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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.