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Honoré Mirabeau

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Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau, (often referred to as Mirabeau) (March 9, 1749 - April 2, 1791) was a French statesman.

Born at Bignon[?], near Nemours[?]. The family of Riquet, or Riqueti, originally of the little town of Digne[?], won wealth as merchants at Marseille, and in 1570 Jean Riqueti bought the château and seigniory of Mirabeau, which had belonged to the great Provençal family of Barras. In 1685 Honoré Riqueti obtained the title of marquis de Mirabeau.

His son Jean Antoine served with distinction through all the later campaigns of the reign of Louis XIV, and especially distinguished himself in 1705 at the battle of Cassano[?], where he was so severely wounded in the neck that he had ever after to wear a silver stock; yet he never rose above the rank of colonel, owing to an eccentric habit of speaking unpleasant truths to his superiors. On retiring from the service he married Francoise de Castellane, and left at his death, in 1737, three sons--Victor marquis de Mirabeau, Jean Antoine, bailli de Mirabeau, and Comte Louis Alexandre de Mirabeau.

The great Mirabeau was the eldest surviving son of the marquess. When but three years old he had a virulent attack of smallpox which left his face disfigured, and contributed to his father's dislike of him. Being destined for the army, he was entered at a pension militaire at Paris. Of this school, which had Lagrange for its professor of mathematics, we have an amusing account in the life of Gilbert Elliot[?], 1st earl of Minto, who with his brother Hugh, afterwards British minister at Berlin, there made the acquaintance of Mirabeau.

On leaving this school in 1767 he received a commission in a cavalry regiment which his grandfather had commanded years before. He at once began love-making, and in spite of his ugliness succeeded in winning the heart of the lady to whom his colonel was attached; this led to such scandal that his father obtained a lettre de cachet, and the young scapegrace was imprisoned in the Ile de Ré. The love affairs of Mirabeau form a well-known history, owing to the celebrity of the letters to Sophie. Yet it may be asserted that until the more durable and more reputable connexion with Mme de Nehra these love episodes were the most disgraceful blemishes in a life otherwise of a far higher moral character than has been commonly supposed. As to the marquess, his use of lettres de cachet is perfectly defensible on the theory of lettres de cachet.

Mirabeau did not develop his great qualities of mind and character until his youthful excesses were over, and it was not till 1781 that these began to appear. On being released, the young count obtained leave to accompany as a volunteer the French expedition to Corsica. After his return, he tried to keep on good terms with his father, and in 1772 he married a rich heiress, Marie Emilie, daughter of the marquess de Marignane[?], an alliance procured for him by his father. His wild extravagance, however, forced his father to forestall his creditors by securing his detention in semi-exile in the country, where he wrote his earliest extant work, the Essai sur le despotisme[?].

His violent disposition now led him to quarrel with a country gentleman who had insulted his sister, and his semi-exile was changed by lettre de cachet into imprisonment in the Château d'If. In 1775 he was removed to the castle of Joux, to which, however, he was not very closely confined, having full leave to visit in the town of Pontarlier[?]. Here he met Marie Thérèse de Monnier, his Sophie as he called her. Of his behaviour nothing too strong can be said: he was introduced into the house as a friend, and betrayed his trust by inducing Mme de Monnier to fall in love with him. The affair ended by his escaping to Switzerland, where Sophie joined him; they then went to the United Provinces, where he lived by hackwork for the booksellers; meanwhile Mirabeau had been condemned to death at Pontarlier for rapt et vol, and in May 1777 he was seized by the French police, and imprisoned by a lettre de cachet in the castle of Vincennes[?].

During his imprisonment he seems to have learnt to control his passions from their very exhaustion, for the early part of his confinement is marked by the indecent letters to Sophie (first published in 1793), and the obscene Erotica biblion and Ma conversion, while to the later months belongs his political work of any value, the Lettres de cachet, published after his liberation (1782). It exhibits an accurate knowledge of French constitutional history skilfully applied in an attempt to show that an existing actual grievance was not only philosophically unjust but constitutionally illegal. It shows, though in rather a diffuse and declamatory form, that application of wide historical knowledge, keen philosophical perception, and genuine eloquence to a practical purpose which was the great ,characteristic of Mirabeau, both as a political thinker and as a statesman.

With his release from Vincennes (August 1782) begins the second period of Mirabeau's life. He found that his Sophie was an idealized version of a rather common and ill-educated woman, and she consoled herself with the affection of a young officer, after whose death she committed suicide. Mirabeau first set to work to get the sentence of death still hanging over him reversed, and by his eloquence not only succeeded in this but got M. de Monnier condemned in the costs of the whole law proceedings.

From Pontarlier he went to Aix en Provence, where he claimed the court's order that his wife should return to him. She naturally objected, but his eloquence would have won his case, even against Jean Etienne Marie Portalis, the leader of the Aix Bar, had he not in his excitement accused his wife of infidelity, on which the court pronounced a decree of separation. He then intervened in the suit pending between his father and mother before the parlement of Paris, and attacked the ruling powers so violently that he had to leave France and again go to Holland, and try to live by literary work.

About this time began his connexion with Mme de Nehra, the daughter of Zwier van Haren[?], a Dutch statesman and political writer, and a woman of a far higher type than Sophie, more educated, more refined, and more capable of appreciating Mirabeau's good points. His life was strengthened by the love of his petite horde, Mme de Nehra, his adopted son, Lucas de Montigny, and his little dog Chico.

After a period of work in Holland he betook himself to England, where his treatise on lettres de cachet had been much admired, being translated into English in 1787, and where he was soon admitted into the best Whig literary and political society of London, through his old schoolfellow Gilbert Elliot, who had now inherited his father's baronetcy and estates, and become a leading Whig member of parliament. Of all his English friends none seem to have been. so intimate with him as the 1st marquess of Lansdowne, better known as Lord Shelburne, and Mr, afterwards Sir Samuel, Romilly. The latter became particularly attached to him, and really understood his character; and it is strange that his remarks upon Mirabeau in the fragment of autobiography which he left, and Mirabeau's letters to him, should have been neglected by French writers. Romilly was introduced to Mirabeau by Sir Francis D'Ivernois (1757-1842), and readily undertook to translate into English the Considérations sur l'ordre de Cincinnatus, which Mirabeau had written.

It was the only important work Mirabeau wrote in the year 1785, and it is a good specimen of his method. He had read a pamphlet published in America attacking the proposed order, which was to form a bond of association between the officers who had fought in the American War of Independence against England; the arguments struck him as true and valuable, so he re-arranged them in his own fashion, and rewrote them in his own oratorical style.

He soon found such work not sufficiently remunerative to keep his petite horde in comfort, and then turned his thoughts to employment from the French foreign office, either in writing or in diplomacy. He first sent Mme de Nehra to Paris to make peace with the authorities, and then returned himself, hoping to get employment through an old literary collaborateur of his, Durival, who was at this time director of the finances of the department of foreign affairs. One of the functions of this official was to subsidize political pamphleteers, and Mirabeau had hoped to be so employed, but he ruined his chances by a series of writings on financial questions.

On his return to Paris he had become acquainted with Étienne Clavière, the Genevese exile, and a banker named Panchaud. From them he heard plenty of abuse of stock-jobbing, and seizing their ideas he began to regard stock-jobbing, or agiotage, as the source of all evil, and to attack in his usual vehement style the Banque de St Charles and the Compagnie des Eaux. This last pamphlet brought him into a controversy with Caron de Beaumarchais, who certainly did not get the best of it, but it lost him any chance of literary employment from the government.

However, his ability was too great to be neglected by a great minister such as Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes undoubtedly was, and after a preliminary tour to Berlin at the beginning of 1786 he was despatched in July 1786 on a secret mission to the court of Prussia, from which he returned in January 1787, and of which he gave a full account in his Histoire secrete de la cour de Berlin (1789). The months he spent at Berlin were important in the history of Prussia, for while he was there Frederick the Great died. The letters just mentioned show clearly what Mirabeau did and what he saw, and equally clearly how unfit he was to be a diplomat. He certainly failed to conciliate the new king Frederick William II[?]; and thus ended Mirabeau's one attempt at diplomacy.

During his journey he had made the acquaintance of Jakob Mauvillon (1743-1794), whom he found possessed of a great number of facts and statistics with regard to Prussia; these he made use of in a great work on Prussia published in 1788. But, though his De la monarchie prussienne sous Frédéric le Grand (London, 1788) gave him a general reputation for historical learning, he had in the same year lost a chance of political employment. He had offered himself as a candidate for the office of secretary to the Assembly of Notables which the king had just convened, and to bring his name before the public published another financial work, the Dénonciation de l'agiotage, which abounded in such violent diatribes that he not only lost his election, but was obliged to retire to Tongres[?]; and he further injured his prospects by publishing the reports he had sent in during his secret mission at Berlin. 1789 was at hand; the states-general was summoned; Mirabeau's period of probation was over.

On hearing of the king's determination to summon the statesgeneral, Mirabeau started for Provence, and offered to assist at the preliminary conference of the noblesse of his district. They rejected him; he appealed to the tiers état, and was returned both for Aix and for Marseille. He elected to sit for the former city, and was present at the opening of the states-general on May 4, 1789. From this time the record of Mirabeau's life forms the best history of the first two years of the Constituent Assembly[?], for at every important crisis his voice is to be heard, though his advice was not always followed. He possessed at the same time great logical acuteness and the most passionate enthusiasm. From the beginning he recognized that government exists in order that the bulk of the population may pursue their daily work in peace and quiet, and that for a government to be successful it must be strong.

At the same time he thoroughly comprehended that for a government to be strong it must be in harmony with the wishes of the majority of the people. He had carefully studied the English constitution in England, and he hoped to establish in France a system similar in principle but without any slavish imitatioa of the details of the English constitution. In the first stage of thy history of the statesgeneral Mirabeau's part was very great. He was soon recognized as a leader, to the chagrin of Jean Joseph Mounier[?], because he always knew his own mind, and was prompt in emergencies. To him is to be attributed the successful consolidation of the National Assembly.

When the taking of the Bastille had assured the success of the French Revolution, he warned the Assembly of the futility of passing fine-sounding decrees and urged the necessity for acting. He declared that the famous night of August 4 was but an orgy, giving the people an immense theoretical liberty while not assisting them to practical freedom, and overthrowing the old régime before a new one could be constituted. His failure to control the theorizers showed Mirabeau, after the removal of the king and the Assembly to Paris, that his eloquence would not enable him to guide the Assembly by himself, and that he must therefore try to get some support. He wished to establish a strong ministry, which should be responsible like an English ministry, but to an assembly chosen to represent the people of France better than the English House of Commons at that time represented England.

He first thought of becoming a minister at a very early date, if we may believe a story contained in the Mémoires of the duchesse d'Abrantes, to the effect that in May 1789 the queen tried to bribe him, but that he refused this and expressed his wish to be a minister. The indignation with which the queen repelled the idea may have made him think of the duke of Orleans as a possible constitutional king, because his title would of necessity be parliamentary. But the weakness of Orleans was too palpable, and in a famous remark Mirabeau expressed his utter contempt for him. He also attempted to form an alliance with Lafayette, but the general was as vain and as obstinate as Mirabeau himself, and had his own theories about a new French constitution. Mirabeau tried for a time, too, to act with Necker, and obtained the sanction of the Assembly to Necker's financial scheme, not because it was good, but because, as he said, "no other plan was before them, and something must be done."

Hitherto weight has been laid on the practical side of Mirabeau's political genius; his ideas with regard to the Revolution after the 5th and 6th of October must now be examined, and this can be done at length, thanks to the publication of Mirabeau's correspondence with the Comte de la Marck, a study of which is indispensable for any correct knowledge of the history of the Revolution between 1789 and 1791. Auguste Marie Raymond, prince d'Arenberg, known as the Comte de la Marck, was a Flemish nobleman who had been proprietary colonel of a German regiment in the service of France; he was a close friend of the queen, and had been elected a member of the states-general. His acquaintance with Mirabeau, begun in 1788, ripened during the following year into a friendship, which La Marck hoped to turn to the advantage of the court. After the events of the 5th and 6th of October he consulted Mirabeau as to what measures the king ought to take, and Mirabeau, delighted at the opportunity, drew up an admirable state paper, which, was presented to the king by Monsieur, afterwards Louis XVIII. The whole of this Mémoire should be read to get an adequate idea of Mirabeau's genius for politics; here it must be summarized.

The main position is that the king is not free in Paris; he must therefore leave Paris and appeal to France. "Paris n'en veut que l'argent; les provinces demandent des lois." But where must the king go? "Se retirer a Metz ou sur toute autre frontière serait declarer la guerre a la nation et abdiquer le trône. Un roi qui est la seule sauvegarde de son peuple ne fuit point devant son peuple; il le prend pour juge de sa conduite et de ses principes." He must then go towards the interior of France to a provincial capital, best of all to Rouen, and there he must appeal to the people and summon a great convention. It would be ruin to appeal to the noblesse, as the queen advised: "un corps de noblesse n'est point une armée, qui puisse combattre."

When this great convention met the king must show himself ready to recognize that great changes have taken place, that feudalism and absolutism[?] have for ever disappeared, and that a new relation between king and people has arisen, which must be loyally observed on both sides for the future. "Il est certain, d'ailleurs, qu'il faut une grande revolution pour sauver le royaume, que la nation a des droits, qu'elle est en chemin de les recouvrer tous, et qu'il faut non seulement les rétablir, mais les consolider." To establish this new constitutional position between king and people would not be difficult, because "l'indivisibilité du monarque et dou peuple est dans le coeur de tous les Français; il faut qu'elle existe dans l'action et le pouvoir."

Such was Mirabeau's programme, from which he never diverged, but which was far too statesmanlike to be understood by the poor king, and far too positive regarding the altered condition of the monarchy to be palatable to the queen. Mirabeau followed up his Mémoire by a scheme of a great ministry to contain all men of mark; Necker as prime minister, "to render him as powerless as he is incapable, and yet preserve his popularity for the king," the duc de Liancourt, the duc de La Rochefoucauld, La Marck, Talleyrand, bishop of Autun, at the finances, Mirabeau without portfolio, GJB Target, mayor of Paris, Lafayette generalissimo to reform the army, Louis Philippe, comte de Ségur (foreign affairs), Mounier and IRG le Chapelier[?].

This scheme got noised abroad, and was ruined by a decree of the Assembly of November 7, 1789, that no member of the Assembly could become a minister; this decree destroyed any chance of that necessary harmony between the ministry and the majority of the representatives of the nation which existed in England, and so at once overthrew Mirabeau's hopes. The queen utterly refused to take Mirabeau's counsel, and La Marck left Paris. However, in April 1790 he was suddenly recalled by the comte de Mercy-Argenteau, the Austrian ambassador at Paris, and the queen's most trusted political adviser, and from this time to Mirabeau's death he became the medium of almost daily communications between the latter and the queen. Mirabeau at first attempted again to make an alliance with Lafayette, but it was useless, for Lafayette was not a strong man himself and did not appreciate "la force" in others. From the month of May 1790 to his death in April 1791 Mirabeau remained in close and suspected, but not actually proved, connexion with the court, and drew up many admirable state papers for it. In return the court paid his debts; but it ought never to be said that he was bribed, for the gold of the court never made him swerve from his political principles; never, for instance, made him a royalist. He regarded himself as a minister, though an unavowed one, and believed himself worthy of his hire.

Before Mirabeau's influence on foreign policy is discussed, his behaviour on several important points must be noticed. On the great question of the veto he took a practical view, and seeing that the royal power was already sufficiently weakened, declared for the king's absolute veto and against the compromise of the suspensive veto. He knew from his English experiences that such a veto would be hardly ever used unless the king felt the people were on his side, and that if it were used unjustifiably the power of the purse possessed by the representatives of the people would, as in England in 1688, bring about a bloodless revolution. He saw also that much of the inefficiency of the Assembly arose from the inexperience of the members and their incurable verbosity; so, to establish some system of rules, he got his friend Romilly to draw up a detailed account of the rules and customs of the English House of Commons, which he translated into French, but which the Assembly, puffed up by a belief in its own merits, refused to use. On the great subject of peace and war he supported the king's authority, and with some success. Again Mirabeau almost alone of the Assembly held that the soldier ceased to be a citizen when he became a soldier; he must submit to be deprived of his liberty to think and act, and must recognize that a soldier's first duty is obedience. With such sentiments, it is no wonder that he approved of the vigorous conduct of Francois Claude Amour, marquis de Bouillé, at Nancy, which was the more to his credit as Bouillé was the one hope of the court influences opposed to him. Lastly, in matters of finance he showed his wisdom: he attacked Necker's "caisse d'escompte," which was to have the whole control of the taxes, as absorbing the Assembly's power of the purse; and he heartily approved of the system of assignats, but with the reservation that they should not be issued to the extent of more than one-half the value of the lands to be sold.

Of Mirabeau's attitude with regard to foreign affairs it is necessary to speak in more detail. He held it to be just that the French people should conduct their Revolution as they would, and that no foreign nation had any right to interfere with them while they kept themselves strictly to their own affairs. But he knew also that neighbouring nations looked with unquiet eyes on the progress of affairs in France, that they feared the influence of the Revolution on their own peoples, and that foreign monarchs were being prayed by the French emigres to interfere on behalf of the French monarchy. To prevent this interference, or rather to give no pretext for it, was his guiding thought as to foreign policy. He had been elected a member of the comité diplomatique of the Assembly in July 1790, and became its reporter at once, and in this capacity he was able to prevent the Assembly from doing much harm in regard to foreign affairs. He had long known Armand Marc, comte de Montmorin, the foreign secretary, and, as matters became more strained from the complications with the princes and counts of the empire, he entered into daily communication with the minister, advised him on every point, and, while dictating his policy, defended it in the Assembly. Mirabeau's exertions in this respect are not his smallest title to the name of statesman; and how great a work he did is best proved by the confusion which ensued in this department after his death.

For indeed in the beginning of 1791 his death was very near; and he knew it to be so. The wild excesses of his youth and their terrible punishment had weakened his strong constitution, and his parliamentary labours completed the work. So surely did he feel its approach that some time before the end he sent all his papers over to Sir Gilbert Elliot, who kept them under seal until claimed by Mirabeau's executors. In March his illness was evidently gaining on him, to his great grief, because he knew that he alone could yet save France from the distrust of her monarch and the present reforms, and from the foreign interference, which would assuredly bring about catastrophes unparalleled in the history of the world. Every care that science could afford was given by his friend and physician, Cabanis, to whose brochure on his last illness and death the reader may refer. The people kept the street in which he lay quiet; but medical care, the loving solicitude of friends, and the respect of all the people could not save his life. When he could speak no more he wrote with a feeble hand the one word "dormir," and on April 2, 1791 he died.

No man ever so thoroughly used other men's work, and yet made it all seem his own. "Je prends mon bien ou je le trouve" is as true of him as of Moliere. His first literary work, except the bombastic but eloquent Essai sur le despotisme (Neufchâtel, 1775), was a translation of Robert Watson's Philip II, done in Holland with the help of Durival; his Considerations sur l'ordre de Cincinnatus (London, 1788) was based on a pamphlet by Aedanus Burke[?] (1743-1802), of South Carolina, who opposed the aristocratic tendencies of the Society of the Cincinnati, and the notes to it were by Target; his financial writings were suggested by the Genevese exile, Clavière.

During the Revolution he received yet more help; men were proud to labour for him, and did not murmur because he absorbed all the credit and fame. Étienne Dumont, Clavière, Antoine Adrien Lamourette and Étienne Salonion Reybaz were but a few of the most distinguished of his collaborators. Dumont was a Genevese exile, and an old friend of Romilly's, who willingly prepared for him those famous addresses which Mirabeau used to make the Assembly, pass by sudden bursts of eloquent declamation; Clavière helped him in finance, and not only worked out his figures, but even wrote his financial discourses; Lamourette wrote the speeches, on the civil constitution of the clergy; Reybaz not only wrote for him his famous speeches on the assignats, the organization of the national guard, and others, which Mirabeau read word for word at the tribune, but even the posthumous speech on succession to the estates of intestates, which Talleyrand read in the Assembly as the last work of his dead friend. Yet neither the gold of the court nor another man's conviction would make Mirabeau say what he did not himself believe, or do what he did not himself think right. He took other men's labour as his due, and impressed their words, of which he had suggested the underlying ideas, with the stamp of his own individuality; his collaborators themselves did not complain; they were but too glad to be of help in the great work of controlling and forwarding the French Revolution through its greatest thinker and orator. As an orator his eloquence has been likened to that of both Bossuet and Vergniaud, but it had neither the polish of the old 17th century bishop nor the flashes of genius of the young Girondin. It was rather parliamentary oratory in which he excelled, and his true compeers are Edmund Burke and Guy Fox[?] rather than any French speakers. Personally he had that which is the truest mark of nobility of mind, a power of attracting love and winning faithful friends.

Honoré Mirabeau is interred in the The Panthéon, Paris, France.

Original text from a 1911 Encyclopaedia - Please update as needed.

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