Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER III: On the State of Public Opinion in France at the Accession of Louis XVI. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER III: On the State of Public Opinion in France at the Accession of Louis XVI. - 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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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.
[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.