The World's Famous Orations/Volume 7/On Being Accused of Treasonable Relations to the Court

The World's Famous Orations (Volume 7: Continental Europe)
On Being Accused of Treasonable Relations to the Court by Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau




It is doubtless a point gained toward reconciling opposite opinions, to make known clearly what it is that produces the coincidence, and what it is that constitutes the differences. Amicable discussions are more favorable to a right understanding of our respective sentiments than defamatory insinuation, outrageous accusations, the animosities of rivalship, the machinations of cabal and malevolence.

A report has been spread abroad for this week past, that that part of the National Assembly which approves the concurrence of the royal will, in the exercise of the right of peace and war, has incurred the guilt of parricide against public liberty. Rumors of perfidy, of corruption, are disseminated; popular vengeance is invoked to aid the tyranny of opinion. One might assert that there can not, without a crime, exist two opinions upon one of the most delicate and most difficult questions of civil organization. What a strange madness this, what a deplorable blindness, which thus inflames us one against another—men whom one and the same object, the same indestructible sentiment, should, amid the most fell debates, still reconcile, still reunite; men who in fact substitute the irascibility of self-interest for patriotism, and deliver up one another to the rage of popular prejudice!

As for me, but a few days ago it was proposed to carry me in triumph; and now, the cry is, through every street of Paris: "The Grand Treason of the Comte de Mirabeau!"[2] I did not want such a lesson to inform me that there is but a short distance from the capitol to the Tarpeian rock.[3] However, a man combating for reason, for his country, will not so readily acknowledge himself vanquished. He who feels within himself the consciousness of having deserved well of his country, and especially of being still of use to it; he who does not feed upon a vain celebrity, and who contemns the success of a day when looking forward to true glory; he who wishes to speak the truth, who has at heart the public welfare independently of the fickle movements of public opinion—such a man bears along with him the recompense of his services, the mitigation of his pains, and the price of all his perils; such a man must expect his harvest, his destiny—the only one which interests him, the destiny of his fame—from time alone, that judge incorruptible, who renders strict justice to every one.

Let those who, for this week past, have been prophesying my opinion without knowing what it was; who at this moment are calumniating my speech without understanding it,—let them accuse me of offering incense to idols without power, at the very moment when they lie prostrate, or of being the vile stipendiary of men against whom I have indefatigably waged war. Let them arraign as an enemy to the Revolution, the man who, perhaps, has not been altogether useless to it, and who, were that Revolution unconnected with his renown, might there alone expect to find an asylum. Let them deliver up to the fury of an infatuated people the man who, for these twenty years, has been the adversary of oppression; who talked to the French of liberty, of Constitution, of resistance, when his base calumniators were at nurse in the court of despotism and suckled with the milk of overbearing prejudices. What is all this to me? This treatment, these unworthy practises, shall not arrest me in my career. I will say to my antagonists, Answer, if you are able; then calumniate, as much as you please.

I reenter the lists, then, with no armor but my principles, and the fortitude of conscience. I am going to state, in my turn, the real points of difficulty, with all the accuracy in my power; and I beseech such of my adversaries as shall not understand me, to call on me to stop, that I may express myself more clearly; for, as to the reiterated reproaches of evasion, of subtilty, of doubling and winding, I have resolved to shake them off, "like dewdrops from the lion's mane."[4] As far as on me depends, this day shall unveil the secret of our respective loyalties. M. Barnave has done me the honor to answer me alone; I mean to pay the same compliment to his talents; I am going to endeavor, in my turn, to refute him.

You have said: "We have instituted two distinct powers, the legislative and the executive; the one is commissioned to express the national will, the other to execute it. These two powers ought never to be confounded."

You have applied these principles to the question of debate—that is, to the exercise of the right of war and peace.

You have said: "We must distinguish between action and will; action shall be the king's, will the property of the legislative body. Therefore, when the question shall be to declare war, such declaration being an act of will, it shall be the province of the legislative body to make it."

After having laid down this principle, you applied it to each article of my decree. I shall follow the same route. I shall first discuss the general principle; I shall then examine the application which you have made of it to the exercise of the right of war and peace; lastly, I mean to follow you step by step in your criticism of my decree.

You assert that we have two distinct delegates, the one for action, the other for will: I deny it.

The executive power, in whatever relates to action, is certainly very distinct from the legislative; but it is not true that the legislative body is entirely independent of the executive power, even when it is expressing the general will.

In fact, what is the organ of that general will, according to the Constitution? It is, at once, the assembly of the national representatives or the legislative body, and the representative of the executive power; and it takes place in the manner following: The legislative body deliberates, and declares the general will; the representative of the executive power has the twofold right, either of sanctioning the resolution of the legislative body (and such sanction consummates the law), or of exercising the veto which is granted to it for a certain time; and the Constitution has determined that, during this period, the resolution of the legislative body shall not be law. It is, therefore, inaccurate to say that our Constitution has established two delegates entirely distinct, even when the question relates to the expression of the general will. On the contrary, we have two representatives who cooperate in the formation of law, one of whom introduces a kind of secondary will, exercises over the other a species of control, and bestows on the law his share of influence and authority. Therefore, the general will does not result from the unmodified will of the legislative body.

Let us now pursue the application of your principle to the exercise of the right of war and peace.

You have said: "Whatever in this is nothing more than will, as in all the rest, returns to its natural principle, and can be declared by the legislative power alone." Here I stop you; and I discover your sophism in a single word, which you yourself have brought forward: you shall not, then, escape from me.

In your speech, you confer the enunciation of the general will exclusively—upon whom? Upon the legislative power. Upon whom do you confer it in your decree? Upon the legislative body. And for this I call you to order. You have annulled the Constitution. If you mean that the legislative body is the legislative power, you thereby overturn every law that we have made. If, whenever the question turns upon expressing the general will with respect to war, the legislative body suffices, according to that alone—the king having neither participation, nor influence, nor control, nor anything of all that we have granted to the executive power by our social system—you would have, in legislation, two different principles, the one for ordinary legislation, the other for legislation with respect to war—that is, for the most terrible crisis which can agitate the body politic; one while you would have need, and another while you would have no need, of the assistance of the monarch in order to express the general will. And it is you who talk of homogeneousness, of unity, of compactness in the Constitution! Attempt not to say that this distinction is idle; it is so little entitled to that epithet, it is so important in my eyes, and in the eyes of every good citizen who countenances my doctrine, that, if you will substitute, in your decree, in place of the words the legislative body, the words the legislative power, and define that power thus: An act of the National Assembly, sanctioned by the king, we shall, by that alone, come to an agreement upon the principles; but you will then return to my decree, because it grants less to the king. You make no answer. I proceed.

This contradiction becomes still more striking in the application which you yourself have made of your principle to the case of a declaration of war. You have said: "A declaration of war is no more than an act of will; therefore it is the province of the legislative body to express it."

I have here two questions to put to you, each of which involves two different cases.

The first question is, Do you mean that the declaration of war is so far the property of the legislative body that the king has not the initiative? or do you mean that he has the initiative?

In the former case, if he has not the initiative, do you mean likewise that he has not the veto? From that, moment the king ceases to cooperate in the most important act of the national will. How do you reconcile this with the rights which the Constitution has conferred upon the monarch? How do you reconcile it with the public interests? You will have as many encouragers of war as there shall be men of fiery temper.

Are there, or not, great inconveniences in such an order of things? You do not deny that there are.

Are there any, on the other hand, in allowing the king the initiative? By the initiative, I mean a notification, any message whatsoever. You can not discover any inconvenience there.

Observe, moreover, the natural course of things. In order to deliberate, it is necessary to be informed. By whom are you to be informed, if not by him who has the superintendence of your foreign connections?

That were, indeed, a strange Constitution which, having conferred upon the king the supreme executive power, should provide a means of declaring war without the king's having originated the debate upon that subject, in consequence of those connections which it is his duty to maintain. Your assembly would be no longer a deliberating, but an acting body; it would be, in fact, the governing power.

You will, therefore, allow the initiative to the king.

Let us now proceed to the second case.

If you allow the king the initiative, either you suppose that it is to consist in a mere notification, or you suppose that the king will declare which side it is his inclination to take.

If the king's initiative must be confined to simple notification, the king, in fact, will have no concurrence in the declaration of war.

If, on the contrary, the king's initiative consists in a declaration of the course which he thinks ought to be taken, you have here a double hypothesis, upon which I request that we may argue.

Do you mean that, when the king shall have given his vote for war, the legislative body may deliberate upon peace? I find no inconvenience here. Do you mean, on the other hand, that, when the king is inclined to peace, it shall be lawful for the legislative body to order war, and to cause it to be carried on in spite of him? I can not adopt your system, because here arise inconveniences which it is not possible to remedy.

From this war, determined on in spite of the king, would ere long result a war of opinion against the king, against all his agents. The most turbulent superintendency would preside over all the operations; the desire of seconding those operations, and distrust of the ministry, would betray the legislative body into transgressing its proper limits. Committees of military execution would be proposed, as some have lately proposed committees of political execution: the king would be then no more than the agent of these committees; we should have two executive powers, or rather the legislative body would exercise the royalty.

Therefore, by this encroachment of one power upon the other, our Constitution would utterly depart from its own nature; from being monarchical, as it ought to be, it would become a downright aristocracy. You have not answered this objection, and I think that you never can answer it. You talk of restraining nothing but ministerial abuses, and I am talking of the means of restraining the abuses of a representative assembly. I am telling you that it is our duty to control that bias which all government takes insensibly toward the predominating form wherewith it is impressed.

But if, when the king is inclined to war, you confine the deliberations of the legislative body to a consent that such war shall be undertaken, or to a resolution that it ought not to be undertaken, and to compelling the executive power to negotiating a peace, you avoid all those inconveniences: and take especial notice (for here it is that my system is so eminently distinguished) that you are perfectly consistent with the principles of the Constitution.

The king's veto finds itself, from the very nature of things, almost entirely blunted in affairs of execution; rarely can it take place in matters relative to war. You parry this inconvenience; you reestablish the superintendency, the reciprocal control, which the Constitution has provided, in imposing upon the two delegates of the nation, her removable representatives and her unremovable representative, the mutual duty of coinciding when the question is upon war. You attribute likewise to the legislative body the sole faculty which can enable it to concur, without inconvenience, in the exercise of this terrible privilege. You at the same time secure the national interest, as far as in you lies; since all that you will have to do in order to arrest the progress of the executive power will be to require it to place continually within the reach of the legislative body the means of deliberating on every case which can present itself.

It appears to me, gentlemen, that the point of difficulty is at length completely known; and, for a man for whom such applause was prepared within and without doors, M. Barnave has not at all approached the true state of the question. It were now but too easy a triumph to pursue him through all the particulars, where, if he has exhibited the talents of a speaker, he has not betrayed the slightest symptoms of a statesman, nor any knowledge of human affairs. He has declaimed against the mischiefs which kings can do, and which they have done; and he has taken special care not to remark that in our Consitution the monarch can never hereafter assume the character of a despot, nor do anything that can be interpreted as arbitrary. And above all, he has taken good care not to speak of popular emotions, altho he himself could have given an example of the facility with which the friends of a foreign power can influence the opinion of a national assembly by collecting the people around it, and by procuring for their agents, in the public walks, a clapping of hands as a testimony of general favor. He has quoted Pericles as involving his country in a war in order to avoid passing his accounts. Should not one be led to imagine, on hearing M. Barnave, that Pericles was a man who, well knowing how to flatter the passions of the people and to procure seasonable applause when descending from the tribune, by his largesses or by those of his friends, plunged into the Peloponnesian War—whom?—the National Assembly of Athens.

I have said in my speech that hostilities often precede deliberation; I have said that those hostilities might be of such a nature as to amount to a commencement of the state of war. What answer have you made me? That war could not exist otherwise than by a declaration of war. But, are we disputing about things, or about words? You have said with seriousness, what M. de Bougainville said at the sea fight of the Grenadines in a moment of heroic gaiety. The bullets were flying about his ship; he cried out to his officers: "The pleasant thing is, gentlemen, that all this while we are not at war"; and, in fact, war had not been declared.

You have gone largely into the present case of Spain. An act of hostility has been committed: would the National Assembly of Spain have no occasion for deliberation? Doubtless it would, and I have said so, and my decree has formally provided for the case. Here are hostilities commenced, a right to be maintained, a war impending. You have concluded, then, that act of hostility does not constitute a state of war. But if, instead of two vessels taken and released in Nootka Sound, there had been an engagement between two ships of war; if, in order to support them, two squadrons had intermeddled in the quarrel; if an enterprising admiral had pursued the vanquished into port; if an island of some importance had been taken—would there not then have existed a state of war? This will be all that you desire; but since neither your decree nor mine presents means of making the deliberations of the legislative body take the lead of such hostilities, you will admit that it is not there the question lies. But where is the snare?

It is full time to terminate this long debate. I am in hopes that henceforward none will think of shutting their eyes against the true point of difficulty. I am for the cooperation of the executive power in expressing the general will with respect to war and peace, in like manner as the Constitution has conferred on it that cooperation in every part already established of our new social system. My adversaries are not for it. I am contending that the superintendence of one of the people's delegates should never desert it in the most important political operations; and my antagonists contend that one of the delegates should exclusively possess the right of making war—as if, even were the executive power a stranger to the composition of the general will, our deliberations turned only on the declaration of war, and the exercise of the right involved not a series of mixed operations, in which action and will jostle each other and are confounded.

It has been proposed to you to decide the question by a parallel between those who support the affirmative and those who support the negative. You have been told that you would see, on the one side, men who hope either for advancement in the arm„ or to be employed in transacting foreign affairs, men connected with the ministers and their agents; on the other, the peaceful citizen, virtuous, unknown, unambitious, who finds his own happiness and existence in the happiness and existence of the community.

I mean not to follow this example. I think that it is no more conformable to the expediencies of politics than it is to the principles of morality, to sharpen the poniard with which one can not wound one's rival without soon feeling the weapon returned upon one's own heart. I do not think that men who ought to serve the public cause as true brother soldiers find any pleasure in defamation and intrigue, and not in information and talents; in seeking guilty triumphs in mutual ruin and depression, the trophies of a day, injurious to all, and even to the cause of glory. But I will tell you: among those who maintain my doctrine you may reckon upon all men of moderation, who do not think that wisdom is to be found in extremes, nor that the spirit of pulling down should never make room for that of building up; you may reckon upon the greatest part of those energetic citizens who, at the commencement of the States-General (such at that time was the appellation of this national convention, which is yet but in the cradle of liberty), trampled on so many prejudices, braved so many dangers, beat down so many impediments, in order to make their way into the midst of the Commons, in whom that devotedness inspired the courage and the force which have really effectuated your glorious revolution; you will there behold those tribunes of the people whom the nation will long rank among the number of her deliverers, notwithstanding the incessant barking of envious mediocrity; you will there see persons whose very name disarms calumny, and whose reputation, both as public and private men, the most headstrong libelers have never essayed to tarnish—men, in fine, who without blemish, without views of interest, and without fear, will be honored even to the grave, both by their friends and by their enemies.

  1. From a speech delivered in the National Assembly on May 28, 1790. Abridged. Translated in 1793 by James White. Sometimes known as the second speech "On the Right of Declaring War."
  2. After Mirabeau had spoken on this subject a few days before the Extremists of the Left had vented their wrath in a pamphlet with this title, and caused it to be sold on the streets of Paris. Thiers says that, on the occasion of this speech, Mirabeau ascended the tribune in the presence "of an immense multitude assembled to hear him and declared, as he went up, that he would come down again either dead or victorious."
  3. The Tarpeian Bock in Rome, from which traitors were thrown, stood near the brow of Capitoline Hill, on which stood the Temple of Jupiter, the terminus of triumphal processions.
  4. Mr. White, the translator, explains in a foot-note that the words here quoted were interpolated by himself.
Copyright.svg PD-icon.svg This work is a translation and has a separate copyright status to the applicable copyright protections of the original content.

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.


This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.