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course of public affairs, and to the negotiations, the battles, or the discussions in which they took part, the French have been irresistibly impelled by the dynastic, social, and governmental changes of the last eighty years, not only to bestow close study on their own annals, but also to investigate the history of every other nation. The result has been the production of a body of historical literature of singular richness and variety, exhibiting at once careful research, a comprehensive philosophy, and that felicity of expression which characterizes the best French prose. Among the writers who have acquired the largest measure of popularity at home, and whose works have been held in most esteem elsewhere, François Auguste Alexis Mignet must be placed in the foremost rank.
He was born on the 8th of May, 1796, at Aix, in Provence, the birthplace of not a few distinguished men, among whom are the moralist Vauvenargues, the painter Vanloo, and the scarcely less celebrated statesman, Comte Portalis; and his elementary studies were pursued in the college of that city. Here his rapid progress early attracted the notice of the inspectors; and, on their nomination, he was transferred to the Lycée of Avignon, where he remained until he was nineteen. He then returned to his native city, to prepare himself for admission to the bar; and, shortly afterward, he made the acquaintance of Thiers, who had come from Marseilles for the same purpose. A close intimacy at once sprang up between the young men, which was fostered by kindred pursuits and tastes, and has withstood all the vicissitudes of a half-century of public life. They were both admitted to the bar in 1818, and for a short time they devoted themselves to the uncongenial practice of the law. But their inclinations pointed steadily in a different direction, and they soon began to turn their attention to purely literary pursuits. A year and a half after leaving the law-school, Mignet gained, at Nîmes, a prize for an “ Eloge de Charles VII.” At a little later period, he obtained, on a wider and more conspicuous field, the prize offered by the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres for an essay on the condition of France on the
accession of St. Louis, and on the changes effected by the institutions of that virtuous sovereign. This essay, which was written in less than three months, was published in the begin. ning of 1822, and was received with much favor, both as a pledge of future excellence, and on account of its bold generalizations and its vigorous and polished style. Daunou, one of the ablest and most influential historical writers of the period, made it the subject of special commendation in the “ Journal des Savants ;” and his judgment has been confirmed by subsequent critics. The success of these first ventures in literature determined Mignet's future career; and, like other ambitious and talented Frenchmen, he began to look to Paris as his future place of residence.
In July, 1821, he fixed his home in that city; and shortly afterward he began to write political articles for the “ Courrier Français.” His views on the various questions of the day were clear, well defined, and firmly held; and he exhibited so much ability in the presentation of them, as to elicit the flattering commendation of so astute a politician as Talleyrand. Political discussions, however, were never so attractive to Mignet as purely literary topics ; and, in the same year in which he removed to Paris, his friends suggested to him that he should write a history of the French Revolution, and that he should deliver a course of historical lectures. He accordingly gave a course on the Reformation and the Sixteenth Century, and another on the English Revolution, at the Athénée, neither of which has been printed, but both of which produced a deep impression. He was then only twenty-six, and was known to the public only through his successful competition for academic honors, and by the enthusiastic praise of his friends; but the first words which he uttered from the professorial chair placed his success beyond question. Those who were not fortunate enough to hear his lecture on St. Bartholomew's Day, when it was first delivered, requested him to repeat it; and, on the second occasion, his audience was increased to double its former size. He is de- . scribed by Sainte-Beuve, who was one of his auditors, as being a graceful and pleasant-looking young man, but with an
impressive and somewhat austere manner, and a rather precise pronunciation. Whether he subsequently pursued his investigations into the history of England under the Stuarts, or whether he relinquished the field, unwilling to encroach on the labors of so admirable an historian as Guizot, does not appear; but he has never lost his interest in the history of the Reformation, and his collection of materials for its proper treatment is rich and abundant, even beyond the requirements of the subject.
The success of these lectures doubtless gave a fresh impulse to Mignet's studies; and, in the spring of 1824, when he was just twenty-eight years of ag
age, he published his “Histoire de la Révolution Française," the first and most popular of the works on which his fame as an historian must rest. The book had a prodigious success from the outset; and even now it is read with as deep an interest as it excited more than forty years ago. It was at once in the hands of every reader in France, and was speedily translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Danish, and not long afterward into English; while in Germany no less than six different translations were published. It is no doubt true, that some portion of this success must be ascribed to the favorable circumstances under which the book appeared, and to its exactly meeting a popular want. Up to that time, no man in France had attempted to take a comprehensive view of the Revolution, or to trace the various causes of that terrible convulsion which had shaken the Continent to its centre, and uplifted the whole social fabric. There had been a plentiful harvest of memoirs, partial narratives, and contemporary publications of one kind or another; but no one had yet written a clear and compact history of the whole period. It was natural, therefore, that the generation then coming forward to active life should eagerly welcome any history which, in a small space, , exhibited to them the whole momentous story. But it would be a painful weakness in a critic to stop here, and attribute the rapid sale of the History to these circumstances alone. By far the greater portion of Mignet's early popularity must be traced to other causes, — to the same causes, indeed, which
render the book fascinating now, and must secure for it a permanent place in literature.
The more effective and enduring sources of Mignet's popularity as an historian of the French Revolution will be found in his comprehensive grasp of his subject, the steady, unbroken flow of his narrative, the magnificent sweep of his generalizations, his orderly arrangement, and the philosophical spirit in which the work is composed. When he began to write, he had a thoroughly matured plan and a consistent theory; and, as he proceeded, every event fell into its natural place, and every actor performed his assigned part. To this it should be added, that his style, which of late years has grown inflexible and colorless, is concise, rapid, and often picturesque, and that there are many felicitous touches in his brief notices of the successive leaders who pass in review before him. Beginning with a brief but masterly survey of the period which preceded the meeting of the States-General, and of the causes which brought about the Revolution, he traces the course of events throughout with the same firm hand, always preserving the just mean between meagreness of outline and profuseness of details. Accustomed, as many English readers have been, to look at the French Revolution with the horror which Burke's magnificent diatribes are suited to inspire, and to see in it only the frantic revolt of an imbruted mob, the views which are thus presented have been often criticized, both in England and in this country; and it has been as often remarked, that Mignet's philosophy is mere fatalism. To a certain extent the objection is well-founded, and it indicates the chief defect in the book. In bis clear perception of the relation which one event bore to another, Mignet fails to recognize the importance of personal character, and almost eliminates the individual actor. That there was a logical, perhaps inevitable, sequence in many of the stages of the Revolution, cannot be denied; but it does not follow, that this is true of all: and it is not difficult to see, that the course of events was often determined by a word or an act which might have been different, but was the result of personal choice. Apart from this, it is not probable that the
general judgment which he passes on the causes, the character, or the results of the Revolution, will be overruled, or that much exception will be taken by future historians to his estimates of individuals. His occasional platitudes, his somewhat pompous enunciation of mere truisms, and a few generalizations of doubtful soundness, do not affect the general character of the History.
For several years after the publication of his History, Mignet appears to have devoted himself mainly to the collection of materials for his contemplated work on the Reformation, and to the discharge of his duties as a journalist. In the summer of 1829, he was associated with Thiers and Armand Carrel in starting the “ National ;” and we believe he was the second editor of that celebrated journal. As a writer for this new and uncompromising organ of the Opposition, he took a zealous and active part against the Government, and he was one of the signers of the protest of the journalists in July, 1830. But beyond his adhesion to this famous manifesto, which was drawn up by his friend and associate Thiers, he did not participate in the events of the Three Days; and, when the new order of things was established, he contented himself with accepting an honorary appointment as Councillor of State and Director of the Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The latter office opened to him many important sources of historical information; and he discharged its duties with marked ability and fidelity, until the subversion of the monarchy in February, 1848, when he was removed by Lamartine. One other official duty was intrusted to him by the Government of Louis Philippe, - a confidential mission to Spain, in 1833, on the death of Ferdinand VII., which prepared the way for his acquisition, at a later period, of some important historical documents, and brought him into personal relations with the most distinguished scholars in Spain. In 1832 he was designated one of the members of the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques; and, on the death of Charles Comte, in 1837, he was chosen Perpetual Secretary of that body. A few months before his selection for this honorable post, he achieved another coveted distinction, and was chosen a Mem
VOL. LXXXIII. — NEW SERIES, VOL. IV. NO. I.