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S.A. Bent, comp. Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men. 1887.

Léon Gambetta

  • [Born at Cahors, France, April 2, 1838; admitted to the Paris bar, 1860; deputy, 1869; minister of the interior and of war in the government of National Defence, 1870; member of the Assembly, of which he was president, 1879; prime minister from November, 1881, to January, 1882, during the last night of which he died.]
  • Demosthenes before the pebbles.

  • When some one in the Corps Législatif compared Rouher to Demosthenes, young Gambetta exclaimed from the gallery, “Before the pebbles!” (Avant les cailloux!) It had been previously said of M. Walckenaer, perpetual secretary of the Academy of Inscriptions, 1840–52, whose speech in public was slow and hesitating. “Our perpetual secretary is Demosthenes before the pebbles,” remarked an Academician. “Or during the pebbles,” added another.
  • A new social stratum.

  • No expression of recent times caused more controversy between the conservatives and radicals than that contained in a speech by Gambetta at Grenoble, Sept. 26, 1872: “I foresee, I feel, I announce,” he said, “the approach and the presence in political affairs of a new social element (d’une couche sociale nouvelle); of a new, ardent, intelligent generation, which has appeared since the fall of the empire, and is fitted to undertake the administration of affairs, to protect justice, and maintain the rights of all.” Seeing the forces arrayed against the republic, he made famous the mot of his friend Peyrat: “Clericalism is the enemy” (Le cléricalisme, voilà l’ennemi).
  • Seeming to abandon the radicalism of his earlier days, he introduced into the political vocabulary a new word,—“opportunism;” but as early as Feb. 26, 1875, he had announced that “moderation is reason in politics” (la modération, c’est la raison politique). It may have been at a time when the prospect of office under the definitively constituted republic made him wish to be freed from his constituents of Belleville, that he put into circulation another mot: “No man is a statesman who cannot cut off his tail” (couper sa queue),—in other words, who cannot shake off his followers.
  • He accepted at Havre, April 18, 1872, the nickname of “Commercial Traveller” (commis-voyageur), which the rapidity of his movements during the war had fastened upon him, and which caused Thiers to call him “un fou furieux” (a furious fool). “I am indeed,” he said, “the clerk (commis) and the explorer (voyageur) of democracy.” He might have thought of the remark of Robespierre in the National Assembly, May 17, 1790: “The king is not the nation’s representative, but its clerk;” at this time, according to Taine (“French Revolution”), Condorcet demanded that the king should be “a signature-machine.” Thiers, however, was unwilling to accept a position vis-à-vis a hostile chamber, which might reduce him to the mere executant of its decrees: he declared in November, 1872, “I will not be a simple clerk” (un simple commis).
  • When the elections of 1877 had shown that the republicans would soon administer a government which had been hitherto “a republic without republicans,” Gambetta declared at Marseilles, Jan. 7, 1878, that he was “a man of government, and not of opposition: a year of power is more fruitful than ten heroic years of opposition.”
  • He must submit or demit.

  • The alternative position in which Marshal MacMahon, president of the French republic, was placed by the result of the elections to the Chamber of Deputies in 1877. Speaking at Lille, Aug. 15 of that year, in the midst of the electoral campaign, in which the conservative government was exercising an unexampled pressure to defeat the “363” republican members of the old chamber, Gambetta declared that “when France has made known her sovereign will, believe me, one must submit or demit” (il faudra se soumettre ou se demettre). The marshal-president chose to demit.