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PART I - Germaine de Staël, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.) 
Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, newly revised translation of the 1818 English edition, edited, with an introduction and notes by Aurelian Craiutu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
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The Revolution of France is one of the grand eras of social order. Those who consider it as the result of accidental causes have reflected neither on the past nor on the future; they have mistaken the actors for the drama; and, in seeking a solution agreeable to their prejudices, have attributed to the men of the day that which had been in a course of preparation for ages.1
It would have sufficed, however, to cast a glance on the critical periods of history, to be convinced, that they were all unavoidable when they were connected in any degree with the development of ideas; and that, after a struggle and misfortunes, more or less prolonged, the triumph of knowledge has always been favorable to the greatness and the amelioration of mankind.
My ambition shall be to speak of the age in which we have lived, as if it were already remote. It will belong to the enlightened part of mankind—to those who, in thought, can render themselves contemporary with future ages—to judge if I have been able to attain the complete impartiality at which I have aimed.
In this chapter I shall confine myself to some general remarks on the political progress of European civilization, restricting myself, however, to its connection with the Revolution of France; for it is to this subject, in itself sufficiently extensive, that this work is devoted.
The two nations of antiquity, whose literature and history still form the principal portion of our intellectual treasure, were indebted for their astonishing superiority entirely to the enjoyment of a free country. But slavery existed among them, and, consequently, those rights and those motives to emulation, which ought to be common to all men, were the exclusive lot of a few. The Greek and Roman nations disappeared from the world in consequence of what was barbarous, that is, of what was unjust, in their institutions. The vast regions of Asia are lost in despotism; and, for centuries past, whatever has remained there of civilization is stationary. Thus, then, the great historical revolution, whose results admit of application to the present state of modern nations, begins from the invasion by the northern tribes; for the public law of most countries in Europe is still founded on the law of conquest.
Nevertheless, that circle of men, who alone were allowed to consider themselves as such, was increased under the feudal system. The condition of the serfs was less hard than that of slaves; there were several methods of escaping from it, and from that time various classes have begun to emancipate themselves by degrees from the fate of the vanquished. It is to the gradual increase of this circle of society that our attention ought to be turned.
The absolute government of one is the worst form of political combinations. Aristocracy is better, for in it several at least are of importance; and the moral dignity of man is recovered in the relation of the great lords with their chief. Social order, which admits all our fellow creatures to equality before the law, as before God, is as much in harmony with the Christian religion as with true liberty: both the one and the other, in different spheres, should follow the same principles.
Since the nations of the North and of Germany overthrew the Western Empire, the laws introduced by them have undergone a variety of modifications; for time, as Bacon says, is the greatest of innovators. It would be very difficult to fix with precision the dates of the successive changes; for, in tracing the leading facts, we find that one event encroaches on another. I think, however, that our attention may be fixed on four eras, in which these changes, previously announced, became particularly conspicuous.
The first political period was that in which the nobles, that is to say the conquerors, considered themselves as co-partners in the royal power of their chief, while the nation was divided among the different lords, who disposed of it as they pleased.
There was then neither education, industry, nor trade: landed property was almost the only kind known; and Charlemagne himself was occupied in his capitularia2 with the rural economy of the royal demesnes. The nobles went to war in person, leading their armed force: thus the sovereigns had no occasion to levy taxes, as they supported neither military nor civil establishments. Everything demonstrates that, at this time, the great lords were very independent of kings; they maintained liberty for themselves, if indeed they can be free themselves who impose servitude on others. Hungary in its present state may convey an idea of this form of government, which must be allowed to possess grandeur for those who participate in it.3
The Champs-de-Mai,4 so often referred to in the history of France, might be called the democratic government of the nobility, such as has existed in Poland. Feudality was established later. Hereditary succession to the crown, without which there can be no tranquillity in monarchies, was not regularly established until the third race of the kings of France: during the second, the nation, that is, the barons and clergy, chose a successor among the individuals of the reigning family. Primogeniture was happily recognized with the third race. But up to the consecration of Louis XVI inclusively, the consent of the people has always been laid down as the basis of the rights of the sovereign to the throne.
There was already, under Charlemagne, something which bore a greater resemblance to the English peerage than the institution of the noblesse, such as we have seen it in France for the last two centuries. I make this remark, however, without attaching much importance to it. Doubtless it were better that Reason in politics should be of ancient origin; but although she be but of yesterday, still we should bid her welcome.
The feudal system was much more advantageous to the nobles than the situation of courtiers to which royal despotism has condemned them. It is now merely a speculative question, whether mankind would be the gainers from the independence of one class only, or from the exercise of a gentle, but equal, oppression upon all. We have only to remark that the nobles, in the time of their splendor, enjoyed a species of political independence, and that the absolute power of the kings has been established against them with the support of the people.
In the second political period, that of partial enfranchisements, the bourgeois of the towns laid claim to certain rights; for, when men unite together, they gain by their union, at least as much in wisdom as in power. The republics of Germany and Italy, the municipal privileges of the rest of Europe, date from this time. The walls of each town afforded protection to its inhabitants. We still see, particularly in Italy, remarkable traces of those individual defenses against the collective powers: castles multiplied in each domain; fortified palaces; in short, attempts ill-combined but worthy of esteem, since they were all directed to increase the importance and energy of each citizen. It is impossible, nevertheless, to deny that these attempts of petty states to ensure their independence, being ill-regulated, have often led to anarchy; but Venice, Genoa, the Lombard League, the Tuscan Republics, Switzerland, the Hanse Towns, established at this time their liberty on an honorable basis. The institutions of these republics have ever borne marks of the period in which they were established; and the rights of individual liberty, such as ensure the exercise and development of the faculties of every class of men, were not secured by them. Holland, become a republic at a later period, approached to the true principles of social order, an advantage for which she was more particularly indebted to the Reformation. The period of partial enfranchisements, of which I have treated, is no longer clearly to be traced, except in free towns and in the republics which have subsisted to the present day. In the history of the great modern states, therefore, only three eras, entirely distinct, ought to be admitted: the feudal system, despotism, and representative government.
For about five centuries, independence and the improvement of knowledge have been operating in every way and almost at random; yet regal power has constantly increased from different causes and by different means. Kings, having often much to apprehend from the arrogance of the nobles, sought support in a closer connection with the people. Regular troops rendered the assistance of the nobles less requisite; the necessity of imposts, on the other hand, forced the sovereigns to have recourse to the commons; and, in order to obtain from them direct contributions, it was necessary to disengage them, more or less, from the influence of the barons. The revival of letters, the invention of the art of printing, the Reformation, the discovery of the new world, and the progress of commerce taught mankind that a military power was not the only one which could possibly exist; and they have since learned that the profession of arms is not the exclusive privilege of birth.
In the Middle Ages, learning was exclusively confined to the priests, who, during the Dark Ages, had rendered important services to mankind. But when the clergy found themselves attacked by the Reformation, they opposed instead of promoting the progress of the human mind.5 The second class of society then took possession of the sciences and literature, the study of the law, and of commerce; and thus its importance daily increased. On the other hand, states became more concentrated, the resources of government were increased, and kings, by availing themselves of the lower orders against the barons and the higher clergy, established their own despotism; that is, the union of the executive and legislative powers in the hands of one individual.
Louis XI was the first who made a regular trial of this fatal system in France, and the inventor was truly worthy of the invention. Henry VIII in England, Philip II in Spain, Christian in the North,6 labored, under different circumstances, upon the same plan. But Henry VIII in preparing the Reformation became the involuntary instrument of conferring liberty on his country. Charles the Fifth might perhaps, for a time, have accomplished his project of universal monarchy if, in spite of the fanaticism of his southern states, he had supported himself by the reforming spirit of the time, by accepting the confession of Augsburg. It is said that he had the intention, but this ray of his genius disappeared under the gloomy power of his son; and the stamp of the terrible reign of Philip II still presses with all its force upon the Spanish nation—there the Inquisition has undertaken to preserve the inheritance of despotism.
Christian II attempted to render Sweden and Denmark subject to the same uncontrolled sway; but he was baffled by the independent spirit of the Swedes. The history of that people exhibits several periods similar to those that we have traced in other countries. Charles XI7 struggled hard to triumph over the nobles by means of the people; but Sweden already possessed a constitution, in virtue of which the deputies of the citizens and peasantry composed the half of the Diet: they were sufficiently enlightened to know that privileges are to be relinquished only when rights are to be confirmed and that an aristocracy, with all its faults, is less degrading than despotism.
The Danes have afforded the most scandalous political example which history records. In the year 1660, weary of the power of the nobles, they declared their king, not only sole legislator and sovereign master of their lives and fortunes, but they invested him with every power, except that of repealing the act which constituted him a despot; and, after completing this surrender of themselves, they added that if the king of any other country possessed prerogatives beyond what they had conferred, they granted these to their monarchs in advance, and at all risks; yet this unprecedented decision was nothing more than an open avowal of what in other countries was proceeding with greater reserve. The Protestant religion, and still more the liberty of the press, have since created in Denmark a degree of independence, in point of thinking, which opposes a moral limit to the abuse of prerogative.
Russia, however different from the rest of Europe in its institutions and in its Asiatic manners, underwent, under Peter I, the second crisis of European monarchies, the humiliation of the nobles by the sovereign.
Europe should be summoned before the bar of Poland for the long train of injuries of which that country had been the victim until the reign of the Emperor Alexander. But without dwelling at present on those troubles, which necessarily arose out of the unhappy coincidence of servitude on the part of the peasants and lawless independence on that of the nobles—out of a proud patriotic feeling, on the one hand, and an exposure, on the other, to the pernicious ascendancy of foreign influence—we shall be content with observing that the constitution of 1792, that constitution for which Kosciusko so nobly fought, contained a number of equally wise and liberal provisions.8
Germany, considered as a political body, still belongs, in several respects, to the earliest of the periods of modern history—that of the feudal system; although the spirit of the age has evidently penetrated through her antique institutions. France, Spain, and Britain have, all along, aimed at constituting each a political whole: Germany has maintained her subdivisions, from a spirit partly of independence, partly of aristocratic feeling. The treaty of Westphalia, by acknowledging the Protestant religion throughout half the empire, brought in contact two parts of the same nation who had been taught a mutual awe by their long warfare. This is not the place for enlarging on the political and military advantages that would have resulted from a closer union. Germany now possesses strength enough to maintain her national independence, without relinquishing her federal form; and the interest of enlightened men can never be conquest abroad, but liberty at home.
Poor rich Italy, having constantly been the prey of foreigners, the progress of the human mind is traced with more difficulty in her history than in that of the rest of Europe. Yet the second period, that of the enfranchisement of towns, which we have described as blending itself with the third, was marked more distinctly here than in other countries, because it gave rise to several republics, which claim our admiration, at least by the distinguished individuals whom they produced. Among the Italians arbitrary power has arisen only in consequence of political division; their situation, in this respect, is very different from that of the Germans. Every patriotic feeling in Italy ought to point to the union of its various states. Foreigners being incessantly brought among them by the attractions of the country, the Italians can never form a people without a national consolidation. It has hitherto been prevented by the influence of the papal government: not that the popes have been the partisans of foreigners; on the contrary, they would have wished to repel them; but, from their priestly character, they were incapable of defending the country, while at the same time they prevented any other power from undertaking it.
England is the only great European Empire that has yet attained what, in our present state of political knowledge, appears the perfection of social order. The middling class, or, in other words, the nation (as elsewhere), co-operated with the Crown, under Henry VII, in reducing the influence of the nobles and clergy, and increased its own at their expense. But the nobility of England were, from the beginning, actuated by a more liberal spirit than the nobility of other countries; for so far back as Magna Charta, we find the barons making stipulations in behalf of the people. The revolutionary period of England may be said to have lasted nearly fifty years, if we reckon from the beginning of the civil wars under Charles I to the accession of William III in 1688; and the efforts of these fifty years had no other real and permanent object than the establishment of the existing constitution; that is, of the finest monument of justice and moral greatness existing in Europe.9
The same movement in the minds of men which brought about the revolution in England was the cause of that of France in 1789. Both belong to the third era in the progress of social order—the establishment of representative government—a point toward which the human mind is directing itself from all parts.10
Let us now proceed to examine the circumstances peculiar to France—to a country the scene of those gigantic events which in our days have been the source of so much hope and so much fear.
Considerations on the History of France.
Men are seldom familiar with any history but that of their own time; and in reading the declamations so frequent in our days, one would be led to think that the eight centuries of monarchical government which preceded the Revolution had been ages of tranquillity; and that the French nation had reposed during that time on a bed of roses. We forget the burning of the Knights Templars under Philip the Fair; the victories of the English under the kings of the Valois race; the civil war of La Jacquerie;1 the assassination of the Duke of Orléans,2 and of the Duke of Burgundy;3 the treacherous cruelty of Louis XI; the condemnation of the French Protestants to frightful punishments under Francis I, at the very time, too, when he was in alliance with their brethren in Germany;4 the horrors of the league, all surpassed by the massacre of St. Bartholomew;5 the conspiracies against Henri IV and his assassination, that frightful act of the league; the scaffolds raised by the arbitrary Richelieu; the military executions, long remembered under the name of dragonnades;6 the repeal of the Edict of Nantes; the expulsion of the Protestants, and the war of the Cevennes under Louis XIV;7 and, finally, the less terrific but not less important struggles of the parliaments under Louis XV.
Troubles without end have arisen in France to obtain what was considered to be liberty, at different periods, whether feudal, religious, or representative; and, if we except the reigns of those kings who, like Francis I and, above all, Louis XIV, possessed the dangerous art of occupying the nation by war, we shall not find, in the space of eight centuries, an interval of twenty-five years without a conflict of nobles against the sovereign, of peasants against nobles, of Protestants against Catholics, or, finally, of parliaments against the court—all struggles to escape from that arbitrary power which forms the most insupportable of burdens on a people. The civil commotions, as well as the violent measures adopted to stifle them, are an evidence that the French exerted themselves as much as the English to obtain that liberty confirmed by law, which alone can ensure to a people peace, emulation, and prosperity.8
It is of importance to repeat to those who are the advocates of rights founded on the past, that it is liberty which is ancient, and despotism which is modern.9 In all the European states founded at the commencement of the middle age, the power of the king was limited by that of the nobles. The Diets in Germany, in Sweden, in Denmark before its charter of servitude, the Parliaments in England, the Cortes in Spain, the intermediate bodies of all kinds in Italy, prove that the northern tribes brought with them institutions which confined the power to one class, but which were in no respect favorable to despotism. The Franks never acknowledged uncontrolled power in their chiefs; for it is incontrovertible that, under the first two races of their kings, all who had the right of a citizen, that is, the nobles, and the nobles were the Franks, participated in the government. “Every one knows,” says M. de Boulainvilliers,10 who certainly was no philosopher, “that the French were a free people, who elected their chiefs, under the title of kings, to execute the laws which they themselves had enacted, or to command them in war; and that they were very far from considering their kings as legislators who could order everything according to their pleasure. There remains no act of the first two races of the monarchy which is not characterized by the consent of the general assemblies of the Champs de Mars or Champs de Mai, and even no war was then undertaken without their approbation.”
The third race of the kings of France was established on the principles of the feudal system; the two preceding races rested more on the law of conquest. The first princes of the third race styled themselves “kings, by the grace of God, and the consent of the people”; and the form of their coronation oath afterward contained a promise to preserve the laws and rights of the nation. The kings of France, from St. Louis to Louis XI,* did not arrogate to themselves the right of making laws without the consent of the Estates General; but the disputes of the three orders, which could never agree together, obliged them to have recourse to the sovereigns as mediators; and the ministers of the Crown did not fail to profit by this necessity either to avoid the convocation of the Estates General or to render their deliberations ineffectual. At the time of the invasion of France by Edward III of England,11 that prince declared, in his proclamation, that he “came to restore to the French the rights of which they had been deprived.”
The four best kings of France, Saint Louis (Louis IX),12 Charles V, Louis XII, and above all Henri IV, endeavored to establish the empire of the laws, each according to the prevailing ideas of his age. The Crusades prevented Louis IX from devoting his whole time to the welfare of his subjects. The war with England and the captivity of John13 absorbed those resources which would have been turned to account by the wisdom of his son Charles V.14 The unfortunate invasion of Italy, ill begun by Charles VIII15 and ill continued by Louis XII,16 deprived France of a part of the advantages which the latter intended for her; and the League, the atrocious League, composed of foreigners and fanatics, bereaved the world of Henri IV, the best of men and the greatest and most enlightened prince that France ever produced.17 Yet in spite of the singular obstacles which obstructed the progress of these four sovereigns, far superior to all the others, they were occupied during their reigns in acknowledging the existence of rights which limited their own.
Louis IX (St. Louis) continued the enfranchising of the boroughs begun by Louis le Gros;18 he made laws for the independence and regular attendance of the judges; and, what deserves to be recorded, when chosen by the English barons to arbitrate between them and their king Henry III, he censured the rebel lords, but declared that their prince ought to be faithful to the charter for which he had pledged his oath. Could any other conduct be expected from him who consented to remain prisoner in Africa19 rather than break his oaths? “I would rather,” said he, “that a foreigner from the extremest point of Europe, even from Scotland, should obtain the throne of France than my son, if he is not to be wise and good.” Charles V, when only regent, convoked in 1355 the Estates General, and that Assembly proved the most remarkable in the history of France, for the demands which they made in favor of the people. The same Charles V, after succeeding to the throne, convoked that Assembly in 1369 to obtain their sanction to the gabelles, or salt tax, then imposed for the first time; he granted a power to the inhabitants of Paris to become the purchasers of fiefs. But, as foreign troops were in possession of a considerable part of the kingdom, his first object was to expel them, and the hardship of his situation caused him to levy certain imposts without the consent of the nation. But, at his dying hour, this prince declared that he regretted the act and acknowledged that he had gone beyond his powers.
The continuance of intestine troubles, and of invasions from England, made for a long time the regular functioning of government very difficult. Charles VII20 was the first who kept on foot a standing force—a fatal era in the history of nations! Louis XI,21 whose name recalls the same impressions as those of Tiberius or Nero, attempted to invest himself with absolute power. He made a certain progress in that track which Cardinal Richelieu afterward knew so well how to follow; but he encountered a spirited opposition from his parliaments. These bodies have in general labored to give consistence to the laws in France, and their records scarcely exhibit a remonstrance in which they do not remind the kings of their engagements with the nation. But Louis XI was far from considering himself an unlimited ruler; and in the instructions which he dictated on his deathbed to his son Charles VIII, he said, “When kings or princes cease to respect the laws, they bring their people to servitude, and strip themselves of the name of king; for he only is king who reigns over freemen. It is the nature of freemen to love their rulers;22 but men in servitude must hate them, as a slave hates his oppressor.” So true is it that, in a testamentary disposition, at least, even tyrants cannot refrain from affixing a stigma upon despotism.
Louis XII, surnamed the “father of his people,” submitted to the decision of the Estates General the marriage of his daughter Claude with the Count of Angoulême (afterward Francis I), and the nomination of that prince as his successor. The continuation of the war in Italy was not a good political decision for Louis, but as he lessened the pressure of taxation by the order introduced in his finances, and as he sold his own demesnes to provide a fund for the public wants, the people suffered less from the expense of this expedition than they would have done under any other prince. In the council assembled at Tours, the clergy of France made, at his desire, a declaration “that they did not owe implicit obedience to the pope.” And when certain comedians presumed to act a play in ridicule of the king’s meritorious parsimony, he would not allow them to be punished, but made use of these remarkable words, “These men may teach us some useful truths; let them proceed in their amusement so long as they respect female honor. I shall not regret its being known that, under my reign, they took this liberty with impunity.” Do not these words amount to an acknowledgment of the liberty of the press in all its extent? For in these days the publicity of a theatrical performance was much greater than the publicity of a printed work. Never did a truly virtuous prince find himself in the possession of sovereign power without desiring rather to moderate his own authority than encroach on the rights of the people. Every enlightened king has a wish to limit the power of his ministers and his successors. A spirit of enlightenment, according to the nature of the age, must find its way to all public men of the first rank by the influence either of reason or of feeling.
The early part of the sixteenth century witnessed the progress of the Reformation in the most enlightened states of Europe: in Germany, in England, and, soon after, in France. Far from concealing that liberty of conscience is closely linked to political liberty, the Protestants ought, in my opinion, to make a boast of the alliance. They always have been, and always will be, friends of liberty;23 the spirit of inquiry in religious points leads necessarily to the representative government and its political institutions. The proscription of Reason is always conducive to despotism, and always subservient to hypocrisy.
France was on the point of adopting the Reformation at the time that it was established in England; the principal nobility of the country, Condé, Coligni, Rohan, and Lesdiguieres, professed the Protestant faith. The Spaniards, guided by the diabolical spirit of Philip II, supported the League in France in conjunction with Catherine of Médicis. A woman of her character must have desired boundless command, and Philip II wanted to make his daughter queen of France, to the exclusion of Henri IV—a proof that despotism does not always respect legitimacy. In the interval from 1562 to 1589, the parliaments refused their sanction to a hundred royal edicts; yet the Chancellor de l’Hôpital found a greater disposition to support religious toleration in such of the Estates General as he could get together, than in the parliament. This body of magistracy, like all corporate establishments, firm in the maintenance of ancient laws, did not partake of the enlightenment of the age. None but deputies elected by the nation can enter into all its wants and desires at every different period.
Henri IV, after being long the head of the Protestants, found himself at last obliged to yield to the prevailing opinion, notwithstanding its being that of his adversaries. Such, however, was the wisdom and magnanimity of his sway, that the impression of that short reign is, at the present day, more fresh in the hearts of Frenchmen than that of the two centuries which have since elapsed.
The Edict of Nantes, promulgated in 1598, founded that religious toleration, the struggle for which is not yet at a close. This edict opposed a potent barrier to arbitrary power; for when a government is obliged to keep the balance even between two rival parties, it can do so only by a continued exercise of reason and justice. Besides, how could such a character as Henri IV have been ambitious of absolute power? he who had taken up arms against the tyranny of Medicis and Guise; he who had fought to deliver his country from them; he whose generous nature was so much more gratified by the free gift of admiration than by a servile obedience. Sully brought his finances into a state which might have rendered the royal authority entirely independent of the people, but Henry did not make this culpable use of the virtue of economy. He convoked the Assembly of the Notables at Rouen,24 and declared that the elections should be wholly uninfluenced by the Crown. The civil commotions were still recent, and he might have availed himself of them as a pretext for absorbing all power in his own hands; but true liberty carries with it the most effectual remedy for anarchy. Every Frenchman knows by heart the noble expressions of Henry on opening the Assembly. His conduct was in conformity with his declaration; he acquiesced in their demands, however imperious, because he had given his promise to comply with the desires of the delegates of the people. Finally, in his caution against flattery, expressed to Matthieu, the writer of his history, he gave a proof of the same solicitude for the dissemination of truth which had been already shown by Louis XII.
In the age of Henri IV, religious liberty was the only object which occupied the public mind; he flattered himself with having ensured it by the Edict of Nantes; but that edict owed its origin to him personally, and might be overthrown by a successor. How strange that Grotius,25 in one of his works published in the reign of Louis XIII, should have predicted that the Edict of Nantes being a royal concession and not a mutual compact, a succeeding sovereign might take on him to annul the work of Henri IV. Had that great prince lived in our days, he would not have allowed the boon conferred on France to rest on a foundation so precarious as his life; he would have strengthened, by the aid of political guarantees, that toleration, of which, after his death, France was so cruelly deprived.
Henry is said to have conceived, shortly before his death, the grand idea of consolidating the independence of the different states of Europe by a Congress. Be this as it may, his principal object certainly was to support the Protestants in Germany; and the fanaticism which led to his assassination was not mistaken in regard to his intentions.
Thus fell the king the most truly French who ever reigned over France. Often have our sovereigns derived a tinge of foreign habits from their maternal parentage; but Henri IV was in every respect the countryman of his subjects. When Louis XIII evinced that he inherited the habit of dissimulation from his Italian mother, the people no longer recognized the blood of the father in the son. Who would have thought it possible that Madame d’Ancre26 could have been burned on a charge of sorcery in the presence of that nation who, twenty years before, had received the Edict of Nantes with applause? There are eras in history when the course of national feeling is dependent on a single man—but unfortunate are such times, for nothing durable can be accomplished without the impulse of general concurrence.
Cardinal Richelieu27 aimed at oversetting the independence of the great nobles, and induced them to reside at Paris that he might convert the lords of the provinces into courtiers. Louis XI had formed the same plan; but in his days the capital offered few attractions in point of society, and the court still fewer. Several men of rare talents and high spirit, such as d’Ossat, Mornay, Sully,28 had become conspicuous under Henri IV; but after his time, we look in vain for those chivalrous characters whose names form still the heroic traditions of the history of France. The despotic sway of Cardinal Richelieu destroyed entirely the originality of the French character—its loyalty, its candor, its independence. That priestly minister has been the object of much encomium because he upheld the political greatness of France, and in this respect we cannot deny his superior talents; but Henri IV accomplished the same object by governing in the spirit of truth and justice. Superiority of mind is displayed not only in the triumph obtained, but in the means employed to accomplish it. The moral degradation impressed on a people accustomed to crime will, sooner or later, prove to be more harmful to it than the effect of temporary success.
Cardinal Richelieu caused a poor innocent curate of the name of Urbain Grandier to be burned on a charge of sorcery, and thus yielded a mean and perfidious acquiescence to that blind superstition from which he was personally exempt. He confined, in his own country house at Ruelle, Marshal de Marillac, whom he hated, that he might with greater certainty be sentenced to death under his own eyes. M. de Thou was brought to the scaffold because he had not denounced his friend. No political crime was legally judged under the ministry of Cardinal Richelieu, and special commissions were always nominated to decide the fate of the victims. And yet the memory of this man has been applauded even in our days! He died indeed in the fullness of power; a safeguard of the first importance to those tyrannical rulers who hope to have a great name in history. The French may in several respects consider this cardinal as a foreigner; his clerical profession, and his Italian education, separate him from the true French character. The magnitude of his influence admits thus of an easier explanation, for history affords various examples of foreigners who have ruled over Frenchmen. That nation has, in general, too much vivacity to counteract the perseverance which is necessary to arrive at arbitrary power; but the man who possesses this perseverance is doubly formidable in a country where, law having never been properly established, the people judge of things only by the event.
Cardinal Richelieu, by inducing the grandees to live in Paris, deprived them of their weight in the country and created that influence of the capital over the rest of France which has never ceased since that day. A court has naturally much ascendancy over the city where it resides, and nothing can be more convenient than to govern an empire by means of a small assemblage of men; I mean convenient for the purposes of despotism.
Many persons are of the opinion that Richelieu laid the foundation of the wonders of the age of Louis XIV, an age which has been often compared to those of Pericles and Augustus. But periods similar to these brilliant eras are found in the histories of several nations under different combinations of circumstances—at the moment when literature and the fine arts appear for the first time, after a long continuance of war, or after the close of civil dissensions. The great phases of the human mind are much less the work of an individual than of the age; for they are all found to bear a resemblance to each other, however different may be the character of the contemporary chiefs.
After the death of Richelieu, and during the minority of Louis XIV, we find some serious political ideas intermixed with the general frivolity of the days of the Fronde. We find, for instance, parliament demanding of the Crown that no subject of the realm should be liable to imprisonment without being brought before his natural judges. There was also an attempt made to limit the power of ministers, and the odium against Mazarin29 might perhaps have led to the acquisition of a certain degree of liberty. But the time soon came when Louis XIV displayed the manners of a court in all their dangerous splendor; flattering the pride of his subjects by the success of his armies, and repelling, by his Spanish gravity, that familiarity which would presume to pass judgment on him. But he made the nobles descend still lower than in the preceding reign. For under Richelieu they were at least important enough to be persecuted, while under Louis XIV they were distinguished from the rest of the nation only by bearing the yoke nearer the presence of their master.
This king, who thought that the property of his subjects was his own, and who committed arbitrary acts of all descriptions; in short, he who (can we venture to say it, and is it possible to forget it?) came, whip in hand, to prohibit, as an offense, the exercise of the slender remnant of a right—the remonstrances by parliament; this king felt respect for no one but himself, and was never able to conceive what a nation is and ought to be. All the errors that he has been charged with were the natural result of that superstitious idea of his power, in which he had been nurtured from his infancy. How can despotism fail to produce flattery, and how can flattery do otherwise than pervert the ideas of every human being who is exposed to it? What outstanding man has ever been heard to utter the hundredth part of the praises lavished on the weakest princes? And yet these princes, for the very reason that they deserve not those praises, are the more easily intoxicated by them.
Had Louis XIV been a private individual, he would probably never have been noticed, as he possessed no exceptional talents; but he perfectly understood how to cultivate that artificial dignity which imposes an uncomfortable awe on the mind of others. Henri IV was in the habit of familiar intercourse with his subjects, from the highest to the lowest; Louis XIV was the founder of that extreme etiquette which removed the kings of his family, in France as well as in Spain, from a free and natural communication with their subjects: he was in consequence a stranger to their feelings whenever public affairs assumed a threatening aspect. One minister (Louvois) engaged him in a sanguinary contest, from having been vexed by him about the windows of a castle; and, of the sixty-eight years of his reign, Louis XIV, without possessing any military talent, passed fifty-six in a state of war. It was under him that the Palatinate30 was desolated and that atrocious executions took place in Brittany. The expulsion of 200,000 Protestants from France, the dragonnades, and the war of the Cevennes are yet not equal to the cold-blooded horrors to be found in the various ordonnances passed after the repeal of the Edict of Nantes, in 1685. The code enacted at that time against the Protestants may be, in all respects, compared to the laws of the Convention against the emigrants, and bears the same characteristics. The enjoyment of civil rights was refused to them; for their children were not legitimate, in the eye of the law, until the year 1787, when the Assembly of Notables obtained that point from the justice of Louis XVI. Not only was their property confiscated, but it was bestowed on those who informed against them; and their children were forcibly taken from them to be educated in the Catholic faith. Persons officiating as Protestant clergymen, or those who incurred the charge of “relapsing” into heresy, were liable to be sent to the galleys or to the scaffold; and, as it had been at last declared by authority that there were no more Protestants in France, it was easy to consider any of them as relapsed, when there was an object in such treatment.
Injustice of every kind marked that reign of Louis XIV, which has been the object of so many fulsome effusions; and no one remonstrated against the abuses of that authority which was itself a continual abuse. Fénélon alone dared to raise his voice against it,31 and an appeal from him is conclusive in the eyes of posterity. Besides, this King, who was so scrupulous in regard to the dogmas of religion, was very different in point of morals; and it was only in the day of adversity that he displayed any real virtues. We have no sympathy with him until he was forsaken by fortune; his soul at that time displayed its native grandeur.
Everybody praises the beautiful edifices erected by Louis XIV; but we know, by experience, that in countries where the national representatives do not control the public expenditure, it is easy to have money for any purpose. The pyramids of Memphis cost more labor than the embellishments of Paris; yet the despots of Egypt found no difficulty in employing their slaves to build them.
Had Louis XIV the merit of drawing forth the great writers of his age? He persecuted the seminary of Port Royal, of which Pascal was the head; he made Racine die of grief; he exiled Fénélon; he constantly opposed the honors which others were desirous of conferring on La Fontaine; and confined his admiration to Boileau alone. Literature, in extolling him to the skies, has done much more for him than he had done for it. Pensions granted to a few men of letters will never have much influence over men of real talents. Genius aims only at fame, and fame is the offspring of public opinion alone.
Literature shone with equal luster in the succeeding century, although it had a more philosophic tendency; but that tendency began not until the latter part of the reign of Louis XIV. A reign of more than sixty years was the cause of giving his name to the age; but the ideas of the period had no connection with him; and, if we except Bossuet, who, unfortunately for us and for himself, allowed his talents to be subservient to fanaticism and despotism, almost all the writers of the seventeenth century made very striking advancement in that path in which those of the eighteenth have made such progress. Fénélon, the most respectable of men, showed himself, in one of his works, capable of appreciating the excellence of the English constitution only a few years after its establishment; and, toward the end of Louis XIV’s reign, the human mind was visibly advancing in all directions.
Louis XIV extended France by the conquests of his generals; and, as a certain extent of territory is necessary to the independence of a country, he had, in this respect, a title to the national gratitude. But he left the interior of the country in a state of disorder, which continued not only during the regency, but during the reign of Louis XV. At the death of Henri IV the finances, and all the branches of administration, were left in the most perfect order, and France maintained herself for a number of years merely by the strength which she owed to him. At the death of Louis XIV the finances were exhausted to such a degree that they could not be restored until the accession of Louis XVI. The people insulted the funeral procession of Louis XIV and the parliament canceled his will. The blind superstition under which he had bent in his latter years, had so wearied the public that even the licentious practices of the regency were excused, as forming a relief to the burden of an intolerant court. Compare the death of Louis with that of Henri IV—of him who was so unaffected although a sovereign, so mild although a warrior, so intelligent, so cheerful, so wise—of him who knew so well that to cultivate familiarity with men is the means, when one is truly great, of rising in their esteem, that every Frenchman seemed to feel at his heart the stroke of the poignard which cut short his splendid life.
We ought never to form an opinion of absolute princes by those temporary successes which proceed frequently from the intense exercise of their authority. It is the condition in which they leave their country at their death, or at their fall; it is the part of their reign which survives them, that discloses their real character. The political ascendancy of the nobles and the clergy ended in France with Louis XIV; he had made them mere instruments of his power; at his death they found themselves without a connecting link with the people, whose political importance was increasing every day.32
Louis XV, or, to speak more properly, his ministers, were in a state of perpetual contention with the parlements, who acquired popularity by refusing their sanction to taxes; these parlements belonged to the Third Estate, at least in a great degree. The writers of the age, most of whom also belonged to this class, conquered by their talents that liberty of the press which was not accorded by statute. The example of England acquired more and more influence on the public mind; and people were at a loss to comprehend that a narrow channel of only seven leagues sufficed to separate a country where the people were everything, from one in which they were nothing.
Public opinion and public credit, which is nothing more than public opinion applied to financial questions, became daily more essential to government. The bankers33 have more influence in this respect than the great landholders themselves, and the bankers live in Paris, where they are in the habit of discussing freely all the public questions which affect their personal calculations.
The weak character of Louis XV, and the endless errors resulting from that character, naturally strengthened the spirit of resistance. People saw on the one hand Lord Chatham34 at the head of England, surrounded by parliamentary speakers of talent, all ready to acknowledge his pre-eminence, while, in France, the meanest of the royal mistresses obtained the appointment and removal of ministers. Public spirit was the ruling principle in England; accident and miserable intrigues decided the fate of France. Yet Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Buffon, profound thinkers and superior writers, belonged to the country that was thus governed; and how could the French avoid envying England, when they might say with truth, that it was to her political institutions that she owed her superiority?35 For they saw among themselves as many men of talent as their neighbors, although the nature of their government prevented them from turning these talents to so much account.
It has been justly said by a man of ability, that the literature of the age is an expression of the feelings of society; if that be true, the censures cast on the writers of the eighteenth century ought to be pointed at the society in which they lived. The writers of that day were not desirous of flattering government; therefore they must have aimed at pleasing the public; for the majority of literary men must follow one or the other of these paths: they stand too much in need of encouragement to bid defiance to both government and the public. The majority of the French in the eighteenth century began to desire the suppression of feudal rights, the imitation of the institutions of England, and, above all, toleration in religion. The influence of the clergy in temporal matters was generally revolting; and, as the spirit of true religion is foreign to intrigue and political ambition, all confidence was withdrawn from those who made use of it as an instrument for temporal purposes. Several writers, above all Voltaire, were highly reprehensible in not respecting Christianity when they attacked superstition; but some allowance is to be made on account of the circumstances under which Voltaire lived. He was born in the latter part of the age of Louis XIV, and the atrocious injustice inflicted on the Protestants had impressed his imagination from his earliest years.
The antiquated superstitions of Cardinal Fleuri,36 the ridiculous contests between the parlement and the archbishop of Paris in regard to billets de confession, the convulsionnaires,37 the Jansenists and Jesuits; all puerile in themselves but capable of leading to the effusion of blood, naturally impressed Voltaire with the dread of the renewal of religious persecution. The trials of Calas, of Sirven, of the Chevalier de la Barre, etc. confirmed him in this impression, and the existing laws against the Protestants were still allowed to remain in the barbarous state in which they had been plunged after the repeal of the Edict of Nantes.
I must not, however, be understood as attempting the justification of Voltaire, or of the writers of the age who followed his steps; but it must be admitted that irritable characters (and all men of talents are irritable) feel almost always a desire to attack the stronger party: it is in such attacks only that we recognize the impulse of a bold and ardent mind. In the Revolution we have been exposed only to the evils of unbelief, and to the atrocious violence with which it was propagated. But the same generous feelings which made people detest the proscription of the clergy toward the end of the eighteenth century had inspired, fifty years earlier, the hatred of its intolerance. Both actions and writings should be estimated according to the time of their occurrence.
We shall treat elsewhere the great question of the state of national feeling in France on the subject of religion. In regard to this, as in regard to politics, we must beware of bringing charges against a population of twenty-five million, for that would be little else than quarreling with mankind at large. Let us examine how it has happened that this nation has not been molded according to the will of some individuals, by ancient usages, which certainly lasted a sufficient time to exercise their influence. Let us examine also what sentiments are at present in harmony with the hearts of men; for the sacred fire is not and never will be extinct; but it can re-appear only by the full light of truth.
On the State of Public Opinion in France at the Accession of Louis XVI.
There is extant a letter of Louis XV to the Duchess of Choiseul, in which he says: “I have had a great deal of trouble with the parlements during my reign; but let my grandson be cautious of them, for they may put his crown in danger.” In fact, in following the course of events during the eighteenth century, we easily perceive that it was the aristocratic bodies in France that first attacked the royal power; not from any intention of overturning the throne, but from being pressed forward by public opinion, which acts on men without their knowing it, and often leads them on in contradiction to their interest. Louis XV bequeathed to his successor a general spirit of discontent among his subjects, the necessary consequence of his endless errors. The finances had been kept up only by bankrupt expedients: the quarrels of the Jesuits and Jansenists had brought the clergy into disrepute. Banishments and imprisonments, incessantly repeated, had failed in subduing the opposition of the parlement, and it had been necessary to substitute for that body, whose resistance was supported by public opinion, a magistracy without respectability, and under the presidency of a disreputable chancellor, M. de Maupeou.1 The nobility, so submissive under Louis XIV, now took part in the general discontent. The great lords, and even the princes of the blood, showed attention to M. de Choiseul,2 exiled on account of his resistance to the despicable ascendancy of a royal mistress. Modifications of the political organization were desired by all orders of the state; and never had the evils of arbitrary power been more severely felt than under a reign which, without being tyrannical, presented a perpetual succession of inconsistencies. No course of reasoning can so fully demonstrate the misery of depending on a government which is influenced in the first instance by mistresses, and afterward by favorites and relations of mistresses, down to the lowest class of society. The process against the existing state of things in France commenced under Louis XV in the most regular form before the eyes of the public; and whatever might be the virtues of the next sovereign, it would have been difficult for him to alter the opinion of reflecting men that France should be relieved by fixed institutions from the hazards attending hereditary succession. The more conducive hereditary succession is to the public welfare, the more necessary it is that the stability of law, under a representative government, should preserve a nation from the political changes which would otherwise be the unavoidable results of the different character of each king, and still more of each minister.
Certainly if it were necessary to commit entirely the fate of a nation to the will of a sovereign, Louis XVI merited more than anyone else that which no man can deserve. But there was reason to hope that a prince, so scrupulously conscientious, would feel a pleasure in associating the nation in some way or other with himself in the management of public affairs. Such would doubtless have been all along his way of thinking, if, on the one hand, the opposition had begun in a more respectful form, and if, on the other, in every age, certain writers had not been willing to make kings consider their authority as sacred as their creed. The opponents of philosophy endeavor to invest royal despotism with all the sacredness of a religious dogma, in order to avoid submitting their political views to the test of reasoning; the most effectual way certainly to avoid it.
The Queen, Marie Antoinette, was one of the most amiable and gracious persons who ever occupied a throne: there was no reason why she should not preserve the love of the French, for she had done nothing to forfeit it. As far, therefore, as personal qualities went, the King and Queen might claim the hearts of their subjects; but the arbitrary form of the government, as successive ages had molded it, accorded so ill with the spirit of the times, that even the virtues of the sovereigns were overlooked amid the accumulation of abuses. When a nation feels the want of political reform, the personal character of the monarch is but a feeble barrier against the impulse. A sad fatality placed the reign of Louis XVI in an era in which great talents and profound knowledge were necessary to contend with the prevailing spirit, or, what would have been better, to make a fair compromise with it.3
The aristocratic party, that is, the privileged classes, are persuaded that a king of a firmer cast of character might have prevented the Revolution. These men forget that it was from their ranks that the first attacks were directed, and directed with courage and reason, against the royal power; and how could this power have resisted them since the nation was supporting them at that time? Have they any right to complain that, after having proved too strong for the Crown, they were too weak for the people? Such ought to have been the result.
We cannot too often repeat that the last years of Louis XV had brought the government into disrepute; and, unless a military prince had sprung up to direct the minds of the French to foreign conquest, nothing could have diverted the various classes of the community from the important claims which all considered they had a right to urge. The nobles were tired of being nothing more than courtiers; the higher clergy were eager for a still larger share in the management of public affairs; the parlements had too much, and too little, political weight to remain in the passive attitude of judges; and the nation at large, which comprised the writers, the merchants, the bankers, a great number of landholders, and of persons in public employments, made an indignant comparison between the government of England, where ability was the path to power, and that of France, where all depended on favor or on birth. Thus, then, every word and every action, every virtue and every passion, every feeling and every vanity, the public mind and the fashion of the day, tended alike to the same object.
It is in vain to speak with contempt of the national spirit of the French: whatever they wish, they wish strongly. Had Louis XVI been a man of outstanding qualities, some say, he would have put himself at the head of the Revolution; he would have prevented it, say others. But what purpose is served by such suppositions? For outstanding qualities cannot be hereditary in any family, and that government which has nothing but the superior ability of its chief to oppose to the concurrent wishes of the people, must be in incessant danger of falling.
Faults, it is true, may be found in the conduct of Louis XVI, whether he be blamed by some for an unskillful defense of his unlimited power, or accused by others of not embracing with sincerity the improved views of the age. But these faults were so interwoven with the course of circumstances that they would be renewed almost as often as the same external combinations occurred.
The first choice of a prime minister made by Louis XVI was M. de Maurepas.4 This veteran courtier was certainly anything but an innovating philosopher. During forty years of exile, he had never ceased to regret that he had not been able to prevent his loss of place. He had incurred this loss by no act of courage; for the failure of a political intrigue was the only recollection that he had carried into his retirement, and he came back with as frivolous notions as if he had never quitted a court, which was the only object of his thought. Respect for advanced years, a feeling very honorable in a young king, was the only reason why Louis XVI chose M. de Maurepas.
To this man even the terms which designate the progress of information or the rights of the people were unknown; yet so strongly, although unconsciously, was he led on by public opinion, that his first advice to the King was the recall of the ancient parlements, dissolved for opposing the abuses of the preceding reign. But these parlements, more impressed with their own importance by their recall, constantly opposed the ministers of Louis XVI, and continued to do so until they saw that their own political existence was endangered by the ferment which they had been instrumental in exciting.5
Two ministers of distinguished merit, M. de Turgot and M. de Malesherbes,6 were likewise appointed by Maurepas, who certainly had not a single idea in common with them; but their popularity called them to distinguished stations, and public opinion was obeyed in this point again, although not represented by the medium of regular assemblies.
Malesherbes was desirous of the revival of the edict of Henri IV in favor of the Protestants, the abolition of lettres de cachet,7 and the suppression of the censorship which destroyed the liberty of the press. Such were the principles supported more than forty years ago by M. de Malesherbes; and had they been then adopted, the way would have been paved by wisdom, to that point which has since been obtained by violence.
M. Turgot, a minister equally humane and equally intelligent with Malesherbes, abolished the corvée;8 proposed that, with regard to taxes, there should be no difference between one province and another; and advanced courageously the opinion that the clergy and nobility should pay taxes in the same proportion as the rest of the nation. Nothing could be more equitable and popular than this proposal, but it gave offense to the upper ranks, and Turgot was sacrificed to them. He was of a systematic and inflexible disposition, while Malesherbes was yielding and conciliating. Yet both these generous citizens, alike in opinion, though different in demeanor, experienced the same fate; and the King, who had called them to office, in a short time dismissed the one and discouraged the other, at a moment, too, when the nation was most strongly attached to the principles of their administration.
It was certainly bad policy to excite the expectations of the public by a good choice and to follow this up by disappointment; but Maurepas appointed or removed ministers in compliance with the prevailing language at court. His plan of governing consisted in influencing the mind of the sovereign, and in satisfying those who stood immediately around him. General views of any kind were quite foreign to him; he knew only the obvious truth, that money is indispensable to sustain the expenses of the state, and that the parlements became daily more difficult to manage in regard to new taxes.
Doubtless, what in France was then the constitution, that is, the authority of the King, overturned all barriers, since it silenced, whenever it thought proper, the opposition of parlement by a lit de justice.9 The government of France has been always arbitrary, and, at times, despotic; but it now became prudent to economize the use of this depotism, as of other resources; for appearances indicated that it would be soon expended.10
Taxes, and that credit which can accomplish in one day as great an effort as taxation in a year, were now become so necessary to France that whatever stood in their way was a primary object of apprehension. In England the House of Commons has been frequently known to join a bill relative to the national rights to a bill of consent to subsidies. In France a similar course was attempted by the judiciary assemblies: when asked to register a new tax, they (although aware that the Crown could compel the registry) frequently accompanied their acquiescence, or refusal, with remonstrances on the conduct of ministers, having the support of public opinion. This new power was daily on the increase, and the nation was advancing along the path of liberty by its own exertions. So long as the privileged classes were the only persons of importance, the country might be governed, like a court, by a skillful management of the passions or interests of a few individuals; but no sooner had the middling ranks,11 the most numerous and most active of all, become aware of their importance, than the knowledge and the adoption of a wider range of policy became indispensable.
From the time that battles ceased to be fought by the followers of the great vassals, and that the kings of France required a revenue to maintain their army, the disorder of the finances has always been the source of the troubles of the kingdom. Toward the end of the reign of Louis XV, the Parlement of Paris began to declare that it was not empowered to vote away the public money, and their conduct was applauded by the people; but all returned to the quiet and obedience to which the French had been so long accustomed as soon as the machine of government rolled on without fresh demands on any public body which could believe itself independent of the throne. The want of money was thus evidently the greatest source of danger to the royal prerogative, under the existing circumstances; and it was with this conviction that M. de Maurepas proposed to put M. Necker at the head of the treasury.
A foreigner and a Protestant, M. Necker was quite out of the ordinary line of election to the cabinet; but he had shown so much financial ability in the affairs of the East India Company, of which he was a member; in mercantile business on his own account, which he had carried on for twenty years; in his writings,12 and, finally, in the different transactions which he had had with the ministers, from the time of the Duc de Choiseul down to 1776, when he was appointed, that M. de Maurepas made choice of him only to produce an influx of money into the treasury. But M. de Maurepas had not reflected on the connection between public credit and the important measures of administration; and he imagined that M. Necker might re-establish the credit of the state by fortunate speculations, in the same way as that of a banking house. Could anything be more superficial than this mode of reasoning on the finances of a great empire? The revolution which was taking place in the public mind could not be removed from the very center of business without satisfying the nation by all the reform it required; it was necessary to meet public opinion halfway, lest it might press forward too rudely. A minister of finance cannot be a juggler, who passes and repasses money from one box to another, without any effectual means of increasing the receipts or reducing the expenditure. Retrenchment, taxes, or credit, were indispensable to re-establish the deranged balance of the French treasury; and, to render any of these resources available, was a task that required the support of public opinion. Let us now proceed to examine the course to be followed by a minister who aims at obtaining that support.
Of the Character of M. Necker as a Public Man.
M. Necker, a citizen of the republic of Geneva, had cultivated literature from his earliest years with great attention; and, when called by circumstances to dedicate himself to business and financial transactions, his earlier taste for literature mixed dignified sentiments and philosophical views with the positive interests of life. Madame Necker, certainly one of the most enlightened women of her day, was in the habit of receiving at her house all the eminent men of the eighteenth century, so rich in distinguished and eminently talented individuals.1 At the same time her extreme strictness in point of religion rendered her inaccessible to every doctrine at variance with the enlightened creed in which she had happily been born. Those who knew her are unanimous in declaring that she passed over all the opinions and all the passions of her age, without ceasing to be a Protestant in the true Christian spirit, equally remote from irreligion and intolerance. M. Necker was actuated by similar impressions: in fact, no exclusive system could be acceptable to his mind, of which prudence was one of the distinguishing features. He took no pleasure in changes, as far as regarded their novelty; but he was a stranger to those prejudices of habit to which a superior mind can never subject itself.
His first literary essay was a “Eulogy on Colbert,” which obtained the prize from the French Academy. He was blamed by the philosophers of the day for not applying, in all its extent, to commerce and finances the system which they wished to impose on the mind. The philosophic fanaticism2 which proved one of the evils of the Revolution had already begun to show itself. These men were desirous of attributing to a few principles that absolute power which had hitherto been absorbed by a few individuals; as if the domain of inquiry admitted of restriction or exclusion.
M. Necker, in his second work, On the Corn Trade and Corn Laws, admitted the necessity of certain restrictions on the export of corn: restrictions required by the daily and pressing wants of the indigent classes. It was on this occasion that M. Turgot and his friends came to a rupture with M. Necker: a popular commotion caused by the high price of bread took place in the year 1775,3 when his book was published, and, from his having dwelt on the bad decisions which led to the tumult, the more enthusiastic part of the “Economistes” threw the blame of it on his publication. But the blame was evidently absurd; for a tract founded on purely general views can influence, at least in the outset, none but the upper classes.
M. Necker, having been, during life, accustomed to real transactions, was capable of accommodating himself to the modifications which they required. This, however, by no means led him to disdainfully reject general principles, for none but inferior minds place theory and practice in opposition to each other. The one ought to be the result of the other; both are found to aid and extend each other.
A few months before his appointment to the cabinet, M. Necker made a journey to England. He came back with a profound admiration of most of the institutions of that country; but what particularly fixed his attention was the great influence of publicity on national credit and the immense means conferred by the mere existence of a representative assembly for renewing the financial resources of the state. He had not, however, at that time, the slightest idea of proposing a change in the political organization of France. And had not imperious circumstances afterward driven the King to such a change, M. Necker would never have thought himself authorized to take part in it. His rule was to apply, above all things, to the direct and special duty of his situation; and, though amply convinced of the advantages of a representative body, he would never have conceived that a minister, named by the King, ought to make such a proposal without the positive authorization of his sovereign. It was, moreover, in his character to await the course of circumstances and to avoid proposing measures which might be brought forward by the operation of time. Though a decided opponent of such privileges as the feudal rights and exemption from taxes, his plan was to treat with the possessors of such privileges on the principle of never sacrificing, without an equivalent, a present right for a prospective advantage. He induced the King to abolish, throughout the royal demesnes, the remains of feudal servitude, the mortmain,4 &c.; but the act which enforced this contained no injunction of a similar conduct on the part of the great nobles. He trusted entirely to the influence of his example.5
M. Necker disapproved highly of the existing inequality in the mode of paying taxes; he felt that the higher ranks ought not to bear a smaller proportion of the burden than the other citizens of the state; yet he avoided pressing any measure in that respect on the King. The appointment of the provincial councils was, as we shall see in a subsequent chapter, the best method, in his opinion, for obtaining the voluntary assent of the clergy and nobility to the sacrifice of this inequality of taxation, which was more revolting to the mass of the nation than any other distinction. It was not till his second ministry, in 1788, when the King had already promised to assemble the Estates General, and when financial disorders, caused by a bad choice of ministers, had reached such a height as to put the Crown again in a state of dependence on the parlements—it was not, I say, till then that M. Necker tackled the fundamental questions regarding the political organization of France: so long as he had the means of governing by prudent measures, he recommended no other.
The defenders of despotism, who would gladly have seen a Richelieu in the person of the King’s prime minister, were much dissatisfied with M. Necker; while, on the other hand, the ardent advocates of liberty have complained of his perseverance in defending not only the royal authority, but even the undue advantages of the privileged classes, when he proposed to redeem them by compromise instead of extinguishing them without an equivalent. M. Necker found himself placed, by a concurrence of circumstances, like the Chancellor de l’Hôpital6 between the Catholics and Protestants; for the political contests in France, in the eighteenth century, have many points in common with the religious dissensions of the sixteenth; and M. Necker, like de l’Hôpital, endeavored to unite all parties at that altar of reason which was at the bottom of his heart. Never did anyone combine, in a more striking manner, prudence in the means with ardor for the end.
M. Necker never adopted a measure of importance without long and serious consideration, in which he consulted alternately his conscience and his judgment, but never his personal interest. To meditate was for him to make an abstraction from himself, and whatever opinion may be formed on his different measures, their origin is to be sought in motives different from those that actuate most men. Scruples were as predominant with him as passions are with others. The extent of his mind and of his imagination sometimes exposed him to the evil of hesitation; and he was particularly alive to self-reproach, to such a degree, indeed, as often to blame himself unjustly. These two noble inconveniences strengthened his attachment to morality: it was in that only that he found decision for the present, and tranquillity for the past. Every impartial man who examines the public conduct of M. Necker in the smallest details will always find it actuated by an impulse of virtue. I do not know whether that is called being no statesman; but, if he is to be blamed on this ground, let the blame be cast on the delicacy of his consciousness: for it was a rule with him that morality is still more necessary in a public than in a private capacity, because the management of extensive and durable interests is more evidently subjected, than that of lighter matters, to the principles of probity implanted in us by the Creator.
During his first administration, when public opinion was not yet perverted by party spirit, and when the business of government proceeded on a regular plan, the admiration inspired by his character was general, and his retirement from office was regarded by all France as a public calamity. Let us stop awhile to examine him in this first ministry, before we proceed to those hard and cruel circumstances which created enmity and ingratitude in the judgment of the people.7
M. Necker’s Plans of Finance.
The principles adopted by M. Necker in the management of the finances are so simple that their theory is within the reach of every person, although their application be very difficult. It is easy to say to statesmen “be just and firm,” as to writers “be ingenious and profound”: this advice is perfectly clear, but the qualities which enable us to follow it up are very rare.
M. Necker was persuaded that economy, and publicity,1 the best guarantee of fidelity in our engagements, form the only foundations of order and credit in a great empire. As in his opinion public morality ought not to differ from private, so he conceived that the affairs of the state might, in many respects, be conducted on the same principles as those of each private family. To equalize the receipt and expenditure; to arrive at that desired point rather by a reduction of expense than by an increase of taxation; and, when war unfortunately became necessary, to meet its extra expense by loans, the interest of which should be provided for either by a new tax or by a new retrenchment—such were the great and leading principles from which M. Necker never deviated.
No people can carry on a war without other aid than their ordinary revenue; it becomes therefore indispensable to borrow, that is, to throw on future generations a part of the pressure of a contest supposed to be undertaken for their welfare. We might suppose the existence of an accumulated treasure, such as that which Frederick the Great possessed; but, besides that there was nothing of the kind in France, it is only a conqueror or those who aim at becoming conquerors that deprive their country of the advantages attached to the circulation of money and the maintenance of credit.
Arbitrary governments, whether revolutionary or despotic, have recourse, for their military expenses, to forced loans, extraordinary contributions, or the circulation of paper; for no country either can or ought to make war with its ordinary revenue. Credit is then the true modern discovery which binds a government to its people; it obliges the executive power to treat public opinion with consideration: and, in the same way that trade has had the effect of civilizing nations, credit, which is the offspring of trade, has rendered the establishment of constitutional forms of some kind or another necessary to give publicity to financial transactions and guarantee contracts. How was it practicable to found credit on mistresses, favorites, or ministers, who are in a course of daily change at a royal court? What father of a family would place his fortune in such a lottery?2
Nonetheless, M. Necker was the first and only minister in France who succeeded in obtaining credit without the benefit of any new institution. His name inspired so much confidence that capitalists in various parts of Europe came forward, even to a degree of imprudence, with their funds, reckoning on him as on a government, and forgetting that he could lose his place at any moment. It was customary in England, as in France, to quote him before the Revolution as the best financial head in Europe; and it was considered as a miracle, that war should have been carried on during five years without increasing the taxes, or using other means than providing for the interest of the loans by progressive retrenchments. But when the time came that party spirit perverted everything, his plan of finance was charged with charlatanism—a singular charlatanism, truly; to carry the austerity of private life into the cabinet, and to forgo the pleasure of making friends and partisans by a lavish distribution of the public money! The true judges of the talents and honor of a finance minister are the public creditors.
During M. Necker’s administration, the public funds rose and the interest of money fell, to a degree of which there had been no example in France. The English funds, on the other hand, experienced a considerable fall; and the capitalists of all countries subscribed eagerly to the loans opened at Paris, as if the virtues of an individual could supply the place of the stability of law.
M. Necker has been blamed for the system of loans, as if that system were necessarily ruinous. But what means has England employed to arrive at that degree of wealth which has enabled her to sustain with such vigor twenty-five years of a most expensive war?3 Loans, of which the interest is not secured, would, no doubt, be ruinous if they were practicable; but, fortunately, they are not practicable, for creditors are very cautious in their transactions, and will make no voluntary loans without a satisfactory pledge. M. Necker, to secure the interest and the sinking fund necessary as a guarantee, balanced each loan with a corresponding reform, and the result was a lowering of expense more than sufficient for the payment of the interest. But this plain method of reducing expenditure to increase disposable revenue does not appear to be ingenious enough to the writers, who aim at being profound when they treat of politics.
It has been alleged that the life annuities granted by M. Necker for the loan of money had a tendency to induce fathers of families to encroach on that property which they ought to leave to their children. Yet it will be found that a life interest, on the plan combined by M. Necker, is as fair and prudent an object of speculation as interest on a perpetuity. The most cautious fathers of families were in the habit of advancing money on the thirty livres at Geneva, in the hope of an eventual increase of capital. There are tontines4 in Ireland, and they have long existed in France. Different modes of speculation must be adopted to attract capitalists of different views. But no one can doubt that a father of a family, if he wants to bring his expenses in order, may accomplish a great increase of capital by placing out a portion of his funds at a very high interest rate and by saving yearly a portion of this interest. I should be almost ashamed to dwell on arrangements so familiar to bankers in Europe. But in France, when the ignorant oracles of the saloons have caught, on a serious subject, a phrase of which the turn is plain to everybody, they are in the habit of repeating it on all occasions, and this rampart of folly it is very difficult to overturn.
Must I also answer those who blame M. Necker for not having changed the mode of taxation and suppressed the gabelles5 by imposing a uniform salt tax on those parts of the kingdom which enjoyed exemption from it? But local privileges were so fondly cherished that nothing short of a revolution could destroy them. The minister who should have ventured to attack them would have provoked a resistance pernicious to the royal authority without succeeding in his object. Privileged persons of one class or other were all powerful in France forty years ago, and the national interest alone was devoid of strength. Government and the people, who form, however, two main parts of the state, were unable to cope with a particular province or a particular body; and motley rights, the inheritance of the past, prevented even the King from taking measures for the general good.
M. Necker, in his treatise On the Administration of the Finances of France,6 has pointed out all the evils of unequal taxation in France; but it was a further proof of his judgment to attempt no change in this respect during his first ministry. The incessant demands of the war7 made it wholly unadvisable to incur the risk of domestic contention. A state of peace was indispensable to the introduction of any material change in finance, that the people might at least have the satisfaction of not finding their burdens increased at the time the mode of levying them was about to be altered.
While one class of persons have blamed M. Necker for leaving the system of taxation untouched, another have charged him with too much boldness in sending to the press his Compte Rendu, or official report to the King on the state of the finances.8 But he was, as has been already mentioned, in much the same circumstances as the Chancellor de l’Hôpital, and could not take a single step of consequence without being censured for prudence by the innovators, or for rashness by the partisans of the old abuses. The study of his two administrations is therefore, perhaps, the most useful that can occupy a statesman. He will trace in it the road marked out by reason between contending factions, and will discover efforts incessantly renewed to accomplish a pacific compromise between the innovators and their opponents.9
The publication of the Compte Rendu was intended to answer, in some measure, the purpose so amply attained in England by parlementary debates, that of apprising the nation at large of the true state of the finances. This, however, said some, was derogatory to the royal authority by informing the nation of the state of its affairs. A continuance of such mystery might have been possible if the Crown had had no demands to make on the public purse; but the general discontent had by this time reached a height, which rendered the further collection of taxes a most difficult matter, unless the nation had the satisfaction of knowing the use that had been made, or was intended to be made, of them. The courtiers exclaimed against a system of publicity in finance, which alone can constitute a basis of credit; while they solicited with equal vehemence, both for themselves and their connections, all the money which even such a credit could be made to supply. This inconsistency may, however, be explained by their just dread of exposing to the public eye the expenditure in which they were concerned; for the publication of the state of the finances had the very material advantage of giving the minister the support of public opinion for the various budget cuts that had to be made. To a resolute character like M. Necker the resources offered in France by a plan of economy were very considerable. The King, although personally the reverse of expensive, was of so complying a disposition as to refuse nothing to those who surrounded him; and the grants of every kind under his reign, strict as was his own conduct, exceeded the expenses even of Louis XV. To accomplish a reduction of such grants appeared to M. Necker both the first duty of a minister and the best resource of the state: by acting firmly on this plan he made himself a number of enemies at court, and among persons in the finance department; but he fulfilled his duty, for the people were at that time reduced by taxes to great distress, and he was the first to make that distress the object of examination and relief. To sacrifice himself for those whom he knew not, and to resist the applications of those whom he knew, was a painful course; but it was prescribed by conscience to him who always took conscience for his guide.
At the time of M. Necker’s first ministry the most numerous part of the population was loaded with tithes and feudal burdens, from which the revolution has delivered it; the gabelles and other local taxes, the general inequalities arising from the exemption of the nobility and clergy, all concurred to render the situation of the people much more uneasy than it is at present. Each year, the intendants decided to sell the last pieces of furniture of the poor, who found themselves incapable of paying the taxes that were demanded from them; in short, in no country in Europe were the people exposed to so harsh a treatment. To the sacred claim of this numerous body was joined that of the Crown, which ought, if possible, to be spared the odium arising from the opposition of parlements to the registry of new taxes. All this shows how signal a service M. Necker rendered to the King, by keeping up the public credit and by meeting the expense of war with progressive retrenchments; for the imposition of new burdens would have irritated the people, and given popularity to the parlement by affording it the opportunity of opposing them.
A minister who can prevent a revolutionary convulsion by doing good has a plain road to follow, whatever may be his political opinions. M. Necker cherished the hope of postponing, at least for some years, the crisis that was approaching, by introducing order into the finances; and had his plans been adopted, it is not impossible that this crisis might have terminated in a just, gradual, and salutary reform.
M. Necker’s Plans of Administration.
A finance minister, before the Revolution, was not confined to the charge of the public treasury; his duties were not restricted to a mere adjustment of receipt and expenditure; the whole administration of the kingdom was in his department; and in this relation the welfare of the country in general stood in a manner under the jurisdiction of the General Controller [of Finances].1 Several branches of administration were strangely neglected. The principle of absolute power was seen in conjunction with obstacles incessantly arising from the application of that power. There were everywhere historical traditions which the provinces attempted to erect into rights, and which the royal authority admitted only as customs. The management of the revenue was little else than a continued juggle, in which the officers of the Crown attempted to extort as much as possible from the people to enrich the King, as if the King and his people could be considered as adversaries.
The disbursements for the army and the Crown were regularly supplied; but in other respects the penury of the treasury was such that the most urgent claims of humanity were postponed or neglected, from mere inadequacy of means. It is impossible to form an idea of the state in which M. and Madame Necker found the prisons and hospitals in Paris. I mention Madame Necker because she devoted all her time, during her husband’s ministry, to the improvement of charitable establishments, and because the principal changes that took place in this respect were effected by her.
But M. Necker felt more than anyone how little the personal beneficence of a minister can effect in respect of so large and so ill-governed a country as France: this led him to desire the establishment of provincial assemblies, that is, of councils composed of the principal landholders, for the purpose of discussing the fair repartition of taxes and other matters of local interest.2 M. Turgot had conceived this plan, but no minister before M. Necker had had the courage to expose himself to the resistance to be expected to an institution of this kind, for it was clear that the parliaments and the courtiers, seldom in unison, would now unite to oppose it.
Those provinces, such as Languedoc, Burgundy, Brittany, &c. which had been the latest united to the Crown of France, were called pays d’états because they had stipulated a right to be governed by assemblies composed of the three orders of the province. The King fixed the total sum which he required in the shape of taxes, but he was obliged to leave its assessment to the provincial assembly. These assemblies persisted in their refusal of imposing certain duties, and asserted that they were exempt from them in virtue of treaties concluded with the Crown. Hence arose inequality in the plan of taxation; multiplied facilities for a contraband traffic between one province and another; and the establishment of custom-houses in the interior.
The pays d’états enjoyed great advantages. They not only paid less, but the sum required was allotted by a board of proprietors acquainted with local interests, and active in promoting them. The roads and public establishments were much better kept up in these provinces, and the collection of taxes managed with less severity. The King had never admitted that these assemblies possessed the right of refusing his taxes, but they acted as if in reality they had possessed it; not refusing the money required of them, but qualifying their contributions by calling them a free gift. In every respect, their plan of administration was better than that of the other provinces, which, however, were much more numerous and not less entitled to the attention of government.
Intendants were appointed by the King to govern the thirty-two généralités into which the kingdom was divided.3 The chief opposition experienced by intendants took place in the pays d’états, and sometimes in one or other of the twelve provincial parlements (the Parlement of Paris was the thirteenth);4 but in the greater part of the kingdom the intendant was the sole director of public business. He had at his command an army of fiscal retainers, all objects of detestation to the people, whom they were perpetually tormenting to pay taxes disproportioned to their means; and when complaints against the intendant or his subordinates were transmitted to the minister of finance in Paris, the practice was to return these complaints to the intendant, on the ground that the executive power knew no other medium for communicating with the provinces.
Foreigners, and the rising generation too young to have known their country before the Revolution, who form their estimate from the present condition of the people, enriched as they are by the division of the large estates and the suppression of the tithes and feudal burdens, can have no idea of the situation of the country when the nation bore all the burdens resulting from privilege and inequality. The advocates of colonial slavery have often asserted that a French peasant was more to be pitied than a negro—an argument for relieving the whites but not for hardening the heart against the blacks. A state of misery is productive of ignorance, and ignorance aggravates misery. If we are asked why the French people acted with such cruelty in the Revolution, the answer will at once be found in their unhappy state, and in that want of morality which is its result.
It has been in vain attempted, during the last twenty-five years, to produce scenes in Switzerland or Holland similar to those which have occurred in France; the good sense of these people, formed by the long enjoyment of liberty, prevented everything of the kind.
Another cause of the excesses of the Revolution is to be sought in the surprising influence of Paris over the rest of France. This would have naturally been lessened by the establishment of provincial assemblies, since the great landholders, engaged by the business in which they were occupied at home, would have had motives for quitting Paris and residing in the country. The grandees of Spain are not at liberty to withdraw from Madrid without the king’s leave: to convert nobles into courtiers is an effectual means of despotism, and consequently of degradation. Provincial assemblies would have given a political consistency to the higher nobility of France. And the contests which burst forth so suddenly between the nation and the privileged classes would perhaps never have had existence, had the three orders come in contact with each other by discussing their respective rights and interests in provincial assemblies.5
M. Necker composed the provincial administrations established under his ministry on the plan afterward adopted for the Estates General, viz. one-fourth of nobility, one-fourth of clergy, and half of Third Estate, dividing the latter into deputies of towns and deputies of the country. They proceeded to deliberate together, and such was their harmony at the outset that the two first orders spoke of making a voluntary renunciation of their privileges in regard to taxes; and the reports of their sittings were to be printed, that their labors might receive the support of public approbation.
The French nobility were very deficient in education because they had no motives to be otherwise. The graces of conversation, which rendered them acceptable at court, were the surest means of arriving at public honors. This superficial education proved one of the causes of the fall of the nobility: they were found unable to contend with the intelligence of the Third Estate; their object should have been to surpass them. Provincial assemblies would gradually have led them to take a lead by their ability in administration, as they formerly did by their sword; and public spirit in France would have preceded the establishment of free institutions.
The existence of provincial assemblies would have been no bar to the eventual convoking of the Estates General; and when a representative assembly came to be formed, the first and second classes, accustomed previously to discuss public affairs, would not have met each other with sentiments of decided opposition—the one full of horror at equality, the other all impatient for it.
The Archbishop of Bourges and the Bishop of Rhodez were chosen the respective presidents of the local assemblies established by M. Necker. That Protestant minister showed, on all occasions, a considerable deference for the clergy of France, because they consisted of very wise men in all matters that did not concern their privileges as a body. But since the Revolution, the rancor of party spirit and the nature of the government have necessarily kept the clergy out of public employment.
The parlements were dissatisfied at the appointment of provincial assemblies likely to give the King a force of opinion independent from theirs. M. Necker’s view was that the provinces should not be altogether dependent on the authorities habitually assembled at Paris; but, far from desiring to destroy what was truly useful in the political power of parlements, their power of opposing an extension of taxes, it was he who prevailed on the King to submit to them the increase of the taille, an arbitrary tax, of which the ministry alone fixed the amount. M. Necker was desirous of limiting the power of ministers, because he knew from experience that a person overloaded with business, and placed at such a distance from those upon whose interest he is called on to decide, acquires the habit of referring for information from one public officer to another, till at last the matter falls into the hands of subalterns, who are quite incapable of judging the motives that must influence such important decisions.
And here it may be alleged that M. Necker, temporarily filling the place of minister, was very willing to set limits to ministerial power; but that by such conduct he jeopardized the permanent authority of the King. I will not discuss here the great question, whether the king of England does not possess as much and more power than did a king of France. The former, provided he fulfill the indispensable condition of governing according to the public opinion, is sure of uniting the strength of the people to the power of the Crown; but an absolute prince, not knowing how to collect their opinion, which his ministers do not represent to him faithfully, meets at every step with unforeseen obstacles, of which he cannot calculate the dangers. But without anticipating a result which will, I trust, receive some light from the present work, I confine myself at present to the provincial administrations, and I ask whether those were the true servants of the King who sought to persuade him that these assemblies would operate in diminution of his authority?
Their powers did not go the length of deciding the amount of the sum to be levied on their particular province; their business was merely to make the assessment of the amount already decided upon. Was it then an advantage to the Crown that a tax imposed by an injudicious intendant was the cause of greater suffering and discontent to the people than a larger levy, when allotted with prudence and impartiality by the representatives of the province? Every public officer was in the habit of appealing to the King’s will, even in petty matters of detail. The French indeed are never satisfied except when they can, upon every occasion, support themselves by the royal wish. Habits of servility are inveterate among them; while in a free country ministers found their measures only on the public good. A long time must yet pass before the inhabitants of France, accustomed for centuries to arbitrary power, learn to reject this courtiers’ language, which ought never to be heard beyond the precincts of the palaces to which it owes its origin.
No controversy occurred between the King and the parlements during the ministry of M. Necker. That, some will say, is not to be wondered at, since the King, during that period, required no new taxes and abstained from all arbitrary acts. This was exactly what constituted the merit of the minister; since it would be imprudent for a king, even in a country in which the constitution does not limit his power, to make the experiment to what extent the people will bear with his faults. Power ought not to be stretched to the utmost under any circumstances, but particularly on so frail a foundation as that of arbitrary authority in an enlightened country.
M. Necker’s conduct during his first ministry was marked more by an adherence to public probity, if I may so express it, than by a predilection for liberty, because the nature of the existing government admitted the one more than the other; but he was at the same time desirous of institutions calculated to place the public welfare on a more stable foundation than the character of a king, or the still more precarious one of a minister. The two provincial administrations, which he had established in Berri and Rouergue, succeeded extremely well; others were in a course of preparation; and the impulse necessary to the public mind, in a great empire, was directed toward these partial improvements. There were at that time only two methods of satisfying the anxiety which was already much excited upon the state of affairs in general: the establishment of provincial assemblies and the publication of a fair statement of the finances. But why, it may be asked, should the public opinion be satisfied? I will not enter on the answers which the friends of liberty would make to this singular question; I will merely add that, even for the purpose of eluding the demand of a representative government, the wisest plan was to grant at once what would have been expected from that government, that is, order and stability in the administration. Finally, credit, or, in other words, a supply of money, was dependent on public opinion; and as money was indispensable, the wish of the nation ought at least to have been treated with consideration out of interest, if not from a sense of duty.
Of the American War.
In judging of the past from our knowledge of the events that have ensued, most people will be of the opinion that Louis XVI did wrong in interfering between England and America.1 Although the independence of the United States was desired by all liberal minds, the principles of the French monarchy did not permit of encouraging what, according to these principles, must be pronounced a revolt. Besides, France had at that time no cause of complaint against England; and, to enter on a war solely on the ground of the habitual rivalship of the two countries, is bad policy in itself, and more detrimental to France than to England; for France, possessing greater natural resources, but being inferior in naval power, is sure of acquiring additional strength in peace, and as sure of being weakened by a maritime war.
The cause of America, and the parliamentary debates on that subject in England, excited the greatest interest in France. All the French officers sent to serve under Washington came home with an enthusiasm for liberty, which made it no easy task for them to resume their attendance at Versailles without wishing for something beyond the honor of being presented at court. Must we then accede to the opinion of those who attribute the Revolution to the political fault of the French government in taking part in the American war? The Revolution must be attributed to everything, and to nothing: every year of the century led toward it by every path; it was a matter of great difficulty to remain deaf to the call of Paris in favor of American independence. Already the Marquis de la Fayette,2 a French nobleman, eager for fame and liberty, had gained general approbation by proceeding to join the Americans, even before the French government had taken part with them. Resistance to the King’s will, in this matter, was encouraged by the public applause; and when the royal authority has lost ground in public opinion, the principle of a monarchical government, which places honor in obedience, is attacked at its basis.
What was then the course to be adopted by the French government? M. Necker laid before the King the strongest motives for a continuance of peace, and he who has been charged with republican sentiments declared himself hostile to a war of which the object was the independence of a people. I need not say that he, on his part, wished success to the colonists in their admirable cause; but he felt, on the one hand, that war never ought to be declared without positive necessity, and, on the other, that no possible concurrence of political results could counterbalance to France the loss she would sustain of the advantages she might derive from her capital wasted in the contest. These arguments were not successful: the King decided on the war. There were, it must be allowed, very strong motives for it, and government was exposed to great difficulties in either alternative. Already was the time approaching when we might apply to Louis XVI what Hume said of Charles I: “He found himself in a situation where faults were irreparable; a condition too rigorous to be imposed on weak human nature.”3
M. Necker’s Retirement from Office in 1781.
M. Necker had no other object in his first ministry than to prevail on the King to adopt, of his own accord, the measures of public utility required by the nation, and for which it afterward demanded a representative body. This was the only method of preventing a revolution during the life of Louis XVI; and never have I known my father to deviate from the opinion that then, in 1781, he might have succeeded in that object. The most bitter reproach which he ever cast on himself was that of not supporting everything rather than give in his resignation. But he could not then foresee the extraordinary course of events; and, although a generous feeling attached him to his place, there exists in a lofty mind a delicate apprehension of not withdrawing easily from power when a feeling of independence suggests it.
The second class of courtiers declared itself averse to M. Necker. The higher nobility, being exempt from disquietude in regard to their situation and fortune, have, in general, more independence in their manner of viewing things, than that ignoble swarm which clings to court favor in the hope of obtaining fresh gifts on every new occasion. M. Necker had made retrenchments in the royal household, in the pension list, in the charges of the finance department, and in the emoluments arising to court dependents from these charges; a system far from agreeable to all who had been in the habit of receiving the pay of government, and of constantly soliciting favors and money for a livelihood. In vain had M. Necker, for the sake of giving additional weight to his measures of reform, with a personal disinterestedness till then unheard of, declined all the emoluments of his situation. What signified this disinterestedness to those who were far from imitating such an example? Such generous conduct did not disarm the anger of the courtiers of both sexes, who found in M. Necker an obstacle to abuses which had become so habitual that their suppression seemed to them an act of injustice.
Women of a certain rank used to interfere with everything before the revolution. Their husbands or their brothers were in the habit of employing them on all occasions as applicants to ministers; they could urge a point strongly with less apparent impropriety; could even outstep the proper limits, without affording an opening to complaint: and all the insinuations, which they knew how to employ, gave them considerable influence over men in office. M. Necker used to receive them with great politeness; but he had too much sagacity not to see through these verbal tricks which produce no effect on a frank and enlightened mind. These ladies used then to assume a lofty tone, to call to mind, with a careless air, the illustrious rank of their families and demand a pension with as much confidence as a marshal of France would complain of being superseded. M. Necker always made it a rule to adhere to strict justice and never to lavish the money obtained by the sacrifices of the people. “What are three thousand livres to the King?” said these ladies: “three thousand livres,” replied M. Necker, “is the taxation of a village.”
The value of these sentiments was felt only by the most respectable persons at court. M. Necker could also reckon on friends among the clergy, to whom he had always shown great respect; and among the nobility and great landholders, whom he was desirous of introducing, by the medium of provincial administrations, to the knowledge and management of public business. But the courtiers of the princes and the persons employed in the finance department exclaimed loudly against him. A memorial transmitted by him to the King, on the advantage of provincial assemblies, had been indiscreetly published; and the parliaments had read in it, that one of the arguments used by M. Necker for these new appointments was the support of public opinion which might subsequently be used against the parliaments themselves, if the latter should act the part of ambitious corporations instead of following the wish of the nation. This was enough to make the members of these bodies, jealous as they were of their contested political influence, boldly represent M. Necker as an innovator. But of all innovations, economy was the one most dreaded by the courtiers and persons in the finance departments. Such enemies, however, would not have accomplished the removal of a minister to whom the nation showed more attachment than to anyone since the administration of Sully and of Colbert, if the Count of Maurepas had not adroitly found out the means of displacing him.
He was dissatisfied with M. Necker for having obtained the appointment of the Marechal de Castries to the ministry of marine, without his participation. Yet no man was more generally respected than M. de Castries, or was better entitled to respect; but M. de Maurepas could not bear that M. Necker, or, in fact, anyone, should think of exercising a direct influence over the King. He was jealous even of the Queen; and the Queen was at that time very favorably disposed toward M. Necker. M. de Maurepas was always present at conferences between the King and his minister; but, during one of his attacks of gout, M. Necker, being alone with the King, obtained the removal of M. de Sartines and the appointment of M. de Castries to the ministry of marine.
M. de Sartines was a specimen of the selection made for public offices in those countries where neither the liberty of the press, nor the vigilance of a representative body, obliges the court to have recourse to men of ability. He had acquitted himself extremely well in the capacity of Lieutenant de Police, and had arrived, by some intrigue or other, at the ministry of marine. M. Necker called on him a few days after his appointment and found that he had got his room hung round with maps; and he said to M. Necker, while he walked up and down the room, “See what progress I have already made; I can put my hand on this map and point out to you, with my eyes shut, each of the four quarters of the world.” Such wonderful knowledge would not have been considered as a sufficient qualification in the First Lord of the Admiralty in England.
To his general ignorance M. de Sartines added an almost incredible degree of inefficiency in regard to the accounts and money transactions of his department; the finance minister could not remain a stranger to the disorders prevalent in this branch of public expenditure. But, weighty as were these reasons, M. de Maurepas could never forgive M. Necker for having spoken directly to the King; and he became, from that day forward, his mortal enemy. What a singular character is an old courtier when minister! The public benefit passed for nothing in the eyes of M. de Maurepas: he thought only of what he called the King’s service, and this service du Roi consisted in the favor to be gained or lost at court. As to business, even the most important points were all inferior to the grand object of managing the royal mind. He thought it necessary that a minister should possess a certain knowledge of his department, that he might not appear ignorant in his conversations with the King; also that he should possess the good opinion of the public, so far as to prevent an unusual share of criticism from reaching the King’s ears; but the spring and object of all was to please his royal master. M. de Maurepas labored accordingly to preserve his favor by a variety of minute attentions, that he might surround the sovereign as in a net, and succeed in keeping him a stranger to all information in which he might be likely to hear the voice of sincerity and truth. He did not venture to propose to the King the dismissal of so useful a minister as M. Necker; for, to say nothing of his ardor for the public welfare, the influx of money into the treasury by means of his personal credit was not to be despised. Yet the old minister was as imprudent in respect to the public interest, as cautious in what regarded himself; for he was much less alarmed at the apprehension of financial embarrassment than at M. Necker presuming to speak, without his intervention, to the King. He could not, however, go the length of saying to that King, “You should remove your minister, because he has taken on him to refer to you without consulting me.” It was necessary to await the support of other circumstances; and, however reserved M. Necker was, he had a certain pride of character and sensibility of offense; a degree of energy in his whole manner of feeling that could hardly fail, sooner or later, to lead him into faults at court.
In the household of one of the princes there was, in the capacity of intendant or steward, a M. de Sainte Foix, a man who made little noise, but who was persevering in his hatred of all elevated sentiments. This man, to his latest day, and when his gray hairs appeared to call for graver thoughts, was still in the habit of repairing to the ministers, even of the Revolution, in quest of a dinner, official secrets, and pecuniary benefits. M. de Maurepas employed him to circulate libels against M. Necker; and, as the liberty of the press did not then exist in France, there was something altogether new in pamphlets against a member of the cabinet, encouraged by the prime minister, and hence publicly distributed.
The proper way, as M. Necker repeatedly said afterward, would have been to treat with contempt these snares laid for his temper; but Madame Necker could not bear the chagrin excited by these calumnies circulated against her husband. She thought it a duty to withhold from him the first libel that came into her hands, that she might spare him a painful sensation; but she took the step of writing, without his knowledge, to M. de Maurepas, complaining of the offense and requesting him to take measures against these anonymous publications: this was appealing to the very person who secretly encouraged them. Although a woman of great talents, Madame Necker, educated among the mountains of Switzerland, had no idea of such a character as M. de Maurepas—of a man who, in the expression of sentiments, only sought an opportunity to discover the vulnerable side. No sooner did he become aware of M. Necker’s sensitive disposition by the mortification apparent in his wife’s complaint, than he secretly congratulated himself on the prospect of impelling him, by renewed irritation, to give in his resignation.
M. Necker, on learning the step taken by his wife, expressed displeasure at it, but was at the same time much concerned at its cause. Next to the duties enjoined by religion, the esteem of the public was his highest concern; he sacrificed to it fortune, honors, all that the ambitious desire; and the voice of the people, not yet perverted, was to him almost divine. The slightest taint on his reputation caused him greater suffering than anything else in this world could ever bring about. The motive of all his actions, as far as that motive was temporal, the breeze which propelled his bark, was the love of public esteem. Add to this, that a cabinet minister in France had not, like an English minister, a power independent of the court: he had no opportunity of giving, in the House of Commons, a public vindication of his motives and conduct; and there being no liberty of the press, clandestine libels were all the more dangerous.1
M. de Maurepas circulated underhandedly that attacks on the finance minister were by no means unpleasant to the King. Had M. Necker requested a private audience of the King and submitted to him what he knew in regard to his prime minister, he might perhaps have succeeded in getting him removed from office. But the advanced years of this man, frivolous as he was, had a claim to respect; and besides, M. Necker could not overcome a feeling of grateful recollection toward him who had placed him in the ministry. M. Necker determined therefore to content himself with requiring some mark of his sovereign’s confidence that would discourage the libelers: he desired that they might be removed from their employments in the household of the Count d’Artois, and claimed for himself a seat in the cabinet (conseil d’état) to which he had not as yet been admitted on account of being a Protestant. His attendance there was decidedly called for by the public interest; for a finance minister, charged with levying on the people the burdens of war, is certainly entitled to participate in deliberations relating to the question of peace.
M. Necker was impressed with the idea that unless the King gave a decided proof of his determination to defend him against his powerful enemies, he would no longer possess the weight necessary to conduct the finance department on the strict and severe plan that he had prescribed to himself. In this, however, he was mistaken: the public attachment to him was greater than he imagined, and had he waited until the death of the first minister, which took place six months later, he would have kept his place. The reign of Louis XVI might probably have been passed in peace, and the nation been prepared by good government for the emancipation to which it was entitled.
M. Necker made an offer of resigning unless the conditions that he required were complied with. M. de Maurepas, who had stimulated him to this step, knew perfectly well what would be the result; for the weaker kings are, the more attachment do they show to certain rules of firmness impressed on them from their earliest years, of which one of the first, no doubt, is that a king should never decline an offer of resignation or subscribe to the conditions affixed by a public functionary to the continuance of his services.
The day before M. Necker intended to propose to the King the alternative of resigning, if what he wished was not complied with, he went with his wife to the hospital at Paris which still bears their name.2 He often visited this respectable asylum to recover the firmness requisite to support the hard trials of his situation. Sœurs de la Charité, the most interesting of the religious communities, attended the sick of the hospital: these nuns take their vows only for a year, and the more beneficent their conduct, the less it is marked by intolerance. M. and Madame Necker, though both Protestants, were the objects of their affectionate regard. These holy sisters came to meet them with flowers and sung to them verses from the Psalms, the only poetry that they knew; they called them their benefactors, because they contributed to the relief of the poor. My father, as I still remember, was that day more affected than he had ever been by these testimonies of their gratitude: he no doubt regretted the power he was about to lose, that of doing good to France. Alas! who at that time would have thought it possible that such a man should be one day accused of being harsh, arrogant, and factious? Ah! never did a purer heart encounter the conflict of political storms: and his enemies, in calumniating him, commit an act of impiety; for the heart of a virtuous man is the sanctuary of the Divinity in this world.
Next day, M. Necker returned from Versailles, and was no longer a minister. He went to my mother’s apartment, and, after half an hour of conversation, both gave directions to the servants to have everything ready in the course of twenty-four hours for removing to St. Ouen, a country house belonging to my father, two leagues from Paris. My mother sustained herself by the very exaltation of her sentiments; my father continued silent, and as for me, at that early age, any change of place was a source of delight; but when, at dinner, I observed the secretaries and clerks of the finance department silent and dispirited, I began to dread that my gaiety was unfounded. This uneasy sensation was soon removed by the innumerable attentions received by my father at St. Ouen.
Everybody came to see him; noblemen, clergy, magistrates, merchants, men of letters, all flocked to St. Ouen. More than five hundred letters,* received from members of the provincial boards and corporations, expressed a degree of respect and affection which had, perhaps, never been shown to a public man in France. The Memoirs of the time, which have already been published, attest the truth of all that I have stated.† A good minister was, at that time, all that the French desired. They had become successively attached to M. Turgot, to M. de Malesherbes, and particularly to M. Necker, because he was much more of a practical man than the others. But when they saw that even under so virtuous a king as Louis XVI no minister of austerity and talent could remain in office, they felt that nothing short of settled institutions could preserve the state from the vicissitudes of courts.
Joseph II, Catherine II, and the Queen of Naples all wrote to M. Necker, offering him the management of their finances; but his heart was too truly French to accept such an indemnification, however honorable it might be. France and Europe were impressed with consternation at the resignation of M. Necker: his virtue and talents gave him a right to such an homage; but there was, moreover, in this universal sensation, a confused dread of the political crisis with which the public were threatened, and which a wise course, on the part of the French ministry, could alone retard or prevent.
The public under Louis XIV would certainly not have ventured to shower attention on a dismissed minister, and this new spirit of independence ought to have taught statesmen the growing strength of public opinion. Yet, so far from attending to it during the seven years that elapsed between the retirement of M. Necker and the promise of convoking the Estates General, given by the Archbishop of Sens, ministers committed all kinds of faults, and did not scruple to irritate the nation without having in their hands any real power to restrain it.
The Circumstances That Led to the Assembling of the Estates General.—Ministry of M. de Calonne.
M. Turgot and M. Necker owed their loss of place in a great degree to the influence of the parliaments, who were adverse both to the suppression of exemptions from taxes and to the establishment of provincial assemblies. This made the King think of choosing a finance minister from among the members of the parliament, as a method of disarming the opposition of that body when new taxes came under discussion. The consequence was the appointment, successively, of M. Joly de Fleury and M. d’Ormesson; but neither of these had the least idea of finance business, and their ministries may be considered, in this respect, as periods of anarchy. Yet the circumstances in which they were placed were much more favorable than those with which M. Necker had had to struggle. M. de Maurepas was no more, and the war had been brought to a close. What improvements would not M. Necker have made under such auspicious circumstances! But it was part of the character of these men, or rather of the body to which they belonged, to admit of no improvements of any kind.
Representatives of the people receive information every year, and particularly at each election, from the progress that knowledge makes in all directions; but the Parlement of Paris was, and would always have been, unacquainted with new ideas. The reason is perfectly plain; a privileged body derives its patent from history; it possesses strength today only because it has existed for ages. The consequence is, that it attaches itself to the past and is suspicious of innovation. The case is quite different with elected deputies, who participate in the revived and increasing spirit of the nation which they represent.
The choice of finance ministers from among the Parlement of Paris not having succeeded, the only remaining field for selection was from among the intendants, or provincial administrators appointed by the King. M. Senac de Meilhan, a superficial writer, whose only depth lay in his vanity, could not pardon M. Necker for having been appointed to his situation, for he considered the finance ministry as his right; but it was in vain that he cherished hatred or indulged in calumny; he did not succeed in drawing the public opinion to himself. Among the candidates, there was only one that had the reputation of great talent—M. de Calonne: the world gave him credit for great abilities, because he treated with levity things of the greatest importance, including virtue. The French are but too apt to fall into the great mistake of ascribing wonderful powers to immoral men. Faults caused by passion may often be taken as a sign of distinguished faculties; but a disposition to venality and intrigue belongs to a kind of mediocrity, the possessor of which can be useful in nothing but for his own good. We should be nearer the truth in setting down as incapable of public business any man who has devoted his life to an artful management of persons and circumstances. Such was M. de Calonne; and, even in this light, the frivolity of his character followed him, for when he meant to do mischief, he did not do it with ability.1
His reputation, founded on the report of the women in whose society he was in the habit of passing his time, pointed him out for the ministry. The King was long averse to an appointment at variance with his conscientious feelings; the Queen, although surrounded by persons of a very different way of thinking, partook of her husband’s repugnance; and one is almost tempted to say that both had a presentiment of the misfortunes into which such a character was likely to involve them. No single man, I repeat it, can be considered the author of the French Revolution; but if we want to attribute a certain worldly event to a particular individual, then the blame should rest with M. de Calonne’s actions. His object was to make himself acceptable at court by lavishing the public money; he encouraged the King, the Queen, and the princes to dismiss all restraint in regard to their favorite objects of expense, giving them the assurance that luxury was the source of national prosperity. Prodigality, according to him, was an enlarged economy. In short, his plan was to be easy and accommodating in everything, that he might form a complete contrast to the austerity of M. Necker. But if M. Necker was more virtuous, it is equally true that he also was superior in spirit. The paper controversy that took place some time after between them in regard to the deficit in the revenue showed that, even in point of wit, all the advantage was on M. Necker’s side.2
M. de Calonne’s levity was apparent rather in his principles than in his manners; he thought there was something brilliant in making light of difficulties, as in truth there would be if we overcame them; but when they prove too strong for him who pretends to control them, his negligent confidence tends merely to make him more ridiculous.
M. de Calonne continued during peace the system of loans, which, in M. Necker’s opinion, was suitable only to a state of war. The credit of the minister experiencing a visible decline, he was obliged to raise the rate of interest to get money, and thus disorder grew out of disorder. It was about this time that M. Necker published his Administration des Finances, which is now considered a standard book, and had from its first appearance a surprising effect; the sale extended to 80,000 copies. Never had a work on so serious a subject obtained such general success. The people of France already began to give much attention to public business, although not aware of the share that they might soon take in it.
This work contained all the plans of reform subsequently adopted by the Constituent Assembly in regard to taxes; and the favorable effect produced by these changes on the circumstances of the people has afforded ample evidence of the truth of M. Necker’s constant opinion advanced in his works of the extent of the natural resources of France.
M. de Calonne was popular only among the courtiers; and such was the financial distress caused by his prodigality and carelessness, that he was obliged to have recourse to a measure—the equalization of taxes among all classes, which originated with M. Turgot, a statesman as different from him as possible in every respect. But to what obstacles was not this new measure exposed, and how strange the situation of a minister, who, after dilapidating the treasury to make friends among the privileged orders, found himself obliged to displease that body at large by imposing a burden on the whole to meet the largesses made to individuals.
M. de Calonne was aware that the Parlement of Paris would not give its consent to new taxes, and likewise, that the King was averse to recurring to the expedient of a lit de justice—an expedient which showed the arbitrary power of the Crown in a glaring light, by annulling the only resistance provided by the constitution of the state. On the other hand, the weight of public opinion was daily on the increase, and a spirit of independence was manifesting itself among all classes. M. de Calonne flattered himself that he should find a support from this opinion against the parlement, whereas it was as much adverse to him as to that body. He proposed to the King to summon an Assembly of the Notables, a measure never adopted since the reign of Henri IV, a king who might run any risk in regard to authority, because assured of regaining everything by affection.3
These Assemblies of Notables had no power but that of giving the King their opinion on the questions which ministers thought proper to address to them. Nothing could be more ill-adapted to a time of public agitation than the assembling of bodies of men whose functions are confined to speaking: their opinions are carried to a higher state of excitement because they find no issue. The constitution placed the right of sanctioning taxes solely in the Estates General, the last convocation of which had taken place in 1614; but as taxes had been imposed unceasingly during an interval of 175 years, without a reference to this right, the nation had not the habit of remembering it, and at Paris they talked much more of the constitution of England than of that of France. The political principles laid down in English publications were much better known to Frenchmen than their ancient institutions, disused and forgotten for nearly two centuries.4
At the opening meeting of the Assembly of Notables in 1787, M. de Calonne confessed, in his statement of the finances, that the national expenditure exceeded the receipt by 56,000,000 livres a year;* but he alleged that this deficiency had commenced long before him, and that M. Necker had not adhered to truth when he asserted in 1781 that the receipt exceeded the expenditure by 10,000,000 livres.5 No sooner did this assertion reach the ears of M. Necker than he refuted it in a triumphant memorial, accompanied by official documents, of the correctness of which the Notables were capable of judging at the time. His two successors in the ministry of finance, M. Joly de Fleury and M. d’Ormesson, attested the truth of his assertions. He sent a copy of this memorial to the King, who seemed satisfied of its truth but required of him not to print it.
In an arbitrary government, kings, even the best, have difficulty in conceiving the importance which every man naturally attaches to the good opinion of the public. In their eyes the court is the center of everything, while they themselves are the center of the court. M. Necker felt himself under the necessity of disobeying the King’s injunction: to oblige a minister in retirement to keep silence, when accused by a minister in office of a falsehood in the face of the nation, was like forbidding a man to defend his honor. A sensibility to reputation less keen than that of M. Necker would have prompted a man to repel such an offense at all hazards. Ambition would, no doubt, have suggested a submission to the royal commands; but, as M. Necker’s ambition pointed to fame, he published his work, although assured by everybody that by so doing he exposed himself, at the least, to exclusion forever from the ministry.6
One evening in the winter of 1787, two days after the answer to M. de Calonne’s attack had appeared, a message was brought to my father, while in the drawing room along with his family and a few friends. He went out, and having first sent for my mother, and, some minutes afterward, for me, he told me that M. Le Noir, the Lieutenant de Police, had just brought him a lettre de cachet, by which he was exiled to the distance of forty leagues from Paris. I cannot describe the state into which I was thrown by this news; it seemed to me an act of despotism without example; it was inflicted on my father, of whose noble and pure sentiments I was fully aware. I had not yet an idea of what governments are, and the conduct of the French government appeared to me an act of the most revolting injustice. I have certainly not changed my opinion in regard to the punishment of exile without trial; I think, and shall endeavor to prove, that of all harsh punishments it is the one most liable to abuse. But at that time, lettres de cachet, like other irregularities, were considered as ordinary things; and the personal character of the King had the effect of softening the abuse of them as much as possible.
But M. Necker’s popularity had the effect of changing persecutions into triumph. All Paris came to see him during the twenty-four hours that he required to get ready for his journey. The Archbishop of Toulouse, patronized by the Queen, and on the eve of succeeding M. de Calonne, thought it incumbent on him, even on a calculation of ambition, to pay a visit to the exile. Offers of residences were made on all hands to M. Necker; all the castles at the distance of forty leagues from Paris were placed at his disposal. The evil of a banishment, known to be temporary, could not be very great, and the compensation for it was most flattering. But is it possible that a country can be governed in this manner? Nothing is so pleasant, for a certain time, as the decline of a government, for its weakness gives it an air of mildness; but the fall that ensues is dreadful.
The exile of M. Necker had by no means the effect of rendering the Notables favorable to M. de Calonne: they were irritated at it, and the assembly made more and more opposition to the plans of the minister. His proposed taxes were all founded on the abolition of pecuniary privileges; but, as they were alleged to be very ill planned, the Notables rejected them under this pretext. This body, composed almost entirely of nobility and clergy,7 was certainly not disposed (with some exceptions) to admit the principle of equalization of taxes; but it was cautious in expressing its secret wish in this respect; and, connecting itself with those whose views were entirely liberal, the result was its concurrence with the nation, which dreaded indiscriminately all new taxes of whatever nature.
The unpopularity of M. de Calonne was now so great, and the Assembly of the Notables afforded so imposing a medium for expressing this unpopularity, that the King felt himself obliged not only to remove M. de Calonne from office, but even to punish him. Now, whatever might be the faults of the minister, the King had declared to the Notables, two months before, that he approved his plans: there was consequently as great a loss of dignity in thus abandoning a bad minister as in previously removing a good one. But the great misfortune lay in the incredible choice of a successor; the Queen wished for the Archbishop of Toulouse; but the King was not disposed to appoint him. M. de Castries, who was then Minister of Marine, proposed M. Necker; but the Baron de Breteuil, who dreaded him, stimulated the King’s pride by pointing out to him that he could not choose as minister one whom he had so lately exiled. Those kings who possess the least firmness of character are of all others the most sensitive when their authority is in question; they seem to think that it can go on of its own accord, like a supernatural power, entirely independent of means and circumstances. The Baron de Breteuil succeeded in preventing the appointment of M. Necker; the Queen failed in regard to the Archbishop of Toulouse; and the parties united for an instant on ground certainly very neutral, or rather no ground at all, in the appointment of M. de Fourqueux.8
Never had the wig of a counselor of state covered a poorer head: the man seemed at first to form a very proper estimate of his abilities, and wanted to refuse the position he was incapable of filling. But so many entreaties were made for his acceptance of it, that, at the age of sixty,9 he began to conceive that his modesty had till then prevented him from being aware of his own talents, and that the court had at last discovered them. Thus did the well-wishers of M. Necker, and the Archbishop of Toulouse, fill the ministerial chair for an interval, as a box in a theater is kept by a servant till the arrival of his masters. Each party flattered itself with gaining time so as to secure the ministry for one of the two candidates, who alone had now a chance of it.
It was still perhaps not impossible to save the country from a revolution, or at least to preserve to government the control of public proceedings. No promise had as yet been given to convene the Estates General; the old methods of doing public business were not yet abandoned; perhaps the King, aided by the great popularity of M. Necker, might still have been enabled to accomplish the reforms necessary to straighten out the finances. Or, that department of government, bearing directly on public credit, and the influence of parlements, might with propriety be called the keystone of the arch. M. Necker, exiled at that time forty leagues from Paris, felt the importance of the crisis; and before the messenger who brought him the news of the appointment of the Archbishop of Toulouse had left the room, he expressed himself to me in these remarkable words: “God grant that the new minister may succeed in serving his king and country better than I should have been able to do; circumstances are already of a nature to make the task perilous; but they will soon be such as to surpass the powers of any man.”
Sequel of the Preceding.—Ministry of the Archbishop of Toulouse.
M. de Brienne, Archbishop of Toulouse, had almost as little seriousness of character as M. de Calonne; but his clerical dignity, coupled with a constant ambition to attain a seat in the cabinet, had given him the outward gravity of a statesman; and he had the reputation of one, before he was placed in a situation to undeceive the world. He had labored during fifteen years, through his subordinates, to acquire the esteem of the Queen; but the King, who had no opinion of clerical philosophers, had always refused to admit him to the ministry. He gave way at last, for Louis XVI had not much confidence in himself; no man would have been happier had he been born King of England; for by being able to acquire a clear knowledge of the national wish, he would then have regulated his measures by that unfailing standard.
The Archbishop of Toulouse was not sufficiently enlightened to act the part of a philosopher, nor sufficiently firm for that of a despot:1 he admired at one time the conduct of Cardinal Richelieu, at another the principles of the “Encyclopedists”; he attempted arbitrary measures, but desisted at the first obstacle; and, in truth, the things he aimed at were greatly beyond the possibility of accomplishment. He proposed several taxes, particularly the stamp tax; the parlement rejected it, on which he made the King hold a lit de justice: the parlements suspended their judicial functions; the minister exiled them; nobody would come forward to take their place, and he conceived the plan of a plenary court, composed of the higher clergy and nobility. The idea was not bad, if meant in imitation of the English House of Peers; but a house of representatives, elected by the people, was a necessary accompaniment, as the plenary court was named by the King. The parliaments might be overturned by national representatives; but not by a body of Peers, extraordinarily convoked by the prime minister! The measure was so unpopular that several even of the courtiers refused to take their places in the assembly.
In this state of things the acts, intended by government as acts of authority, tended only to show its weakness; and the Archbishop of Toulouse, at one time arbitrary, at another constitutional, proved equally awkward in both.
Marshal de Segur had committed the great error of asking, in the eighteenth century, for proofs of nobility as a condition to the rank of officer. It was necessary to have been ennobled for a hundred years to have the honor of defending the country. This regulation irritated the Third Estate, without producing the effect of attaching the nobility “whom it favored more” to the authority of the Crown. Several officers of family declared that, if desired to arrest members of the parlement, or their adherents, they would not obey the orders of the King. The privileged classes began the resistance to the royal authority, and the parlement pronounced the word upon which hung the fate of France.
The parlement called loudly on the minister to produce his account of the national receipt and expenditure, when the Abbé Sabatier, a counselor of parlement, a man of lively wit, exclaimed, “You demand, Gentlemen, the states of receipt and expenditure (états de recette et de depence), when it is the Estates General (états generaux) that you ought to call for.”2 This word, although introduced as a pun, seemed to cast a ray of light on the confused wishes of everyone. He who had uttered it was sent to prison; but the parlement, soon after, declared that it did not possess the power of registering taxes, although they had been in the habit of exercising that power during two centuries; and, instigated by the ambition to take a lead in the popular ferment, they relinquished at once to the people a privilege which they had so obstinately defended against the Crown. From this moment the Revolution was decided, for there was but one wish among all parties—the desire of convoking the Estates General.
The same magistrates, who some time after gave the name of rebels to the friends of liberty, called for the convocation of the estates with such vehemence that the King thought himself obliged to arrest by his bodyguards, in the midst of the assembly, two of their members, MM. d’Espréménil and de Monsabert.3 Several of the nobles, subsequently conspicuous as ardent opponents of a limited monarchy, then kindled the flame which led to the explosion. Twelve men of family from Brittany were sent to the Bastille; and the same spirit of opposition, which was punished in them, animated the other nobles of their province.4 Even the clergy called for the Estates General. No revolution in a great country can succeed unless it take its beginning from the higher orders; the people come forward subsequently, but they are not capable of striking the first blows. By thus pointing out that it was the parlements, the nobles, and the clergy who first wished to limit the royal authority, I am very far from pretending to affix any censure to their conduct. All Frenchmen were then actuated by a sincere and disinterested enthusiasm; public spirit had become general; and, among the higher classes, the best characters were the most anxious that the wish of the nation should be consulted in the management of its own concerns. But why should individuals in these higher classes, who however began the revolution, accuse one man, or one measure of that man, as the cause of the revolution? “We were desirous,” say some, “that the political change should stop at a given point”; “We were desirous,” say others, “of going a little further.” True—but the movement of a great people is not to be stopped at will; and, from the time that you begin to acknowledge its rights, you will feel yourself obliged to grant all that justice requires.5
The Archbishop of Toulouse now recalled the parlements, but found them as untractable under favor as under punishment.6 A spirit of resistance gained ground on all sides, and petitions for the Estates General became so numerous that the minister was at last obliged to promise them in the King’s name; but he delayed the period of their convocation for five years, as if the public would have consented to put off its triumph. The clergy came forward to protest against the five years, and the King gave a solemn promise to convene the assembly in May of the following year.7
The Archbishop of Sens (for that was now his title, he not having forgotten, in the midst of all the public troubles, to exchange his archbishopric of Toulouse for a much better one), seeing that he could not successfully play a despotic game, drew near to his old philosopher friends and, discontented with the higher classes, made an attempt to please the nation by calling on the writers of the day to give their opinion on the best mode of organizing the Estates General.8 But the world never gives a minister credit for his acts when they are the results of necessity; that which renders public opinion so deserving of regard is its being a compound of penetration and power: it consists of the views of each individual, and of the ascendancy of the whole.
The Archbishop of Sens had stirred up the Third Estate in the hope of supporting himself against the privileged classes. The Third Estate soon intimated that it would take the place of representative of the nation in the Estates General; but it would not receive that station from the hand of a minister who returned to liberal ideas only after failing in an attempt to establish the most despotic institutions.
Finally, the Archbishop of Sens completely exasperated all classes by suspending the payment of a third of the interest of the national debt. A general cry was now raised against him; even the princes applied to the King to dismiss him, and so pitiable was his conduct that a number of people set him down for a madman. This, however, was by no means the case, he was on the contrary a sensible man in the current acceptation of the word; that is, he possessed the talents necessary to have made him an expert minister in the ordinary routine of a court. But no sooner does a nation begin to participate in the management of its own concerns, than all drawing-room ministers are found unequal to their situation: none will do then but men of firm principles; these alone can follow a steady and decisive course. None but the large features of the mind are capable, like the Minerva of Phidias, of producing effect upon crowds when viewed at a distance. Official dexterity, according to the old plan of governing a country by the rules of ministerial offices, only excites distrust in a representative government.
Did France Possess a Constitution Before the Revolution?1
Of all modern monarchies, France was certainly the one whose political institutions were most arbitrary and fluctuating; and the cause is probably to be sought in the incorporation, at very different periods, of the provinces that compose the kingdom. Each province had different claims and customs; the government skillfully made use of the old against the new ones, and the country became only gradually a whole.
Whatever may be the cause, it is an undoubted fact that there exists no law in France, not even an elementary law, which has not, at some time or other, been disputed—nothing, in short, which has not been the object of difference of opinion. Did, or did not the legislative power reside in the kings? Could they, or could they not impose taxes in virtue of their prerogative and will? Or, the Estates General, were they the representatives of the people, to whom alone belonged the right of granting subsidies? In what manner ought these Estates General to be composed? The privileged classes, who possessed two voices out of three, could they consider themselves as essentially distinct from the nation at large, and entitled, after voting a tax, to relieve themselves from its operation, and to throw its burden on the people? What were the real privileges of the clergy, who at one time held themselves to be independent of the king, at another independent of the pope? What were the powers of the nobles, who, at one time, even down to the minority of Louis XIV, asserted the right of maintaining their privileges by force of arms in alliance with foreigners, while, at another time, they would acknowledge that the king possessed absolute power? What ought to be the situation of the Third Estate, emancipated by the kings, introduced into the Estates General by Philip the Fair,2 and yet doomed to be perpetually in a minority, since it had only one vote in three, and since its complaints could carry little weight, presented as they were to the monarch on the knee?
What was the political influence of the parlements, these assemblies, which declared at one time that their sole business was to administer justice, at another that they were the Estates General on a reduced scale, that is, the representatives of the representatives of the people? The same parliaments refused to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the intendants, who were the provincial administrators of the Crown; and the cabinet, on the other hand, contested with the pays d’états the right, to which they pretended, of acquiescing in the taxes. The history of France would supply us with a crowd of examples of similar want of consistency in small things as in great; but enough of the deplorable results of this want of principles. Persons accused of state offenses were almost all deprived of a fair trial; and many of them, without being brought before a court at all, have passed their lives in prisons, to which they had been sent by the sole authority of the executive power. The code of terror against Protestants, cruel punishments, and torture, still existed down to the Revolution.3
The taxes, which pressed exclusively on the lower orders, reduced them to hopeless poverty. A French jurist, only fifty years ago, continued to call the Third Estate, according to custom, the people taxable, and liable at mercy to seignorial service (la gent corvéable et taillable à merci et miséricorde). The power of imprisoning and banishing, after being for some time disputed, became a part of the royal prerogative; and ministerial despotism, a dexterous instrument for the despotism of the Crown, at last carried matters so far as to admit the inconceivable maxim, Si veut le roi, si veut la loi (as wills the king, so wills the law), as the only political institution of France.4
The English, proud, and with reason, of their own liberty, have not failed to say that if the national character of the French had not been adapted to despotism, they could not have borne with it so long; and Blackstone,5 the first of the English jurists, printed in the eighteenth century these words: “Kings might then, as in France or Turkey, imprison, dispatch, or exile, any man that was obnoxious to them, by an instant declaration that such is their will and pleasure.”* I postpone, till the end of the work, a view of the national character of the French, too much calumniated in these times; but I cannot avoid repeating what I have already said, that the history of France will be found to exhibit as many struggles against despotic power as that of England. M. de Boulainvilliers, the great champion of the feudal system, asserts repeatedly that the kings of France had neither the right of coining money, of fixing the strength of the army, of taking foreign troops into their pay, nor, above all, of levying taxes, without the consent of the nobles. He is, indeed, somewhat concerned, that there should have been formed a second order out of the clergy, and, still more, a third out of the people; and he loses all patience with the kings of France for assuming the right of granting patents of nobility, which he calls enfranchisements; and with reason, because according to the principles of the aristocracy it is a discredit to be recently ennobled: neither is it less offense to the principles of liberty.
M. de Boulainvilliers is an aristocrat of the true kind, that is, without any mixture of the temper of a courtier, the most degrading of all. He considers the nation as confined to the nobility and reckons that, in a population of more than twenty-four million, there are not above one hundred thousand descendants of the Franks; for he excludes, and rightly, according to his system, all families ennobled by the Crown, as well as the clergy of the second rank; and, according to him, these descendants of the Franks being the conquerors, and the Gauls the conquered, the former alone can participate in the management of public business. The citizens of a state have a right to share in making and preserving the laws; but if there are only one hundred thousand citizens in a state, it is they alone who possess this political right.6 The question, therefore, is, whether the 23,900,000 souls at present composing the Third Estate in France are, in fact, vanquished Gauls, or willing to be treated as such.
So long as the degraded condition of serfs allowed things to go on in this manner, we find everywhere governments in which liberties, if not liberty, have been perfectly acknowledged; that is, where privileges have obtained respect as rights. History and reason concur in showing that if, under the first race of the kings of France, those who possessed the right of citizens had a right to sanction legislative acts; if, under Philip the Fair, the free men of the Third Estate (far from numerous in that age, as the mass of the population still were serfs) were associated to the two other orders, it follows that the kings could not make use of them as a political counterpoise without acknowledging them for citizens. The inference is that these citizens were entitled to exercise the same powers, in regard to laws and taxes, as were at first exercised only by the nobles. And when the number of those who have acquired the right of citizens becomes so great that they cannot personally attend at public deliberations, this is when representative government is born.
The different provinces stipulated for certain rights and privileges as they became united to the Crown; and the twelve provincial parlements were successively established, partly for the administration of justice, but particularly for ascertaining whether the royal edicts, which they had the right to promulgate or not, were or were not in unison with the provincial privileges, or with the fundamental laws of the kingdom. Yet their authority in this respect was very precarious. In 1484, when Louis XII, then Duke of Orléans, made a complaint to them of want of attention to the demands of the last Estates, they answered that they were men of study, whose business related not to matters of government, but to the administration of justice. They soon after, however, advanced much higher claims, and their political power was such that Charles V sent two ambassadors to the parlement of Toulouse, to ascertain if they had ratified his treaty with Francis I.7 The parlements seemed therefore to have been intended as a habitual limitation of the royal authority; and the Estates General, being superior to parlements, should be considered as a still more powerful barrier. It was customary, in the Middle Ages, to mix the judicial with the legislative power; and the double power of the English peers, as judges in some cases, and legislators in all, is a remnant of this ancient conjunction. Nothing can be more natural in an uncivilized age, than that particular decisions should be antecedent to general laws. The respectability of the judges was in these days such as to make them considered the fittest persons to mold their own decisions into general laws. St. Louis was the first, as is believed, who erected the parlement into a court of justice;8 before his time it appears to have been only a royal council; but this sovereign, enlightened by his virtues, felt the necessity of giving strength to the institutions which could serve as a guarantee of the rights of his subjects.
The Estates General had no connection with the administration of justice: we thus recognize in the monarchy of France two powers, which, though badly organized, were each of them independent of the royal authority: the Estates General and the parlements. The ruling policy of the third race of kings was to extend immunities to the towns and to the inhabitants of the country, that they might gradually bring forward the Third Estate as a counterpoise to the great lords. Philip the Fair introduced the national deputies into the Estates General as a third order; because he stood in need of money, and because he dreaded the ill-will which his character had produced, and felt the want of support, not only against the nobles, but against the pope, by whom he was then persecuted. From this time forward (in 1302), the Estates General had, in right if not in fact, equal legislative powers with the English parliament. Their decrees (ordonnances) of 1355 and 13569 were as much in the spirit of liberty as the Magna Charta of England; but there was no provision for the annual convocation of this assembly, and its separation into three orders, instead of into two chambers, gave the King much greater means of setting them in opposition to one another.
The confusion of the political authority of the parlement, which was perpetual, and of that of the Estates General, which approached more to the elective form, is conspicuous in every reign of the kings of France of the third race. During the civil wars which took place, we find the king, the Estates General, and the parlement, each bringing forward different pretensions; but whatever were the avowed or concealed attempts of preceding monarchs, no one before Louis XIV ever openly advanced the doctrine of absolute power. All the strength of the parlements lay in their privilege of registry, since no law could be promulgated or subsequently executed without their consent. Charles VI was the first king who attempted to change the lit de justice, which formerly meant nothing but the presence of the king at a parlementary sitting, into an order to register, by express command, and in spite of remonstrance. The Crown was soon after obliged to cancel the edicts which the parlement had been made to accept by force; and a counselor of Charles VI, who, after having approved of these edicts, supported the canceling of them, being asked by a member of parlement his motive for such a change, replied: “Our rule is to desire what the King desires; we are regulated by the circumstances of the time; and find, by experience, that, in all the revolutions of courts, the best way to maintain our footing is to range ourselves on the stronger side.” Really, in this respect, one could deny the perfectibility of the human species.
Henri III put a stop to the practice of inserting at the top of official edicts, “by express command,” lest the people should refuse to obey them. Henri IV, who came to the crown in 1589, declared, himself, in one of his speeches, quoted by Joly, that parlementary registration was necessary for the validation of royal edicts. The Parlement of Paris, in its remonstrances against Mazarin’s ministry, recalled the promises made by Henri IV and quoted his own words upon the subject: “The authority of kings destroys itself in endeavoring to establish itself too firmly.”
Cardinal Richelieu’s political system entirely consisted in overthrowing the power of the nobles by aid of the people; but before and even during his ministry, the magistrates of parlement always professed the most liberal maxims. Pasquier, under Henri III, said that monarchy was one of the forms of the republic; meaning, by that word, the government whose object is the welfare of the people. The celebrated magistrate Talon thus expressed himself under Louis XIII: “In former years, the orders of the king were not received or executed by the people, unless signed in the original by the grandees of the kingdom, the princes, and higher officers of the crown. This political jurisdiction has now devolved on the parlements. We enjoy this second power, which the authority of time sanctions, which subjects suffer with patience, and honor with respect.”10
Such were the principles of the parlements; they admitted, like the constitutionists of the present day, the necessity of the consent of the nation; but they declared themselves its representatives, without, however, having the power to deny that the claims of the Estates General were, in this respect, superior. The Parlement of Paris took it amiss that Charles IX should have declared himself arrived at majority at Rouen, and that Henri IV should have convened the Notables. This parlement, being the only one in which the peers of France occupied seats, could alone allege a title to political interference; yet every parlement in the kingdom made similar claims. A strange idea, that a body of judges, indebted for their office either to the king’s appointment or to the practice of purchasing their situations, should come forward and call themselves the representatives of the nation! Yet, singular as was the foundation of their claims, its practical exercise sometimes served as a check to arbitrary power.
The Parlement of Paris had, it must be confessed, all along persecuted the Protestants: horrible to say, it had even instituted an annual procession of thanks for the dreadful day of St. Bartholomew: but in this it was the instrument of party; and no sooner was fanaticism appeased, than this same parliament, composed of men of integrity and courage, often resisted the encroachments of the throne and the ministers. But of what avail was their opposition, when, after all, silence might be imposed on them by a lit de justice held by the king? In what, then, could the French constitution be said to consist? in nothing but the hereditary nature of the royal power. Undoubtedly this is a very good law, since it is conducive to the tranquillity of nations, but it is not a constitution.11
The Estates General were convened only eighteen times between 1302 and 1789: that is, during nearly five centuries. Yet with them alone rested the power of sanctioning a tax; and if all had been regular, their assembling should have taken place each time that new taxes were imposed, but the kings often disputed their power in this respect, and acted in an arbitrary manner without them. The parlements intervened in the sequel between the kings and the Estates General—not denying the unlimited power of the Crown, and yet maintaining that they were the guardians of the laws of the kingdom. But what law can there be in a country where the royal power is unlimited? The parlements made remonstrances on the edicts laid before them; the king then sent them a positive order to register these edicts, and to be silent. To have disobeyed would have been an inconsistency; since, after acknowledging the supremacy of the royal power, what were they themselves, or what could they say, without the permission of that very monarch whose power they were supposed to limit? This circle of pretended oppositions always ended in servitude, and its fatal mark has remained on the face of the nation.
France has been governed by custom, often by caprice, and never by law. There is not one reign like another in a political point of view; everything might be supported, and everything forbidden, in a country where the course of circumstances alone was decisive of what everyone called his right. Will it be alleged that some of the pays d’états maintained their treaties with the Crown? They might found a course of argument on such treaties, but the royal authority cut short all difficulties, and the remaining usages were little else than mere forms, maintained or suppressed according to the will and pleasure of ministers. Did the nobles possess privileges beyond that of exemption from taxes? Even that privilege a despotic king had it in his power to abolish. In fact, the nobles neither could nor ought to boast the possession of a single political right: for, priding themselves in acknowledging the royal authority to be unlimited, they could not complain, either of those special commissions which have sentenced to death the first lords in France, or of the imprisonment, or the exiles which they suffered.12 The king could do everything, what objection was it then possible to make to anything?
The clergy who acknowledged the power of the pope, and derived from it the power of the king, were alone entitled to make some resistance. But it was themselves who maintained the divine right on which despotism rests, well knowing that this divine right cannot be permanently supported without the priesthood. This doctrine, tracing all power from God, interdicted men from attempting its limitation. Such certainly are not the precepts of the Christian faith; but we speak at present of the language of those who wish to convert religion to their own purposes.
We thus see that the history of France is replete with attempts on the part of the nation and nobles, the one to obtain rights, the other privileges; we see in it also continual efforts of most of the kings to attain arbitrary power. A struggle, similar in many respects, is exhibited in the history of England; but as, in that country there all along existed two houses of Parliament,13 the means of resistance were better, and the demands made on the Crown were both more important in their objects and more wisely conducted than in France. The English clergy not being a separate political order, they and the peers together composed almost half of the national representation, and had always much more regard for the people than in France. The great misfortune of France, as of every country governed solely by a court, is the domineering influence of vanity. No fixed principle gains ground in the mind; all is absorbed in the pursuit of power, because power is everything in a country where the laws are nothing.
In England, the Parliament combined in itself the legislative power, which, in France, was shared between the parlements and the Estates General. The English Parliament was considered permanent, but as it had little to do in the way of the administration of justice, the kings abridged its session or postponed its meeting as much as possible. In France the conflict between the nation and the royal authority assumed another aspect: resistance to the power of ministers proceeded with more constancy and energy from those parlements which did the duty of judicial bodies, than from the Estates General. But as the privileges of French parlements were undefined, the result was, that the king was at one time kept in tutelage by them, and they, at another, were trampled underfoot by the king. Two houses, as in England, would have done much less to clog the exercise of the executive power, and much more to secure the national liberty. The Revolution of 1789 had then no other object than to give a regular form to the limitations which have, all along, existed in France.14 Montesquieu pronounced the rights of intermediate bodies the strength and freedom of a kingdom. Now what intermediate body is the most faithful representative of all the national interests? The two houses of Parliament in England; and even, were it not absurd in theory to entrust a few privileged persons, whether of the magistracy or nobles, with the exclusive discussion of the interests of a nation which has never been able to invest them legally with its powers, the recent history of France, presenting nothing but an almost unbroken succession of disputes relative to the extension of power and of arbitrary acts committed in turn by the different parties, sufficiently proves that it was high time to seek an improved form of national representation.
In regard to the right of the nation to be represented, this right has, ever since France existed, been acknowledged by the kings, the ministers, and the magistrates, who have merited the national esteem. The claim of unlimited royal power has had, undoubtedly, a number of partisans; so many personal interests are involved in that opinion! But what names stand averse to each other in this cause! Louis XI must be opposed to Henri IV; Louis XIII to Louis XII; Richelieu to De l’Hôpital; Cardinal Dubois to M. de Malesherbes; and, if we were to quote all the names preserved in history, we might assert at a venture that, with few exceptions, wherever we meet with an upright heart or an enlightened mind, no matter in what rank of society, we shall there find a friend to liberty; while unlimited power has hardly ever been defended by a man of genius, and still less by a man of virtue.
The Maximes du Droit public François,15 published in 1775 by a magistrate of the Parlement of Paris, are perfectly accordant with those of the Constituent Assembly on the expediency of balancing the different powers of the state, on the necessity of obtaining the consent of the people to taxes, on their participation in legislative acts, and on the responsibility of ministers. In every page the author recalls the existing contract between the king and the people, and his reasonings are founded on historical facts.
Other respectable members of the French magistracy maintain that there once were constitutional laws in France, but that they had fallen into disuse. Some say that they have ceased to be in vigor since the time of Richelieu, others since Charles V, others since Philip the Fair, while a last party go as far back as Charlemagne. It was assuredly of little importance that such laws had ever existed, if they had been consigned to oblivion for so many ages. But it is easy to close this discussion. If there are fundamental laws, if it be true that they contain all the rights secured to the English nation, the friends of liberty will then be agreed with the partisans of the ancient order of things; and yet the treaty seems to me still a matter of difficult arrangement.
M. de Calonne, who had declared himself averse to the Revolution, published a book to show that France had no constitution.16 M. de Monthion, chancellor to the Comte d’Artois, published a reply to M. de Calonne and entitled his work A Report to His Majesty Louis XVIII in 1796.
He begins by declaring that if there were no constitution in France, the Revolution was justified, as every people possess a right to a political constitution. This assertion was somewhat hazardous, considering his opinions; but he goes on to affirm, that by the constitutional statutes of France, the King did not have the right of making laws without the consent of the Estates General; that Frenchmen could not be brought to trial but before their natural judges; that every extraordinary tribunal was contrary to law; that, in short, all lettres de cachet, all banishments, and all imprisonments founded merely on the King’s authority were illegal. He added that all Frenchmen had a right to be admitted to public employments, that the military profession conferred the rank of gentleman on all who followed it; that the forty thousand municipalities of the kingdom had the right of being governed by administrators of their choice, with whom rested the assessment of the taxes imposed; that the King could order nothing without his council, which implied the responsibility of ministers; that there existed a material distinction between the royal ordinances (ordonnances) or laws of the King and the fundamental laws of the state; that the judges were not pledged to obey the King’s orders if at variance with the latter; and that the military force could not be employed in the interior, except to put down insurrection or in fulfillment of the mandates of justice. He added that the assembling at stated periods of the Estates General forms part of the French constitution, and concluded by saying, in the presence of Louis XVIII, that the English constitution is the most perfect in the world.
Had all the adherents of the old government professed such principles, the Revolution would have been without apology, since it would have been unnecessary. But the same writer has inserted in his work, in a solemn address to the King, the following sketch of the abuses existing in France before the Revolution.*
The most essential right of citizenship, the right of voting on the laws and taxes, had, in a manner, become obsolete; and the Crown was in the habit of issuing, on its sole authority, those orders in which it ought to have had the concurrence of the national representatives.
The right in question, though belonging essentially to the nation, seemed transferred to the parlements; and the freedom even of their suffrages had been encroached on by arbitrary imprisonments and lits de justice.
It frequently happened that the laws, regulations, and general decisions of the King, which ought to have been deliberated in council, and which made mention of the concurrence of the council, had never been laid before that body: and in several departments of business this official falsehood had become habitual. Several clerical dignitaries infringed the laws, both in letter and spirit, by holding a plurality of livings, by non-residence, and by the use that they made of the property of the church. A part of the nobles had received their titles in a manner unbecoming the institution; and the services due by the body had not for a length of time been required.
The exemption of the two first orders from taxes was sanctioned by the constitution, but was certainly not the proper kind of return for the services of these orders.
Special commissions in criminal cases, composed of judges chosen in an arbitrary manner, certainly might alarm the innocent.
Those unauthorized acts which deprived individuals of liberty, without a charge and without a trial, were so many infractions on the security of the rights of citizens. The courts of justice, whose stability was all the more important as, in the absence of a national representation, they constituted the only defense of the nation, had been suppressed and replaced by bodies of magistrates who did not possess the confidence of the people: and, since their re-establishment, innovations had been attempted on the most essential points of their jurisdiction.
But it was in matters of finance that the law had been most glaringly violated. Taxes had been imposed without the consent of the nation, or of its representatives.
They had also been collected after the expiration of the time fixed by government for their duration.
Taxes, at first of small amount, had been carried by degrees to an irregular and prodigious height; a part of the taxes pressed more on the indigent than the rich.
The public burdens were assessed on the different provinces without any correct idea of the relative means of each. There was reason sometimes to suspect that deductions had been made in consequence of the resistance opposed to them; so that the want of patriotism had proved a cause of favorable treatment.
Some provinces had succeeded in obtaining tax settlements,17 and, bargains of this kind being always in favor of the provinces, it was an indulgence to one part of the kingdom at the expense of the rest.
The sums stipulated in these tax settlements remained always the same, while the other provinces were subject to official inquiries which annually increased the tax: this was another source of inequality.
Another abuse consisted in assessing by officers of the Crown, or even by their commissioners, taxes of which the assessment should have been left to persons chosen from among those who were to pay them.
Of some taxes the kings had made themselves judges in their council: commissions were to be established to decide on fiscal questions, the cognizance of which belonged properly to the courts of justice. The public debt which bore so hard on the nation had been contracted without its consent; the loans, to which the parlements had given an assent which they had no right to give, had been exceeded by means of endless irregularities, which were so many acts of treachery at once to the courts of justice, whose sanctions were thus illusory; to the public creditors, who had competitors of whose existence they were ignorant; and to the nation, whose burdens were increased without its knowledge. The public expenditure was in no respect fixed by law.
The funds meant to cover the personal expenses of the king, the funds intended for the payment of the public dividends, and the expenses of government were distinguished only by a particular and secret act of the king’s will.
The personal expenses of our kings had been carried to an enormous amount; the provisions made for guaranteeing some portions of the public debt had been eluded; the king might quicken or delay, as he thought proper, the payments in various parts of the expenditure.
In the pay of the army the sum appropriated to the officers was almost as great as that appropriated to the soldiers.
The salaries of almost all government officers, of whatever description, were too high, particularly for a country where honor ought to be the principal, if not sole reward of services rendered to the state.
The pension list had been carried to a much higher amount than that of other countries in Europe, keeping in view the relative amount of revenue.
Such were the points on which the nation had just ground of complaint, and if we are to censure government for the existence of these abuses, we are likewise to censure the constitution which made their existence possible.
If such was the situation of France, and we can hardly refuse the evidence of a chancellor of the Comte d’Artois, especially when laid officially before the King; if, then, such was the situation of France, even in the opinion of those who asserted that she possessed a constitution, who can deny that a change was necessary, either to give a free course to a constitution hitherto perpetually infringed; or to introduce those guarantees which might give the laws of the state the means of being maintained and obeyed?18
On the Recall of M. Necker in 1788.
Had M. Necker, when he was minister, proposed to convene the Estates General, he might have been accused of a dereliction of duty, since, with a certain party, it is a settled point that the absolute power of kings is sacred. But at the time when the public opinion obliged the Court to dismiss the Archbishop of Sens, and to recall M. Necker, the Estates General had been solemnly promised:1 the nobles, the clergy, and the parlement had solicited this promise; the nation had received it; and such was the weight of universal opinion on this point, that no force, either civil or military, would have come forward to oppose it. I consign this assertion to history; if it lessens the merit of M. Necker by showing that he was not the cause of convening the Estates General, it places in the proper quarter the responsibility for the events of the Revolution. Would it have been possible for such a man as M. Necker to propose to a virtuous sovereign, to Louis XVI, to retract his word? And of what use would have been a minister whose strength lay in his popularity, if the first act of that minister had been to advise the King to fail in the engagements that he had made with the people?
That aristocratical body which finds it so much easier to cast calumny on a man than to confess the share that it bore itself in the general ferment, that very aristocracy, I say, would have been the first to feel indignant at the perfidy of the minister: he could not have derived any political advantage from the degradation to which he would have consented. When a measure, therefore, is neither moral nor useful, what madman, or what pretended sage, would come forward to advise it?
M. Necker, at the time when public opinion brought him back to the ministry, was more alarmed than gratified by his appointment. He had bitterly regretted going out of office in 1781, as he thought himself sure at that time of doing a great deal of good. On hearing of the death of M. de Maurepas, he reproached himself with having, six months before, given in his resignation, and I have always present to my recollection his long walks at St. Ouen, in which he often repeated that he tormented himself with his reflections and with his scruples. Every conversation that revived the recollection of his ministry, every encomium on that subject, gave him pain. During the seven years which elapsed between his first and second ministry, he was in a state of perpetual chagrin at the overthrow of his plans for improving the situation of France. At the time when the Archbishop of Sens was called to office, he still regretted his not being appointed; but in 1788, when I came to apprise him, at St. Ouen, of his approaching nomination, he said to me, “Ah! why did they not give me those fifteen months of the Archbishop of Sens? Now it is too late.”
M. Necker had just published his work upon the importance of religious opinions.2 His rule throughout life was to attack a party when in all its strength; his pride led him to that course. It was the first time that a writer, sufficiently enlightened to bear the name of a philosopher, came forward to mark the danger arising from the irreligious spirit of the eighteenth century; and this work had filled its author’s mind with thoughts of a much higher nature than can be produced by temporal interests, even of the highest kind. Accordingly he obeyed the King’s orders with a feeling of regret, which I was certainly far from sharing: on observing my delight, he said, “The daughter of a minister feels nothing but pleasure; she enjoys the reflection of her father’s power; but power itself, particularly at this crisis, is a tremendous responsibility.” He judged but too well—in the vivacity of early youth, talent, if it be possessed, may enable the individual to speak like one of riper years; but the imagination is not a single day older than ourselves.
In crossing the Bois de Boulogne at night to repair to Versailles, I was in great terror of being attacked by robbers; for it appeared to me that the happiness which I felt at my father’s elevation was too great not to be counterpoised by some dreadful accident. No robbers came to attack me, but the future but too fully justified my fears.
I waited on the Queen according to custom on the day of St. Louis: the niece of the Archbishop of Sens, who had that morning been dismissed from office, was also at the levee; and the Queen showed clearly, by her manner of receiving the two, that she felt a much stronger predilection for the removed minister than for his successor. The courtiers acted differently; for never did so many persons offer to conduct me to my carriage. Certainly, the disposition of the Queen proved, at that time, one of the great obstacles that M. Necker encountered in his political career; she had patronized him during his first ministry, but in the second, in spite of all his efforts to please her, she always considered him as appointed by public opinion; and in arbitrary governments, sovereigns are, unfortunately, in the habit of considering public opinion as their enemy.
M. Necker, on entering on office, found only two hundred and fifty thousand francs in the public treasury; but the next day the bankers brought him considerable sums. The stocks rose thirty percent in one morning; such an effect on public credit, resulting from confidence in a single man, is wholly without example in history.3 M. Necker obtained the recall of all the exiles, and the deliverance of all persons imprisoned for matters of opinion; among others, of the twelve gentlemen from Brittany, whom I have already mentioned. In short, he did all the good, in regard to individuals and matters of detail, which could be effected by a minister; but by this time the importance of the public had increased, and that of men in office was in consequence proportionally lessened.
Conduct of the Last Estates General, Held at Paris in 1614.
The aristocratical party, in 1789, were perpetually demanding the adoption of ancient usages. The obscurity of time is very favorable to those who are not disposed to enter on a discussion of truth on its own merits. They called out incessantly, “Give us 1614, and our last Estates General; these are our masters, these are our models.”
I shall not stop to show that the Estates General held at Blois in 1576 were almost as different, in point both of composition and form of proceeding, from the Paris assembly of 1614, as from their predecessors under King John and Louis XII. No meeting of the three orders having been founded on clear principles, none had led to permanent results. It may, however, be interesting to recall some of the principal characteristics of the last Estates General, brought forward, as they were, after a lapse of nearly two centuries, as a guide to the assembly of 1789. The Third Estate proposed to declare that no power, spiritual or temporal, had a right to release the king’s subjects from their allegiance to him. The clergy, through the medium of Cardinal du Perron, opposed this,1 making a reservation of the rights of the Pope; the nobles followed the example, and received, as well as the clergy, the warm and public thanks of His Holiness. Those who speak of a compact between the nation and the Crown are liable, even in our days, to be considered Jacobins; but in those times, the argument was, that the royal authority was dependent on the head of the church.
The Edict of Nantes had been promulgated in 1598, and the blood of Henri IV, shed by the adherents of the League, had hardly ceased to flow when the Protestants among the nobles and Third Estate demanded, in 1614, in the declaration relative to religion, a confirmation of the articles in the edict of Henri, which established the toleration of their form of religion; but this request was rejected.
M. de Mesme, lieutenant civil, addressing the nobles on the part of the Third Estate, declared that the three orders ought to consider themselves as three brothers, of whom the Third Estate was the youngest. Baron de Senneci answered in the name of the nobles that the Third Estate had no title to this fraternity, being neither of the same blood nor of equal virtue.2 The clergy required permission to collect tithes in all kinds of fruit and corn, and an exemption from the excise duties paid on articles brought into the towns, as well as from contributing to the expense of the roads; they also required further restraints on the liberty of the press. The nobles demanded that the principal offices of state should be bestowed on men of family only, and that the commoners (roturiers) should be forbidden the use of arquebuses, pistols, and even of dogs, unless houghed, to prevent their being employed in the chase. They required, also, that the commoners should pay further seignorial duties to the proprietors of fiefs; that all pensions granted to the Third Estate should be suppressed, while their own body should be exempt from personal arrest and from all taxes on the product of their lands. They asked, further, a right to receive salt from the king’s granaries at the same price as the merchants; and, finally, that the Third Estate should be obliged to wear a different dress from that of persons of family.
I abridge this extract from the Minutes of the Assembly of 1614, and could point out a number of other ridiculous things, were not our attention wholly required by those that are revolting. It is, however, quite enough to prove that the separation of the three orders served only to give occasion to the constant demands of the nobles to escape taxes, to secure new privileges, and to subject the Third Estate to all the humiliations that arrogance can invent. A claim of exemption from taxes was made in like manner by the clergy, and accompanied with all the vexatious demands of intolerance. As to the public welfare, it seemed to affect only the Third Estate, since the weight of taxation fell totally upon them. Such was the spirit of that assembly, which it was proposed to revive in the Estates General of 1789; and M. Necker is to this day censured for having desired to introduce modifications into such a course of proceeding.3
The Division of the Estates General into Orders.
The Estates General of France were, as I have just mentioned, divided into three orders—the clergy, the nobility, and the Third Estate—and accustomed to deliberate separately, like three distinct nations: each presented its grievances to the King, and each confined itself to its particular interests, which had, according to circumstances, more or less connection with the interests of the public at large. In point of numbers, the Third Estate comprised almost the whole nation, the two other orders forming scarcely a hundredth part of it. Having gained greatly in relative importance in the course of the last two centuries, the Third Estate demanded, in 1789, that the mercantile body, or the towns, without reference to the country, should have enough deputies to render the number of the representatives of their body equal to that of the two other orders together; and this demand was supported by motives and circumstances of the greatest weight.
The chief cause of the liberty of England has been the uniform practice of deliberating in two chambers instead of three. In no country where the three orders have remained separate has a free form of government as yet been established. The division into four orders, as is at present the case in Sweden, and was formerly in Aragon, is productive of delay in public business; but it is much more favorable to liberty.1 The order of peasants in Sweden, and in Aragon the equestrian order, gave two equal shares to the representatives of the nation, and to the privileged classes of the first rank; for the equestrian order, which may be compared to the House of Commons in England, naturally supported the interests of the people. The result, therefore, of the division into four orders was that in these two countries, Sweden and Aragon, liberal principles were early introduced and long maintained. Sweden has still to desire that her constitution be assimilated to that of England; but we cannot fail to respect that feeling of justice which, from the earliest time, admitted the order of peasants into the Diet. The peasantry of Sweden are accordingly enlightened, happy, and religious, because they have enjoyed that sentiment of tranquillity and dignity which can arise only from free institutions. In Germany the clergy have had seats in the upper house, but without constituting a separate order, and the natural division into two chambers has been always maintained. Three orders have existed only in France and in a few states, such as Sicily, which did not form a separate monarchy. This unfortunate division, having had the effect of giving always a majority to the privileged classes against the nation, has often induced the French people to prefer arbitrary power in the Crown to that dependence on the aristocratic orders, in which they were placed by such division in three orders.
Another inconvenience in France arose from the number of gentry of the second order, ennobled but yesterday, either by the letters of noblesse granted by the kings, as a sequel to the enfranchisement of the Gauls, or by purchased offices, such as that of secretary to the King, &c. which had the effect of associating new individuals to the rights and privileges of the old nobility. The nation would have willingly submitted to the pre-eminence of the families whose names are distinguished in history, and who, I can affirm, without exaggeration, do not in France exceed two hundred. But the hundred thousand nobles, and the hundred thousand clergy, who laid their claim for privileges equal to those of MM. de Montmorency, de Grammont, de Crillon, &c., created general discontent; for merchants, capitalists, and men of letters were at a loss to understand the superiority granted to a title acquired by money or obsequiousness, and to which a term of twenty-five years was deemed sufficient to give admittance to the chamber of nobles, and to privileges of which the most respected members of the Third Estate were deprived.
The House of Peers in England is an assemblage of patrician magistrates, indebted for its origin, no doubt, to the ancient recollections of chivalry; but entirely associated with institutions of a very different nature. Admission into it is daily obtained by eminence, sometimes in commerce, but particularly in the law; while the duty of national representatives, discharged by the peers in the state, affords the nation an assurance of the utility of the institution. But what advantage could the French derive from those Viscounts of the Garonne, or those Marquisses of the Loire, who not only did not pay their proportion of taxes to the state, but could not even be received at court, since for that purpose a proof of nobility for more than four centuries was necessary, and most of them could go hardly fifty years back? The vanity of this class of people could be displayed only on their inferiors, and these inferiors were twenty-four million in number.
It may be conducive to the dignity of an established church that there be archbishops and bishops in the Upper House, as in England. But what improvement could be ever accomplished in a country where the Catholic clergy composed a third of the representation and had an equal voice with the nation itself, even in legislative measures? Was it likely that this clergy would give its consent to religious toleration, or to the admission of Protestants to public offices? Did it not obstinately refuse the equalization of taxes, that it might keep up the form of free gifts, which increased its importance with government? When Philip the Tall2 dismissed churchmen from the Parlement of Paris, he said “that they ought to be too much occupied with spiritual matters to have time for temporal ones.” Why have they not all along submitted to this wise maxim?
Never was there any thing decisive done by the Estates General, merely from their unfortunate division into three instead of two orders. The Chancellor de l’Hôpital could not obtain his edict of peace, even temporarily, except from a convocation at St. Germains, in 1562, in which, by a rare accident, the clergy were not present.
The Assemblies of Notables, called together by the kings, almost all decided by individual votes; and the parliament, which in 1558 had at first consented to form a fourth and separate order, required in 1626 to vote individually in an Assembly of Notables, that they might not be distinguished from the nobility.3 The endless fluctuations exhibited in all the usages of France are more conspicuous in the composition of the Estates General than in any other political institution. Were we to insist obstinately on the past, as forming an immutable law for the present, we should be immersed in endless disputes, and should find that the past, which is brought forward as our guide, was itself founded on an alteration of an earlier “past.” Let us return then to matters that are less equivocal; the events of which we have been eyewitnesses.
The Archbishop of Sens, acting in the King’s name, invited the eminent writers of the day to publish their opinion on the mode of convening the Estates General. Had there existed constitutional laws decisive of the question, would the minister of the Crown have consulted the nation in this respect, through the medium of the press? The Archbishop of Sens, in establishing provincial assemblies, had not only rendered in them the number of deputies of the Third Estate equal to that of the two other orders collectively, but he had determined in the King’s name, that the voting should take place individually. The public mind was thus strongly prepared, both by the measures of the Archbishop of Sens and by the strength of the Third Estate itself, to obtain for the latter, in 1789, a larger share of influence than in antecedent assemblies of the Estates General. There was no law to fix the number of the three orders; the only established principle was that each order should have one voice. Had not a legal provision been made for a double representation of the Third Estate, it was undoubted that the nation, irritated at the refusal of its demand, would have sent a still greater number of deputies to the Estates General. Thus, all those symptoms of a political crisis, of which it is the part of a statesman to take cognizance, indicated the necessity of giving way to the spirit of the age.
Yet M. Necker did not take on himself to follow the course, which, in his own judgment, would have been the best; and confiding, it must be admitted, too much in the power of reason, he advised the King to assemble once more the Notables already convoked by M. de Calonne. The majority of these Notables, consisting of the privileged classes, were adverse to doubling the representatives of the Third Estate. One division only of the Assembly gave an affirmative opinion, and that division was under the presidency of Monsieur (now Louis XVIII). It is gratifying to think that a king, the first author of a constitutional charter proceeding from the throne,4 was at that time in unison with the people on the important question which the aristocrats still seek to represent as the cause of the overthrow of the monarchy.
M. Necker has been blamed for consulting the Notables without following their opinion—his fault lay in consulting them at all; but could anyone imagine that those privileged members of that Assembly, which had lately shown itself so adverse to the abuse of royal authority, should so soon defend the unjust claims of their own, with a pertinacity so much at variance with the opinion of the nation?
Yet M. Necker suspended the decision of the question of doubling the Third Estate as soon as he saw that a majority of the Notables differed from him; and there elapsed more than two months between the close of their Assembly and the decision of the council on 27th December, 1788. During this interval, M. Necker studied constantly the public feeling as the compass which, on this point, ought to guide the decisions of the King. The unanimity of the provinces was positive in regard to the necessity of granting the demands of the Third Estate, for the party of the unmixed aristocrats (aristocrats purs) was, as it had ever been, far from numerous; many of the nobles and clergy of the class of curés had gone over to the public opinion. The province of Dauphiny assembled, at Romans, its ancient states, whose meetings had long been discontinued, and admitted there not only the doubling of the deputies of the Third Estate, but the voting individually. A number of officers of the army discovered a disposition to favor the popular wish. All, whether men or women, who in the higher circles exercised influence on the public opinion, spoke warmly in favor of the national cause. Such was the prevailing fashion; it was the result of the whole of the eighteenth century; and the old prejudices, which still favored antiquated institutions, had at that time much less strength than at any other period during the twenty-five years that ensued. In short, the ascendancy of the popular wish was so great that it carried along with it the parliament itself. No body ever showed itself more ardent in the defense of ancient usages than the Parlement of Paris; every new institution seemed to it an act of rebellion, because, in fact, its own existence could not be founded on the principles of political liberty. Offices that were purchased by the occupants, a judicial body pretending to a right to pass bills for taxes, yet renouncing that right at the command of the King; all these contradictions, which could only be the result of chance, were ill calculated to bear discussion; consequently, they appeared singularly suspicious in the French magistracy. All requisitions against the liberty of the press proceeded from the Parlement of Paris; and if they opposed a limit to the active exercise of the royal authority, they, on the other hand, encouraged that kind of ignorance, which is of all things most favorable to absolute power. A body so strongly attached to ancient usages, and yet composed of men entitled by their virtues in private life to much esteem, decided the question naturally enough, by declaring that, as the number of the deputies of each order was not fixed by any usage or any law, it remained to be regulated by the wisdom of the King. This took place in the beginning of December, 1788, two months after the Assembly of the Notables.*
What! could the body that was considered as the representative of the past, yielding to the opinion of the day, relinquish indirectly on this occasion the maintenance of ancient customs!5 and could the minister, whose whole strength lay in his respect for the nation, have taken on himself to refuse that nation what in his conscience he thought equitable; what in his judgment he deemed necessary!
But this is not all. At that time the adversaries of the King’s authority were the privileged orders, while the Third Estate were desirous of rallying round the Crown; and had not the King withdrawn himself from the representatives of the Third Estate after the opening of the Estates General, there is not a doubt that they would have supported his prerogative. When a sovereign adopts a system in politics, he ought to follow it with constancy, for changes bring on him the disadvantages of all the opposing parties. “A great revolution,” said Monsieur (Louis XVIII) to the municipality of Paris, in 1789, “is at hand; the King, by his views, his virtues, and his supreme rank, ought to be at its head.” All that wisdom could suggest on the occasion is contained in these words.
M. Necker, in the report accompanying the result of the council of 27th December, announced in the King’s name, that his Majesty would grant the suppression of the lettres de cachet, the liberty of the press, and the re-assembling of the Estates General at stated periods for the revision of the finances.6 He endeavored to snatch from the future deputies the good they were desirous of doing, that he might engross the affection of the people for the King. And no resolution, that ever proceeded from a throne, was productive of such enthusiasm as the result of the council. Addresses of congratulation arrived from all parts of the kingdom; and among the numberless letters received by M. Necker, two of the most remarkable were those from the Abbé, afterward Cardinal, Maury, and from M. de Lamoignon. The royal authority had at that time more power over the public mind than ever; the nation admired that strength of reason, and that candor, which made the King anticipate the reforms demanded by it; while the Archbishop of Sens had placed him in the most precarious situation by advising him to refuse today what he was obliged to grant tomorrow.
To profit, however, by this popular enthusiasm, it was necessary to proceed firmly in the same road. But six months after, the King followed a perfectly opposite plan; why, then, should M. Necker be accused of events which resulted from the rejection of his opinion and the adoption of that of the opposite party? When an unskillful commander loses a campaign victoriously begun by another, is it ever said that the victor of the early part is answerable for the defeat of a successor, whose manner of seeing and acting is entirely different? Some, however, will ask, was not the voting individually, instead of by orders, the natural result of doubling the representatives of the Third Estate; and have we not seen the consequence of the union of the three orders in one assembly? The natural consequence of the doubling of the Third Estate would have been deliberating in two chambers; and far from fearing such a result, it ought to have been desired. Why, then, will M. Necker’s adversaries say, did not he make the King express a resolution on this point at the time that the royal consent was given to doubling the deputies? He did not do it because he thought that a change of such a nature ought to be concerted with the representatives of the nation; but he proposed it as soon as these representatives were assembled. Unfortunately, the aristocratic party opposed it, and ruined France in ruining themselves.
A scarcity of corn, such as had not for a long time been felt in France, threatened Paris with famine in the winter of 1788, 1789. The infinite exertions of M. Necker, and the deposit of his own fortune, the half of which he had placed in the treasury, were the means of preventing incalculable calamities. Nothing excites so strong a disposition to discontent among the people as a dread of scarcity; yet, such was their confidence in the administration, that no tumult whatever occurred.
The Estates General bade fair to meet under favorable auspices; the privileged orders could not, from their situation, abandon the throne, although they had shaken it; the deputies of the Third Estate were grateful for the attention shown to their demands. There still remained, it is true, very serious subjects of contention between the nation and the privileged classes; but the King was so placed as to act the part of arbiter, by reducing his own power to a limited monarchy: if indeed the name of reduction can be given to the erection of barriers, which defend you from your own errors, and still more from those of your ministers. A monarchy wisely limited may be compared to an honest man, in whose soul conscience always presides over conduct.
The act of the council of 27th December was adopted by the ablest ministers of the Crown, such as MM. de St. Priest, de Montmorin, and de la Luzerne; the Queen herself thought proper to be present at the debate on doubling the members of the Third Estate. It was the first time that she appeared at council; and the approbation given spontaneously by her to the measure proposed by M. Necker might be considered in the light of an additional sanction; but M. Necker, acting in fulfillment of his duty, necessarily took the responsibility on himself. The whole nation, with the exception of perhaps a few thousand individuals, were at that time of his opinion; since then, none but the friends of justice and of political liberty, such as it was understood on the opening of the Estates General, have remained consistent during twenty-five years of vicissitude. They are few in number, and death thins them daily; but death alone has the power of diminishing this faithful army; for neither corruption nor terror would be able to detach the most obscure combatant from its ranks.
What Was the Public Feeling of Europe at the Time of Convening the Estates General?
Philosophic views, that is, the appreciation of things from reason, and not from habit, had made so much progress in Europe that the possessors of privileges, whether kings, nobles, or clergy, were the first to confess the unfairness of the advantages they enjoyed. They wished to preserve them, but they laid claim to the honor of being indifferent about them; and the more dexterous among them flattered themselves that they could lull the public opinion so as to prevent its contesting the retention of that which they had the appearance of disdaining.
The Empress Catherine professed to follow Voltaire; Frederic II was almost his rival in literature; Joseph II was the most decided philosopher in his dominions; the King of France had twice taken, in America and in Holland, the part of the subjects against their prince;1 his policy had led him to support the one against their king, the other against their Stadtholder. In England the state of feeling, on all political principles, was quite in harmony with the constitution; and, before the French Revolution, there was certainly a stronger spirit of liberty in England than at present.
M. Necker was then perfectly right when he said, in the act of council of 27th December (1788), that the voice of Europe invited the King to consent to the wishes of the nation. The English constitution, which it then desired, it again calls for at the present day.2 Let us examine, with impartiality, what are the storms which drove her from that haven, in which alone she can find a secure retreat.
Opening of the Estates General on the 5th of May, 1789.
I shall never forget the hour that I saw the twelve hundred deputies of France1 pass in procession to church to hear mass, the day before the opening of the assembly. It was a very imposing sight, and very new to the French; all the inhabitants of Versailles, and many persons attracted by curiosity from Paris, collected to see it. This new kind of authority in the state, of which neither the nature nor the strength was as yet known, astonished the greater part of those who had not reflected on the rights of nations.
The higher clergy had lost a portion of its influence with the public, because a number of prelates had been irregular in their moral conduct, and a still greater number employed themselves only in political affairs. The people are strict in regard to the clergy, as in regard to women; they require from both a close observance of their duties. Military fame, which is the foundation of reputation to the nobility, as piety is to the clergy, could now only appear in the past. A long peace had deprived those noblemen who would have most desired it of the opportunity of rivaling their ancestors; and all the great lords of France were now illustrious obscures. The nobility of the second rank had been equally deprived of opportunities of distinction, as the nature of the government left no opening to nobles but the military profession. The nobles of recent origin were seen in great numbers in the ranks of the aristocracy; but the plume and sword did not become them; and people asked why they took their station with the first class in the country, merely because they had obtained an exemption from their share of the taxes; for in fact their political rights were confined to this unjust privilege.
The nobility having fallen from its splendor by its courtier habits, by its intermixture with those of recent creation, and by a long peace; the clergy possessing no longer that superiority of information which had marked it in days of barbarism, the importance of the deputies of the Third Estate had augmented from all these considerations. Their black cloaks and dresses, imposing numbers, and confident looks fixed the attention of the spectators. Literary men, merchants, and a great number of lawyers formed the chief part of this order.2 Some of the nobles had got themselves elected deputies of the Third Estate, and of these the most conspicuous was the Comte de Mirabeau.3 The opinion entertained of his talents was remarkably increased by the dread excited by his immorality; yet it was that very immorality that lessened the influence which his surprising abilities ought to have obtained for him. The eye that was once fixed on his countenance was not likely to be soon withdrawn: his immense head of hair distinguished him from amongst the rest, and suggested the idea that, like Samson, his strength depended on it; his countenance derived expression even from its ugliness; and his whole person conveyed the idea of irregular power, but still such power as we should expect to find in a tribune of the people.
His name was as yet the only celebrated one among the six hundred deputies of the Third Estate; but there were a number of honorable men, and not a few that were to be dreaded. The spirit of faction began to hover over France, and was not to be overcome but by wisdom or power. If therefore public opinion had by this time undermined power, what was to be accomplished without wisdom?
I was placed at a window near Madame de Montmorin, the wife of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and I confess I gave myself up to the liveliest hope on seeing national representatives for the first time in France. Madame de Montmorin, a woman nowise distinguished for capacity, said to me, in a decided tone and in a way which made an impression upon me, “You do wrong to rejoice; this will be the source of great misfortunes to France and to us.” This unfortunate woman perished on the scaffold along with one of her sons; another son drowned himself; her husband was massacred on the 2d of September;4 her eldest daughter died in the hospital of a prison; and her youngest daughter, Madame de Beaumont, an intelligent and generous creature, sank under the pressure of grief before the age of thirty.5 The family of Niobe was not doomed to a more cruel fate than that of this unhappy mother; one would have said that she had a presentiment of it.
The opening of the Estates General took place the next day; a large hall had been hastily erected in the avenue of Versailles to receive the deputies.6 A number of spectators were admitted to witness the ceremony. A platform floor was raised to receive the King’s throne, the Queen’s chair of state, and seats for the rest of the royal family.
The Chancellor, M. de Barentin, took his seat on the stage of this species of theater; the three orders were, if I may so express myself, in the pit, the clergy and nobility to the right and left, the deputies of the Third Estate in front. They had previously declared that they would not kneel on the entrance of the King, according to an ancient usage still practiced on the last meeting of the Estates General. Had the deputies of the Third Estate put themselves on their knees in 1789, the public at large, not excepting the proudest aristocrats, would have termed the action ridiculous, that is, wholly inconsistent with the opinions of the age.
When Mirabeau appeared, a low murmur was heard throughout the assembly. He understood its meaning; but stepping along the hall to his seat with a lofty air, he seemed as if he were preparing to produce sufficient trouble in the country to confound the distinctions of esteem as well as all others. M. Necker was received with bursts of applause the moment he entered; his popularity was then at its height; and the King might have derived the greatest advantage from it, by remaining steadfast in the system of which he had adopted the fundamental principles.
When the King came to seat himself on his throne in the midst of this assembly, I felt, for the first time, a sensation of fear. I observed that the Queen was much agitated; she came after the appointed time, and her color was visibly altered. The King delivered his discourse in his usual unaffected manner; but the looks of the deputies were expressive of more energy than that of the monarch, and this contrast was disquieting at a time when, nothing being as yet settled, strength was requisite to both sides.
The speeches of the King, the Chancellor, and M. Necker all pointed to the reinstatement of the finances. That of M. Necker contained a view of all the improvements of which the administration was capable; but he hardly touched on constitutional questions; and confining himself to cautioning the Assembly against the precipitation of which it was too susceptible, he made use of a phrase which has since passed into a proverb, “Ne soyez pas envieux du temps”—“do not expect to do at once that which can be accomplished only by time.” On the rising of the Assembly, the popular party, that is, the majority of the Third Estate, a minority of the nobility, and several members of the clergy, complained that M. Necker had treated the Estates General like a provincial administration, in speaking to them only of measures for securing the public debt and improving the system of taxation. The grand object of their assembling was, doubtless, to form a constitution; but could they expect that the King’s minister should be the first to enter on questions which it belonged to the representatives of the nation to introduce?
On the other hand, the aristocratic party, having seen from M. Necker’s speech that in the course of eight months he had sufficiently reinstated the finances to be able to go on without new taxes, began to blame the minister for having convened the Estates General, since there was no imperious call for them on the score of money. They no doubt forgot that the promise of convening them had been given by the Crown before the recall of M. Necker. In this, as in almost every other point, he observed a medium; for he would not go the length of saying to the representatives of the people, “Employ yourselves only on a constitution”; and still less would he consent to relapse into the arbitrary system, by contenting himself with momentary resources, that would neither have given a stable assurance to the public creditors, nor have satisfied the people in regard to the appropriation of its sacrifices.7
Of the Resistance of the Privileged Orders to the Demands of the Third Estate in 1789.
M. de la Luzerne, Bishop of Langres, one of the soundest minds in France, wrote, on the opening of the Estates General, a pamphlet to propose that the three orders should form themselves into two chambers, the higher clergy uniting with the Peers, and the lower with the Commons.1 The Marquiss of Montesquiou, afterward a general, made a motion to this effect in the Chamber of the nobility, but in vain. In short, all enlightened men felt the necessity of putting an end to this manner of deliberating in three bodies, each of which could impose a veto upon the other; for, to say nothing of its injustice, it rendered the public business interminable.
In social, as in natural order, there are certain principles from which we cannot depart without creating confusion. The three powers, monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, are in the essence of things; they exist in all governments, as action, preservation, and renewal exist in the course of nature.2 If you introduce into the political organization a fourth power, the clergy, who are all or nothing, according as they are considered, you can no longer establish definite reasoning on the laws necessary for the public welfare, because you are embarrassed by secret authorities, where you ought to admit no guidance but the public interest.
France, at the time the Estates General were assembled, was threatened by two great dangers, financial bankruptcy and famine; and both required speedy relief. How would it have been possible to adopt expeditious measures while each order had its veto? The two first would not consent to an unconditional equality of taxes, while the nation at large demanded that this measure should be employed, before any other, for the re-establishment of the finances. The privileged classes had indeed said that they would accede to this equality, but they had taken no formal resolution to that effect; and they had still the power of deciding on what concerned them, according to the ancient plan of deliberating. The mass of the nation had thus no decisive influence, although it bore the great proportion of the burdens. This made the deputies of the Third Estate insist on voting individually, while the nobility and clergy argued for voting by the order.3 The dispute on this point began from the moment that the powers were verified; and from that moment also, M. Necker proposed a plan of reconciliation which, though very favorable to the higher orders, might have been accepted by the Third Estate, as the question was still under negotiation.4 To all the obstacles inherent in the plan of deliberating in three orders, we are to add the imperative orders (mandats imperatifs), that is, instructions from the electors, imposing on the deputies the necessity of conforming their opinions to the will of their constituents on the principal subjects discussed in the Assembly.5 This antiquated usage was suitable only to the infancy of a representative government. Public opinion had hardly any weight in an age when the communication between one province and another was a matter of difficulty, and particularly when there were no newspapers, either to suggest ideas or communicate intelligence. But to oblige deputies in our days to adhere strictly to provincial instructions would have been to make the Estates General an assembly with little other power than that of laying petitions on the table. The information acquired in debate would have been fruitless, since they would have had no power to deviate from their previous instructions. Yet it was on these imperative orders that the nobles rested their chief arguments for refusing to vote individually. But one part of them, those of Dauphiny, had brought a positive instruction never to deliberate by order.
A minority of the nobility, that is, more than sixty members, whose families were most illustrious, but who, by their information, were fully on a level with the spirit of the age, were desirous that, as far as regarded the plan of a constitution, the mode of voting should be individually; but the majority of their order, supported by a portion of the clergy (although the latter were comparatively moderate), showed an inveterate objection to any mode of conciliation. They declared themselves ready to give up their privilege of exemption from taxes; but instead of taking a formal resolution to that effect on the opening of the meetings, they wanted to make that an object of negotiation which the nation regarded as a right. Time was thus lost in caviling, in polite refusals, and in new difficulties. When the Third Estate raised their tone and showed their strength, supported by the wish of the nation, the nobles of the court gave way, accustomed, as they were, to yield to power; but no sooner did the crisis appear to be solved than they resumed their arrogance and seemed to despise the Third Estate, as in the days when vassals solicited enfranchisement from their lords.
The provincial nobility was still less tractable than the nobility of the first rank. The latter were certain of preserving their existence—they were guaranteed by historical recollections; but the petty nobles, whose titles were known only to themselves, saw themselves in danger of losing distinctions which no longer obtained respect from anyone. These personages spoke about their rank with as much presumption as if it had existed before the creation of the world, although it had been only lately acquired. They considered their privileges, which were of no use but to themselves, like that right of property which forms the basis of general security. Privileges are sacred only when conducive to the general advantage; it requires, then, some argument to support them, and they cannot be said to be truly solid, except when sanctioned by public utility. But the chief part of the noblesse entrenched themselves in the assertion, “So it was heretofore”—“C’étoit ainsi jadis.” Nonetheless, they were told, particular circumstances produced that state of things, and these circumstances are entirely changed: in vain—nothing could operate conviction on them. They were actuated by a certain aristocratic foppery, of which an idea can be formed only in France; a mixture of frivolity in manner and of pedantry in opinion; the whole united to a profound disdain for knowledge and spirit, unless enlisted in the ranks of folly, that is, employed in giving a retrograde course to reason.
In England, the eldest son of a peer is generally a member of the House of Commons, until at his father’s death he enters the upper house; the younger sons remain in the body of the nation and form a part of it. An English peer said ingeniously, “I cannot become an aristocrat, for I have constantly beside me representatives of the popular party; these are my younger sons.” The ordered arrangement of the different ranks of society is one of the admirable beauties of the English constitution. But in France the effect of custom had been to introduce two things directly contradictory—one, ascribing such a respect to antiquity that a member of the nobility could not step into one of the king’s carriages without proofs verified by the court genealogist, and prior in date to the year 1400, that is, prior to the time the kings began to grant nobility by letters patent; while, on the other hand, the greatest importance was attached to the royal prerogative of ennobling by patent. No human power can make a true noble, in the sense implied by that epithet in France; it would imply the power of disposing of the past, which seems impossible even to the Divinity. Yet nothing was easier in France than to become a privileged person, although it was entering into a separate caste, and acquiring, if I may say so, a right to injure the rest of the nation by swelling the number of those who escaped the public burdens, and who thought themselves particularly entitled to government favors. Had the French nobility continued strictly military, the public might long have submitted, from a sentiment of admiration and gratitude, to the continuance of its privileges; but for a century back a tabouret at court had been the object of as much solicitation as a regiment in the army. The French nobles were neither members of the legislature as in England, nor sovereign lords as in Germany.6 What were they, then? They unluckily resembled the noblesse of Spain and Italy, and they escaped from the mortifying comparison only by the elegant manners and the information of a certain part of their number; but these persons, in general, renounced the doctrine of their order, and ignorance alone remained to watch over prejudice.
What orators could support this party, abandoned by its most distinguished members? The Abbé Maury, who was far from occupying a conspicuous rank among the French clergy, defended his abbeys under the name of the public good; and M. de Casalès, a captain of cavalry, whose nobility was dated only twenty-five years back, was the champion of the privileges of the nobility in the Constituent Assembly. This man was subsequently one of the first to attach himself to the dynasty of Bonaparte; and Cardinal Maury seemed to do the same with no little readiness.7 We are thus led to conclude, from these as from other examples, that in our days the advocates of prejudice are by no means slow in bargaining for their personal interest. The majority of the nobles finding themselves abandoned in 1789 by men of talents and information, proclaimed indiscreetly the necessity of employing force against the popular party. We shall soon see if that force was in existence; but we may venture to say at once, that if it was not in existence, the menace was extremely imprudent.
Conduct of the Third Estate During the First Two Months of the Session of the Estates General.
Several individuals among the nobility and clergy, the first persons in the country, inclined strongly, as we have already said, to the popular party, and there was a great number of intelligent men among the deputies of the Third Estate. We must not form an opinion of the France of that time judging by the France of the present day: twenty-five years of continual danger, of every kind, have unfortunately accustomed the French to employ their faculties only for their personal defense or interest; but in 1789 the country contained a great number of intelligent and philosophic minds.1 Why, it may be asked, could they not adhere to the government under which they had been thus formed? It was not the government, it was the advanced knowledge of the age which had developed all these talents, and those who felt they possessed them felt also the necessity of exercising them. Yet the ignorance of the people in Paris, and still more in the country, that ignorance which results from the long oppression and neglected education of the lower orders, contained the seeds of all those misfortunes which afterward overpowered France.2 Of distinguished men the country contained perhaps as many as England; but the stock of good sense that belongs to a free nation did not exist in France. Religion founded on inquiry, education generally diffused, the liberty of the press, and the right of voting at public elections, are sources of improvement which had been in operation in England for more than a century. The Third Estate desired that France should be enriched by a part of these advantages; the national wish strongly supported that desire; but the Third Estate, being the strongest party, could have only one merit, that of moderation, and unfortunately it was not in a disposition to adopt it.
There were two parties among the deputies of the Third Estate; the leaders of the one were Mounier and Malouet3 —of the other Mirabeau and Sieyès.4 The former aimed at a constitution in two chambers, and were in hopes of obtaining this change from the nobles and the King by amicable means; the other was superior in point of talent, but unfortunately more guided by passion than opinion.
Mounier had been the leader of the calm and well-planned revolution in Dauphiny. He was a man passionately devoted to reason and moderation. He was enlightened rather than eloquent, but consistent and firm in his path, so long as it was in his power to choose one.5 Malouet, whatever might be his situation, was always guided by his conscience. Never did I know a purer mind, and if he lacked anything that prevented him from acting efficiently, it was the fact that in his actions he did not engage enough with other people, trusting always to the self-evidence of truth without sufficiently reflecting on the means of bringing it home to the conviction of others.6
Mirabeau, who knew and who foresaw everything, was determined to make use of his thundering eloquence only to gain himself a place in the first rank, from which he had been banished by his immorality. Sieyès was the mysterious oracle of approaching events; he has, undoubtedly, a mind of the greatest compass and strength, but that mind is governed by a very wayward temper; and as it was a matter of difficulty to extort a few words from him, these, from their rarity, passed for little less than orders or prophecies. While the privileged classes were employed in discussing their powers, their interests, their ceremonials; in short, whatever concerned only themselves; the Third Estate invited them to join in a deliberation on the scarcity of provisions and state of the finances. What advantageous ground did the deputies of the people choose, when soliciting a union for such purposes! At last the Third Estate grew weary of these unavailing efforts, and the factious among them rejoiced that the inutility of these attempts seemed to prove the necessity of more energetic measures.
Malouet required that the chamber of the Third Estate should declare itself the assembly of the representatives of the majority of the nation. Nothing could be said against this incontestable title. Sieyès proposed to constitute themselves purely and simply the “National Assembly of France”; and to invite the members of the two orders to join them. A decree passed to this effect, and that decree constituted the Revolution.7 How important would it have been to have prevented it! But such was the success of this measure that the deputies of the nobility from Dauphiny, and some of the clergy, acceded immediately to the invitation; the influence of the assembly gained ground every hour. The French are more prompt than any other people in perceiving where strength lies; and partly by calculation, partly by enthusiasm, they press on toward power, and give it additional impulse by rallying under its banners.
The King, as will appear from the next chapter, was much too tardy in interfering in this critical state of things; and, by a blunder, not unfrequent on the part of the privileged classes, who, though always weak, are full of confidence, the grand master of the ceremonies thought proper to shut up the hall of meeting of the Third Estate, that the platform, the carpeting, and other preparations for the reception of the King might be completed. The Third Estate believed, or professed to believe, that they were forbidden to continue their meetings; the troops that were now advancing from all directions to Versailles placed the deputies decidedly on the vantage ground. The danger was sufficiently apparent to give their resistance an air of courage, while it was not so real as to keep back even the timid among them. Accordingly all the members of the Assembly concurred in meeting in the tennis court (salle du jeu de Paume) at Versailles, and bound themselves by an oath to maintain the national rights. This oath was not without dignity, and if the privileged classes had been stronger when they were attacked, and the national representatives had made a more moderate use of their triumph, history would have consecrated that day as one of the most memorable in the annals of liberty.8
Means Possessed by the Crown in 1789 of Opposing the Revolution.
The true public opinion, which rises superior to faction, has been the same in France for twenty-seven years; and every other direction given to it, being artificial, could have only a temporary influence.
There was at this time no intention of overturning the throne, but a decided determination that laws should not be passed by those who were to execute them; for it was not in the hands of the King, but of his ministers, that the authority of the former arbitrary governments was vested. The French did not, at that time, willingly submit to the singular humility which they are at present required to practice—that of believing themselves unworthy of exercising, like the English, an influence on their own fate.1
What objection could be made to this, the almost unanimous wish of France, and to what length ought a conscientious king carry his refusal? Why take on himself alone the responsibility of government, and why should not the information that would accrue to him from an assembly of deputies, composed like the English parliament, be of equal avail to him, as that which he derived from his council or his court? Why substitute for the mutual duties of subject and sovereign, the revived theory of the Jews on divine right? Without at present entering into a discussion, it cannot be denied at least that force is necessary to maintain that theory, and that “divine right” requires a human army to make it manifest to the incredulous. And what were at that time the means of which the royal authority could avail itself?
There seemed only two courses to follow—to triumph over public opinion or to enter into treaty with it. Force! force! is the cry of those men who imagine that they acquire it by pronouncing this word. But in what consists the force of a sovereign unless in the obedience of his troops? Now the army, so early as 1789, was, in a great measure, attached to the popular opinion, against which, on this supposition, it would have had to act. It had hardly been engaged in the field for twenty-five years; it was thus an army of citizens imbrued with the feelings of the nation and proud of being associated with it. Had the King, say some, put himself at its head, he would have carried it along with him. The King had not received a military education, and all the ministers in the world, without excepting such a man as Cardinal Richelieu, are incapable of supplying, in this respect, the personal agency of a monarch. Others may write for him, but they cannot command an army in his stead, particularly when it is to be employed in the interior. Royalty cannot be performed, like certain theatrical exhibitions, where one actor does the gestures while another pronounces the words. Had even the most decided character of modern times, Bonaparte himself, been on the throne, his will would have failed in the contest with popular opinion at the time of the opening of the Estates General. Politics were then a new field for the imagination of Frenchmen; everyone flattered himself with acting a part, everyone saw a personal object in the chances opening in all directions. The course of events, and the spirit of literary publications, for a century back, had prepared the mind of the nation for countless advantages which it thought itself ready to seize.2 When Napoléon established despotism in France, circumstances were favorable to such a plan; the public was weary of trouble, awed by the remembrance of dreadful misfortunes, and apprehensive of their return by a revival of faction. Besides, the public ardor was turned toward military fame; the war of the Revolution had raised the national pride. Under Louis XVI, on the contrary, the current of public opinion was directed to objects purely philosophical; it had been formed by books, which proposed a number of improvements in the administration of justice and other branches of civil government. The nation had long enjoyed profound peace, and war had been, in a manner, out of fashion since the time of Louis XIV. All the activity of the popular mind pointed to a desire of exercising political rights, and all the skill of a statesman consisted in the art of dealing tactfully with this opinion.
So long as it is practicable to govern a country by military force, the task of ministers is easy, and great talents are not necessary to ensure obedience; but if, unfortunately, recourse be had to force, and it fails, the other resource, that of winning the public opinion, is no longer available; it is lost forever from the time that an attempt was made to constrain it. Let us examine on this principle the plans proposed by M. Necker, and those which the King was persuaded to adopt in sacrificing this minister.
The Royal Session of 23d June, 1789.
The secret council of the King was altogether different from his ostensible ministry; a few of the latter shared the opinion of the former; but the acknowledged head of administration, M. Necker, was the very person against whom the privileged classes directed their efforts.
In England the responsibility of ministers is a bar to this double government, by official agents and secret advisers. No act of the royal power being executed without the signature of a minister, and that signature involving a capital punishment to whoever abuses it, even were the king surrounded by chamberlains preaching the doctrine of absolute power, there is no danger that any of them would run the risk of performing as a minister what he might support as a courtier. In France the case was different. Orders were given, without the knowledge of the prime minister, to bring forward regiments of Germans, because dependence could not be placed on the French regiments; it was expected that, with this foreign band, public opinion could be controlled in such a country as was then illustrious France.
The Baron de Breteuil,1 who aspired to succeed to M. Necker’s station, was incapable of understanding anything but the old form of government; and, even in the old form, his ideas had never extended beyond the precincts of a court, either in France or in the foreign countries where he had been sent as ambassador. He cloaked his ambition under an aspect of good nature; he was in the habit of shaking hands in the English manner with all he met, as if he would say, “I should like to be minister; what harm will that do you?” By dint of repeating that he wished to be minister, he had been introduced into the cabinet, and he had governed as well as another so long as there was nothing to do but subscribe his name to the official papers brought to the minister in a finished state by the clerks. But in the great national crisis on which we are about to enter, his councils caused terrible harm to the cause of the King. His rough voice conveyed an idea of energy; in walking he pressed the ground with a ponderous step, as if he would call an army from below—and his imposing presence deluded those who put all their hopes in their own desires.
When M. Necker asked the King and Queen, “Are you certain of the obedience of the army?” some interpreted the doubt implied in the question as the sign of a factious disposition; for one of the characteristics of the aristocratic party in France is to look with a suspicious eye on a knowledge of facts. These facts are obstinate, and have in vain risen up ten times against the hopes of the privileged classes: they have always attributed them to those who foresaw them, and never to the nature of things. A fortnight after the opening of the Estates General, and before the Third Estate had constituted itself the National Assembly, while the two parties were ignorant of their mutual strength, and while each was looking to government for support, M. Necker laid before the King a sketch of the situation of the kingdom. “Sire,” he said,
I am afraid that you are led into error in regard to the temper of the army: our correspondence with the country makes us conclude that it will not act against the Estates General. Do not then make it draw near to Versailles, as if you intended to make a hostile use of it against the deputies. The popular party does not know yet with certainty the disposition of this army. Make use of this very uncertainty to keep up your authority with the public; for, if the fatal secret of the insubordination of the troops were known, how would it be possible to restrain the factious? The point at present, Sire, is to accede to the reasonable wishes of France; deign to resign yourself to the English constitution; you, personally, will not experience any restraint by the empire of law, for never will it impose on you such barriers as your own scruples; and in thus volunteering to meet the wish of your people, you will grant today as a boon, what they may exact tomorrow as a right.
After making these observations, M. Necker transmitted the sketch of a declaration, which was to have been made by the King a month before the 23d June; that is, long before the Third Estate had declared itself the National Assembly, before the oath at the tennis court, in short, before the deputies had embraced any hostile measure. Concessions on the part of the King would then have had more dignity. The declaration, as composed by M. Necker, was almost word for word similar to the one issued by Louis XVIII at St. Ouen,2 on the 2d May, 1814, twenty-five years after the opening of the Estates General.* May we not be allowed to believe that the bloody cycle of the last twenty-five years would have been avoided if the executive power had from the first day consented to what the nation then wished, and will always continue to wish?
The success of M. Necker’s proposition was to have been secured by an ingenious plan. The King was to order the deputies to vote individually in what related to taxes, while in regard to the privileges, interests, or other matters peculiar to each order, they should continue to deliberate separately, until the settlement of the constitution. The Third Estate, being not sure of carrying the point of individual voting, would have been grateful for obtaining it, in regard to taxes; and this was what justice required, for what Estates General would those be in which a majority, that is, the two orders, who paid comparatively little or nothing, should have decided on burdens to be borne almost entirely by the minority, the Third Estate? The project of M. Necker contained, further, a declaration that the King would, in future, sanction the Estates General in no other shape than as a legislative body in two chambers. This was followed by several popular propositions in regard to legislation and finance, which would have entirely gained the public favor to the declaration. The King adopted it in all its extent, and it is certain that at the first moment it had his approbation. M. Necker was now at the summit of his hopes; for he flattered himself with prevailing on the majority of the deputies of the Third Estate to accept this well-combined plan, although the more ardent of them were inclined to reject whatever proceeded from the court.3
While M. Necker was willingly risking his popularity by coming forward as the defender of an Upper House of Parliament,4 the aristocratic body, on the other hand, thought themselves robbed of their rights by such a proposition. Each party, during twenty-five years, has, in its turn, rejected and desired the English constitution, according as it was victor or vanquished. In 1792, the Queen said to the Chevalier de Coigny, “I would that I had lost an arm, and that the English constitution had been established in France.” The nobility unceasingly wished for it after they had been stripped of their power and property; and under Bonaparte the popular party would, no doubt, have been very well satisfied to have obtained it. It may be said that the English constitution, or, in other words, reason in France, is like the fair Angelica in the comedy of the “Gambler”—he implores her in his distress and neglects her when he is fortunate.5
M. Necker was extremely anxious that the King should not lose an instant in interposing his mediation in the debates of the three orders. But the King rested tranquil in the popularity of his minister, and believed that if the proposed interference were necessary, any time might suffice for it. This was a great error. M. Necker had the power of going a certain length; he could put a limit to the claims of the deputies of the Third Estate by granting them a particular point which they were not otherwise sure of obtaining; but if he had renounced that which constituted his strength, I mean the essence of his opinions, his influence with them would have sunk lower than that of any other man.
One party among the deputies of the Third Estate, that of which Mounier and Malouet were the leaders, was in concurrence with M. Necker: but the other party aimed at a revolution, and was not contented to accept what it preferred to conquer. While M. Necker was contending with the court for the cause of liberty, he defended the royal authority, and even the nobility, against the Third Estate! All his hours, and all his faculties, were employed to guard the King against the courtiers, and the deputies against the factious.
All this, some will say, does not matter since M. Necker was not successful; the inference is that he lacked ability. For the space of thirteen years, five passed in office and eight in retirement, M. Necker had stood at the summit of popular favor; he still possessed it to such a degree that all France was indignant at the news of his banishment.6 What, then, can he be said to have lost by his fault? and how, I must repeat it, is a man to be made answerable for misfortunes that occurred because his advice was not followed? If monarchy was overturned in consequence of the adoption of a system contrary to his, is it not likely that it would have been preserved if the King had adhered to the path followed for some time after the return of M. Necker to the ministry?
Not long after that, a day had been fixed for holding a royal session when the secret enemies of M. Necker induced the King to make a journey to Marly, a residence where the voice of the public was heard still less than at Versailles. Courtiers generally place themselves between the prince and the nation, like a deceitful echo, which alters what it repeats. M. Necker relates that, in the evening of the cabinet meeting at which the royal session was to be fixed for the next day, a note from the Queen induced the King to quit the council room; the deliberation was adjourned till next day. By that time two other members were admitted to the council, as well as the King’s two brothers.7 The two members knew no forms but the ancient; and the princes, who were then young, confided too much in the army.
The party which came forward to defend the throne spoke with much disdain of the nature of royal authority in England; they wished to affix something criminal to the idea of reducing a king of France to the hard condition of a British monarch. This view of things was not only erroneous, but the result, perhaps, of selfish calculation; for, in truth, it was not the King, but the nobles, and particularly the nobles of the second class, who were likely, according to their mode of thinking, to lose by becoming the citizens of a free country.
The adoption of the English institutions would neither have lessened the enjoyments of the King, nor the authority which he would and could have exerted. Nor would these institutions have at all lessened the dignity of the great and ancient families of France; so far from that, placing them in the House of Peers, they received a more assured prerogative and were more clearly discriminated from the rest of their order. It was then only the privileges of the second class of nobility and the political influence of the higher clergy which it was necessary to sacrifice. The parlements also were apprehensive of losing those long-contested powers, which they had of themselves renounced, but which they still regretted; they perhaps saw, by anticipation, the institution of juries, that safeguard of humanity in the administration of justice. But, once for all, the interest of these orders was not identified with that of the Crown, and, by wishing to make them inseparable, the privileged classes involved the throne in their own fall. Not that their intention was to overturn monarchy; but they desired that monarchy should triumph with them and by them; while matters had come to such a pass that it was unavoidable to sacrifice, sincerely and unequivocally, that which it was impossible to defend, for the sake of preserving the remainder.
Such was the opinion of M. Necker; but it was not that of the new members of the King’s council. They proposed various changes, all in conformity with the passions of the majority of the privileged classes. M. Necker combated these new adversaries, during several days, with an energy surprising in a minister who was certainly desirous of pleasing the King and the royal family. But he was so fully persuaded of the truth of what he affirmed that he discovered in this point a resolution not to be shaken. He foretold the defection of the army if it were employed against the popular party; he predicted that the King would lose all his ascendancy over the Third Estate, by the tone in which it was proposed to compose the declaration; finally, he signified, in respectful terms, that he could not give his support to a plan which was not his, and the consequence of which would, in his opinion, be disastrous.
The court was not disposed to listen to this advice; but they desired M. Necker’s attendance at the royal session, for the sake of persuading the deputies of the people that the declaration had his approbation. This M. Necker refused, and sent in his resignation. Yet, said the aristocrats, a part of his plan was retained; true, there remained in the declaration of the 23d June, several of the concessions desired by the nation, such as the suppression of the personal tax (taille), the abolition of privileges in regard to taxes, the admission of all citizens to civil and military employments, &c. But things had changed greatly in the course of a month; the Third Estate had acquired a degree of importance which prevented it from feeling grateful for concessions which it was sure of obtaining. M. Necker wished the King to grant the right of individual voting in regard to taxes, in the very outset of his speech; the Third Estate would then have concluded that the object of the royal session was to support its interest, and that would have gained their confidence. But, in the newly modeled plan pressed on the King, the first article invalidated all the resolutions which the Third Estate had taken in its character of National Assembly, and which it had rendered sacred by the oath at the tennis court. M. Necker had proposed the royal session before the deputies had come under such engagements to public opinion. Was it prudent to offer them so much less after their power had become still greater in the interval which the court had lost in vacillation?
Acting in an appropriate and timely manner is the nymph Egeria8 of all statesmen, generals, and all those who have to do with the ever-changing character of human nature. An authoritative measure against the Third Estate was no longer practicable on the 23d of June; and it was rather the nobles whom the King should have aimed at commanding: for obedience may be a point of honor with them, since it is one of the statutes of ancient chivalry to submit to kings as to military commanders; but implicit obedience on the part of the people is nothing short of subjection, and the spirit of the age ran no longer in that direction. In our days the throne cannot be solidly established but on the power of law.
The King ought by no means to have sacrificed the popularity which he had lately acquired by granting a double number of deputies to the Third Estate. This popularity was of more consequence to him than all the promises of his courtiers. He lost it, however, by his address to the Assembly on the 23d of June; and, although that address contained some very good points, it failed entirely in its effect. Its very outset was repulsive to the Third Estate, and, from that moment forward, that body refused to listen to things which it would have received favorably, could it have been persuaded that the King was inclined to defend the nation against the claims of the privileged classes, and not the latter against the nation.9
Events Caused by the Royal Session of 23d June, 1789.
The predictions of M. Necker were but too fully realized; and that royal session, against which he had said so much, produced consequences still more unfortunate than he had calculated. Hardly had the King left the hall, when the Third Estate, who had continued there after the other orders had withdrawn, declared that it would pursue its deliberations without any attention to what they had just heard. The impulse was given; the royal session, far from attaining the hoped for object, had given new vigor to the Third Estate, and had afforded them the opportunity of a new triumph.
The rumor of M. Necker’s resignation now spread abroad, and all the streets of Versailles were instantly filled with the inhabitants, who proclaimed his name. The King and Queen sent for him to the palace on that very evening, and both urged him, in the name of the public safety, to resume his place; the Queen added that the safety of the King’s person depended on his continuing in office. How could he decline obeying? The Queen promised solemnly to follow henceforth his council; such was her determination at the time, because she was alarmed by the popular movement: but as she was always under the impression that any limit imposed on the royal authority was a misfortune, she necessarily fell again under the influence of those who viewed matters in the same light.
The King, it cannot be too often repeated, possessed all the virtues necessary for a constitutional monarch; for such a monarch is rather the first magistrate than the military chief of his country. But, though he was very well informed, and read the English historians, in particular, with attention, the descendant of Louis XIV felt a difficulty in relinquishing the doctrine of divine right.1 That doctrine is considered as a crime of lèse-majesté in England, since it is in virtue of a compact with the nation that the present dynasty occupies the throne.2 But although Louis XVI was by no means stimulated by his disposition to aim at absolute power, that power was the object of a disastrous prejudice, which unfortunately for France and for himself he never wholly renounced.
M. Necker, won by the entreaties which the King and Queen condescended to make to him, promised to continue minister, and spoke only of the future: he by no means disguised the extent of existing danger; but added that he hoped yet to remedy it, provided orders were not given to bring troops around Paris unless the Crown were certain of their obedience. In such a case he must make a point of retiring, and of being satisfied with indulging in private his wishes for the welfare of the King.
There remained only three means of preventing a political catastrophe: the hope which the Third Estate still founded on the personal disposition of the King; the uncertainty of the course which the military might take, an uncertainty which might still keep back the factious; and finally, the popularity of M. Necker. We shall soon see how these resources were lost in the course of a fortnight, by the advice of the committee to which the court gave itself up in private.
On returning from the palace to his house, M. Necker was carried in triumph by the people. Their lively transports are still present to my recollection, and revive in me the emotion which they caused in the joyous season of youth and hope. All the voices which repeated my father’s name seemed to me those of a crowd of friends, who shared in my respectful affection. The people had not as yet stained themselves by any crime; they loved their King; they looked on him as deceived, and rallied with friendly warmth around the minister whom they considered as their defender: all was true and upright in their enthusiasm. The courtiers circulated that M. Necker had planned this scene; but, supposing him to have been capable of this, how could anyone succeed in producing, by underhand means, a movement in so vast a multitude? All France took part in it; addresses arrived from every quarter of the country, and in these days addresses expressed the general wish. But one of the great misfortunes of those who live in courts is to be unable to understand rightly what a nation is. They attribute everything to intrigue, yet intrigue can accomplish nothing on public opinion. In the course of the Revolution, we have seen factious men succeed in stirring up this or that party; but in 1789, France was almost unanimous; to attempt struggling against this colossus, with the mere power of aristocratic dignities, was like fighting with toys against real weapons.
The majority of the clergy, the minority of the nobility, and all the deputies of the Third Estate repaired to M. Necker on his return from the palace; his house could hardly contain those who had gathered there, and it was there that we saw the truly amiable traits of the French character; the vivacity of their impressions, their desire to please, and the ease with which a government may win or offend them, according as it addresses itself, well or ill, to that particular kind of imagination of which they are susceptible. I heard my father entreat the deputies of the Third Estate not to carry their claims too far. “You are now,” he said, “the strongest party; it is on you then that moderation is incumbent.” He described to them the situation of France and the good which they might accomplish; several of them were moved to tears and promised to be guided by his councils; but they asked him, in return, to be responsible to them for the intentions of the King. The royal power still inspired not only respect but a certain degree of fear: these were the sentiments which ought to have been preserved.
One hundred and fifty deputies of the clergy, among whom were several of the higher prelates, had by this time gone over to the National Assembly; forty-seven members of the nobility, most of them placed in the first rank both by birth and talent, had followed them; above thirty others waited only for leave from their constituents to join them. The people called loudly for the union of the three orders, and insulted those of the clergy and nobles who repaired to their separate chamber. M. Necker then proposed to the King to issue an order to the clergy and nobility to deliberate along with the Third Estate, that he might spare them the painful anxiety under which they labored and the vexation of appearing to yield to the power of the people. The King complied, and the royal injunction still produced a surprising effect on the public mind.3 The nation was grateful to its sovereign for his condescension, although the measure was almost the result of necessity. The majority of the chamber of nobles were favorably received on their junction, although it was known that they had made a protest against the very step which they had taken. The hope of doing good revived; and Mounier, the chairman of the constitutional committee, declared that they were about to propose a political system similar, in almost everything, to that of the English monarchy.
In comparing this state of things and of the popular mind to the dreadful ferment of the evening of the 23d of June, it cannot be denied that M. Necker had a second time placed the reins of government in the King’s hands, as he had done after the dismission of the Archbishop of Sens. The throne was doubtless shaken, but it was still possible to strengthen it by taking care, above all, to avoid an insurrection, as an insurrection must evidently prove too strong for the means which government still had to resist it. But the failure of the royal session of 23d June by no means discouraged those who had caused it; and the secret advisers of the King, while they allowed M. Necker to guide the external actions of the King, advised His Majesty to give a feigned acquiescence to everything until the German troops, commanded by Marshal Broglio, should approach Paris. They took good care to conceal from M. Necker that the order for their approach had been given with a view to dissolve the Assembly: when the measure could be no longer kept private, it was said to have been adopted to quell the partial troubles that had occurred in Paris, and in which the French guards, when commanded to interfere, had shown the most complete insubordination.4
M. Necker was not ignorant of the true motive for the approach of the troops, although attempts were made to conceal it from him. The intention of the Court was to assemble at Compiègne all the members of the three orders who had not shown themselves favorable to innovation, and to make them give there a hasty consent to the loans and taxes they stood in need of, after which the Assembly was to be dissolved. As such a project could not be seconded by M. Necker, it was proposed to dismiss him as soon as the troops arrived. Every day, he was well informed of his situation and could not have any doubt about it; but, having seen the violent effects produced on the 23d of June by the news of his resignation, he was determined not to expose the public welfare to a fresh shock; for what he dreaded, of all things, was obtaining a personal triumph at the expense of the royal authority. His partisans, alarmed at the enemies by whom he was surrounded, entreated him to resign. He knew some people thought of sending him to the Bastille; but he knew also that, under existing circumstances, he could not resign without giving a confirmation to the rumor circulated about the violent measures in preparation at Court. The King having resolved on these measures, M. Necker was determined not to participate in them, but he decided also on not giving the signal of opposition: he remained like a sentinel left at his post to conceal maneuvers from the enemy.
The popular party understanding very well the measures planned against them, and being by no means disposed, like M. Necker, to become the victims of the Court, embraced the proposition of Mirabeau, which led to the famous address for sending back the troops.5 It was the first time that France heard that popular eloquence, the natural power of which was increased by the grandeur of the circumstances. Respect for the personal character of the King was still remarkable in this tribunitian harangue. “And in what manner, Sire,” said the orator of the chamber,
do they act to make you doubt the attachment and affection of your subjects? Have you been lavish of their blood? Are you cruel, implacable? Have you made an abuse of justice? Does the people charge its misfortunes on you? Does it name you in its calamities? . . . Do not put faith in those who speak to you with levity of the nation, and who represent it to you only according to their views, at one time as insolent, rebellious, seditious—at another submissive, docile to the yoke, and ready to bow the head to receive it. Each of these descriptions is equally unfaithful.
Always ready, Sire, to obey you, because you command in the name of the law, our fidelity is without bounds, and without reproach.
Sire, we entreat you in the name of our country, in the name of your happiness and your fame; send back your soldiers to the stations whence your advisers have drawn them; send back that artillery which is destined to cover your frontiers; send back, above all, the foreign troops, those allies of the nation whom we pay for defending, and not for disquieting our homes. Your Majesty has no need for them; why should a monarch, adored by twenty-five million Frenchmen, call, at a heavy expense, around his throne a few thousand foreigners? Sire, in the midst of your children be guarded by their affection.
These words are the last gleam of attachment which the French showed to their King for his personal virtues. When the military force was tried, and tried in vain, the affection of the people seemed to disappear with the power of the Court.
M. Necker continued to see the King daily; but nothing of serious import was communicated to him. Such silence toward the prime minister was very disquieting, when foreign troops were seen to arrive from various points and take their station around Paris and Versailles. My father told us in confidence every evening that he expected being put under arrest next day; but that the danger to which the King was exposed was, in his opinion, so great that he deemed it his duty to remain in office, that he might not appear to suspect what was going on.
On the 11th of July, at three in the afternoon, M. Necker received a letter from the King, ordering him to quit Paris and France, and only enjoining him to conceal his departure from everyone. The Baron de Breteuil had advised, in the committee, the arrest of M. Necker, as his dismissal might cause a tumult. “I will answer,” said the King, “that he will obey strictly my injunction in regard to secrecy.” M. Necker was affected by this mark of confidence in his probity, although accompanied by an order for exile.
He was informed in the sequel that two officers of the life guards had followed him to secure his person if he had not complied with the injunction of the King. But they could hardly reach the frontiers so soon as M. Necker himself. Madame Necker was his sole confidante; she set out, on quitting her saloon, without any preparation for the journey, with the precautions which a criminal would take to escape his sentence; and this sentence, so much dreaded, was the triumph which the people would have prepared for M. Necker had he been willing to accept it. Two days after his departure, and as soon as his removal from office was known, the theaters were shut as for a public calamity. All Paris took up arms;6 the first cockade worn was green, because that was the color of M. Necker’s livery: medals were struck with his effigy; and had he thought proper to repair to Paris instead of quitting France by the nearest frontier, that of Flanders, it would be difficult to assign a limit to the influence that he might have acquired.
Duty, doubtless, required obedience to the King’s order: but what man is there who, even in yielding obedience, would not have allowed himself to be recognized, and would not have consented to have been brought back in spite of himself, by the multitude? History does not perhaps offer an example of a man shunning power, with all the precautions which he would have taken to escape from proscription. It was necessary, to be the defender of the people, to incur banishment in this manner; and, at the same time, the most faithful subject of his monarch, to sacrifice to him so scrupulously the homage of an entire nation.
Revolution of the 14th of July (1789).
Two other ministers were removed at the same time as M. Necker, M. de Montmorin, a man personally attached to the King from his infancy, and M. de St. Priest, who was remarkable for the soundness of his judgment. But what will appear almost incredible to posterity is, that in adopting a resolution of such importance, no measure was taken to ensure the personal safety of the Sovereign in case of misfortune. The advisers of the Crown thought themselves so sure of success, that no troops were assembled around Louis XVI to accompany him to a certain distance in the event of a revolt of the capital. The soldiers were encamped in the plains near the gates of Paris, which gave them an opportunity of communicating with the inhabitants; the latter came to them in numbers, and made them promise not to make use of their arms against the people. Thus, with the exception of two German regiments,1 who did not understand French, and who drew their sabers in the gardens of the Tuileries almost as if they had wished to afford a pretext for insurrection, all the troops on which dependence was made participated in the feeling of the citizens, and complied in no respect with what was expected from them.
As soon as the news of M. Necker’s departure was spread abroad in Paris, the streets were barricaded, and all the inhabitants formed themselves into national guards, assuming some sort of military dress and laying hold of whatever weapon first offered, whether musket, saber, or scythe. Multitudes of men of the same opinion embraced each other in the streets like brothers; and the army of the people of Paris, consisting of more than a hundred thousand men, was formed in an instant, as if by a miracle.2 The Bastille, that citadel of arbitrary power, was taken on the 14th of July, 1789. The Baron de Breteuil, who boasted that he would put an end to the crisis in three days, remained only that number of days in office—long enough, however, to contribute to the overthrow of the royal power.
Such was the result of the advice of the adversaries of M. Necker. How can minds of such a cast still take on them to give an opinion on the affairs of a great people? What resources were prepared against the danger which they themselves had created? And did the world ever see men, who would not hear reason, acquit themselves so ill in the application of force?
The King in such circumstances could inspire no feeling but one of profound interest and compassion. Princes educated to rule in France have never been accustomed to look the realities of life in the face; there was held up to them an artificial world, in which they lived from the first to the last day of the year; and misfortune necessarily found them without defense in themselves.
The King was brought to Paris for the purpose of adopting, at the Hotel de Ville, that revolution which had just taken place against his power. His religious tranquillity preserved his personal dignity in this, as in all ensuing occasions; but his authority was at an end: and if the chariots of kings ought not to drag nations in their train, it is no more appropriate for a nation to make a king the ornament of its triumph. The apparent homage rendered on such an occasion to a dethroned sovereign is revolting to generous minds. Never can liberty be established when either the monarch or people are in a false situation. Each, to be sincere, must be in possession of his rights. Moral constraint imposed on the head of a government can never be the basis of the constitutional independence of a country.
The 14th of July, although marked by bloody assassinations on the part of the populace, was yet a day of grandeur: the movement was national; no faction, either foreign or domestic, would have been able to excite such enthusiasm. All France participated in it, and the emotion of a whole people is always connected with true and natural feeling. The most honorable names, Bailly, La Fayette, Lally, were proclaimed by the public opinion; the silence of a country governed by a court was exchanged for the sound of the spontaneous acclamations of all the citizens. The minds of the people were exalted; but as yet there was nothing but goodness in their souls; and the conquerors had not had time to contract those haughty passions from which the strongest party in France is scarcely ever able to preserve itself.
Return of M. Necker.
M. Necker, on arriving at Brussels, remained two days to take rest before proceeding to Switzerland by way of Germany. His greatest subject of disquietude at this time was the scarcity that threatened Paris. In the preceding winter his indefatigable exertions had preserved the capital from the misfortune of famine; but the bad harvest rendered it more and more necessary to have recourse to foreign arrivals and to the credit of the great mercantile houses of Europe. He had consequently written in the beginning of July to Messrs. Hope, the celebrated Amsterdam merchants; and apprehensive that, in the existing posture of affairs, they might be averse to undertake the purchase of corn for France, unless he personally guaranteed the payment, he had offered them security to the extent of a million livres on his private fortune. On arriving at Brussels, M. Necker recalled this guarantee to his mind. He had reason to fear that, in the crisis of a revolution, the duties of government might be neglected, or that the news of his departure might be prejudicial to the public credit. Messrs. Hope, in particular, might presume that, under such circumstances, M. Necker would withdraw his security; but he even wrote to them from Brussels that he was exiled from France, but that they were to consider the personal engagement he had taken as unaltered.
The Baron de Breteuil, during the few days that he was minister, received the answer of Messrs. Hope to M. Necker’s first letter, which contained an offer to guarantee their purchases by his private fortune. M. Dufresne de Saint-Léon,1 chief clerk in the finance department, a man of penetration and decision, gave this letter to the Baron de Breteuil, who treated the whole as folly: “What,” said he, “can the private fortune of a minister have to do with the public interest?” He might as well have added, “Why does this foreigner interfere at all with the affairs of France?”
During the interval that M. Necker was traveling along the German frontier, the Revolution of the 14th of July took place at Paris. Madame de Polignac,2 whom he had left at Versailles all powerful by the Queen’s favor, sent for him to his great surprise in an inn at Basel and apprised him that she had fled in consequence of the events that had occurred. M. Necker could not conceive the possibility of proscriptions, and he was long in comprehending the motives that had led to the departure of Madame de Polignac. Letters brought by couriers, orders from the King, and invitations from the Assembly, all pressed him to resume his situation. “M. Necker,” says Burke, in one of his writings, “was recalled, like Pompey, to his misfortune, and, like Marius, he sat down on ruins.”3 M. and Madame Necker saw the matter in this light, and it will appear from the details that I have given in the private life of my father,4 how much it cost him to take the determination of returning.
All the flattering circumstances attending his recall could not blind him in regard to the actual state of things. Murders had been committed by the people on the 14th of July, and M. Necker, at once religious and philosophic in his manner of viewing things, abandoned all hope of the success of a cause already marked by bloodshed. Nor could he flatter himself with possessing the confidence of the King, since Louis recalled him only from dread of the danger to which his absence exposed him. Had he been actuated merely by ambition, nothing was easier than to return in triumph, supporting himself on the strength of the National Assembly; but it was only to sacrifice himself to the King, and to France, that M. Necker consented to resume his position after the Revolution of the 14th of July. He thought to serve the country by lavishing his popularity in the defense of the royal authority, now too much weakened. He hoped that a man exiled by the aristocratic party would be heard with the same favor when he pleaded their cause. A distinguished citizen in whom twenty-seven years of revolution daily discovered new virtues, an admirable orator whose eloquence has defended the cause of his father, of his country, and of his King, Lally Tollendal,5 combining both reason and emotion—one who is never led away from truth by enthusiasm, expressed himself thus on M. Necker’s character and conduct, at the time of his removal:
We have just learned, Gentlemen, the deception practiced on the confidence of a King whom we love, and the wound given to the hopes of the nation whom we represent.
I will not now repeat all that has been said to you, with as much justice as energy; I will lay before you a plain sketch, and ask of you to accompany me back to the month of August of last year.
The King was deceived.
The laws were without administrators, and a population of twenty-five million without judges;
The treasury without money, without credit, without the means of preventing a general bankruptcy, which in fact would have taken place in the course of a few days;
Those in power had neither respect for the liberty of individuals, nor strength to maintain public order; the people without any resource but the convocation of the Estates General, yet hopeless of obtaining it, and distrustful even of the promise of a King whose probity they revered, because they persisted in believing that the ministers of the day would elude compliance.
To these political afflictions Providence, in its anger, had joined others; ravage and desolation was spread through the country; famine appeared in the distance, threatening a part of the kingdom.
The cry of truth reached the King’s ears; his eye fixed itself on this distressing picture; his pure and upright heart was moved; he yielded to the wish of the people; he recalled the minister whom the people demanded.
Justice resumed its course.
The public treasury was filled; credit reappeared as in times of the greatest prosperity; the infamous name of bankruptcy was no longer pronounced.
The prisons were opened, and restored to society the victims whom they contained.
The insurrections, of which the seeds had been sown in several provinces, and which were likely to lead to the most dreadful results, were confined to troubles certainly afflicting in their nature, but temporary, and soon appeased by wisdom and leniency.
The Estates General were once more promised: no one was now doubtful of their meeting, when they saw a virtuous King confide the execution of his promise to a virtuous minister. The King’s name was covered with benedictions.
The season of scarcity came. Immense exertions, the sea covered with ships, all the powers of Europe applied to, the two hemispheres put under contribution for our subsistence, more than fourteen hundred thousand quintals of corn and flour imported among us, more than twenty-five million taken out of the royal treasury, an active, efficacious, unremitted concern applied every day, every hour, in every place succeeded in warding off this calamity; and the paternal disquietude, the generous sacrifices of the King, published by his minister, excited in the hearts of all his subjects new feelings of love and gratitude.
Finally, in spite of numberless obstacles, the Estates General were assembled. The Estates General assembled! How many things, Gentlemen, are comprised in these few words! how many benefits do they suggest! to what a degree ought the gratitude of Frenchmen to be fixed on them! Certain divisions appeared at the outset of this memorable assembly; let us beware of reproaching each other with it, and let none of us pretend to be wholly innocent. Let us rather say for the sake of peace, that every one of us may have allowed himself to fall into some venial errors; let us say that the last moment of prejudice is like the last moment of him whom it torments—that at the instant it is about to expire, it acquires a temporary animation and shows a final gleam of existence. Let us acknowledge that, as far as human exertions could go, there was not one conciliating measure which the minister did not attempt with the most strict impartiality, and that where he did not succeed, the fault lay in the force of circumstances. But amidst diversity of opinion a patriotic feeling animated every heart; the pacifying efforts of the minister, the reiterated invitations of the King, were at last successful. A reunion took place: every day removed some principle of division; every day produced a motive for reconciliation: a plan of a constitution, sketched by an experienced hand, conceived by an intelligent mind and an upright heart [by Mounier], rallied all our minds and all our hearts. We were now making a real progress: we now entered effectually on our task, and France was beginning to respire.
It is at this instant, after overcoming so many obstacles, in the midst of so many hopes and so many wants, that perfidious advisers removed from the most just of kings, his most faithful servant, and, from the nation, the citizen minister in whom she had placed her confidence.
Who then are his accusers before the throne? certainly not the parliaments, whom he recalled; certainly not the people, whom he saved from famine; nor the public creditors, whom he paid; nor the upright citizens, whose wishes he has seconded. Who are they then? I do not know, but some there must be; the justice, the well-known goodness of the King do not allow me to doubt it—whoever they are, their guilt is serious.
If we cannot trace the accusers, let us endeavor to find the crimes which they may have laid to his charge. This minister, whom the King had granted to his people as a gift of his love, in what manner has he become all at once the object of ill will? what has he done for the last year? we have just seen it, I have said it, and I now repeat it: when there was no money in the treasury, he paid us; when we had no bread, he fed us; when there was no authority left, he calmed those who revolted. I have heard him accused alternately of shaking the throne, and of rendering the King despotic; of sacrificing the people to the nobility, and the nobility to the people. I considered these accusations the ordinary lot of the just and impartial, and the double censure appeared to me a double homage.
I recollect further having heard him called a factious man; I asked myself the meaning of this expression. I asked what other minister had ever been more devoted to the master whom he served, what other had been more eager to publish the virtues and good actions of the King, what other had given or procured to him a larger share of benedictions, of testimonies of love, and of respect.
Members of the Commons! whose noble sympathy made you rush before him on the day of his last triumph; that day, when after fearing you would lose him, you believed that he was restored to you for a longer time; when you surrounded him, when in the name of the people, of whom you are the august representatives, in the name of the King, whose faithful subjects you are, you entreated him to remain the minister of both, while you were shedding your virtuous tears on him; ah! say if it was with a factious look, or with the insolence of the leader of a party, that he received all these testimonies of your affection? Did he say to you, or did he ask you anything but to put your confidence in the King, to love the King, and to render this assembly dear to the King? Members of the Commons, answer me, I entreat you, and if my voice presumes to give publicity to a falsehood, let yours arise to confound me.
And his manner of retiring, Gentlemen, did it bear in any respect the appearance of a factious mind? His most trusted servants, his most affectionate friends, even his family, remained ignorant of his departure. He professed that he was going to the country; he left a prey to anxiety all who were connected with him, all who were attached to him; a night was passed in seeking him in all directions. Such behavior would be perfectly natural in the case of a prevaricator eager to escape the public indignation; but when you consider that he did it to withdraw from its homage, from expressions of regret which would have followed him along his way, and which might have soothed his misfortunes; that he should have deprived himself of this consolation, and suffered in the persons of all whom he loved, rather than be the cause of a moment’s disorder or popular commotion; that in short the last feeling that he experienced, the last duty that he prescribed to himself in quitting that France from which he was banished, consisted in giving the King and the nation this proof of respect and attachment—we must either not believe in the existence of virtue, or confess that virtue is here displayed in as pure a form as she ever exhibited on earth.
All that I had hitherto seen—the transports of the people which I had witnessed, my father’s carriage drawn by the citizens of the towns through which we passed—women on their knees when they saw him pass along the road—nothing made me experience so lively an emotion as such an opinion pronounced by such a man.
In less than a fortnight two million national guards were under arms in France. The arming of this militia was, no doubt, quickened by the dexterous circulation of a rumor in every town and village that the arrival of the brigands was imminent;6 but the unanimous feeling that drew the people from a state of tutelage was inspired by no artifice and directed by no party; the ascendency of the privileged bodies, and the strength of regular troops, disappeared in an instant. The nation took the place of all; it said, like the Cid, “We now arise”; and to show itself was to accomplish the victory. But alas! it also, in a short time, was depraved by flatterers, because it had become a power.
In the journey from Basel to Paris, the newly constituted authorities came out to address M. Necker as he passed through the towns; he recommended to them respect for property, attention to the clergy and nobility, and love for the King. He prevailed on them to grant passports to several persons who were quitting France. The Baron de Besenval, who had commanded a part of the German troops, was arrested at the distance of ten leagues from Paris, and the municipality of the capital had ordered him to be brought thither. M. Necker took on himself to suspend the execution of this order, in the dread, for which there were but too strong reasons, that the populace of Paris would have massacred him in its rage. But M. Necker felt all the danger that he incurred, in acting thus on the mere ground of his popularity. Accordingly, the day after his return to Versailles, he repaired to the Hotel de Ville of Paris to give an explanation of his conduct.
Let me be permitted to dwell once more on this day, the last of pure happiness in my life, which, however, had hardly begun its course. The whole population of Paris rushed in crowds into the streets; men and women were seen at the windows, and on the roofs, calling out Vive M. Necker. As he drew near the Hotel de Ville the acclamations redoubled, the square was filled with a multitude animated by one feeling, and pressing forward to receive a single man, and that man was my father. He entered the hall of the Hotel de Ville, explained to the newly elected magistrates the order that he had given to save M. de Besenval; and urging to them, with his accustomed delicacy, all that pleaded in favor of those who had acted in obedience to their sovereign, and in defense of a state of things that had existed during several centuries, he asked an amnesty for the past, whatever it might be, and reconciliation for the future. The confederates of Rutli,7 in the beginning of the fourteenth century, when they swore to deliver Switzerland, swore at the same time to be just toward their adversaries; and it was doubtless to this noble resolution that they were indebted for their triumph. Hardly had M. Necker pronounced the word amnesty, than it came home to every heart; the people collected in the square were eager to participate in it. M. Necker then came forward on the balcony, and proclaiming in a loud voice the sacred words of peace among Frenchmen of all parties, the whole multitude answered him with transport. As for me, I saw nothing after this instant, for I was bereft of my senses by joy.
Amiable and generous France, adieu! Adieu, France, which desired liberty, and which might then so easily have obtained it! I am now doomed to relate first your faults, next your crimes, and lastly your misfortunes: gleams of your virtues will still appear; but the light which they cast will serve only to show more clearly the depth of your miseries. Yet you have ever possessed such titles to be loved, that the mind still cherishes the hope of finding you what you were in the earliest days of national union. A friend returning after a long absence would be welcomed more kindly for the separation.
[1. ] Many historical writings published during the Bourbon Restoration had a covert political agenda that must be placed in the larger context of that epoch. Madame de Staël’s point that the French Revolution had been long in the making was developed a decade later by Guizot in his influential History of Civilization in Europe (1828).
[2. ] Written administrative and legislative commands of the Carolingian kings. They were formally divided into sections called capitula and were seen as the chief written instrument of royal authority.
[3. ] The accuracy of this historical account must be taken with a grain of salt. Here, Madame de Staël follows an older tradition of interpretation that goes back to Fénélon and Boulainvilliers.
[4. ] The same as the Champs-de-Mars. Napoléon I revived these meetings during the “Hundred Days.” Originally the term designated the March meetings held as pageants by Clovis and his followers for the amusement of the freemen who came to offer homage to their lords or to conduct business.
[5. ] It is worth pointing out that Madame de Staël’s views on this issue were undoubtedly influenced by her Protestantism.
[6. ] Christian II, King of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden (1481–1523).
[7. ] Charles XI, King of Sweden (1655–97). Crowned in 1660, he became one of the greatest Swedish monarchs.
[8. ] Madame de Staël refers here to the Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791, which included many liberal provisions.
[9. ] Madame de Staël strongly admired the English constitution, which she considered the best in Europe. It is worth pointing to the similarities between her explanation of the success of liberty in England and Tocqueville’s account of the singularity of England in The Old Régime and the Revolution.
[10. ] This thesis would also play a seminal role in Guizot’s History of Civilization in Europe, lectures XIII and XIV. It is in stark contrast to Burke’s account of the French Revolution.
[1. ] Rural uprising in the regions of Island-of-France, Picardy, Champagne, Artois, and Normandy in May–June 1358.
[2. ] The Duke of Orléans was assassinated in 1407 at the order of the Duke of Burgundy, known as John the Fearless.
[3. ] The Duke of Burgundy was assassinated in September 1419 at Montereau, where he was to attend a meeting with the dauphin (the future Charles VII). He first distinguished himself in the battle at Nicopolis, where he led a French army that helped the besieged King of Hungary to battle the Turkish forces under Bajazet (the Thunderbolt). After he became duke, he clashed with his father’s brothers, particularly Louis, Duke of Orléans. Tensions mounted between Burgundy and Orléans, and the Duke took the initiative and planned the assassination of Louis in 1407.
[4. ] Francis I (1494–1547), crowned King of France in 1515, distinguished himself as a devoted patron of the arts, although his reign was clouded by rifts and tensions within the Christian church. Martin Luther’s denunciation of the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church in 1519 triggered the Protestant movement. At first, Francis tolerated the new movement, since many German Protestant princes were turning against his sworn enemy, Charles V, but his later approval of persecutions against the Protestants led to the beginning of a long civil war.
[5. ] The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre unleashed a wave of Catholic mob violence against the Huguenots. The violence started on August 24, 1572, with the assassination of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, the most respected Huguenot leader, and quickly spread throughout France, lasting for several months.
[6. ] The dragonnades were a form of persecution of French Protestants (Huguenots) before and after Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685. The Edict of Nantes of 1598, promulgated by King Henri IV to restore internal peace in a France torn by the Wars of Religion, defined and secured the rights of the French Protestants. In 1685 Louis XIV declared that the majority of Protestants had converted to Catholicism and annulled the edict of 1598, which, he claimed, had become superfluous.
[7. ] The revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV renewed the persecution of Protestants and triggered the so-called War of Camisards in the region of Cevennes from 1702 to 1705; the war ended with a large fire.
[8. ] Madame de Staël offers here an interpretation of the history of France through liberal lenses. Her emphasis on the struggle against arbitrary power is meant to highlight the antecedents of representative institutions and principles in France that found their guarantees in Louis XVIII’s Charter of 1814.
[9. ] Madame de Staël had already made this claim in her book Des circonstances actuelles qui peuvent terminer la Révolution française, written in 1797–98 (the complete text was first published in 1979 by Lucia Omacini).
[10. ] Henri de Boulainvilliers (1658–1722), French historian and author of Histoire de l’ancien gouvernement de la France; Etat de la France, avec des memoires sur l’ancien gouvernement; Histoire de la pairie de France; and Essais sur la noblesse de France, contenans une dissertation sur son origine & abaissement. All these books were published posthumously in Holland and England.
[* ] From 1270 to 1461.
[11. ] Edward III (1312–77), among the most famous kings of England, consolidated England’s military power during his long reign by asserting its sovereignty over Scotland. He declared himself rightful heir to the French throne in 1337 as the only living male descendant of his grandfather Philip IV and thereby started the Hundred Years’ War.
[12. ] Louis IX (1215–70), King of France 1226–70, also known as St. Louis, canonized in 1297 by Pope Boniface VIII. He was a great patron of the arts and built the famous Saint Chapelle in Paris. A devout Christian, he was seen as the model of the Christian monarch and participated in two crusades (1248 and 1270). He died in 1270 near Tunis.
[13. ] John II of France (1319–64), known as John the Good. In 1356, after losing the battle at Poitiers, he was captured and taken to London. Four years later, the Treaty of Brétigny released the French king from captivity on the condition that France pay a hefty ransom and that two of his sons, John and Louis, take his place in London to guarantee the payment of the ransom. After Louis escaped in 1363, John the Good, obeying the laws of honor, turned himself over to the English; he died in London in 1364.
[14. ] Charles V, King of France 1364–80, son of John the Good. His reign marked the end of the Hundred Years’ War.
[15. ] Charles VIII, King of France 1483–98, son and successor of Louis XI. He invaded Italy in 1494 and reached as far south as Naples but was forced to retreat when Milan, Venice, Spain, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, and Pope Alexander VI formed a powerful league against him. Eventually, the French troops were defeated.
[16. ] Louis XII, King of France 1498–1515, son of Charles, Duke of Orléans, and cousin of Charles VIII, whom he succeeded on the throne of France. He attempted to impose French domination over Italy. By the treaties of Blois (1504), Louis attempted a compromise with Spain and Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. Ultimately, the compromise did not work out and he had to fight the armies of Maximilian, Pope Julius II, and Henry VIII of England.
[17. ] Henri IV (1553–1610), the first Bourbon monarch in France and one of the most popular French kings. He was born into a Catholic family but was raised as a Huguenot. Before ascending to the throne in 1589 he was involved in the Wars of Religion. His marriage to Marguerite de Valois, sister of King Charles IX, was instrumental in bringing much-needed peace between Catholics and Protestants. He restored prosperity to his country, which had been ravaged by religious and civil wars. In 1598, Henri IV enacted the Edict of Nantes, which guaranteed religious liberty to Protestants.
[18. ] Louis VI of France, known as Louis the Large One (1081–1137), reigned as King of France from 1108 until his death. He encouraged the communal movements and the development of social or religious trade associations by granting the inhabitants of various cities tax advantages and the right to govern their local affairs.
[19. ] Allusion to the captivity of St. Louis following his participation in the seventh crusade. He was taken prisoner in Egypt in 1250.
[20. ] Charles VII (1403–61), King of France 1422–61. When he became monarch, France had no organized army. The English strengthened their grip over France until 1429, when Joan of Arc urged Charles to raise an army to liberate France from the English.
[21. ] Louis XI (1423–83), King of France 1461–83. A skillful administrator, Louis set up an efficient central administration and used commissions and the Estates General to give his acts the appearance of popular approval. He also diminished the prestige of the courts.
[22. ] The original French text reads as follows: “Car nul ne doit être roi fors celui qui règne et a seigneurie sur les Francs. Les Francs de nature aiment leur seigneur” (72). The use of the word “Francs” was meant to emphasize the contrast between serfs and freemen.
[23. ] Madame de Staël’s Protestantism is again visible in her strong emphasis on the connection between Reformation and liberty. Guizot, himself a Protestant, also highlighted this connection in his History of Civilization in Europe, lecture XI.
[24. ] The Assembly was convoked in 1596. It is possible that the King made a number of promises to the nobles because he needed their approval for royal subsidies.
[25. ] Hugo Grotius (1583–1645), eminent Dutch jurist, humanist, and author. Among his major works was the highly influential Concerning the Law of War and Peace, originally published in 1625 and considered the first major text on international law.
[26. ] Reference to Léonora Dori (1568–1617), the wife of Marshal d’Ancre. Of modest origin, she was the foster sister of Marie de Médicis and became one of the most powerful and richest women in France. Accused of practicing exorcism and exercising a nefarious influence on Marie de Médicis, she was decapitated in 1617.
[27. ] Richelieu (1585–1642), famous cardinal and prominent French statesman, represented the clergy of Poitou in the Estates General of 1614, where his political career began. A famous patron of arts and letters, Richelieu became secretary of state in 1616 and consolidated royal authority and centralization. In so doing, he aimed at limiting the power of the nobles and suppressing political opposition. During the Thirty Years’ War, Richelieu allied France with Protestant powers, thus causing problems in the relations with Rome. He died in 1642 and was succeeded by Mazarin.
[28. ] Arnaud d’Ossat (1536–1604) was instrumental in bringing about the reconciliation between Henri IV and the Holy See. Philippe Duplessis-Mornay (1549–1623), whose nickname was “the Pope of the Huguenots,” was a favorite adviser to Henri IV.
[29. ] Cardinal Mazarin (1602–61), born in southern Italy and educated in Rome, gained rich military and diplomatic experience serving the papal court before becoming papal vice-legate at Avignon (1632) and nuncio extraordinary in France (1634). Eight years later he succeeded his mentor, Cardinal Richelieu, and became chief minister of France, a position he retained until his death. His policy aimed at strengthening royal power eventually led to the civil war known as la Fronde (1648–53).
[30. ] In September 1688, Louis XIV invaded the Palatinate (in Germany) and occupied Cologne. A nine-year war ensued that ended with the Treaty of Ryswick (1697), by which Louis gave up all lands, including the Palatinate, that he had seized except Strasbourg.
[31. ] François Fénélon (1651–1715), famous French bishop and writer, best remembered as the author of Les aventures de Télémaque, Examen de conscience d’un roi, and Tables de Chaulnes.
[32. ] Madame de Staël describes here the process of social atomization that led to what Tocqueville called in The Old Régime and the Revolution collective (group) individualism. The growth of royal absolutism fueled the separation between classes and fostered political apathy. She makes the same critique against Napoléon in parts IV and V of Considerations.
[33. ] The original word, “capitalistes,” can be translated as bankers, creditors, capitalists, those who use capital. The old English translation used the archaic phrase “monied interests.”
[34. ] William Pitt, First Earl of Chatham (1708–78), was an eminent Whig statesman who became prime minister of England toward the end of his life.
[35. ] For an analysis of the image (and symbol) of England in modern French political thought, see Jennings, “Conceptions of England and Its Constitution in Nineteenth-Century French Political Thought,” Historical Journal 29, no. 1, 65–85.
[36. ] André-Hercule Cardinal de Fleuri, Bishop of Fréjus (1653–1743), chief minister of Louis XV.
[37. ] Reference to the group who claimed to possess paranormal qualities and gathered around the tomb of François de Pâris, in the cemetery of the Saint Médard’s Day Church in Paris, between 1727 and 1732. Miraculous cures occurred, along with moments of intense devotion resulting in body convulsions.
[1. ] Maupeou (1714–92), chancellor of France 1768–74, was instrumental in helping King Louis XV assert his domination over the parlements that opposed the fiscal measures proposed by the monarch. In 1771, Maupeou dissolved the parlements and exiled the magistrates from Paris, creating in their place a new high court and a system of superior courts. The nobles came to dislike Maupeou and eventually convinced Louis XVI to dismiss him and restore the old parlements.
[2. ] Étienne-François, Duke of Choiseul (1719–85), French military officer, diplomat, and statesman.
[3. ] On public opinion in eighteenth-century France, see Ozouf, “L’opinion publique,” 420–34. Also see Ozouf’s entry on public opinion in A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, 771–79.
[4. ] Jean-Frédéric Phélypeaux, Count of Maurepas (1701–81), lost his position as secretary of state for the navy in 1749 because he was suspected of having written a pamphlet against Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of the King. Louis XVI appointed him minister of state in 1774.
[5. ] It will be recalled that the parlements were courts of justice rather than legislative assemblies. The previous meeting of the Estates General was held in 1614.
[6. ] Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (1727–81), French economist and comptroller general of finances 1774–76, wrote on economic subjects (Réflexions sur la formation et la distribution des richesses) and advocated free trade and free competition. Guillaume-Chrétien de Lomoignon de Malesherbes (1721–94), eminent French royal administrator and lawyer, was a relative of Tocqueville. He served as counselor in the Parlement of Paris in 1744, director of the press (1750–63), and in 1775 as secretary of state for the royal household. He helped conduct the defense of Louis XVI in 1792 and was arrested a year later, tried for treason, and guillotined. A collection of his political writings can be found in Wyrwa, ed., Malesherbes, le pouvoir et les Lumières.
[7. ] Under the Old Regime, the French kings issued lettres de cachet (“letters with a seal”) to eliminate enemies of the state, via imprisonment or exile, without allowing recourse to a court of law.
[8. ] Compulsory labor of the peasants in the service of their lords.
[9. ] The lit de justice (literally “bed of justice”) was a formal session of the Parlement de Paris, called by the king, in order to quell parlementary remonstrances and impose the registration of royal edicts. It was meant to reassert the power of the monarch against any opposition to his will.
[10. ] The existence of a genuine constitution under the Old Regime is the subject of chapter 8 of Joseph de Maistre’s Considerations on France, in which he argued that the monarch reigned only through the fundamental laws of the kingdom. Madame de Staël returns to this important issue later in part I, chapter xi: “Did France Possess a Constitution Before the Revolution?”
[11. ] Madame de Staël refers here to the bourgeoisie, which was far from being the “most numerous and most active” of all classes. On the eve of the Revolution, the peasants formed approximately 85 percent of the French population, the nobles and clergy approximately 2 percent.
[12. ] A full bibliography of Necker’s political writings can be found in Grange, Les idées de Necker, 621–34; also see Egret, Necker, ministre de Louis XVI.
[1. ] Madame Necker married Jacques Necker in November 1764. She received, among others, Voltaire, Diderot, Holbach, Helvétius, Grimm, d’Alembert, Gibbon, Hume, and Walpole.
[2. ] On this issue Madame de Staël is in agreement with Burke’s critique of the philosophical radicalism of the French Revolution and its inclination to abstract thought.
[3. ] The revolt, known as la guerre des farines, developed and manifested itself mostly in the region of Paris.
[4. ] The term, which originally denoted tenure by a religious corporation, derives from medieval French (literal meaning, “dead hand”). Mortmain refers to the “sterilization” of ownership of property by vesting it perpetually in a corporation.
[5. ] This edict was passed in 1779.
[6. ] Michel de l’Hôpital (1505–73), chancellor of France under Catherine de Médicis, 1560–68, was instrumental in promoting a number of important judicial reforms and religious toleration.
[7. ] Needless to say, the portrait of Necker drawn by Madame de Staël is far from objective.
[1. ] Toward the end of the eighteenth century, public opinion gradually acquired the status of a universal tribunal before which citizens, magistrates, and governments were held accountable. During the Bourbon Restoration, French liberals regarded publicity as playing a key role in limiting and moderating political power and considered it a pillar of representative government along with elections and freedom of the press. Like Constant and Guizot, Madame de Staël viewed publicity and public debates as essential to creating a public sphere partly similar to the economic market based on free competition of interests and ideas.
[2. ] Worth noting is the connection between commerce, credit, and the rule of law, a recurrent topic in Necker’s political writings.
[3. ] Reference to the American War of Independence.
[4. ] Madame de Staël refers here to various onerous forms of financial speculations that were used in the epoch to increase capital. The tontines were invented by an Italian banker named Tonti and were introduced in France in 1653.
[5. ] Salt taxes.
[6. ] Necker’s De l’administration des finances de la France was first published in 1784.
[7. ] A reference to the American War of Independence.
[8. ] Reference to Necker’s Compte rendu, published in 1781, eight years before the French Revolution. Necker became famous as Louis XVI’s finance minister when he made public the state budget for the first time in the history of the French monarchy, which had always kept the state of finances a secret. Necker thought this practice both illegitimate and ineffective and pointed out that public opinion had become “an invisible power which, without any treasury, guard, or army, legislates over the city, the court, and even the king’s palaces” (Necker as quoted in Baker, Inventing the French Revolution, 193). The public success was tremendous: more than three thousand copies of this document were sold the first day of its publication. On the financial crisis during the last two decades of the Old Regime, see Doyle, Origins of the French Revolution, 45–53, 91–107.
[9. ] In this passage Madame de Staël highlights Necker’s moderation by portraying him as a representative of an older tradition of political moderation in France, which also included Montesquieu and, a few decades later, the so-called juste milieu (middle-of-the-road) liberals such as Guizot, Royer-Collard, and Cousin.
[1. ] In October 1776, Necker was appointed general director of the royal treasury. As a foreign citizen (he was both Swiss and Protestant), he could not be officially entrusted with the control of the kingdom’s finances. The official title of general controller of finances was reserved for Taboureaux des Réaux. Not surprisingly, Taboureaux des Réaux resigned a few months later and Necker was officially appointed general director of finances.
[2. ] Necker was instrumental in creating four such provincial assemblies from 1778 to 1780—in Dauphiné, Haute-Guyenne, Bourbonnais, and Berry.
[3. ] In 1789 there were thirty-two généralités in France.
[4. ] In 1789 there were thirteen parlements in France: in Paris, Toulouse, Grenoble, Bordeaux, Dijon, Rouen, Aix, Rennes, Pau, Metz, Besançon, Douai, and Nancy. Moreover, there were four other “sovereign councils” (similar to the parlements) in Perpignan, Arras, Colmar, and Ajaccio (in Corsica). For more information, see Hurt, Louis XIV and the Parlements. For a brief overview of the role of parlements, see Doyle, Origins of the French Revolution, 68–70.
[5. ] Note the similarity between Madame de Staël’s analysis and Tocqueville’s account of the internal crisis of the Old Regime.
[1. ] France intervened in the American War of Independence by siding with the Americans against the English.
[2. ] La Fayette (Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert Du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, 1757–1834) was a distinguished French military officer who became famous in both France and the United States for his participation in the American Revolution, in which he served as both a general and a diplomat. Ignoring the King’s interdiction, he left for America and landed in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 1777. He returned to France in 1779 and came back to America on three other occasions, the last time in 1824–25. See Gottschalk and Maddox, La Fayette in the French Revolution, vol. 1: Through the October Days.
[3. ] Hume examines the reign of Charles I in History of England, vol. V, chaps. l–lix, pp. 156–548. Charles I’s character is discussed on pp. 542–48. Humes’s exact words are as follows: “Unhappily, his fate threw him into a period, when the precedents of many former reigns favoured strongly of arbitrary power, and the genius of the people ran violently towards liberty. . . . Exposed, without revenue, without arms, to the assalt of furious, implacable, and bigotted factions, it was never permitted him, but with the most fatal consequences, to commit the smallest mistake; a condition too rigorous to be imposed on the greatest human capacity.” (p. 543)
[1. ] The main author of the anonymous libels against Necker seems to have been Augeard, who served as financial adviser to Maurepas. The libels attacked Necker’s religion (he was a Protestant) and accused him of not being French (he was born in Switzerland).
[2. ] The hospital, which still carries Necker’s name, was built in 1778. Madame Necker played a key role in its construction.
[* ] These letters, which are a family treasure, are in my possession at our seat at Coppet.
[† ]Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique, adressé à un souverain d’Allemagne, par le baron de Grimm, et par M. Diderot. (Vol. v, p. 297, May 1781)
It was only on Sunday morning, the 20th of this month, that the people of Paris were apprised of M. Necker’s resignation, sent in the evening before; they had been long prepared for it by the rumor of the town and court, by the impunity of the most offensive libels, and by a kind of patronage extended by a powerful party, by every means open and secret, to those who were shameless enough to circulate them. Yet, to judge from the general surprise, one would have said that no intelligence had ever been so unexpected: consternation was stamped on every countenance; those who felt differently were few in number, and would have been ashamed to show it. The walks, the coffeehouses, and all the places of public resort were crowded with people, but there prevailed an extraordinary silence. They looked at each other and shook hands in despondence, I should say, as at the sight of a public calamity; if these first moments of distress might not rather be compared to the state of a disconsolate family which has just lost the object and support of its hopes.
It happened that they acted, on that evening, at the Theatre Français, the Partie de Chasse de Henri IV. I have often seen at the Paris theaters a surprising quickness in applying passages of a play to momentary circumstances, but I never saw it done with so lively and general an interest. The name of Sully was never introduced without bringing forth a shout of applause, marked each time by a particular character, by a shade belonging to the feeling with which the audience were penetrated, being actuated one moment by regret and grief, at another by gratitude and respect; all so true, so just, and so distinctly marked, that language itself could not have given these emotions a more lively or interesting expression. Nothing that could, without difficulty, be applied to the public feeling toward M. Necker was overlooked; often the rounds of applause burst forth in the midst of an actor’s speech, when the audience foresaw that the end of it would not admit of so clear, so natural, and flattering an application. In short, seldom has there been a more evident or delicate concurrence of feeling; or one, if I may so express myself, more spontaneously unanimous. The comedians thought it incumbent on them to apologize to the lieutenant de police for having been the cause of this touching scene, with which, however, they could not be reproached; they had no difficulty in exculpating themselves, as the piece had been in preparation for a week. The police thought proper to take no notice of it, and merely forbade the newspaper writers from mentioning, in future, M. Necker’s name with either praise or censure.
No minister ever carried a more spotless fame into retirement; none ever received more marks of the public confidence and admiration. For several days after his leaving Paris, the road to his country house at St. Ouen exhibited a continued procession of carriages. Men of all ranks and conditions hastened to show him marks of their sensibility and regret. In the number were to be seen the most respectable persons of the town and court; the prelates most distinguished by their birth and piety, the Archbishop of Paris at their head; the Birons, the Beauvaux, the Richelieus, the Choiseuls, the Noailles, the Luxembourgs; in short, the most respected names in France, not omitting even M. Necker’s official successor, who thought the best way of giving to the public confidence in his administration was to express the greatest admiration of that of M. Necker, and congratulate himself on having only to follow the path he found so happily traced.
[1. ] Calonne became controller general of finances in November 1783 and held this position until April 1787. For more information on Calonne, see Doyle, Origins of the French Revolution, 45–53.
[2. ] The paper controversy was originally triggered by Calonne’s critique of Necker’s ideas in On the Administration of the Finances of France (1784). Calonne gave a discourse in the Assembly of Notables on February 22, 1787, followed by Necker’s Response to the Discourse Pronounced by Mr. de Calonne (Paris, 1787).
[3. ] In fact, Assemblies of Notables had been convoked after the death of Henri IV and again in 1617, 1625, and 1626. Necker’s account of the Assembly of Notables of 1787 is in Necker, De la Révolution française, pt. I, 60–64. Also see Furet, Revolutionary France, 41–45; and Baker, ed., The Old Régime and the French Revolution, 124–35.
[4. ] For the image of England in France, see p. 42n35 of the present volume.
[* ] In English money 2,300,000l. sterling.
[5. ] The historians who questioned the accuracy of Necker’s account concluded that the ten-million-livre budget surplus Necker announced in his Compte rendu was an exaggerated figure. For more information, see Egret, Necker, ministre de Louis XVI, 201–15.
[6. ] In his book, Necker answered Calonne’s criticism and defended his policy. The King, who was displeased with Necker’s decision to publish the book, initially wanted to send Necker into exile, but at the intervention of the Queen ordered him to leave Paris and remain forty leagues from the capital. The Necker family eventually settled close to Fontainebleau.
[7. ] Of the 144 members of the Assembly of 1787, 106 notables represented the nobles and the clergy, and 38 represented the Third Estate.
[8. ] Bouvard de Fourqueux proved to be a competent public official, although perhaps not physically fit for the new office.
[9. ] Fourqueux was sixty-eight (b. 1719), not sixty, when he assumed this office.
[1. ] Loménie de Brienne (1727–94), French statesman and cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, was Archbishop of Toulouse (1763–88) and of Sens (1788). Nominated as president of the Assembly of Notables, he criticized the fiscal policy of Calonne, whom he succeeded as head of the treasury in May 1787. Brienne admired Necker and asked the King to bring him back to Paris and offer him a ministerial position. Brienne was forced out of office in August 1788. After the beginning of the Revolution, Brienne was one of the few French prelates to take an oath to the civil constitution of the clergy promulgated in 1790. He was subsequently arrested by the revolutionary government and died in prison in 1794.
[2. ] Sabatier uttered these famous words during a meeting on July 9, 1787. He was arrested in November 1787. On his return to Paris in the fall of 1788, he became a member of the Society of the Thirty, which was instrumental in preparing the elections to the Estates General.
[3. ] In May 1788, Duval d’Eprésmésnil and Goislard de Monsabert drafted the remontrances that invoked the “fundamental laws of the state” and claimed that the Estates General alone had the right to approve new subsidies. Immediately after that, Louis XVI ordered the arrest of his two advisers; they were released in September 1788.
[4. ] The protests and discontent among the nobles were not confined to Brittany; they spread to other regions of France as well. The nobles from Brittany appointed twelve representatives, whom they sent to the King to express their discontent with the judicial reforms of May 1788, which limited the authority of parlements. The twelve representatives were arrested and imprisoned at the Bastille in mid-July.
[5. ] By emphasizing the revolt of the nobles against the arbitrary measures of the King’s ministers, Madame de Staël sought to demonstrate the long history of opposition to arbitrary power in France. Seen from this perspective, the events of 1789 appeared both justified and inevitable, an idea at odds with the opinions of the ultraroyalist camp.
[6. ] It was Necker, recalled to power following the resignation of the Archbishop of Toulouse, who reestablished the parlements on September 23, 1788.
[7. ] Necker proposed to convoke the Estates General on January 1, 1789, rather than May 1, the date suggested by Brienne.
[8. ] This had significant consequences for freedom of the press in France. Brienne’s decision was announced on July 5, 1788.
[1. ] This unusually long chapter plays a seminal role in Madame de Staël’s analysis of the Old Regime and the roots of the French Revolution. The question whether France did or did not have a true constitution was an old one, and any answer was pregnant with significant political implications. Most famously, Abbé Sieyès answered in the negative, thus justifying his revolutionary claims in What Is the Third Estate? (1789). In a surprisingly short (four-page) chapter of his own book, Bailleul pointed to the contradictions in Madame de Staël’s analysis in part I, chapter xi. He ironically noted (Examen critique, vol. 1, 146–47) that by concluding that France had no genuine constitution under the Old Regime, Madame de Staël was contradicting some of her earlier statements such as the existence of a forceful opposition to royal power coming from local privileges and intermediary bodies. For another critique see Louis de Bonald, Observations sur l’ouvrage de Madame la baronne de Staël, chap. I (Paris, 1818).
[2. ] Philip IV was King of France from 1285 to 1314. His nickname, Philip the Fair (le Bel), came from his handsome appearance.
[3. ] For a comprehensive analysis of the political institutions of the Old Regime, see Mousnier, Les institutions de la France sous la monarchie absolue.
[4. ] At the core of Madame de Staël’s critique of Louis XVI’s arbitrary power is her emphasis on the absence of the rule of law under the Old Regime.
[5. ] William Blackstone (1723–80), author of Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–69).
[* ] Commentaries, book iv, chap. 27, §5.
[6. ] These ideas can be found in Boulainvilliers’ influential books Histoire de l’ancien gouvernement de France (1727) and Essai sur la noblesse (1732). Henri de Boulainvilliers (1658–1722) was a leading historian of the French monarchy. An analysis of his writings can be found in Ellis, Boulainvilliers and the French Monarchy.
[7. ] Reference to the peace treaty signed by Francis I, prisoner of Charles V, on January 14, 1526. The treaty had to be ratified by the Estates General and other sovereign courts of France.
[8. ] This development occurred around 1250 under the reign of St. Louis.
[9. ] A reference to the 1355–56 ordinances King John was forced to sign during a meeting of the Estates General giving the latter some control over the collection of taxes and limiting their duration to one year. It was not uncommon for commentators to compare these ordinances with the Magna Carta.
[10. ] This statement of Jacques Talon, avocat général of the Parlement of Paris, was made in 1631.
[11. ] The question to be decided was whether France had to create an entirely new constitution (having arguably had none) or was supposed only to restore (reform) an existing one. The answer to this question was bound to have major political implications, as the course of subsequent events plainly demonstrated. For more information, see Baker, Inventing the French Revolution, 255–305.
[12. ] For example, special commissions for punishing those involved in the trafficking of salt and cigarettes were instituted in Valence (1733), Saumur (1742), and Reims (1765).
[13. ] The two houses in England were established in the fourteenth century.
[14. ] Fixing the French constitution was a highly contested topic in 1789. Some members of the Constituent Assembly sought to give a more regular form to the old limits to absolute power; others wanted to make a tabula rasa of the past and devise an entirely new constitution. Necker commented on the difficult task of amending the old French constitution in De la Révolution française, pt. I, 41–45, 203–5. In Necker’s opinion, there was a clear tension between the social and political orders of France on the eve of the Revolution. Public opinion demanded the elimination of the significant financial privileges enjoyed by the nobles and the clergy. For an overview of the debates on amending the French constitution, see Baker, Inventing the French Revolution, 252–305, and Valensise, “The French Constitution in Pre-revolutionary Debate,” 22–57. For an overview of the projects for reform in the last years of the Old Regime, see Furet, Revolutionary France, 17–27, 33–40, and Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, 86–111.
[15. ] The authors of Maximes du droit public françois (Amsterdam, 1775), 2 vols., were Claude Mey and Gabriel-Nicolas Maultrot, jurists in the natural-law tradition who may have been influenced on certain points by Hobbes and Rousseau. A useful analysis of this work can be found in Echeverria, “The Pre-revolutionary Influence of Rousseau’s Contrat Social,” 551–52; and Van Kley, “New Wine in Old Wineskins,” 447–65. The latter suggests that the work arose out of the attack upon the despotism of the Maupeou judicial revolution of 1771–74; one of Maultrot’s other works was reprinted to similar effect in the 1787–89 antidespotism campaign.
[16. ] The title of Calonne’s book (published in London in 1796) is Tableau de l’Europe jusqu’au commencement de 1796. He also published an answer to Monthion’s critique, Lettre de M. de Calonne au citoyen autour du prétendu rapport fait à S. M. Louis XVIII.
[* ] M. de Monthion’s Report, p. 154 of the London edition.
[17. ] In French, abonnement d’impôts. Before 1789 (when it first seems to have taken on that meaning) the term had both feudal and fiscal connotations, and it meant fixing in advance the returns or the taxes on this or that property.
[18. ] Madame de Staël’s emphasis on the inevitability of the Revolution evokes the similar approach of Tocqueville in The Old Régime and the Revolution, vol. 1, bk. 1, chap. 5: “What Did the Revolution Really Accomplish?”
[1. ] The promise to convoke the Estates General (at the latest in 1792) was first made by Brienne in November 1787.
[2. ] Necker’s book was entitled De l’importance des opinions religieuses (1788).
[3. ] This was the outcome of Necker’s proposal (September 14, 1788) to revoke Brienne’s decision of August 16 ordering the payment in paper money of a part of salaries and rents.
[1. ] After the meeting of the Estates General in Blois in 1576, Du Perron tried to find a conciliatory solution and convinced the Pope to revoke the excommunication of Henri IV. In 1614, Du Perron represented the clergy at the meeting of the Estates General and pronounced himself against the independence of the Crown from the Holy See.
[2. ] The Baron of Senneci (or Senecey) was one of the most respected members of the nobility at the meeting of the Estates General in 1576.
[3. ] Madame de Staël’s description of the separation between the three orders is similar to Tocqueville’s analysis in The Old Régime and the Revolution, vol. 1.
[1. ] In Sweden, the four estates were the nobility, the clergy, the bourgeoisie, and the peasants. The Cortés of Aragon comprised the nobility, the knights, the clergy, and the “people.”
[2. ] Philip the Tall (Philip V), King of France (from 1316) and King of Navarre (as Philip II, from 1314), who largely succeeded in restoring the royal power to what it had been under his father, Philip IV, did not convoke the clergy to all the sessions of the Parlement of Paris.
[3. ] The Assembly of Notables of 1558 comprised the three traditional orders and the presidents of the parlements of the kingdom, which formed a special order in itself. The Assembly of Notables that met in 1626 addressed the serious budgetary problems facing France at that time.
[4. ] Allusion to the Charter of 1814 granted by Louis XVIII on his return to the throne of France in 1814.
[* ] Extract of the decree of Parlement of 5th Dec. 1788, the peers being present.
Considering the actual situation of the nation, &c., this court declares that, in distinguishing in the Estates General of 1614, the convoking, the composition, and the number:
In regard to the first point the court must call for the form established at that period; that is, convoking by bailiwicks and senechalships, not by governments or généralités; this form, sanctioned century after century by many examples, and by the last Estates, being the only method to obtain a complete assemblage of the electors in the legal form before officers independent from their situation.
In regard to the composition of the Assembly, the court neither could nor ought to infringe in the slightest manner on the right of the electors; a right founded in nature, in the constitution, and hitherto respected—that of committing their powers to the citizens whom they judge most deserving of them.
In respect to the number, that of the respective deputies not being determined by any law, or any usage, for any of the orders, it has not been within the powers or intention of this court to decide it; the said court can only trust to the wisdom of the King for the measures necessary to arrive at that course which reason, liberty, justice, and the general wish shall point out. The said Parlement has further decreed that the said Lord the King should be most humbly entreated to permit no longer delay in assembling the Estates General, and to take into his consideration, that there would be no cause for agitation in the public mind or disquietude in the orders, if he were pleased, on calling together that assembly, to declare as sacred
The future assembling of the Estates General;
Their right to assign, as a security, certain fixed taxes to the public creditors; their duty to the people to grant no other tax without defining it both as to amount and duration; their right to fix and appropriate freely the funds of each department at the demand of the King;
The resolution of our said Lord the King to take steps to suppress all taxes which constitute a distinction between the higher orders and the class which alone supports them, and to replace them by taxes payable equally by the kingdom at large;
The responsibility of ministers;
The right of the Estates General to bring actions before the courts of justice in all cases that directly interest the nation at large, without prejudicing the rights of the King’s procureur general in similar cases;
A connection between the Estates General and the higher courts of justice, of such a nature that the courts ought not, and cannot, suffer the collection of any tax unless legally voted, nor further the execution of any law not passed by the Estates General;
The individual liberty of citizens by the obligation to bring every man detained in a royal prison forthwith before his natural judges;
And the legitimate liberty of the press, the only prompt and sure resource of men of character against the licentiousness of the worthless; leaving, however, the author or publisher answerable for his writings after they are printed.
By means of these preliminary arrangements, which are from this moment in the hands of His Majesty, and without which there cannot exist a truly national assembly, it appears to this court that the King would afford the members of the magistracy the most gratifying return for their zeal, by procuring to the nation, by means of well-established liberty, all the happiness to which it is entitled.
Decrees, consequently, that the motives, the principles, and the wishes of this decree shall be laid before our Lord the King, through the medium of very humble and respectful supplication.
[5. ] In its session of September 25, 1788, the members of the Parlement of Paris voted in favor of upholding the forms of the 1614 meeting of the Estates General. Public opinion forced them to change their view three months later.
[6. ] The council of December 27, 1788, that established the number of deputies of the Third Estate made no decision on the seminal issue of voting by order or by head. Necker’s comments on this issue can be found in De la Révolution française, pt. I, 64–67. On this issue, also see Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, 92–94.
[1. ] It will be recalled that France supported not only the Americans in their War of Independence against England but also the Dutch patriots (1783–87).
[2. ] This passage was most likely written during Napoléon’s reign, before the Charter of 1814, which took inspiration from the unwritten English constitution. For more information, see Furet, Revolutionary France, 211–66.
[1. ] The Estates General consisted of twelve hundred deputies. For more information, see Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, 93–111.
[2. ] The reader may find it interesting to compare Madame de Staël’s ideas on this topic with Burke’s sarcastic description of the nefarious role played by lawyers in the Constituent Assembly.
[3. ] Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau (1749–91), was a prominent French orator and statesman who played a leading role in the debates of the Constituent Assembly until his untimely death in April 1791. For an excellent selection of his political writings (discourses and notes), see Chaussinand-Nogaret, ed., Mirabeau entre le roi et la Révolution.
[4. ] Reference to the massacres of September 2, 1792.
[5. ] In reality, at thirty-five, not thirty.
[6. ] Reference to La Salle des Menus Plaisirs, Avenue de Paris, at Versailles, an older store transformed to accommodate the Assembly of Notables in 1787. It was reshaped to accommodate the meeting of the Estates General.
[7. ] The importance of finding a middle way between the extremes was also emphasized by Necker in De la Révolution française, pt. I, 34–35, 137–38.
[1. ] A reference to Forme d’opiner aux États généraux (Paris, 1789), to which Mirabeau responded.
[2. ] For a history of the concept of mixed government, see Blythe, Ideal Government and the Mixed Constitution in the Middle Ages. Blythe pointed out that “a mixed government in its broadest sense is any one in which power is shared by at least two of these groups, or one in which there is a combination of two or more simple forms of government. The sharing or combination may be accomplished institutionally or by incorporating procedures thought to characterize various forms” (11).
[3. ] For more details on voting procedures in the Estates General, see Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, 96–111. Mousnier’s Les institutions de la France sous la monarchie absolue also contains valuable information.
[4. ] On June 4, 1789, Necker proposed that the verification of powers be done by each order and that results be communicated by each order to the two others. The contested deputies were supposed to be examined by a committee consisting of members of all three orders and, if necessary, by the King himself.
[5. ] For more information on the debate on imperative mandates, see Carré de Malberg, Contribution à la théorie générale de l’État. It will be recalled that in Considérations sur le gouvernement de Pologne, Rousseau acknowledged the need for a mandate-based system of representation and made an important distinction between representatives and deputies. He insisted that the deputies of the people ought to be subject to imperative mandates. In his political writings, Sieyès opposed imperative mandates in categorical terms: “For the deputy there is, and can be, no imperative mandate, or indeed no positive will, except that of the national will. He needs to defer to the councils of those who directly elect him only in so far as these councils are in conformity with the national will. And where else can this will exist, where else can it be recognized except in the National Assembly itself?” (Sieyès as quoted in Forsyth, Reason and Revolution, 138)
[6. ] It would be worth comparing Madame de Staël’s ideas on the decline of the French nobility with the thesis of Guizot as outlined in his History of Civilization in France, which had an important impact on his famous disciple Tocqueville.
[7. ] Abbé Maury (1746–1817), a member of the French Academy (elected in 1785), served as deputy of the clergy in the Estates General. He went into exile in 1792 and was appointed cardinal two years later. In 1810 Napoléon appointed him Archbishop of Paris. Cazalès (1758–1805) represented the nobility in the Estates General. He went into exile in 1792 and returned to France eleven years later.
[1. ] Madame de Staël refers here to the civic apathy during the First Empire and the first years of the Bourbon Restoration. A similar warning can be found in Benjamin Constant’s well-known speech, “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared to That of the Moderns,” given at the Athénée Royal in Paris in 1819; the English translation is in Benjamin Constant, Political Writings, 309–28. In his turn, Tocqueville also admired the people of 1789 for having real convictions and pursuing noble ideals: “Everybody followed his own convictions boldly, passionately. . . . I have never met with a revolution where one could see at the start, in so many men, a more sincere patriotism, more disinterest, more true greatness. . . . This is 1789, a time of inexperience doubtless, but of generosity, of enthusiasm, of virility, and of greatness, a time of immortal memory.” (The Old Régime and the Revolution, vol. I, 208, 237, 244)
[2. ] According to Jacques Godechot, on the eve of the Revolution the literacy rate in France was 50 percent for men and only 20 percent for women.
[3. ] Mounier and Malouet belonged to the monarchiens, a group that also included Lally-Tollendal and Clermont-Tonnerre. Proponents of a moderate form of monarchy in 1789, they endorsed the initial demands of the Third Estate and demanded that France adopt the principles of constitutionalism of England. In the footsteps of Montesquieu, the monarchiens put forward a moderate plan of reform that sought to create a constitutional monarchy in France by reconciling the rights of the monarch with those of the nation. Unfortunately, their middling political project was defeated soon after the fall of the Old Regime and the monarchiens slipped into obscurity. For detailed biographical notes about them, see Furet and Halévi, Orateurs de la Révolution française, vol. I: Les Constituants, 1256–61, 1311–16, 1356–62, 1496–1502. For an analysis of their political thought, see Griffith’s Le Centre perdu: Malouet et les “monarchiens” dans la Révolution française. For a brief presentation of the monarchiens, see Ran Halévi’s entry in A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, 370–79.
[4. ] For a recent English translation, see Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, Political Writings. For Mirabeau’s discourses, see the selection edited by Chaussinand-Nogaret, Mirabeau entre le roi et la Révolution.
[5. ] For an interesting self-portrait of Mounier, see his preface to Considérations sur les gouvernements (Paris, 1789), 4.
[6. ] For more information, see Malouet, Mémoires.
[7. ] The debates on this issue had more than a purely symbolical import and paved the way for the Assembly declaring itself the Constituent Assembly on June 20, 1789.
[8. ] The event occurred on June 20, 1789.
[1. ] These lines were written during Napoléon’s reign.
[2. ] Tocqueville and Burke also criticized the “literary style” in politics.
[1. ] Baron Louis Auguste Le Tonnelier de Breteuil (1730–1807). After his fall from power in 1789, he emigrated and served as the King’s emissary abroad. He returned to France in 1802.
[2. ] In the Declaration of St. Ouen (a suburb of Paris) on May 2, 1814, Louis XVIII endorsed the principles of constitutional monarchy and promised to grant a new constitution. The Charter of 1814 was made public a month later.
[* ] On this spot, St. Ouen, my father passed a great part of his life; and puerile as it may seem, I cannot help being struck with the singular coincidence.
[3. ] Necker gave a full account of the June 23, 1789, royal council in De la Révolution française, pt. I, 175–215. Necker emphasized time and again the errors committed by some of Louis XVI’s advisers, who convinced the monarch to reject the necessary compromises demanded by the configuration of political forces in May and June 1789. The King’s greatest error was his refusal to accept the reunion of the three orders and his injunction to continue the deliberations separately. This course of action, Necker pointed out, was both imprudent and unwise, because the legitimate demands of the Third Estate, backed by public opinion, were accepted a few days later by a monarch whose authority and power were severely diminished by his inability to make timely concessions.
[4. ] The monarchiens also favored an upper house based on the English model, but such a proposal had no chance of swaying public opinion in 1789.
[5. ] Comedy in five acts in verses by Regnard (1696).
[6. ] The King dismissed Necker on July 11, 1789, and recalled him a few days later.
[7. ] Reference to the future monarchs Louis XVIII and Charles X. Meetings were held at Marly and Versailles, but Necker attended only the first one; his plans were criticized by Chaumont de la Galasière during the second meeting. Necker’s account of the royal councils held at Marly and Versailles can be found in De la Révolution française, pt. I, 198–201.
[8. ] Egeria was a fountain nymph who advised Numa Pompilius, one of the founders of Rome, in their frequent secret meetings. She subsequently became a byword for wise secret counsel.
[9. ] The King’s declaration of June 23, 1789, endorsed the old division in three orders and declared void the decisions previously taken by the representatives of the Third Estate. According to Necker, this was an unwise and imprudent decision on the part of the monarch and his closest advisers.
[1. ] Madame de Staël’s claim that Louis XVI possessed all the virtues necessary for a constitutional monarch is contradicted by her later statement that he was reluctant to relinquish the doctrine of divine right. It can be argued that Louis XVI was never fully prepared to become a constitutional monarch à l’anglaise. Under the influence of his advisers, the King made a number of unfortunate choices (including the flight to Varennes) that contributed significantly to the events of 1789–91.
[2. ] Reference to the Declaration of Rights accepted by William III and Mary II in 1689, inserted later into the Bill of Rights, and ratified by the House of Commons and the House of Peers in October 1689.
[3. ] June 25, 1789.
[4. ] Such examples of insubordination occurred on June 24 and 28, 1789.
[5. ] On July 8, 1789.
[6. ] Necker’s dismissal became publicly known on July 12, 1789; this date marked the beginning of the insurrection in Paris. The Bastille fell two days later.
[1. ] In reality, there was only one German regiment in Paris at that time.
[2. ] The citizens’ militias were formed on July 13, 1789. It is somewhat surprising that Madame de Staël did not give a detailed account of the fall of the Bastille. She mentions only a few “bloody assassinations” that took place on July 14 and refrains from dwelling on the violent episodes that marked the fall of the Bastille, preferring instead to point out the general enthusiasm of the population.
[1. ] Dufresne de Saint-Léon had collaborated with Necker on the publication of the Compte rendu in 1781. On July 17, 1789, he was charged with the mission of bringing Necker back to Paris. They met in Basel six days later.
[2. ] Yolande Martine Gabrielle de Polastron, Duchess of Polignac, was a close friend of the Queen. The duchess went into exile and died in Vienna in 1793.
[3. ] Staël does not indicate the exact source. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke refers favorably to Necker and draws heavily upon Necker’s De l’administration des finances de la France (1784).
[4. ] The title of the original text edited by Madame de Staël was Manuscrits de M. Necker publiés par sa fille (Geneva, 1795). A second edition was published two decades later under the title Mémoires sur la vie privée de mon père par Mme la baronne de Staël-Holstein, suivies des mélanges de M. Necker (Paris and London, 1818).
[5. ] Trophime-Gérard de Lally-Tollendal (1751–1830) was a follower of Montesquieu and a prominent member of the French monarchiens. During the Revolution, he emerged as one of the most eloquent defenders of constitutional monarchy and was one of forty-seven nobles who joined the National Assembly a few days after the Royal Council of June 23, 1789. On August 31, 1789, Lally gave a famous speech on the relationship between the executive and legislative powers and the royal veto (republished in Orateurs de la Révolution française, 364–92). He had an interesting correspondence with Burke and spent some time in England, where he fled after being imprisoned briefly in August 1792. He returned to France under the Consulate and became active in politics again under the Restoration, when he was also elected to the French Academy.
[6. ] A reference to the Great Fear (July 20–August 6, 1789).
[7. ] A reference to an important moment in the history of Switzerland. In 1291 people from Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden feared that the counts of Habsburg would try to regain influence in their territories. As a result, they met and swore to help each other against anyone attempting to subject them. This is the historical background of the legend of the Oath on Rütli (a meadow on the western shore of Lake Lucerne).