These were, however, mere secondary matters, and the public were anxiously waiting for the Government to begin the grand reforming campaign. When the educated classes awoke to the necessity of great reforms, there was no clear conception as to how the great work should be undertaken. There was so much to be done that it was no easy matter to decide what should be done first. Administrative, judicial, social, economical, financial, and political reforms seemed all equally pressing. Gradually, however, it became evident that precedence must be given to the question of serfage. It was absurd to speak about progress, humanitarianism, education, self-government, equality in the eye of the law, and similar matters, so long as one half of the population was excluded from the enjoyment of ordinary civil rights. So long as serfage existed it was mere mockery to talk about re-organising Russia according to the latest results of political and social science. How could a system of even-handed justice be introduced when twenty millions of the peasantry were subject to the arbitrary will of the landed proprietors? How could agricultural or industrial progress be made without free labour? How could the Government take active measures for the spread of national education when it had no direct control over one-half of the peasantry? Above all, how could it be hoped that a great moral regeneration could take place, so long as the nation voluntarily retained the stigma of serfage and slavery?
All this was very generally felt by the educated classes, but no one ventured to raise the question until it should be known what were the views of the Emperor on the subject. How the question was gradually raised, how it was treated by the nobles, and how it was ultimately solved by the famous law of February 19th (March 3d), 1861,* I now propose to relate.
* February 19th according
to the old style, which is still
used in Russia, and March 3d according to our method of