Story of the French Revolution - Alice Birkhead

The Marquis of Mirabeau, Maker of a Revolution

Gabriel Honore Riquetti de Mirabeau! The very name rings with the family arrogance that claimed the noblest blood of Provence. Noble or not, they had fought and striven, boasted and showed themselves soldiers of hard courage on many a field of battle. Gabriel's grandfather had been left on the bridge at Casano with twenty-seven wounds that might well have proved too fatal. They left him for a dead man, and he rose again to live and to marry, wearing a silver collar as the only visible reminder of that death-bed. "Silver-stock" was his name henceforward. He was proud of it, because he loved men to think him valiant.

The son who succeeded to the estates, bought by an enterprising founder of the family fortunes, one Riquetti, merchant of Marseilles, was of another stamp from Silver-stock. He quarreled with his father, knew poverty and a wildly riotous life, being remarkable for beauty of person and a belief in his own powers that earned him the title of the Friend of Men. Something of a pedant, he bequeathed the gift of facile writing to his son and heir, the ugly, monstrous infant who alarmed his parents by a strange precocity. The nurse chosen for him was a woman of some force, being a widow well able to carry on her husband's trade of blacksmith. But Gabriel worsted her, and his father wrote in some amusement at the mimic combat. "I have nothing to say about my enormous son only that he beats his nurse, who does not fail to return it, and they try which shall strike the hardest."

[Illustration] from Story of the French Revolution by Alice Birkhead


At three years old this lusty boy had smallpox, which left lasting scars on a face that could never be well-favored. The other children of Mirabeau were beautiful. He alone was destined to conquer by amazing powers of mind. The training of children in those days was harsh. The Marquis determined that his son should be brought into subjection. He was fond of reading and curious knowledge. At four years old he had accomplished marvels. "All Paris talks of his precocity," his father wrote to another Mirabeau, then governor of Gaudeloupe. He shocked a pious grandmother when a cardinal confirmed him at the age of seven. He asked questions so keen that they could not answer him.

Such a spirit soon grew difficult to manage. The father began to dislike a son likely to outstrip himself. "A bloated bully who will eat every man alive before he is twelve years old," he said bitterly, and then a system of strange discipline sent away the heir of Provence to a military school at Paris, where he was not to bear his own name but entered as M. de Pierre Buffiere. The Abbe Choquard did not treat his pupil as severely as had been expected. He saw the enormous capability of this southern nature and directed it most wisely. Boxing, riding, drilling, dancing were the usual exercises of the academy. Gabriel Honore excelled since he was too strong to feel fatigue even after the hardest physical exertion. He mastered Greek and Latin, and nearly every living language for learning was easy to him. He was of fine intelligence and liked to use his natural ability.

At eighteen the academy pupil was ready for the army. He was unfortunate in his colonel, an officer of overbearing manners, who denounced him to the Marquis as a gambler when be lost some trifling sum at a gaining table. It was adding fuel to the fire of hate which seemed to consume this unnatural parent. He jeered at Gabriel's extraordinary fascination over men and women, and described him as "a nothing bedizened with crotchets." Certainly, there was a vast inheritance of eccentricity in the family, so burdened by their heavy debts.

The Marquis showed his own inconsistent temper by making use of a lettre de cachet  (sealed or official letter) to control his son. This was a method of imprisonment he had denounced with good reason, since a man might be committed to prison for years without having a proper trial or even being acquainted with his own offence or the name of his accuser. The first of Gabriel's terms of imprisonment began when he was shut up in a fortress on the Isle of Rhe. He should not be free to disgrace the honorable and ancient race which had produced him. He should hear the Atlantic beat against the walls of his gaol and realize that he was at the mercy of relentless forces. He should win the heart of the gaoler if he chose, but should make no other attempt to dominate.

He was set free that he might serve in Corsica in the legion of Lorraine. He was distinguished as a soldier, and fought like some giant wrestling against evil. In truth, the world was too small for him. He broke bonds continually. Even from the cruelest of restrictions he escaped somehow or other. In the country, where the family held estates, he impressed men by his self-confidence and boldness. He had conquered his father's prejudices at this time and was allowed to go to Versailles.

The Marquis heard of his son's success at Court, his pride mingled, perhaps, with a touch of jealousy. He was fond of warning people of the fatal gifts that the son held. "In the name of all the gods, what prodigy is this I have hatched?" he exclaimed, hearing that great ladies were captivated by the soldier's gallantry and formal nobles routed by his easy insolence.

He was all-conquering in love, and won a wealthy bride from a host of other suitors, but the marriage was unhappy. In spite of a generous income, debts crippled the young people very shortly. Gabriel pawned his wife's jewels, and at the day of his funeral had not paid for the clothes he wore at his wedding! He could not keep money. He wasted it on luxuries and on works of art, for he had the tastes of a cultured man. He asked his father for help, and was promptly put in prison. He got into more serious trouble for horsewhipping a man who wrote satirical verses about his sister. His father thought nothing could punish such a crime except imprisonment in the Chateau d'If, noted for that prisoner of romance, the Count of Monte Cristo. "Girt with the blue Mediterranean, behind iron bars, without pen, paper, or friends except the Cerberus of the place, who is ordered to be very strict with him, there shall he devour his own lion heart in solitude." "The Cerberus of the place" was merciful and interceded for the captive, who was removed to the fort of Joux, near Pontarlier, where he enjoyed a certain amount of freedom. His wife forgot him during that imprisonment.

He loved another woman, Sophie de Monier, with whom he fled to Holland. He lived by his pen there, and when tracked and in bondage again at Vincennes, he continued to write ceaselessly, for liberty was not given him in the dreary keep where he spent forty-two months of his youth. Yet he left there with strength increased and stature taller by some inches. His fiery spirit was not tamed, and he dared to enter law courts where he harangued judge and jury as though they were guilty, and caused some consternation by his eloquent, persuasive tongue.

In 1784 Gabriel visited England and attended debates in the English House of Commons. He admired the independent spirit of the people, but would have had more complete freedom for his own country. He had formed those ideas now of a true government, which he tried to bring about later. He wanted to abolish feudal privileges, to have complete equality in the State for each citizen, to have no narrow religious persecutions, to retain the king and limit his rule by the meeting of representatives of the nation.

At thirty-six there seemed scant likelihood that this man would reach a position whence he might attempt reforms so vast. He was bloated and scarred; he looked old and worn by dissipation. He was glad to write on banking questions and any subject that was prominent. Then he captivated friends able to give him glimpses of the world outside his circle. He visited Berlin and met all the men worth knowing. He tried to obtain some post in the French Government, seeing that changes were at hand, but was unsuccessful. He had a secret mission, nevertheless, from Calonne, who did not pay generously the correspondent whose letters were too original and daring for diplomatic purposes. He gave Louis XVI advice on problems of government, but the King did not follow the advice of the man with advanced ideas on free trade and free education.

Calonne found that Mirabeau was not a suitor to be passed over quietly. He refused to make him secretary to the Assembly of Notables, and was punished by a pamphlet which denounced him. Lettres de cachet  had no terrors for one so inured to harsh usage. He was rash enough to attack Necker, the minister whom he had never influenced. His pen, indeed, was never weary; his name now was always to the fore, and he hotly supported the freedom of the Press. In course of time, men had to listen to his views as a reformer. He advertised himself and made an impression on Paris. He was practical and counseled attention to the actual needs of the present rather than dependence on tradition. He was impatient that so much time should be wasted on discussion of the various methods of election to the States-General. He was a royalist above all, and did not wish to take authority from the Crown.

Mirabeau found his own order anxious to cast him from their party. He was guilty of certain offences against society which courtiers could not forgive him. His huge head, with its mass of curled and powdered hair, his dress slovenly but of exaggerated fashion, coupled with his violent manner and his awkwardness, displeased the refined. He turned to the people of Provence and found that they would welcome him. He showed his strength by quelling a riot at Marseilles where the citizens had been powerless to resist a mob, attacking property and its owners. He went to Aix and found disturbance there. He restored peace and was elected as one of the four deputies of the Third Estate.

The States-General included no man so likely to prevent the ruin of the King as Mirabeau, but Necker failed him, the minister who had refused his proposals of reform. The feeble speech delivered at the first meeting roused the wrath of an orator with real plans of reform to unfold before the nation. Mirabeau knew men and cities, he was patriotic and moderate, he had enormous influence over other minds, he was courageous and would bring his work to some result. The natural leader of the people was chosen. His hour came when the National Assembly declared itself. Through the vast hall of Versailles the great voice of the giant began to roll in speeches, rising above he distant clamors of his colleagues or the comments of the galleries. The giant's form became familiar to Louis Seize, through his presenting a petition for the removal of the troops from Versailles and from Paris. Mirabeau knew the course that this meeting of the representatives would take, he knew that what seemed a wild revolt would become a serious revolution. Even as he wrote in the name of the Assembly to ask for a militia of the citizens to keep order in the turbulent, excited capital, the news of his father's fatal illness came to him. He left his work to attend to family affairs after the death of the Marquis, and when he returned to Paris on July 15th, he heard that the Bastille had fallen before the mob.