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THE YEAR OF REVOLUTIONS
BLACKWOOD'S MAGAZINE, Jan. 1849]
THAT God will visit the sins of the fathers upon the children was proclaimed to the Israelites amidst the thunders of Mount Sinai, and has been felt by every succeeding generation of men. But it is not now upon the third or the fourth generation that the punishment of transgression falls; it is felt in its full bitterness by the transgressors themselves. The extension of knowledge, the diffusion of education, the art of printing, the increased rapidity of travelling, the long duration of peace in consequence of the exhaustion of former wars, have so accelerated the march of events, that what was slowly effected in former times, during several successive generations, by the gradual development of national passions, is now at once brought to maturity by the fervent spirit which is generally awakened, and the vehement passions which are everywhere brought into action.
Everything now goes on at the gallop. There is a railway speed in the stirring of the mind, not less than in the movement of the bodies of men. The social and political passions have acquired such intensity, and been so widely diffused, that their inevitable results are almost immediately produced. The period of seed-time and harvest has become as short in political as it is in agricultural labour. A single year brings its appropriate fruits to maturity in the moral as in the physical world. Eighty years elapsed in Rome from the time when the political passions were first stirred by Tiberius Gracchus, before its unruly citizens were finally subdued by the art, or decimated by the cruelty of Octavius. England underwent six years of civil war and suffering,
before the ambition and madness of the Long Parliament were expelled by the purge of Pride, or crushed by the sword of Cromwell : twelve years elapsed between the convocation of the States-General in 1789, and the extinction of the license of the French Revolution by the arm of Napoleon. But, on this occasion, in one year, all, in the mean time at least, has been accomplished. Ere the leaves, which unfolded in spring amidst the overthrow of thrones, and the transports of revolutionists over the world, had fallen in autumn, the passions which had convulsed mankind were crushed for the time, and the triumphs of democracy were arrested. A terrible reaction had set in ; experience of suffering had done its work; and swift as the shades of night before the rays of the ascending sun, had disappeared the ferment of revolution before the aroused indignation of the uncorrupted part of mankind. The same passions may again arise; the same delusions again spread, as sin springs up afresh in successive generations of men ; but we know the result. They will, like the ways of the unrighteous, be again crushed.
So rapid was the succession of revolutions, when the tempest assailed the world last spring, that no human power seemed capable of arresting it; and the thoughtful looked on in mournful and impotent silence, as they would have done on the decay of nature or the ruin of the world. The Pope began the career of innovation : decrees of change issued from the Vatican ; and men beheld with amazement the prodigy of the Supreme Pontiff—the head of the Unchangeable Church—standing forth as the leader of political reform. Naples quickly caught the flame : a Sicilian revolution threatened to sever one-half of his dominions from the Neapolitan Bourbon ; and internal revolt seemed to render his authority merely nominal in his own metropolis. Paris, the cradle in every age of new ideas, and the centre of revolutionary action, next felt the shock: a reform banquet was prepared as the signal for assembling the democratic forces; the National Guard, as usual, failed at the decisive moment; the King of the Barricades quailed before the power which had created him ; the Orleans dynasty was overthrown, and France delivered over to the dreams of the Socialists and the ferocity of the Red Republicans. Prussia soon shared the madness : the population of Berlin, all trained to arms, according to the custom of that country, rose against the government; the King had not energy enough to permit his faithful troops to act with the vigour requisite to uphold the throne against such assailants, and the monarchy of Frederick the Great was overthrown. Austria, even, could not withstand the contagion : neither its proud nobility, nor its light-hearted sensual people, nor its colossal army, nor its centuries of glory, could maintain the throne in its moment of peril
. The Emperor was weak, the citizens of Vienna were infatuated; and an insurrection, headed by the boys at the university and the haberdashers' apprentices in the streets, overturned the imperial government, and drove the Emperor to seek refuge in the Tyrol. All Germany caught the flame : the dreams of a few hot-headed enthusiasts and professors seemed to prevail alike over the dictates of wisdom and the lessons of experience; and, amidst the transports of millions, the chimera of German unity seemed about to be realised by the sacrifice of all its means of independence.
The balance of power in Europe appeared irrevocably destroyed by the breaking up of its central and most important powers; and England, in the midst of the general ruin, seemed rocking to its foundation. The Chartists were in raptures, the Irish rebels in ecstasy ; threatening meetings were held in every town in Great Britain ; armed clubs were organised in the whole south and west of Ireland ; revolution was openly talked of in both islands, and the close of harvest announced as the time when the British empire was to be broken up, and Anglian and Hibernian republics established, in close alliance with the great parent democracy in France. Amidst such extraordinary and unprecedented convulsions, it was with difficulty that a few courageous or far-seeing minds preserved their equilibrium ; and even those who were least disposed to despair of the fortunes of the species, could see no end to the succession of disasters with which the world was menaced but in a great exertion of the renovating powers of naturę, similar to that predicted, in a similar catastrophe, for the material world, by the imagination of the poet :S
“ Roll on, ye stars! exult in youthful prime,
Mark with bright curves the printless steps of Time!
But the destiny of man, not less than that of the material world, is balanced action and reaction, not restoration from ruin. Order is maintained in a way which the imagination of the poet could not have conceived. Even in the brief space which has elapsed since the convulsions began in Italy in January last, the reality and ceaseless action of the preserving laws of nature have been demonstrated. The balance is preserved in social life by contending passions and interests, as in the physical world by opposite forces, under circumstances when, to all human appearance, remedy is impossible and hope extinguished. The orbit of nations is traced out by the wisdom of Providence not less clearly than that of the planets; there are centripetal and centrifugal forces in the moral as well as in the material world. As much as the vehement passions, the selfish desires, the inexperienced zeal, the expanding energy, the rapacious indigence, the mingled virtues and vices of man, lead at stated periods to the explosions of revolution, do the desire of tranquillity, the interests of property, the horror at cruelty, the lessons of experience, the force of religion, the bitterness of suffering, reinduce the desire of order, and restore the influence of its organ, government.
If we contemplate the awful force of the expansive powers which, issuing from the great mass of central heat, find vent in the fiery channels of the volcano, and have so often rent asunder the solid crust of the earth, we may well tremble to think that we stand suspended, as it were, over such an abyss, and that at no great distance beneath our feet the elements of universal conflagration are to be found.* But, strong as are the expansive powers of nature, the coercive are still stronger. The ocean exists to bridle with its weight the fiery gulf ; the arch of the earth has been solidly constructed by its Divine architect; and the only traces we now discover, in most parts of this globe, of the yet raging war of the elements, are the twisted strata, which mark, as it were, the former writhings of matter in the terrible grasp of its tormentors; or the splintered pinnacles of mountains, which add beauty to the landscape ; or the smiling plains, which bring happiness to the abodes of man. It is the same in the moral world. Action and reaction are the law of mind as well as matter, and the equilibrium of social life is preserved by the opposite tendency of the interests which are brought into collision, and the counteracting force of the passions which are successively awakened by the very convulsions which seem to menace society with dissolution.
* Darwin, Botanic Garden.
A year has not elapsed since the revolutionary earthquake began to heave in Italy—since the volcano burst forth in Paris; and how marvellous is the change which has already taken place in the state of Europe ! The star of Austria, at first defeated, and apparently about to be extinguished in Italy, is again in the ascendant. Refluent from the Mincio to the Ticino, her armies have again entered Milan ; the revolutionary usurpation of Charles Emanuel has been checked almost as soon as it commenced ; and the insurgent rabble of Lombardy and Tuscany has fled, as it was wont, before the bayonets of Germany. Radetzky has extinguished revolution in northern Italy. If it still lingers in the south of the Peninsula, it is only because the strange and tortuous policy of France and England has interfered to arrest the victorious arms of Naples on the Sicilian shores. Paris has been the theatre of a dreadful struggle, blood has flowed in torrents in its streets, slaughter unheard-of stained its pavements ; but order has in the end prevailed over anarchy. A dynasty has been subverted, but the Red Republicans have been defeated ; more generals have perished in a conflict of three days than at Waterloo ; but the Faubourg St Antoine has been subdued, the Socialists have been overthrown, the
“Thirty-five miles below the surface of the earth, the central heat is every. where so great, that granite itself is held in fusion."—HUMBOLDT, Cosmos, i. 273.