It was of that fast-sickening France, of that blighted land of France, that Mr. Jefferson spoke so earnestly in the gathering darkness of that winter’s day in the year 1789. The storm which had just swept over the American colonies had passed, leaving wrecks strewn from shore to shore, ’tis true, but a land fairer and greater than ever, a people tried by adversity and made strong. The tempest, which had been so gallantly withstood by our ably manned ship of state, had blown across the Atlantic and was beating upon the unprotected shores of France. The storm was gathering fast in that most famous year of 1789—the alpha and omega of French history, the ending of all things old, the beginning of all things new, for France. Two years before the bewildered Assemblee des Notables had met and had been dismissed to spread their agitation and disaffection throughout all France by the still more bewildered Lomenie de Brienne, who was trying his hand at the impossible finances of France after the fall of that magnificent spendthrift, Monsieur Colonne. He, in turn, had been swept from his office and replaced by the pompous and incompetent Necker. Lafayette, the deus ex machina of the times, had asked for his States-General, and now in this never-sufficiently-to-be-remembered year of 1789 they were to be convoked.
All France was disquieted by the elections—nay, more, agitated and agitating. Men who had never thought before were thinking now, and, as was inevitable to such unused intellects, were thinking badly. For the first time the common people were permitted to think. For the first time they were allowed, even urged, to look into their wretched hearts and tell their lord and king what grievances they found there. What wonder that when the ashes were raked from the long-smouldering fires of envy, of injustice, of oppression, of extortion, of misrule of every conceivable sort, they sprang into fierce flame? What wonder that when the bonds of silence were loosed from their miserable mouths, such a wild clamor went up to Heaven as made the king tremble upon his throne and his ministers shake with fear? Who could tell at what moment this unlooked-for, unprecedented clemency might be withdrawn and silence once more be sealed upon them? What wonder, then, that they made the most of their opportunity? What wonder that, suddenly finding themselves strong, who had been weak, they did make the most of it?