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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Louis Blanc, the Man and the Political Leader

By George Washburn Smalley (1833–1916)

[Born in Franklin, Mass., 1833. Died in London, England, 1916. The New-York Tribune, 4 February, 1888.]

I SUPPOSE he might have returned to Paris if he had wished, but nothing would induce him to set foot on French soil so long as it lay under the yoke of Napoleon the Third. It was the Republic of ’48 which had driven him from France, but it was the Bonapartist Empire for which he reserved all his resentment. He pardoned the injustice done to himself; the outrage upon his beloved France he would pardon never.

That will serve as well as anything for the key-note to his public character, or to one rare and attractive side of his character. He was the most disinterested of men. His great fame has been won by a life filled with sacrifices, one after the other, of almost everything that brings fame to a man. It is not that he was careless of honor and reputation, or ever affected a superiority to applause; he valued it, coveted it, hungered for it, and sacrificed it all the same. Praise pleased him as it pleases a child, as it pleases most simple natures. But with a passion for popularity he was forever doing, and consciously doing, the most unpopular acts. By birth he belonged to the upper middle class, and his life was given to strengthening the hands of a class below his own, intensely hostile to it, whose idea of rising is to pull down whatever is above it. The bent of his mind was naturally toward culture. Nobody could have made more admirable contributions to purely elegant literature; nobody was more academic, more capable of the last refinements and the supreme polish which are the results of a leisure devoted to making the most of one’s natural gifts. But from his first article in a newspaper to the last page of his History he made himself the servant of an idea. He was fond of society, of salons, of conversation, of art, and he turned away from them all to preach a gospel which in the hands of less scrupulous practitioners would surely put an end to them all. His socialism—for I may as well say the inevitable word about it at once—was very far-reaching in theory, yet with him I always thought it less theoretic than sympathetic. In his stringent analysis of the existing social structure he found faults enough, and not in the structure only, but in the whole scheme and idea which were the foundation of it. He had drunk deep at the half-poisoned fountain of Rousseau. He thought for himself, boldly, clearly, with singular power of logic, with endless critical ingenuity, and his socialism, as I said above, was essentially of a destructive kind. He would not have destroyed a fly, himself; he invariably refused to apply on any great scale the subversive principles he announced in his books. He never foresaw and hardly ever admitted the consequences which others drew from them, and the results to which his so-called disciples would have made them contribute. What in truth underlay these utopian speculations was not so much a reasoned conviction as a passionate pity. He could not witness the misery of the poorer classes without longing to relieve it. His books on social questions were a cry of distress. When his heart was touched his head became its servant. No doubt he had argued himself into the belief that the organization of society was radically faulty and radically unjust. He described himself as hungering for justice, and it was a true description. But a passion for all the gentler virtues lay just as deep in his being. Charity, mercy, infinite compassion and affection for whoever was weaker or poorer or less gifted and happy than himself, were the constant motives of his acts and thoughts.

His books, whether historical or political or socialistic, are all one long panegyric on the people. An American reader is liable to forget that the word people does not mean in his mouth what it means with us—the whole people. These long pæans are sung in honor of a class, and that the lowest class of all. Louis Blanc’s faith in the people was not in the true sense a democratic faith. He was not for the rule of a majority. The people meant with him in theory the whole sum of the population of France excluding the nobility, the aristocracy, the clergy (albeit springing mostly from the soil), the professions, the whole middle class in whose hands are the wealth and the property accumulated by successful industry. The artisan and the peasant were the people. They were a majority, it is true, but there never has been a moment since ’93 when the peasantry was revolutionary in the social sense. It was the artisan, and above all the artisan of Paris, to whom Louis Blanc looked as the arbiter of the destinies of France. Paris was to give law to the rest of the country, and the Paris workingmen to give law to Paris. He was for the rule of the section which had accepted his doctrines. But when the people of Paris appeared in the streets in 1848 and invited him to govern the country, he shrank back appalled from the task; and he was appalled with reason. Of the particular charges brought against him, and on which he was expelled from France, he was not guilty. But he was certainly a danger to any government, of which he was not the head, and the choice lay between his dictatorship and his exile. Such is the irony of fate. Louis Blanc believed in a republic without a head, and because he would not govern, his mere presence made a republic impossible.

Those who have once met Louis Blanc in society or at his own house will never forget the charm of his manner. To those who have been fortunate enough to meet him often, the memory of it will remain as among the best life has had to offer. It may be said in one sense that his manner never varied. He had the same kindly and polished greeting for visitors of every rank. It was never cold. To his friends it was affectionate, whether you had seen him yesterday or not for many months. His eye was as beautiful as a woman’s, with that luminous depth which betokens a profoundly sympathetic nature. He was something more than sympathetic; he was a man to be loved. His conversation was varied, imaginative, abounding in reminiscence and anecdote, every now and then lighting up the remotest depths of a subject with flashes of penetrating intelligence. He was in earnest, but never heavy; serious but free from gloom; the life of a dinner-table and the most delightful of companions in private. From everything like pretence or affectation he was absolutely free. It was too much his custom to take sombre views of affairs; especially the affairs of his own country, for which he had a love that knew no bounds. But of the men who were mismanaging France he had little to say that was hard, nothing that was uncharitable; while of his personal enemies he hardly ever spoke with severity. He had to bear during the last eighteen months of his life the most acute and unremitting torment. It never disturbed the serenity of his temper nor checked his interest in public matters. To the last he was at work for others. I saw him in September; sadly altered in face, but then, as ever, the same simple, genuine, heroic nature that for so many years I had admired, and that I now think I never admired enough.