Hugo on a Nation Catching Its Breath

Charles X, a temporary relief after the tumultuous Napoleonic years


In Les Miserables, which I’m currently listening to, Victor Hugo periodically sets his characters aside to discourse on great historical themes. What he has to say about “the restoration” of the Bourbon monarchy following Waterloo put me in mind of Joe Biden’s election.

This surprised me in that the two situations seem polar opposites. Trump, not Biden, represented an attempt to roll history back to a less egalitarian time, whether it be to when whites or when kings reigned supreme.

Hugo, however, says the reaction to the Napoleonic years was in part a yearning for tranquility. What with the 1789 French Revolution, the 1793 Vendée uprising, the 1793-94 reign of terror, and finally the Napoleonic years (1799-1815), France has seen non-stop drama for a quarter of a century. After Napoleon’s final defeat, Hugo is relieved that France has reached “a halting place.” “Of great events, great hazards, great adventures, great men,” he writes, “thank God, we have seen enough”:

The Restoration had been one of those intermediate phases, hard to define, in which there is fatigue, buzzing, murmurs, sleep, tumult, and which are nothing else than the arrival of a great nation at a halting-place.

These epochs are peculiar and mislead the politicians who desire to convert them to profit. In the beginning, the nation asks nothing but repose; it thirsts for but one thing, peace; it has but one ambition, to be small. Which is the translation of remaining tranquil. Of great events, great hazards, great adventures, great men, thank God, we have seen enough, we have them heaped higher than our heads. We would exchange Cæsar for Prusias, and Napoleon for the King of Yvetot. “What a good little king was he!” We have marched since daybreak, we have reached the evening of a long and toilsome day; we have made our first change with Mirabeau, the second with Robespierre, the third with Bonaparte; we are worn out. Each one demands a bed.

Devotion which is weary, heroism which has grown old, ambitions which are sated, fortunes which are made, seek, demand, implore, solicit, what? A shelter. They have it. They take possession of peace, of tranquillity, of leisure; behold, they are content.

“The King of Yvetot,” incidentally is a William Makepeace Thackeray poem about a Normandy king who “let all thoughts of glory go,/ And dawdled half his days a-bed.” Prusias, from what I can tell, is chiefly famous for having remained neutral during some of Rome’s wars. Trump, while no Napoleon, left a similar mess behind. Biden appears willing to let all thoughts of glory–or headlines–go in order to clean things up.

The historical contrasts are as illuminating as the parallels. Hugo says that, although France tried to turn the clock back, the energies released by the 1789 revolution—what he calls “accomplished facts”—could not be bottled up. The restored monarchs could no more stop a new, more egalitarian society from emerging than Trump could put a stop to an increasingly diverse and multicultural society. While the kings might think they were “granting” new liberties, it was actually history that was pushing them, just as it pushed Britain’s restored Stuart monarchy following the Puritan republic: 

At the same time that weary men demand repose, accomplished facts demand guarantees. Guarantees are the same to facts that repose is to men.

This is what England demanded of the Stuarts after the Protector; this is what France demanded of the Bourbons after the Empire.

These guarantees are a necessity of the times. They must be accorded. Princes “grant” them, but in reality, it is the force of things which gives them. A profound truth, and one useful to know, which the Stuarts did not suspect in 1662 and which the Bourbons did not even obtain a glimpse of in 1814.

Because of the contradiction between monarchy and changing times, Hugo believes the 1830 “July Revolution” that overthrew the last of the Bourbons was inevitable. As much as the Louis XVIII and Charles X tried to change with the times, they could not change enough. Still, Hugo gives them credit for their peaceful regimes, in which “it was the turn of intelligence of have the word.” They allowed “equality before the law, liberty of conscience, liberty of speech, liberty of the press, the accessibility of all aptitudes to all functions.” As a result, the 1830 revolution was largely peaceful and the Bourbon dynasty left the scene quietly:

This is the foundation of those famous acts which are called the ordinances of July. The Restoration fell.

It fell justly. But, we admit, it had not been absolutely hostile to all forms of progress. Great things had been accomplished, with it alongside.

Under the Restoration, the nation had grown accustomed to calm discussion, which had been lacking under the Republic, and to grandeur in peace, which had been wanting under the Empire. France free and strong had offered an encouraging spectacle to the other peoples of Europe. The Revolution had had the word under Robespierre; the cannon had had the word under Bonaparte; it was under Louis XVIII. and Charles X. that it was the turn of intelligence to have the word. The wind ceased, the torch was lighted once more. On the lofty heights, the pure light of mind could be seen flickering. A magnificent, useful, and charming spectacle. For a space of fifteen years, those great principles which are so old for the thinker, so new for the statesman, could be seen at work in perfect peace, on the public square; equality before the law, liberty of conscience, liberty of speech, liberty of the press, the accessibility of all aptitudes to all functions. Thus it proceeded until 1830. The Bourbons were an instrument of civilization which broke in the hands of Providence.

Biden differs from Louis and Charles in that he is working in concert with historical trends rather than against them. (If he didn’t, progressives would pressure him the way the July revolutionists pressured Charles.) As a result, there’s a chance that, in the new quiet, he may become one of the most consequential presidents in American history, taking on the major challenges of the 21st century at a time when we thought American government was broken beyond repair.

That’s not a prediction, by the way, and there’s much that could go wrong. Hugo makes it clear, however,  that (1) societies need a halting place following incessant turmoil and (2) it’s better to work with history than against it.

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