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CHAPTER II. - Mary Wollstonecraft, An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution and the Effect it Has Produced in Europe 
An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution and the Effect it Has Produced in Europe (London: J. Johnson, 1795).
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marie-antoinette. louis xvi. administration of necker, and of calonne, notables convened. calonne disgraced,—and obliged to flee the kingdom. his character. causes of the enslaved state of europe.
During this general depravation of manners, the young and beautiful dauphine arrived; and was received with a kind of idolatrous adoration, only to be seen in France; for the inhabitants of the metropolis, literally speaking, could think and talk of nothing else; and in their eagerness to pay homage, or gratify affectionate curiosity, an immense number were killed.
In such a voluptuous atmosphere, how could she escape contagion? The prosligacy of Louis XIV, when love and war were his amusements, was soberness, compared with the capricious intemperance of the inebriated imagination at this period. Madame du Barry was then in the zenith of her power, which quickly excited the jealousy of this princess, whose strongest passion was that intolerable family pride, which heated the blood of the whole house of Austria. An inclination for court intrigue, under the mask of the most profound dissimulation, to preserve the favour of Louis XV, was instantly called into action; and it soon became the only business of her life, either to gratify resentment, or cheat the satiety, which the continual and unrestrained indulgence of pleasure produced.
Her character thus formed, when she became absolute mistress, the court of the passive Louis, not only the most dissolute and abandoned that ever displayed the folly of royalty, but audaciously negligent with respect to that attention to decency, which is necessary to delude the vulgar, was deserted by all persons, who had any regard for their moral character, or the decorum of appearances. Constrained by the etiquette, which made the principal part of the imposing grandeur of Louis XIV, the queen wished to throw aside the cumbersome brocade of ceremony, without having discernment enough to perceive, that it was necessary to lend mock dignity to a court, where there was not sufficient virtue, or native beauty, to give interest or respectability to simplicity. The harlot is seldom such a fool as to neglect her meretricious ornaments, unless she renounces her trade; and the pageantry of courts is the same thing on a larger scale. The lively predilection, likewise, of the queen for her native country, and love for her brother Joseph, to whom she repeatedly sent considerable sums, purloined from the public, tended greatly to inspire the most ineffable contempt for royalty, now stript of the frippery which had concealed it’s deformity: and the sovereign disgust excited by her ruinous vices, completely destroying all reverence for that majesty, to which power alone lent dignity, contempt soon produced hatred.
The infamous transaction of the necklace, in which she was probably the dupe of the knaves she fostered, exasperated also both the nobility and the clergy; and, with her messalinian feasts at Trianon, made her the common mark of ridicule and satire.
The attention of the people once roused was not permitted to sleep; for fresh circumstances daily occurred, to give a new spring to discussions, that the most iniquitous and heavy taxes brought home to every bosom; till the extravagance of the royal family became the general subject of sharpening execrations.
The king, who had not sufficient resolution to support the administration of Turgot, whom his disposition for moderation had chosen, being at a loss what measures to take, called to the helm the plausible Necker. He, only half comprehending the plans of his able predecessor, was led by his vanity cautiously to adopt them; first publishing his Comte-rendu, to clear the way to popularity. This work was read with astonishing rapidity by all ranks of men; and alarming the courtiers, Necker was, in his turn, dismissed. He retired to write his observations on the administration of the finances, which kept alive the spirit of inquiry, that afterwards broke the talisman of courts, and showed the disenchanted multitude, that those, whom they had been taught to respect as supernatural beings, were not indeed men—but monsters; deprived by their station of humanity, and even sympathy.
Several abortive attempts were then made by two succeeding ministers, to keep alive public credit, and find resources to supply the expenditure of the state, and the dissipation of the court, when the king was persuaded to place the specious Calonne at the head of these embarrassed affairs.
During the prodigal administration of this man, who acted with an audacity peculiar to the arrogance common in men of superficial yet brilliant talents, every consideration was sacrificed to the court; the splendid folly and wanton prodigality of which eclipsing all that has been related in history, or told in romance, to amuse wondering fools, only served to accelerate the destruction of public credit, and hasten the revolution, by exciting the clamourous indignation of the people. Numberless destructive expedients of the moment brought money into the state coffers, only to be dissipated by the royal family, and it’s train of parasites; till all failing, the wish of still supporting himself in a situation so desirable as that of comptroller general of the finances, determined him to convene an assembly of notables: whose very appellation points them out as men in the aristocratical interest.
Louis XVI, with a considerable portion of common sense, and a desire to promote useful reformation, though always governed by those around him, gave without hesitation the necessary orders for calling together the assembly, that afforded the wearied nation the most pleasing prospect, because it was a new one; but conveyed to their astonished minds at the same time the knowledge of the enormity of a deficit, which a series of vice and folly had augmented beyond all precedent.
The immoralities of Calonne, however, had created a general distrust of all his designs: but with an overweening presumption, the characteristic of the man, he still thought, that he could dexterously obtain the supplies wanted to keep the wheels of government in motion, and quiet the clamours of the nation, by proposing the equalization of taxes; which, humbling the nobility and dignified clergy, who were thus to be brought down from their privileged height, to the level of citizens, could not fail to be grateful to the rest of the nation. And the parliaments, he concluded, would not dare to oppose his system, lest they should draw on themselves the distrust and hatred of the public.
Without canvassing Calonne’s intentions, which the most enlarged charity, after his former extravagance, can scarcely suppose to have been the interest of the people, moderate men imagined this project might have been productive of much good; giving the french all the liberty they were able to digest; and, warding off the tumults that have since produced so many disastrous events, whilst coolly preparing them for the reception of more, the effervescence of vanity and ignorance would not have rendered their heads giddy, or their hearts savage. Yet some sensible observers, on the contrary, rather adopted the opinion, that as the people had discovered the magnitude of the deficit, they were now persuaded, that a specific remedy was wanting, a new constitution; to cure the evils, which were the excrescences of a gigantic tyranny, that appeared to be draining away the vital juices of labour, to fill the insatiable jaws of thousands of fawning slaves and idle sycophants. But though the people might, for the present, have been satisfied with this salutary reform, which would gradually have had an effect, reasoning from analogy, that the financier did not take into his account, the nobility were not sufficiently enlightened to listen to the dictates of justice or prudence. It had been, indeed, the system of ministers, ever since Richelieu, to humble the nobles, to increase the power of the court; and as the ministry, the generals, and the bishops, were always noble, they aided to support the favourite, who depressed the whole body, only for the chance of individual preferment. But this bare-faced attempt to abolish their privileges raised a nest of hornets about his ears, eager to secure the plunder on which they lived; for by what other name can we call the pensions, places and even estates of those who, taxing industry, rioted in idleness duty free* ?
An approaching national bankruptcy was the ostensible reason assigned for the convening of the notables in 1787; but the convocation, in truth, ought to be ascribed to the voice of reason, sounded through the organ of twenty-five millions of human beings, who, though under the fetters of a detestable tyranny, felt, that the crisis was at hand, when the rights of man, and his dignity ascertained were to be enthroned on the eternal basis of justice and humanity.
The notables, once assembled, being sensible that their conduct would be inspected by an awakened public, now on the watch, scrupulously examined into every national concern; and seriously investigated the causes, that had produced the deficit, with something like the independent spirit of freemen. To their inquiries, however, the minister gave only the evasive reply, ‘that he had acted in obedience to the pleasure of the king:’ when it was notorious to all Europe, that his majesty was merely a cypher at Versailles; and even the accusation brought against Calonne, by La Fayette, of exchanging the national domains, and appropriating millions of it’s revenue to gratify the queen, the count d’Artois, and the rest of the cabal, who kept him in place, was generally believed. In fact, the state had been fleeced, to support the unremitting demands of the queen; who would have dismembered France, to aggrandize Austria, and pamper her favourites. Thus the court conniving at peculation, the minister played a sure game; whilst the honest labourer was groaning under a thousand abuses, and yielding the solace of his industry, or the hoards, which youthful strength had reserved for times of scarcity or decrepit age, to irritate the inereasing wants of a thoughtless, treachcrous princess, and the avarice of her unprincipled agents.
This artful, though weak, machiavelian politician suffered no other person to approach the king; who, seduced into considence by his colloquial powers, could not avoid being dazzled by his plausible schemes. He had, nevertheless, a powerful enemy to contend with, in M. de Breteuil; who, having gratified some of the little passions of the dauphine, during her first struggles for dominion, was now protected by the absolute power of the queen. Endeavouring to measure his strength with her’s, the minister was discomfited; and the whole swarm of flatterers, who had partaken of the spoil of rapine, were instantly alert to open the eyes of Louis, over which they had long been scattering poppies, and soon convinced him of the persidy of his favourite; whilst the two privileged orders joined their forces, to overwhelm their common enemy, attending to their vengeance at the very time they followed the dictates of prudence.
The accusations of La Fayette served, perhaps, as the ostensible reason with the public, and even with the king; yet it can hardly be supposed, that they had any effect on the cabal, who invented, or connived at the plans necessary to raise a continual supply for their pleasures. The fact is, that, most probably being found unequal to the task, or no longer choosing to be a docile instrument of mischief, he was thrown aside as unsit for use.
Disgraced, he quickly retired to his estate; but was not long permitted to struggle with the malady of exiled ministers, in the gloomy silence of inactivity; for, hearing that he had been denounced by the parliament, he fled in a transport of rage out of the kingdom, covered with the execrations of an injured people, in whose hatred, or admiration, the mellowed shades of reflection are seldom seen.
The extravagance of his administration exceeded that of any other scourge of France; yet it does not appear, that he was actuated by a plan, or even desire, of enriching himself. So far from it, with wild prodigality he seems to have squandered away the vast sums he extorted by force or fraud, merely to gratify or purchase friends and dependents; till, quite exhausted, he was obliged to have recourse to Necker’s scheme of loans. But not possessing like him the confidence of the public, he could not with equal facility obtain a present supply, the weight of which would be thrown forward to become a stumblingblock to his successors. Necker, by the advantageous terms which he held out to moneyholders, had introduced a pernicious system of stock-jobbing, that was slowly detected, because those who could best have opened the eyes of the people were interested to keep them closed.—Still Calonne could not induce the same body of men to trust to his offers; which, not choosing to accept, they made a point of discrediting, to secure the interest and exorbitant premiums that were daily becoming due.
With an uncommon quickness of comprehension, and audacity in pursuing crude schemes, rendered plausible by a rhetorical flow of words, Calonne, a strong representative of the national character, seems rather to have wanted principles than feelings of humanity; and to have been led astray more by vanity and the love of pleasure, which imperceptibly smooth away moral restraints, than by those deep plans of guilt, that force men to see the extent of the mischief they are hatching, whilst the crocodile is still in the egg. Yet, as mankind ever judge by events, the inconsiderate presumption, if not the turpitude of his conduct, brought on him universal censure: for, at a crisis when the general groans of an oppressed nation proclaimed the disease of the state, and even when the government was on the verge of dissolution, did he not waste the treasures of his country, forgetful not only of moral obligations, but the ties of honour, of that regard for the tacit confidence of it’s citizens, which a statesman ought to hold sacred? since which he has been caressed at almost every court in Europe, and made one of the principal agents of despotism in the croisades against the infant liberty of France.
Reflecting on the conduct of the tools of courts, we are enabled in a great measure to account for the slavery of Europe; and to discover, that it’s misery has not arisen more from the imperfectionof civilization, than from the fallacy of those political systems, which necessarily made the favourite of the day a knavish tyrant, eager to amass riches sufficient to save himself from oblivion, when the honours, so hardly wrestled for, should be torn from his brow. Besides, whilst ministers have found impunity in the omnipotence, which the seal of power gave them, and in the covert fear of those who hoped one day to enjoy the same emoluments, they have been led by the prevalence of depraved manners, to the commission of every atrocious folly. Kings have been the dupes of ministers, of mistresses, and secretaries, not to notice sly valets and cunning waiting-maids, who are seldom idle; and these are most venal, because they have least independence of character to support; till in the circle of corruption no one can point out the first mover. Hence proceeds the great tenacity of courts to support them; hence originates their great objection to republican forms of government, which oblige their ministers to be accountable for delinquency; and hence, likewise, might be traced their agonizing fears of the doctrine of civil equality.
[* ]Since the constituent assembly equalized the impost, Calonne has boasted, that he proposed a mode of levying equal taxes; but that the nobility would not listen to any such motion, tenaciously maintaining their privileges. This blind obstinacy of opposing all reform, that touched their exemptions, may be reckoned among the foremost causes, which, in hurrying the removal of old abuses, tended to introduce violence and disorder.—And if it be kept in remembrance, that a conduct equally illiberal and disingenuous warped all their political sentiments, it must be clear, that the people, from whom they considered themselves as separated by immutable laws, had cogent grounds to conclude, that it would be next to impossible to effect a reform of the greater part of those perplexing exemptions and arbitrary customs, the weight of which made the peculiar urgency, and called with the most forcible energy for the revolution, Surely all the folly of the people taken together was less reprehensible, than this total want of discernment, this adherence to a prejudice, the jaundiced perception of contumelious ignorance, in a class of men, who from the opportunity they had of acquiring knowledge, ought to have acted with more judgment. For they were goaded into action by inhuman provocations, by acts of the most flagrant injustice, when they had neither rule nor experience to direct them, and after their temperance had been destroyed by years of sufferings, and an endless catalogue of reiterated and contemptuous privations.