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THE LICENTIOUSNESS OF THE PRESS.*
(From Brownson's Quarterly Review for October, 1819.)
In the article on Recent European Events, written before we had received the news of the memorable socialist insurrection in June, 1818, which it took four days of hard fighting to suppress, and which resulted in the victory of the party of order under General Cavaignac, we feared that the moderate party, attempting to conciliate the revolutionary party by compromise, would destroy themselves and prepare the triumph of anarchy or despotism, and we regarded LedruRollin as not unlikely to turn out to be a stronger man than Lamartine.
At that time Lamartine was the great man of the revolution, and Ledru-Rollin was apparently withont influence. Yet events have proved, what we then supposed to be true, that the latter was from the first the real leader of the revolutionary party. He is a bold, reckless demagogue, not without talent of a certain kind, with a determinate end in view, which he is prepared to seek at any and every hazard, -a daring and unscrupulous revolutionary chief, who cares not how much virtue he tramples upon, how many hearts he wounds, how much blood he spills, or how much misery he causes, if he can accomplish his purposes. Such a man, in times of disorder and confusion, is always sure to have a strong and determined party, and never ceases to be dangerons so long as he lives.
On the other point on which we expressed our views, our fears have not been fully justified. The party of order, the moderates, as they were then called, have proved themselves stronger and more resolute and energetic than we dared hope; but the red-republicans, though defeated, have not yet been vanquished, or ceased to be forinidable; and the party of order are yet far from having gained a definitive victory. One thing, however, they have gained. “The state," we said, “cannot be constituted on the revolutionary principle, nor recognize the right of the people to abolish the government; for every state must have as its basis the
* The Law of the Press. Speech of Count de Montalembert, in the French Legislative Assembly, July 21, 1849.
right of the state to command, and the duty of the citizen to obey."
“ The revolutionary party,” we said, “ must be arrested, or it will subvert the new institutions before they get fairly into operation." Every sober Frenchman appears now to be well convinced of this. Three times, within less than eighteen months, the revolutionary party has attempted to subvert the very republican institutions it had forced upon the country, and France seems now to be thoroughly convinced that her regeneration must come from order and liberty, not from revolution and anarchy. She has taken her stand on the side of the former against the latter,--solemnly proclaimed, No more revolution, no more destruction, no more anarchy; but whether she will be able to maintain the very just and common-sense position she has assumed remains to be seen.
Thus far, she has maintained it firmly, and, under the circumstances, nobly; and the government of Louis Napoleon, thus far, deserves the gratitude of Europe and the Christian world.
But the enemies of order, of society itself, are in France and in entire Europe neither few nor inactive, and he who to-day counts on the speedy triumph of authority in the European nations, and the restoration of social peace, will most likely be deceived. A large portion of the people have been corrupted, and the infection spreads from the cities and towns into the villages and country. In the earlier half of the eighteenth century, it was the higher classes-kings. nobles, and even, to some extent, the clergy--who were corrupt, who had lost their faith, despised morals, and dreamed of a sensual paradise. The bulk of the people, especially the peasantry, were comparatively sound and virtuous. Now, it is or is becoming the reverse. The French revolution of 1789 chastised and corrected the upper classes, and they are now in general the most upright, moral, and religious portion of the community; but the lower classes have taken the infection, have learned to scoff at religion, and ceased to look for a celestial recompense, or to believe in immortality. They become the ready instruments of base and unscrupulous demagogues, --combustibles, which a licentious press can at any moment kindle for a universal conflagration. In all European countries there are plenty of educated scoundrels, especially Poles and Italians, ready to inflame them with their incendiary appeals, and of able military men to conduct them in their nefarious war against society, -and plenty of decently dressed sympathizers in
England and the United States to cheer them on, to pass resolutions in their favor, and even to vote to send thein a flag. Under these circumstances, we cannot but apprehend a protracted struggle, although as to the ultimate issue we have no fears.
Unquestionably, for the party of order, one of the first and most important means of self-defence and of the preservation of society is to restrain, as far as possible, the radical press. In this country, we hold the freedom of the press sacred, and regard its censorship with horror; and not without reason, for here the imbecility of the press renders it comparatively harmless, and we have few motives to rebellion. Englishmen and Americans have little contidence in ideas,-believe in few things except roast beef and plum-pudding. They retain much of the old AngloSaxon character, and seldom feel, except in the pocket and the stomach. They have been bred under Protestantism, which disdains logic, and renders reason superfluous. Protestantism blunts the intellect, destroys confidence in principles, and superinduces a habit of stopping inidway in a chain of reasoning. People trained under it never find any difficnlty in asserting premises, and denying the conclusions which legitimately flow from them. Besides, it is an AngloSaxon characteristic, never to put one's self in the way of learning what is repugnant to one's prejudices. The AngloSaxon takes a paper, not to learn what he ought to think, but to learn from it what he already thinks. If a journal advocates a view contrary to his own, or to what he has a vague suspicion is his own, he eschews it, or resolutely refuses to believe one single word it says. The press, has, therefore, little other influence, in England and this country, than it exerts by expressing already existing views of the several coexisting parties, and no more influence on the ultimate action of either country than the speeches in congress have on the final vote of the house, which, it is said, is just nothing at all. We can therefore understand no reason why, in England and the United States, the press shonld not be perfectly free ; for in both, though pretentious, it is, comparatively, unintluential. It rarely strengthens or weakens a party, rarely determines any public measure, or affects the final issue of any public contest. Things would go on without, pretty much as they do with it, while it operates as a sort of safety-valve to the superfluous steam of dermagogues.
But on the continent of Europe, the case is altogether different. Mental culture there is of a superior order to what it is in Great Britain, or in our own country, and the people are more disposed to act in conformity to their principles. There is and always has been in the continental nations more mental freedom than in Great Britain, and there is more in Great Britain than in the United States. Of all civilized countries, ours has the least freedom of thought, and is, not by the laws, but by the manners, habits, and customs of the people, subjected to an intolerable mental slavery, unequalled elsewhere. He is a brave man who, among us, dares publish his honest convictions; and he is a still braver man who dares examine convictions contrary to his own with candor and impartiality. We are the freest people in the world-on paper, but in reality, especially in the interior world, the most enslaved. But on the continent of Europe, even with those who have thrown off the Catholic faith, there remain some traces of Catholic culture,--a respect for intellect, for systematic thought, and a strong feeling that what a man holds to be truth he should seek to reduce to practice. Hence the press has there, and must have, an influence for good or for evil, of which we, in this country, can form no conception; not because the European populations are more ignorant than our people, but because, in reality, they have more mental freedom, are more logical, and have received a superior intellectual culture.
In revolutionary times, the press, with these populations, is a tremendous engine; and a revolutionary press cannot coexist with public peace and safety. It is absolutely necessary, if order is to be preserved, if revolutions are to be arrested, and liberty consolidated, that the law should restrain the license of the journals, and suppress them, as promptly as it would arrest and imprison the conspirator. The journal is a conspirator ; its words are deeds, and must be prevented; for it is too late to punish them after they have been spoken. As well might you consider it a sufficient precaution to lock the stable door after the colt has been stolen.
Entertaining these views, and believing no government can fulfil its mission if perpetually assailed with impunity, we were among those, though a violent liberal at the time, who, with the late Secretary Livingston, approved the famous September laws of Louis Philippe, restraining the seditious press.
We cannot but rejoice, then, that the present French government has had the courage and firmness to propose and adopt similiar laws. The necessity and the motives of the recent French legislation on the press, are forcibly expressed in the masterly speech in its defence of Count de Montalembert, made in the legislative assembly, July 21st. M. de Montalembert was a member of the former chamber of peers ; he is a man without ambition, a man of extraordinary talents, of a highly cultivated and polished mind, a genuine orator, a sincere Catholic, and the acknowledged political leader of the Catholic party in France. In times past, we feared that he had a taint of liberalism, and that he would not bear up with sufficient firmness against the revolutionary and socialistic ideas of the age. Nobly has he disappointed us, and earned the reputation of being, if not the first, one of the very first Catholic laymen of Europe. The speech was received by the assembly with unbounded applause, and proved a terrible blow to the Mountain, whom it virtually silenced.
Count de Montalembert is very far from asserting that the Catholic party, under Lonis Philippe, were wrong in opposing the government, or implying that their motives were ot justifiable, or that the ends they songht were not both legitimate and desirable; all he means to censure is the manner in which they conducted their opposition, or the spirit and tendencies they indirectly and unintentionally encouraged. In this he is doubtless right. Our pages, and the liberal censures of some of our friends, amply prove, that, long before the explosion of February, 1848, we were convinced that the Catholic political party in France, and wherever else it was in opposition, yielded too much to the so-called liberalists of the day, and were not sufficiently careful to mark the line which separates loyal and conservative from factious, radical, and destructive opposition. M. de Montalembert is himself now aware of this, and, with that candor which belongs to all manly natures, he frankly acknowledges it; and we doubt not, that, if the illustrious O'Connell had lived to witness the events of the last two years, we should have had his acknowledgments to the same effect to place along side of those of his scarcely less illustrious friend.
The age in which we live is by no means one whose spirit can be safely followed. Man is a social being, and demands society ; society is impossible without even a strong and