Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER X: Sequel of the Preceding.—Ministry of the Archbishop of Toulouse. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER X: Sequel of the Preceding.—Ministry of the Archbishop of Toulouse. - 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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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.
[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.