Daily Archives: October 17, 2006

Item of the Day: Mirabeau’s Lettres des Cachet (1787)

Full Title:

Enquiries concerning lettres de cachet, the consequences of arbitrary imprisonment, and a history of the inconveniences, distresses and sufferings of state prisoners, by Honoré-Gabriel de Riquetti, comte de Mirabeau. In two volumes, written in the dungeon of the Castle of Vincennes. With a preface by the translator. London, G. G. J. and J. Robinson, 1787.


The title of the present work seems only to announce a discussion purely local, and uninteresting to any other than the French nation; this, however, is far from being the case. The author, plunged a second time into a state dungeon, by an arbitrary mandate, in which dreary abodes he had the opportunity at length offered him by the late lieutenant of police, of committing to paper, at great personal risk, as liberal and noble sentiments as have ever proceeded from a generous and enlightened mind.

Had the Count de Mirabeau confined himself, like the celebrated Mr. Linguet, in his Memoirs of the Bastile, to details of his own sufferings, however interesting the history of human misery must ever be to human nature, the translator would not have given himself the trouble of celebrating an egotist: but when he saw the author availing himself of his subject, to descant on the dreadful abuses of arbitrary power in every country, and in every age, and pointing out, with an admirable accuracy, great knowledge, and exquisite sensibility, the fatal consequences of the slightest infringement on the natural rights of mankind, and, really, making his own sufferings but a secondary object in his undertaking, the translator, who glories in thinking with such men, determined to contribute his mite to the propagation of such principles, and, by submitting to his countrymen so affecting a display of the progress of despotism, to shew them how imperceptibly and completely a nation may lose its liberties, and be reduced to a desperate state of ostentatious, but wretched servitude.

Facilis descensus Averni,
Sed revocare gradum; hic labor, hoc opus est!

The first part of this work embraces a variety of politico-philosophical questions, as the author stiles them, of the most extensive and general utility. Besides a very learned and laborious discussion of natural right, the fatal effects of the union of the civil and ecclesiastical powers, the origin of all government, and the social right of punishment, richly illustrated by notes, it contains a very neat and precise history of the progress of despotism in France, the chain of artful and violent measures by which it has arrived at its present uncontrolled state of exercise, and a series of specific proofs of the national privileges once possessed by that enslaved people, a subject hitherto discussed but vaguely, and but little understood in England.

The reader will find too, in the tenth chapter, a very ingenious and useful enquiry into the police of great cities, as connected with public liberty, exemplified in those of Amsterdam, London, and Paris, wherein he will see an admirable delineation of the enormities, not beauties as Englishmen are artfully wished to believe, of the latter metropolis, that sink of vice, violence, and insecutiry.

In the twelfth chapter is a cursory view of the history of France, and the French monarch, from the reign of Philip le Bel to the present time, drawn by a most masterly hand, and, as the translator thinks, with strict impartiality, but marked with the hardy traits of a zealous and determined enemy to tyranny. Louis XIV, that insolent despot, whose character, as it escapes from the blaze of false glory, has been long declining in the eye of impartial justice, is here stripped of all his arrogant pretensions, and delivered over to the present age, and to posterity, as one of the most fatal scourges that ever ruled, and tyrannized over a generous people; nay, even as a fastidious pretender to the patronage of the arts and sciences, the strong-hold of his flatterers, and the remnant of his tottering reputation.

The reign of Louis the well-beloved too is pourtrayed with no less ability and boldness; nor does he hesitate to point ou tthe enourmities of the present established system of government, nor to express a noble indignation at the complete triumph o fdespotism, and the downfal of public freedom and public spirit in his country.

Throughout this part, as well as in the whole work, the author passes many deserved eulogiums on the English constitution, interspersed into such just and salutary structures on its actual states, and the perils it has to apprehend, as cannot be unwelcome to any real friend to freedom. His superior mind soars about the authority of names, and every predilection not founded on real utility, and on the solid basis of permanent public good. He combats with as much intrepedity, but always with respect, the erroneous positions of a Montesquieu, or a Blackstone, as he would trample on the sophisticated and dangerous dogmas of a Filmer, a Shebbaeare, a Johnson, or a Markham.

In the second part, is the detail of his own sufferings in the dungeon of Vincennes, and the usual mode of treatment in state prisons, with an exquisite portrait of one of those monsters, with which France in infested, who, through scenes of adulation, and every species of infamy, though decorated with the insignia of military merit, arrive at the still more odious occupation than the executioner’s, that of being the perpetual torturers of their fellow-creatures. The manner in which this detail is given, though sufficiently minute, is neither trivial nor uninteresting. Self does not constitute its leading feature, as in that of Mr. Linguet. The author’s philanthropy and sensibility are universal; his feelings are exquisitely painted, but his is a manly sorrow; nor can any generous mind refuse a tear of sympathy with him, for the cruel anguish of the wretched thousands, groaning in these horrid mansions.

The translator will only add, that the above eulogium is no more than the genuine tribute of an uninterested and sincere admiration of the work, which he would not have attempted to clothe in his native language, did it not contain principles and sentiments congenial with his own, and under the hope of being useful to mankind. Of the execution he shall say nothing, but request the indulgence of the reader for occasional errors, as he is at a great distance from a very careful press, it is true, but without the possibility of correcting it.


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Filed under 1780's, Legal, Posted by Carrie Shanafelt