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Leon Gambetta

On January 6, 1883, Paris presented a sad and imposing spectacle. Her
shops were closed; her public buildings and her homes were draped in
black. Her streets were solid with hundreds of thousands, all
dispirited, and many in tears. A large catafalque covered with black
velvet upheld a coffin shrouded with the tricolor. From a vase at each
corner rose burning perfume, whose vapor was like sweet incense. Six
black horses drew the funeral car, and two hundred thousand persons
followed in the procession, many bearing aloft wreaths of flowers, and
shouting, "Vive la Republique! Vive la Gambetta!"

The maker of the Republic, the brilliant, eloquent leader of the French
people, was dead; dead in the prime of his life at forty-five. The
"Figaro" but voiced the feeling of the world when it said, "The Republic
has lost its greatest man." America might well mourn him as a friend,
for he made her his pattern for his beloved France. The "Pall-Mall
Gazette" said, "He will live in French history among the most
courageous"; and even Germany courted him as the bravest of the brave,
while she breathed freer, saying in the "Berlin Press," "The death of
Gambetta delivers the peace of Europe from great danger." The hand that
would sometime doubtless have reached out to take back sobbing Alsace
and Lorraine was palsied; the voice that swayed the multitude, now with
its sweet persuasiveness, and now with its thunder like the rush of a
swollen torrent, was hushed; the supreme will that held France like a
willing child in its power, had yielded to the inevitable,--death.

Leon Gambetta was born at Cahors, April 2, 1838. His father was an
Italian from Genoa, poor, and of good character; his mother, a French
woman, singularly hopeful, energetic, and noble. They owned a little
bazaar and grocery, and here, Onasie, the wife, day after day helped her
husband to earn a comfortable living. When their only son was seven
years old, he was sent to a Jesuits' preparatory school at Monfaucon,
his parents hoping that he would become a priest. His mother had great
pride in him, and faith in his future. She taught him how to read from
the "National," a newspaper founded by Thiers, republican in its
tendencies. She saw with delight that when very young he would learn the
speeches of Thiers and Guizot, which he found in its columns, and
declaim them as he roamed alone the narrow streets, and by the quaint
old bridges and towers of Cahors. At Monfaucon, he gave his orations
before the other children, the mother sending him the much-prized
"National" whenever he obtained good marks, and the Jesuits, whether
pleased or not, did not interfere with their boyish republican.

At eight years of age an unfortunate accident happened which bade fair
to ruin his hopes. While watching a cutter drill the handle of a knife,
the foil broke, and a piece entered the right eye, spoiling the sight.
Twenty years afterward, when the left, through sympathy, seemed to be
nearly destroyed, a glass eye was inserted, and the remaining one was

When Leon was ten years old, the Revolution of 1848 deposed Louis
Philippe, the Orleanist, and Louis Napoleon was made President of the
Republic. Perhaps the people ought to have known that no presidency
would long satisfy the ambition of a Bonaparte. He at once began to
increase his power by winning the Catholic Church to his side. The
Jesuits no longer allowed the boy Leon to talk republicanism; they saw
that it was doomed. They scolded him, whipped him, took away the
"National," and finally expelled him, writing to his parents, "You will
never make a priest of him; he has an utterly undisciplinable

The father frowned when he returned home, and the neighbors prophesied
that he would end his life in the Bastile for holding such radical
opinions. The poor mother blamed herself for putting the "National" into
his hands, and thus bringing all this trouble upon him. Ah, she wrought
better than she knew! But for the "National," and Gambetta's
unconquerable love for a republic, France might to-day be the plaything
of an emperor.

Meantime Louis Napoleon was putting his friends into office, making
tours about the country to win adherents, and securing the army and the
police to his side. At seven o'clock, on the morning of December 2,
1851, the famous Coup d'etat came, and the unscrupulous President had
made himself Emperor. Nearly two hundred and fifty deputies were
arrested and imprisoned, and the Republicans who opposed the usurpation
were quickly subdued by the army. Then the French were graciously
permitted to say, by ballot, whether they were willing to accept the
empire. There was, of course, but one judicious way to vote, and that
was in the affirmative, and they thus voted.

Joseph Gambetta, the father, saw the political storm which was coming,
and fearing for his outspoken son, locked him up in a lyceum at Cahors,
till he was seventeen. Here he attracted the notice of his teachers by
his fondness for reading, his great memory, and his love of history and
politics. At sixteen he had read the Latin authors, and the economical
works of Proudhon. When he came home, his father told him that he must
now become a grocer, and succeed to the business. He obeyed, but his
studious mind had no interest in the work. He recoiled from spending his
powers in persuading the mayor's wife that a yard of Genoa velvet at
twenty francs was cheaper than the same measure of the Lyon's article at
thirteen. So tired and sick of the business did he become, that he
begged his father to be allowed to keep the accounts, which he did in a
neat, delicate hand.

His watchful mother saw that her boy's health was failing. He was
restless and miserable. He longed to go to Paris to study law, and then
teach in some provincial town. He planned ways of escape from the hated
tasks, but he had no money, and no friends in the great city.

But his mother planned to some purpose. She said to M. Menier, the
chocolate-maker, "I have a son of great promise, whom I want to send to
Paris against his father's will to study law. He is a good lad, and no
fool. But my husband, who wants him to continue his business here, will,
I know, try to starve him into submission. What I am about to propose is
that if I buy your chocolate at the rate you offer it, and buy it
outright instead of taking it to sell on commission, will you say
nothing if I enter it on the book at a higher price, and you pay the
difference to my son?" Menier, interested to have the boy prosper,
quickly agreed.

After a time, she called her son aside and, placing a bag of money in
his hand, said, "This, my boy, is to pay your way for a year. A trunk
full of clothes is ready for you. Try and come home somebody. Start
soon, and take care to let nobody suspect you are going away. Do not
say good-bye to a single soul. I want to avoid a scene between you and
your father."

Ambition welled up again in his heart, and the bright expression came
back into his face. The next morning he slipped away, and was soon at
Paris. He drove to the Sorbonne, because he had heard that lectures were
given there. The cab-driver recommended a cheap hotel close by, and,
obtaining a room in the garret, the youth, not yet eighteen, began his
studies. He rose early and worked hard, attending lectures at the
medical school as well as at the law, buying his books at second-hand
shops along the streets. Though poverty often pinched him as to food,
and his clothes were poor, he did not mind it, but bent all his energies
to his work. His mother wrote how angered the father was at his leaving,
and would not allow his name to be mentioned in his presence. Poor
Joseph! how limited was his horizon.

Leon's intelligence and originality won the esteem of the professors,
and one of them said, "Your father acts stupidly. You have a true
vocation. Follow it. But go to the bar, where your voice, which is one
in a thousand, will carry you on, study and intelligence aiding. The
lecture-room is a narrow theatre. If you like, I will write to your
father to tell him what my opinion of you is."

Professor Valette wrote to Joseph Gambetta, "The best investment you
ever made would be to spend what money you can afford to divert from
your business in helping your son to become an advocate."

The letter caused a sensation in the Gambetta family. The mother took
courage and urged the case of her darling child, while her sister, Jenny
Massabie, talked ardently for her bright nephew. An allowance was
finally made. In two years Leon had mastered the civil, criminal,
military, forest, and maritime codes. Too young to be admitted to the
bar to plead, for nearly a year he studied Paris, its treasures of art,
and its varied life. It opened a new and grand world to him.
Accidentally he made the acquaintance of the head usher at the Corps
Legislatif, who said to the young student, "You are an excellent fellow,
and I shall like to oblige you; so if the debates of the Corps
Legislatif interest you, come there and ask for me, and I will find you
a corner in the galleries where you can hear and see everything." Here
Leon studied parliamentary usage, and saw the repression of thought
under an empire. At the Cafe Procope, once the resort of Voltaire,
Diderot, Rousseau, and other literary celebrities, the young man talked
over the speeches he had heard, with his acquaintances, and told what he
would do if he were in the House. An improbable thing it seemed that a
poor and unknown lad would ever sit in the Corps Legislatif, as one of
its members! He organized a club for reading and debating, and was of
course made its head. It could not be other than republican in

In 1860, at the age of twenty-two, Gambetta was admitted to the bar. The
father was greatly opposed to his living in Paris, where he thought
there was no chance for a lawyer who had neither money nor influential
friends, and urged his returning to Cahors. Again his aunt Jenny, whom
he always affectionately called "Tata," took his part. Having an income
of five hundred dollars a year, she said to the father, "You do not see
how you can help your son in Paris, it may be for long years; but next
week I will go with him, and we shall stay together;" and then, turning
to her nephew, she added, "And now, my boy, I will give you food and
shelter, and you will do the rest by your work."

They took a small house in the Latin Quartier, very plain and
comfortless. His first brief came after waiting eighteen months! Grepps,
a deputy, being accused of conspiracy against the Government, Gambetta
defended him so well that Cremieux, a prominent lawyer, asked him to
become his secretary. The case was not reported in the papers, and was
therefore known only by a limited circle. For six years the brilliant
young scholar was virtually chained to his desk. The only recreation was
an occasional gathering of a few newspaper men at his rooms, for whom
his aunt cooked the supper, willing and glad to do the work, because she
believed he would some day come to renown from his genius.

Finally his hour came. At the Coup d'etat, Dr. Baudin, a deputy, for
defending the rights of the National Assembly, was shot on a barricade.
On All-Soul's Day, 1868, the Republicans, to the number of a thousand,
gathered at the grave in the cemetery of Montmartre, to lay flowers upon
it and listen to addresses. The Emperor could not but see that such
demonstrations would do harm to his throne. Dellschuzes, the leader, was
therefore arrested, and chose the unknown lawyer, Gambetta, to defend
him. He was a strong radical, and he asked only one favor of his lawyer,
that he would "hit hard the Man of December," as those who hated the
Coup d'etat of December 2, loved to call Louis Napoleon.

Gambetta was equal to the occasion. He likened the Emperor to Catiline,
declaring that as a highwayman, he had taken France and felled her
senseless. "For seventeen years," he said, "you have been masters of
France, and you have never dared to celebrate the Second of December. It
is we who take up the anniversary, which you no more dare face than a
fear-haunted murderer can his victim's corpse." When finally, overcome
with emotion, Gambetta sank into his seat at the close of his speech,
the die was cast. He had become famous from one end of France to the
other, and the Empire had received a blow from which it never recovered.
That night at the clubs, and in the press offices, the name of Leon
Gambetta was on every lip.

It is not strange that in the elections of the following year, he was
asked to represent Belleville and Marseilles, and chose the latter,
saying to his constituents that he was in "irreconcilable opposition to
the Empire." He at once became the leader of a new party, the
"Irreconcilables," and Napoleon's downfall became from that hour only a
question of time. Gambetta spoke everywhere, and was soon conceded to be
the finest orator in France. Worn in body, by the confinement of the
secretaryship, and the political campaign, he repaired to Ems for a
short time, where he met Bismarck. "He will go far," said the Man of
Iron. "I pity the Emperor for having such an irreconcilable enemy." The
"National," under Madam Gambetta's teaching in childhood, was bearing

Napoleon saw that something must be done to make his throne more stable
in the hearts of his people. He attempted a more liberal policy, with
Emile Ollivier at the head of affairs. But Gambetta was still
irreconcilable, saying in one of his great speeches, "We accept you and
your Constitutionalism as a bridge to the Republic, but nothing more."
At last war was declared against Prussia, as much with the hope of
promoting peace at home as to win honors in Germany. Everybody knows the
rapid and crushing defeat of the French, and the fall of Napoleon at
Sedan, September 2, when he wrote to King William of Prussia, "Not
having been able to die at the head of my troops, I can only resign my
sword into the hands of your Majesty."

When the news reached Paris on the following day, the people were
frantic. Had the Emperor returned, a defeated man, he could never have
reached the Tuileries alive. Crowds gathered in the streets, and forced
their way into the hall of the Corps Legislatif. Then the eloquent
leader of the Republican ranks, scarcely heard of two years before,
ascended the Tribune, and declared that, "Louis Napoleon Bonaparte and
his dynasty have forever ceased to reign over France." With Jules Favre,
Ferry, Simon, and others, he hastened to the Hotel de Ville, writing on
slips of paper, and throwing out to the multitude, the names of those
who were to be the heads of the provisional government. Cool, fearless,
heroic, Gambetta stood at the summit of power, and controlled the
people. They believed in him because he believed in the Republic.

Meantime the German armies were marching on Paris. The people fortified
their city, and prepared to die if need be, in their homes. Before Paris
was cut off from the outside world by the siege, part of the governing
force retired to Tours. It became necessary for Gambetta, in October, to
visit this city for conference, and to accomplish this he started in a
balloon, which was just grazed by the Prussian guns as he passed over
the lines. It was a hazardous step; but the balloon landed in a forest
near Amiens, and he was safe. When he arrived in Tours there was not a
soldier in the place; in a month, by superhuman energy, and the most
consummate skill and wisdom, he had raised three armies of eight
hundred thousand men, provided by loan for their maintenance, and
directed their military operations. One of the prominent officers on the
German side says, "This colossal energy is the most remarkable event of
modern history, and will carry down Gambetta's name to remote

He was now in reality the Dictator of France, at thirty-two years of
age. He gave the fullest liberty to the press, had a pleasant "Bon jour,
mon ami" for a workman, no matter how overwhelmed with cares he might
be, and a self-possession, a quickness of decision, and an indomitable
will that made him a master in every company and on every occasion. He
electrified France by his speeches; he renewed her courage, and revived
her patriotism. Even after the bloody defeat of Bazaine at Gravelotte,
and his strange surrender of one hundred and seventy thousand men at
Metz, Gambetta did not despair of France being able, at least, to demand
an honorable peace.

But France had grown tired of battles. Paris had endured a siege of four
months, and the people were nearly in a starving condition. The
Communists, too, were demanding impossible things. Therefore, after
seven months of war, the articles of peace were agreed upon, by which
France gave to Germany fourteen hundred million dollars, to be paid in
three years, and ceded to her the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine.

Gambetta could never bring himself to consent to these humiliating
conditions, and on the day on which the terms were ratified, he and his
colleagues from these two sections of the country, left the assembly
together. Just as they were passing out, the venerable Jean Kuss, mayor
of Strasburg, staggered up to Gambetta, saying, "Let me grasp your
patriot's hand. It is the last time I shall shake it. My heart is
broken. Promise to redeem brave Strasburg." He fell to the floor, and
died almost immediately. Gambetta retired to Spain, till recalled by the
elections of the following July.

He now began again his heroic labors, speaking all through France,
teaching the people the true principles of a republic; not communism,
not lawlessness, but order, prudence, and self-government. He urged
free, obligatory education, and the scattering of books, libraries, and
institutes everywhere. When Thiers was made the first President,
Gambetta was his most important and truest ally, though the former had
called him "a furious fool"; so ready was the Great Republican to
forgive harshness.

In 1877 he again saved his beloved Republic. The Monarchists had become
restless, and finally displaced Thiers by Marshal MacMahon, a strong
Romanist, and a man devoted to the Empire. It seemed evident that
another coup d'etat was meditated. Gambetta stirred the country to
action. He declared that the President must "submit or resign," and for
those words he was sentenced to three months' imprisonment and a fine of
four hundred dollars, which sentence was never executed. MacMahon seeing
that the Republic was stronger than he had supposed, soon after resigned
his position, and was succeeded by M. Grevy. Gambetta was made President
of the Assembly, and doubtless, if he had lived, would have been made
President of the Republic.

There were not wanting those who claimed that he was ambitious for the
supreme rule; but when death came from the accidental discharge of a
pistol, producing a wound in the hand, all calumny was hushed, and
France beheld her idol in his true light,--the incarnation of
republicanism. Two hours before his death, at his plain home just out of
Paris at Ville d'Avray, he said, "I am dying; there is no use in denying
it; but I have suffered so much it will be a great deliverance." He
longed to last till the New Year, but died five minutes before midnight,
Dec. 31, 1882. The following day, fifteen thousand persons called to see
the great statesman as he lay upon his single iron bedstead.

Afterward the body lay in state at the Palais Bourbon, the guard
standing nearly to their knees in flowers. Over two thousand wreaths
were given by friends. Alsace sent a magnificent crown of roses. No
grander nor sadder funeral was ever seen in France. Paris was urgent
that he be buried in Pere la Chaise, but his father would not consent;
so the body was carried to Nice to lie beside his mother, who died a
year before him, and his devoted aunt, who died five years previously.
Every day Joseph Gambetta lays flowers upon the graves of his dear ones.

Circumstances helped to make the great orator, but he also made
circumstances. True, his opportunity came at the trial, after the Baudin
demonstration, but he was ready for the opportunity. He had studied the
history of an empire under the Caesars, and he knew how republics are
made and lost. When in the Corps Legislatif a leader was needed, he was
ready, for he had carefully studied men. When at Tours he directed the
military, he knew what he was doing, for he was conversant with the
details of our civil war. When others were sauntering for pleasure along
the Champs Elysees, he had been poring over books in an attic opposite
the Sorbonne. He died early, but he accomplished more than most men who
live to be twice forty-five. When, in the years to come, imperialists
shall strive again to wrest the government from the hands of the people,
the name of Leon Gambetta will be an inspiration, a talisman of victory
for the Republic.

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