Sunday 21 December 2014

Letter of the abbé Raynal to the Assembly

I had the fortitude long ago to talk to kings of their duty: allow me now to talk to the people of their errors.....

On 31st May 1791 the National Assembly was read a sharply critical open letter by the abbé Guillaume-Thomas Raynal, anti-colonialist, friend of Diderot and now solitary survivor of a previous generation of thinkers.

Up to this point Raynal had been lauded by the Revolutionaries. In 1789 he had been elected to the Estates-General by the Third Estate of Marseilles  though he had refused to take his seat on grounds old age.    Brissot's colleague Louis-Pierre Manuel identified him, with Rousseau, as one of the "fathers of the Revolution". A pamphlet published in the summer of 1789 presented a dialogue between Linguet and Raynal, in which "Raynal" articulates the case against royal absolutism. The Parlement of Paris's various pre-1789 edicts suppressing his Histoire philosophiques des Deux Indes were annulled on 15 August 1790 as a result of which the King found himself obliged to rescind a royal prohibition of nearly twenty years standing.

Two previous letters by Raynal, one written as early as December 1789 - a "perfidious diatribe" said Brissot -  had been largely ignored and convenient doubts cast over their authorship. But this time the  Raynal himself, aged 78 and visiting Paris after long absence, submitted his new letter to the Assembly in person two days prior to publication. The proposed reading was greeted with cries of "yes, yes" from the assembled deputies. They were soon to be pulled up short by the criticism offered them.

 A full translation of the letter is given below. Raynal had welcomed the liberal achievements of 1789-90: the Declaration of the Rights of Man; toleration; the dismantling of privilege, but now sought to safeguard royal prerogative and the sovereignty of the Assembly. He begins by firmly repudiating the idea that the Revolution was the logical outcome of Enlightenment thought: he is appalled that by defending liberty against arbitrary power he may have given rise to licence.  The philosophes never had to apply their notions to practical politics: "We never held up the bold conceptions of philosophy as rigorous rules to direct the acts of the legislature; neither can you, attribute to any error on our part, what has resulted from a false interpretation of our principles." 

He condemns what he sees as a drift to anarchy and   infraction of individual liberty, in particular the usurpation of legitimate authority by the clubs "where coarse and ignorant men presume to decide on all political questions."  He censures Marat and his like who have taken advantage of  a free press to subvert popular morality; they are like a volcano spewing lava which may destroy the whole nation;  the people, says Raynal presciently,  "laugh and dance over the ruins of their own morality, on the very brink of the abyss in which their hopes may soon be swallowed up"

In his studies of Revolutionary ideas Jonathan Israel identifies the reading of Raynal's letter as "one of the supreme moments of the philosophical drama infusing and shaping the Revolution" (Democratic Revolution, p.935).  It came at a critical point in the crystallisation of factions within the Assembly and cut across the attempt of the deputies to define their intellectual antecedents.  On the eve of the reading Voltaire's ashes had been transferred to the Pantheon.  Now Raynal articulated clearly the  gulf between the aspirations of the Enlightenment - civil liberty, toleration, the dismantling of privilege - and the emergent programme of the Left.  Amid the general uproar, Robespierre attempted  damage limitation, stepping in rapidly to beg indulgence for Raynal on grounds of age, and referring him to the judgment of "public opinion". But he was unable to halt the wave of controversy which followed, and was further fulled by the publication of the letter on 10th December. The Left wing press reacted with hurt indignation and genuine incomprehension. The letter had "provoked the astonishment of those who honoured Raynal as a defender of liberty, those who cherished Raynal as their friend, a champion whom the people revered and tyrants feared (Goujon, Lettre à l’Assemblée nationale, 1791). Raynal was accused of being manipulated by the "aristocratic" faction; Sainte-Beuve, with some justification, identified the political agenda of Raynal's associates, the moderates Clermont-Tonnerre and Pierre Malhouet. Likewise in a letter published in the Moniteur on 5th June) André Chénier expressed his profound disillusionment and sense of betrayal.

Here is the text in English, in a translation first published in 1791:

Letter of the abbé Raynal to the Legislative Assembly,  Dated 10 December 1790, Read to the Assembly on 31st May 1791 

I RETURNED  to this capital, after a long absence, with my heart and my attention attached to you; and you would now see me at the feet of your august assembly, if my age and infirmities would permit me; if I could speak to you without being too much affected by the great things which you have achieved, and those which still remain for you to achieve, before you can establish, in this agitated country, the peace, the liberty, and the happiness, which you hope to procure for us.

Do not imagine, Gentlemen, that I am one of those who are insensible to the indefatigable zeal, the talents, the knowledge, and the courage which you have displayed in the course of your immense labours: but a sufficient number of pens have been already employed on this subject, and your title to the esteem of the nation has been sufficiently impressed upon men's minds. As for me, whether I am considered in the light of a citizen using a citizen's right of petitioning, or whether, giving free scope to my gratitude, you will permit an old friend of liberty to make the return due to you for the protection with which he has been honoured, I entreat you not to reject important truths. I had the fortitude long ago to talk to kings of their duty; allow me now to talk to the people of their errors; and to the people's representatives of the danger with which all are threatened.

I am deeply concerned, and I avow my concern to you, at the disorders and the crimes which have spread affliction over this empire. Alas! is it then possible that I must reflect with horror upon my having been one of thosei who, by shewing a generous indignation against arbitrary power, have perhaps furnished arms to the hand of licentiousness? and shall religion, law, royal authority, and public order, call upon philosophy and reason to restore the bonds which united them to the great society of the French nation - as if our efforts to reform abuses, and restore the rights of the people, and the duty of the prince, had broken these bonds of union?  No, they were never broken by us: we never held up the bold conceptions of philosophy as rigorous rules to direct the acts of the legislature; neither can you, attribute to any error on our part, what has resulted from a false interpretation of our principles. And yet, ready as I now am to descend into the darkness of the tomb, and to quit this immense family, whose welfare I have so ardently desired, with what do I see myself surrounded?  With religious troubles, civil dissensions; contentions in some, audacity and fury in others; a government enslaved by popular tyranny; the sanctuary of the law environed by turbulent men, who now dictate to , and now brave, legislation; soldiers without discipline; chiefs without authority; ministers without means, a king, the first friend of his people plunged into the bitterness of anguish; outraged, menaced, striped of all authority; and the public power existing only in clubs, where coarse and ignorant men presume to decide on all political questions.

Such, Gentlemen, be assured of it, such is the true situation of France;and I am perhaps the only man who would dare to tell you the unwelcome truth: but I dare, because I feel it to be my duty; because I verge upon my eightieth year; because I shall never be accused of regretting the ancient system; because the sighs I breath for the desolation of the Gallic church, will never be supposed to come from the heart of a fanatical priest; because, while I regard the re-establishment of legal authority as ourr only means of salvation, I shall never be thought the partisan of despotism - never be thought to crouch and expect favours from it; and because, when I arraign before you those writers who have set the kingdom in a flame and perverted the minds of the People, I shall never be accused as not knowing the value of the liberty of the press.

Alas! I was full of hope and joy When I beheld you laying the foundation of public felicity, pursuing all abuses - proclaiming all our rights and subjecting to the same laws, to one uniform system, all the different parts of this empire. My eyes were  filled with tears when I perceived the vilest and most profligate men employed as instruments of an expedient revolution; when I saw the holy affection of patriotism prostituted to iniquity, and Licentiousness marching in triumph under the ensigns of liberty. Terror was mingled with my just concern, when I found all the springs which constitute the grand machine of government broken and shivered; and impotent barriers substituted for the necessity of an active and restraining force.

Every where have I sought for the traces of that central authority which a great nation deposits in the hands of the monarch for its own security; but no where is, any part of that authority to be found. I have sought for the principles that protect all kinds of property, and I have seen no shadow of them anywhere. I have sought to discover under what habit reposes personal security, the liberty of the individual; I have only seen the still increasing audacity of the multitude, expecting, demanding the signal of destruction, which the factious are ready to give and the lovers of innovation, no less dangerous than the factious.

I have attended, Gentlemen, to those insidious voices which inspire false apprehensions in order to draw your attention from real danger; and whose endeavour is, by instilling the most fatal suspicions, to make you pull down, one after another, every pillar of monarchical government.

Above all I have trembled when, observing in their regenerated life this people that desire to be free, I have seen them not only disregard the social virtues, humanity and justice, the only basis of true liberty, but even receive with avidity new buds of corruption, and suffer new causes of slavery to spring up around them.

Oh, Oh, Gentlemen, what concern dol feel at seeing in the midst of the capital, in the very focal point of all knowledge, a seduced people receiving the most criminal proposals with ferocious joy; smiling at accounts of assassination; singing songs of triumph for their crimes as for so many victories; stupidly provoking enemies to the revolution ; sullying it by their complaisance; shutting 'heir eyes to all the evils with which it is replete. For they know not, unhappy peoplel they know not that in one single crime lie hidden the feeds of infinite calamities; they laugh and dance over the ruins of their own morality, on the very brink of the abyss in which their hopes may soon be swallowed up.  Such a spectacle of joy excites my deepest emotion.

Your indifference, Gentlemen, to this horrid perversion of the public mind, is the first, perhaps the only, cause of that change of sentiments which has taken place with respect to you; and which has made the pure homage paid to your first labours give way to the adulations of corruption, and to murmurs stifled only by fear.

But with whatever fortitude the approach of my last hour may inspire me; whatever duty may be imposed upon me by that love of liberty which I avowed before you existed; I still experience, while addressing you, a degree of respect, a kind of awe, of which no man can divest himself when holding an immediate intercourse with the representatives of a great people.

Ought I to conclude here? or shall I proceed, and speak to you as posterity will speak of you?  Yes, Gentlemen, I believe you worthy of being addressed in such a style.

I have meditated all my life on those ideas which you adopted in the regeneration of the kingdom.  I reflected upon them at a time when, opposed by all the social institutions, by all the interest and by all the prejudices of my country my system appeared to me under the seducing form of a harbour where alone I could find consolation. I was not then called upon by any motivelto weigh the difficulty of reducing it to practice; or the dreadful inconveniencies attached to such abstractions, when invested with that power necessary to command both men and things; and when the passions of men, and the resistance of things, are the elements which it is necessary to combine.

Those consequences which it was neither necessary or possible that I should foresee, under the circumstances .and at the time in which I wrote, the circumstances and the time in which you acted commanded you to consider and provide for; and this I think it my duty to say you have not sufficiently done.

By this single but continual fault, you have vitiated all your labours; and have reduced yourselves to such a situation, that inevitable ruin can perhaps only be prevented by returning through the same paths by which you have advanced, or at least by advising such a retrograde course to your successors.

Are you afraid, Gentlemen, of drawing upon yourselves alone all that hate which is now directed against the altar of liberty? Such an heroic sacrifice, believe me, would not be less grateful to your minds, from the recollection that it might have been avoided.

How exalted are those men, who, leaving their country to enjoy all the good they can procure it, take and assert to themselves alone the reproaches merited for real serious evils, but for which evils they have only circumstances to accuse! I believe you worthy, Gentlemen, of this honourable fate; and the belief that you are so, induces me without reserve to bring before you in review, the defects which you have mixed in the French constitution.

Called upon to be the regenerators of France, you should have considered what parts of the ancient system could be usefully preserved; and moreparticularly what parts ought on no terms to be abandoned.

France was a monarchy. Its extent, its wants, its manners, and its national spirit, were so many invincible obstacles which must for ever prevent the admission of the republican form of government, without a total dissolution of the state.

The monarchical power was become vitiated from two causes: the one was, its basis being surrounded with prejudices; and the other, its limits being only marked by partial resistance.

To purify the principles of this power by establishing the throne on its proper foundation, the sovereignty of the people; and to fix the bounds of its authority, by placing them in the national representation; was the task you had to perform; and you believe that you have accomplished it.

The energy and the continuance of the constitution depend on the equilibrium of these two powers;  in the organization of them, you should have guarded against the bent of popular opinions; you ought not to have been influenced by the prevail:ing opinion, that the power of the Monarch should be repressed, and the rights of the people extended. By weakening, in a disproportionate degree, that which tends to annihilation; and strengthening, beyond due measure, that which will naturally increase, you must expect to experience the dreadful result of a king without authority and a people without a curb.

In suffering yourselves to be led astray, by wild opinions, you have favoured the influence of the populace, and multiplied, to infinitude, the number of popular elections. Have you forgot, Gentlemen, that the Frequency of elections and
the short continuance of power in the hands of the same men, must relax the springs of government? Have you forgot that the force of government ought to be in proportion to the number of those whom it has to quiet and protect?

You have preserved the name of king: but, in the constitution you have framed, a king is not only useless, but dangerous; for you have reduced his influence to the share he can obtain by corruption. You have, as it were, invited him to contend with a constitution, which continually reminds him of what he is not and of what he may be.

This, Gentlemen, is a vice inherent in your constitution: a vice which must speedily destroy the whole system, if you and your successors do not hasten to extirpate it.

I shall not say any thing to you concerning those faults i the new establishment, which may result from accidental circumstances; you must yourselves discover them.  but why will you suffer an evil to exist which may destroy you?  Why, after proclaiming universal liberty of conscience, will you permit the priests to be overwhelmed with persecutions, because they will not obey your religious opinions?

How can you allow, after consecrating the principles of personal liberty, an inquisition to exist within you bosom which serves as a model and a pretext for all the inferior inquisitions, which a factious inquietude has disseminated through every part of the empire?

How can you remain unalarmed at the audacity and the success of those writers who profane the name of patriotism; who, more powerful than your own decrees, destroy

continually what you have erected?  You are desirous of having a monarchical government; these writers are unremittedly employed in rendering it odious: you seek to establish the liberty of the people; they aim at making them the most ferocious tyrants; you endeavour to regenerate public manners; they proclaim the triumph of vice, and impunity to the blackest offences.

I shallI shall not say any thing, Gentlemen, concerning your plan of finance. God forbid that I should augment the inquietudes, or diminish the hopes of the nation: the public fortune is entirely in your hands ; but be assured that there will be neither taxes, credit, certain receipts,
or a fixed expenditure, where the government is not powerful or respectable.

But what form of government could bear up against the new domination of clubs ? You have destroyed all the corporations; and these most colossean and most formidable of all aggregations are towering above your heads, and destroying all power but their own.

All France is, at this time, divided into two classes. The good men, the men of moderation, are dispersed, mute, petrified with consternation; while men of violent spirits rush into close contact, electrify each other, and form those tremendous volcanos which vomit so much flaming lava.

You have made a declaration of rights; and that declaration, defective if you meant to reconcile it with  metaphyfical abstractions, has diffused the seeds of anarchy throughout the French empire.

Hesitating perpetually between the principles, which a false shame will not allow you to modify, and the circumstances which force exceptions from you, you always do too little for public utility, and too much according to your own doctrine. You are frequently inconsequential and impolitic, when you endeavour most to be neither the one or the other. Thus, though you have perpetuated the slavery of the blacks, your decision, respecting the people of colour, has given an alarm to commerce, and endangered your colonies.

Believe it, Gentlemen, none of these observations escape the friends of liberty. They demand back from you the depofit of the public opinion, of which you are onlythe organs ; organs that have no longer their true character.

Europe regards you with astonishment. Europe, which may be shaken to its foundations, by the propagation of your principles, is indignant at their extravagance. The silence of her Princes may be the silence of fear; but aspire not, Gentlemen, at the fatal honour of rendering yourselves formidable, by immoderate innovations, as dangerous to you as to your neighbours. Consult once more the annals of the world: call to your assistance the wisdom of former ages, and see how many empires have perished by anarchy: it is time to put an end to that anarchy which is desolating our country: to stop the career of vengeance, seditions, and insurrections; and to restor us to peace and confidence.

You have but one way of attaining this salutary end: revise your decrees; reunite, and by that means, retore the powers enfeebled by disjunction; confide to the king all the force, necessary for ensuring the power of the laws; and above all, protect the liberty of the primary assemblies, from whence faction has driven all wise and virtuous citizens.

Do not imagine, Gentlemen, that the re-establishment of the executive power can be the work of your successors: no, they will come to the assembly, with less strength than you possess; and they will have to subdue that popular opinion, which you have established. It is therefore you, Gentlemen, who must re-create what you have yourselves destroyed; or suffered others to destroy.

You have established the basis of liberty, as it is established in every rational constitution, by ensuring to the people the right of making laws, and of levying taxes; but anarchy will soon overwhelm these eminent rights, if you do not place them under the protection of an active and vigorous government; and despotism awaits us, if you renounce for ever the tutelar protection of royal authority.

I have collected all my strength, Gentlemen, to speak to you in the austere language of truth. Pardon, as the effect of my zeal and my patriotism, whatever may appear too free in my remonstrances; and be sassured of my ardent wishes for your glory, as well as of my profound respect.




Jonathan I. Israel, Democratic Enlightenment: philosophy, revolution, and human rights, 1750-1790, O.U.P. (2011), p.934-6

________, Revolutionary ideas: an intellectual history of the French Revolution from 'The Rights of Man' to Robespierre' Princeton University Press (2014), p.157-8.
Stanley Loomis, Paris in the Terror, July 1793-July 1794, Jonathan Cape (1964), p.63-5.

Tricentenaire de la naissance de l'Abbé Raynal 12 avril 1713 - 6 mars 1796, Assemblée nationale official website

For  the original French text  of the open letter:

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