Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XX. CAUSES OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION - A History of England in the Eighteenth Century, vol. V
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CHAPTER XX. CAUSES OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION - William Edward Hartpole Lecky, A History of England in the Eighteenth Century, vol. V 
A History of England in the Eighteenth Century (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1878, 1917). 8 Vols. Vol. V.
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There are no pages in history more instructive, and there are few which are more humiliating and depressing, than those which record the judgments of great thinkers and politicians on the verge of the changes that have most profoundly affected the destiny of mankind. The triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire, and the great religious reformation of the sixteenth century, had both been prepared by influences that had interacted and co-operated through many generations, yet each of them appears to have fallen upon the governing classes of Europe almost as a surprise. The French Revolution, at which we are now arrived, was only inferior to these in its magnitude and its significance, and I propose to devote the present chapter to a brief examination of the causes that produced it, the degree in which it was predicted, and the manner in which it was judged. Such an examination can hardly be regarded altogether as a digression, for the French Revolution influenced English history in the latter years of the eighteenth century more profoundly than any other single event. It gave a completely new direction and character to the Ministry of Pitt; it determined absolutely, for nearly a generation, the course of English foreign policy; and while it was itself largely influenced by political speculations of English origin, it in its turn reacted most powerfully on the internal policy, and on the modes of political thought prevailing in England.
Of its antecedents or causes the literary and philosophical were those which attracted most attention. There is no more striking picture in intellectual history than is furnished by that great literature which arose amid the profound political and moral decrepitude of the reign of Lewis XV., filling Europe with its splendour and its influence; and it was impossible for the most superficial observer to overlook the immense difference of tendency and character that separated it from the French literature of the seventeenth century. A few writers of the earlier period were, no doubt, partial exceptions. The ‘Method’ of Descartes, the ‘Telemachus’ of Fénelon, above all the critical writings of Bayle, threw out ideas which appeared to belong to a later age, but in general there runs through the great French literature of the seventeenth century a profound content with the existing order in Church and State, an entire absence of the spirit of disquiet, scepticism, and innovation that leads to organic change. But from the death of Lewis XIV. a complete change of spirit may be detected. The mingled austerity and hypocrisy of the latter days of Lewis XIV. had produced a reaction very similar to that which followed the Commonwealth in England; but it was supported by men of far higher intellect and of far loftier aims. At this time Voltaire began that wonderful career, unparalleled in its brilliancy and versatility, almost unparalleled in the deep contrasts of its good and evil. The ‘Œdipus,’ which was his first tragedy, was represented in 1718, and it contained two famous lines which clearly foreshadowed the mission of his life.1 The ‘Epistle to Urania,’ which was written, though not published, before Voltaire visited England, already expressed in the clearest and fullest form both his total disbelief in the Christian faith and his firm and genuine theism. The ‘Persian Letters’ of Montesquieu, which were published in 1721, contained the germ of a great part of the characteristic speculation of the century, and the remarkable junction of the French and English intellect which took place in the next few years, and which was admirably represented by Voltaire's ‘Letters on the English,’ strengthened the new tendencies. Montesquieu spent two and Voltaire nearly three years in England, and the effects of these visits may be traced through the whole of their later lives. The philosophies of Bacon, Newton, and Locke; the writings of the English deists; English notions of liberty; English canons of criticism, were soon made familiar to the French public, and up to the very eve of the Revolution nearly all the best works of English literature were translated and studied.
It was soon seen that men of letters were rising to a new influence and importance in France, but until the middle of the century had passed they cannot be said to have been openly and systematically hostile to the Church. Religious scepticism had indeed already spread widely through Paris society.1 A church in which Dubois was a cardinal, and was unanimously elected by the Bishops president of their general assembly,2 neither deserved nor obtained respect, and in all the many departments of knowledge that were now explored a new spirit of independence was displayed, but as yet literary activity in France was turned chiefly to imaginative literature or to departments of serious literature very remote from theological or political revolution. The two great works of Montesquieu—‘The Causes of the Decline of the Roman Republic,’ which appeared in 1734, and ‘The Spirit of the Laws,’ which appeared in 1748—were books to teach the teachers, but certainly not to inflame the passions of men; and most of the writings of Voltaire during the same period could have given little or no legitimate offence. In addition to his ‘Letters on the English’ it was during these years that he produced his ‘Henriade’ and several of his other poems, several of his noblest dramas, his popular exposition of the philosophy of Newton, and his ‘History of Charles XII.,’ and at this time also he composed, wholly or in part, though he did not yet publish, his ‘History of Lewis XIV.,’ his ‘History of Manners,’ and that shameful work of genius, his ‘Pucelle.’ During the fifteen fruitful and happy years from 1734 to 1749, which he spent chiefly at Cirey with Madame du Chatelet, he was largely occupied with pursuits that were exceedingly remote from revolution. One of his great objects was to introduce into France the English habit of burying the dead outside the limits of towns and away from centres of population. Another was to diffuse the practice of inoculation. He wrote a scientific memoir on the nature of fire, and another on the motive forces, and he occupied himself keenly with geometry, and with a comparison of the philosophies of Descartes, Newton, Leibnitz, and Euler.3
He had already found how impossible it was for a man of letters to live unmolest ed in France. Immediately after the death of Lewis XIV. he had been confined for nearly eleven months in the Bastille on a false charge of having written a satire on the memory of that prince. In 1725, having attempted to resent an outrageous insult by the Chevalier de Rohan Chabot, he was again arbitrarily imprisoned and then exiled from France. On his return he was refused permission to print his tragedy on ‘The Death of Cæsar,’ because he had treated Brutus with respect. He was exiled from Paris because in his ‘Elegy on the Death of Lecouvreur’ he had censured the bigotry which, on account of her profession, denied that great actress Christian burial. His ‘Letters on the English,’ though a most temperate and truthful description of the tendencies of English thought and character, were burnt by the public executioner. His ‘History of Charles XII.’ was printed by permission, but the permission was afterwards withdrawn, and he was obliged to go to Holland to print his ‘Elements of the Philosophy of Newton,’ as the French Government refused permission to print a work which was opposed to the system of Descartes. The only liberty for which he at this time really cared, was a very moderate amount of liberty of thought and writing, and he was extremely anxious to place himself under the protection and patronage of the Court. In consequence of the opera ballet of ‘The Princess of Navarre,’ which was played before the King, and through the favour of Madame de Pompadour, he for a time succeeded; he was made Gentleman of the Court and historiographer to the King, and was shortly after elected to a seat in the French Academy, purchasing his success by a shameful profession of his attachment to the Catholic faith and to the Jesuits. He was profuse in his flatteries to the King and the King's mistresses, and he dedicated his ‘Tragedy of Mahomet’ to Pope Benedict XIV. and received from the Pope a complimentary letter.
He soon, however, fell into disfavour with the French Court. Voltaire indeed could flatter grossly; he could lie shamelessly; he had no scruples in baffling tyrannical laws by disavowing or denying his works, and in professing opinions which he did not hold, with all the solemnities of a religion which he heartily despised; but a life of continued hypocrisy and reticence was impossible to his nature. To think and write freely; to utter every thought that passed through the most fertile, brilliant, petulant, and capricious of human brains, was with him an imperative need, and he soon found that he could only attain it in a foreign land. After his journey to Berlin and his famous quarrel with Frederick, he had a long period of hesitation, but he at last resolved to retire to Switzerland. He was then past sixty, but his energies were as powerful and his intellect was as youthful and as buoyant as when he had visited England. He had now wealth and a real independence, and, casting aside nearly all other pleasures and ambitions, he threw himself into the task of his life with an industry and a fertility that have scarcely ever been equalled. To this period belong many of those works which are among the most enduring monuments of French literature. To this period belong the noble efforts in favour of the family of the murdered Calas and of many other victims of ecclesiastical or judicial persecution, which constitute the chief moral glory of his life;1 and to this period also belong his systematic and persistent attacks upon the Christian faith. He assailed it with the most fiery impetuosity for nearly twenty years; sometimes by serious argument and in works of considerable value, but chiefly by showers of anonymous pamphlets, lampoons, dialogues, parodies, or letters, which were printed for the most part under false names and in foreign printing presses, but were eagerly bought and read throughout France. At the same time he maintained a vast correspondence with the leading writers in Paris, and it was his main object to combine them in a great and systematic attempt to sap the creed, which he believed to be the root of the superstition and the intolerance of France.
French literature had never been so brilliant as in the second half of the eighteenth century. Buffon, Diderot, D'Alembert, Rousseau, Duclos, Condillac, Helvétius, Holbach, Raynal, Condorcet, Mably, and many others adorned it, and the ‘Encyclopædia,’ which was begun in 1751 under the direction of Diderot, became the focus of an intellectual influence which has rarely been equalled. The name and idea were taken from a work published by Ephraim Chambers in Dublin, in 1728. A noble preliminary discourse was written by D'Alembert; and all the best pens in France were enlisted in the enterprise, which was constantly encouraged and largely assisted by Voltaire. Twice it was suppressed by authority, but the interdict was again raised. Popular favour now ran with an irresistible force in favour of the philosophers, and the work was brought to its conclusion in 1771.
This is not the place to estimate the immense service rendered by the French writers of this time to physical science, to jurisprudence, to political economy, to nearly every branch of human knowledge. It is sufficient here to mention that almost the whole of this literature was opposed to the recognised religion of the country, though the writers differed greatly both in the degree of their hostility and in their own positive opinions. Voltaire and Rousseau were firm believers in the truths of natural religion, and Voltaire, while incessantly attacking revealed religion with every weapon of argument, eloquence, invective, ridicule, and buffoonery, has left many admirable pages in defence of the existence of God, the freedom of the will, the eternal distinction between right and wrong, and the absolute necessity of religious belief to the well-being of society. But Holbach, Diderot, and their followers, were simple atheists, and atheism had never been advocated so boldly or unequivocally as in France between 1758 and 1776. The treatise of Helvétius on ‘Mind,’ which appeared in 1758, and which traced the whole superiority of man over the animals to the structure of the human hand, and the ‘System of Nature’ by Holbach, which appeared in 1770, and which was perhaps the most elaborate defence of atheism ever published, were welcomed with enthusiasm; a system of metaphysics which reduced all knowledge to the impressions of the senses, and a passion for physical science which directed attention mainly to the external world, strengthened the tendency, and there is overwhelming evidence that at the eve of the Revolution almost all the guiding intellects and the immense majority of the educated classes of France, however they might be divided on the question of atheism or deism, were total disbelievers in the Church which was alone recognised by law, and which was endowed with vast power, privileges, and wealth. There were still, indeed, men of splendid talents in its ranks, but they were men who had embraced or been forced into the ecclesiastical profession as a mere lucrative calling, and were utterly indifferent to its doctrines. Such a man was Talleyrand, the Bishop of Autun, and such were the Abbé St. Pierre, the Abbé Raynal, the Abbé de Condillac, the Abbé Morellet, the Abbé Siéyès, the Abbé Deschamps. But since the destruction of Jansenism, all the independent characters, and all the honest intellect of France, seemed alienated from the Christian faith. Fashion, which in no other country was so powerful, was on the same side. The most brilliant salons of Paris, almost the whole body of the Court aristocracy,1 a great part even of the higher clergy,2 had caught the prevailing tone. Among the poorer aristocracy, who were still thinly scattered over the country districts, and especially among the legal or parliamentary nobility, there might still be found a strong attachment to the old decorous manners, and to the forms of old belief, and there was still much real and sober religious life among the country curés; but the utter absence of any considerable literary effort, either serious or satirical, to stem the tide, showed how completely the philosophical party had conquered or absorbed the intellect of France. The Desfontaines, the Frérons, the Palisots, the Linguets, the La Beaumelles, and the Bergiers, the ‘Année littéraire’ and the ‘Journal de Trévoux’ had scarcely any real influence upon opinion, and all the efforts of the enemies of the philosophers have been unable to galvanise them into any semblance of reputation.
The significance of these facts is very great, but it is much increased when we remember that the Church which was so discredited, so corrupt, and at the same time so intellectually despicable, was a persecuting Church connected with a persecuting government. I have elsewhere described the atrocious provisions of the law that was made in 1724 against the French Protestants, and four years later Fleury issued a declaration condemning to prison or to the galleys anyone who printed anything in France contrary to papal bulls.3 In the full blaze of the civilisation of the eighteenth century, hundreds of French Protestants were condemned to the galleys or to long periods of imprisonment for the crime of attending their religious worship; women were flogged; children were torn from their parents, and more than one Protestant pastor was executed.1 In 1757 a new edict was issued threatening with death anyone who wrote, printed, or sold any work attacking religion or the royal authority.2 Up to the period of the Revolution nothing could be legally printed in France, and no book could be imported into France without Government authorisation, and in 1789 there were no less than 169 persons employed in the censorship of books.3 The severities of the Government were exercised not only against books on religion, or government, or finance, but even against books relating to the most abstruse branches of physics and metaphysics.4 One of Voltaire's printers was condemned to nine years in the galleys, and eight printers and binders employed in the same printing office were condemned to the pillory and three years of banishment.5 During the whole of the reign of Lewis XV. there was scarcely a work of importance which was not burnt or suppressed, while the greater number of the writers who were at this time the special and almost the only glory of France, were imprisoned, banished, or fined. Their works, however, circulated far and wide, and in the early years of Lewis XVI. a more liberal administration and the overwhelming pressure of public opinion broke down the persecution. Still the toleration was precarious, intermittent, and unsanctioned by law, and the Church was openly hostile to it. In 1770 the whole body of the French bishops drew up a memoir to the King ‘on the dangerous consequences of liberty of thinking and printing.’6 In 1780 they presented a new memoir protesting against the admission of Protestants to public employments, and against any relaxation of the laws against heresy, and at the same time strenuously demanding an increased severity against anti-Christian writings.7 Up to the very eve of the French Revolution the marriages of French Protestants were invalid, and unrecognised by law; and when this scandalous abuse was at last abolished in 1788 by Brienne, his measure giving non-Catholics the rights of citizenship in France was carried with difficulty through the Parliament, in the face of a furious opposition raised by an important section of the French clergy.1
The spirit of reform had twice appeared in France associated with strong positive Christian beliefs, and with a code of severe and even austere morality, and twice by the assistance of the State the French Church had succeeded in crushing it. She had driven from the land the Huguenots, who represented the very flower of the industrial population. She had humbled and suppressed the Jansenists, who included the finest intellects and purest characters within her pale. A new enemy was now at her doors. The very foundations of Christian and even Theistic belief were giving way, and the code of morals was by no means untouched. The hostility between the intellectual classes and the clergy, the collision between legal authorities and public opinion, and the almost total destruction of Catholic belief among educated Frenchmen, had a real and a considerable part in preparing the Revolution. All respect and reverence had ebbed away from one of the great institutions of the country. The empire of authority, prescription, and tradition over the minds of men was broken, and it became easy, when the storm of Revolution began, to turn the movement against Church property.
At the same time, if the religious movement had stood alone, it is exceedingly improbable that it would have led to any sanguinary convulsion. History furnishes us with several examples of periods of great religious decadence, and it abundantly shows that such convulsions are by no means their natural accompaniments. The evils to be feared at such a time are of another kind—the decline of morals when the dogmas with which they had been associated are abandoned, a relaxation of energy, a material, selfish, epicurean cast both of thought and character. The purest and noblest blood has been shed like water in connection with religious beliefs; but it has not been shed by the sceptic, but by the believer. Mohammedan fanaticism, the Crusades, the massacres of the Albigenses and of St. Bartholomew, the long religious wars that desolated Europe, the savage persecutions of Protestants by Catholics, of Catholics by Protestants, and of witches by both, were due to a spirit which was very different from that of Voltaire. Regicide has found its strongest advocates in the writings of Jesuit theologians, and the fanaticism and heroism of revolt have never been more fully displayed than among the Huguenots of France, the Anabaptists of Germany, and the Covenanters of Scotland. But there is certainly no natural or necessary affinity between free-thinking in religion, and democracy in politics. In England, Hobbes, who was the first very considerable freethinker, constructed the political philosophy which is beyond all others favourable to despotism. Bolingbroke was the most brilliant leader of the Tory party. Hume was the best exponent of the Tory view of English history, and all his sympathies were with a benevolent despotism. Gibbon, as a quiet Tory member, steadily supported the American policy of North; and when the French Revolution broke out, his judgment of it was precisely similar to that of Burke. In France, Bayle wrote with horror of the democratic and seditious principles disseminated among French Huguenots, and there is no reason to believe that the great writers of the period of the ‘Encyclopædia’ were animated by a different spirit. Two only, Grimm and Raynal, survived till the Revolution. The first left France in disgust. The second wrote an eloquent letter, denouncing with the utmost detestation the events that were occurring. Of all the great French writers of the eighteenth century, Rousseau had the largest influence on the Revolution, and among those writers Rousseau was in religious matters one of the most conservative.
Voltaire in his theory of government was essentially monarchical. In a writer who was so voluminous, and at the same time so infinitely mobile and various, a perfect consistency cannot be expected; but in spite of occasional and warm eulogies of the constitutions of England, Holland, and Geneva, this aspect of his teaching is too evident to be overlooked. His admiration of the English Constitution was mainly based upon the freedom of thought and writing which it secured, and he seems to have been very slightly impressed with its Parliament. The whole tendency of his mind was to favour administrative reform rather than organic change. His political writings display most eminently the admirable good sense and moderation of opinion, and the no less admirable good nature and humanity, which amid all his caprices, petulances, and meannesses, never wholly abandoned him; but they are quite as remarkable for what they omit, as for what they contain. He desired a complete abolition of the laws restricting or destroying the liberty of the press; of the laws against witches, and of the laws of religious persecution. It might not, he acknowledged, be prudent or necessary to admit Protestants to municipal or other dignities, or to permit them to build public churches; but their marriages should be fully legal; they should be as free as other citizens in educating their children, and inheriting property, and as long as they remained peaceful subjects, they should enjoy the full protection of the law. The penal code he desired to see thoroughly reformed. He advocated the abolition of torture, of mutilation, of all forms of agonising or prolonged death, and also a great restriction in the number of capital offences. He wished the extravagant penalties which French law decreed against sacrilege to be mitigated, and the law which insulted the body, and confiscated the property of the suicide, to be repealed. No one wrote better on the folly of punishing murder and robbery by the same capital penalty, and thus making it the direct interest of the robber to assassinate his victim; on the barbarity of making confiscation of goods an element of punishment, and thus beggaring the children for the crime of the father; on the injustice of keeping accused persons before their trial in solitary confinement, and restricting their right of examining their witnesses; on the evils of the excessive intricacy and diversity of French civil law, which varied in almost every province; on the necessity of improving the administration and condition of the prisons. Turning to other subjects, he wished to abolish the sale of offices, to diminish the taxes on articles of first necessity, to equalise taxation, to repeal the restrictions on the internal commerce of corn, to put an end to the enforced idleness of many Church holidays, to restrict the power of the priests in prescribing degrading penances, and excessive abstinences. He wrote with great fervour against the serfdom which still lingered in Franche-Comté, and some other parts of France. He defended the right of the serfs in the Jura against their monastic oppressors, and he welcomed with enthusiasm the administration and the reforms of Turgot.
His keen and luminous intellect judged with admirable precision most of the popular delusions of his time. He exposed with great force the common error which confounds all wealth with the precious metals. He wrote against sumptuary laws. He refuted Rousseau's doctrine of the evil of all luxury. He had little sympathy with the prevailing tendency to aggrandise immeasurably the functions of the State, and he protested against the wild notions of equality that were coming into fashion. What should be aimed at, he wrote, is not ‘the absurd and impossible equality that would confound the servant and the master, the workman and the magistrate, the pleader and the judge. It is rather equality such as exists in Switzerland, where every citizen depends only on the law, which maintains the liberty of the weak against the ambition of the strong.’ ‘Men are essentially equal, but they are intended to play different parts on the stage of Life.’ At the same time, while strongly maintaining the necessity and expediency of different orders and ranks, he wrote with admirable wisdom about the excessive division of classes that prevailed both in France and Germany.1 ‘A merchant hears his profession so often spoken of with contempt that he is foolish enough to blush for it himself. Yet who is the more useful to the State—a well-powdered nobleman who knows exactly when the King rises and when he goes to bed, and who gives himself airs of grandeur while playing the part of a slave in the antechamber of a minister, or a merchant who enriches his country, sends his orders to India and Egypt, and contributes to the happiness of the world?’ He spoke with admiration of the custom in England—a custom, which, he says, was passing too much out of fashion—of younger sons of the nobility going into commerce.1 He mentions that when Lord Townshend was Minister of the Crown, he had a brother who was a merchant in the City, and that, while Lord Oxford was governing England, his brother lived and died contentedly as a factor at Aleppo, and he predicted in a few admirable sentences the necessary growth of the commercial classes. ‘The gains of commerce having increased, and the revenues from public offices having diminished in real value, there is less wealth than formerly among the great, and more among the middle class, and this in itself diminishes the distance between men. There was once no resource for the small except to serve the great. Now industry has opened a thousand ways which were not known a hundred years ago.’2
And in perfect accordance with these ways of judging the present, were his views about the past. No previous writer can compare with him in the wideness and justness of his conception of history, and even now no historian can read without profit his essays on the subject. No one before had so strongly urged that history should not be treated as a collection of pictures or anecdotes relating to Courts and battles, but should be made a record and explanation of the true development of nations, of the causes of their growth and decay, of their characteristic virtues and vices, of the changes that pass over their laws, customs, opinions, social and economical conditions, and over the relative importance and well-being of their different classes.
Many of these views have so completely triumphed that they have become commonplace, but it is difficult to over-estimate the services of the great man who did the most, when they were yet unrecognised or contested, to popularise and to defend them. But beyond these Voltaire refused to go, and he had not the smallest sympathy with democratic ideas. Popular representation, and government by majorities, were completely foreign to his thoughts, and at a time when despotism was the prevailing form of government throughout Europe his strongest sympathies were with royal authority. He would probably have agreed with the saying of Plato,3 that when a young, virtuous, enlightened and magnanimous despot is on the throne, and when he has found a great legislator to serve him, God himself can do little more for the happiness of the State. The power of the Sovereign was in his eyes the one efficient barrier against ecclesiastical encroachments, and the chief instrument in effecting reform. ‘Who would have thought,’ he wrote to D'Alembert in 1765, ‘that the cause of kings would be that of philosophers? but yet it is evident that the sages who refuse to admit two powers are the chief support of the royal authority.’1 ‘The greatest evil that can befall a state,’ he elsewhere said, ‘is a contested legislative power. The happiest years of the monarchy have been those of Henry IV., Lewis XIV. and Lewis XV. when these kings governed by themselves. There ought never to be two powers in a state. … The presence of philosophers is of great use to a prince and to a state, … for philosophers destroy superstition, which is always the enemy of princes.’2 Even on the rare occasions when he leaned towards a Republican Government, he showed himself utterly opposed to the idea of universal suffrage and political equality. ‘There never,’ he once wrote, ‘was a perfect government, for men are always influenced by passions, and if they had no passions they would need no government. The most tolerable of all governments is undoubtedly the republican, because it is that which places men most in their position of natural equality. Every father of a family ought to be master in his own house and not in the house of his neighbour; as a country is composed of many houses and many landed properties attached to them, it is contradictory that a single man should be master of these houses and of these properties, and it is natural that each master should have a voice in deciding on the welfare of the society. But should those who possess neither house nor land in the society have a voice? They have no more right to it than a clerk paid by merchants has to regulate their commerce, but they may be made partners if they have rendered some special service or have paid for their partnership.’3
In general, however, Voltaire was quite indifferent to representative government, provided the Sovereign regulated his conduct by fixed law, gave religious and intellectual liberty to his people, and favoured administrative reform. Democratic government was equally repugnant to his judgment and to his tastes. All his leanings were towards rank and culture and refinement; and while sincerely desiring to improve the material condition of the masses of mankind, he had very little genuine sympathy with them, and an utter disbelief in their capacities. He could not forgive Shakespeare for his close contact and sympathy with common types of life and character, and for his complete disregard of the conventional elegancies and stateliness of the French stage; and his ignoble sneers at the humble origin of the Maid of Orleans, and at the poor relations of Rousseau, disclose a feeling which was expressed in innumerable passages in his confidential letters. ‘We have never,’ he once wrote, ‘pretended to enlighten shoemakers and servants.’ ‘The true public is always a minority. The rest is the vulgar. Work for the little public.’ ‘What the populace requires is guidance and not instruction—it is not worthy of the latter.’ ‘It is not the day-labourer, but the good bourgeois who needs instruction.’1 No English Tory indeed, of the eighteenth century, can have believed less in popular enlightenment, and especially in popular government, than this brilliant Frenchman. There is in all great writers, in addition to their definite teaching, a certain tone which runs through all they write, and greatly determines their influence on the world. That of Voltaire is very clearly marked. It is a mixture of scepticism, humanity, and practical good sense; with very little reverence and elevation, and without a tinge of mysticism or fanaticism. Aiming at no high or impracticable ideal; turning away from self-analysis, self-denial, and useless speculation; meeting the perplexities of life with a smile of high-bred epicurean banter; seeking in all things for clear ideas and practical and tangible benefits, he accepted cheerfully the facts of life, applied the touchstone of his criticism to all the beliefs that were around him, and laboured steadily, within the limits of his ideals and of his sympathies, to make the world a wiser, happier, and better place than he found it. It is a philosophy which will always be that of a great part, and by no means the worst part of mankind, but it is not a philosophy which produces either passion, heroism, or Utopia, and no one who was thoroughly pervaded with the Voltairian spirit was ever a genuine Revolutionist.
Voltaire must indeed always stand out as the most truly representative figure of that portion of the eighteenth century which preceded the Revolution, and he was not less representative in his limitations than in his qualities. In the profound insight and the power of pursuing long trains of connected thought which constitute a great philosopher; in the higher imaginative gifts of a great poet; in the moral depth, purity, and seriousness of a great character; in the strong passions and sympathies which appeal to the deepest feelings in human nature, he was very deficient, but the world never saw a man more fitted to popularise great masses of obscure knowledge, and to influence widely and variously the opinions of men. Untiring industry, an extraordinary variety of interests and aptitudes, a judgment at once sound, moderate, and independent, a rare power of seizing in every subject the essential arguments or facts, a disposition to take no old opinions on trust and to leave no new opinions unexamined, combined in him with the most extraordinary literary talent. Never, perhaps, was there an intellect at once so luminous, versatile, and flexible; which produced so much; which could deal with such a vast range of difficult subjects without being ever obscure, tangled, or dull. What he wrote was often superficial in thought and knowledge, and marred by great faults of temper and character, but it was always transparently clear, almost always brilliant and graceful, admirably proportioned and admirably arranged. He had the manners and some of the tastes of Court society; his wit was almost as conspicuous in conversation as in his writings, and though he was looked on with extreme disfavour by the rulers of France, he exercised a great influence on the chief sovereigns of his time. Frederick of Prussia, Catherine of Russia, Joseph II. of Austria, Gustavus III. of Sweden, Christian VII. of Denmark, Frederick of Hesse, and Stanislaus of Poland were among his friends, correspondents, or admirers; and chiefly through their influence a new spirit of enlightenment and tolerance began to pervade the legislation of Europe.
I have already mentioned the immense steps which had at this time been taken in the direction of religious toleration.1 It had been formally recognised, not only in the chief Protestant countries, but also in the wide dominions of the Empress of Russia. It had been practically admitted through the Austrian dominions. Even in Italy and Spain the power of the persecutor was effectually bridled, and the great persecuting order of the Jesuits was expelled from most European countries and finally suppressed by the Pope. In the half-century before the Revolution measures were taken formally abolishing torture in Prussia, Russia, Austria, Poland, Switzerland, Hesse, Tuscany, and Sweden; where it was not abolished it fell into general disuse, and over a great part of Europe the penal codes were revised and mitigated in accordance with the principles of Beccaria and Voltaire.2 The remnants of serfdom, and of other feudal oppressions, were at the same time slowly but steadily disappearing. In Italy especially, where the philosophical movement was admirably represented by the writings of Beccaria, Filangieri, Genovesi, and Galanti, a great movement had long been in progress for the purpose of abolishing feudal and mediæval privileges relating to land or to exemptions from taxation. It had been begun as early as 1723 by Victor Amadeus in Piedmont. It was continued by the Lorraine princes in Tuscany, and it was soon carried out in Naples, Sicily, and Savoy.3 In Germany serfdom and many feudal obligations still existed very widely up to the time of the Revolution,1 but the State serfs in Pomerania had been enfranchised as early as 1719.2 A similar measure was carried out on the State domains in Austria,3 while in Denmark the last traces of villenage were abolished by royal authority.4 In Poland, though serfdom continued, it had become, under the patronage of the King, a sort of fashion among the more enlightened nobles to give freedom to their peasants, and in the words of an excellent observer, ‘The peasantry of the North were travelling fast towards perfect and universal liberty.’5 The exclusiveness of rank was at the same time diminishing. Never before, except in the small republics of Italy, had commercial and mercantile interests occupied so great a place upon the Continent of Europe; and in France especially, the immense number of the new nobility recruited from these classes and from the professions, was one of the most characteristic features of the time. Men like Colbert and Louvois and Vergennes and Sartine and Necker, whose families had very recently risen from the humblest positions, directed in a great measure the Government, while the social influence of literature was continually increasing.
The changed spirit I have described was everywhere perceptible in the laws. It was still more perceptible in their administration, and the immediate impulse of reform all over Europe appeared to come from the sovereigns. The language of Condorcet in describing the condition of continental Europe in the period between the death of Descartes and the French Revolution, is very remarkable. In France, Spain, Hungary, and Bohemia, he says, the feeble traces of political liberty that had existed had disappeared, but these more or less real losses were more than compensated by the destruction of arbitrary aristocracies. The quality of man was more respected. Royal despotism destroyed the more grievous oppressions and humiliations of feudalism. A new spirit of equality passed into the laws. A kind of despotism arose which had been hitherto unknown in Europe. It was almost absolute by law, but it was at the same time restrained by opinion, directed by enlightened views, and mitigated by a regard to its own interest, and it often contributed largely to the increase of riches, industry, and instruction, and sometimes even to that of civil liberty. Manners were softened by the decay of prejudices; by the growth of the industrial and commercial spirit; by the horror which the recollection of the religious wars had produced; by the diffusion of philosophic ideas of equality and humanity. Religious intolerance still lingered in the Statute-book, but it was now regarded as a matter of human prudence, a necessary homage to popular prejudices, a precaution against the effervescence of popular passions. It had lost its old character of ferocity and fanaticism. It took milder forms, and had of late years greatly diminished. Everywhere, and on all subjects, though slowly and perhaps reluctantly, the practice of governments has followed the march of opinion and even the ideas of the philosopher.1
This was the nature of the reform that Voltaire and his followers desired, and the revolution to which they looked forward was a peaceful and a happy destruction of superstition, barbarous laws, and feudal oppression, initiated and supported by royal authority. In a little treatise called the ‘Voyage of Reason,’ which he wrote as late as 1774, he enumerates with exultation the many and great reforms which had been accomplished during the century, and boasts that the spirit of enlightenment and toleration had descended upon all the chief Courts in Europe, and was not unknown even in the Vatican.2 ‘Everything I see,’ he once wrote, ‘scatters the seeds of a revolution which will indubitably arrive, and which I shall not have the happiness to witness.’ … ‘The young are indeed happy, for they will see great things.’3 ‘The general weariness of Christianity,’ wrote his follower Grimm, ‘which is manifested in all parts, and especially in Catholic States, the disquiet which is vaguely agitating the minds of men, and leading them to attack religious and political abuses, is a phenomenon as characteristic of our century as the spirit of reform was of the sixteenth, and it foreshadows an imminent and inevitable revolution. One may say that France is the centre of this revolution, which will at least have this advantage over the preceding ones, that it will be effected without costing any blood.’1
It will appear, I think, from the foregoing considerations that the influence of Voltaire and his followers in producing the Revolution, though real, has been greatly exaggerated. The first important signs of political opposition, indeed, are not to be found in the writings of the philosophers, but in those conflicts between the Court and the Parliaments which fill a great part of the French history of the first seventy years of the eighteenth century.
The Parliament of Paris and the twelve provincial parliaments, which at this time existed in France, were not representative and legislative assemblies. They were judicial and magisterial bodies—High Courts of Justice consisting of the most eminent lawyers nominated by the Crown. They were divided into different chambers, and they exercised the highest jurisdiction in their several provinces, but they also exercised two functions which were of a political nature. They had a right of remonstrating against the edicts of the King, and they claimed the much more important power of a veto upon legislation. When the King issued an edict he sent it to the Parliament of Paris to be registered; it only acquired the force of law after this registration, and the Parliament claimed the right of delaying or withholding its sanction. This power, however, was contested, and the King possessed an authority, which, when fully exerted, completely annihilated it. He could go down to the Parliament, and by holding what was called ‘a bed of justice,’ could by his simple order compel the Parliament to register his edict on pain of banishment or exile. But such a measure was an extreme, and generally an unpopular one, and the fact that every law required the sanction, and was exposed to the criticism, of an independent judicial body, had a real importance in mitigating the despotism of the Government. The King was able to override the wishes of the Parliament; but if that body was supported by strong public opinion; if any circumstances had contributed to weaken the authority of the Crown; and especially if a public loan depending for its success on the credit of the Government was required, the parliamentary opposition became very serious.1
The political powers of the Parliament had passed through several phases, which are not altogether free from controversy and obscurity. At first, and for a long period, the registration of edicts was probably nothing more than a legal form attesting their authenticity, but carrying with it no further power or responsibility. Under Lewis XI., however, the Parliament of Paris began, before registering edicts, to make remonstrances or observations about them to the King, and this grew into a recognised right. The dignity of the Parliament was much increased under Lewis XII., when the Court of Peers, drawn from the highest nobility, and exercising the highest jurisdiction, was united with it;2 and during the civil wars, and especially during the Fronde, its political power and activity were enormously increased. The strong government of Lewis XIV. reduced it again to complete political impotence. It was forbidden to remonstrate. It was at last allowed to make representations, but only eight days after it had duly registered the royal edict, and it was now mainly confined to its judicial functions. But in the weak Governments that followed the death of Lewis XIV. the Parliament regained its authority. It annulled the will of the late King; it settled the Regency, and it soon made itself a most powerful organ of opinion. The sale of offices had given it a great independence, for its members now held permanent and hereditary posts which they had purchased, and which they regarded as their absolute property.3 The Parliament consisted chiefly of men who had sprung from the richest families of the third estate; but it included some who belonged or were allied to the first families in France, while its influence extended to the subordinate law courts and to all the humbler members of the legal profession.1 With the growth of industry and commerce that profession had been rising rapidly in importance, and all over France it looked up to the Parliament of Paris as its supreme representative.
A body so constituted, so widely connected, and with such great powers of obstructing and directing the administration of justice, only needed a popular cause to be very formidable. It found it in the dispute between the Jesuits and the Jansenists, when the Court supported the former, and the Parliament, representing a great body of public opinion, constituted itself the champion of the latter. For the first time for many years there was a direct, open, and serious opposition to the Crown. The immediate cause was the famous Bull Unigenitus, which had been promulgated at the inspiration of the Jesuits, in 1713, condemning one hundred and one propositions in a work of the Jansenist Quesnel, and among others several relating to free grace, which appeared almost literally extracted from St. Paul and St. Augustine. The dispute raged incessantly from the time of the promulgation of the Bull; and in 1730 and the two following years, it took a very acute form. An Archbishop of Paris attempted to compel his clergy formally to accept the Bull, and he excommunicated some who resisted. They consulted the lawyers, and forty Paris advocates drew up a memorial, inviting an appeal to the Parliament, and at the same time containing some sentences which, in a despotic monarchy, were deemed absolutely revolutionary. ‘By the constitution of the kingdom,’ they said, ‘the Parliaments are the Senate of the nation; the sovereign depositors of the laws of the State; the representatives of the public authority.’ They have supreme jurisdiction over all the members of the State. No one has a right to place himself above their decisions. ‘Laws are essentially conventions between those who govern, and those who are governed.’
These doctrines were censured by the Council of State as attacking the first principle of the French monarchy, which is, that the whole supreme power rests in the person of the King. The advocates in their reply acknowledged this principle; but they still maintained that by the fundamental laws of the kingdom the Parliaments had a right of judging on appeal abuses of ecclesiastical authority. The lawyers of Paris and Rouen fully supported their colleagues, and the quarrel was envenomed by the appearance in the arena of several Bishops on one side, and of the Parliament of Paris on the other. The Parliament ordered the suppression of a number of Episcopal pastorals denying its jurisdiction and censuring the advocates, and in September 1731 it issued a decree asserting in the very words of old French laws that ‘the temporal power is independent of all other powers, that it alone has the right of restraining the subjects of the King, and that the ministers of the Church are accountable to the Parliament, under the authority of the monarch, for the exercise of their jurisdiction.’
Cardinal Fleury at this time directed the administration of France, and he deeply resented these proceedings. By the advice of his minister and of his Council, the King exiled eleven of the recalcitrant advocates; annulled the recent decree of Parliament; forbade the Parliament to engage in any discussion on ecclesiastical questions, or on the limits between the temporal and ecclesiastical power, and refused to see the members when they went to remonstrate against this restriction of their rights. On the other hand, the advocates of Paris refused to plead in the law courts until their exiled colleagues were recalled, and the members of the Parliament threatened to resign their offices, and thus stop the whole administration of justice if their jurisdiction and liberty were curtailed. They were summoned to Compiègne, and sternly rebuked by the King; but they pursued their course in defiance of the royal commands. They censured a new pastoral issued by the Archbishop of Paris, and forbade its distribution. The King at once annulled the order, and caused several of the offending members to be arrested and exiled. One hundred and fifty magistrates then resigned, leaving the Parliament House amid the acclamations of an immense crowd. Threats of degradation, exile, and confiscation, were freely employed by the Court; but in July 1732 a kind of truce was made, and the Parliament consented to resume its functions.
The quarrel, however, almost immediately revived. The Court again attempted to prevent the Parliament from discussing ecclesiastical matters, and it determined to limit its power both of appeal and remonstrance. A bed of justice held to register a declaration with this object, was pronounced by the Parliament to be invalid on account of a technical flaw, and the Minister at once replied by exiling no less than 139 magistrates. Public opinion was now highly excited; the administration of justice was seriously impeded, and as the war of 1733 was just breaking out, Fleury feared a continuance of intestine troubles. The sentence of exile against the magistrates was accordingly recalled in November 1733. The declaration limiting the rights of the Parliament was suspended, and that body having for the present substantially triumphed, the conflict was for a time terminated.
Barbier, who has so fully related the proceedings of this time, notices that ‘the good City of Paris was Jansenist from head to foot.’ The Parisians in general, he admits, knew nothing, and cared nothing, about the theological distinctions that were at issue; but they detested Rome and the Jesuits, and they vehemently applauded the resistance of the magistrates. A political doctrine analogous to the Gallican theory of Catholicism now came into fashion. ‘As the whole Church,’ it was said, ‘is above the Pope, so the nation is above the King.’ Like James II. of England, Lewis XV. had contrived to throw into opposition the political forces which were naturally the strongest bulwarks of the throne. The Gallican form of Catholicism, while extremely jealous of Roman meddling, exalted the duty of passive obedience to the sovereign as highly as the Church of England, and on this point there was no difference between the Gallican and the Jansenist. A Parliament of magistrates invested with high judicial duties, and holding by right of purchase hereditary offices which conveyed the privileges of nobility, was an essentially aristocratic and conservative body. It had no sympathy with the school of freethinking which had arisen, and Voltaire's ‘Letters on the English’ had been one of the very numerous books which the Parliament of Paris had ordered to be burnt. But by the force of circumstances, and in the absence of any real representative system, this body had now become the chief bulwark against despotism, and the best exponent of the popular feeling, and there was a great desire to aggrandise its power. A memoir was circulated arguing that the French Parliaments were coeval with the monarchy, and rightful representatives of the people, and that the power claimed by the King's Council over them was an usurpation. ‘The business of a sovereign,’ it continued, ‘is to maintain, and not to destroy the laws. This is his oath—this is the contract which he has made with his people. As he cannot make laws without the concurrence of Parliament, he ought to acquiesce in its refusals or remonstrances. If the magistrates abandoned their right of resistance, they would be false to their duties.’1
The peace of 1738, giving Lorraine to France, threw some credit over the Government of Lewis XV.; but it was almost the last gleam of success in his long and ignoble reign. During the war that preceded it, the conflicts between the Court and Parliament were suspended; but they revived in the last years of the life of Fleury, and again after a few years' interval, in 1747 and the following years. The questions at issue still related chiefly to the limits of ecclesiastical and temporal jurisdiction, and the right of Parliament as a judicial body to control the abuses of ecclesiastical power; but the Parliament also made some real attempts to check, by repeated remonstrances against new taxes, the financial ruin which was approaching. The tax known as ‘the tenth’ had been imposed as a war tax, and an attempt to continue it in time of peace caused violent and general discontent, and was resisted by several provincial Parliaments. A modified form known as ‘the twentieth’ was at last adopted; but it was only sanctioned by the Parliament at the express command of the King, and it was only collected with great difficulty, and sometimes by force of arms.2 From 1748 to 1758, discontent rose in Paris almost to the point of revolution. The popularity of the King had totally gone. He was sunk in the lowest and most degraded vice, almost indifferent to public affairs, and swayed to and fro by a succession of mistresses, and the extravagance of his Court was unchecked, while the finances of the country were all but ruined, and while its industry was crushed by excessive and unequal taxation. The peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 was extremely unpopular, for it terminated a costly war without obtaining for France a single advantage for the sacrifices she had made.
An attempt to put an end to the exemption from taxation which the clergy enjoyed, was resisted and failed, and the fanaticism of De Beaumont, who had been made Archbishop of Paris in 1746, fanned the Jansenist quarrel into a flame. He ordered his priests to refuse the Sacrament, even in the agony of death, to any one who could not show a ticket of confession, proving that he had accepted the Bull Unigenitus, and he also endeavoured to obtain a complete control over the hospitals of Paris. On both points he was resisted by the Parliament. Priests who had refused the Sacraments under these circumstances were prosecuted, imprisoned, or exiled. The Government interposed in their favour, and in several cases annulled their condemnation, and there were vehement recriminations between the Court and the Parliaments in which public opinion was unquestionably with the latter. Supported by the provincial Parliaments, the Parliament of Paris, in 1752, formally condemned the tickets of confession, forbade any ecclesiastics to refuse the Sacraments because those tickets were not produced, ordered its decree to be posted at the corners of every street in Paris, burnt a number of sermons and episcopal mandates, accused the Archbishop of Paris of ‘schismatic manœuvres,’ and of disobeying its orders, and even seized on his temporal possessions. The Government in February 1753 interposed by the form called a ‘main levée’ to prevent the confiscation, and ordered the Parliament, by letters patent, to abstain from any further action on the subject. The Parliament refused to register these letters, and declared its determination to resist. In the night of May 8 and 9, 1753, letters of ‘cachet’ were issued, and all the members of the Parliament of Paris, except those who formed the ‘grand chamber,’ were exiled, and ordered to leave Paris in twenty-four hours. The ‘grand chamber’ was the first of the seven chambers into which the Parliament of Paris was divided, and it was hoped that its members, as they consisted of the older magistrates, many of whom received pensions from the Court, would prove flexible. They declared, however, that they shared the sentiments of their colleagues, and they were accordingly exiled to Pontoise, and afterwards to Soissons. The remonstrances drawn up by the Parliament against the invasion of the rights of the civil power by ecclesiastics, and of the rights of Parliament by the Court, were widely circulated, and exercised a great influence on opinion.
The provincial Parliaments supported the Parliament of Paris, and the conflict became continually more bitter. The University of Paris and a number of legal bodies sent deputations congratulating the magistrates on their firmness. Swarms of anonymous or pseudonymous pamphlets and lampoons assailed the Government and the clergy. Seditious placards appeared upon the walls. Immense assemblages attended the funerals of those who had been refused the Sacraments on their deathbeds. Riots broke out in many quarters and numerous arrests were made. A spirit of fierce persecution seemed to animate those in power. Refusals of the Sacraments greatly multiplied. There was a new and severe persecution of Protestants, and a greatly increased stringency in the censorship of the press. For eight nights after the disgrace of the Parliament of Paris, the streets were patrolled by cavalry, and the palace of the archbishop was protected by a large body of soldiers. It was at this time that D'Argenson wrote: ‘The loss of religion in France cannot be attributed to the English philosophy; which has only influenced about a hundred philosophers in Paris, but to the hatred of the priests, which has now risen to excess. The ministers of religion can scarcely show themselves in the streets without being hooted, and all this comes from the Bull Unigenitus and from the disgrace of the Parliament.’1 A royal court established to fulfil the functions of the Parliament had no weight or influence, and words were spoken which seemed to belong to the time of the Revolution. There were rumours that all the Parliaments united would demand the assembly of the States-General to represent authoritatively the whole nation. A bishop of Montauban in 1753, in a pastoral which was suppressed by the Parliament of Toulouse, recalled the history of the conflict between the English Parliament and Charles I., and insinuated that another Parliament might be the means of conducting another king to the scaffold.1 The suppression of the Chatelet, the law court which fulfilled some of the suspended functions of the Parliament, was expected, and D'Argenson relates the prediction of a magistrate, with which he himself agreed, that in that case ‘the shops would at once be closed, barricades would be thrown up in the streets, and in this way the Revolution would begin.’2 ‘Everything,’ wrote that very acute observer in March 1754, ‘is preparing the way for civil war. … It is the priests who are everywhere pushing on these troubles and this disorder. The minds of men are turning to discontent and disobedience, and everything seems moving towards a great revolution, both in religion and government.’3 ‘The evil resulting from our absolute monarchical Government,’ he wrote on another occasion, ‘is persuading all France and all Europe, that it is the worst of Governments. … This opinion advances, rises, strengthens, and may lead to a national revolution;’4 and he predicted forty years before the Revolution actually broke out, that a great diminution of kingly power ‘and even republicanism’ was the probable issue in France.5
The journals of D'Argenson between 1740 and 1756 are full of such predictions, and they paint with a wonderful sagacity the signs of the times. ‘A philosophic wind of free and anti-monarchical government blows upon us—it is passing into the minds of men. … A revolution may be accomplished with less opposition than is supposed, … it may be made by acclamation. … All orders are at once discontented. Everything is combustible. A riot may pass into revolt, and a revolt into a complete Revolution.’ ‘The words “nation” and “State” were never heard so often as now. They were never pronounced under Lewis XIV. There was then no idea corresponding to them. … This comes to us from the Parliament and from the English.’ ‘Our opinions are much influenced by the neighbourhood of England, and opinion governs the world. Who can say whether in the future, despotism will increase or diminish in France? For my part, I look forward to the latter, and even to republicanism. I have seen in my life the respect and love of the people for royalty diminish. Lewis XV. has not known how to govern either as a despot or as a good chief of a republic, and woe to the royal authority when neither course is taken.’ The Government is ‘an extravagant anarchy.’ ‘No firmness, no resolution, no decision of any kind. It is a weathercock blown on in turns by the courtiers who surround it.’ ‘Weakness and submission to ill-directed impulses injure society much more seriously than the most refined malice. This reign is a proof, for with these faults it has produced more evil than the much more tyrannical reigns that preceded it.’1
It will be observed that the whole conflict I have described was almost unconnected with the philosophical, freethinking, and literary movement to which the Revolution has been too largely attributed. It had risen to a great height by the middle of the century before Voltaire had made any serious attack on the Christian faith, before the publication of the ‘Encyclopædia,’ before any of the important writings of Rousseau, Diderot, D'Alembert, Helvétius, or Holbach. At the same time, as Voltaire had truly said, a spirit of inquiry and reasoning, unknown in the previous reign, had long been abroad, and it weakened the empire of authority and tradition. It was at the end of 1753 that Chesterfield wrote the well-known letter to his son, in which he enumerates the signs of catastrophe which he saw gathering in France—the King at once despised and hated, ‘jealous of the Parliaments who would support his authority, and a devoted bigot to the Church that would destroy it’—his ministers disunited and incapable—the people poor and discontented—the clergy and the Parliaments irreconcilable enemies. ‘The French nation,’ he continued, ‘reasons freely, which they never did before, upon matters of religion and government, and begins to be spregiudicati: the officers do so too: in short, all the symptoms which I have ever met with in history previous to great changes and revolutions in government, now exist and daily increase in France.’2
Madame de Pompadour perhaps saved the country from an immediate rising, by inducing the King in the summer of 1754 once more to reverse his policy. Employing as a pretext the birth of the prince who was afterwards Lewis XVI., he suppressed the unpopular royal Court, recalled and reinstated the Parliament of Paris, and released the magistrates who had been imprisoned. There was for a time great exultation in Paris, and it was increased when the King, having vainly endeavoured to induce the bishops to abandon their war against Jansenism, and especially the tickets of confession, exiled the Archbishops of Paris and Aix and the Bishops of Orleans and Troyes. For a time, the policy of the Court seemed completely changed. The Parliaments were left free to prosecute and punish priests who refused the Sacraments to those who had not accepted the Papal Bull. The persecution of Protestants was arrested. The ‘Encyclopædia,’ which had been suppressed, was again allowed to appear, and the Parliament of Paris was once more in close alliance with the Court, and took no resolution without consulting the King. There seldom was a stranger example of that extreme vacillation, that instability of policy which was rapidly educating the French people into habits of insubordination and opposition, and it is also curious to observe even at this time the complete absence of moderation and measure which is now the characteristic defect of French political life. In countries where constitutional government really flourishes, political disputes are habitually settled by compromise, and in the way of bargain. In France all political life is modelled after war, and it is the main object of the victorious party to pursue its advantage to the utmost.
Some priests were condemned by the Parliament to perpetual banishment; some who refused to appear before it were, in their absence, condemned to the galleys; numerous writings against the Parliament were burnt; the sentences were placarded in the most conspicuous parts of Paris, and the Parliament even went so far as to issue a decree declaring that the Bull was not a rule of faith, and forbidding any ecclesiastic, ‘of whatever order, quality, or dignity he might be, to attribute to it this character.’ The decree was evidently directed against the bishops, and it was no less evidently an invasion of their rightful spiritual province. Public opinion, however, strongly supported it, and the hatred of the priests, and especially of the Jesuits, was such that they could scarcely appear without insult in the streets. The Archbishop of Paris, availing himself of the September vacation of the Parliament in 1756, issued an instruction excommunicating all priests who administered the Sacrament in obedience to orders from a secular tribunal, all Catholics who asked for such orders, and all magistrates who granted them, and he announced that more than sixty bishops were ready to support him. The Chatelet, as the Parliament was not sitting, took up the matter, and the instruction of the Archbishop was publicly burnt, amid the applause of a great multitude. The Archbishop retaliated by threatening with excommunication all who read the sentence of the Chatelet. The Chatelet forbade anyone to print or circulate this ‘mandement’ under penalty of corporal punishment, and in the space of a fortnight condemned to the fire the pastorals of seven other bishops who had expressed their concurrence with the Archbishop.1
The Government, alarmed at the fury of the religious war which appeared daily increasing, privately appealed to Benedict XIV., who was at this time governing the Church with eminent wisdom and moderation. It was impossible, however, for a Pope to abandon or retract a Papal Bull, and with the best intentions Benedict only fanned the flame. He issued a brief, declaring the Bull Unigenitus to be a law of the Church which could not be repudiated without danger to salvation; but in order to avoid scandal, the French priests were directed to administer the Sacraments to suspected Jansenists ‘at their own risk and peril,’ and to refuse them only to ‘notorious’ Jansenists. The King sent this brief to the bishops with an order to conform to it, but the Parliament refused all conciliation and issued a decree suppressing the Papal brief.2
It was evident that the Parliament was obtaining an entirely new position and authority in the State, and it was equally evident that a very formidable public opinion had suddenly arisen. Discussions about the fundamental laws of the State might be heard even among the common people in the market-place, and the question whether France was a tempered and representative monarchy, or an uncontrolled despotism, like Turkey, was eagerly debated. If the King possessed the power he had frequently exercised, of giving his edicts the force of law by means of ‘beds of justice,’ in spite of the remonstrances of the Parliament, France was in fact a pure despotism; but the opinion was now becoming almost universal, beyond the limits of the Court and of the clergy, that no edict had the force of law which had not been registered by the free consent of the magistrates. ‘The people,’ wrote D'Argenson, ‘are become great lovers of Parliaments. They see in them a remedy for the vexations they suffer on all sides. All this foreshadows some revolt that is already smouldering.’ ‘If it should become necessary to assemble the States-General, they would not assemble in vain.’ The Parliaments were spoken of as the ‘National Government,’ ‘the true Monarch of France,’ ‘the source of legitimate power.’1
The provincial Parliaments had also begun to act in close concert with the Parliament of Paris, and the doctrine had grown up that they were all only parts, or according to the received phrase ‘classes’ of a single organic whole, which, in the absence of the States-General, was the permanent and legitimate representative of the nation. The Parliaments themselves supported this claim, and it was evident that if admitted it would completely transform the government of the country.
Another consequence of this religious war was a portentously rapid spread of religious scepticism. Anyone who has any real knowledge of life will have perceived that great changes of opinion among large masses of men are almost always effected, not by direct argument, but by a change of predispositions and sympathies. When the tide of opinion flows strongly against a class, the minds of men will be prepared to question or reject what they teach. The great literary movement against Christianity was conducted with genius and perseverance; but it would never have had a wide and popular influence, if men had not been prepared to receive it. It was the hatred excited by arrogant, persecuting, and meddling priests; it was the wrangling that constantly took place at marriages and deathbeds; it was the perpetual interference of Jesuits with the relations of domestic life, that had gradually opened the French mind. It was noticed at the Carnival of 1756 that the most popular figures were ignoble caricatures of ecclesiastics, monks, and nuns,1 and a swarm of writings were now circulated from hand to hand, assailing the very foundations of the Christian faith.
The Court, alarmed at the growing claims of the Parliaments, desirous of obtaining a voluntary contribution from the clergy for the Seven Years' War, which was just breaking out, and justly indignant at the treatment by the Parliament of the Papal Bull, which had been recommended to it, turned violently to the other side. In December 1756, the King went down with great ceremony to the Parliament, and having held a bed of justice, he authoritatively enjoined the reception of the Bull as a decree of the Church; curtailed the judicial functions of Parliament in ecclesiastical cases, and peremptorily declared that he would enforce his decision by the full weight of his authority. Menacing signs of popular indignation appeared; but there was no actual outbreak, and the attempt of Damiens on the life of the King turned for the moment the popular sentiment. The next few years present a confused and stormy picture of conflict and vacillation. Great numbers of the magistrates resigned their offices. The courts of justice were again interrupted. Seditious placards again appeared in the streets. Nearly every new tax required for the war produced a wrangle, and the Parliament of Besanĉon having distinguished itself by its opposition to an unpopular tax, four of its members were thrown into prison, and twenty-eight exiled. The Parliament of Paris now described arrests by letters of ‘cachet’ as ‘the irregular methods of absolute power,’ and as contrary to the ‘rights of the nation.’ It remonstrated again and again, in terms which excited the warm admiration of Burke,2 against the extravagance and complete absence of any real control, that prevailed in French finances. It openly questioned the authority of beds of justice to compel it to register decrees, to which it had not fully consented. It maintained in concurrence with the provincial Parliaments the doctrine of the unity of all the Parliaments of the nation, and of the existence of fundamental laws which the Sovereign could not disregard. On the other hand, the Chancellor in the name of the King sternly blamed the remonstrances of the Parliament, and emphatically asserted that the whole sovereign power of the country resided in the King. The Archbishop was recalled from exile; but soon on new provocation was again exiled, and the same system of alternate severity and indulgence was pursued in dealing with the magistrates. Freethinking and seditious writers were fiercely pursued, and in this respect there was little difference between the opposing parties. Among other instances of petty persecution, an advocate was struck off the rolls, by order of the Parliament of Paris, for having written against the refusal of Christian burial to actors.1
One great concession, however, was made to public opinion. A series of recent scandals had strengthened the hostility to the Jesuits, which had now become one of the strongest passions of the French mind. All the Parliaments were united in hatred of them, and the immoral or seditious sentiments in their writings were abundantly exposed. Their books were now publicly burnt. Their houses were suppressed. Their schools were closed, and at last, in 1764, to the great delight of the nation the order was absolutely banished from the soil of France.
The royal power, however, seemed evidently sinking. The disasters of Rossbach, Crevelt, Minden, Belleisle and Quebec fell with crushing effects, and the Peace of 1763 was the most calamitous and humiliating in modern French history. It was more so even than the Peace of Utrecht, for then at least the original object of the war had been accomplished by the maintenance of a Bourbon prince on the Spanish throne. By claiming absolute authority the monarchy incurred and accepted undivided responsibility; and it had given France neither internal peace, nor financial prosperity, nor military glory, and had led her into a disastrous conflict with a great constitutional kingdom. The splendour with which the genius of the elder Pitt irradiated English Parliamentary life, the soundness of English finance, the magnificence of the English conquests, had all their part in discrediting by contrast the form of government existing in France. It had of late years become very common to compare the two countries, and there was hardly more than one point in which the comparison could at this time fill a Frenchman with legitimate pride. French contemporary literature, indeed, was in influence and genius the first in the world, yet almost every French writer had been treated as a criminal, and almost every French book of importance had incurred the hostility of the Government.
The question of taxation again gave rise to serious conflicts. The war had ended, but a burden of overwhelming weight still continued. In May 1763, a bed of justice was held in which edicts, removing some taxes but imposing others, were registered by express royal command. The Parliament of Paris protested against these forced registrations as ‘tending to the subversion of the fundamental laws of the kingdom,’ and some of the provincial Parliaments positively refused to register the edicts until detailed accounts of the finances of the nation had been laid before them. ‘The magistrates,’ it was said, ‘were not called together to register the royal edicts in order to approve of them blindly,’ and they ordered their remonstrances to be printed and disseminated. The King on his side suppressed these remonstrances, and the commanders of the provinces were directed ‘manu militari’ to obtain the registration of the edicts. Numbers of magistrates were arrested. Some signed in the presence and under the intimidation of soldiers. Eighty members of the Parliament of Rouen resigned. The Parliament of Paris in a strong remonstrance supported the provincial Parliaments, described the conduct of the Government in imposing its edicts by force of arms as placing the French nation in the position of a humiliated and subjugated people, and declared that these attacks on a ‘sacred and inviolable magistracy’ must shake the stability of the throne, and teach the people that what was maintained by force might be overthrown by force. No edicts, the Parliament now boldly said, were lawfully obligatory which had not been ‘freely registered,’ not only by the Parliament of Paris, but by all the Parliaments in France. The Government, alarmed at the resistance it encountered, modified its edicts, announced to the Parliaments that the King was willing of his clemency to pardon their rebellion, invited them to communicate their views about possible improvements in the management of the finances, and enjoined an absolute silence on all that had happened.1
If the Revolution had at this time broken out it would probably have excited but little surprise. In the ‘Emile’ of Rousseau, which was published in 1762, there occurs the remarkable prediction that ‘Europe was approaching a state of crisis and the age of revolutions,’ and that none of its great monarchies were likely to last long.2 In the summer of the following year Wilkes was in Paris, and in an interesting letter to Lord Temple he described the violence with which the Parliaments were treated, and added, ‘The most sensible men here think that this country is on the eve of a great revolution.’3 Burke, looking on the subject from another side, showed clearly in a pamphlet published in 1769 how financial disorders were preparing the way for a great convulsion that might affect not only France but all Europe.4 The clergy, indignant at the expulsion of the Jesuits, at the contempt with which two Papal Bulls in favour of that order were treated, and at the rapid increase of sceptical writings and opinions, held a General Assembly in 1765, in which they condemned the writings of Helvétius, Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau, and declared that ‘the spirit of the century seemed to threaten the State with a revolution, which was likely to result in a general ruin and destruction.’5
In the same assembly they once more asserted as against the Parliaments the entire independence of the ecclesiastical power in all things relating to God, and especially in the administration of the Sacraments, and declaring that the Bull Unigenitus was ‘a dogmatic judgment of the Universal Church,’ they pronounced that those who were refractory to it must, like other public sinners, be publicly refused the Sacraments. The Parliament ordered this declaration to be suppressed, and a circular letter of the Archbishop of Rheims to be burnt. The King, on the petition of the bishops, cancelled this decree. The censured writings were assiduously circulated, together with pamphlets accusing the magistrates of ‘deliberately labouring to overthrow the throne and the altar,’ and petitions asking for the restoration of the Jesuits. At last in May 1766 an order of Council was published, ordering the observance of the Gallican maxims of 1682 fixing the bounds of the two powers, and it at the same time repeated the declaration of 1731 prescribing absolute silence on these questions.1
It was little more than a dead letter, and the contest between the Parliaments and the bishops continued with unabated virulence; but it no longer excited the same interest. The anti-Christian movement was now at its height, and the public had ceased to care about the Bull Unigenitus. The atrocious punishment of the Chevalier de la Barre, a young soldier of nineteen, who was condemned for blasphemy in 1766, tortured with horrible severity, and then beheaded, excited a deep-seated indignation, and innumerable writings were circulated advocating complete religious toleration, and attacking priests, monks, nuns, Christianity, and even Theism itself. Many who sold these writings were thrown into prison, and some were sent to the galleys; but it was plain that the anti-Christian literature represented the opinions, and met the demands, of the great body of the educated classes, and that crowds of administrators in all departments connived at or favoured its circulation. Atheism had penetrated into the monasteries, perhaps even into the episcopal palaces, and the sincere Catholics did nothing to make their religion respected. The faculty of theology selected this time to declare that religious intolerance was of the essence of Catholicism, and that it was the duty of princes to place their swords at the service of the faith.2 I have already mentioned the episcopal memorial of 1770, ‘on the evil consequences of liberty of thinking and printing.’3 What little devotion remained was of a very sickly character. A skull illuminated with tapers, and adorned with ribbons and pearls, might at this time be commonly found in a devout lady's boudoir. It was called ‘La Belle Mignonne,’ and the devotee was accustomed to spend a portion of every day in prayer and meditation before it. The Queen was much addicted to this devotion, and the skull before which she prayed was said to be that of Ninon de l'Enclos.1
Nearly everything strong, masculine, and intellectual, was opposed to the Church, and the great favour which the chief sovereigns of Europe showed to the Encyclopædists reacted upon and elevated their position in France. Voltaire boasted with some truth, that their ideas were in the ascendant from St. Petersburg to Cadiz. How little the French Government itself, regarded papal anathemas, was shown by its conduct in 1768, when having quarrelled with the Pope, chiefly on a matter relating to Parma and Placentia, it seized upon the papal town and territory of Avignon, incorporated them for a time into the French monarchy, and refused to restore them till the end of 1773, when the Pope had at last yielded to the demand of France, Spain, and Naples, for the suppression of the Jesuits.2
The political questions at issue between the Parliaments and the Court were of a graver and more important character. Could the King impose taxes without the free consent of the Parliament? Could he legitimately, by a ‘bed of justice,’ compel the magistrates to register edicts of which they did not approve? Could he arrest, imprison, and exile them if they refused to obey? Had the Council of State, which was essentially the organ of the King, the power of annulling the decrees of the Parhament, and arresting the prosecutions which it ordered? What was the nature, and what were the relations, of the Parliaments? Were they merely a number of separate law courts, deriving all their force and authority from the Sovereign, or were they branches of one organic whole, of an institution which was one of the oldest parts of the French Government, and which had, by right, original and independent powers? Was the registration of the royal edicts, which was required before they obtained the force of law, a mere matter of form, attestation, or verification, in which the magistrates acted the parts of witnesses or clerks, or did it mean that those edicts were to be submitted to their free judgments, and that they might be annulled by their veto? It is obvious that such questions touched the very foundations of French government, and they were not likely to be settled by archæological, historical, or juridical arguments, but by the pressure either of opinion or of force. If, as appeared at one time probable, the Parliaments established the position for which they contended, the French monarchy would at once cease to be a despotism. The Government would not be in the English sense representative; but it would have some affinity to the Government of Venice. The authority of the King would be tempered and controlled by a powerful and independent magistracy, partly concentrated in the metropolis, partly diffused through, and in some sense representing, the different provinces. If, on the other hand, the claims of the Parliaments were overthrown, the Government of France was essentially a pure autocracy.
The question was now brought clearly to an issue. ‘If they succeed,’ writes Barbier, ‘in diminishing the authority and the pretended rights of Parliament, there will no longer be any obstacle to a solid despotism. If, on the other hand, the Parliaments unite to resist by strong measures, this can only be followed by a general revolution in the State.’1 In March 1766, the Parliament of Paris having issued a decree protesting against the arrest and trial of some members of the Parliament of Brittany, the King appeared in person in the Parliament, and ordered the decree to be expunged from their records. He informed the magistrates that this affair in no way concerned them. He accused them of disregarding the fundamental rights of the Crown in pretending that they formed with the other Parliaments of the kingdom an indivisible body which was the representative of the nation and participated with the monarch in making the laws; and he proceeded in the most emphatic and explicit terms to affirm that the monarchy of France was an absolute and unlimited despotism. ‘It is in my person alone,’ he said, ‘that the sovereign power resides. It is from me alone that my Courts derive their existence and their authority; it is to me alone that the legislative power belongs without dependence and without division; the whole public order emanates from me;’ and he concluded by threatening that if the Parliament continued the scandal of opposing his will, he would find himself obliged to employ the power he had received from God, to preserve his people from the fatal consequences of such attempts.1
It would be impossible to speak more plainly. In the face of the intense intellectual and political life that was now agitating the nation, in a country which boasted that it was at the head of civilisation, and addressing a great judicial body which was said to be as ancient as the monarchy itself, the King of France claimed a power which was essentially that of an Oriental despot. And the sovereign who used this language was not a Cæsar, a Frederick, or a Napoleon. He was contemptible in his abilities, sunk in sloth and in degrading vice, and he spoke not in the moment of victory or of brilliant prosperity, but at a time when his country was reduced by bad government to the verge of bankruptcy, and still lay under the shadow of a disastrous war and of an ignominious peace. Yet this language represented real power, and it was only the precursor of corresponding action. A few more years of altercations, remonstrances, resignations, imprisonments, exiles, and vacillations ensued, but at last the blow was struck. The occasion was the trial of the Duke of Aiguillon, who, having been accused of gross abuses in the government of Brittany, had asked for a trial before the Court of Peers, and had accordingly by the King's orders been arraigned before the Parliament of Paris. The trial began in April 1770. When it had proceeded in its regular course for rather more than two months, the King intervened, annulled the proceedings by letters patent, and declared the Duke exonerated from every charge. The Parliament retaliated by declaring that the Duke rested under grave suspicion, and forbidding him to exercise any of the functions of the peerage, till he was formally acquitted. The King at once annulled the sentence, and going down to the Parliament he carried away the registers of the trial.
The period of vacation followed, and soon the provincial Parliaments rallied round the Parliament of Paris and pronounced these proceedings a gross infringement of parliamentary rights. But the Chancellor Maupeou, who now guided the counsels of the King, was prepared to carry the strife to extremities. On December 7 a new bed of justice was held, and the Chancellor read to the Parliament a royal edict, in which the King declared that ‘he held his crown from God alone, that to him alone, without dependence or partition, belonged the legislative power, that the custom of making representations to him must not be converted by the magistrates into a right of resistance, that these representations had their limits, and that they could place none to his authority.’ He accused the magistrates of systematic opposition to the royal will and to his prerogative, and he peremptorily forbade the Parliaments of France by the use of the terms ‘unity,’ ‘indivisibility,’ and ‘classes’ to describe themselves as a single body. He declared this doctrine seditious. He forbade all correspondence between the Parliaments of the kingdom, all joint resignations and all delays in registering the royal edicts, and he threatened, if these offences were committed, that the guilty magistrates should be deprived of their offices and punished as rebels. After vain though angry remonstrances, this edict was transcribed in the registers.
The magistrates, insulted and branded before the country, had but one last remedy—that of refusing to perform their judicial functions. Four times the King ordered them to resume these functions, and four times they refused unless they received a pledge that the laws of France would be maintained, and the late edict revoked. The struggle was ended by a coup d'état. On the night of January 20, 1771, soldiers appeared by the bedside of every magistrate, demanding their signature to a paper stating whether or not they would resume their functions. A few, terror-stricken at the thought of imprisonment and exile, at first yielded, but afterwards recanted, while the great majority refused. A royal decree was then issued from the Council, exiling the magistrates, confiscating their offices, declaring them and their children incapable of filling any judicial post. The Parliament of Paris was absolutely suppressed, and six new courts of justice appointed by the King were created in its place. The ‘Cour des Aides,’ which refused to recognise the new authority, was suppressed. Its magistrates were driven by soldiers from the bench, and their President Malesherbes—the same who in after years so nobly distinguished himself by his defence of Lewis XVI.—was exiled. The Chatelet was reorganised and made completely subservient to the Crown, and at the end of the year the work was completed by the suppression of the provincial Parliaments. One great act of the contest that led to the Revolution was thus terminated, and the royal authority remained triumphant, and absolute in France.
As might have been expected, public opinion was excited by these events. Large bodies of troops were assembled in the capital, and the new authorities put under strong military protection. Innumerable seditious placards and other writings appeared. Most of the subordinate courts of justice protested. The Cour des Aides and the Parliament of Rouen distinguished themselves by demanding a convocation of the States-General to decide the question at issue between the King and the magistracy. With a single exception, the princes of the blood were opposed to the policy of the King, and six of them headed by the Duke of Orleans, and followed by thirteen peers of France, drew up a protest against the recent violence, declaring that ‘it had ever been the right of the princes and peers of France to be judged only by the first and indestructible Corporation of the nation, and by judges who were by right immovable.’ Placards and anonymous letters urged the Duke of Orleans to put himself at the head of a Revolution, and it was the opinion of a well-informed contemporary observer,1 that if at this time a leader had been found, a most formidable rebellion might have broken out.2 Mlle de Genest, who was afterwards Mme de Campan, had become reader at the Court in 1767, and she tells us that twenty years before 1789 it had become a common subject of discourse, that the institutions of the ancient monarchy were falling into ruin, and that the century would not close without some great revolution in France.1
The fact, however, remains that this great change, which swept away the last semblance of constitutional opposition and control in France, was effected by royal authority without the effusion of a drop of blood. It made a deep impression both in France and in other countries; from this time the predictions of revolution, which during the preceding years had been so frequent, almost absolutely ceased, and they did not again acquire any importance till the convocation of the Notables in 1787. On both sides of the Channel it had long been the custom to contrast the loyalty or servility of the French to their sovereign with the insubordination and jealousy of the English,2 and the destruction, without a serious effort of resistance, of an institution which had existed for many centuries, and which alone distinguished the French Government from pure despotism, appeared to contemporary observers to show that no real opposition to royal authority was possible in France. To foreigners, indeed, who could not follow the minor currents of passion and opinion, the submission seemed even greater than it was. The account of the event in the ‘Annual Register’ is peculiarly interesting, as it is almost certainly from the pen of Burke. ‘The noble efforts,’ he writes, ‘of that faithful repository of the laws, and remembrancer of the ancient rights of the people, the Parliament of Paris, in the cause of liberty and mankind, have fatally terminated in its own final destruction. … That ancient spirit from which the Franks derive their name, though still gloriously alive in the breasts of a few, no longer exists in the bulk of the people. Long dazzled with the splendour of a magnificent and voluptuous Court, with the glare of a vast military power, and with the glory of some great monarchs, they cannot now, in the grave light of the shade, behold things in their natural state; nor can those who have been long used to submit without inquiry to every act of power … suddenly acquire that strength and tenor of mind which is alone capable of forming great resolutions and of undertaking arduous and dangerous tasks. Thus has this great revolution in the history and government of France taken place without the smallest commotion, or without the opposition that in other periods would have attended an infraction of the heritable jurisdiction of a petty vassal.’1
The public feeling on the question was stronger than Burke imagined, but the Parliament had powerful enemies. The courtiers and the priests detested it, while, on the other hand, Voltaire, separating himself on this occasion from what was undoubtedly the popular opinion, warmly and repeatedly expressed his approval of the act of the Government. In his eyes any political merits the Parliaments might possess were much more than counteracted by the hostility they had shown to toleration and to reform. As late as 1762 a young Protestant minister named Rochette had by order of the Parliament of Toulouse been hung in his shirt, with head and feet naked, ‘for having performed the functions of a minister of the so-called reformed Church,’ and it was the same Parliament which had been guilty of the atrocious judicial murder of Calas. The Parliament of Paris had borne a leading part in the earlier persecutions of the Huguenots; it had instituted an annual procession in honour of the massacre of St. Bartholomew; it had steadily persecuted the party of freethinkers and burnt their books; it had come forward conspicuously in condemning loans upon interest, and in opposing the practice of inoculation and it was responsible for the recent disgraceful sentences against La Barre and against Lally.1 The abolition of the venality of judicial posts, which Voltaire had long desired, was decreed when the Parliament was abolished, and the multiplication of courts of justice was considered a real reform.
One of the most important results of the suppression of the Parliaments was that the opposition to the Court fell almost exclusively into the hands of men of letters, who had no practical experience in the conduct of affairs. Political writings immensely multiplied, and political speculation acquired a greatly increased importance. The events which have been hitherto recorded belong strictly to French history, but political doctrines at this time acquired an ascendency in France which speedily influenced surrounding countries, and was nowhere felt more powerfully than in England. Voltaire was now a very old man, and, though still in the zenith of his fame, his influence had greatly declined. He was looked upon as belonging to a bygone generation, and both religious and political thought had taken forms with which he had no sympathy. Believing that natural religion was not only true, but indispensably necessary to the well-being of society, he detested the aggressive atheism which had arisen, and on one occasion when Condorcet and D'Alembert expressed such opinions at a supper party, Voltaire ordered his servants to leave the room, saying that he did not choose them to hear such doctrines, as he had no desire to be robbed or murdered. On the other hand, he had a complete contempt both for speculative and democratic politics. His aim, as he once said, was not to make a revolution like that of Luther or Calvin, but to enlighten the minds of the rulers of men. He totally disbelieved in popular political judgments, and emphatically denied to his own countrymen, and especially to the Parisians, the qualities of wisdom and sobriety that are necessary for self-government. But a new star had now arisen in the sphere of political thought. The diseased but splendid genius of Rousseau was acquiring that complete ascendency which it retained undiminished for many years. His wonderful eloquence, in which passion and reason were so finely blended, appealed with a transcendent force to the imaginations and the feelings of his contemporaries; and if Voltaire continued to be the favourite of good society, of the critic, the literary epicurean, and the sceptic, Rousseau had an immeasurably stronger influence over a far larger section of the French people.1
It is a well-known saying of Napoleon, that if Rousseau had never lived, there would have been no French Revolution; and in spite of its manifest exaggeration there is a sense in which this saying is not without plausibility. That which distinguishes the French Revolution from other political movements is that it was directed by men who had adopted certain speculative, à priori conceptions of political right, with the fanaticism and proselytising fervour of a religious belief, and the Bible of their creed was the ‘Contrat Social’ of Rousseau.
The doctrine of the social contract was, indeed, far from new. It had been fully and ably expounded by Locke, and it may be found before Locke in the writings of Hooker, of the Jesuits, and of St. Thomas Aquinas. Society, according to the English Whig doctrine of the Revolution, was originally formed for the protection of the lives and properties of those who composed it, and who would otherwise have been perpetually at the mercy of the strongest. Its first object is that every man should be enabled to live in peace and security as long as he does not molest his neighbour, and to enjoy without disturbance the property which he has honestly acquired either by his own industry or by the favour of others. To attain these ends it is necessary for men to agree upon certain settled laws which are to be the standard of right and wrong in the community, the common measure deciding their controversies. It is also necessary to create an organisation which can execute and enforce these laws, and punish those who infringe them. This cannot be done without expense, and as the object is one of common interest, it must be supported by common contributions. Everyone who enjoys a share of the protection, should pay his proportion out of his estate, and this should be as far as possible levied by his own consent. Unanimous consent, indeed, is practically impossible, but the consent of the majority by themselves or their deputies should be obtained. There is, however, such a thing as the consent of acquiescence, and there is such a thing as virtual representation, and all that is really necessary is that the acts of the Government should tend to the benefit, and express the wishes, of the whole community. The true theory of taxation is that society is a great joint-stock company in which all have shares, some more and some less, and it is right that all should be taxed at the same rate, and that each should pay in proportion to the number of his shares.1 The community has many and complex relations to external bodies, and it is found that in addition to the protection of life and property, there are within the country itself many ends useful to the whole body, which can be better accomplished by the machinery of government than by any other means, and in this manner the action of government is gradually extended. But the protection of property and the pursuance of common interests by common consent lie at the basis of the whole conception of the State, and no measures which are inconsistent with these primary ends of government can be obligatory.
Such, in a very few lines, was the substance of that Whig philosophy which was elaborated, chiefly by Locke, in opposition to the Tory theory of the Divine right of kings, and which generally prevailed in England during the eighteenth century. It is open to considerable criticism both from an historical and from a logical point of view, and no Government has ever strictly acted up to its requirements; but on the whole it furnishes an excellent working theory for free governments, a general criterion by which their aims and principles may be tested. It is altogether inconsistent with absolute monarchy; it establishes, as far as a doctrine can, the indefeasible right of every man to his own property, subject to the obligation of contributing his proportion to the expenses of its protection and to the other common interests of society, and it guards against the general and most subtle vice of all governments, the subordination of the common interests to the interests of a class. At the same time, as Burke was never weary of urging, speculation has had only a slight part in directing the course of English politics. There have been fundamental laws, old traditional customs and understandings, numerous institutions representing with more or less fidelity the different interests, classes, and opinions in the country, and determining by their balance the preponderance of political power and the tendencies of political development. It is when one power has unduly encroached upon the others, when old laws or traditional observances are strained or violated, when a conflict arises between the public opinion of the nation and some of its institutions, when classes or interests or opinions have grown up which find no adequate recognition in the old framework of the Government, when in a word some practical grievance or uneasiness has disclosed itself, that changes are usually effected. And these changes have been commonly enlargements or modifications of existing institutions, made by practical politicians in obedience to the strong pressure of opinion, with very little regard to symmetry, logic, or consistency, but with the object of remedying particular grievances or satisfying particular wants. Speculative writers have afterwards defended them on general principles, but these have been to a great extent afterthoughts.
In France, however, the course of events was entirely different. Absolute monarchy having destroyed almost every organisation that could become a centre of opposition, and having prevented the growth of a school of practical and experienced reformers, politics came to be treated like a problem of geometry or ethics, to be worked out on general principles, with a complete disregard to the traditions and special circumstances of the nation. In Rousseau, the French found one of the most eloquent and seductive political writers who have ever lived, and he furnished the archetype or pattern on which the revolutionary school endeavoured to build. The ‘Contrat Social’ ranks with the ‘Wealth of Nations’ as one of the two political works of the eighteenth century which have had the greatest practical influence upon public affairs; but while the influence of Adam Smith has been almost entirely for good, the political influence of Rousseau appears to me to have been almost wholly evil.
The first great characteristic of the theory of Rousseau, is the distinction which he draws between sovereignty and government. Sovereignty in every country resides in the whole mass of the population, and no government is morally legitimate, which does not rest upon a decision in which the whole nation takes part. The sovereign power is compelled, by the nature of things, to construct governments for the purpose of carrying on its affairs; but its sovereignty can never be fully or even partially alienated. It is absolutely inalienable. Neither conquest nor any kind of compact can affect it, and governments subsist only as its agents.
The inferences drawn from this proposition are as much opposed to the English notions of constitutional government, as they are to absolute monarchy. In the first place, the English theory of representative government is wholly erroneous. ‘The sovereignty cannot be represented, for the same reason that it cannot be alienated, because it consists essentially in the general will. The deputies of the people are not, and cannot be, its representatives; they are only its agents. They can conclude nothing definitely. Every law is null, which the people have not directly ratified. It wants the true character of a law. The English people imagines itself free; but it is wholly mistaken. It is free only during the election of its members of Parliament. Once they are elected, it is a slave. The idea of representatives is modern; it comes to us from the feudal government, from that iniquitous and absurd government which degraded the human species.’1
This doctrine has a manifest affinity to that which we have already traced among the Radicals of the school of Horne Tooke and Sawbridge, who maintained that members of Parliament were simply delegates, that their constituents should furnish them with binding instructions, and had a right to dictate authoritatively their conduct on every question that arose. No English Radical, however, had asserted that every law was invalid, which had not been directly ratified by a popular vote.
A very important doctrine of the English Constitution is that the Sovereign, or supreme magistrate of the State, like all other magistrates, is invested with a political power which is at once guaranteed, defined, and limited by contract. In opposition to the theory of the Divine right of kings, the statesmen of the English Revolution placed the royal power in England in the hands of a dynasty, which received by parhamentary authority hereditary right to rule, subject to clearly defined conditions. Certain fundamental obligations were laid down by law, and the Sovereign swore that he would fulfil them. If he broke his compact with his subjects, they in their turn were released from their allegiance. As it was possible that a sovereign without breaking any fundamental law might desire to act in a way very injurious to the State, his power was so limited by the two Houses of Parliament, that his political action, if contrary to the national will, is speedily checked by obstacles which cannot be constitutionally surmounted. If, however, the Sovereign fulfilled the conditions of his trust, he reigned by a full and perfect right; it was made a crime of the first magnitude to impugn his authority, and in this manner the society, while guarding its own freedom, maintained the dignity of its ruler, and secured for itself the incalculable advantage of stability and continuity in the government.
In opposition to this doctrine, Rousseau maintained that there can be no contract whatever between the sovereign nation and its rulers or magistrates; that such a contract, though it may be expressed in words, embodied in oaths, and enrolled in the Statute-book, is absolutely null. ‘The sovereign authority can be no more modified than alienated. To limit it is to destroy it. There can only be one contract in the State, the original contract of association, and this alone excludes all others.’ From the highest to the lowest, every functionary of the Government depends upon the immediate will of people, is bound absolutely to obey them, and may at any time be arbitrarily dismissed. Such a course may not be expedient; but it is always legitimate. ‘If the people institutes hereditary government, either monarchical in a family, or aristocratical in an order of citizens, this is not an engagement which it takes. It is a provisional form which it gives to the Administration, until it pleases it to ordain otherwise.’1
Voltaire, commenting on these passages, described them with great truth as nothing less than ‘a code of anarchy,’2 and Burke has devoted some admirable pages to exposing their fallacies and their dangers. ‘By this unprincipled facility,’ he wrote, ‘in changing the State as often, and as much, and in as many ways as there are floating fancies and fashions, the whole chain of continuity of the commonwealth would be broken. No one generation could link with the other. Men would become little better than the flies of a summer.’3
A few more extracts will complete our view of this side of the teaching of Rousseau. In the first place, every member of the community has a natural and inalienable right to vote in every act of sovereignty, and as all laws are acts of sovereignty, those only are valid which have been directly sanctioned by universal suffrage, the majority binding the minority.4 ‘The moment the Government usurps the sovereignty, the social compact is broken, and all the simple citizens regaining by right their natural liberty are forced, but not morally obliged, to obey.5 Whenever the people are lawfully assembled in a sovereign body, all the jurisdiction of Government ceases, and the executive power is suspended.’6
It will be evident to anyone who has grasped the full meaning of these doctrines, that they would invalidate the legislation and the authority of every Government in Europe, with perhaps the exception of those small Swiss cantons, where the whole people assemble to make their laws; and it is also evident that they would make all settled government impossible, and all authority precarious, and would multiply incalculably the opportunities and temptations of change. This was one aspect of the teaching of Rousseau. But if his doctrines led on the one side to utter anarchy, they led on the other, not less clearly, to the most grinding tyranny. For the first condition of the social compact is, ‘the total alienation of each associate, with all his rights, to the whole community.’ ‘As nature gives each man absolute power over his own limbs, so the social contract gives the body politic absolute power over its members,’ and makes it ‘the master of all their possessions.’ ‘The right of each individual to his own property is always subordinated to the right of the community to the whole.’1
The most efficient check which has been discovered in a free country against the tyranny, either of individuals or of majorities, is found in a strong representation of classes and interests. Montesquieu had especially insisted upon the importance of checks of this kind. Rousseau utterly repudiated them. The unity, the indivisibility, the homogeneity of the sovereign power is one of his favourite tenets. The existence of any separate orders or interests in the community, any division, restriction, or balance of power, he emphatically rejects. The absolute equality of all members of the body politic is one of his great doctrines. The absolute authority of the body politic, as expressed by universal suffrage, over its members is another.
I have already mentioned the religious policy which he deduced from these principles—the civil religion which he desired to impose, on pain of banishment or death, on every member of the community, the proposed expulsion from the State of all who held the doctrine of exclusive salvation. Opinions in as far as they relate exclusively to another world are, he admits, beyond the competence of the legislator; but whenever they appear likely to affect the conduct of men as members of the State, they should be brought under civil control. ‘Whenever the clergy form a distinct body, that body is master and legislator in their country. There are, therefore, two powers, two sovereigns in England and in Russia, as elsewhere. Of all Christian writers, the philosopher Hobbes alone saw rightly the evil and the remedy, when he dared to propose to unite the two heads of the eagle, and bring everything back to that political unity, without which no State or Government will ever be well constituted.’2
On the subject of education, his views are very similar. The father should be wholly lost in the citizen. It is for the State to prescribe the form and substance of education, and even the amusements of the young, and, as in the Republic of Plato, to mould their minds systematically to its ends.1
Such sentiments fell in perfectly with the prevailing tendencies of French thought. It is not necessary here to enter into any discussion of the theory, which attributes to the Latin as distinguished from the Teutonic race a special tendency towards centralisation and unity. It is at least abundantly evident why such a tendency should have prevailed in France, and prevailed in it to a much greater degree than in the other Latin nations. Italy had been for many centuries divided into separate principalities differing widely in their character and government, and it contained several cities which were so illustrious from their art, history, commerce, or literature, that even the supreme majesty of Rome was unable to reduce them to moral insignificance. The provinces of Spain differed profoundly in their histories, characters, and institutions, and in Spain a large measure of local and provincial self-government had survived the loss of political freedom. But France was a highly centralised despotism, and Paris had no rival or counterpoise in its attractive influence. France, too, was a great military monarchy. The habits and ideals of military life coloured the whole thought of the nation, and the lines of national character were still further deepened by the unifying, organising, and intensely intolerant spirit of the Catholic Church. The result of this combination of influences has been, that the French political ideal has remained substantially unaltered amid the most violent changes of Government. Alike under the despotism of Lewis XIV and under the despotism of the Convention, it has been the great object of French statesmen to attain a complete unity of type; to expel or subdue all interests, elements, and influences, that do not assimilate with the prevailing spirit of the Government; to mould in a single die, to concentrate on a single end, all the forces of the nation.
The English political ideal has been essentially different. ‘I know but one policy,’ said one of the writers of the time of the English Revolution, ‘whereby to establish any Government, of what sort soever it be, which is to take away all causes of complaint, and make all the subjects easy under it, for then the Government will have the whole strength of the people in its defence, whenever it shall want it.’1 English statesmen have commonly aimed at a Government, in which different interests, opinions, and classes, may expand as much as possible unmolested, and without friction or restraint, and in which the hand of authority is felt as lightly, and as rarely, as possible. They have believed that the largest sum of human happiness and useful performance, the highest level of self-reliance, the broadest foundations of stability and content, are likely to be attained, when each member of the community is given the fullest latitude and opportunity of pursuing the course which seems to him most fit, of gratifying as far as possible his tastes and idiosyncrasies, and even his weaknesses and prejudices, as long as he does not injure his neighbour. The virtue of the English Government has lain much less in the concentration of the national power, and the expulsion of hostile or heterogeneous elements, than in the strengthening by freedom of the spontaneous energies of the nation; in a diffused sense of security and comfort, and in the attachment to the Government which it produces.
As a consequence of this theory, there has been very little symmetry, or unity of plan, in English government. When competing interests or principles cannot both be fully satisfied, they are appeased by illogical but practical compromise. Many different types of institution directed to the same ends exist simultaneously. The main principles of measures are qualified. Schemes of policy are deflected now in this direction, now in that, to satisfy as far as possible eccentric forms of opinion, and while the general scope of a measure is governed by the wish of the majority, particular provisions are nearly always introduced to disarm the hostility, and satisfy the desires, of minorities.
The practical effects, however, of this characteristic of English politics have been greatly qualified by another influence, which like the foregoing is wholly foreign to the general tenor of the philosophy of Rousseau. It is the strong conservative instinct, which in England endeavours to preserve a continuity of national life, by governing mainly under the forms, and through the institutions, of the past. Never to destroy an institution which works well; to keep up institutions if they discharge efficiently secondary uses even though their original and primary uses have become wholly obsolete; to remove abuses, and introduce changes according to immediate necessities, and not according to any settled plan, have been among the most permanent maxims of English politics. And the result has been the maintenance of an immense heritage of the past, which, though it does not any longer act in the way of restriction, does undoubtedly act in the way of bias and privilege. Opinions and modes of life may all develop themselves; but they do not develop on the same plane, and with equal advantages. The restraining hand of authority is little felt; but the ecclesiastical and aristocratical institutions of the past, with their vast ramifications, their multifarious social, educational, political, and economical influences, form deep grooves or channels, and in a very large measure determine the current of English life.
The destruction of the controlling influence of aristocracies, and of all local bodies, had produced upon the Continent a steadily increasing concentration of political authority; and exaggerations of the powers and functions of government scarcely less extreme than those of Rousseau may be found in the writings of Bossuet, and of the chief lawyers of the monarchy. In the case of Rousseau, however, this exaggeration was largely due to his adoption of the old Greek doctrine that the sphere of government is co-extensive with that of moral education,1 and especially to his admiration for the institutions of Lycurgus at Sparta, and of Calvin at Geneva. Its evil effects were greatly increased by his persuasion that man is born good; that all his vices, and nearly all his calamities, are the result of external circumstances; that government is principally responsible for them, and that it may be made the instrument of raising him to almost ideal happiness. At the same time, though the political theory of the ‘Contrat Social’ was plain, logical, and consistent, and was accepted by great multitudes of Frenchmen in its broad and obvious signification, Rousseau himself recoiled from many of the conclusions that were drawn from it, and he tried, sometimes with much inconsistency, to evade or attenuate them. His book, he said, was simply an abstract or ideal theory of politics. His principles were exactly the same as those of Locke. His model was substantially the aristocratic republic of Geneva.1 He had drawn an ideal picture of a free nation; but he acknowledged that he did not see how the sovereign people could preserve its rights except in a very small state, in which all the citizens could assemble to legislate.2 In his ‘Considerations on the Government of Poland,’ he admitted the validity of legislation by representatives, provided they were controlled by imperative mandates.3 While maintaining under all forms of government the inalienable sovereignty of the nation, his sympathies were not with the democratic form. ‘A democratic government,’ he says, ‘is suitable for small, an aristocratic government for moderate, a monarchical government for great states.’ ‘A democratic or popular government is more subject than any other to civil wars and internal agitations, for there is no other government which tends so strongly and so constantly to change its form, and which requires more vigilance and courage to maintain.’ ‘If there were a people of gods, they would govern themselves as a democracy. So perfect a form of government is not suited for men.’ ‘It is contrary to the order of nature, that the many should govern, and the few be governed.’ ‘The best and most natural order is, that the wise should govern the multitude, provided one is sure that they govern it for the profit of the multitude, and not for their own.’4 ‘Government belongs to the small number, the superintendence of government to the people at large.’ ‘There is no freedom where anyone is above the law; but a people is free, whatever may be the form of its government, when it recognises in the ruler, not the man, but the organ of the law.’1 In one of his letters he says that ‘the two main principles of government established in the “Contrat Social” are, that the sovereignty always belongs legitimately to the people, and that aristocratic government is the best.’2
He shows also in many places a great desire to qualify his very dangerous doctrine of the omnipotence of the sovereign people. The people, he says, must always act by law; and what is a law? ‘It is a public and solemn declaration of the general will on an object of common interest. I say on an object of common interest, for the law would lose its force and cease to be legitimate if the object was not of importance to all.’3 He imagined that he could guard against the dangers of a tyranny of majorities by extinguishing separate interests in politics, and arbitrarily restricting to purely common interests the sphere of the power which he had made omnipotent. ‘All that each man alienates by the social compact of his power, his goods, and his liberty, is the portion of which the use is required by the community;’ ‘but,’ he adds, ‘it must be acknowledged that the Sovereign alone is the judge of this requirement.’ When, however, the people of Athens decreed penalties or honours to particular individuals, it acted not as a sovereign, but as a magistrate. ‘By the nature of the social compact every act of sovereignty, that is, every authentic act of the general will, binds or favours equally all the citizens, so that the Sovereign knows only the body of the nation, and does not distinguish any of those who compose it. … The act of sovereignty is not a convention of a superior with an inferior, but a convention of the body with each of its members. It is legitimate, because it is based on the social compact; equitable, because it is common to all; useful, because it can have no other object than the general good. … It cannot pass the boundaries of general conventions, and every man can freely possess the goods and the liberty which these conventions have left him; so that the Sovereign has never a right to burden one subject more than another, for then the affair becomes individual, and his power is no longer competent.’1
In his article on political economy in the ‘Encyclopædia," following exactly in the steps of Locke, he says that ‘the foundation of the social compact is property, and that its first condition is that every individual should be protected in the peaceful enjoyment of that which belongs to him.’ ‘The right of property’ he describes as ‘the most sacred of all rights of citizens, in some respects even more important than liberty itself.’ Taxation can only be legitimately imposed by the common will of the people, or by their representatives; and while he claims for the Government a great power of regulating successions, he examines the principles on which taxation should be imposed with a skill and equity that leave little to be desired. As a general principle, he maintains that taxation should be exactly proportioned to property, so that a man who possesses ten times as much as his neighbour should pay ten times more than him. But this principle should be modified by another—that there is a broad distinction between the necessaries and the superfluities of life, and that he who possesses only what is strictly necessary should pay nothing.
On the great question, however, whether the right of property existed antecedently to civil society, whether it was created or merely sanctioned and protected by the social contract, he shows some vacillation. In his early ‘Discourse on Inequality,’ copying very closely a well-known passage of Pascal, he speaks of the first man who enclosed a piece of land, and said ‘this is mine,’ as an impostor and usurper who founded civil society and thereby brought countless calamities upon mankind; but in the very same discourse he shows with much justice how the necessity of cultivating the soil necessarily led to private property in land. In one passage in his ‘Social Contract,’ he describes this contract as ‘that which changes usurpation into right,’ but in many other passages he acknowledges fully a right of property anterior to the social compact, but contends that by that compact this right is under certain conditions surrendered to the community, and tries to show that these conditions were such as to preclude the danger of inequitable taxation and of partial confiscation. ‘If it is on the right of property,’ he says, ‘that the sovereign authority is founded, this right is that which ought to be most respected. It is inviolable and sacred so long as it remains a particular and individual right. As soon as it is considered as common to all the citizens, it is submitted to the general will, and that will can annihilate it. So the Sovereign has no right to touch the goods of one or of many, but may legitimately take the goods of all, as was done in Sparta in the time of Lycurgus. The abolition of debts by Solon was an illegitimate act.’1
The real difficulties of a system which invests a mere numerical majority with absolute power, Rousseau never faced. He states that the protection of property is a primary end of government, but realised property to any considerable extent is necessarily mainly in the hands of a few; and if an overwhelming preponderance of unlimited and uncontrolled voting and taxing power is given to those who do not possess it, is it likely that this power will not be abused? Where irresistible power is given, and where interest or passion impel, it is idle to trust to the cobweb barriers of metaphysical or ethical distinctions. The assertion of Rousseau that ‘the condition being equal for all, no one is interested in making it burdensome to the others,’ fails almost ludicrously to represent the real facts of the case. Whether legislators like it or not, there must always be diversities and antagonisms of interests, orders, and classes; there must always be envy, jealousy, covetousness, and hatred in the State, and the supreme end of statesmanship is to give security to every interest and class. This can only be done by giving to each some share, and not too large a share, of political power. Uncontrolled power is always abused, and a class may be as effectually reduced to impotence by being swamped as by being disfranchised. Is it probable, too, that adequate skill can be found in the legislators when no special competence is exacted from the electors who choose them? It is the inexorable law of nature, established by all the competitions of life, that sound judgment and capacity belong to the few and not to the many, and that without judgment and capacity, human affairs can never be successfully conducted. The government of a great empire, with its infinitely various and intricate characters, relations, circumstances, and wants, is one of the most difficult as well as one of the most important duties that can be imposed upon man. The qualities of mind and character it requires are so numerous, the chances of error are so great, the consequences of political miscalculation are so terrible and so enduring, that the greatest intellect might well shrink from the task; and there is no other sphere in which superficial appearances are more often at variance with realities, or in which the distorting influence of passion is more frequently or more powerfully felt. Is it likely, is it conceivable, that the best and final form of human government should be that in which all power of choice and of control is ultimately vested in the least instructed, the least intelligent, and the most dependent portion of the community?
This was the system which Rousseau advocated, and which he advocated as of universal application. The shape or structure of the government might depend upon the special circumstances of the nation, but the sovereignty of the nation, its right to determine and at any moment to change its government, its right to give or refuse its sanction by universal suffrage to every law that was proposed, was absolutely inalienable. This was equally true of the rudest barbarians and of the most civilised communities, of nations which had but just emerged from centuries of despotism and of nations that had enjoyed for centuries the education of self-government. Under such a system, if it could have been maintained, the fires of the Inquisition would have burnt for at least a century after they were actually extinguished, and it is by no means certain that they would even now have been at an end. In truth, however, such theories bring their own sharp remedy, for they would speedily reduce any nation that adopted them to anarchy.
The notion that universal suffrage is an inalienable right has now become so familiar throughout Europe, that few persons realise how strange it seemed in the writings of Rousseau. It is obvious, however, that in this, as in so many other points, his disciples have proved very inconsistent, for if a vote be a matter of natural right it is impossible to justify the exclusion from the franchise, of females who form half the population. In neither of the English-speaking communities had this theory received any countenance. The right of voting was always treated in them as a strictly civil right, to be regulated by each society in the manner most conducive to its interests. In England, the qualification for the counties differed from the qualification in the boroughs, and in these latter the right of voting was extremely various, ranging from a suffrage which was nearly universal, to a suffrage which placed the election of a borough member in two or three hands. And this variety of qualification was far from being regarded by the more enlightened statesmen of the eighteenth century as an anomaly or an abuse. It was, on the contrary, defended as one of the great merits of the Constitution. It is of the highest importance, it was urged, that the House of Commons should be various in its composition, containing representatives of many different orders, interests, capacities, aspirations, and opinions, and in no other way can a well-balanced and intelligent representation of the various classes and interests of society be so successfully and so easily attained as by making the electoral bodies very dissimilar. In the United States a similar policy prevailed. The subject was carefully considered by the very able men who framed the Constitution of 1787, and they deliberately determined to follow the English principle, and to leave untouched the great inequalities of suffrage prevailing in the different States. In no two State-Constitutions was the qualification of voters the same, but in all, or nearly all, a substantial property qualification was required.1
It would, however, be doing Rousseau a great injustice to suppose that he expected, preached, or desired any violent revolution. His sympathies with the wrongs of the poor were, indeed, very vivid and very generous. He sprang from among them himself. He never cared for the atmosphere of Court and fashion in which the most eminent of his literary contemporaries moved. His own life, though stained with much ignoble vice, and weak and morbid even to insanity, was at least spent in honourable poverty, and in his long pedestrian journeys he had learnt to measure the great mass of practical oppression that still rested upon the poor. He has himself described, in his own inimitable style, the effect upon his mind when he found a peasant who had given him shelter, carefully concealing every sign of comfort and well-being, lest it should expose him to the exactions of subordinate agents of the Government.1 But violence and bloodshed of every kind were wholly alien to his character. Nor, indeed, did there seem much danger of a catastrophe, if unsophisticated human nature was as pure and as idyllic a thing as Rousseau and St. Pierre imagined. He taught, it is true—and surely with evident reason—that in periods of extreme danger, and when the ruin of the State could not otherwise be averted, it is right to create a dictatorship, and if necessary to suspend for a short time the operation of the laws.2 But when Helvétius wrote that everything was justifiable which the public safety required, Rousseau wrote upon the margin of the page his indignant comment, ‘The public safety is nothing if all the individuals are not secure.’3 ‘If it is meant that it is lawful for a Government to sacrifice an innocent man for the safety of the multitude,’ he elsewhere said, ‘I hold this maxim to be one of the most execrable that tyranny has invented, the most false that can be promulgated, and the most directly opposed to the fundamental law of society. So far from its being right that one should perish for all, all have engaged their lives and goods for the defence of each, in order that individual weakness might be always protected by public force and each member by the whole State.’4 It is a memorable fact that the writer who was the idol of Robespierre, and on whose works Marat was accustomed to deliver enthusiastic commentaries, has left on record his deliberate conviction that ‘the blood of a single man is more precious than the liberty of the whole human race.’1
It is also a most curious fact that while the leaders of the French Revolution drew from the writings of Rousseau a system of cosmopolitan politics, which, aiming at a fraternity of democracies, discarded all national traditions, boundaries, sentiments, and institutions, it was the earnest desire of Rousseau himself to accentuate to the highest degree the spirit of a distinctive and exclusive patriotism. He had much more sympathy with the small Greek republics than with the Roman Empire, and his Swiss birth and education deeply coloured his views. On no point is he more consistent in all his political writings than in his preference for small states. He believed that in them alone true liberty could be attained; that they were far more conducive than great empires to the growth of civic virtue, and that it should be a fundamental object of the legislator in each country to deepen as much as possible the distinctive national type. When Burke showed, in opposition to the cosmopolitanism of the Revolution, how the affections dwindle and evaporate if they are withdrawn from the immediate and natural objects of home, family, class, and country, in order to be expended in a diffused and general philanthropy, he did little more than repeat the arguments of Rousseau.2 No writer had ever urged more powerfully that the moral fibre of nations is fatally relaxed when the spirit of an exclusive patriotism is enfeebled; that this spirit is the seed-plot of the highest virtues; that a strong and ineffaceable individuality is in each nation the best security of continued independence and liberty, and that, at least for the purpose of maintaining that individuality, everything that is local, traditional, and distinctive in institutions and manners should be carefully preserved. His treatise ‘On the Government of Poland,’ which is one of the most instructive of his writings, is specially devoted to this theme. ‘It is national institutions,’ he wrote, ‘which form the genius, the character, the tastes, and the manners of a people; which give it its distinctive and exclusive type; which inspire an ardent love of country, founded on habits that can never be uprooted; which make life in other lands an intolerable burden.’1 By the strong discipline and organisation of government, the legislator should give the whole community the cohesion and the corporate feeling of an army. A broad distinction of privilege should separate the citizen from the alien, while education should be specially directed to strengthening national affections, and holding up national examples for imitation. Distinctive traditions, habits, institutions, dresses, and amusements should never be neglected, for they have all their part in giving strong individuality to the nation. It is curious that Rousseau and Burke, who so seldom agreed, appear to have both looked with warm favour on the Spanish bull fights.2
What I have written, is sufficient to show that although the works of Rousseau had an enormous influence on the French Revolution, they also contain much that is utterly and irreconcilably opposed to it, and it is probable that Rousseau would have looked with loathing and indignation on his disciples of the Convention and of the Committee of Public Safety. The name of ‘country,’ he once wrote, can only be odious and ridiculous where the citizens do not enjoy civil security, and where their goods, lives, and liberty are at the mercy of powerful men, and he added that as a matter of strict right the whole social compact would be dissolved if a single citizen perished who might have been succoured, if a single citizen was wrongfully kept in prison, or a single trial was conducted with manifest injustice.1 Even the ‘Contrat Social’ itself is in truth utterly condemnatory of the proceedings of the French Revolutionists, for one of its fundamental doctrines is, that it is essential to every act of sovereignty that it should be submitted to the free and unintimidated vote of the entire community.
An author, however, cannot choose what part of his teaching will take root in the minds of his readers. The seed will germinate which suits the soil, and men will often adopt sweeping principles and conclusions, and completely neglect all the qualifications, safeguards, and counterpoises by which they had been elaborately fenced round. No one experienced this truth more eminently than Rousseau, and few writers have had a deeper and more various influence both on the passions and the reason of their contemporaries. He has left behind him much false and overstrained sentiment, much dangerous paradox, some pages of odious and abject indecency, but also many pages which in the purity and elevation of their thought as well as in the splendour of their language are among the very noblest in French literature. Some great men owe their eminence to the fidelity and skill with which they represent the prevailing spirit of their time. Another and a smaller class owe it to the power with which they can breast the stream, advocating and representing the truths and aspects of things that had hitherto been most neglected by their contemporaries. To this class, in much of his teaching, Rousseau pre-eminently belongs. It may be said of him, as it has been admirably said of Carlyle, that he was the great alterative medicine of his time.2 In the midst of an optimist, epicurean, sceptical, factitious, and self-complacent society, which habitually valued refinement more than nature, and intellect more than character, he appeared like a figure of another age, preaching a kind of belated and distorted Puritanism; denouncing the usages, tastes, and ideals of a fastidious and intellectual society; uttering words of warning which sounded through the speculation of his time like a passing bell across a marriage feast. Like Wordsworth in England, he introduced into literature a new love and appreciation for natural scenery, for country tastes, for the simpler and more domestic aspects of human life. The fashion of morbid sentiment which he produced has for the most part passed away like the Byronic ideal or the Werther sentimentality, but the strain of deeper earnestness of feeling that runs through his works, the importance he attached to the cultivation of character, and to a religious attitude of mind, were very healthy elements in the philosophy of the eighteenth century. He was among the first modern writers who maintained that every Government should treat national education as one of its most essential duties. His own work on education, though vitiated in many respects by his fundamental error of the essential goodness of man as he comes from the hands of Nature, gave a powerful impulse to education throughout Europe, and it is to the ‘Emile’ of Rousseau that we mainly owe the great reforms of Pestalozzi. But the political principles which he planted so deeply in European society appear to me to have produced an amount of evil which it is not easy to over-estimate. His disciple inferred from his writings that no government is legitimate, which is not in accordance with the fluctuating wishes of a simple majority of the nation; that political power is not a trust but a right; that absolute political equality is the first principle of all just government; that all limitations of the sovereign power should be abolished; that the government of nations can be treated as a matter of speculation and abstract reasoning with little or no regard to traditions, antecedents, and special circumstances, and these doctrines are the true essence of the revolutionary spirit throughout Europe.
They have never been carried out consistently to all their consequences. No sane politician would apply any considerable part of them to the uncivilised portions of the world. Some of them are manifestly incompatible with any settled government; while, on the other hand, the restrictions by which Rousseau endeavoured to prevent their more dangerous results have been easily swept away by the strong currents of popular interest and passion. It is very remarkable that the States-General of 1789, which assembled at a time when the worship of Rousseau was at its highest point, and which consisted chiefly of his devoted disciples, signally violated one of the first principles of his philosophy, by pronouncing the binding instructions of their constituents null and void, and by asserting their own competence to act in opposition to them. Had they not done so, the Revolution might have taken a different turn, for these instructions expressly bound the members to respect the monarchy and the essential portions of the ancient institutions of France.1
At the same time the doctrines of Rousseau had an enormous practical influence during the Revolution, and they have since then passed very widely into the political thought and habits of the leading nations of Europe. Their influence, it is true, is not wholly or mainly due to anything which Rousseau has written. It has been a consequence of advancing democracy, and it is a proof of the sagacity with which Rousseau divined its tendencies as well as furnished its doctrines. The Referendum in Switzerland, according to which any proposed legislative measure may, on the demand of 30,000 citizens or of eight cantons, be submitted to the direct vote of the whole people; the Napoleonic plebiscite, which submitted the form of government to a direct and universal vote; the establishment of manhood suffrage over a great part of Europe; the growing habit of treating representatives as simple delegates and binding their judgment by detailed and constant instructions, as well as the manifest decline of the hereditary principle in government, all belong to the philosophy of Rousseau. And the same influence may be seen in other forms. The system of balancing orders, interests, and opinions, and guarding against the tyranny of majorities and classes by artificial restrictions of law or custom, was long considered an essential part of English freedom. It supplies the explanation and the defence of a great part of the irregularities and apparent anomalies of the British Constitution. Its importance was one of the cardinal articles of the creed of Burke, and it was acted upon with singular ability and consistency by the men who founded the Constitution of the United States. In order to guard against the tyranny and the instability which are the characteristic dangers of democracy, they established organic laws which the two Houses of Congress cannot override, and a supreme and independent tribunal which has a right to detemrine what things are beyond their competence, and they introduced articles into the Constitution forbidding any change in the organic laws except on the proposal of two-thirds of both Houses of Congress or of the Legislatures of two-thirds of the States, and requiring for the final enactment of such change the ratification of Legislatures or conventions in three-fourths of the States.1
In 1787 and the two following years, when the philosophy of Rousseau was reigning without a rival in France, John Adams published his ‘Defence of the American Constitution’ for the purpose of showing the necessity of establishing in every form of government a balance of powers, and Alexander Hamilton, Madison, and Jay supported the same position in the ‘Federalist,’ which contains some of the strongest arguments in defence of those limitations of the popular power, which Rousseau so emphatically repudiated. But it can hardly be doubted that in the century which has elapsed, the steady tendency has been to discredit in theory, and to weaken in fact, all those institutions which were intended to counterbalance or to restrict the absolute authority of the majority. The tendency, so largely due to Rousseau, among modern democracies, to assume like the democracies of ancient Greece an authoritative or paternal character, to attempt to mould the type of the community by regulating education and contracts, and interfering largely with individual action in all the relations of life, has, happily, encountered strong opposing influences, but it is at least sufficiently accentuated to cause grave apprehensions to some of the foremost thinkers of our time.
The method of reasoning in politics also, which has been increasing, appears to me to belong much more to the school of Rousseau than to that of Burke. No good observer can have failed to notice how common it has become to treat certain, democratic formulas of representative government as if they were dogmas of religion or first principles of morals, to be applied, with a total disregard for expediency or particular circumstances, to nations that are wholly dissimilar in race, character, social conditions, and political antecedents. It is not too much to say that if such principles of government become dominant in Parliament, the speedy dissolution of this great and complex Empire will be inevitable.
In purely domestic questions the influence of French modes of thought is equally apparent. Thus in all questions relating to parliamentary reform or the extension of the suffrage, a disciple of Burke, starting with a strong sense of the presumption against organic change and of the many, various, and often unforeseen evils it may produce, would ask what is the specific disease it is desired to remedy; what part of the existing Parliament is peccant or an evil; what public opinion in the country is manifestly unsatisfied or unrepresented; how far the proposed measure would remedy this specific evil; how far it would do so without producing other and greater evils? If the answers to these questions established a clear case in favour of change he would accept the necessity, but he would strictly limit the change to the requirements of the case. It must be manifest to everyone that a wholly different order of thought and reasoning is now in the ascendant. The dread of organic change has enormously diminished. Arguments based on arithmetical computations, and on the alleged injustice of one district or class having a greater share of political power than another, are becoming continually more popular. Inequality in representation is more and more regarded as a synonym for injustice, and this method of reasoning is carried so far that we have seen statesmen expressing their opinion that although the extension of the franchise in a particular quarter of the Empire would undoubtedly aggravate the very evil which is most conspicuous in the existing parliamentary system, it ought nevertheless to be granted because to withhold it would be to create an inequality. The old English doctrine that representation should be based not only on population but upon taxation has been discarded. Attempts to secure the competence of the representative body by maintaining a preponderance of intelligence in the electoral body, and to secure a balance and variety of representation by maintaining the diversities of the constituencies, are becoming completely obsolete. The rightful sovereignty of a mere numerical majority, in which the most ignorant and the least capable must necessarily preponderate, is becoming the first principle of English politics, and in this manner, for good or for evil, English parliamentary government is rapidly drifting from its ancient moorings. The star of Burke is manifestly fading, and a great part of the teaching of the ‘Contrat Social’ is passing even into English politics.
The ‘Contrat Social’ was published in 1762, but its great influence dates from a somewhat later period, and especially from the destruction of the Parliaments. In the reign of Lewis XVI. and in the earlier stages of the Revolution the enthusiasm for Rousseau almost amounted to adoration, and his statue was the first erected by the National Assembly.1 The school of the Economists, which also rose mainly in the third quarter of the eighteenth century, was in some respects a rival influence, for these writers were all intensely monarchical. Some of them, like Mercier de la Rivière, were enthusiastic advocates of despotism, and none of them had by temperament or taste the smallest tendency towards anarchy. But Quesnay, who was the leading figure in the school, though he utterly rejected Rousseau's notion of the sovereignty of the people, agreed with Rousseau in maintaining that the sovereign power must be at once single and irresistible, and that the whole system of a division and balance of power as it existed in England, and as it had been advocated by Montesquieu, was fundamentally vicious. Like Voltaire, the Economists considered what they call ‘a legal despotism’ the best form of government for effecting administrative reforms, and Le Trosne argued that the situation of France ‘was infinitely superior’ to that of England because the French Government could change the whole state of the country in a moment without being trammelled by constitutional restrictions. The Economists contended for the absolute inviolability of private property, for the establishment in lieu of all existing imposts of a single tax to be paid by every man in strict proportion to his income, for universal and obligatory education by the State, for complete liberty of industry and commerce, for a total transformation of the internal administration. Severing themselves, like Rousseau, from the historical school of politicians, they had an utter disregard for the past, and they anticipated Bentham's doctrine that the great secret of government is to be found in the harmony of public with private interest, and in the establishment of government on a strictly utilitarian basis. No writers had before pointed out so clearly, or so powerfully, the essential evil of the whole existing system of commercial restraint, monopoly, prohibition, forced labour, fiscal mismanagement, and feudal burdens; and their doctrine that agriculture is the sole real source of national wealth, led them to bring into a special prominence the many and grievous wrongs of the country population. The rise of this school immensely increased the prevailing passion for political speculation, the desire for political experiment, the disregard for traditions and customs, the deep sense of the intolerable evils of existing laws and institutions. ‘There is scarcely a young man,’ wrote Grimm, in the first year of Lewis XVI., ‘who on leaving college does not form a project of establishing a new system of philosophy and of government, and scarcely a writer who does not think himself obliged to enlighten the human race about its first interests, and teach the powers of the earth the best method of governing their states.’1
And what was the nature of the government at the time when these ideas were seething and spreading through the nation? It was a despotism so absolute that Blackstone had a few years before classed France and Turkey together, as examples of the countries in which the personal liberty of the subject was most completely at the mercy of the Crown.2 The system of arbitrary exile and of arbitrary imprisonment was in full force. There was nothing analogous to the English Habeas Corpus Act; no liberty of the press; no legalised religious liberty; no trial by jury; no national representation. The States-General had not met since 1614. The people had absolutely no voice in making the laws they obeyed, and, except in a very few provinces, with the destruction of the Parliaments the last semblance of control on the taxing powers of the Crown had been lost.
It is of course true that in France, as in all other despotisms, there were some unwritten, or even fully recognised, obstacles to the omnipotence of the Sovereign. Long-continued usage and precedent established lines of government which could not be safely abandoned. There were classes and interests and currents of opinion too powerful to be altogether disregarded, and the sale of hereditary offices had given a great number of officials in all departments vested interests and a large measure of practical independence. Montesquieu defended this venality of offices as a means of establishing permanent orders in the State, and as distinguishing monarchy from pure despotism, under which all subjects may at any moment be placed or displaced by the will of the Sovereign.1 The clergy retained a considerable power of self-government, and large classes of offices were reserved by law to the nobles. But the rightful power of the Sovereign as recognised by the heads of the French Church, and of the French law, and as asserted by a long succession of French kings, was almost without a limit. He claimed to be the sole representative of the nation, the sole source of legislative as of all other political power. ‘All the property of his subjects belongs to him, and in taking it he is only taking what is his own.’2 Under a strong sovereign like Lewis XIV. this unrestrained power was concentrated in the King. Under weak sovereigns like Lewis XV. and Lewis XVI. it passed chiefly into the hands of the King's ministers; of the King's Council, a body appointed by the Crown and revocable at pleasure; of the intendants and their delegates who carried on the government of the provinces.
France had at one time possessed a very large amount of local and provincial self-government, but the institutions around which it centred had been one by one either annihilated or reduced to impotence. Each province had formerly been under the direction of a governor who was a great local nobleman appointed for life, and occupying a position somewhat similar to that of an English lord lieutenant. But it had been the policy of Richelieu to take the government of the country from the aristocracy, and he did this, very effectually by placing all real power in the hands of a new class of functionaries called Intendants, who were removable at pleasure, unconnected for the most part with the provinces they ruled and frequently changed from one to the other. Lewis XIV. gave them almost unlimited powers, including that of life and death. It was for them and for their delegates to adjust the burden of taxation, to regulate all matters relating to the militia, the roads, the internal commerce, the public works, the administration of justice; and their power was so absolute that Law scarcely exaggerated when he said ‘that the kingdom of France was in reality governed by thirty intendants.’ Appeals to the Crown against abuses in the provinces were only illusory, for they were systematically referred to the intendants themselves.1
In the Middle Ages each province had possessed the very important institution known as the Provincial States. With some diversity of form, these States consisted of the three orders of nobles, clergy, and commons, and they had the right of voting and distributing the local, and even a part of the general taxation, and of directing the whole administration of the provinces. But chiefly under the influence of Richelieu, these provincial States had been totally abolished over three-fourths of France. For a time the provinces that were deprived of them retained the power of electing some functionaries, and they were therefore called ‘pays d'élection,’ but this too was soon abolished. Three-fourths of France was now divested of all local self-government and lay at the mercy of intendants appointed by the Crown, and of delegates appointed by the intendants. Of the eight provinces called the ‘pays d'état,’ which comprised the remaining fourth, and still possessed provincial States, Languedoc and Bretagne alone retained some real vestiges of their old independence. The overwhelming powers conferred on the intendants; the severe restrictions imposed on the proceedings of the provincial States, and the influence the Government easily acquired over a large proportion of their members, were sufficient to reduce those bodies to complete subservience.1 In the towns the right of electing municipal functionaries had been abolished in 1692; municipal independence had received its death-blow when Lewis XIV. for the purpose of raising money began the system of putting up municipal offices for sale, and almost all real power in the towns was gradually absorbed by the central government and exercised through intendants.2
The judicial tribunals were equally dependent. The King by the intervention of the Grand Council claimed the power of revising and altering their decisions in the interests of the State and without any regard to the letter of the law. Intendants with the assistance of councillors chosen by themselves could withdraw trials from the regular tribunals, and condemn men to the galleys or even to death, and if a functionary had broken the law the power of the Crown was almost invariably exerted to withdraw him from the jurisdiction of the law courts.3
With the centralisation of government the division of classes steadily increased. In England the mixture of classes, and the presence in the country districts of a great number of families of the gentleman class, may be largely ascribed to three very dissimilar influences, the unpaid magistracy, field sports, and an established Church. The gratuitous administration of county government provides the country gentleman with an important sphere of duties and dignities; the national passion for field sports forms a sufficient counterpoise to the pleasures of the town; the established Church scatters over the country districts, and concentrates in the small cathedral towns, a multitude of families who represent in the most graceful, useful, and intelligent form the life of the less opulent country gentleman. But in France the conditions were wholly different. A celibate priesthood drawn chiefly from the humbler classes has never had this social influence. The passion for field sports has always been less strong and less diffused than in England, though the game laws were in some respects much more oppressive.1 The French country gentlemen had themselves no magisterial powers or duties, though they possessed, and often grossly abused, a right of appointing petty judges to try petty cases in their several districts.2 With increasing centralisation and the excessive multiplication of Government employments, their sphere of influence had grown very narrow, and Arthur Young noticed that gratuitous public service, which was so common in England, was utterly foreign to French ideas.3 It had been one of the objects of the French kings, and especially of Lewis XIV., to draw all the leading members of the class to Paris, and to attach them to the Court; and before the Revolution broke out, great districts had been completely denuded of country gentry. Scarcely any but the poorer nobles lived in the country, and if members of the richer class were found there, it was almost exclusively in order to economise.4 Voltaire explained the general failure of French poets to describe rural scenes by the great disfavour with which country life was regarded by the educated classes in France.5 And besides this, the crushing taxation which fell upon land that was not privileged, and the heavy and degrading duty called the franc fief which was exacted from every member of the middle class who purchased privileged or seigneurial lands, drove those who had made fortunes in industrial life from the land market unless they had previously purchased titles of nobility.1
Among the peasants, however, the desire for land was very strong. Their savings were generally invested in it. Land naturally sold best in small quantities, and the landlords were in general very willing to sell. Many of them had ceased to take any interest in their estates and had been ruined by the extravagance of Paris and of the Court, and many others were glad to get rid of large tracts of unproductive land which peasants were ready to purchase and cultivate, or had found profitable openings for their capital in the purchase of Government employments and in the rapidly expanding sphere of industrial life. If the peasants were unable to raise the whole of the purchase money, it was usually commuted into a perpetual fixed rent. Under these various influences possibly a fourth part, certainly not less than a fifth part, of the soil of France had passed before the Revolution into the possession of peasant proprietors.2
In this fact there was laid the foundation of a great part of the future conservatism of France, but its immediate effects were as far as possible from conservative. The small proprietor, who had usually purchased with money borrowed on hard terms, soon found himself struggling with difficulty and want, and exposed to various exactions from which as a tenant he had been exempt. The tithes were less severe than in England,3 but falling on a much poorer population they were bitterly resented, and they strengthened the anti-ecclesiastical spirit in the country districts, while hatred of the many feudal privileges of the nobles became one of the strongest feelings of the French mind. These privileges were of many kinds, and they had many different origins. One class were essentially of the nature of property—rights or dues or tributes which had been reserved when the land was conceded to the peasant, and which were the conditions, and, in part at least, the price of the purchase. Another large class were derived from the period when the nobles discharged many of the duties of sovereignty, and conducted in person the administration of the provinces, and they continued to be exacted when the services for which they had originally been imposed were no longer rendered; while others again were relics of ancient serfdom. There were fixed annual payments of the nature of ground rents. There were tributes in kind, of wine and corn and chickens. There were duties to a feudal lord when a farm changed hands; duties or tolls on markets, fairs, auctions, bridges, ferries, high roads, weights and measures. There were rights to the property of those who were condemned to death; to the property of those who died without an heir; to the property of foreigners who died on the domain of the lord. There were exclusive rights of hunting, shooting, keeping pigeons and rabbit warrens, and there were many quaint, antiquated, and sometimes degrading rights of homage of a purely honorary description. The monopoly which the feudal lord possessed of the right of building mills, baking-ovens, and winepresses, and the obligation imposed on the peasant of giving annually a certain number of days' labour gratuitously to his feudal lord, were among the most oppressive portions of the system. In some provinces the lord had the right of selling his wine for thirty or forty days before that of the peasant could be brought into the market.
The feudal burdens varied greatly in their amount; and in some districts, especially Languedoc, Dauphiné, and the Lyonnais, much land was ‘allodial’ or exempt.1 But over by far the greater part of France the feudal system was in full force. It was less severe than in Germany and some other countries where serfdom was still general, and it had been slightly alleviated in the course of the century. The number of the days of forced labour had been by custom reduced; many ancient tolls had been abolished, and it was the spirit of the law courts to construe strictly the right to feudal services, and to recognise only those which were distinctly authorised by title deeds, and which were therefore usually due to an ancient contract. But when all this is admitted, it remains true that the small proprietor as well as the peasant found himself involved in a perfect maze of intricate, vexatious, oppressive, and often ruinous obligations for which he seemed to receive no corresponding advantage. While some parts of the system were plainly unjust, being payments for services that were no longer rendered, other dues were strictly of the nature of property, being elements of a regular sale. Even the most legitimate, however, were now resented, and the resentment became the stronger because those to whom they were paid lived chiefly in the towns and had lost the power and the popularity both of landlords and administrators. With frequent sales of land the feudal rights had constantly changed hands. They often passed into the hands of men who had no other connection with the soil. A great part were in the possession of the Church. Another, and perhaps still larger, part had been acquired by the middle classes.1 The incessant subdivision of small farms had at the same time broken many feudal dues into minute fractions, greatly increased the cost of their collection, and given rise to a vast amount of complication and obscurity, and as a consequence to much expensive and irritating litigation.2
D'Argenson as early as 1751 had very wisely recommended their compulsory purchase, and such a measure was actually carried out with great success in Piedmont twenty years later by Charles Emmanuel III. In France, however, these rights were preserved with little change till the Revolution, and they gave that movement some of its worst and most distinctive characteristics. Famine, avarice, and revolutionary incitements conspired in producing a great revolt against feudal rights. All classes were thrown into the same category, and it became the main object of the peasantry to annihilate all without compensation. Hence the atrocious Jacquerie which formed one of the most hideous scenes of the first act of the Revolution; the burning of castles in order to destroy the muniment rooms and the title deeds they contained; the frequent murder of the feudal lords. The Constituent Assembly attempted to abolish feudal obligations by a discriminating and statesmanlike measure purchasing that portion of them which was clearly of the nature of property, but it was unable to induce the excited peasantry to accept the decree, and at last in 1793 the Convention crowned the work of revolution by sweeping away without compensation the whole feudal system, including many money dues which had been purchased, and as it was believed secured, by the most legitimate contracts.
While the feudal system turned the peasantry against the nobles, other causes not less powerful were arraying them against the Government. If there had been at this time a really strong, intelligent, and reforming despotism, it would have certainly represented a large portion of public opinion. Such a Government, provided it is not under clerical influence, has always been popular in France, and it would have found a wide sphere for its exertions. It might have employed the strength of the Executive in placing the taxation of the country on a broad and equitable basis; sweeping away a crowd of invidious class privileges, obsolete and barbarous laws, commercial and industrial restraints; giving a very ignorant population some measure of technical and agricultural education, and stimulating by the many means in its power material prosperity. If it had made France respected abroad and prosperous at home, if it had given her a sound and equal administrative system as well as religious and intellectual liberty, it would have fulfilled the desire both of Voltaire and the Economists, and it would have found so much public support that it might probably have defied all the efforts of the revolutionary school of Rousseau.
A Government of this kind, however, is easily conceived but rarely realised, and the despotism of France was weak and imbecile, and corroded with unrighteous privilege. The taxation of the country had grown to a colossal height through the wars of Lewis XIV., and subsequent mismanagement had greatly aggravated the burden. There are few subjects of inquiry more difficult than a comparison of the financial condition of France before and after the Revolution. The great change in the value of money throughout Europe; the special increase in the national wealth of France; the complete alteration of the whole system of taxation; the extreme complexity, obscurity, and confusion in which the finances of ancient France were involved; the habit of deferring accounts till several years after they had become due, and the frequent false representations which were given upon authority, create many pitfalls for the historian. Much research has, however, been devoted to the subject, and in the opinion of one of the best judges, the annual imposts borne by the French people at the outbreak of the Revolution, including the tithes and local dues and taxes, may be estimated at eight hundred and eighty millions of livres, while the whole wealth of the country was less than one-third of what it became eighty years later. According to this estimate the taxation of France in 1789 bore a higher proportion to its wealth, than under any of the Governments up to the fall of Napoleon III. with the single exception of the Reign of Terror.1
Under any circumstances such taxation would have been burdensome, but it was rendered intolerable by its enormous, its scandalous injustice. The whole noble class and the whole body of the clergy were exempted from the greater part of it. From the ‘taille’ or personal tax, which was the heaviest tax in France and which had increased tenfold in two centuries, they were in nearly all cases absolutely free; and although they did pay the capitation tax and the tax called the ‘vingtième,’ they paid it on a separate and a lower scale. The number of the so-called ‘privileged’ individuals is said to have been not less than 270,000, and it was continually increasing by the sale of offices which carried with them the privilege of nobility. Necker mentioned that in his time there were no less than 4,000 of these offices. Yet even this does not by any means measure the whole amount of the exemptions. There were many thousands of petty offices which did not confer the rights of nobility, but which freed those who held them from the ‘taille’ and reduced some of their other taxes to small dimensions.1 There were whole towns which had secured for themselves considerable exemptions,2 and nearly all over France the full weight of the taxation fell mainly upon the small peasantry, upon the classes of the community who were the most poor and the most helpless. At a time when the passion for equality was at its height this astounding inequality of the poor crushed by taxation in order that the rich might be relieved, was continually before the eyes of the people. There was probably not a parish, not a village, in the country districts in which it was not illustrated by examples. An historian who has examined with great care the details of French taxation has estimated that over a great part of France the class which was ‘taillable,’ and which consisted chiefly of the farmers of the country, paid on an average out of every 100 francs of their nett revenue no less than 53 francs in direct taxation, 14 francs 28 centimes in tithes, and 14 francs 28 centimes in feudal dues, leaving less than a fifth part for the support of themselves and their families.3
It has been estimated by the same historian that the proportion of taxation to revenue, borne in several provinces by those who were ‘taillable,’ was about five times as great as at present,4 and its enormity was mainly due to the exemptions enjoyed by almost all the wealthier members of the community. For the poor there were no such exemptions. The capitation tax, especially, pursued the humblest and the most helpless. The workman who gained but fivepence a day for his labour, sometimes paid eight, nine, or ten livres of capitation, and the tax was paid even by those wretched beings who hovered round the gutters of the great towns in search of rags or broken bottles, or pieces of iron, or who sold old hats and clothes through the streets.5
The system of taxation was as arbitrary as it was unjust. The King's Council decided the amount which each province should pay, and had even the right of increasing the ‘taille’ by a simple ‘arrêt,’ until Necker in 1780 induced the King to consent that this should in future only be done by a regular law registered by Parliament.1 In the ‘pays d'élection’ the inten-dants and their subordinates exercised an almost absolute power in assigning to each district and individual their proportion of the burden. Enormous abuses naturally grew up; despotic power was encountered by concealment and falsehood, but on the whole those who possessed wealth and influence were usually favoured. Many branches of the revenue were farmed out, and the ‘fermiers’ were not less extortionate and oppressive than the Irish tithe proctors, to whom they bore a marked resemblance.
The exemption of the nobles from taxation originated at a time when they were a small body, and its justification was the gratuitous military service they were then bound to render. But after the institution of standing armies this reason no longer existed, while the amount of the taxes was vastly increased. Montesquieu described the gigantic armies of his day as ‘a new malady,’ which had spread over Europe and which was threatening its chief countries with absolute ruin.2 It was impossible that the whole burden of supporting them should rest permanently on the poor, and some feeble efforts were accordingly made to diffuse it. The taxation of the privileged classes began after the Peace of Ryswick with the capitation tax and the ‘tenths,’ and from this time French finance ministers steadily endeavoured to mitigate the inequality.3 It gradually became a settled maxim among them, that every increase of taxation should be met by augmenting the ‘twentieth,’ which applied to the property of all classes, rather than the ‘taille,’ from which the privileged classes were exempt, and a serious effort was made to amend the shamefully low valuation upon which the privileged classes paid the former tax. Something was done in this direction, though slowly and imperfectly, but the further prosecution of the scheme appears to have been abandoned in 1782 through the opposition of the Parliaments.1 In the mean time the inequality of taxation was becoming continually more intolerable through the double process of an increasing aggregate burden and of an increasing number of exemptions. The character, numbers, and position of the French aristocracy had wholly changed, since Richelieu and Lewis XIV. had drawn the more important and opulent members from the management of their estates to the dissipations of Paris, and since Mazarin had begun the system of annexing hereditary titles to the magistracy, and to a crowd of other offices purchased from the King.2 It had become so easy to buy nobility with money, that Turgot scarcely exaggerated when he wrote that ‘the class of the nobles comprised the whole class of the rich,’3 and it was this class which was refusing to bear its reasonable proportion of the burdens of the State.
The injustice was glaring and intolerable, but it was not peculiar to France. It may be found during the eighteenth century in almost every leading country on the Continent,4 and it is one of the points in which the contrast between English and continental Governments is most remarkable. The predominating influence of a landed aristocracy in England may indeed be plainly seen in laws which artificially foster the agglomeration of land. It may be seen in the severity of the game laws. It has been seen by some writers in the continued lowness of the land tax, but such writers forget the number and magnitude of the special burdens on land, and the immense change which has taken place in the relative importance of real and personal property since the Revolution, and they forget also the remarkable fact that the so-called land tax was originally imposed, not solely on land, but also on personal property, and that it is personal property and not land which has since been exempted.1 Land was, however, exempted from the succession duties which Pitt's Acts of 1789 and 1796 imposed on personal property, and the law of distress gives landlords a preferential claim as creditors in the case of the insolvency of their tenants. But in general the richer classes in England have never claimed any exemption from taxation, while they have readily accepted many special burdens, and when they secured for themselves a virtual monopoly of places of dignity and power their usual method was to make those offices either absolutely gratuitous or exceedingly underpaid. As Tocqueville has truly said: ‘For centuries the only inequalities of taxation in England were those which had been successively introduced in favour of the necessitous classes. … In the eighteenth century it was the poor who enjoyed exemptions from taxation in England, in France it was the rich. In the one case the aristocracy had taken upon its own shoulders the heaviest public charges in order to be allowed to govern. In the other case it retained to the end an immunity from taxation, in order to console itself for the loss of government.’2 It is true that the position of the English working classes in relation to taxation was not quite so favourable in the eighteenth century as at present, when all the articles of first necessity and all the raw materials of industry are untaxed, but still they had no special burdens, and they had many special exemptions. Arthur Young relates the enthusiasm and the astonishment with which a French mob during the Revolution received a short speech which he made them, on the difference between taxation in England and France. ‘We have many taxes,’ said the English traveller, ‘in England which you know nothing of in France, but the tiers état, the poor, do not pay them. They are laid on the rich. Every window in a man's house pays, but if he has no more than six windows he pays nothing. A seigneur with a great estate pays the vingtièmes and tailles, but the little proprietor of a garden pays nothing. The rich pay for their horses, their carriages, their servants, and even for liberty to kill their own partridges; but the poor farmer pays nothing of all this, and what is more we have in England a tax paid by the rich for the relief of the poor.’1
To complete the picture of the evils of French administration, we have to remember the enormous multiplication of pensions, sinecures, and absurdly overpaid offices reserved exclusively for the privileged classes, and the enormous multiplication of judicial and other offices habitually put up for sale. The sale of offices extended to the army, the navy, the ordnance, and even the ecclesiastical employments about the household.2 The burden of the militia fell wholly on the peasantry; and as married men were exempted, it was one cause of the commonness of improvident marriages among them, which contrasts so remarkably with the rareness of such marriages in our day.3 Unpaid labour was exacted twice a year for making and repairing the roads. The sale of salt was a strict monopoly of the Government, and its price, making full allowance for the alteration in the value of money, was eight times as high as in the present day.4 Bread was made artificially dear by the restrictions on the internal commerce of corn; similar restrictions were imposed on the internal commerce of wine and brandy, and the system of jurandes placed every trade on the basis of monopoly, and forbade the workmen to migrate in search of more profitable markets for their industry. Endless tolls and restrictions and ancient privileges interlaced and impeded industry at every turn, and between ignorance and poverty and oppression, agriculture, over a great part of France, was little more advanced than in the Middle Ages. Arthur Young calculated that an acre of land produced in England on an average from twenty-four to twenty-five bushels of grain, but in France only eighteen, and that while the produce of arable land in the one country might be estimated at 50s., in the other it was only 35s.5
In this manner France, in spite of its extraordinary advantages in soil and climate, its admirable geographical position, and the great energy and skill of its manufacturers, continued to be a poor country, and while its towns ranked among the most brilliant in Europe, every bad season reduced a great part of its country population to absolute famine. Vauban and St. Simon have drawn in imperishable lines the picture of their misery under Lewis XIV., and the constant and formidable bread riots during the whole of the eighteenth century, show how persistently that misery continued. In 1739 and 1740 the distress was such, that D'Argenson expressed his belief that in those years more Frenchmen died of misery than in all the wars of Lewis XIV.1 In 1750 and 1751 the same scenes were reproduced. Whole villages were deserted. At least 20,000 workmen fled across the frontier. In some districts field labour could hardly be accomplished, for the few remaining peasants were so extenuated by hunger that they could scarcely hold the spade or direct the plough, and gaunt, famine-stricken crowds, shouting for bread, besieged the town halls and followed the Dauphin as he drove to Notre-Dame.2 In one month in 1753, and in one quarter of Paris, no less than 800 persons died of misery.3 1770 and 1773 were both years of famine,4 and although the commercial wealth of France increased rapidly during the early years of Lewis XVI. it left the condition of the peasantry little changed.
The provinces, it is true, differed greatly in taxation, feudal burdens, soil, cultivation, and general well-being. Turgot described Normandy, Flanders, Picardy, and the districts around Paris and Orleans as flourishing, but he added that at least four-sevenths of France was cultivated by tenants who were absolute paupers, who held their land for the most part by the metayer tenure, and who were very generally reduced to the most abject misery through the burden of the ‘taille’ and the oppression of the middleman.5 The detailed investigation of Arthur Young, about twenty years later, amply corroborates the picture. While he found a few provinces fairly prosperous, he estimated that there were in France not less than 40,000,000 acres that were absolutely or nearly waste, that country labour was paid seventy-six per cent. less than in England, that the metayers who formed the great mass of the French tenantry were sunk in a poverty to which there was no parallel in England, and which was certainly not exceeded in Ireland, and that their extreme poverty was mainly to be ascribed to the arbitrary and excessive ‘taille,’ and to the manifold oppressions of the feudal system. ‘What a miracle,’ he wrote, ‘that all this splendour and wealth of the cities of France should be so unconnected with the country. There are no gentle transitions from ease to comfort, from comfort to wealth. You pass at once from beggary to profusion, from misery in mud cabins to … spectacles at 500 livres a night; the country deserted, or if a gentleman in it, you find him in some wretched hole to save that money which is lavished with profusion in the luxuries of a capital.’1 As in the Roman Empire in the period of its decadence, great districts fell wholly out of cultivation, on account of the overwhelming weight of the burdens on agriculture.
I have now enumerated the chief intellectual, social, political, and moral influences that prepared the great catastrophe of the Revolution. The enumeration, however imperfect, will throw some light on the contrasts between the conditions of England and France; the alleged danger of French principles spreading to England, and the causes which made the Revolution in France much more than a merely national or merely political event. It is unnecessary, however, for my present purpose, to examine with the same detail the fifteen memorable years between the accession of Lewis XVI. and the final catastrophe; when, under a virtuous and most well-meaning, but feeble, sluggish, and vacillating King, the experiment of reform was tried and failed. Contrary to the wishes of Voltaire, but amid great popular rejoicing, the Parliaments and other law courts which had been abolished under Lewis XV. were restored, and in the person of Turgot the best and greatest of the Economists assumed the reins of power. Thoroughly imbued with the most enlightened economical teaching of his time, thoroughly acquainted, through his thirteen years' experience as intendant of Limousin, with the conditions, wants, and misery of the French people, this great minister attempted reforms which would have remedied, or at least alleviated, nearly all the more important abuses that have been described. He was supported warmly, and or the whole loyally, by the King, and in Malesherbes he found a colleague who was as pure-minded and conscientious as himself.
The Ministry of Turgot lasted little more than twenty months,1 and during a considerable part of it he was confined to his room by the gout, but it formed one of the most memorable pages in the century. No minister ever showed a more untiring energy, a more single-minded desire for public good, a more thorough knowledge, both of existing abuses and of the remedies by which they might be cured; but he was wholly wanting in the art of managing and conciliating men, and in the art of measuring his reforms by the state of public opinion. Austere, absolute, and rigid in his character and in his manners, he was too much governed by general maxims and by considerations of abstract utility, and his conviction of the precariousness of his power, and of the probable shortness of his life, gave a feverish energy to his policy, and led him to attempt far more than he could possibly have accomplished. The enumeration of the reforms which he effected, attempted, or proposed makes one of the most wonderful pictures of political activity in history. They comprised the suppression of the corvées and of the jurandes, a complete readjustment of the taxation of France, the establishment of a most elaborate system of local self-government in the form of assemblies which were to be elected in every province, the removal of all, or nearly all, the barriers on internal commerce, a commutation of the feudal dues, the reorganisation of the courts of justice, the concession of full religious liberty to the Protestants, a general system of national secular education. Something was accomplished, but the most important designs were defeated, and all the classes whose interests and privileges were menaced soon conspired against him. The reconstituted Parliaments, fully verifying the prediction of Voltaire, and forgetting their old quarrels with the clergy, made themselves the most formidable defenders of the old privileges. The Parliament of Paris burnt the work in which Boncerf, at the instigation of Turgot, pointed out the evils of the feudal system; and it protested vehemently against the abolition of the corvées and jurandes, and against the equalisation of the taxes. The clergy rose in indignation against the proposed measures of toleration, and they looked with horror on a minister who was in open sympathy with the philosophers. The merchants were enraged at the abolition of the jurandes, and countless particular interests were alarmed and irritated by the measures of equalisation and economy. Courtiers and magistrates, the clergy and the merchants, were soon leagued against the minister; and although Voltaire defended him with admirable force, he could not turn the stream. Even among the poor, whom he so deeply loved, Turgot was not wholly popular. One of his best measures was the removal of the restraints upon the internal commerce of corn; but a bad year happened to follow, and in the fierce bread riots that ensued, the cry was raised that Turgot was starving the people.
Though one of the greatest of reformers, he had no wish to strengthen the popular element in the French Government. He entirely rejected the advice of Malesherbes, who desired the convocation of the States-General. The work of Boncerf, which he inspired, maintained that it was in the power of the Sovereign by his royal authority to abolish the feudal system. The bread riots were suppressed under Turgot quite as energetically and quite as severely as under former administrations, and his attitude towards the Parliaments was one of uncompromising hostility. He had never approved of their revival; he saw plainly that their doctrine that no tax was obligatory which they had not freely registered, was the most formidable obstacle to his design of putting an end to the exemptions of the privileged orders from taxation; and his two greatest measures—the abolition of the corvfies and the abolition of the jurandes—were forced through a hostile and protesting Parliament by beds of justice, and with the strongest possible assertion of the omnipotence of the royal power. The whole legislative power of the nation, he emphatically declared, was rightly concentrated in the Sovereign; and although he desired to confer upon local bodies large powers of administration and of advice, he was inflexibly opposed to any restriction or partition of the authority of the King.1 But the party at Court which was opposed to him, and the party of the privileged orders, daily increased; and the Queen, who disliked his manners and still more his economies, used her influence in favour of the opposition. The King wished to support him, but he had little confidence in his own judgment, and found that nearly all with whom he came in contact were hostile to the minister. He was himself disturbed by Turgot's religious views, disappointed at the number of animosities that he aroused, alarmed at the effect of his policy in producing riots of peasants against their feudal lords, and of workmen against their masters. Maurepas, who from the beginning of the reign had a great influence over the King's judgment, was hostile to Turgot. The Queen, indignant at Turgot's removing one of her favourites, gave the last blow. Malesherbes had already resigned in disgust; and in May 1776, Turgot was dismissed and disgraced. ‘I shall never,’ wrote Voltaire, ‘console myself for having seen rise and perish the golden age, which these two ministers were preparing for us.’
The dismissal of Turgot was speedily followed by the restoration of the corvées and jurandes, amid many manifestations of popular indignation. The influence of Maurepas on the mind of the King was strengthened, but the vision of innumerable great reforms unexpectedly presented, and then suddenly withdrawn, stimulated the restless and innovating spirit which had been steadily growing in France, while among the privileged classes a feeling of insecurity began to spread. Madame de Staël happily described or defined the philosophical spirit of the time, as a growing habit of measuring all things by reason and not by habit, and institutions which had long been acquiesced in without a murmur, were now submitted to a jealous scrutiny.
After a short interval, however, the policy of reform was resumed, though within narrower limits, by Necker, whose first financial ministry extended from October 1776 to May 1781. The Genevese banker was beyond all things a financier, and he viewed the whole question mainly in its financial aspect. The confidence be inspired among the moneyed classes was remarkably shown by the great success of his war loans; he introduced many skilful economies into many different branches of public service; he endeavoured with praiseworthy courage to check the enormous and criminal extravagance of Marie Antoinette, and he took the bold and, in truth, somewhat doubtful step of making the nation aware of the magnitude of the financial crisis, by publishing for the first time a full account of the revenue and expenditure. He abstained from the ambitious and systematic measures of Turgot, but a reform of the hospitals, the establishment of monts de piété for the benefit of the struggling poor, the abolition of servitude on the royal domains, a royal proclamation inviting the feudal lords to follow the royal example, and the abolition of torture inflicted previous to trial, mark the spirit of his administration. He was deeply sensible of the enormous injustice inflicted on the provinces by the absolute power of the intendants to determine the amount of the taille, and he also saw clearly that the financial equilibrium could never be restored, unless the existing exemptions from taxation were abolished. But such a measure could not be carried by simple royal authority, in the face of the opposition of the aristocratic Parliaments, which had been violently suppressed, and then unwisely restored.
His plan was, in part at least, substantially the same as that which had been recommended by Fénelon to the Duke of Burgundy. Fénelon had proposed the revival in each province of the provincial States consisting of the three orders, and he desired to entrust to them, and ultimately to the States-General, which they were to elect, the reform of the system of taxation. With a foresight, however, which subsequent events signally justified, he perceived that the usual form of the old provincial States, in which the three orders voted separately, gave the privileged orders a preponderance which would be fatal to the scheme. In the States of Languedoc alone, the three orders voted together, and the representatives of the third order equalled those of the other orders combined. This model Fénelon proposed for imitation, and he recommended at the same time the abolition of the intendants.
The death of the Duke of Burgundy destroyed the prospects of a scheme which, if it had been adopted in time, might have introduced into French administration a most efficient and active principle of freedom and of reform. Several writers recurred to the proposal, but Turgot sought to attain the objects of Fénelon in another way. He entirely disregarded the existence, division, and balance of orders which lay at the root of the old States-General and provincial States, but he recommended the formation of a hierarchy of elective assemblies, parochial, municipal, and provincial, culminating in a National Assembly, all resting on the basis of landed property alone, and entrusted merely with the duty of advising the Government. This violent departure from the traditional form of French assemblies was not sanctioned by the King, and Necker proposed to recur to the division by orders, but to follow the precedent of the States of Languedoc in the manner of the voting and in the number of the representatives of the commons. His provincial assemblies were not, however, at first to be elective bodies though they were ultimately to become so. The King was to choose the first sixteen members; they were themselves to elect their colleagues and they were to sit for two years. Necker proposed to invest them with very considerable powers both of administration and taxation, and gradually to confine the Parliaments to purely magisterial and judicial functions. Three provincial assemblies were actually established, when the intentions of Necker about the Parliaments were treacherously disclosed. The Parliament of Paris at once refused to register the edict for a fourth provincial assembly, and such a storm of opposition arose that Necker abandoned his task. His resignation was given on May 19, 1781.1
But before these events had taken place, all real hope of restoring the finances had been destroyed by the war into which France had entered in support of the American Revolution. Turgot had solemnly warned the King that the first shot from a French cannon would make bankruptcy inevitable, and the King with his frequent good sense clearly saw the danger, though with his usual weakness he suffered himself to be overruled by those who were about him. The American War surrounded the Court and the Government with a new and genuine popularity. It turned the minds of men for a time from internal contests, and although it ended with a crushing naval defeat, and was at no period particularly glorious to the French arms, it was pursued with great energy and crowned with ultimate success. The loss of Canada by France, in 1763, was more than balanced by the severance of the other American colonies from England. But the war which so humbled and depressed England left her rival burdened with a debt which she could never pay,1 and inoculated with a passion for republicanism and revolution which it was no longer possible to resist. ‘The American Revolution,’ wrote Arthur Young a few years later, ‘has laid the foundation of another in France, if Government do not take care of itself.’ ‘A strong leaven of liberty has been increasing every hour since the American Revolution.’2
From the time of the fall of Necker, the Government of France drifted for several years under a succession of feeble, extravagant, and incompetent ministers almost idly to its fate. Yet it is strange to observe how little the shadow of coming evil was at this time felt. The Court and capital had never been so brilliant and so charming. The King was very popular. The Queen was adored by her Court and not yet wholly unpopular with the nation; and the doctrine of the infinite perfectibility of man, which had long been in the ascendant, still gave the charm of extreme hopefulness to all French society and thought. When Turgot proposed his plan of national education to the King, he predicted that if it were adopted ‘the French people in ten years would be scarcely recognisable, and would infinitely transcend all other nations in their enlightenment, goodness, loyalty, and patriotism.’3 Ségur has described, in some admirably vivid pages, the optimism and the enthusiasm of French society during the American War. It was the time when the passion for nature and simplicity, and the revolt against all factitious and conventional distinctions, produced by the writings of Rousseau and by the imitation of English customs, was at its height. In the country houses the gardens of Le Nôtre with their long straight alleys, their symmetrical squares, and their carved trees were replaced by the wilder beauties of the English garden. In society uniforms and decorations disappeared, and a republican simplicity of dress became general. In the theatres the absurd habit of representing ancient heroes and heroines in modern Court dress was suddenly discarded. In the Court the Queen systematically threw aside etiquette, and introduced a freer tone of manners and conversation. ‘A word of praise from D'Alembert or Diderot was now more valued than the highest favours of a prince.’ ‘The republican maxims of “Brutus” were applauded at Court. Monarchs were disposed to support a people in rebellion against their King; the language of independence might be heard in the camps, the language of democracy among the nobles, the language of philosophy at the balls, the language of the moralist in the boudoir.’ ‘Opinions seemed to have lost their influence on passions. In those happy days men could always love those who thought differently from themselves.’ ‘Old doctrines and manners appeared at once ridiculous and wearisome, and the gay philosophy of Voltaire was supreme.’ It was believed that the ‘spirit of liberty would change the face of the world by enlightening it.’ ‘Everyone foresaw the happiest future. No one dreamed of a Revolution, though it was forming rapidly in opinions.’ ‘The advantages of old institutions and the freedom of new manners seemed to subsist together.’ ‘Never was a more terrible awakening preceded by a calmer sleep, or by more seductive dreams.’1
The genuine popularity of the American War greatly strengthened the Government, and the Peace of 1783 appeared to have secured for France a complete preponderance in Europe. The political and commercial alliance with Holland at the end of 1785 was a new triumph for French foreign policy, and a new blow to what was believed to be the waning influence of England; and France, as we have seen, fearlessly supported and stimulated the revolutionary and democratic spirit that had arisen in the Netherlands. Industry and commerce made a sudden bound after the Peace, and before 1789 the foreign commerce of France was double what it had been at the accession of the King.1 Travellers were astonished at the vast works of internal navigation that were designed and accomplished, at the extraordinary growth of the commercial importance of St. Domingo, at the new docks and harbours that were constructed along the French coast, but especially at Cherbourg, at the splendour and growing opulence of the great provincial towns. Bordeaux was pronounced by Arthur Young in 1787 to be incomparably superior to Liverpool in wealth, commerce, and magnificence. With improved roads and more rapid public carriages which had been established by Turgot, a new life was felt in the provinces; and though agriculture lagged far behind commerce, a few good harvests had given it some impulse. The multiplication of agricultural societies, the rapid rise of rent, the rapid increase of the revenue derived from the duties on articles of food, were indisputable signs of progress.2 It was about this time that the use of the potato became general in France, and that Daubenton introduced the Spanish breed of sheep.3 Population was increasing with extraordinary rapidity, but the country was becoming also visibly richer. Calonne, who had been made Controller-General at the close of 1783, borrowed in time of peace almost as largely as Necker in time of war,4 and the success of his loans gave an appearance of great prosperity.
The luxury and expenditure of the Court continued unchecked,5 and the millennial dream was unbroken. Intellectual activity was never greater. In 1774 it was computed that the book trade in Paris was four times as large as in London.6 French ideas reigned in the chief Courts, in almost all the universities and academies of the Continent, and boundless vistas seemed on all sides opening. It was believed that the invention of the balloon by Montgolfier was about to give men the empire of the air, and that Mesmer had found a cure for all diseases. Lavoisier, with several other less distinguished labourers, now raised chemistry into a science. Lagrange and Laplace were giving a vast extension to astronomy; De Lisle and Haüy to mineralogy. The study of physiology, botany, comparative anatomy, and electricity advanced with gigantic strides; and in the enthusiasm that prevailed, it was imagined that physical science would soon unlock the secret of the universe and disclose the mystery of life.1 In other fields, the Oriental researches of Volney, the sculpture of Houdon, the paintings of David, the many noble works of architecture that were erected in Paris, the art criticisms which Diderot published annually between 1759 and 1781, the almost unparalleled success of the ‘Mariage de Figaro’ of Beaumarchais, excited a corresponding enthusiasm. Political clubs came into fashion about 1784, and gave a new energy to the movement of thought, while French society still maintained the character of intellectual brilliancy, that made it without a rival in Europe. The Duc de la Rochefoucauld, the Duc de Nivernais, the Prince de Beauvau, and many other of the leaders of society were passionately devoted to letters.2 A spirit of innovation and speculation, a love of liberty and toleration, an immense hopefulness, and a disposition to underrate all difficulties, almost universally characterised French society.
The great writers indeed were passing rapidly away, and they left no successors. Montesquieu had died in 1755; Voltaire and Rousseau in 1778; D'Alembert in 1783; Diderot in 1784; Mably in 1785. But the work of popularising obscure and difficult knowledge, which was the supreme achievement of the eighteenth century, was never so industriously pursued. Buffon, illuminating the whole field of natural history with the charm of the most brilliant eloquence, had in this respect a transcendent influence, and the popularity of literary and scientific lectures was now at its height. The lectures of La Harpe on literature, of Fourcroy on chemistry, of Petit on anatomy, of Nollet on electricity, were thronged by all that was most brilliant in Parisian society. The empire of superstition seemed passing away like the shadows of night before the rising sun. The questions about tickets of confession, Jansenist doctrines, and Ultramontane pretensions which had excited such an interest under Lewis XV. had disappeared amid general contempt, and the influence of the clergy, as an influence of superstition, seemed almost extinct. At the same time, though religious beliefs were rapidly waning, there never was a period less characterised by hardness, coldness, and selfishness. French society was much less frivolous, and also much more moral, than in the days of the Regency and of Lewis XV., and severe moral criticism was in fashion. It was noticed that the novels of Crébillon were now very generally excluded from the salons on account of their indecency, and that the ‘Candide’ of Voltaire was severely censured.1 That part of morals, indeed, which grows out of the ascetic conception of the sinfulness of men, and which advocates self-restraint as the first of duties, was little taught;2 but the excessive sensibility which was the prevailing affectation, was only an exaggeration of a very real spirit of practical humanity.
Many new institutions of charity were founded. The differences of rank and class were perceptibly softening, and a new spirit of sympathy was abroad. Mothers of high rank were now eager, in obedience to the precepts of Rousseau, to nurse their own children. The Abbé de l'Epée had lately invented the deaf and dumb alphabet, and the Government threw itself ardently into the work of disseminating it. Valentin Haüy devoted himself with similar enthusiasm to the care of the blind. Pinel had begun his great researches into the cause and cure of insanity.1
There never was a period to which men afterwards looked back more fondly. ‘He who did not live before 1789,’ Talleyrand once said, ‘has never known the charm of life.’ ‘The best and most virtuous men,’ said another contemporary, ‘saw the beginning of a new era of happiness for France and for all the civilised world.’2 It was noticed by Malouet that the tone of manners had never been so gentle, or society so enchanting, or social liberty so great, as a few years before the horrors of the Revolution.3 Ségur, returning from the American War, found, as he tells us, ‘the Court and society of Paris more brilliant than ever; France proud of her victories and satisfied with the Peace; and the whole aspect of the kingdom so flourishing that, without the mournful gift of prophecy, it would have been impossible to foresee the abyss towards which a rapid current was hurrying us.’ It was, he said, as when one has just climbed a high tower, looked for a moment on a boundless and glorious prospect stretching beneath, and then grown dizzy, stumbled and fallen.4
Madame de Stael, when describing the period before the Revolution, has acutely and truly remarked that there is often a special charm about the decadence of Governments, for the feebleness that precedes their fall gives them an appearance of great gentleness and liberality.5 That important changes were at this time impending over France was indeed very evident. A close observer might have easily seen that the inequalities of taxation must before long be abolished, that the feudal system must be annihilated or mitigated, that the question of finance was becoming continually more desperate, that the monarchy must some day acquire something of a representative character. It was evident, too, that the King and especially the Queen were not blameless. England was a richer country than France, but the English Court exhibited little or nothing of the ostentatious extravagance of the Court of Versailles, and foreigners who compared the noble proportions of Greenwich and Chelsea Hospitals with the Palace of St. James's, declared that the English lodged beggars in palaces and kings in almshouses.1 The Prussian Court, on which political and literary influences had lately concurred to throw a strong light, presented a still more impressive contrast. No clerk in the Prussian dominions worked harder than Frederick the Great. He might be seen at four o'clock in the morning, in uniform and in his top boots, seated at his desk examining the petitions of the humblest of his subjects, regulating the minutest details of civil and military administration. His personal expenses were managed with penurious economy. There was less luxury and comfort in his palace than in the home of an English nobleman, and it was the first principle of his Government that public revenues should be as much as possible applied to public purposes. What a contrast, it was said, to the enormous extravagance and the elaborate idleness of the French King, to the endless succession of hunts and balls and receptions and unmeaning ceremonies that filled up the greater part of his life.
But the manners of the French Court had been regulated by French habits, traditions, and tastes, and no French Sovereign seemed less likely than Lewis XVI. to arouse popular animosity. In the events which have been related and in the events which have still to be told, he always showed himself ready to support if not to originate measures of reform, amenable almost to a fault to the judgments of his ministers, completely free from any tendency to harshness or cruelty and from any desire to overstrain his authority. He had not a tinge of the characteristic faults which brought Charles I. to the scaffold and drove James II. into exile. As Burke truly said, he was ‘a prince the acts of whose whole reign were a series of concessions to his subjects, who was willing to relax his authority, to remit his prerogatives, to call his people to a share of freedom not known, perhaps not desired, by their ancestors.’2 No throne in Europe was surrounded with greater traditional respect than that which he occupied; and the unbroken loyalty of the French to their sovereigns, through every vicissitude of fortune and character, had long been a favourite national boast. To the best judges it would have seemed incredible that the nation which had borne so patiently the despotism, the vices, the incompetence and the political disasters of the long reign of Lewis XV. should have brought his successor to the scaffold, and that France with her wealth and greatness, and her ancient and venerable civilisation, was soon to lie at the mercy of ferocious mobs, fanatics, and adventurers.
I have already quoted the curious passage in which John Adams in 1778 contrasted the popularity of the French King and Queen in Paris, with the extreme unpopularity of George III. in London.1 Franklin and Frederick the Great were two of the most acute observers of their time. They had both of them special reasons and special opportunities for watching French affairs; but there is, I believe, no evidence that either of them caught the faintest glimpse of the political catastrophe that was impending. No English diplomatist was better acquainted with continental life than Sir James Harris, but as late as the close of 1786 he entirely disbelieved in the possibility of a Revolution in France. ‘A Madame de Pompadour,’ he wrote to Lord Carmarthen, ‘or even a Madame de Barri will never effectually diminish or hurt the grandeur of the French monarchy, which is settled on a foundation beyond the reach of the follies of the Court to shake.’2 ‘There is a universal agreement,’ wrote one of the ablest German contemporary observers, ‘that at the beginning of the year 1787 no one in France had the faintest presentiment of the catastrophe that was preparing.’3 ‘I doubt,’ said an excellent French observer, ‘whether any period can be named in which the French monarchy enjoyed a higher degree of consideration than in the years between 1783 and 1787, that is from the end of the American War till the Revolution of Holland.’4
The illusions of the nation were suddenly and sharply dispelled in the last months of 1786, when Calonne was obliged to confess that there was a deficit which, after much hesitation and variation, was at last reckoned at about 115 millions of livres,1 and that he had no means of meeting it. As Turgot had predicted, the American War proved a fatal turning-point in French finance, and in the space of ten years not less than 1,630 millions had been borrowed.2 The system of deferring accounts from year to year, and the extreme complexity in the manner of levying taxes, had led to almost inextricable confusion; but it was plain that there had been for a long time such a deficit in the ordinary annual revenue, and such an accumulation of extraordinary expenses, that nothing short of a complete reform and readjustment of taxation could save the country from bankruptcy. In order to meet the difficulty Calonne recommended a measure which had not been adopted since the reign of Lewis XIII. It was to summon by royal authority an assembly called the Notables, consisting of the chief persons in the kingdom, to consult upon its affairs. This assembly was composed of 144 members of the privileged order. Seven princes of the blood were among them, and the remainder were drawn from the higher clergy and nobility, the Parliaments, the King's Council, the provincial States, and the municipal councils.3
They began their sittings in February 1787, and Calonne hoped to obtain by their assistance the requisite reforms, and especially to break down the exemptions of the privileged orders from taxation by the imposition of a general land tax. But he soon found that the Notables were less unanimous and less subservient the following striking passage by John Adams, which was written in 1787, and is the more remarkable because it was written in Europe, and written by a very able American statesman who had special means of knowing the state of France: ‘After all the turbulence, wars, and revolutions which compose the history of Europe for so many ages, we find simple monarchies established everywhere. Whether the system will now become stationary and last for ever, by means of a few further improvements in monarchical Governments, we know not, or whether still further revolutions are to come. The most probable, or, rather, the only probable, change is the introduction of democratical branches into those Governments. If the people should ever aim at more they will defeat themselves; and, indeed, if they aim at this by any other than gentle means, and by gradual advances’—Adams, Defence of the Constitution of the United States, Preface. than he had hoped. They insisted, in the first place, on an investigation of the financial proceedings of the minister, and they discovered such abuses that they speedily drove Calonne with disgrace from power. There were loud cries for the appointment of Necker to replace him, but Necker had lately been exiled, and was still in great disfavour with the Court, and in an ill-omened hour the Queen employed her influence in favour of Loménie de Brienne, the Archbishop of Toulouse. This supple, ambitious, immoral, and unbelieving churchman had made himself very acceptable in the gay circle of the Trianon, and had borne a conspicuous part in opposition to Calonne in the Assembly of Notables; but his talents were chiefly those of a courtier and an intriguer, and he was now placed in a position that needed the highest gifts of statesmanship and character. He attempted to imitate Calonne, as Calonne had tried to imitate Necker. He hoped, among other measures, to induce the Notables to vote a considerable land tax to be paid by all classes. But the Notables, who were themselves members of the privileged class, though quite ready to recommend many reforms, recoiled from this measure, alleged that they were incompetent to carry it, refused even to recommend it, and declared that they left it to the King to determine what tax was most suitable. They were dissolved on May 25, 1787.
But although the Government failed in inducing the Notables to assist them in dealing with the vital and pressing question of finance, some other reforms of great importance were effected. Calonne, following in the steps of Fénelon, Turgot, and Necker, clearly saw that a wide diffusion of local self-government and representation should precede the establishment of any general system of constitutional liberty and would greatly facilitate the reorganisation of taxation, and he accordingly recommended to the Notables the establishment of a provincial State in every ‘generality’1 in which it did not exist. This very important recommendation received the warm approbation of the Notables, and it was carried into effect in 1787 by a royal edict which was promulgated by Brienne. The Notables did not, it is true, approve of the first design of Calonne, which was to constitute provincial assemblies of the type recommended by Turgot. They insisted that the three orders should be represented in a defined proportion, and that a member of the privileged orders should preside over every assembly, but they agreed without difficulty that the commons should have a double representation, that the three orders should vote not separately but together, and that elective councils should be established in every parish. At the same time, and with their approval, two other edicts of considerable importance were issued. Turgot had established a free commerce of corn within the kingdom; but Brienne went much further, and an edict which remarkably anticipated the teaching of later political economists, fully authorised its exportation. The King only reserved to himself the power of suspending it in case of necessity for a year, and then only in provinces where such a suspension had been demanded by the provincial States. The ‘corvée’ also, or forced labour for the roads, which was the worst practical oppression of the peasantry, and which had been already abolished by Turgot, but restored after his fall, was now commuted into a money payment and passed finally out of the list of French grievances. The measure was, however, a less liberal one than that of Turgot, for the commutation was provided from taxes that fell solely on the commons.
The King by the mouths both of Calonne and Brienne had formally and repeatedly announced his wish and his determination to abolish those inequalities of taxation, which were the chief cause of the embarrassments of the country, and the great and just grievance of his poorer subjects.1 The main object of his whole policy was to put an end to a ruinous deficit, by abolishing exemptions which were flagrantly unjust. He hoped that the Notables representing the privileged orders would have assisted him, and that with their support the measure could easily have been carried, but this hope was disappointed. At the same time it was noticed that no member of the Assembly spoke in favour of inequalities of taxation. All professed their full willingness to make large sacrifices of their class privileges, and an important section strenuously urged the necessity of abolishing the ‘gabelle’ or salt tax, which pressed most severely upon the poor. The debates did not turn upon the question of equal or unequal taxation, but upon the amount of the deficit; on the right of the Assembly to inquire into past expenditure; on the nature of the new taxes to be proposed; on the possibility of imposing a general and uniform tax without violating the privileges of the Pays d'Etat; on the amount of power which the Notables themselves possessed. Personal and factious ambitions, personal antipathies, and mistakes in management played a great part in the proceedings. To manage a deliberative Assembly, and especially an Assembly which is itself inexperienced, is an art which requires much experience as well as much skill, and skill of a particular kind in which Calonne was wholly wanting. He succeeded, much less by his proposed measures than by his language and demeanour, in irritating, dividing, and disorganising the Assembly.
The Notables had not the composition or authority of a representative body, and they had not the power of a legislative body; but the mere fact that the Crown had been driven by financial distress to seek their assistance; the unaccustomed spectacle of opposition and debate; the strong light thrown on the financial difficulties of the Government; and the failure of the proposed measures for alleviating them, had an immense and disquieting influence on public opinion. The Ministers announced to the Notables in the clearest terms that the King alone had a sovereign right of fixing the amount and proportion of the taxes, and that their task was confined to carrying out the royal designs and meeting the difficulties that were created by the extreme variety of customs, privileges, and administrations in the different provinces. But the Assembly showed much indisposition to accept so humble a sphere, and a theory of taxation which a few years before, would have been perfectly unchallenged, now provoked much hostile criticism. It was noticed that some of the bishops were the first to dispute it. The word ‘States-General,’ which had been for generations almost unheard in France, had been of late more than once publicly pronounced, and it passed rapidly from lip to lip. A fever of political excitement pervaded the country and seemed daily increasing, and as bankruptcy after bankruptcy took place the condition of the finances became clearly understood. Necker had shortly before published a work in three volumes on the administration of the finances, and not less than 80,000 copies of it were sold.1
Grimm at this time noticed the very ominous fact that the prevailing spirit of agitation and insubordination had already gained the army, that discipline was giving way, and that the soldiers were no longer disposed to maintain obedience.2 Many causes operating through many years had contributed to this result. The system of Prussian discipline, and especially of corporal punishment, which some French generals in their admiration for Frederick the Great had incautiously introduced, excited profound discontent in the ranks, and the American War instead of strengthening had immensely impaired the military spirit. In general a considerable period of active service in a foreign country effectually extinguishes all political feeling in an army, and gives it such a degree of military discipline and enthusiasm that, under a good commander, there is little danger of the contagion of civil agitation penetrating to the ranks. But the American War being conducted on the part of France mainly by sea, the French army in America had no opportunity of distinguishing itself in the field, and remained almost inactive in the centre of a great democratic revolution. It returned to France saturated with republican ideas and fully prepared to receive the seed which was so abundantly scattered. The division of classes that separated the French officers from the soldiers made the latter peculiarly open to democratic appeals, and this division had very recently been aggravated. As late as 1781, in the reaction that followed the fall of Necker, the Government had committed the amazing folly of issuing an ordinance excluding ‘roturiers’ even from the rank of sub-lieutenant, and providing that no officer could obtain the rank of captain who had not been noble for four generations. It would be impossible to conceive an enactment showing a more complete ignorance of the tendencies of the time, and it was one of the great causes of the disorganisation of the army.3 The evil was more keenly felt on account of the enormous and scandalous multiplication of posts of high rank, created in order to be sold, and reserved for the privileged orders. Dubois-Crancé, who took a leading part in the military organisation of the Revolution, declared that in 1789 there were more than twelve hundred general officers in the French army, that since the ministry of Choiseul nearly every regiment had been divided for the express purpose of multiplying its officers, that the number of the superior officers had been in fact quadrupled, and that military grades had been created, sold, and distributed with such reckless profusion that, in one day, four thousand children had been made captains without troops and without any prospect of obtaining them.1
Joseph II., shortly before his death, told Ségur that the French Ministers had committed a great error in declining to throw themselves into the Eastern war, for the Parliament would then have been unable to refuse money to the King, and the ardour of the nation would have expended itself in the field of foreign conquest.2 The judgment was not a disinterested one, nor was it that of a really wise man; but it is at least possible that a foreign war might have restored the efficiency of the army, preserved it from the contagion of the Revolution, and raised up some popular and trusted general on whom the Government might have relied. 40,000 or 50,000 men under a commander like Turenne or Condé might have given a very different aspect to Parisian politics.
On the dissolution of the Notables, the Parliament of Paris became the chief centre of the thickening drama of French politics. While the Notables were still sitting, it had registered a new loan of sixty millions; and it now without difficulty registered the edicts which the Notables had recommended for the establishment of the provincial Assemblies, for free trade in corn, and for the abolition of the corvées; but when the Government put forward a scheme for additional taxation in the form of a stamp duty and of a general land tax, the old parliamentary opposition was at once renewed. The Parliament denounced the extravagance of the Court, attempted without success to extort a detailed account of the public expenditure, disobeyed the peremptory order of the King to register the stamp duty, and finally took the momentous step of petitioning the King to convoke the States-General before imposing any new tax upon his people. The Government, startled and as usual vacillating, without giving any answer to the petition of the Parliament, withdrew for the present the stamp duty which had been first proposed, but sent back the land tax with peremptory orders to register it. The Parliament with still greater emphasis persisted in its resolution. It complained that it had vainly sought for information showing the necessity of imposing a new and disastrous tax after five years of peace. It declared that the nation alone through the States-General had the right of imposing new taxes, and it again petitioned the King to convoke that body.
It would be difficult to conceive a step of more tremendous significance and importance. As the Court of Peers sat with the Parliament, the two corporations representing with the highest authority the privileged classes now demanded the convocation of the States-General; repudiated formally the absolute power of the Crown, as it had existed for centuries, and branded as illegitimate the method of taxation which had been uniformly pursued in France for about three hundred years.1 The act of the Parliament was an act of rebellion. Its motives were probably very mingled; but its popularity had never been so great. The Government resorted to the old measure of a bed of justice, and the edicts establishing the stamp duty and the land tax were duly registered at Versailles. Next day the magistrates formally declared the registration by a bed of justice null and illegal.
The war was thus openly declared, and fierce manifestations of popular applause showed that the Parliament had won the public feeling of Paris altogether to its side. The Parliament, pushing its advantages, ordered an inquiry into the administration of Calonne, pronounced the edicts for a stamp duty and a land tax ‘null and illegal,’ and issued a strong protest against their publication. The Government responded by exiling the Parliament to Troyes.
The conflict resembled those in the preceding reign, but the spirit of agitation and independence in the country had enormously increased, and the aspect of Paris in the autumn of 1787 was almost that of a revolution. In the streets, in the theatres, around the chief public buildings there were demonstrations of the most alarming kind. The Government at once closed the clubs, and the streets were patrolled by a large military force. The Cour des Comptes, the Cour des Aides, and the Chatelet, the three law courts that ranked next after the Parliament of Paris, all supported that body and petitioned for its recall, and the two former strongly asserted the new and astonishing doctrine that the King could not impose taxes by his edicts, and that the assent of the States-General was necessary to their validity. All the provincial Parliaments assumed an attitude of the most virulent hostility, demanding the recall of the Parliament to Paris, the impeachment of Calonne, above all the convocation of the States-General. Serious measures of retrenchment had lately been adopted in the Palace, but the denunciation of Court and courtiers was unabated. The language employed had all the violence of revolution, and it was employed by the magistracy of France, by grave judicial bodies which were the most authorised exponents of the law. Once more, as on so many previous occasions, the Government flinched before opposition, and thereby fatally weakened its authority. It entered into a negotiation with the exiled Parliament, and agreed on certain conditions to recall it to Paris. The Parliament, in flagrant violation of the new doctrine it had just professed about its own incapacity in matters of taxation, agreed to prolong for two more years the second ‘twentieth,’ and to extend it to the clergy, who had hitherto been exempt, while the Government on their side abandoned the two obnoxious taxes. All attempts to abolish on a large scale the exemptions of the privileged classes, and to impose additional taxation sufficient to restore the finances, were for the present suspended.
The Parliament returned to Paris in September 1787 amid great manifestations of popular triumph and applause, more than ever confirmed in its attitude of resistance to the Court, more than ever determined to maintain that political character which a long course of events had so strangely given to a body which was naturally purely magisterial or judicial. It is not surprising under these circumstances that the truce should have been hollow and short. The clubs were still kept closed and the troops prepared for action. The King annulled the order for an inquiry into the administration of Calonne, and there were rumours of a possible coup d'état. Money was absolutely wanted, and as the Parliament refused its assent to new taxes, it was necessary again to borrow. The Ministers dreaded greatly the convocation of the States-General, which would at once give a totally new character to the Government of France, but they saw that it had become inevitable, and all that could be hoped for was a postponement. Brienne now proposed a loan of no less than 420 millions of francs to be issued by instalments over five years, at the end of which period he promised that the States-General should be convoked. All efforts to obtain a ministerial majority in the Parliament proved vain, and on November 19 after a long and anxious debate the King authoritatively forced the edict for the loan through, by a bed of justice. The Duke of Orleans protested against this act as illegal, and next day the Parliament issued a similar protest. The King ordered the register containing their protest to be destroyed; banished the Duke of Orleans to the country, and imprisoned two active members of the Parliament by letters of ‘cachet.’ The Parliament protested against these measures and against all use of letters of ‘cachet.’ The provincial Parliaments at once joined in the fray, and it was at this time that Mirabeau wrote, ‘France is ripe for a revolution.’ As might have been expected, the Government loan was completely discredited by these proceedings and proved a total failure.
Two facts, somewhat apart from the chief current of events, must here be noticed. The Government, paralysed by internal dissensions, was obliged to acquiesce in the complete destruction of the French influence in Holland by the Prussian invasion, and the restoration of the House of Orange to full power under an Anglo-Prussian guarantee; and civil rights were at last conceded to the Protestants of France. The last measure had been advocated before the Notables by Lafayette and the Bishop of Langres, and had been very favourably received. Brienne, among whose faults intolerance cannot be reckoned, issued an edict for carrying it into effect, and after some violent opposition it was registered by the Parliament in January 1788.
The main conflict, however, continued without abatement. It is extremely curious to observe how, at this advanced stage, the popular and revolutionary movement was mainly guided by privileged bodies who were resisting additional taxation which was absolutely necessary, who were contending for an exemption from taxation which was the most odious and indefensible of privileges, and who nevertheless by their revolt against the theory of absolute monarchy and by their demand for the States-General had attained to the highest degree of popularity. It was this circumstance which explains the remarkable uncertainty of the forecast of at least one most competent observer. Arthur Young in the autumn of 1787 noticed how the best judges in France clearly foresaw that they were on the eve of some great revolution in the Government, that a bankruptcy was probable if not inevitable, that the States-General alone could grapple with the evil, and that unless ‘some master hand of very superior talent and inflexible courage was found at the helm, to guide events instead of being driven by them,’ a great catastrophe was probable. Having faithfully recorded these opinions, he adds his own judgment. ‘All agree that the States of the kingdom cannot assemble without more liberty being the consequence, but I meet with so few men who have any just ideas of freedom that I question much the species of this new liberty which is to arise. They know not how to value the privileges of the people; as to the nobility and the clergy, if a revolution added anything to their scale I think it would do more mischief than good.’1
The King must by this time have clearly seen the mistake that he had made in restoring, contrary to the judgment of both Turgot and Voltaire, the Parliaments which had been abolished by his predecessor. The necessity of obtaining their assent had no doubt qualified the despotism of the monarchy and had given France a kind of constitution, but no constitution could have possibly been less adapted to her wants. Two reforms were of the most pressing and urgent necessity. If bankruptcy was to be averted, it was absolutely necessary that new taxation should without delay be imposed on the privileged classes; and it was scarcely less necessary that the feudal system should be speedily commuted. But to both of these reforms the Parliaments were insuperable obstacles. They were aristocratic, privileged, judicial bodies, consisting of men who were nearly all landowners, who themselves enjoyed the exemptions from taxation which it was necessary to abolish, who had for the most part purchased their privileges with money, and who had all the natural leaning of judicial bodies towards tradition, precedent, antiquated forms of property and rights. Their circumstances, their professional habits of thought, the narrowness produced by their purely legal education, all made them peculiarly unfit to exercise, in the interests of the entire community, a controlling influence over the vast and various field of legislation, and being much smaller bodies than the nobles and the clergy, the corporate spirit that pervaded them was much more concentrated and intense.1 It is impossible to read the account of the proceedings of the provincial Assemblies throughout France, in the years before the Revolution, without being struck with the degree in which enlightened, reforming, and humane principles had begun to pervade the privileged classes. But the conservatism of the Parliament was much more than the conservatism of an aristocracy. It was the conservatism of judges; of judges who had purchased their position; of judges who were in the highest degree tenacious of their privileges; of judges who claimed an absolute right of veto. The conflicts under Lewis XV. had accustomed a large and able section of the Parliament to habits of systematic opposition and jealousy of the Crown, and the events of the last few years had greatly strengthened these feelings. The provincial Assemblies of Necker were manifestly intended to supersede the political importance of the Parliaments. Necker himself had stated his anxiety to reduce them to purely judicial functions, and the assembly of the Notables was clearly meant to counterbalance the influence of the Parliament of Paris.
And while the Parliaments were manifestly unfit to carry out the most indispensable reforms, their opposition was peculiarly dangerous. It is in the highest degree inexpedient that magisterial and judicial bodies should take a leading part in politics, and a systematic opposition to the Government conducted by the chief exponents of the law is of all oppositions the worst. It is the most dangerous, unnatural, and demoralising; the most fitted to lower the respect both for law and for government. Few causes contributed so much as the parliamentary opposition to break up the compact edifice of the French monarchy, to sap the ancient and deep-rooted traditions of obedience and loyalty.
The whole question of the relations of the Parliaments to the Crown was still unsettled. On the one side was the royal doctrine, confirmed by a long series of precedents, that the King had the right by holding a bed of justice to overthrow the plainest wishes of his Parliaments. On the other was the parliamentary doctrine that no measure was obligatory which had not been submitted to the deliberations, and had not received the free assent, of no less than thirteen Parliaments. The first doctrine led directly to despotism. The second led no less clearly to anarchy, and, as the King bitterly said, it would convert the monarchy of France into ‘an aristocracy of magistrates.’ And now the Parliament of Paris had gone still further, and destroyed both its own authority and that of the Sovereign, by declaring that no tax could be legitimately imposed on France except by the States-General.
The word had gone forth, and it was impossible to recall it. From all sides the spirit of discontent was rising with the suddenness of a tropical storm overcasting a political sky which but a few months before had appeared almost without a cloud. The right of registering edicts by a bed of justice; the right of arbitrary imprisonment and exile; the right of imposing taxes by a royal edict, had been for generations undisputed. The body which was now spoken of as an indispensable agent of taxation had met just four times in three hundred years, and none of these later States-General had claimed the power which the Parliament attributed to them. Whether the Parliament in launching its new doctrine had merely sought for a ready weapon against the Crown, or whether it believed that a body in which the privileged orders had hitherto had an indisputable ascendency would be more favourable to its interests than assemblies which were at present mainly or partly nominated by the Crown, it is impossible to say. It is at least certain that the seed fell on a soil that was prepared to receive it, and it rapidly became the doctrine of the most active classes in France that the States-General formed an essential part of the French Government, and that they should exercise habitually the same powers as the Parliament of England. It is no less certain that the Parliaments gave a mighty impulse to a movement which in a few months swept away every vestige of their own privileges and powers, and in a few years brought some of the most conspicuous of their leaders to the guillotine.
It is not surprising, it is certainly not unpardonable, that the King should have looked with much dislike on the demand for the States-General. Though his government had shown deplorable weakness and vacillation, he had exercised his powers with uniform moderation and with an earnest desire for reform. The abolition of the ‘corvées,’ of torture before trial, of serfdom on the royal domains; the reforms that had been introduced into the hospitals and prisons; the civil rights conceded to Protestants; the considerable economies that had lately been made at the Court; the removal of the restrictions on the commerce of corn and wine; the large and liberal system of provincial and parochial self-government which had been established, and his avowed determination to put an end to the unjust exemptions from taxation, sufficiently show the spirit of his reign. The parliamentary opposition seemed to him in a high degree ungrateful, as it was carried on by bodies which he had himself of his own free will restored; and selfish, as it was a struggle for class privileges by a section of the privileged class; and he probably underrated the strength and depth of the national discontent that sustained it. But although he desired to exercise his rightful powers mildly and moderately, he desired also to transmit them unimpaired to his successors. It was evident that they were being one by one assailed. The dark unknown future of the States-General, with the dangerous questions that were certain to arise relating to their powers and their composition and to the possible transformation of the monarchy, filled him with alarm. When it appeared necessary, he consented, indeed, to promise the convocation of that body, and there was not the smallest reason to believe that he would fail in his promise; but he asserted strongly that as King of France it was for him and for him alone to summon it; his language in promising it seemed to foreshadow an assembly that would be rather consultative than legislative; and he postponed the convocation till 1791.
By that time it was hoped that the present effervescence would have subsided, and the provincial, municipal, and parochial councils which had been lately established would have taken root. It must not be forgotten that three-fourths of France was now passing through a great and fundamental change of administration. The absolute power which had once been exercised by the intendants had been taken away. The old routine of administration had been suddenly broken. New assemblies with large functions of local government had been created. Provinces which were totally unaccustomed to self-government and had long been sunk in a profound political apathy were violently disturbed by a great experiment in government; by the agitation of popular election; by the rise of untried men to power; by the inevitable conflict between the supporters of the old and of the new order. The proceedings of the new provincial Assemblies were on the whole very encouraging and showed great promise of usefulness; there was every reason to hope that a real step had been taken towards putting an end to the chaos of heterogeneous and conflicting administrations which had made the government of France so difficult, but as yet everything was in a state of transition. When the new provincial bodies were consolidated, they might bear a great part in the election of the States-General.
If time had not been pressing, if the finances had been in such a condition that a great and radical change in the system of taxation had not been a matter of immediate necessity, the policy of the Government would probably have been a wise one, and a national representation might have arisen securely and tranquilly out of local self-government. But this essential condition was wanting. With the failure of the loan it was becoming evident that the Government must choose between bankruptcy and the discovery of some method of uniform and productive taxation which would put an end to the innumerable exemptions of classes, provinces, and towns. But what chance was there of such a reform when, in order to effect it, it was necessary to obtain the assent of the Parliament of Paris, of the provincial Parliaments, of the Pays d'Etat, and perhaps also of the Cours des Comptes and of the Cours des Aides?1
The situation became almost daily more tense, and the language of the hostile parties was such that reconciliation seemed impossible. It was becoming more and more evident to Brienne that it was necessary to do again, but under circumstances infinitely more dangerous and difficult, what had been done by the chancellor Maupeou in the last reign. The word bankruptcy was now in every mouth. Incendiary placards appeared on the walls of Paris. The Queen as the special patron of Brienne was growing daily more unpopular, and was accused of exercising a preponderating influence in the councils. Troops were pouring from the provinces into Paris, and there were all the signs of a coming conflict. On May 5, 1788, the first great blow was struck, when two of the most conspicuous opponents of the Court were by order of the King arrested by soldiers in the midst of the Parliament. On May 8, the Parliament was summoned to Versailles, and the King proceeded to hold a bed of justice. After severely and angrily rebuking the Parliament for its conduct during the past year, he ordered six edicts to be read and registered, which annihilated its political, and greatly restricted its judicial, functions. By the first two edicts a number of new law courts were instituted, to which all civil and criminal cases hitherto tried by the Parliaments were transferred, except civil cases of over twenty thousand livres, and criminal cases relating to the privileged orders of nobles and ecclesiastics. The number of members in the Parliaments was greatly reduced. The third and fourth edicts were intended, like the abolition of the venality of offices in the time of Maupeou, to conciliate the genuine reformers. They abolished the ‘tribunals of exception’ and torture after condemnation.2 The fifth edict, which was the most important, constituted a new tribunal with the sole right of verifying and registering laws for the kingdom. It was to be called the ‘Cour Plénière,’ and to be composed of a number of great dignitaries selected by the King. It was to have the power of remonstrance, but the King was to have the right of overcoming its resistance by the usual method of a bed of justice, and he was to have an independent and exclusive power of borrowing. If new taxes were required before the assembly of the States-General, they were to be registered by the ‘Cour Plénière,’ but this registration was only to have a provisional effect till the States-General had actually met. The taxes were then to be definitely enacted by the King ‘on the deliberations’ of that body. The sixth edict forbade the Parliaments to unite on any subject, public or private, till further orders.1
Such was the new constitution or form of government imposed on France by the sole and despotic authority of the King. All consideration of its intrinsic merits and defects appeared insignificant in comparison to this fact, and it was immediately followed by an aristocratic revolt which was the prelude of the democratic Revolution of 1789. Even the promise of a more speedy convocation of the States-General had no effect in mitigating the blow, and the language in which it was announced was understood to imply that the Government intended this body to be little more than the assembly of Notables and invested merely with consultative powers. The Parliament protested vehemently against its own extinction, and the various law courts in Paris pronounced all that had been done to be illegal, while throughout the country provincial Parliaments assembled in defiance of the royal mandate, and issued proclamations which in various forms and with various degrees of emphasis were direct appeals to revolution. The members declared any Frenchman ‘infamous and a traitor to his country’ who accepted office in the new tribunals ‘illegally established,’ bound themselves in some places by oath never to lend themselves directly or indirectly to carrying out the new edicts, stigmatised the ministers who had advised the late measures as ‘traitors to the King and the nation,’ and pronounced the ascription of despotic power to the Sovereign contrary to the fundamental laws of the kingdom. ‘The people,’ said the Parliament of Toulouse, ‘having no longer any barrier between themselves and the King, there remains to them only the consciousness of their strength.’1
Were these idle words? Could the Parliaments, could the gentry of the country who were virtually in a state of insurrection, count upon popular support? The question was a difficult and an all-important one, but it seemed at first probable that it would be answered in the affirmative. The whole legal profession, nearly all the public writers of France, seemed on the side of the Parliaments. Paris was surging and seething with indignation, but as yet kept down by an overwhelming military force, while the great mass of the peasantry in large districts seemed prepared to take arms in defence of their provincial Parliaments. There was scarcely any province where the new edicts did not produce riots, and in some provinces these riots amounted to insurrection. In Pau the people compelled by force the ejected magistrates to resume their seats. In Brittany the abolition of the Parliament was violently resisted. Almost the whole province was under arms, and a number of Breton noblemen were thrown into prison for petitioning and protesting against the abolition. In Dauphiny the tocsin sounded from the church towers, and thousands of peasantry from the mountains took arms to defend their provincial liberties. There were furious and bloody conflicts with the soldiers, and the insurgents so far succeeded that the Government consented in this province to make terms with them, and even to restore the old provincial States which had not existed for a century and a half.
There were grave signs of discontent among the officers of the army, and all justice was suspended by the impossibility of finding lawyers to serve in the new courts. Even the clergy refused to support Brienne and to vote the subsidies he expected. Bishops formally protested against the extinction of the Parliaments and the establishment of the ‘Cour Plénière,’ denied that taxes could be imposed by the will of the Sovereign, and joined with the rest of the nation in demanding the States-General.2
Deserted by almost all in whom he trusted, Brienne at last bowed before the storm. On August 8, 1788, the nation was startled by a decree suspending the new ‘Cour Plénière,’ and convoking the States-General for May 1, 1789. A week later the calamity came which had long been dreaded, and the Government acknowledged and declared its bankruptcy, ordering that for six weeks the payments of the State should be partially made in paper with a forced circulation. On August 25, Brienne resigned his office amid a storm of execration, and Necker was once more called to the management of the finances.
He undertook the task reluctantly, for he well knew that it was a hopeless one, and that the fifteen precious months which had been wasted under Brienne had ruined all prospect of a peaceful solution. He found not more than a few hundred thousand francs in the treasury, the taxes anticipated, credit absolutely ruined, even the funds which had been recently subscribed for the hospitals fraudulently seized by the late Minister,1 several millions of francs required for the first week. The confidence, however, inspired by his name restored the State to solvency. With a rare patriotism he pledged his whole private fortune for the public payments, and a number of large capitalists rallied around him. In one morning the public funds rose thirty per cent.2 The exiles were recalled. The many persons who had been flung into prison during the late troubles were released, and the suppressed Parliaments were once more restored.
The constant fluctuations of policy, the alternate violence and concession during the last few years, had by this time produced an agitation in France, which it was impossible to repress, and extremely difficult to guide. The traditional feelings of loyalty and respect had been fatally impaired. The privileged classes had been separated from the Throne and driven into violent opposition, while the appearance of union among them was very deceptive. The nobles, who had caught much of the spirit of the philosophic movement, were in general very anti-clerical, while among the clergy the bishops and the curés were greatly divided. In the autumn of 1787, Arthur Young painted the situation in a single phrase: ‘A great ferment amongst all ranks of men, who are eager for some change without knowing what to look to or hope for,’1 and the agitation was enormously increased when the Parliament of Paris, stultifying its whole history, declared that no tax could be legitimately imposed without the consent of the people by the States-General, and when Brienne in the name of the King had promised the speedy convocation of that body. It had not been assembled since 1614, and the prospect filled France with the wildest hopes. The question at once rose, in what form it was to assemble. The former States-General had met at a time when the democracy of France was in its infancy; the third order had only a little more than a third part of the representation,2 and the three orders voted separately, so that the two privileged orders whenever they were united could command the situation. The same custom of the three orders deliberating apart, had subsisted in all the ancient provincial States, with the exception of that of Languedoc, where the three orders formed only a single chamber and voted together, and where the number of the deputies of the third estate was equal to that of the nobles and clergy combined. We have seen how the example of Languedoc was proposed for adoption by Fénelon, and how it was actually adopted in the provincial Assemblies, that were formed by Necker in 1778, and by Brienne in 1787.3 In the face of the growing importance of the commons, it was plain that the third order would never be content with the position it held in the States-General of 1614.
It would have probably been better if the King had settled by his own authority the form in which the States-General should meet; but this was not done, and Brienne gave an enormous scope to political discussion, and also virtually abandoned the authority of the Crown by formally inviting the opinion of all the writers and bodies corporate in the kingdom, on the subject. Necker, adopting a similar policy, again assembled the Notables to discuss the question. They were emphatically in favour of the precedent of 1614, and the Parliament of Paris took the same view, though it soon after, alarmed by the unpopularity of its advice, partially receded, stating that neither law nor constant usage fixed the number of each order, and that the decision must rest with the King. But the immense force of public opinion, expressing itself by innumerable pamphlets, memoirs, and petitions pouring in from every province and town, now turned with irresistible power in the democratic direction. Rousseau had specially denounced the old constitution of the States-General; and it was sufficiently obvious that if the two privileged orders had a complete ascendency, the very reforms which were most needed might never be carried. The Abbé Sieyès in a book which produced an immense impression, and of which 30,000 copies were sold in three weeks, urged that the third estate, or commons, had hitherto been nothing, and that it ought to be supreme; and the question immediately became the most pressing in French politics. The long indecision on the subject was especially unfortunate, and it was one great cause of the democratic and levelling direction which the stream now took.
Immediately after the separation of the Notables, all the princes, with the exception of the Duke of Orleans, signed a memorial to the King, in which, in the name of the nobles, they protested against any deviation from the forms of 1614, and asserted that the writings which were pouring in from almost every corporation in France showed clearly that a spirit of reasoned insubordination and contempt for the laws was abroad. If, they continued, the ancient privileges of the two upper orders in the States-General were curtailed, those orders would have a right to refuse to confirm their degradation by appearing in that body, and they might dispute the legality of its proceedings.1
At last, after some hesitation, a royal edict, on December 27, partially solved the question. The King decided, in opposition to the opinion of the majority of the Notables, that the commons should have a double representation, thus making their representatives equal in number to those of the two other orders united. Such an increase of numbers was of no importance if the three orders voted separately, but if they voted either habitually or occasionally together it was of the utmost consequence. But this vital question of separate or joint voting was left undecided, to be settled only when the States-General met; and it continued to divide France fiercely, and to dig a chasm between the privileged orders and the people. By a report of the same council the King announced the future suppression of letters of ‘cachet,’ the establishment of liberty of the press, and a periodic meeting of the States-General for the revision of the finances.1
It was followed, on January 24, 1789, by royal letters prescribing the method of election for the States-General. The precedent of 1614 was in its main outlines followed, with some considerable enlargements that had been recommended by the Notables. The nobles and the ecclesiastics of all classes were to elect their representatives separately and directly. The elections for the commons, or third estate, were to be conducted on a different and complicated system. The suffrage was almost universal, a vote being given to every Frenchman who was twenty-five years old, who had a settled abode and who paid direct taxes; but these voters were not to vote directly for members of the States-General, but for members of numerous electoral bodies, to whom the ultimate choice was entrusted. The elections were so arranged that those of the provinces were to be completed before those of Paris began.
The months that followed were among the most agitated and critical that France had ever undergone, and it was at this time that the revolutionary spirit, which had hitherto been almost confined to the great centres of population, began to pervade the whole country. To the best and most sagacious judges, the conduct of Necker during this crisis has appeared very blamable; and to his grave faults of judgment and character they have attributed much of the calamities that followed. History is full of examples of men who, possessing to an eminent degree certain intellectual and moral qualities of the highest value, were placed by an unhappy fate in situations where those particular qualities were almost wholly useless, and where a totally different set were urgently required. Such was at this time the position of Necker. In a regular parliamentary Government he might have been an excellent Chancellor of the Exchequer, or a safe, sound, and sagacious Prime Minister; but he had nothing of that dazzling personality which can fascinate and lead great masses of excited men; nothing of that spirit of command, daring, and initiative, which was at this time imperatively needed. French public opinion was now like a ship driven before a furious gale, with no hand at the helm. Everything was undecided and in question—the nature of the States-General, the limit of their powers, the reforms they were to effect. The nation was seething with agitation, maddened by Utopias and subversive political theories, which were disseminated through a thousand channels and through every province. As there had been no States-General since 1614, there was a total want of political experience; and there were none of the party lines, organisations, and traditions, which in a settled parliamentary Government at once direct and restrain the torrent of opinion.
It was pre-eminently a time when a great minister would have boldly assumed the direction of opinion, placed a clear programme before the electors, defined and limited the reforms which he meant to ask the States-General to sanction. But Necker adopted a totally different course. He had no sympathy with the principles of the ‘Contrat Social,’ which were now dominant in France, and he had a strong constitutional dislike to all revolutionary changes. Considering, he has himself said, the dangers attending great political changes, the difficulty of forecasting their issue and of regulating their course, he would never have convoked the States-General had he not found that body solemnly promised under his predecessor. If he could have followed his own wishes he would have contented himself by carrying out, with the assistance of the provincial Assemblies, a long series of administrative reforms which might have greatly ameliorated the condition of the country without producing any strong passions or convulsions.1 Such a policy was no longer open to him, but he determined, at least, to restrict as much as possible the circle of his action, and to postpone, if he could not avoid, the most important decisions.
Timid, irresolute, and cautious to a fault, it was the character of his mind to see with special clearness the possible dangers and evils of any course that was proposed, and he shrank instinctively from any step which, by bringing him into opposition to strong currents of opinion, might imperil the high degree of esteem which he enjoyed and to which he most tenaciously clung. By assembling the Notables he had shown that he had no fixed policy of his own on the great question of the composition of the States-General, and it was now his manifest policy to ask advice on all sides, to commit himself to nothing, and to leave the nation to find its own way and to frame its own programme. Even after the elections had been completed he displayed the same fatal inaction. The States-General, from the complete inexperience of their members and from the circumstances of excitement under which they were elected, required more than almost any other Parliament firm and skilful guidance. But Necker met them without any clear and definite plan; and when Mirabeau, who alone possessed the talents that might have ridden and directed the storm, desired to support him, he met the overtures of the great tribune with freezing and contemptuous indifference.1
There was something of timidity, something of pride, something of a kind of constitutional pedantry, and something of simple miscalculation in the attitude he assumed. When he was remonstrated with, he said that he considered it wrong for a minister to interfere in any way with popular elections; and when he was further pressed, he added, ‘What would you have me do when there is no longer any obedience in any quarter, and when we are not sure of the troops?’2 Military discipline, indeed, was only too evidently giving way, and bands of soldiers might be seen in the early summer of 1789 marching through the streets of Paris, shouting, ‘Long live the third estate!’ and ‘We are the soldiers of the nation!’ When public opinion was so excited and disorganised, Necker deemed it best to temporise, to be governed by circumstances, to wait until the nation had clearly determined its wishes. To an undecided and desponding man, who was conscious that he was surrounded by enemies at the Court and in the Council, who knew that a single false step might lead to a catastrophe, and who was confronted with the immediate and pressing necessity of meeting a great famine, such a course had an irresistible attraction, and it does not appear to have been as much condemned by contemporaries as by posterity. Malouet, who has severely blamed it, acknowledges that the great majority of the more moderate of the politicians who afterwards formed the Constituent Assembly, agreed with Necker that the King should propose no plan and adopt no important measure till after the first deliberation of the States-General.1 But by leaving the country without control or guidance in a moment of supreme crisis and agitation, Necker suffered the revolutionary passions to acquire a force and a scope which placed them beyond the reach of any statesmanship.
Malouet, who was one of the most sagacious judges of this period of the Revolution, has expressed his firm conviction that at this time popular opinion had only fixed itself irrevocably on two points, the convocation of the States-General and the doubling of the representatives of the third estate, and that the Government could in all other points have effectually guided and limited the movement for change. The sovereign power still retained its authority, and it was as yet by no means obnoxious to the democratic party. The recent conflict with the Parliaments had been essentially a conflict between the Crown and the privileged orders, in which the Crown was contending for a system of taxation which would lighten the burden of the people. Necker has borne an emphatic testimony to the complete honesty with which, both in public and private, the King was resolved to carry out his promise of convoking the States-General, though he must have well known that it would give a representative character to the Government of France.2 The doubling of the number of the representatives of the third estate, which was the first great triumph of the popular party, was carried out with his cordial approbation, and contrary to the opinion of the majority of the Notables; and it was remarked that on this occasion the Queen was for the first time present at the Council, as she desired to give her sanction to the measure.1 It was believed that the situation resembled that of Sweden under Gustavus III., when a popular King, supported by the democracy, engaged in a successful struggle with the privileged orders. All over the Continent—in Sweden, in Germany, in Poland, in Hungary, in Bohemia, and in France—the diets, assemblies, or parliaments which represented the privileged orders had during the eighteenth century been hostile to reform, while Catherine, and Frederick, and Joseph II., and Leopold of Tuscany, and Gustavus III. of Sweden, and Charles III. of Spain had been the great reformers of their age.2 The Prince who was afterwards Lewis XVIII., addressing the municipality of Paris in 1789, said that ‘a great revolution was impending, and that the King by his dispositions, his virtues, and his supreme rank, was its natural chief.’3 The edict and report of December 27, 1788, were received with general applause,4 and Madame de Staël has even stated that at this late period ‘the authority of the King over the minds of men was more powerful than ever.’5 Nor was the spell quite broken in the agitated weeks that followed. I have already mentioned the remarkable fact that all, or nearly all, the instructions furnished by the constituents to their representatives in the States-General, while urging the largest and most searching reforms, expressly directed them to maintain the authority and dignity of the King.6
It seemed, indeed, as if the monarchy was the last of the old institutions of France which was in danger; but a spirit of insubordination and passion had for some years been abroad, and the unregulated excitement engendered by the elections was not likely long to confine itself within any barriers. ‘It was as much the fashion,’ the Prince of Ligne once said, ‘to disobey under Lewis XVI. as to obey under Lewis XIV.’ ‘Under Lewis XIV.,’ the old Marshal Richelieu said to Lewis XVI, ‘no one ventured to utter a complaint; under Lewis XV they spoke low; under your Majesty they speak aloud.’1 ‘The universal spirit,’ wrote Malouet, describing the elections of 1789, ‘was that of independence. Clergy, nobles, Parliament, third estate, all wished an increased power. … The nobles of the provinces would no longer endure the superiority of those of the Court. The inferior clergy wished to share the dignities of the higher clergy; the officers and subalterns of the army used a similar language. … The word liberty was for ever ringing in the ears of an ignorant populace,’ and they understood it in its widest and most extravagant sense.2 The electoral meetings in every parish maintained a constant fever of excitement. In three or four months there are said to have been at least 40,000,3 and they carried the spirit of agitation and discussion into the remotest village. At the invitation of the Government, ‘cahiers,’ representing the grievances and conveying the instructions of the three orders, were prepared in every parish, and all over France the busiest brains were employed in collecting, comparing, and elaborating grievances.
Innumerable newspapers sprang into existence, and the activity of the political press was unequalled. One of the most remarkable signs of the enormous intensity of political life in England during the civil war and the Commonwealth, is to be found in the vast literature of pamphlets and broadsides that was then suddenly produced. In France and on a larger scale, the election of 1789 at once produced the same phenomenon, and it continued for a long time without diminution. In the last months of 1788 a private collector is said to have accumulated no less than 2,500 pamphlets which had recently appeared.4 Arthur Young, who had known England in several periods of great political excitement, had never seen anything which even faintly approached the activity of the French political press when he visited Paris in the summer of 1789. ‘The business,’ he says, ‘going forward at present in the pamphlet shops of Paris is incredible. I went to the Palais Royal to see what new things were published and to procure a catalogue of all. Every hour produces something new. Thirteen came out today, sixteen yesterday, and ninety-two last week. We think sometimes that Debrett's and Stockdale's shops in London are crowded, but they are mere deserts compared to Desein's and some others here, in which one can scarcely squeeze from the door to the counter. The price of printing two years ago was from twenty-seven to thirty livres per sheet, but now it is from sixty to eighty livres. The spirit of reading political tracts, they say, spreads into the provinces, so that all the presses of France are equally employed. Nineteen-twentieths of these productions are in favour of liberty, and generally violent against the clergy and nobility. … Is it not wonderful that while the press teems with the most levelling and even seditious principles, which, put in execution, would overturn the monarchy, nothing in reply appears, and not the least step is taken by the Court to restrain this extreme licentiousness of publication? It is easy to conceive the spirit that must thus be raised among the people. But the coffee houses in the Palais Royal present yet more singular and astonishing spectacles; they are not only crowded within, but other expectant crowds are at the doors and windows listening à gorge deployée to certain orators who from chairs or tables harangue each his little audience. The eagerness with which they are heard, and the thunder of applause they receive for every sentiment of more than common hardiness or violence against the present Government, cannot easily be imagined. I am all amazement at the Ministry permitting such nests and hotbeds of sedition and revolt, which disseminate amongst the people every hour principles that by-and-by must be opposed with vigour, and therefore it seems little short of madness to allow the propagation at present.’1
Another agency, more terrible and more powerful than any mere political propagandism, was, however, now hastening the Revolution. At the very time when the promise of the States-General had let loose the torrent of speculations, and passions, and wild hopes and fears, a great famine fell upon the land. A long drought in the summer of 1788, and a hailstorm almost unexampled in the extent of its devastations, were followed by an extremely bad harvest and by the severest winter that had been known in France for eighty years. The olives, the mulberries, the chestnut forests over great districts were almost totally destroyed. Bread rose quickly to famine price. The distress was as acute in the towns as in the country. Manufactures and industry in all their forms had already suffered deeply from the derangement of the national finances. The English competition which followed the recent commercial treaty had almost annihilated some of its important branches and thrown thousands of workmen out of employment, and the destruction of the mulberry trees now ruined the silk manufacture. In Lyons alone 40,000 workmen employed in this industry were left without bread. Many master manufacturers left the country, and countless factories were closed. Abbeville, Amiens, and Rouen were equally distressed, and great numbers of workmen are said to have died of literal starvation. Disease springing from insufficient nourishment rapidly spread. The roads were infested with famished brigands. The bakers ‘and butchers’ shops, the mills, the offices where duties were levied on provisions, were everywhere attacked. There were almost daily conflicts between the soldiers and the populace, and all the great towns were besieged by starving countrymen seeking for employment. In Paris, where great public works had already produced an unnatural agglomeration of workmen, the number of the indigent soon tripled. In the single quarter of St. Antoine there were 30,000. A fourth part of the population of the city are said to have been driven in the winter of 1788–1789 to sell their clothes and tools and furniture, and it was easy on the smallest pretext to collect thousands of desperate and hungry men, ready to welcome any change and to take part in any enterprise. The freezing of the Seine in December greatly added to the difficulty of supplying the city with food. But the distress was never greater than at the time of the opening of the States-General. The whole country was disorganised by famine, and in the four months before the capture of the Bastille there had been more than 300 violent outbreaks in France.1
It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of this famine among the causes of the French Revolution. It gave the revolutionary movement its army, and its impulse, and its character of desperate and savage earnestness. The presence in Paris of a vast multitude of idle and half-starving men, largely recruited from the provinces, at a time when political excitement was at its height, and when the discipline of the army had been fatally corrupted, amply accounts for the scenes of violence that followed. Whenever a legislative body is elected on a very low suffrage, a bad harvest is likely to have a great influence on elections, for the minds of men are then full of uneasiness, prone to change, and readily turned against the Government. But this election, which was beyond all others critical and dangerous, took place not merely amid distress, but amid famine. Necker showed great skill and energy in supplying the capital with food, but it was easy to persuade an ignorant and starving populace that the Government were responsible for all they suffered. ‘It appears plain to me,’ wrote Arthur Young, ‘that the violent friends of the commons are not displeased at the high price of corn, which seconds their views greatly, and makes any appeal to the common feeling of the people more easy and much more to their purpose than if the price were low.’1 At the time when the violent scenes of 1789 began, food in Paris was almost at famine rates, and it was computed that there were not less than a hundred and twenty thousand destitute persons in the city, who depended wholly on public works for their employment.2
The aims and dispositions of the electors were clearly shown by the ‘cahiers’ of the three orders. It was plain that there was no alliance between the nobles and the clergy, and among the wishes most strongly expressed in the cahiers of the former class were the suppression of tithes and of religious orders, the establishment of perfect liberty of conscience, and the sale of a portion of the ecclesiastical property, in order to restore the prosperity of the finances. It was evident, too, that the nobles were as far as possible from being animated by a general hostility to reform. They desired the establishment of constitutional government by periodic assemblies of the States-General, complete individual liberty, and a crowd of reforms in the administration of the finances and of justice. Almost with one voice they announced their readiness to abandon their exemption from direct taxation; their determination to accept a reasonable money commutation for their feudal rights; their wish to see all the higher ranks in the army thrown open to commoners. If these three measures had been accomplished, almost every serious grievance which the country suffered from its aristocracy would have been removed. On the other hand, the nobles insisted strongly that they should remain a separate order in the nation; that they should retain their old privilege of voting separately in the States-General; that their dignities and honorary distinctions should be maintained. Some of the cahiers even asked that the privileged orders should wear a special dress, and that a separate order of peasants should be constituted, and very many of them protested against the sale of offices, which introduced a crowd of lawyers and other functionaries into the nobility.1
These views may not have represented everything that extreme reformers could desire, but historians must be very false or very prejudiced if they describe them as the views of a class that was opposed to reform and incapable of discharging a useful function in a free State. It was a remark of Sieyès that in the literature that preceded the Revolution, the most powerful defences of the rights of the commons came from the pens of members of the privileged orders,2 and it is an incontestable fact that a great part of the French aristocracy were at this time thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the eighteenth century, and prepared to make serious sacrifices for the public welfare. The Parliaments had, as I have already shown, in some respects misrepresented their spirit, but the Parliaments had at least been distinguished by two great qualities—a strong dislike to arbitrary power, and a strong desire to introduce a spirit of economy into the State; and in the provincial councils the upper class had of late years shown themselves both liberal and enlightened, and ready to perform a great deal of useful and unobtrusive work.1 The cahiers of the clergy also showed a frank and general willingness to surrender all privileges in matters of taxation; and wherever the curés preponderated, there was displayed a genuine sympathy with liberal ideas. A better administration of the Church, the opening of all offices to all classes, the establishment of a general system of religious national education, free trade, and constitutional government, were among their leading demands, and some of them expressed a wish that the tools of workmen should never be seized for debt, and that the poorest class should be exempt from taxation.2
Among the commons the language was more vague, and while the monarchy was still respected, the ideas of the ‘Contrat Social’ were very apparent. The electors for the third order asked equality before the civil and criminal law, unity of legislation, liberty of the press, abolition of all servitude and feudal rights, responsibility of ministers, a readjustment of taxation.3 In this class, however, the desire for equality was still stronger than the desire for reform, and they especially urged that in the States-General the three orders should vote not separately, but together.
If the prevailing wish had been simply to make France a free and constitutional country, in the English or American sense of those terms, the victory was already won. The peremptory instructions of the three orders were of such a nature, that there was no doubt whatever that this end could have been attained with general consent. In April 1789, Governor Morris, whose admirable letters give one of the truest and calmest pictures of the events that ensued, wrote to Washington: ‘The elections are finished throughout this kingdom except in the capital, and it appears from the instructions given to the representatives that certain points are universally demanded which, when granted and secured, will render France perfectly free as to the principles of the Constitution. I say the principles, for one generation at least will be required to render the practice familiar.’1 On the part of the King there was nothing to be feared. Jefferson, one of the most democratic as well as one of the most conspicuous of the leaders of the American Revolution, was at this time in Paris representing the American Republic, and he has left an account of his own experience, which throws a very remarkable light on the secret history of the French Revolution. ‘I was much acquainted,’ he writes, ‘with the leading patriots of the Assembly. Being from a country which had successfully passed through a similar reformation, they were disposed to my acquaintance, and had some confidence in me. I urged most strenuously an immediate compromise to secure what the Government were now ready to yield, and to trust to future occasions for what might still be wanting. It was well understood that the King would grant at this time, first, freedom of the person by Habeas Corpus; second, freedom of conscience; third, freedom of the Press; fourth, trial by jury; fifth, a representative Legislature; sixth, annual meetings; seventh, the origination of laws; eighth, the exclusive right of taxation and appropriation; and ninth, the responsibility of Ministers; and with the exercise of these powers they could obtain in future whatever might be further necessary to improve and preserve their Constitution.’ ‘They thought otherwise, however,’ continues Jefferson, ‘and events have proved their lamentable error, for after thirty years of war foreign and domestic, the loss of millions of lives, the prostration of private happiness and the foreign subjugation of their own country for a time, they have obtained no more, nor even that securely.2
The representatives of the three orders included a few men of real genius, and many who would have risen into prominence in any Legislature. It is remarkable that Mirabeau and the Abbé Sieyès, who were the most conspicuous figures in the third order, had both abandoned their own orders to sit in it. Among the steady advocates of moderate reform in the commons were Mounier, who had been the leading member of the States of Dauphiné, a man of great intellect and historical knowledge, and one of the best political writers in France; Malouet, the experienced and high-minded intendant of Toulon; Tronchet, a veteran lawyer who represented Paris, and who presided over the commission for framing the Constitution. A young and eloquent soldier named Cazalès represented the extreme Royalist party, while violent democratic opinions were supported by the passionate eloquence of Barnave, by the logic of Dupont, by Rabaut de St. Etienne, a Protestant pastor who wrote the history of the Assembly in a strain of the highest enthusiasm, and who, like so many of the enthusiasts of the Revolution, soon ended his days on the guillotine. Another distinguished member of the commons who underwent the same fate was Bailly, member of the French Academy, a distinguished man of science, twice Mayor of Paris, and first President of the National Assembly; and there was a group of darker and more dangerous spirits who were as yet unnoticed and obscure, including Buzot and Pétion, and the young advocate of Arras, Maximilien Robespierre. The clergy had a brilliant but superficial rhetorician in the Abbé Maury; an eminently wise and high-minded statesman in Luzerne, the Bishop of Langres; a political intriguer of deep and subtle ability in Talleyrand, Bishop of Autun. Among the nobles was the Duke of Orleans, whose evil influence may be traced in most of the earlier stages of the Revolution; and there too might be seen Lafayette, still glittering with the aureole of his American reputation; the eloquent and chivalrous Lally Tollendal; the two Lameths, vehement advocates of revolutionary change; D'Espréménil, who had once enjoyed boundless popularity as he led the opposition to the King in the Parliament of Paris, and who was soon to lose his head as a Royalist. A characteristic feature of the Assembly was the large number of curés among the clergy, and of lawyers among the commons. Of the latter profession there were no less than 374.1
Though containing many men of ability and high character, the Assembly was for the most part almost totally destitute both of the education of intellect and of the education of character that fit men for public life, and it was completely intoxicated with the doctrines of Rousseau. There were at this time two excellent observers in Paris who had watched carefully political life in the two countries where it was the most active, and it is remarkable how closely they agreed in their independent estimates of the situation. In the discussions of the States-General Arthur Young said, ‘I find a general ignorance of the principles of government, a strange and unaccountable appeal on one side to ideal and visionary rights of nature, and on the other no settled plan that shall give security to the people for being in future in a much better situation than hitherto.’ ‘The spectators in the galleries are allowed to interfere in the debates by clapping their hands and by other noisy expressions of approbation. … More than once to-day there were one hundred members on their legs at a time, and M. Bailly absolutely without power to keep order.’1
Governor Morris compared the new legislators to young scholars fresh from the university, who would bring everything to a Roman standard. They desired, he said, to produce an American constitution without having American citizens to support it. He was struck with the large number of members who had ‘much imagination’ but ‘little knowledge, judgment, or reflection,’ with their ‘romantic spirit’ and their ‘romantic ideas of government.’ Further experience did not improve his estimate of the Assembly. ‘It may be divided,’ he wrote in January 1790, ‘into three parts, one called the aristocrats … another which has no name but which consists of all sorts of people really friends of good government. The third is composed of what is called here the enragés, that is, the madmen. These are the most numerous, and are of that class which in America is known by the name of pettifogging lawyers, together with a host of curates and many of those persons who in all revolutions throng to the standard of change because they are not well. This last party is in close alliance with the populace here, and derives from that circumstance very great authority.’2
It soon appeared that the quarrel between the commons and the two privileged orders could not be averted or even deferred. The vital question was whether the three orders should vote as separate bodies, each possessing a right of veto, or two combined exercising it on the third, or whether, as the commons desired, the three orders should form a single assembly and should vote by head. The question was a very unhappy one, for each alternative led to grave evils. A constitution in which the assent of three distinct legislative assemblies was required for the validity of a law, would be in the highest degree cumbrous and inefficient, and a constitution in which the two privileged orders could always by a coalition outnumber and paralyse the order which represented the bulk of the nation, would be extremely unfavourable to liberty and utterly inconsistent with democratic ideas. On the other hand, the adoption of the other alternative would practically place the whole government of France, without any control, in the hands of a single popular chamber, and such a government is the very worst with which a nation can be cursed. It is a despotism more dangerous, as well as more inefficient for good, than an absolute monarchy; for the sense of responsibility is divided and deadened, and the infamy attaching to unjust actions, to excesses of tyranny, or to usurpations of power is comparatively unfelt when diffused among many instead of being concentrated on one. Besides this, every large assembly partakes of the nature of a mob. It is sure to be swayed by passion, faction, party spirit, personal influence, and rhetorical skill, and in no other form of uncontrolled government is there likely to be so little of the higher qualities of judgment and prescience that are most necessary for the wise and temperate administration of affairs.
These remarks apply to all countries, but there were special evils to be feared in France if the plan of the commons was realised. In the first place it would manifestly make the democratic element supreme, for the number of the commons was equal to that of the two other orders combined, and a considerable proportion of the nobles and a still larger proportion of the clergy were certain to join them. In the next place it would put the direction of affairs, without any controlling, revising, or modifying senate, in the hands of an assembly which was totally without experience; and in the last place that assembly would consist of twelve hundred members. It may be boldly asserted that there never was a legislative assembly which from its circumstances and its composition was less fitted to legislate without a second chamber than that which now assembled in France; and it may also be truly said that even in the most phlegmatic nation and in the nation most accustomed to parliamentary usages, a parliament of twelve hundred members would become totally unmanageable.
If the difficulty had arisen either in England or America, it would almost certainly have been met by the obvious compromise of dividing the orders into two chambers. Necker desired this, but in accordance with his usual timid policy he refrained from bringing it forward, and contented himself with trying very ineffectually to induce the contending parties to adjourn the question till after the verification of powers. A small party headed by Luzerne, the Bishop of Langres, argued in favour of a bicameral division, and the project was strongly supported by Malouet, Mounier, and Lally Tollendal. It was soon, however, found to be extremely unpopular, and when at a somewhat later period it was formally brought before the National Assembly, it was rejected by a majority of more than ten to one. It is remarkable that the aristocratic section of the Assembly joined with its opponents in voting against it. If the bicameral system had been adopted, the upper chamber would have consisted of the bishops and of the one hundred or one hundred and fifty families of the ancient nobility of France. The curés and the new nobility of the robe would have sat in the lower chamber, and accordingly these classes who formed the greater part of the two privileged orders at once repudiated the project. On the other hand the democratic party violently opposed it as an imitation of the aristocratic government of England; as consecrating and strengthening hereditary distinctions; as introducing into the Legislature a division of powers which was directly opposed to the principles of Rousseau. ‘The very nature of things,’ it was said, ‘resists this division of the legislative authority. The nation is one, so should then be the body that represents it.’1
The result of all this was that when the States-General, on which the hopes of France were so passionately fixed, met, this Assembly found itself at the very outset of its proceedings completely paralysed, and a revolution in its constitution became inevitable. The first business to be accomplished was the verification of the elections of the members. In the opinion of some politicians, this verification should have taken place before the King in council, but he left it, perhaps unwisely, to the Assembly, and it at once produced a dispute between the orders.
The Third Estate, assuming a position of superiority and ascendency, now invited the other orders to come to them for the purpose of verifying their powers conjointly. The invitation was refused, and from May 5 till the middle of June no public business was accomplished. At last, however, on the proposal of Sieyès and amid a storm of frantic excitement, the Third Estate alone voted themselves ‘the National Assembly,’ invited the other two orders to join them, and pushing their pretensions to sovereignty to the highest point, declared that the existing taxes, not having been consented to by the nation, were all illegal. The National Assembly, however, allowed them to be levied till its separation, after which they were to cease if not formally regranted.
This great revolution was effected on June 17, and it at once placed the Third Order in a totally new relation both to the other orders and to the Crown. There were speedy signs of yielding among some members of the privileged orders, and a fierce wave of excitement supported the change. Malouet strongly urged that the proper course was to dissolve the Assembly and to appeal to the constituencies, but Necker declined, and a feeble and ineffectual effort of the King to accomplish a reunion, and at the same time to overawe the Third Order, precipitated the Revolution. The King announced his intention of holding a royal session on June 22, and he summoned the three orders to meet him. It was his design to direct them to unite in order to deliberate in common on matters of common interest, and to regain the royal initiative by laying down the lines of a new constitution. He hoped to effect a bicameral arrangement, and he determined also to recommend an abolition of all privileges in matters of taxation, and the admissibility of all citizens to civil and military employments.
On Saturday, the 20th, however, the course of events was interrupted by the famous scene in the tennis court. Troops had lately been pouring to an alarming extent into Paris, and exciting much suspicion in the popular party, and the Government very injudiciously selected for the royal session on the following Monday, the hall in which the Third Order assembled. The hall was being prepared for the occasion, and therefore no meeting could be held. The members, ignorant of the fact, went to their chamber and were repelled by soldiers. Furious at the insult, they adjourned to the neighbouring tennis court. A suspicion that the King meant to dissolve them was abroad, and they resolved to resist such an attempt. With lifted hands and in a transport of genuine, if somewhat theatrical, enthusiasm, they swore that they would never separate ‘till the constitution of the kingdom and the regeneration of public order were established on a solid basis.’ The oath was proposed by no less a man than Mounier, and Bailly claimed his privilege as president to be the first to take it. One single member, Martin d'Auche, refused his assent.
The Third Estate had thus virtually assumed the sole legislative authority in France, and like the Long Parliament in England had denied the King's power to dissolve them. The public excitement had reached fever point, and in the council of the King there were grave divisions. A powerful section accused Neeker of ruining the cause of the King and of the privileged orders, and there was a widely spread impression that he did not possess the qualities of command and decision needed for the occasion. This impression was probably a just one, but it is not clear that the King had any servant who was more fit to meet the emergency; and the difficulties of a minister with a divided council, and in a moment of revolution, are always greater than either contemporary opinion or historical judgments are inclined to recognise. Owing to the dissension that had arisen, the royal session was postponed till the 23rd, but on the preéeding day the National Assembly met in a church, and its session was a very important one, for on this occasion a great body of the clergy formally joined it. One hundred and forty-eight members of the clergy, of whom one hundred and thirty-four were curés, had now given their adhesion. Two of the nobles, separating from their colleagues, took the same course.1
Next day the royal session was held. The project adopted in the council differed so much from that of Necker, that this minister refused to give it the sanction of his presence. Instead of commanding the three orders to deliberate together in the common interest, it was determined in the revised project that the King should merely invite them to do so. The King, in the scheme of Necker, while reserving to himself the right of sanctioning or rejecting any changes in the constitution of future States-General, left the examination of the faults in the existing constitution of the States-General to the Assembly of the Three Orders, with a declaration that he would refuse his consent to any legislative organisation which was not composed of at least two chambers. It was now, however, determined to withdraw altogether from the common deliberation ‘the form of the constitution to be given to the coming States-General,’ and to recognise fully the essential distinction of the three orders as political bodies, though they might, with the approval of the Sovereign, deliberate in common. Necker had proposed, too, that the King should decisively, and of his own authority, abolish all privileges of taxation, but in the amended article the King only undertook to give his sanction to this measure on condition of the two orders renouncing their privileges.1 On the other hand, the King announced to the Assembly a long series of articles of reform which would have made France a thoroughly constitutional country, and have swept away nearly all the great abuses in its government. They gave the States-General complete control of the purse, abolished absolutely letters of ‘cachet,’ the taille and the corvée, established liberty of the press and very complete local self-government, and, in a word, reformed almost the whole administration of France. He recommended these reforms to the three orders, but declared that if they unfortunately could not agree to effect them, he would endeavour to carry them out himself.
I have already quoted the remarkable passage in which Jefferson has recorded his judgment of the proposed constitution. At the same time, while divesting himself for the future of some of the most important of his prerogatives, the King endeavoured to secure and assert for himself that share of power which rightly belongs to a constitutional sovereign. He annulled the proceedings of June 17, by which the Third Estate alone declared itself the Legislature of France. He reminded the Assembly that none of its proceedings could acquire the force of law without his assent, and he asserted his sole right as French Sovereign to the command of the army and police. He concluded by directing the three orders to withdraw and to meet next day to consider his proposals.
The King, with the nobles and the majority of the clergy, at once withdrew, but the Third Order defiantly remained. It was evident that the attempt to conciliate, and the attempt to assert the royal authority, had both failed. The Assembly proclaimed itself inviolable. It confirmed the decrees which the King had annulled. Sieyès declared, in words which excited a transport of enthusiasm, that what the Assembly was yesterday it still was to-day; and two days later, the triumph of the Assembly became still more evident by the adhesion of forty-seven of the nobility. After this defection the King saw the hopelessness of resistance, and on the 27th he ordered the remainder of the nobles to take the same course.
It was becoming evident that force alone must decide the issue, and it was also daily becoming more evident on which side that force lay. Arthur Young, it is true, believed that almost to the moment of the catastrophe, vigour and ability might have turned everything to the side of the Court; that not only the majority of the nobles, the higher clergy, and the Parliaments, but also the soldiers would have been with the King; and that a resolute and military ruler might still have triumphed.1 But the feeble, amiable, and most pacific Sovereign, whom an unhappy fate had placed on the throne in this great crisis of French history, had none of the qualities that were needed to rally the forces of the Crown; and day by day the defection of the troops became more apparent. ‘The ferment at Paris,’ writes Young on June 24, ‘is beyond conception; 10,000 people have been all this day in the Palais Royal. … The King's propositions are received with universal disgust. … The people seem with a sort of frenzy to reject all idea of compromise. … The constant meetings at the Palais Royal, which are carried to a degree of licentiousness and fury of liberty that is scarcely credible, united with the innumerable inflammatory publications that have been hourly appearing since the assembly of the States, have so heated the people's expectations, and given them the idea of such total changes, that nothing the King or Court could do would now satisfy them.’1
In the mean time the real rulers of the country were coming rapidly to the surface. All nations are in truth governed by aristocracies, but these aristocracies vary greatly in their character. The ‘Club Breton,’ which soon became the ‘Club des Jacobins,’ was already formed; and an aristocracy, half criminal, half fanatic, consisting of groups of local agitators and of the scum of the Paris mob, began to overawe the representatives of the nation, and to direct the course of its policy. Troops were poured into Paris, but their presence was an excitement without being a protection, for day after day it became more evident that their discipline was gone, and that they shared the sympathies and the passions of the mob. They had caught the contagion of the time, and the revolutionary party had two most powerful instruments for acting upon them. They promised to throw open all ranks to the private, and they also, in accordance with the instructions of many of the cahiers, promised an increase of pay. At the same time famine grew daily more intense, and the mobs more passionate and more formidable. The dismissal of Necker on the evening of July 11 was the spark which produced the conflagration that had long been preparing. Next day Paris flew to arms. The troops with few exceptions abandoned the King; and when, with scarcely any serious resistance, the Bastille was captured on the 14th, and the head of its murdered governor carried by a triumphant procession through the streets, the Revolution may be said to have definitely triumphed. Power had now passed both from the King and from the Assembly into the hands of the mob. As was truly said, it was not a revolt, but a revolution; not a change of government, but a dissolution of all government; and France began that terrible career of anarchy which was only completely terminated by the wars and the despotism of Napoleon. For the next few years she lay among the great Powers of Europe a portent and a wonder; cut away from all her ancient moorings, drifting without a compass or a helmsman, like some exploding fireship, scattering terror and desolation along her path.
There has been in the present generation a strong reaction against the old habit of treating history merely as a series of biographical studies, and military incidents and pictures, and it has become the special delight of historians to trace through a remote past the causes that have prepared and produced great changes. It is possible, however, for this mode of writing history to be carried too far, and it has produced a school of historic fatalists who appear to me to have greatly underrated the part which accident, political wisdom, and political folly have borne in human affairs. To me at least it appears, from the facts that have been related in this chapter, that the French Revolution, though undoubtedly prepared by causes which had been in operation for centuries, might, till within a very few years of the catastrophe, have been with no great difficulty averted. A profound change in the character of the government and institutions of France had indeed become inevitable, but such a change need not have been a revolution, and if it had been effected, as very similar changes have been effected in other countries, without the subversion of the monarchy and a total disorganisation of the State, its influence both on French and European history would have been wholly different. In spite of the wars and debts of Lewis XIV., in spite of the vices and incapacity of the Regency and of Lewis XV., in spite of much class selfishness and a great subversion of ancient opinions, the position of the French monarchy on the accession of Lewis XVI. was far from desperate. If a Henry IV. or a Frederick the Great had then mounted the throne, or if Lewis XVI. had found for his Minister a Richelieu or a Pitt, a Cavour or a Bismarck, France would never have drifted into anarchy.
The chief faults that made the situation irremediable may, I think, be easily traced. The policy of Lewis XV. towards his Parliaments was of the kind which beyond all others discredits and weakens governments. Either resistance or concession if consistently and skilfully conducted might have succeeded, but a policy of alternate resistance and concession, of bold acts of authority repeatedly and ignominiously reversed, could have no other effect than to uproot all feeling of reverence for the Crown. The same weak and fluctuating policy was pursued under much more critical circumstances by Lewis XVI. The restoration of the Parliaments by that Sovereign appears to me to have been a capital mistake. It raised up without necessity an opposition to the Crown of the most dangerous and embarrassing description; and it at the same time enormously increased the difficulty of accomplishing the equalisation of taxation and the commutation of the feudal system, which were the two measures most absolutely necessary if a revolution was to be averted. If at the beginning of his reign, when his power was still uncontested and when his popularity was at its height, the King instead of restoring the Parliaments had summoned the States-General to carry these measures, or if without summoning the States-General he had decreed them by his own royal authority, he would probably have succeeded. But the propitious moment was suffered to pass. A false step was taken which produced endless embarrassments, and the great fault of the American War soon followed. This war for the first time made French finances irremediable. It inoculated French public opinion with republican ideas, and it produced that fatal disorganisation of the army which was still further aggravated by the decree of 1781, making the higher ranks a strict monopoly of the nobles. The extravagance of Calonne and the incapacity of Brienne continued the work of ruin, and although Lewis XVI. and Necker were on the whole greatly superior to the average of French kings and ministers, they proved totally destitute of the qualities that were most needed in the crisis of a revolution. In this way the foundations of authority were completely sapped. Concessions which at an earlier period would have been welcomed with enthusiasm, only whetted the appetite for change. A great famine occurring at a time of great political excitement immensely strengthened the elements of disorder. The edifice of government tottered and fell, and all Europe resounded with its fall.
Rocquain, L'Esprit Révolution, naire avant la Révolution, pp. 33, 34.
Saigey, La Physique de Voltairs.
See a very full and excellent account of these efforts in Mr. Parton's Life of Voltaire, ii. 352–407.
See the striking and vivid picture in the Mémoires de Ségur, i. 26–28; ii. 53–57.
Taine, Anoien Régime, pp. 381–384.
Vol. i. pp. 269, 270. Rocquain, L'Esprit Révolutionnaire avant la Révolution, p. 49.
Vol. i. pp 269, 270; Taine, Ancien Régime, pp. 78–81; Sismondi, Hist, des Franĉais, xx. 178.
Rocquain, p. 204.
Granier de Cassagnac, Causes de la Rérolution, i. 28, 29.
See the list of condemned books in Granier de Cassagnac, i 32–34. See, too, Buckle's Hist. of Civilisation, i. 671–682.
Parton's Life of Voltaire, ii 299.
Rocquain, p. 275.
Ibid. pp. 381–383.
Chérest, La Chutc de l'Ancien, Régime, i. 382–395.
The division of classes was, however, gradually diminishing even in France. Necker writes on the subject: ‘Indiquons encore les mésalhances comme une altération aux vieilles habitudes et aux préjugés, si l'on veut, qui servoient à entretenir l'éclat de la noblesse. Ces mésalliances furent multipliées à l'excès sous le règne de Louis XV, et l'amour de l'argent mit en relation de consanguinité la haute noblesse et les hommes à grande fortune, la haute noblesse et la haute finance; car ce dernier nom fut alors inventé par les gens de la cour afin d'orner un peu leurs nouveaux parens.’—Necker, ‘Sur la Révolution,’ Œuvres, ix. 125.
See his ‘Lettres sur la Commerce;’ Œuvres de Voltaire, xxiv. 44, 45.
Siècle de Louis XIV, ch. xxx.
Laws, book iv.
See Strauss' Vie de Voltaire, pp. 280, 281.
La Voix du Sage et du Peuple.
Idées Républicaines. In one of his letters in 1760 (Sept. 20) he expressed very frankly his genuine opinion about republics: ‘Si vous vous souvenez que les Hollandais ont mangé sur le gril le cœur des deux frères De Witt; si vous songez que ces bons Suisses mes voisins ont vendu le duc Louis Sforce pour de l'argent comptant; si vous songez que le républicain Jean Calvin, ce digne théologien, après avoir écrit qu'il ne falloit persécuter personne, pas même ceux qui niaient la Trinité, fit brûler tout vif, et avec des fagots verts, un Espagnol qui s'exprimait sur la Trinité autrement que lui; en vérité, Monsieur, vous en conclurez qu'il n'y a pas plus de vertu dans les républiques que dans les monarchies.’ Œuvres de Voltaire, 1. 419, 420
Œuvres de Voltaire, li. 103; liii. 318, 326; lxii. 460 See on this aspect of Voltaire, Desnoiresterres, Voltaire et la Société au XVIIIe siècle, tome vi pp. 237–240. Many other passages like those I have quoted, may be found in the correspondence of Voltaire. Bishop Dupanloup, in his virulent but able Lettres sur le Centenaire de Voltaire (1878), has industriously collected them.
See vol. iii pp. 503, 504.
See Annual Register, 1776, pp. 146, 191; 1786, p. 169; 1791, p. 210. Voltaire, Prix de la Justice et de l'Humanité, art. xxiv.; Lea, Superstition and Force, pp 386–389; Buckle's History of Civilisation, ii. 107–110.
See the history of this very important movement in Doniol, La Révolution Franĉaise et la Féodalité, pp 190–200.
Tocqueville, Ancien Régime, pp. 34, 35.
Doniol, p. 174.
Annual Register, 1776, p. 191.
Gentz, On the State of Europe, p. 81.
Annual Register, 1791, p. 207.
Condorcet, Progrès de l'Esprit humain, pp. 189–192(abridged). Compare the striking picture of the reforms in the generation that preceded the Revolution, in Gentz, On the State of Europe, pp. 69–88.
(Euvres de Voltaire, tome xl. pp 438–449.
See Rocquain, p. 245. This was in 1764.
Grimm et Diderot, corresp. Jan. 1768.
The part played by the Parliaments in preparing the Revolution has been recently investigated with singular learning and impartiality by two admirable historians, who are much less known in England than they ought to be Rocquain, L'Esprit Révolutionnaire avant la Révolution; and Chérest, La Chute de l'Ancion Régime, i. 234–241. See, too, Louis Blanc, Hist. de la Révolution, i. 437, 438; Mme de Stael, Consid. sur la Révolution, i. 129–154; Voltaire, Hist. du Parlement de Paris.
Cassagnac, Causes de la Révolution, i. 346–355.
See Tocqueville, Ancien Régime, p. 162; L. Blanc, Hist. de la Révolution, i. 435; Chérest, La Chute de l'Ancien Régime, i. 238, 239.
See the excellent remarks of Grimm on the influence of the Parliaments, Mém. Historiques, vii. 232, 233.
See a very full account of this conflict in Rocquain, L'Esprit Révolutionnaire avant la Révolution, pp. 54–72; Aubertin, L'Esprit public au XVIIIe sièole, pp. 260–272; Voltaire, Hist. du Parlement
Rocquain, pp 128, 129.
D'Argenson, Mémoires, viii. 35; Rocquain, p. 170.
Rocquain, p. 175.
D'Argenson, viii. 202, 203.
Ibid. viii. 241, 242.
Ibid vii. 294, 295.
Ibid. vii. 242.
D'Argenson, vi. 464, vii. 242, viii. 315. Many other passages to the same effect have been collected by Rocquain and Aubertin.
Chesterfield's Letters, ii. 318, 319.
Rocquain, pp. 183–199.
Ibid. p. 199.
Rocquain, pp. 194–196; Aubertin, pp. 274–278.
D'Argenson, ix. 216.
See a remarkable passage in his Observations on the State of the Nation.
Rocquain, p. 226.
Rocquain, pp 239–243.
Emile, livre iii.
Grenville Papers, ii 99, 100.
‘Indeed, under such extreme straitness and distraction labours the whole body of their finances, so far does their charge outrun their supply in every particular, that no man, I believe, who has considered their affairs with any degree of attention or information, but must hourly look for some extraordinary convulsion in that whole system; the effect of which on France and even on all Europe, it is difficult to conjecture’—Observations on the State of the Nation.
Rocquain, pp. 251–253.
Rocquain, pp. 252–255.
Ibid. p. 262.
Ibid. p. 275.
D'Argenson, Mém. vii. 16, 17.
Sorel, L'Europe et la Révolution Franĉaise, pp. 69, 70.
Rocquain, p. 240.
Rocquain, pp. 255, 256.
See on this whole history Sismondi, Hist des Franĉais, tome xx. pp. 403–425; Rocquain, L'Esprit Rérolutionnaire avant la Kéiolution, pp. 282–297.
Mém sur la vie de Marie-Antoinette, par Mme de Campan; avantpropos.
See some striking examples of this in Buckle's History of Cyulisation, i 689, and Taine s Ancien Régime, p. 15. An intelligent English traveller named Moore, who visited France towards the close of the reign of Lewis XV. gives many illustrations of the semi-adoration with which the French seemed then to regard their king, and adds this curious prediction: ‘The philosophical idea that kings have been appointed for public convenience, that they are accountable to their subjects for maladministration and for continued acts of injustice and oppression, is a doctrine very opposite to the general prejudices of this nation. If any of their kings were to behave in such an imprudent and outrageous manner as to occasion a revolt, and if the insurgents actually got the better, I question if they would think of new modelling the Government, and limiting the power of the Crown, as was done in Britain at the Revolution, so as to prevent the like abuses for the future. They would never think of going further, I imagine, than placing another prince of the Bourbon family on the throne, with the same power that his predecessors had, and then quietly lay down their arms, satisfied with his royal word or declaration to govern with more equity. The French seem so delighted and dazzled with the lustre of monarchy, that they cannot bear the thought of any qualifying mixture which might abate its violence.’—Moore's Travels in France, &c. (5th ed.) i. 44, 45. D'Argenson writes: ‘Louis XV est chéri de son peuple, sans lui avoir fait aucun bien … regardons en cela nos Franĉais comme le peuple le plus porté à l'amour des rois qui sera jamais. II pénètre leur caractère, il prend les intentions pour l'action’—D'Argenson, Mém. iv p. 167. In the description of the French character given long after (art ‘Caractère’) in the Encyclopœdia, ‘I'amour de leurs rois et de la monarchie même’ has a prominent place.
Annual Register, 1771, p. 89 I have already noticed Burke's warm eulogy of the remonstrances of the French Parliaments, expressed in his Observations on the State of the Nation. His admiration for the Parliament of Paris was very steady. Almost in the last words he uttered in public—in the magnificent peroration to his magnificent reply on the Hastings impeachment—he introduced a noble eulogy of it.
Sismondi, Histoire des Franĉais, xx. 325–327; Mme de Staël, Cons sur la Révolution, i. 140.
See an extremely able discussion of the influence of the philosophers, but especially of Voltaire and Rousseau, on the Revolution, by Mallet du Pan, Mercure Britannique, li. 342–370.
Thiers, La Propriété.
Cont. Soc. iii. c. 15.
Cont. Soc. iii. c. 16–18.
Reflections on the French Revolution.
Cont. Soc. iii. c. 12–15, iv. c. 1, 2.
Ibid. iii. c. 10.
Ibid. c. 14.
Cont. Soc. 1. c. 6, 9, ii. 4.
Ibid. iv. c. 8.
Gouvernemcnt de Pologne, c. iv.; Emile, liv. iv.; Discours sur l'Economie Polit.
Somers Tracts, xii. 242.
‘Formez done des hommes si vous voulez commander à des hommes. … C'étoit là le grand art des Gouvernemens anciens, dans ces tems reculés où les philosophes donnoient des loix aux peuples et n'employoient leur autorité qu'à les rendre sages et heureux. De là tant de loix somptuaires, tant de règlemens sur les mœurs, tant de maximes publiques admises ou rejetées avec le plus grand soin. Les tyrans mêmes n'oublioient pas cette importante partie de l'administration, et on les voyoit attentifs à corrompie les mœurs de leurs esclaves avec autant de soin qu'en avoient les magistrats à corringer celles de leurs concitoyens. Mais nos gouvernemens modernes qui croient avoir tout fait quand ils ont t ré de l'argent n'imaginent pas méme qu'il soit nécessaire ou possible d'aller jusques là.’—Discours sur l'Economie politique.
See his Lettres de La Montagne, especially letter vi.
Contrat Social, iii. c. 15.
Gouiern. de Pol. c vii.
Contrat Social, iii. c. 3, 4, 5. Montesquieu had long before said, ‘La propriété naturelle des petits états est d'être gouvernés en république, celle des médiocres d'être soumis à un monarque, celle des grands empires d'être dominés par un despote.’—Esp. des Lois, viii c. 20.
Lettres de La Montagne.
To Marcel (1762), Correspondance, ii. 78. So he elsewhere says: ‘Le meilleur des Gouvernemens est l'aristocratique. La pire des souverainetés est l'aristocratique’—Lettres de La Montagne, letter vi
Lettres de La Montagne, letter vi.
Contrat Social, ii. c. 4.
Emile, livre v. In his Discours sur l'Economie politique he says: ‘L'administration générate n'est établie que pour assurer la propriété particulière qui lui est antérieure.’
Compare Story On the American Constitution, ii. 55–62; The Federalist, No. 52; Young's Tour in France; Pinkerton, iv. 430.
Confessions, liv. iv.
Contrat Social, iv. c. 6. Compare Montesquieu, ‘L'usage des peuples les plus libres qui aient jamais été sur la terre, me fait croire qu'll y a des cas où il faut mettre pour un moment un voile sur la liberté, comme l'on cachait les statues des Dieux.’—Esprit des Lois, xii. c 19; and Pascal, ‘Les Etats périraient st on ne faisait ployer souvent les lois à la nécessité.’—Pensées.
See a note to the Réfutation d'Helvétius. (Euvres de Rousseau (ed. 1826), xii. 59.
Discours sur l'Economie politique.
A Mme. —–, Sept. 27, 1766; Correspondance.
‘II semble que le sentiment de l'humanité s'évapore et s'affoiblisse en s'étendant sur toute la terre et que nous ne saurions être touchés des calamités de la Tartarie ou du Japon comme de celles d'un peuple Européen. Il faut en quelque manière borner et comprimer l'intérêt et la commisération pour lui donner de l'activité. … II est bon que l'humanité concentrée entre les concitoyens prenne en eux une nouvelle force par l'habitude de se voir et par l'intérêt commun qui les réunit. Il est certain que les plus grands prodiges de vertu ont été produits par l'amour de la patrie. … Voulons nous que les peuples soient vertueux? Commenĉons donc par leur faire aimer la patrie mais comment l'aimerontils si la patrie n'est rien de plus pour eux que pour des étrangers et qu'elle ne leur accorde que ce qu'elle ne peut refuser à personne?’—Disc, sur l'Economie Politique.
Gouvern. de Pologne, c. 3.
Ibid. c. 3. There is nothing, so far as I know, on the subject written by Burke in his own name, but the historical portion of the Annual Register, after it had ceased to be written wholly by him, was for many years under his superintendence and inspection. In that of 1786 there is a most curious page on the advantages of bull fights, which had in the previous year been suppressed in Spain, except in cases where the profits were assigned to charitable or patriotic purposes.—Ann. Reg. 1786, p. 33.
Discours sur l'Economie Politique
This admirable saying comes, I believe, from the author of many other admirable sayings—Sir Francis Doyle.
Mém. de Malouet, ii. 265, 266.
See article v. of the Constitution and the comments on these provisions in the Federalist, Nos. xxxix xliii. lii lxxviii. lxxxv.
See the striking picture of this enthusiasm in Burke's Letter to a Member of the National Assembly. Burke adds a character of Rousseau which appears to me very unjust and overdrawn.
Grimm et Diderot, Corresp. Lit. August 1774.
Blackstone, iv. c. 27, § 5.
Esprit des Lois, liv. v. c. 19. Voltaire has strongly censured this passage, which he attributed to the fact that Montesquieu himself held a magisterial office which had been purchased by his uncle.
This was formally asserted in a Consultation of the Sorbonne under Lewis XIV. See much evidence on this subject, in Garet, Leg Bienfaus de la Revolution, pp. 3–6.
See a remarkable memoir of Necker in favour of the creation of provincial assemblies. Garet, pp. 108–110.
On the Provincial Government of France, see Lavergne, Les Assemblies Provinciales sous Louis XVI. c. i.; Tocqueville, Ancien Regime, pp. 313–327; Garet, Les Bienfaits de la Révolution, pp. 106–120; and an admirable chapter in Loménie, Les Mirabeau, ii 103–132.
See the very full examination of the state of Municipal Government in Tocqueville, L'Ancien Régime, pp. 63–76.
Ibid. pp. 77–83.
A striking account of the iniquities of French game laws will be found in Arthur Young. Pinkerton, iv. 417, 418. There were districts called ‘capitaneries’ extending over 400 leagues of country, which were granted for sporting purposes to princes of the blood, in which game was not only preserved to the most extravagant extent, but many of the most ordinary processes of agriculture were prohibited lest they should interfere with it.
A very full history of the ‘Justices Seigneuriales’ will be found in Loménie, Les Mirabeau, ii. 63–87. Beaumarchais has given an amusing picture of these courts in the Mariage de Figaro.
Young's Travels in France. Pinkerton, iv. 160.
The influence of these circumstances on the position of the nobles is excellently traced by Necker in his work on the Revolution, Œurres, ix. 118–121.
Discours de réception dans l'Académie. Œuvres de Voltaire, xlii. 6, 7.
Œuvres de Necher, ix. 90, 91.
Compare Tocqueville, pp. 55–58; Chérest, La Chute de l'Ancien Régime, ii. 532–539; Taine, Ancien, Régime, pp 453–455. Arthur Young conjectured in 1789 that a third part of the land was in the hands of peasant proprietors. This is said to be (exclusive of communal property) about the present proportion; but Arthur Young almost certainly exaggerated. Taine quotes an estimate of 1760, which gives a fourth part of the soil to peasant proprietors, but M. L. de Lavergne, who is probably the best authority on the agricultural history of France, says, ‘On peut se faire nne idée assez exacte de l'état de la propriété avant 1789, en divisant le sol national en cinq portions à peu près égales, une possédée par la couronne et les communes, une par le clergé, une par la noblesse, une par letiers état, et une par le peuple des campagnes’—Lavergne, Les Assemblées Provinciales sous Louis XVI p. 19 See, too, on the growth of peasant proprietors between 1760 and 1789 the valuable book of M Gasquet, Les Institutions Politiques et Soulales de l'Ancienne France, ii. 330–336.
See Arthur Young Pinkerton, iv. 419, 449. It is curious to notice that there was just the same dispute as in Ireland, about the old tithes and the tithes imposed on agricultural products more recently introduced. Chérest, La Chute de l'Ancien Régime, i. 45.
See Loménie, Les Mirabeau, ii. 20–26.
Doniol, La Révolution Franĉaise et la Féodahté, p. 39.
There is a large literature on the subject of feudal rights. I have chiefly made use of the works of Doniol, Tocqueville, Taine, Chérest, Loménie and Garet, Arthur Young's Tour, and Janet's Origines du Socialisme contemporain. See, too, an excellent lecture by Sir H. Maine in his Early Larv and Custom. The chief earlier authorities on the subject are Boncerf, Les Inconvénicnts des Droits févdaux, and the report presented to the Constituent Assembly by Rétif de Merlin of Douay.
Sybel, Hist. de la Révolution, i. 34, 38, 39.
Taine, Ancien Régime, pp. 474–481; Tocqueville, pp. 138, 139.
See the examples in Taine, pp. 478, 479.
Ibid. pp. 458–461, 542, 543.
Ibid. p. 461.
Ibid. pp. 461–463. Full details about these anomalies will be found in the great works of Taine and Tocqueville.
Lavergne, Assemblées Provinciales, p. 61.
Esprit des Lois, xiii c. 17.
Turgot, recommending the abolition of corvées for the repair of the roads and the substitution for them of a tax paid by all classes, says: ‘II faut suivre … la marche que tous les ministres des finances ont constamment suivie depuis quatre vingts ans, et davantage; car il n'y en a pas un qui n'ait constamment cherché à restreindre en général tous les privilèges, sans en excepter ceux de la noblesse et du clergé.’—Turgot, Réponses aux Objectinos du Garde des Sceaux Œwvres (ed. 1809), viii. 226,227. This work contains a great deal of valuable information about the inequalities of taxation in France. See, too, Loménie, Les Mirabeau, ii. 93–99.
See the history of this transaction in Chérest, La Chute de l'Ancien Régime, i. 38–40.
Necker, Œuvres, ix. 122, 123. Necker says, ‘Prés de la moitié de l'ordre de la noblesse tel qu'il existait à l'approche des dermers états généraux élait composé de families ennobhes depuis deux siècles par les charges de conseillers aux parlemens, de conseillers à la cour des aides, d'auditeurs, de correcteurs et de maítres des comptes, de conseillers du Châtelet, de maîtres des requêtes, de trésoriers de France, de secrétaires du roi du grand et du petit collège, et par d'autres charges encore; comme aussi par des places de capitouls, d'échevins, et par des brevets émanés de la faveur des rois, des ministres et des premiers commis. On doit ajouter encore à tous ces jets de noblesse moderne les droits acquis par une certaine suite de services militaires combinés avec la nature des grades.’
Œuvres de Turgat, viii. 234.
Sorel, L'Europe et la Révolution Franĉaise, pp. 95, 99.
4 William and Mary, cap i. See Mr. Brodrick's English Land and Landowners, p. 246; M'Culloch on Taxation, p. 62. The assessment on personal property was abandoned in 1833.
L'Ancien Régime, pp. 146, 147.
Pinkerton, iv. 200.
See an essay by St. Pierre on ‘Manners in France,’ Ann. Reg. 1762, p. 154.
Pinkerton, iv. 416.
Taine, p 468.
Arthur Young's Tour (original edition of 1792), i. 341, 462. Very full examinations of the condition of the French peasantry will be found in the works of Lavergne and of Babeau, and in the first chapter of Sybel's Hist de la Révolution.
Mémovres, iii. 92. See several particulars of this famine in Rocquain, pp. 103–105, and in Taine, pp. 431–433.
Eocquain, pp. 144, 145; Taine, pp. 433–436.
Rocquain, p. 168.
Ibid pp. 274, 306.
Mémovres sur les Impositions dans la Généralité de Limousin (1766); Œuvres de Turgot, turn. iv.
Pinkerton, iv. 158 See, too, Taine, Ancien Régime, pp. 429–455.
This was as Controller-General. He had been, for about a month before, Minister for the Navy.
See Sorel, L'Europe et la Révolution Française, pp 206, 212 It is characteristic of Turgot's love of strong government, that he altogether objected to the provisions in the Constitution of the United States for restricting, qualifying, and balancing the democratic element. Having adopted the principle of democracy, he maintained that the Americans should have collected all authority into one centre instead of dividing it between a president and two Houses of Congress with defined and limited powers. It was these criticisms which chieflyproduced John Adams' remarkable Defence of the Constitution of the United States.
See Lavergne, Les Assemblées Provinciales.
For a calculation of the money cost of the American War to France, see Chérest, La Chute de l'Ancien Régime, i. 91.
Pinkerton, iv. 140, 159.
Loménie, Les Mirabeau, ii. 426.
Mémoires de Ségwr, i. 22–28, 152–160.
Lavergne, Assemblées Provinciates, p. 9. See, too, Taine, Ancien Régime, p. 402. ‘The French trade,’ wrote Arthur Young, ‘has almost doubled since the peace of 1763, but ours has increased not near so much.’—Tour in France, ch. xix.
Tocqueville, Ancien Regime, pp. 252–255; Gasquet, Institutions politiques et sociales de l'Ancienne France, ii. 353.
Lavergne, Economie Rurale de France, i. 3, 4.
‘Cinq cents millions d'emprunt en trois années de paix.’ Michelet, Hist. xvii. 360.
See Michelet, Histoire de France, xvii. 362, 363.
Aubertin, L'Esprit public au XVIIIme Siecle, p. 482.
See a striking picture of the approaches that were believed to have been made towards discovering the nature and genesis of life, in Cabanis, Rapports du Physique et du Moral de l'Homme. Buckle has given an admirable picture of the passion for physical science that immediately preceded the Revolution. Hist. of Civilisation, i. 796–836.
Ségur, ii. 34.
Ségur, ii. 33, 34.
Burke, who hated the tendencies of French philosophy, has dwelt on its moral dangers with great power and acuteness: ‘The greatest crimes do not arise so much from a want of feeling for others, as from an over-sensibility for ourselves, and an overindulgence to our own desires. … In my experience I have observed that a luxurious softness of manners hardens the heart at least as much as an over-done abstinence. … I have observed that the philosophers, in order to insinuate their polluted atheism into young minds, systematically flatter all their passions, natural and unnatural. They explode or render odious or contemptible that class of virtues which restrain the appetite. These are at least nine out of ten of the virtues. In the place of all this they substitute a virtue which they call humanity or benevolence. By these means their morality has no idea in it of restraint, or indeed of a distinct and settled principle of any kind. When their disciples are thus left free, and guided only by present feeling, they are no longer to be depended upon for good or evil. The men who today snatch the worst criminals from justice, will murder the most innocent persons to-morrow.’—Correspondence, iii. 213–215. These lines were written in June 1791, before the terrible confirmation of the last sentence which was furnished by the career of Robespierre.
See Rocquain, pp. 412, 413.
Mathieu Dumas, quoted by Taine, p. 398.
Mém. de Malouet, i. 66, 67.
Mém. de Ségur, ii. 28, 29.
Consid. sur la Rév. i. 117.
Hanway's Defects of the Police (1773), p. 281. It will be remembered that the present Buckingham Palace was only built under George IV., to whom, also, Windsor Castle owes very much of its magnificence.
Reflections on the French Revolution.
Vol. iv. 49, 50.
Malmesbury Corresp. ii. 248, 249.
Gentz, ‘Examen de la Marche de l'Opinion publique relativement à la Révolution Franĉaise,’ Mercure Britannique, iii. 216.
Ségur, Politique de tous les Cabinets de l'Europe, ii. 97. I may add
Calonne, Etat de la France (ed. 1790), pp. 36, 37 See, too, Rocquain, pp. 431, 439, 440; Chassin, Génie de la Révolution, p. 22
Taine, Ancien Régime, p. 403
Lavergne, Assemblées Provinciales, p. 102.
The ‘généralité’ was an ancient division of France, established to facilitate the collection of taxes and for all matters relating to finance.
See Chérest, La Chute de l'Ancien Régime, i. 146, 163, 204, 205.
Mme. de Staël, Consid. sur la Rév. i. III. An excellent and very detailed account of the proceedings of the Notables will be found in the valuable history of M Chérest. See, too, Rocquain, pp. 431–445.
Grimm et Diderot, Mém. Hist. vii. 236
Compare Rocquain, pp. 396, 397; Chérest, i. 14–25; Ségur, Mém. et Souvenurs, i. 286–292.
Dabois-Crancé, par Jung, i. 91, 107–110.
Ségur, Mém. et Souvenirs, iii. 553.
See Mounier, Recherches sur les Causes qui ont empêché les Franĉais de devenir libres, p. 53.
Young's Tour. Pinkerton, iv. 140.
See some excellent remarks on this in Mackintosh, Vindiciœ Gallicœ, pp. 103, 104.
See Necker, Œuvres, ix. 46, 47.
The ‘Question préparatoire’ had been abolished by Necker in 1780, but the ‘Question préalable’ was not abolished till 1788, and even then the King reserved his right to restore it if, after a few years' experience, the judges pronounced it necessary. The ‘Question préparatoire’ was torture for the purpose of compelling the accused person to avow his crime. The ‘Question préalable’ was torture applied after condemnation, for the purpose of compelling the condemned man to name his accomplices.—Chérest, Chute de l'Ancien Régime, i. 454, 455.
Rocquain, pp. 468, 469.
Rocquam, p. 472.
Rocquain, Michelet, Sismondi. See, too, Mounier, Recherches sur les Causes qui out empêché les Franĉais de devenir libres, i. 44, 45.
Sismondi, xxi. 257.
Mme. de Stael, Cons. sur la Rév. i 159.
Pinkerton, iv. 140.
In the States-General of 1614 there were 192 bourgeois, 132 nobles, and 140 ecclesiastics; in the States-General of 1588 the numbers were 191, 104, and 134; in those of 1566, 150, 72, and 104. Œuvres de Necker, ix. 72.
Lavergne, Assemblées Provinciales, pp. 15, 16; Mme. de Staèl, Cons. sur la Rév. i. 170.
Sismondi, xxi. 279, 280. See, too, on the deliberations of the Notables on this subject, Chérest, ii. 195–207.
Mme. de Staël, Considérations sur la Révolution, i. 177.
(Euvres de Necher, ix. 38, 39.
See especially the Mémoires de Malouet, i. 246, 247, 250–253, 282, 283, 293, 297, and many other passages in the same work. It must be remembered, however, that Mirabeau was at this time a man whose character was completely discredited and whose gemus was only very partially recognised. Adam Smith was acquainted with Necker, and he judged him with much severity. He said, ‘He is but a man of detail,’ and predicted that he would fail totally in a foremost place. See Mackintosh, Vindic. Gall. p. 30.
Mém. de Malouet, i. 254, 255.
Mém. de Malouet, i. 259.
Œuvres de Necker, ix. 38.
Mme. de Staël, Considérations sur la Révolution, i. 180.
See on this subject Sorel, L'Europe et la Révolution Franqaise, pp. 107–133.
Mme. de Staël, i. 177.
See Necker, Œuvres, ix. 68, 78.
Considérations, i. 177, 178.
Malouet, Mém. i. 265. M. Chassin, who is a violently democratic writer, is obliged to acknowledge this fact, though he tries to attenuate its importance.—Génie de la Révolution, pp. 329, 333.
Aubertin, p. 478.
Mém. de Malouet, i. 293, 294.
Chassin, p. 243.
Chérest, ii. 254. See, too, Chassin, pp. 133–135.
Pinkerton, iv. 169.
Taine, La Révolution, i. 4–14, 30, 33; Chassin, pp. 292–296; Michelet, xvii. 455, 456.
Pinkerton, iv. 169.
Taine, La Révolution, i. 33.
See an excellent analysis of the cahiers of the nobles in Tocqueville, Ancien Régime, pp. 387–401.
Chérest, ii. 255–257.
See Lavergne, Les Assemblées Provinciales; Taine, La Révolution, i. 192, 193. M. Taine says: ‘Jamais l'Aristocratie ne fut plus libérate, plus humaine, plus convertie aux réformes utiles; plusieurs resteront tels jusque sous le couteau de la guillotine’ (p. 192).
Louis Blanc. Hist. de, la Rév. ii. 221, 222; Chassin, pp. 253–255; Tocqueville, pp. 165–170.
Sismondi, xxi 296; Grille, Révolution Franĉaise, i. 135–155.
Morris's Works, ii. 67.
Jefferson's Memoirs, i. 80.
Carlyle's Hist. of the French Revolution, i. 113.
Pinkerton, iv. 170, 174, 175.
Morris's Works, ii. 75, 79, 88, 89.
A very good account of the discussions on these questions will be found in Smyth's French Revolution, lec. xvii.
Louis Blanc, ii. 301.
ŒEuvres de Necker, ix. 182–188.
Pinkerton, iv. 184. Even a year later Malouet believed this to be true. ‘Le Roi,’ he says, ‘ne pouvait se résoudre à tirer I'épé centre ses sujets. Je m'arrête à regret sur les fautes de ce prince infortuné, qui méritait par la bonté de son eceur une autre destinée; il y a tel capi-taine de grenadiers, qui I'eût sauvé, lui et I'Etat, s'il I'avait laissé faire.’—Mém. de Malouet, i. 305, 306.
Pinkerton, iv. 180, 181.