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


  • [Honoré Gabriel de Riquetti, Comte de Mirabeau, a French orator; born near Nemours, March 9, 1749; served in Corsica with Paoli; imprisoned by the Parliament of Besançon; sent by Calonne on a mission to Berlin, 1786; member of the States-General, 1789; became the master-spirit of the National Assembly, of which he was elected president, 1791; made a secret alliance with the court; died April 2, 1791.]
  • We are here by the will of the people, and we shall retire only by force.

  • On the 23d of June, 1789, Louis XVI. convoked the States-General, which had not met since 1614, and which consisted of the three orders, or estates, of the realm,—the nobility, the clergy, and the commons (called the Tiers État, or Third Estate). Having made known his wishes in a manner in strong contrast with the usual benevolence of his character, he retired after commanding them to separate and assemble in their respective chambers. The noblesse and the clergy obeyed; but the Third Estate, who wished that votes should be taken by the members of the three orders sitting together, remained motionless and silent. The Marquis de Dreux-Brézé, grand master of ceremonies, then entered the hall, and, addressing Bailly the president, said, “You know the king’s wishes;” whereupon Mirabeau, springing to his feet, made the memorable answer, as given by Dumont, “Go tell your master that we are here by the will of the people, and that we shall retire only at the point of the bayonet” (Allez dire à votre maître que nous sommes ici par la volonté du peuple, et que nous n’en sortirons que par la force des baïonnettes)—Recollections of Mirabeau.
  • This version of the mot was for a long time regarded as authentic; but during a discussion in the Chamber of Peers, March 10, 1833, upon a pension to be decreed to the persons engaged in the destruction of the Bastille in 1789, the son of the Marquis de Dreux-Brézé declared, on the authority of his father, that Mirabeau said, “We are assembled by the will of the people, we will leave only by force” (Nous sommes assemblés par la volonté nationale, nous ne sortirons que par le force). M. de Montlosier, who was present at the convocation of the States-General, corroborated the statement of the marquis. The “Memoirs” of Bailly give neither the common nor the corrected version of the mot, while the “Éphémérides” of Noël, June, 1803, substantiate the amended record.
  • The Abbé Sieyès added to the reply of Mirabeau, “We are the same to-day that we were yesterday: let us deliberate” (Nous sommes aujourd’hui ce que nous étions hier: délibérons); and Bailly used a word which Sieyès claimed later as his own: “The assembled nation has no orders to receive” (La nation assemblée n’a point d’ordre à recevoir).
  • Fournier contributes a curious note (“L’Esprit,” 370, note) to the statement of the son of the Marquis de Dreux-Brézé, àpropos of the word baionnette, which he says is derived, not from Bayonne, the name of the city where it was first made, but from the Spanish diminutive bayneta, a small dagger. He adds a celebrated mot on the word, contained in a proclamation of Suwarrow to the Russian armies in 1790: “The ball is a fool, the bayonet is a hero” (La balle est folle, la baïonnette est un héros).
  • He is a clock that always goes too slow.

  • Of Necker, of whose financial schemes Mirabeau was the bitter opponent. He declared, “Malebranche saw every thing in God, but Necker sees every thing in Necker.” Of the Genevan’s financial policy he said, with prophetic eye to the event, if not to the road to it, “It is thus that kings are led to the scaffold.” Necker, on the other hand, called Mirabeau “an aristocrat by inclination, a tribune by calculation.”
  • When opposing Necker’s financial proposal in the Constituent Assembly,—which was the name the Third Estate took after decreeing itself permanent,—Mirabeau uttered one of those apostrophes which were famous as impromptus, but which, like Sheridan’s jokes, are now believed to have been carefully prepared, either by himself or by his cher philosophe Chamfort: “The other day some one exclaimed, ‘Catiline is at the gates of Rome, and you deliberate!’ but most assuredly there was neither Catiline, nor danger, nor Rome; and to-day hideous bankruptcy is here, threatening to consume you, your honor, your fortunes—and you deliberate!” To make the statement which Mirabeau quotes, Goupil de Préfeln had combined two Latin phrases: the first, “Hannibal ad portas” (Hannibal is at the gates), from Cicero’s First Philippic, applied to any threatened danger; and “dum Roma deliberat, Saguntum perit” (while Rome deliberates, Saguntum perishes). From these the thought of Catiline suggested the French expression, “Catiline est aux portes, et l’on délibére.” Mirabeau said there was “neither Catiline, nor danger, nor Rome.” Thus Boerne wittily remarked of the Holy Roman Empire, that it was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire” (das heilige römische Reich,—weder heilig, noch römisch, noch Reich).
  • However much Mirabeau may have been “the pet of the Revolution” in its earlier days, he did not escape the hostility of those whom he exposed or ridiculed in the Assembly. On one occasion the Right, or royalist side, greeted his appearance in the Tribune with cries of “liar,” “assassin,” “scoundrel,” etc.: coolly viewing his audience, he remarked, “I wait, gentlemen, until these amenities be exhausted.”—DUMONT: Recollections.
  • As Berryer was once speaking from the tribune in the Corps Législatif, he was grossly insulted by an exclamation from the floor. “Who said that?” he asked. “I!” replied Granier de Cassagnac. “Oh! then it is nothing” (Alors, ce n’est rien), coolly remarked the orator, and proceeded with his speech.
  • He would fain be a Grandison-Cromwell.

  • Of Lafayette, who was trying to reconcile his loyalty to the king with his duty to his country, appearing in the double character of the courtier and the revolutionist. That he did not maintain in France the reputation he brought from America, caused Mirabeau to say of him, “He has made a good leap, and fallen backwards.”
  • Mirabeau’s characterizations of the prominent people of the time were pointed and happy. Thus he appreciated the earnestness of Robespierre, then comparatively unknown, and predicted of him, “He will succeed, for he believes all he says.”
  • He doubted the sincerity of the Duc d’Orléans (Philip Égalité), who was posing as a patriot from a dislike of the royal family: “It is doubtful,” thought Mirabeau, “if Orleans himself belongs to Orleans’ party.” This resembles the frank confession of John Wilkes to George III., who asked him how his friend Serjeant Glynn was. “He is not a friend of mine,” replied Wilkes: “he is a Wilkesite, which I never was.”
  • When Louis XVI. sent the Duc d’Orléans out of the country in 1789, Mirabeau exclaimed of the latter, “The coward! he has the appetite for crime, but not the courage to execute it.” Talleyrand’s opinion of the king’s cousin was expressed even more strongly than Mirabeau’s: “He is the slop-pail into which is thrown all the filth of the Revolution” (le vase dans lequel on a jeté toutes les ordures de la révolution).—DUMONT: Recollections.
  • Mirabeau painted the character of the king and his court with one stroke, in a letter written June 14, 1790: “Marie Antoinette is the only man whom his Majesty has around him” (Le roi n’a qu’un homme, c’est sa femme). The Duchesse d’Angoulême, daughter of Louis XVI., displayed such courage in opposing Napoleon’s entry into France in 1815, on his return from Elba, as to extort from him the compliment, “She is the only man of her race.”
  • He would be a man of wit and a scapegrace in any family but our own.

  • Of his brother, Vicomte de Mirabeau, who gave the marquis a Roland for his Oliver, when reproached by him for entering the Assembly in a state of intoxication, a condition so usual that his bloated figure gave him the nickname of Barrel (Tonneau) Mirabeau: “Of all the vices of our family,” he replied, “that is the only one you have left me.” Rivarol said of his own brother, “He would have been the wit of any other family: he was the fool of ours;” and he described Mirabeau as “capable of any thing for money, even of a good action.”
  • When I shake my terrible locks, all France trembles.

  • In the Constituent Assembly; or, as given by Dumont of Mirabeau’s position in that body, “When I shake my terrible locks, no one dares to interrupt me.” Voltaire said, during his residence at Ferney, “When I shake my wig, I cover the republic [of Geneva] with the powder.”
  • Mirabeau’s picture of himself was not flattering: “Figure to yourself,” he wrote to a lady who had never seen him, “a tiger who has had the small-pox.” When he was one day dilating upon the qualities of the ideal ruler of France under a free constitution,—that he should be eloquent, progressive, noble, etc., Talleyrand slyly added, “And marked with the small-pox?” (Et qu’il soit tracé de la petite-vérole, n’est-ce pas?) John Wilkes was equally proud of his ugliness. “Give me,” he said of his success with the sex, “but half an hour in advance of the handsomest man in Europe.”—“You know not,” remarked Mirabeau at another time, “all the power of my ugliness.”—DUMONT: Recollections.
  • He was quite astonished to find himself, as he thought, a philosopher: “I was born to be an adventurer.” Frederick the Great said, in reference to his love of fruit, “I have missed my vocation: I should have been an espalier.”
  • “I know,” Mirabeau remarked in 1789, when supporting the abolition of tithes, “but three ways of living in society: you must be a beggar, a robber, or a stipendiary.” The liberal Duc de La Rochefoucauld supported the abolition; and when the Archbishop of Aix called tithes “the voluntary offering of the devout faithful,” the duke added, “concerning which there are now forty thousand lawsuits in the kingdom.”
  • Titles as well as tithes fell before the levelling axe of the Assembly; and Mirabeau, stripped of his marquisate, found himself a mere enigma. Complaining that he was called in the official reports of the debates by his family name, he said, “With your Riquetti, you have puzzled all Europe.”
  • When told, on appearing in the official world after the freaks of his youth, that he must ask pardon of society, which had closed its doors against him, he proudly answered, “I am come to be asked pardon, not to ask it.”
  • Never mention that stupid word again!

  • To his secretary, who said that something was “impossible.” (Impossible! ne me dites jamais ce bête de mot!) Wellington once exclaimed, “Impossible! is any thing impossible? read the newspapers!” Napoleon’s mot, “‘Impossible’ is not a French word,” is from Colin d’Harlay, “‘Impossible’ is a word I never use” (Impossible est un mot que je ne dis jamais).—Malice pour Malice, I. 8. Napoleon said at another time, “Genius is the art of accomplishing in spite of difficulties, and of overcoming the impossible.” D’Auteroches, one of the heroes of Fontenoy, when told that Maëstricht was “impregnable,” exclaimed, “Imprenable is not a French word!”
  • There was another word which Mirabeau wished expunged. During a discussion of religious toleration in the National Assembly, he exclaimed, “It is Intolerance to speak of Tolerance. Away with the word from the dictionary!” He did not believe in a religion authorized or guaranteed by the state. “Religion,” he said, “is no more national than conscience.”
  • He opposed an idea suggested by Jefferson, that the Constituent Assembly should publish a Declaration of Rights: “I can safely predict,” he declared, “that any declaration of rights anterior to the constitution will prove but the almanac of a single year.”—DUMONT: Recollections.
  • He said of the Assembly at a time when it was setting itself in fierce opposition to the court, “It has Hannibals enough: it only wants a Fabius.” He recoiled from the excesses of the radicals; and in a letter to the king daring the secret negotiations which carried him over to the royalist party, Mirabeau asserted that he “would not wish to be always employed in the vast work of destruction.” His illusions had been dispelled. “We have long been looking into a magic-lantern, but the glass is now broken”—DUMONT. He now looked upon the Revolution as a torrent which would prove irresistible: such a situation of affairs he expressed by the homely figure, “When a pond is full, a single mole, by piercing the bank, may cause an inundation.”—Ibid. This was said a year after he had paid the magnificent tribute to the work of the National Assembly in 1790: “You all remember the saying of the ancient patriot who had neglected legal forms to save his country. Summoned by a factious opposition to answer for his infraction of the laws, he replied, ‘I swear that I have saved my country!’ Gentlemen, I swear that you have saved France.” He referred to Scipio Africanus, who was accused, with his brother Lucius, of appropriating part of the money which had been paid by Antiochus the Great to the Romans after Scipio’s victory over him. The successful prosecution of Lucius emboldened his enemies to bring the conqueror of Hannibal before the people. When the trial came on, and Africanus was summoned, he proudly reminded them that it was the anniversary of the day on which he had defeated Hannibal at Zama, and called upon them to follow him to the Capitol, in order to return thanks to the immortal gods, and to pray that they would grant the Roman state other citizens like himself. Carried away by a defence which did not touch the merits of the case, his enemies abandoned the prosecution. “Scipio had triumphed that day, no longer over Hannibal and Syphax, but over the republic and the law.”
  • Majesty has no feet.

  • During the brief moment when the Assembly forgot its struggles with the court by the king’s acceptance of the constitution, and a deputy proposed that the homage of the nation should be borne to the feet of his Majesty as the restorer of French liberty, Mirabeau suggested the proximity of the ridiculous to the sublime, by suggesting “Majesty has no feet” (La majesté n’a point de pieds). The motion dropped.
  • I carry in my heart the death-dirge of the French monarchy.

  • In taking leave of Dumont, who left France for Switzerland in January, 1791, Mirabeau, then President of the Assembly, said, “I shall die at the stake; and we shall never, perhaps, meet again. That base faction whom I now overawe [the Jacobins] will again be let loose upon the country.” Hearing the discharge of cannon during his last illness, he asked, “Have we the funeral of Achilles already?” The sun was shining brightly in at the window. “If that is not God,” he said, “it is at least his cousin german” (Si ce n’est pas là, Dieu, c’est du moins son cousin germain). Calling for pen and paper, he writes his demand for opium, to end his agonies. The doctor shakes his head: “To sleep with” (Dormir), writes the other. The next morning he was dead.—CARLYLE: French Revolution. The theatrical expressions attributed to Mirabeau by Alison (“History of Europe”) are not given by Dumont, and are now discredited: “Remove from the bed all that sad apparatus. Instead of these useless precautions, surround me by the perfumes and the flowers of spring; dress my hair with care; let me fall asleep amid the sound of harmonious music.”