvation of the French, and would worthily displace the corrupt life of the capital.

In 1741, Rousseau went to Paris, ill-supplied with money and depending on his wits for a modest livelihood. He was introduced to various great ladies, and obtained a diplomatic post in Italy. This was the opportunity of the man of letters, whose intellect had not yet gained him any power. He profited by learning the manners of a world above him in station, and afterwards studied the society of France, corrupt yet witty, repulsive yet too often of a marvelous fascination. He was received in the salons which noted beauties held for the interchange of brilliant ideas and scandal. The success of his opera, Le Devin du Village, might well have gone to his head, since the Queen acted in it when it was performed at Trianon.

But Jean-Jacques preferred rural pleasures to salons. "He gave up gold facings and white stockings, laid aside his sword, and sold his watch, exclaiming with great joy, 'Thank Heaven, I shall no longer need to know the time.' "

The town of Geneva received him with transports of admiration he had reason to remember later. He went lack to Paris, elated by the praise of men, and settled in "the Hermitage," where he wrote La Nouvelle Heloise, the first book of his to take the fashionable public by storm.

This novel was greeted after the extravagant manner of the time. All Paris raved of it, the booksellers could not meet the demand for copies, belles lingered over its pages, forgetting carnivals and such engagements because they were absorbed in the new hero and the newer heroine. It was a novel in favor of true seclusion from society, quiet homes and sincere relationships. Parisians thought the ideal charming, and began with zest to play at imitating it.

Emile  was published in 1762. It explained a system of education, sufficiently startling to arrest attention. The author condemned the artificial restraints of childhood. He might well preach against the pathetic spectacles of miniature men and women moving stiffly before their elders in the attitudes they were obliged to practice. The boy could enjoy neither ease of movement nor healthy occupation. He was powdered by the barber, embroidered by the tailor, decked by his valet with sword and sash, and instructed by some dancing-master to bow with elegance, one hand on his breast, the other holding the hat he seldom wore. He paid pretty compliments that amused the ladies, and gave his opinion precociously upon the merits of poets and playwrights, if his mother happened to be learned. He was a suitable gallant, not a playfellow, for the girl of the period, who at the age of six or seven was bound in whalebone, burdened by a heavy skirt, and girdled with iron. She was hardly expected to learn much; her head was adorned by a coiffure two feet in height, and her complexion must not be injured by the tears engendered by punishment. The fine lady rouged her little daughter as though she were a doll, and delighted in her mimic coquetry.

No wonder that Rousseau's book was unwelcome to the age. He preached a natural education wherein books played a secondary part, and the child was left to find out for himself the great rewards of knowledge. The custom of handing children over to hirelings was attacked with scathing criticism, as also the use of artificial toys and the attempt to enlarge the child's vocabulary. Health was to be of the first importance, and next, the moral character of the child. He was to find out by the consequences of his acts whether they were wise or foolish. If he wantonly broke a window, he must endure the discomfort of a draught; if he offended again, he would merely be placed in a room without windows. Robinson Crusoe was to be a whole library in itself, because it taught the value of self-help. Alone on a desert island, a man must be his own cook and carpenter. He must use his brain daily to find ordinary food and clothing for himself. The young pupil was to learn a trade that he might not eat the bread of idleness—a daring attack on the luxury of the class who read this work, considering that their views of existence were almost purely frivolous.

The Contrat Social  was destined to make an impression far more profound than that of Emile  in the history of the kingdom. It treated of a state where the old order was abolished, where every man was born free and insisted on his freedom. Property was the root of all evil, Rousseau stated boldly. The first man to enclose a piece of land and declare it to be his own was an enemy of the race, and had caused a thousand miseries. The chains about the feet of the oppressed were to be broken. Equal rights for all was the teaching of the Contrat Social, by which men lived in a. union composed of different natures but united by the common bond of humanity Nobody could do exactly as he liked, lest he might injure a neighbor. Everybody agreed to do what would be of use to the community in general.

It was a daring scheme of government to propose in the France of the eighteenth century. It was a daring book to publish in a country where literature was fettered by the ignorant. The Parlement of Paris ordered the work to be burnt and the author to be arrested. Rousseau fled in haste and found enemies wherever he turned. In gazettes and journals the name of this man was odious. He was denounced as an atheist, a madman, a wild beast, and a wolf. His own town would not receive him. He was ordered to leave Berne where he had descended to kiss the ground he judged to be the soil of liberty!

When Frederick the Great afforded the writer protection Jean-Jacques was thankful to dwell at the foot of Mt. Jura, though the peasantry of that neighborhood disliked his odd Armenian costume and eccentric habits, and did not fail to turn against him when popular prejudice was at its height. He was hooted in the streets and attacked in his own house. He feared death itself and escaped to England, almost crazy from the strain of such a persecution.

In 1766, Rousseau arrived in London. His writings were well known there, and distinguished people were anxious to meet him. Hume met the outcast, who fell on his neck with mingled tears and kisses. He was an object of interest even to the King and Queen, and they paid him more attention at the theatre than was given to David Garrick, the great actor.

Rousseau lived in retirement at Woolton, where the villagers took him for some strange king in exile. He brooded over his wrongs while he roamed the picturesque country-side, and all the charm of rustic scenery could not bring peace to his unquiet mind. He was in Paris once more in the summer of 1770. The order for his arrest was not withdrawn, but he was allowed to live in the capital unmolested. He gave up his Armenian dress, adopted for the sake of hygiene, and dwelt very quietly on the fourth floor of a house in the street which was named after him, when passionate admiration succeeded neglect and mockery. He copied music and played the spinet. The wife, ill-educated and unable to understand him, sewed in the humble room, with the pots of flowers and canary in its wooden cage. It was a modest income that genius desired, and yet this was made by labor which was truly strenuous. Nearly eight years passed before he moved to a cottage on a fine estate which was noted for its gardens. Voltaire, the brilliant atheist, died in 1778, and Rousseau, his only rival in the world of letters, followed an ancient enemy to the grave. "I feel that my existence is bound up with his," he said, on hearing the news from Paris. "He is dead. I shall soon follow." The assailant of the old faith was buried at the end of May, the assailant of the old order in July of that same year.

Jean-Jacques might be a vagabond, a man of many faults and morbid imagination. He marked out the path to be taken by the foremost of the Revolutionaries. They studied his Contrat Social  to find the text of their principles. They shed blood and destroyed ruthlessly. The writer had detested violence, but he was to lead the people to a state of anarchy. He taught freedom, and he was beloved by them as they killed their oppressors. He preached equality, and they reduced the privileges of the nobles to assume despotic rights as the rulers of a Republic which their own hands had set up.