Speech by Léon Gambetta
The peasantry is intellectually several centuries behind the enlightened and educated classes in this country. The distance between them and us is immense. We have received a classical or scientific education—even the imperfect one of our day. We have learned to read our history, to speak our language, while (a cruel thing to say) so many of our countrymen can only babble! Ah! that peasant, bound as he is to the tillage of the soil, who bravely carries the burden of his day, with no other consolation than that of leaving to his children the paternal fields, perhaps increased an acre in extent; all his passions, joys, and fears concentrated in the fate of his patrimony. Of the external world, of the society in which he lives, he apprehends only legends and rumors. He is the prey of the cunning and fraudulent. He strikes, without knowing it, the bosom of the revolution, his benefactress; he gives loyally his taxes and his blood to a society for which he feels fear as much as respect. But there his role ends, and if you speak to him of principles, he knows nothing of them.
It is to the peasantry, then, that we must address ourselves. We must raise and instruct them. Epithets which partizans have bandied of “rurality” and “rural chamber” must not become the cause of injustice. It is to be wished that there were a “rural chamber” in the profound and true sense of the term; for it is not with hobble-de-hoys that a “rural chamber” can be made, but with enlightened and free peasants who are able to represent themselves. Instead of becoming a cause of raillery, this reproach of a “rural chamber” should be a tribute rendered to the progress of the civilization of the masses. This new social force should be utilized for the general welfare.
Unfortunately we have not yet reached that point. Progress will be denied us as long as the French democracy fail to demonstrate that if we would remake our country, if we would bring back her grandeur, her power, and her genius, it is of vital interest to her superior classes to elevate and emancipate this people of workers, who hold in reserve a force still virgin but able to develop inexhaustible treasures of activity and aptitude. We must learn and then teach the peasant what he owes to Society and what he has the right to ask of her.
On the day when it shall be well understood that we have no grander or more pressing work; that we should put aside and postpone all other reforms; that we have but one task—the instruction of the people, the diffusion of education, the encouragement of science—on that day a great step will have been taken in your regeneration. But our action needs to be a double one, that it may bear upon the body as well as the mind. To be exact, each man should be intelligent, trained not only to think, read, and reason, but made able to act and fight. Everywhere beside the teacher we should place the gymnast and the soldier, to the end that our children, our soldiers, our fellow citizens, may be able to hold a sword, to carry a gun on a long march, to sleep under the canopy of the stars, to support valiantly all the hardships demanded of a patriot. We must push to the front education. Otherwise, we only make a success of letters, but do not create a bulwark of partiots.
Yes, gentlemen, if you had to submit to the supreme agony of seeing the France of Kléber and Hoche lose her two most patriotic provinces, those best embodying at once the military, commercial, industrial, and democratic spirit, we could blame only our inferior physical and moral condition. To-day the interests of the country command us to speak no imprudent words, to close our lips, to sink our resentments to the bottom of our hearts, in order to take up the grand work of national regeneration, to devote to it all the time necessary, in order that it may become a lasting work. If it need ten years, if it need twenty years, then we must devote to it ten or twenty years. But we must begin at once, that each year may see the advancing life of a new generation, strong, intelligent, as much in love with science as with the Fatherland, having in their hearts the double sentiment that he serves his country well only when he serves it with his reason and his arm.
We have been educated in a rough school. We must therefore cure ourselves of the vanity which has caused us so many disasters. We must realize conscientiously where our responsibility exists, and, seeing the remedy, sacrifice all to the object to be attained—to remake and reconstitute France! For that, nothing should be accounted too good, and we shall ask nothing before this. The first demand must be for an education as complete from base to summit as is known to human intelligence. Naturally, merit must be recognized, aptitude awakened and approved, and honest and impartial judges freely chosen by their fellow citizens, deciding publicly in such a way that merit alone shall open the door. Reject as authors of mischief those who have put words in the place of action; all those who have put favoritism in the place of merit; all those who have made the profession of arms not a means for the protection of France, but a means of serving the caprices of a master, and sometimes of becoming accomplices in his crimes.
Léon Gambetta (1838–1882)