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Convention, he said, was a government reeking with the blood of their sovereign. With the Convention, had it lasted, he would have waged an inexpiable war. But France had now seen the error of her ways. The Convention, after bringing France to the verge of ruin, had vanished. A new constitution, embracing, as far as the French politicians were able, the political principles of England, had been adopted. It had been ushered in with a solemn recantation of all the pernicious maxims hitherto in repute. Boissy D'Anglas, adopting the now trite philosophy with which Burke himself had familiarised the European world, had shown how that melancholy succession of crimes and blunders, which formed the recent history of France, had come about. Constitutions could not be built up anew from the ground. Men could not live by blotted paper alone: society was an organism, not a machine which could be altered and regulated at will. These invaluable truths had convinced the French of the folly of their à priori politics. They now resorted to the practical lessons of experience. All this time, however, no one in England knew what 'was the nature of the constitution, which had only been in existence a day and a half, nor did any one know who were the persons in power. Mr. Pitt could not therefore speak in positive terms as to the particular measures the Government would be able to adopt. He took the opportunity, however, of solemnly affirming one of Burke's main arguments. He declared himself still in favour of a crusade against Jacobinism. If the principles of the Convention still swayed the French Government; if the Directory persisted in the policy of spreading republicanism and irreligion throughout Europe by fire and sword; if France became the Rome of an atheistic Inquisition; then the war should be maintained, so far as the Ministry were able to maintain it.
Six weeks passed. The Directory began with every possible assumption of moderation, and every possible manifestation of a desire of conciliation both at home and abroad. As for the war, they of course declared that they continued it only as a war of self-defence. What more could be desired ? The Ministry hastened to pronounce that the new government of France really was all that had been anticipated in the Royal Speech, and that they meant to make peace with it—if they could. A Royal Message embodied this solemn approval of the Directory: and Pitt vindicated his policy in one of his greatest speeches. The French, he declared, had adopted that grand panacea of all social difficulties, a mixed form of government. The pure democracy of the Revolution was at an end. The new constitution would probably grow, like its prototype, the English constitution, every year more useful, more capable of being applied to the wants of the people, more intrinsically excellent. Such a constitution must be stable, and capable of supporting a stable peace with other nations. He could not presume to say this prospect was certain. It was enough, for those who had peace and the common welfare of Europe at heart, that it was reasonably probable. The Ministry would now negotiate. What the issue of their negotiations might be, depended on the views and the temper of France. If France wished for peace on reasonable terms, she could not now allege a contrary disposition on the part of England.
Lord Auckland's pamphlet had now reached a second edition. It had been translated into French. It began with a French motto: Que faire dans une telle nuit? Attendre le jour. The night of Revolution was now far spent: the daystar of peace and moderation was arisen. Such was the gay vision with which the Ministry dazzled the English people. But it created the deepest alarm in those who looked below the surface. England was now on the verge of the precipice: and the ghastly depth of that precipice was easily measured by a glance at Holland. Holland had made her peace: England was now on the verge of making hers. Negotiations for peace might at any moment be commenced and ended : and before England had realized what she was doing, she might find herself fast bound in a treaty with the Regicide Republic. Such a treaty would lead to an alliance : such an alliance to the fatal assimilation of the two governments which had already taken place in Holland. The Stadtholder of Holland and his family were safely lodged in Hampton Court : where would be the asylum of George the Third, and the Royal Family of England ?
Feeble and broken as Burke was, it was not in his nature to shrink from taking up his pen at such a juncture, even though the effort should lead to a sustained controversy. He began with the pamphlet of October, which he examined in a letter addressed to the Earl Fitzwilliam. Events, as it happened,
rendered this letter obsolete before it was published, or even finished. It was found among his papers, and published with other posthumous works in 1812 as the Fourth Letter on a Regicide Peace. It is so published in the present volume: but it is really the First. The task animated Burke to an extraordinary degree. Nothing more gay and vivacious than the first part of this letter ever came from his pen. It breathes at first that spirit of pure and good-humoured raillery which had so often won the author the ear of the Commons when it had been deaf to his deeper and more studied irony, to his prophetic warnings, and to his lavished stores of knowledge and wisdom. But these elements were not wanting. As the writer warms to his subject, he opens the vial of that fierce and blasting contempt which none knew better how to pour forth upon occasion. Burke's representatives, in preserving this relic to the world, preserved to it a literary treasure of high value. Its interest, however, is little more than literary. Its scope does not extend beyond the four corners of the October pamphlet, except towards the end, where the first Editor has tacked on to it one of Burke's old philippics against Jacobinism. It proves that Burke was not deceived by the Directorial imposture. He, for one, saw clearly that the mantle of the Committee of Public Safety had descended on the Directory. He saw that France was still at heart Jacobin, and still bent on a war with the ancient political system of Europe; a war whose principle was fanaticism, whose object was conquest, and which was everywhere attended with insult, with plunder, and with destruction. This war could not be judged by any modern standard, or indeed by any single standard in the records of history. It resembled in some degree the wars of Attila and the wars of Mahomet. But adequately to shadow forth those who planned and conducted it, Mahomet and Attila must be rolled into one. A peace with France would lay Europe prostrate at the feet of a horde of greedy, cruel, fanatical savages.
The grant of his well-earned pension had done something to restore the balance of Burke's powers. It assured him ease in his affairs during what he knew must be the short remainder of his career: and during the spring he now busied himself with his farm, with his pamphlet, and with the establishment of a school for the children of French emigrants at the village of Penn, a mile or two from his door. In this school he took a keen delight: he visited it almost daily; and he declared it to be the only pleasure which remained to him. Many a Frenchman who twenty years afterwards served the restored Bourbon dynasty, had worn the blue uniform and white cockade of the Penn 'school, and had eagerly turned his eyes to greet the worn face and emaciated figure of the famous Englishman who had stirred up Europe in their cause. Thus the early months of the year 1796 slipped away. For the present, it was not Burke's policy to thrust the peace controversy into prominence. Time, unveiling slowly and surely the character of the new government, would do more. But the opposition continued the agitation. Peace was no nearer than when the government, in the previous year, had signified their gracious approval of the constitution of the Directory. The opposition, pushing their success, demanded that the peace negotiations should be accelerated. Why did the Ministry delude the nation with the prospect of a peace, while nothing was done, and every day brought news of some fresh success to the arms of the French ? Mr. Pitt could make no satisfactory reply. The truth was that he was in a serious difficulty. Though his own mind was set upon a peace, some of his best supporters were swayed by Burke's disapproval of it. Windham was against peace: Loughborough, the Chancellor, was against it: Fitzwilliam and Portland were against it. All these united in urging Burke to publish the pamphlet he was known to be writing, before the Ministry, yielding to the pressure of the opposition, should take any more decided step. Burke now hastened to finish his pamphlet. He laboured at it from time to time: sometimes he carried what he had written to the sick chamber of his wife, and read it aloud to the sole companion of his declining years. But before he had completed it, he was himself stricken down by a violent attack of his fatal malady, which compelled him to retreat at once to Bath.
When his labours were thus interrupted, the long-promised and long-dreaded step towards pacification had in fact been taken: the vista of those negotiations which his pen was to make famous, and which were to be its last employment, was opened. At Basle, the scene of the humiliating peace just made
by Prussia, and of the more humiliating one just made by Spain, an English diplomatist had been deputed to open negotiations with Barthélemy, who had conducted both the former negotiations on the part of France. Mr. Wickham was to propose a Congress, and to enquire upon what terms France was willing to make peace with England. The proposal for a Congress was at once viewed with suspicion : and the Directory declared that if England made the restoration of the Austrian Netherlands a condition of peace, negotiation must be at an end. The Netherlands were now part of France. They had been incorporated with the Republic by a law which the Directory had not the power, even if they had the will, to alter. The French government thus took a stand which they unswervingly maintained throughout. Nor can there be any question that they were right. Every argument of policy, almost of moral right, justified the French in maintaining this trophy of the famous campaign of '94.
In adding the Belgian Netherlands to France, French statesmen might well argue that they were not guilty of the gross folly of annexing the ancient territory of a neighbouring nation, inhabited by a patriotic and high-spirited people. Flanders and Brabant had no more to do with Austria than Hanover had to do with England. They had descended to the Austrian family by an accident: they were the remains of a once-flourishing kingdom, itself nearly allied to France. The people were unanimous for the French incorporation; and to condemn them to return to German slavery would be cruel, ungrateful, and impolitic. And it was here that the aggression of the Allies had commenced. Belgium was the gate of France: its surrender would be the surrender of her hard-won guarantee against future invasion. Its surrender would involve the loss of another inestimable guarantee. Isolate Holland, to France or to England an equally desirable ally, by surrendering Belgium to Austria, and a counter-revolution would have brought the Stadtholder back to the Hague in a month.
The Basle negotiations thus put an end to all hope of restoring peace, unless by surrendering the principle of a balance of the European power in which France should not disproportionately predominate. For above a century the maintenance of this principle had been a primary maxim of English politics. England