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NOME of the Essays contained in this volume have
already appeared in periodical publications; others have been altered from their original shape, or nearly rewritten. Several are now published for the first time. I have thought it sufficient to mention this, without specifying to which class each belongs.
By way of introduction to the first series, 'On some of the Precursors of the French Revolution,' I cannot do better than transcribe the nervous sentences in which Louis Blanc has summed up the career and influence of those men of the eighteenth century who, in their several capacities, contributed to bring about the crowning event which was accomplished at the end of it.
'The apostles of the doctrine of calm inquiry introduced in these days, into their worship of Thought, the enthusiasm and the passions of sectaries. Prodigious labours to be undertaken, a thousand dangers to be run, tyranny to be cajoled or braved, the moral education of whole races of men to be effected over again, the human conscience to be liberated from uncertainty and from terror, nothing of all this made them hesitate: because,
after all, they too had a faith of their own: they believed in Reason. Such, then, was the work of this century. And all were engaged in it: writers, artists, noblemen, magistrates, ministers, sovereigns themselves. For a moment only, the new spirit found itself master of society, from foundation to summit: when it had penetrated into the Court of Prussia, through Frederic of Austria, through Joseph II. of France, through Turgot: of Russia, through Catherine: into the Vatican through Clement XIV. Insomuch that philosophy insinuated itself even into close contact with kings: it enveloped them; it subjugated them; it dictated to their lips words of strange meaning ; it drove them on, excited by the praises they received, even to the destruction of those altars which had for so long a period been used for the support of thrones.' Histoire de la Révolution Française, vol. i. 346.
Anyone who should undertake in earnest the task of collecting and analysing in one work the great subject of which the democratic historian has here only indicated the outlines: who should endeavour to distinguish the several schools of political thought which existed among the so-called philosophers of that century; to define the limits to which each was conducted by its own independent line of argument: to mark the point where each bold forerunner, like the athletes of old, as he stepped out of the course, handed his torch to another; to assign also their due meed of honour to those among them, statesmen and sovereigns as well as mere writers, who were really actuated by an ardent longing for the improvement of the condition of mankind, and who expended their lives, and risked their fame on the pursuit of that object; would embark on
one of the most important historical undertakings which remain to be performed for the intellectual benefit of this generation. He would complete the History of the French Revolution itself-which has been so abundantly elaborated by the ablest writers, cach contributing his separate pleading for his own favoured side, and thereby conveying more of truth to the reader than could have been derived from any single record, however careful and impartial-by adding to it a preface scarcely less instructive than itself, and without which the narrative of subsequent events cannot be really understood or appreciated.
For my own part, I have attempted nothing more than to illustrate that subject by a few desultory sketches. They have not been executed with the view of supporting any particular theory in philosophy or politics; and the student, who may be attached to any such theory, is only requested to use the facts and the views which he may perchance draw from them, as far as he pleases, for the nourishment of the favourite child of his own imagination.
The rest of the volume consists merely of unconnected essays on various topics, chiefly of the antiquarian order. And when I see them collected together, I feel as if I owed such readers as I may find an apology for laying before them such a packet of flying leaves. My only excuse, to myself, for having indulged in such disjointed speculations as the present specimens seem to indicate, is that they have but furnished the occasional amusement of years of an occupied life, and a relief to the thoughts in many seasons of trouble.