Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXVII.: GOVERNMENT, COMMERCE, LAWS, MILITARY DISCIPLINE, UNDER LOUIS XIV. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XII (Age of Louis XIV)
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CHAPTER XXVII.: GOVERNMENT, COMMERCE, LAWS, MILITARY DISCIPLINE, UNDER LOUIS XIV. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XII (Age of Louis XIV) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. XII.
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GOVERNMENT, COMMERCE, LAWS, MILITARY DISCIPLINE, UNDER LOUIS XIV.
This justice we owe to persons of a public character who have done good to the age they have lived in: that we should view the point from which they have set out, in order to form a just idea of the changes they have produced in their own country. Posterity is eternally indebted to them for the examples they have given, even though these are surpassed. This just glory is their only recompense. It is certain that the love of such glory animated Louis XIV.; when beginning to govern by himself, he had resolved to reform his kingdom, embellish his court, and perfect the arts.
He not only imposed it as a law upon himself, to labor regularly with each of his ministers, but every man that was but known might obtain a particular audience of him, and all citizens had the liberty of presenting their requests and projects; the petitions were received at first by a master of requests, who marked them on the margin, and they were afterward sent to the officers of the ministers. The projects were examined in council, when they deserved it, and their authors were admitted more than once to discuss the points they contained with the ministers, in presence of their master. Thus we see a correspondence subsisting between the throne and the nation, notwithstanding absolute power.
Louis XIV. accustomed himself to labor; and this was so much the more painful, as it was new to him, and the seduction of pleasures might easily distract him. He wrote the first despatches himself to his ambassadors. The most important letters were often afterward minuted with his own hand, and there was none written in his name which he did not cause to be read to him.
Scarcely had Colbert, after the fall of Fouquet, re-established order in the finances, before the king remitted to his people all the arrears due on the imposts from 1647 till 1656, and especially three millions of taille or excise. The enormous duties were abolished for five hundred thousand crowns a year. Thus Abbé de Choisy seems either to have been very ill informed, or to be guilty of very great injustice, when he says that the public receipt was not diminished; for it is certain that it was lessened by these indulgent remissions, and increased by good order.
The care of the first president, de Bellièvre, assisted by the liberalities of the duchess d’Aiguillon, and several citizens, had established the general hospital. The king augmented it, and caused similar edifices to be erected in all the principal towns of the kingdom.
The great roads, till that time impassable, were not neglected, and by degrees they have become what they are now, under the reign of Louis XV.—the admiration of foreigners. On whatever side you come out of Paris, you travel at present from fifty to sixty leagues, and in some places of the neighborhood, through close alleys bordered with trees. The roads made by the ancient Romans were more durable indeed, but not so spacious nor so beautiful.
Colbert’s genius turned chiefly toward commerce, which was but weakly cultivated, and its grand principles were not yet known. The English, and the Dutch still more, carried on in their own bottoms almost the whole traffic of France. The Dutch, especially, loaded with our merchandise in our ports, and distributed it all over Europe. The king began, from 1662, to exempt his subjects from an impost called the duty of freight, which all the vessels of foreigners paid; and he granted the French the indulgence of transporting their merchandise themselves at less expense. It was then that maritime commerce had its birth. The council for that department, which at present continues, was established, and in it the king presided every fifteenth day.
Dunkirk and Marseilles were declared free ports; and soon afterward this advantage drew the trade of the Levant to Marseilles, and that of the North to Dunkirk.
In 1664 was formed a West India Company, and that of the East Indies was established the same year. Before this time France paid tribute for her luxuries to the Dutch. The partisans of the ancient economy, who were timid, ignorant, and had contracted views, declaimed in vain against a commerce in which a continual exchange was made of money that would not perish for effects which do. They did not reflect that these merchandises of India, which were become necessary, would be more dearly paid for by foreigners. We carry indeed to the East Indies more kinds of goods than we bring from there, and by that means Europe is impoverished. But these come from Peru and Mexico; they are the price of our goods carried to Cadiz, and there remains more of this money in France than the East Indies absorb of it.
The king gave more than six millions of our present currency to the company. He invited rich people to embark in it. The queens, the princes, and all the court furnished two millions of the coin of that time. The superior courts gave twelve hundred thousand livres, the financiers two millions, the body of merchants six hundred and fifty thousand livres. So the whole nation seconded their king.
This company has always subsisted; for though the Dutch had taken Pondicherry in 1694, and the commerce of the Indies has languished ever since, it has recovered in our days new strength; Pondicherry has become a rival to Batavia: and this India company, founded with extreme difficulty by the great Colbert, and re-established in our days by singular revolutions, is now one of the greatest resources of the kingdom. The king also founded a Company of the North, in 1669; he invested funds in it, as he did in that of the Indies. It was then very plain that commerce is no disgrace to any, since the greatest houses interested themselves in these establishments, after the example of the monarch.
The West India Company was no less encouraged than the others. The king furnished the tenth part of all the funds.
He granted thirty francs per ton for exportation, and forty for importation. All those who had vessels built in the ports of the kingdom received five livres for each ton they contained.
Yet one cannot forbear being very much surprised that Abbé de Choisy has censured these establishments in his memoirs, which cannot be read without some mistrust. We are sensible in our days of all that Colbert did for the benefit of the kingdom; but at that time we were entirely ignorant of it; he worked for ungrateful people. They were much more disgusted with him in Paris for the suppression of certain rents on the town house, purchased at a cheap rate since 1656, and for the discredit into which the notes of the king’s privy treasury fell, that were squandered under the preceding minister, than they were sensible of the general good which he did. In this affair were concerned more burgesses than good citizens. Few people had an eye to the public advantage. It is well known what a fascinating power interest has upon the eyes, and how it contracts the mind; I do not mean this only concerning the interest of a single trader, but that of a company, and even a town. The clownish answer of a merchant called Hazon—who upon being consulted by this minister, told him: “You have found the carriage overset on one side, and have overturned it on the other”—was still obsequiously quoted in my young days: and this anecdote is to be met with in Moréri. The philosophic spirit introduced very late into France, reformed the prejudices of the people, so as to make them at length do entire justice to the memory of this great man. He had the same exactness as the duke de Sully; but withal, he had views which were much more extensive. The one was acquainted only with economy, but the other knew how to form grand establishments.
Almost everything was either repaired or created in his time. The reduction of interest on the twentieth denier, on the loans given to the king and particular persons, was a sensible proof of an abundant circulation in 1665. His meaning was, both to enrich and to people France. Marriages in the country were encouraged by an exemption from the taille during the space of five years, for such as would settle themselves at the age of twenty; and every father of a family who had ten children was exempted all his lifetime, because he gave more to the state by the labor of these than he could possibly have done in paying the taille. This regulation ought to have continued forever, unrepealed.
From 1663 till 1672, each year of this ministry was distinguished by the establishment of some manufacture or other. The fine cloths, which before had been brought from England and Holland, were manufactured in Abbeville. The king advanced to the manufacturer, for each working loom, two thousand livres, besides considerable gratuities. In 1669 about forty-four thousand two hundred woollen looms were reckoned to be in the kingdom. The silk manufactures, when brought to perfection, produced a commerce of above fifty millions currency of that time; and the advantage drawn from these was not only very much above the prime cost of the silk necessary in their manufacture, but the cultivation of mulberry trees put the manufacturers into a condition of dispensing with foreign silk for the woof of their stuffs.
From the year 1666 they began to make as fine glasses as at Venice, which city had always before furnished the whole consumption throughout Europe; and they soon made pieces of this kind, which, for largeness and beauty, could never be imitated in any other place. The carpets of Turkey and Persia were surpassed at Savonnières: the tapestry hangings from Flanders were inferior to those of the Gobelins; which vast enclosure was filled at that time with more than eight hundred workmen, and of these three hundred were lodged in it. The best painters had the direction of the work, either from their own designs, or those of the ancient masters of Italy. Besides the tapestry hangings, was made an admirable kind of mosaic, and the art of inlaying was carried to its highest perfection.
Besides this fine manufactory of tapestry in the Gobelins, another was set up at Beauvais. The first manufacturer had six hundred workmen in this town; and the king made him a present of sixty thousand livres.
Sixteen hundred young girls were employed in lace works, and thirty principal workwomen in this way were brought from Venice, and two hundred out of Flanders, who had thirty-six thousand livres given them for their encouragement.
The manufactory of the cloths of Sedan, and that of the tapestry hangings of Abusson, degenerated and fallen into decay, were re-established. The rich stuffs, in which silk is mixed with gold and silver, were woven at Lyons and Tours, with an industry which had not been seen before.
It is a thing well known, that the ministry purchased in England the secret of that ingenious machine by which stockings are made ten times faster than with needles. Tin plates, steel, fine delft ware, and Morocco leather, which was always brought from abroad, were made in France. But the Calvinists, who had the secret of making tin plates and steel, carried it away with them in 1686, and imparted this advantage, with several others, to foreign nations.
The king every year expended about four hundred thousand livres upon the different works of taste which were fabricated in his kingdom, of which he made presents.
Paris was then very different from what it is at present; for it wanted light, security, and cleanliness. It was necessary to make provision for the continual cleansing of the streets, for lighting of them, which is done by means of five thousand lamps burning every night, for paving the city quite through, building two new gates, and repairing the old ones, and causing a continual guard on foot and on horseback to keep watch for the security of the citizens. The king took the whole upon himself, allotting funds for these necessary expenses. In 1667 he created a magistrate solely for taking care of the police. The greater part of the large cities of Europe did not follow these examples till a long time after; and none have equalled them: so that no city is paved like Paris; and Rome itself is not lighted at all.
Everything began to have so great a tendency to perfection that the second lieutenant of police, which Paris had, acquired in that post a reputation which set him in the rank of those who have done honor to this age: such was the capacity of this man for everything. He was afterward in the ministry, and he had been a good general. The place of lieutenant of the police was below his birth and merit, yet it gained him a much greater name than the inconsiderable post in the ministry which he obtained near the end of his days.
Here we should observe that M. d’Argenson was by no means the only person of the ancient nobility who had been in the public magistracy. France is almost the only country of Europe where the ancient nobility have often taken to the long robe. All other nations, merely from the remains of Gothic barbarism, are still ignorant that there is dignity in this profession.
The king still carried on the buildings at the Louvre, St.-Germain, and Versailles, from 1661. Private individuals, after his example, erected in Paris a thousand superb and commodious edifices. Of these the number was so increased that, after the building of the environs of the Palais Royal, and those of St.-Sulpice, there were formed in Paris two new towns, very much superior to the old one. It was at this time that they invented the magnificent convenience of coaches adorned with glasses and hung upon springs; so that a citizen of Paris could convey himself through this large city with more pomp than the first Romans displayed in their triumphal processions to the capitol. This custom was soon after received throughout Europe; and being now very common, it is no longer a piece of luxury.
1 Louis XIV. had a taste for architecture, gardening, and sculpture; and this showed itself in all these to be great and noble. From the time that Comptroller-General Colbert had, in 1664, the direction of the buildings, which is properly the office of the arts, he applied himself to second the schemes of his master. The first necessary work was to finish the Louvre. Francis Mansard, one of the greatest architects whom France had produced, was fixed upon to construct the vast edifices that were projected. He would not undertake this task unless he had liberty given him to rectify whatever should appear to him defective in the execution. This diffidence of himself, which had drawn a train of too much expense after it, was the reason for excluding him. The chevalier Bernini was therefore sent for from Rome, an artist whose name was famous on account of the colonnade which surrounds the portal of St. Peter’s church, the equestrian statue of Constantine, and the Navonne fountain. Equipages were furnished him for his journey. He was conducted to Paris as a man who came to do honor to France. He received, besides five louis d’or a day, for the eight months that he staid there, a present of fifty thousand crowns, with a pension of two thousand more, and one of five hundred for his son. This generosity of Louis XIV. to Bernini was much greater than the munificence of Francis I. to Raphael. Bernini, by way of acknowledgment, made since that time in Rome the equestrain statue of the king, which is to be seen at Versailles. But when he came to Paris with so much parade, as the only person worthy of being employed by Louis XIV., he was very much surprised to see the design of the front of the Louvre on the side of St.-Germain l’Auxerrois, which soon after, when completed, became one of the most august monuments of architecture in the world. Claude Perrault had given this design, which was executed by Louis Levau and Dorbay. He invented the machines with which the stones of fifty-two feet in length were raised, that form the pediment of this majestic edifice. Sometimes there is fetched from afar what is to be met with at hand among ourselves. No palace of Rome has an entrance comparable to that of the Louvre, for which we are indebted to this Perrault,1 whom Boileau has attempted to render ridiculous. Travellers allow that the most celebrated villas of Italy are not superior to the castle of Maisons, which Francis Mansard had built at so little expense. Bernini was magnificently recompensed, but did not deserve it; he only gave designs which were not executed.
The king, when the works at the Louvre were in progress, the completion of which was so much desired; when making a town at Versailles, near this palace, which has cost so many millions; when building Trianon and Marly, and ordering so many other edifices to be embellished, caused the observatory to be erected, which was begun in 1666, after the time that he established the Academy of Sciences. But the most glorious monument for its utility, grandeur, and the difficulties encountered in the execution was the canal of Languedoc, which joins the two seas, and falls into the port of Cette, constructed for the receiving of its waters. These works were begun in 1664, and continued without interruption till 1681. The founding of the Hôtel des Invalides, and the chapel of that structure, the finest in Paris, the establishment of St. Cyr, the last of so great a number of works constructed by this monarch, are alone sufficient to render his name revered. Four thousand soldiers, and a great number of officers, who find in one of these grand asylums comforts in their old age, and relief for their wounds and wants; two hundred and fifty daughters of noblemen, who receive an education worthy of them in the other, are so many voices that celebrate the praises of Louis XIV. The establishment of St. Cyr will be surpassed by that which Louis XV. has just formed for the education of five hundred gentlemen; but far from causing St. Cyr to be forgotten, it makes it to be remembered. This is the art of doing good, brought to perfection.
Louis XIV. was at the same time desirous to perform greater things, and those of more general utility, but more difficult in the execution; and that was to reform the laws. In this he employed the labors of the chancellor Séguier, de Lamoignon, Talon, Bignon, and more especially the chancellor of state, Pussort. He himself sometimes assisted at their assemblies. The year 1667 was at the same time the epoch of his first laws and first conquests. The civil ordinances appeared first; next the code of the waters and forests; then the statutes for all the manufactures; the criminal ordinances; the code of commerce, and that of the marine. All these followed nearly one year after another. There was also a new jurisprudence, established in favor of the negroes of our colonies, a sort of men who had not yet enjoyed the privileges of humanity.
A profound knowledge of the civil law is not to be acquired by a sovereign. But the king was acquainted with the principal laws; he possessed the spirit of them, and knew how, either to maintain or mitigate them properly. He often decided the causes of his subjects, not only in the council of the secretaries of state, but in that called the “Conseil des Parties.” There are two celebrated determinations of his, in which he decided against himself.
In the first, which was given in 1680, the case was in a process between him and certain inhabitants of Paris, who had built upon his ground. He decided that the houses should remain to them, with the land belonging to himself, and which he ceded to them.
The other related to a Persian merchant, called Roupli, whose goods had been seized by the commissaries of his farms, in 1687. His decision was, that all should be restored to him, and the king added a present of three thousand crowns. Roupli carried his admiration and gratitude with him into his own country; and when Mehemet Rizabeg was afterward in Paris we found him acquainted with this fact by common report.
The abolition of duels was one of the greatest services which he did to his country. These combats had been formerly authorized even by the parliament, and by the Church; and though they had been prohibited from the time of Henry IV., yet this fatal custom prevailed more than ever. The famous combat of the La Frettes, four against four, in 1663, was that which determined Louis XIV. not to pardon it any longer. His happy severity corrected by degrees our own nation, and even the neighboring nations, who conformed themselves to our wise customs, after having adopted our bad ones. There are in Europe now a hundred times fewer duels than in the time of Louis XIII.
He was the legislator both of his people, and of his armies. It was strange, that, before his time, uniforms among the troops was a thing not known. It was he, who in the first year of his administration, ordered that each regiment should be distinguished, either by the color of their clothes, or by different marks; a regulation which was adopted soon after by all nations. It was he also who instituted brigadiers, and put the corps of which the household troops of the king are formed upon the footing they are on at present. He formed a company of musketeers out of the guards of Cardinal Mazarin, and fixed at five hundred men, the number of the two companies, to which he gave the clothing they still retain.
Under him were made no constables, and after the death of the duke d’Épernon no colonels-general of the infantry; Marshal Gramont, who was only campmaster of the French guards, under the duke d’Épernon, and took orders from that colonel-general, for the future took them only from the king, and was the first who had the title of colonel of the guards. He himself installed these colonels at the heads of their regiments, by giving them, with his own hands, a gilt gorget and pike, and afterward a spontoon, or a kind of half pike, when the use of the former weapon was abolished. He instituted the grenadiers, at first to the number of four in each company of the king’s regiment, which is of his own creation; afterward he formed a company of grenadiers in each regiment of foot; he gave two companies of them to the French guards, which at present have three. He very much augmented the corps of dragoons, and gave them a colonel-general. We must not forget the establishment of studs for breeding of horses, in 1667, which had been absolutely set aside before that time, and was afterward a great resource for remounting the cavalry.
The use of the bayonet at the end of the gun is an institution of the king’s. Before his time it was used occasionally, and some companies only had this weapon; there was no uniform usage nor exercise with it: all was left to the general’s discretion. The pike was looked upon as the most formidable weapon. The first regiment which had bayonets, and was trained to this exercise, was that of the fusiliers, established in 1671.
The manner in which the artillery is managed at present is entirely owing to him. He founded schools for this purpose at Douai, afterward at Metz and Strasburg; and the regiment of artillery was at length filled with officers, almost all capable of conducting a siege. All the magazines of the kingdom were stored, and every year furnished with eight hundred thousand weight of powder. He formed a regiment of bombardiers, and one of hussars, a kind of horsemen which, before his time, were known only among our enemies.
In 1688 he established thirty regiments of militia, furnished and equipped by the communities of the kingdom. These corps of militia exercised themselves in war without neglecting the cultivation of the lands.
Companies of cadets were entertained in most parts of the frontiers; there they learned mathematics, designing, and all the exercises, and did also the duty of soldiers. This institution lasted ten years. At length they were tired of these youths, as it was too difficult a matter to discipline them; but the corps of engineers, which the king formed, and to which he gave the regulations still followed by them, is an establishment that will last forever. Under him the art of fortification was carried to perfection by Marshal de Vauban1 and his pupils, who surpased Count de Pagan. He constructed or repaired a hundred and fifty fortified places.
In order to maintain the military discipline, he created inspectors-general, afterward directors, who gave an account of the state of the troops; and from their reports it was seen whether or not the commissaries of war had done their duty.
He instituted the order of St. Louis, an honorable recompense, often courted more than fortune. The Hôtel des Invalides crowned the cares which he took for meriting to be well served.
It was owing to such cares as these, that, from 1672, he had a hundred and eighty thousand regular troops; and that by augmenting his forces in proportion as the number and power of his enemies increased, he had at length four hundred and fifty thousand men in arms, including the troops of the marine.
Before his time, no such strong armies had been seen. His enemies hardly opposed to him any of equal force; though there was a necessity for a close union among them. He showed what France alone could do; and he had always either great success or great resources.
He was the first, who, in time of peace, gave a perfect idea and complete lesson of war. In 1698 he assembled at Compiègne seventy thousand men, where he performed all the operations of a campaign; and this was in order to instruct his three grandsons. But this military academy became a school of luxury.
The attention which he showed in forming numerous and well-disciplined armies, even before he was engaged in any war, he likewise exerted in acquiring the empire of the sea. First, the few vessels which Cardinal Mazarin had suffered to rot in the harbors were repaired; some others were bought in Holland and Sweden; and after the third year of his government he sent his maritime forces to make an attempt on the coast of Africa. The duke de Beaufort cleared the sea of pirates, in 1665, and two years after France had in its ports sixty ships of war.
This was only a beginning. But, while new regulations and new efforts were being made, he already felt all his force. He was unwilling to consent that his ships should strike their flag to that of England. The council of King Charles II. in vain insisted upon this right, which force, industry, and time had given to the English. Louis XIV. wrote to Count d’Estrades, his ambassador: “The king of England and his chancellor may see what my forces are; but they do not see my heart. I regard my honor more than all other things.”
He said no more than what he was resolved to maintain; and, in fact, the usurpation of the English gave way to natural right, and the firmness of Louis XIV. Everything was equal between these two nations at sea. But, while he would have an equality kept up with England, he maintained his superiority over Spain. He obliged the Spanish admirals to strike to his flag in virtue of the solemn precedence agreed upon in 1662.
Pains, however, were used on all sides for the establishment of a marine capable of justifying those high sentiments. The town and port of Rochefort were built at the mouth of the Charente. Sailors were enrolled and ranked by classes, who were to serve at one time in merchant ships, and at another in the royal navy. And soon there were found to be sixty thousand of these actually registered.
Councils of construction were established in the ports, for giving vessels the most commodious form. Five marine arsenals were built: at Brest, Rochefort, Toulon, Dunkirk, and Havre-de-Grâce. In 1672 there were sixty ships of the line and forty frigates. In 1681, a hundred and eighty ships of war, including the tenders, and thirty galleys, were in the harbor of Toulon, either equipped or ready to be so. Eleven thousand regular troops served on board the ships; and the galleys had three thousand. There were a hundred and sixty-six thousand men registered by classes, for all the different services of the marine. The following years there were reckoned to be in the service a thousand gentlemen, doing the duty of soldiers on board the ships, and learning in the ports whatever might qualify them for the art of navigation, and the working of a ship; these were the marine guards; they were on sea what the cadets were on land; and were instituted in 1672, but in small numbers. This corps has been the school which has produced the best officers of the service of the navy.
There had not been yet marshals of France in the corps of the marine; and this shows how this essential part of the forces of France had been neglected. John d’Estrées was the first marshal, in 1681. It appears that one of the great objects of Louis XIV. was to inspire all ranks with that emulation without which everything languishes.
In all the naval fights in which the French fleets were engaged, the advantage was always on their side, till the battle of La Hogue, in 1692, when Count de Tourville, following the orders of the court, attacked with forty-four sail a fleet of ninety English and Dutch ships: there was no standing against numbers; fourteen capital ships, of the first rate, were lost; which, being run aground, were burned, lest they should fall into the hands of the enemy. Notwithstanding this defeat, the maritime forces supported themselves; but they declined in the following war. They did not begin to be well re-established till 1751, during a happy peace, the only proper time for establishing a good marine, for the accomplishment of which there is neither leisure nor power while a war lasts.
These naval forces were of use to protect commerce. The colonies of Martinique, Santo Domingo, and Canada, before in a languishing condition, now flourished: not indeed to such a height of prosperity as we see them now arrived at, but with an advantage which till then had not been hoped for; for, from 1635 till 1665, these colonies had been a positive burden to the state.
In 1664 the king sent a colony to Cayenne, and soon after another to Madagascar. He tried all methods for repairing the loss and misfortune which France had suffered for a long time by neglecting the sea, while her neighbors had erected empires for themselves at the extremities of the earth.
From this general view, we see what changes Louis XIV. introduced into the state; changes indeed advantageous, as they still exist. His ministers had an emulation among themselves, who should second him best. The whole detail, the whole execution is undoubtedly owing to them, but the general disposition to him. It is certain that the magistrates would not have reformed the laws, the finances would not have been put again in order, discipline introduced into the armies, general police in the kingdom; that there would have been no fleets; the arts would not have been encouraged; and all this in concert, and at the same time, with perseverance, and under different ministers, if there had not been found a master who had in general all these grand views, with a will determined to accomplish them.
He did not separate his own glory from the advantage of France, nor look upon the kingdom with the same eye as a lord does upon his lands, from which he draws all he can, that he may live luxuriously. Every king who loves glory, loves the public good. He had no longer Colbert and Louvois when, in 1698, he ordered, with a view to the instruction of the duke of Burgundy, that each intendant should give a circumstantial description of his respective province; by which means an exact account might be obtained of the kingdom, and the true number of its inhabitants ascertained. The work was useful, though all the intendants had not the capacity and attention of M. Lamoignon de Bâville. Had the views of the king been so fully answered, with regard to each province, as they had been by this magistrate in the enumeration of the people of Languedoc, this collection of memoirs would have been one of the finest monuments of the age. Some of them are well done; but a plan was wanting by which all the intendants were to be subjected to the same order. It had been a thing much to be desired, that each had given in columns a state of the number of inhabitants in every province, also that of the nobles, citizens, laborers, artificers, works of art, the beasts of every sort, the good, middling, and bad lands, the whole clergy, regular and secular, their revenues, with those of the towns and companies.
All these objects are confounded in the greatest part of the memoirs which have been given; the matters in them are not canvassed thoroughly, and are done with little exactness. You are often obliged to seek with pains for the necessary lights which a minister should find ready under his hand, and catch up by a single glance, that he may easily discover the several forces, wants, and resources contained therein. The project was excellent, and a uniform execution of it would have been of the greatest utility.
This then in general is what Louis XIV. did and attempted, that he might render his own nation more flourishing. It seems to me that one cannot behold all these labors and all these efforts without some acknowledgment, and being animated with the love of the public good, which inspired them. Let us but represent to ourselves what the state of the kingdom was in the days of The Fronde, and what it is at present. Louis XIV. did more good to his own nation than twenty of his predecessors put together, and yet it falls infinitely short of what might have been done. The war, which was ended by the Peace of Ryswick, began the ruin of that commerce which Colbert had established, and the succeeding war completed it.
Had he employed for the embellishing of Paris and the completion of the Louvre, those immense sums expended on the aqueducts, and the works of Maintenon for conveying water to Versailles, works indeed interrupted and useless; had he laid out in Paris the fifth part of what that cost, in order to force nature at Versailles, Paris would be throughout its whole extent as beautiful as it is on the side of the Tuileries and the Pont-royal, and would have been the most magnificent city in the world.
It is a great deal to have reformed the laws; but chicanery could not be crushed by justice. The government once thought of making jurisprudence uniform: it is so already in criminal affairs, in those of commerce, and the forms of process; it might be so likewise in the laws which regulate the fortunes of the subject. It is a great inconvenience, that the same tribunal has more than a hundred different customs to give decisions upon. The duties arising from lands, either equivocal, or burdensome to society, still continue, as the remains of the feudal government, which itself subsists no longer. These are the remains of a Gothic building, now no more.
It is not pretended these different orders of the state should be subjected to the same law, for one is very sensible that the usages of the noblesse, the clergy, the magistrates, and those who cultivate the earth should be different. But it is undoubtedly to be wished for, that each order should have its uniform law throughout the kingdom, that what is just and true in Champagne may not be considered false in Normandy. Uniformity in all sorts of administration is a virtue; but the difficulties of this great work have deterred people from attempting it.
Louis XIV. might have more easily dispensed with the dangerous resource of the farmers of the taxes, to which he was compelled by the constant anticipation of the receipt of his revenues, as may be seen in the chapter of the finances.
Had he not believed that he was sufficiently able, merely by his own authority, to oblige a million of men to change their religion, France had not lost so many subjects. This country, however, notwithstanding its various shocks and losses, is at present the most flourishing on the face of the earth, because all the good which Louis XIV. did is still in existence, and the evil, which it was difficult for him to avoid in turbulent times, has been repaired. In fine, posterity, who pass judgment on kings, and whose judgment they should always have before their eyes, will admit on weighing the virtues and foibles of this monarch, that though he had been too much praised in his lifetime, he deserved to be so forever; and that he was worthy of the statue erected to him at Montpellier, with the inscription “To Louis the Great, after his death.”
All the changes which we have just now seen pointed out in the government, and in all the orders of the state, must necessarily have produced a very considerable one in the manners of the people. The spirit of faction, fury, and rebellion, which possessed the nation from the time of Francis II., became a spirit of emulation for serving the prince. The lords, who possessed great estates, being no longer cantoned upon them; the governors of provinces having no more posts of honor to bestow, each individual studied to deserve no other favors than those of the sovereign; and the state became one regular whole, every line of which terminated in the centre.
This was what delivered the court from factions and conspiracies, which had always troubled the state during a course of so many years. Under the administration of Louis XIV. there was but one plot, in 1674, which was contrived by la Traumont, a gentleman of Normandy, ruined by debauchery and debt; he was joined by one of the house of Rohan, who, by like conduct, had been reduced to the same indigent circumstances. In this plot were concerned only the chevalier de Preaux, nephew of la Traumont, who, seduced by his uncle, also seduced his mistress, Madame de Villiers. Their aim and hopes neither were, nor could be, to form a party in the kingdom. They only intended to sell and deliver up Quillebeuf to the Dutch, and introduce the enemy into Normandy. This was a base treason ill planned rather than a conspiracy. The punishment of all the criminals was the only event which this mad and fruitless affair produced, of which there is hardly at present any remembrance left.
If there were any seditions in the provinces, these were only feeble tumults of the people, which were easily repressed. Even the Huguenots were always quiet, till their churches were demolished. At length the king succeeded so far as to make, out of a nation till then turbulent, a peaceable people, who were dangerous only to the enemy, after having been so to themselves for above a hundred years. Their manners were softened, without hurting their courage.
In the houses which the nobility built or bought in Paris, their ladies lived with dignity, and formed schools of politeness, which drew by degrees the young people from a life spent at the taverns, which had been the prevailing mode for a long time before, and only served to inspire those who frequented them with an insolent debauchery. Manners depend on such trifles, that the custom of riding on horseback in Paris kept up a disposition for quarrels, which ceased as soon as this usage was abolished. Decorum, for which we are principally obliged to the fair sex, who assembled company at their houses, rendered conversation more agreeable, and, by reading, came in time to be more solid. Treasons and great crimes, which do not disgrace mankind in times of faction and confusion, were hardly known any longer. The villainies of Brinvilliers and Voisin were only transitory storms, under a sky otherwise serene: and it would be equally unreasonable to condemn a whole nation on account of the glaring crimes of some individuals, as to canonize it on account of the reformation of La Trappe.
All the different states of life were, in former times, easily known by the faults which characterized them. Those of a military turn, and the young people who designed themselves for the profession of arms, had a hasty vivacity; those belonging to the courts of justice, a stern, forbidding gravity; to which the custom of going always in a long robe, even to court, did not a little contribute. And it was the same case with regard to the universities, and to physicians. Merchants still wore little robes whenever they met together, and when they went to wait on the ministers; also the most considerable tradesmen were at that time persons of rustic manners. But the houses, the theatres, and the public walks, in which they began to meet together, in order to enjoy the pleasure of a social life, gradually rendered the exterior appearance of all these people nearly alike. One may see at this day, even in tradesmen’s shops, that politeness has gained ground upon all ranks. The provinces have in time also felt the effects of these changes.
At length people no longer place luxury in anything but taste and convenience. The crowd of pages and servants in livery has disappeared, to make way for more freedom in the houses of the great; vain pomp and outward pride have been left to those nations, among whom the people still know no more than to show themselves in public, and who are ignorant of the art of living.
The extreme easiness introduced into the intercourse of the world, affability, simplicity, and the cultivation of the mind, have rendered Paris a city which, for the conveniences of life enjoyed there, probably very much surpasses Rome and Athens in the height of their splendor.
That great number of helps always ready, always open for the whole circle of the sciences, all the arts, particular tastes and wants, so many solid advantages uniting with such a number of agreeable things, joined to that openness peculiar to the inhabitants of Paris; all these together induce vast numbers of strangers to travel, or take up their residence in this social city. If some natives quit it, they are either such as being called elsewhere on account of their talents, are an honorable testimony to their country, or else the refuse of the nation, who try to make their advantage of the consideration it has acquired.
Complaints are made, that no longer is to be seen at court so much grandeur and dignity as formerly; the truth is that there are no petty tyrants, as in the days of The Fronde, under the reign of Louis XIII., and in the preceding ages. But true greatness is now to be met with in those crowds of nobility, who were formerly debased for so long a time by serving subjects grown too powerful. There are seen gentlemen, and also citizens, who would have thought themselves honored in former days to be the domestics of these lords, become now their equals, and very often their superiors in the military service: and the more this service prevails over titles, the more flourishing is any state.
The age of Louis XIV. has been compared to that of Augustus. Not that the power and personal events in both can be compared: for Rome and Augustus were ten times more considerable in the world than Louis XIV. and Paris. But we must call to mind that Athens was equal to the Roman Empire in all things which do not derive their value from force and power. We must further consider, that if there is nothing at present in the world like ancient Rome and Augustus, yet all Europe together is much superior to the whole Roman Empire. In the time of Augustus there was but one nation, and at this day there are several who are well regulated, warlike, and enlightened, who are possessed of arts to which the Greeks and Romans were utter strangers; and among these nations there are none which has been more illustrious for about an age past than that formed in some measure by Louis XIV.
[1 ] The abbot St.-Pierre, in his “Annales Politiques,” page 104 of his manuscript, says: “These things plainly show the number of lazy lubbers, as also their taste for laziness, which sufficiently serves to maintain and cherish other kinds of dronish fellows; and yet this is the condition of the Italian nation at present, where these arts are carried to a high degree of perfection; for they are beggars, lazy, heavy, vain poltroons, occupied about impertinences,” etc.
These rude reflections, written in language equally rude, are void of justice. The time in which the Italians succeeded best in these arts was under the Medici, while Venice was in its most warlike and opulent state; then it was that Italy produced great warriors and illustrious artists of all kinds. And it was also in the flourishing years of Louis XIV. that the arts have been carried to the greatest perfection. The abbot St.-Pierre has mistaken a great number of things, and has given grounds for regretting that reason has not always seconded his good intentions.
[1 ] Claude Perrault was a member of the Royal Academy at Paris, and bred a physician, though he did not practise that art. He made some noble designs in architecture, and was allowed to be a man of genius by all the world but Boileau, who, from private pique, has satirized both him and his brother Charles; a want of candor in Boileau which greatly detracts from the merit of his genius.
[1 ] Anthony le Prêtre, chevalier, count de Vauban, is so well known as the greatest engineer of his time—if Coehorn does not contest that pre-eminence—that we need not dwell upon the particulars of his character.