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CHAPTER II.: THAT WE OWE “ADMINISTRATIVE CENTRALIZATION,” NOT TO THE REVOLUTION OR THE EMPIRE, AS SOME SAY, BUT TO THE OLD REGIME - Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the Revolution 
The Old Regime and the Revolution, trans John Bonner (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1856).
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THAT WE OWE “ADMINISTRATIVE CENTRALIZATION,” NOT TO THE REVOLUTION OR THE EMPIRE, AS SOME SAY, BUT TO THE OLD REGIME
I ONCE heard an orator, in the days when we had political assemblies, call administrative centralization “that noble conquest of the Revolution which Europe envies us.” I am willing to admit that centralization was a noble conquest, and that Europe envies us its possession; but I deny that it was a conquest of the Revolution. It was, on the contrary, a feature of the old regime, and, I may add, the only one which outlived the Revolution, because it was the only one that was suited to the new condition of society created by the Revolution. A careful perusal of this chapter will perhaps convince the reader that I have more than proved this.
I must, at the outset, beg to be permitted to set aside those provinces known as pays d’états, which did actuually, or, at least, had the appearance of partially controlling the administration of their own government.
The pays d’états, situated at the extremities of the kingdom, contained barely one fourth of the total population of France; and, with one or two exceptions, their provincial liberties were in a dying condition. I shall have occasion hereafter to return to them, and to show how far the central power had rendered them subject to the ordinary rules.*
I purpose to devote attention at present chiefly to those provinces which were styled, in administrative parlance, pays d’élection, though there were fewer elections there than any where else. They surrounded Paris on all sides, bordering each on the other, and constituting the fairest portion of France.
A first glance at the old government of the kingdom leaves an impression of a host of diversified rules, and authorities, and concurrent powers. France seems to be covered with administrative bodies and independent functionaries, who, having purchased their offices, can not be displaced. Their functions are often so intertwined and similar that it seems they must clash and interfere with each other.
The courts are invested with some legislative authority. They establish rules, which are binding within the limits of their jurisdiction. They occasionally join issue with the government, blame its measures loudly, and decry its agents. Single judges make the police regulations in the cities and boroughs where they live.
City charters differ widely. Their magistrates bear different titles, or derive their authority from different sources. In one place we find a mayor, in another consuls, in a third syndics. Some of these are chosen by the king; others are appointed by the old seignior, or by the prince in whose domain the city lies; others are elected by the people for a year; others, again, have purchased their office, and hold it for life.
These are all old ruined authorities. Among them, however, is found an institution either new or lately transformed, which remains to be described. In the heart of the kingdom, and close to the monarch, an administrative body of singular power has lately grown up and absorbed all minor powers. That is the Royal Council.
Though its origin is ancient, most of its functions are modern. It is every thing at once: supreme court of justice, for it can reverse the decision of all ordinary tribunals and highest administrative authority, from which all subordinate authorities derive their power. As adviser of the king, it possesses, under him, legislative powers, discusses all and proposes most of the laws, levies and distributes the taxes. It makes rules for the direction of all government agents. It decides all important affairs in person, and superintends the working of all subordinate departments. All business originates with it, or reaches it at last; yet it has no fixed, well-defined jurisdiction. Its decisions are the king’s, though they seem to be the Council’s. Even while it is administering justice, it is nothing more than an assembly of “givers of advice,” as the Parliament said in one of its remonstrances.
This Council is not composed of nobles, but of persons of ordinary or low extraction, who have filled various offices and acquired an extensive knowledge of business. They all hold office during good behavior.
It works noiselessly, discreetly, far less pretentious than powerful. It has no brilliancy of its own. Its proximity to the king makes it a partner in every important measure, but his greater effulgence eclipses it.
As the national administration was in the hands of a single body, nearly the whole executive direction of home affairs was in like manner intrusted to a single agent, the comptroller-general.
Old almanacs furnish lists of special ministers for each province, but an examination of the business records shows that these ministers had very little important business to transact. That fell to the lot of the comptroller-general, who gradually monopolized the management of all money affairs—in other words, the whole public administration. He was alternately minister of finance, of the interior, of public works, of commerce.
On the same principle, one agent in each province suffieed. As late as the eighteenth century, some great seigniors were entitled provincial governors. They were the representatives, often by hereditary descent, of feudal royalty. They enjoyed honors still, but they were unaccompanied by power. The substantial government was in the hands of the intendant.
That functionary was not of noble extraction. He was invariably a stranger to the province, a young man with his fortune to make. He obtained his office neither by purchase, election, nor inheritance; he was selected by the government from among the inferior members of the Council of State, and held his office during good behavior. While in his province, he represented that body, and was hence styled in office dialect the absent commissioner (commissaire départi). His powers were scarcely less than those of the council itself, though his decisions were subject to appeal. Like the Council, he held administrative and judicial authority: he corresponded with ministers; he was, in his province, the sole instrument of the will of government.
Under him he appointed for each canton an officer called a sub-delegate (subdélégué), who also held office during good behavior. The intendant was usually the first noble of his family; the sub-delegate was always a commoner, yet the latter was the sole representative of the government in his little sphere, as the intendant was in his province. He was subject to the intendant, himself subject to the minister.
The Marquis d’Argenson tells us in his Memoirs that one day Law said to him, “I never could have believed beforehand what I saw when I was comptroller of finances. Let me tell you that this kingdom of France is governed by thirty intendants. You have neither Parliament, nor estates, nor governors; nothing but thirty masters of requests, on whom, so far as the provinces are concerned, welfare or misery, plenty or want, entirely depend.”
These powerful officials were, however, outwardly eclipsed by the remains of the old feudal aristocracy, thrown into the shade by its lingering splendor; hence it was that even in their day one saw so little of them, though their hand was every where felt. In society, the nobility took precedence of them in virtue of their rank, their wealth, and the respect always paid to what is ancient. In the government, the nobility surrounded the king and constituted the court; noblemen led the armies and commanded the fleet; they performed those duties, in a word, which are most noticed by contemporaries, and too often best remembered by posterity. A seignior of high rank would have felt himself insulted by the offer of a place of intendant; the poorest gentleman of his house would have disdained to accept it. In their eyes the intendants were the types of usurped authority, new men, employed to look after burghers and peasants; at best, very poor company. For all this, these men governed France, as Law said, and as we shall soon discover.
Let us begin with the right of levying taxes, which may be said to involve all other rights.
It is well known that a portion of the taxes were farmed out to financial companies, which levied them under the directions of the Royal Council. All other taxes, such as the taille, capitation-tax, and twentieths, were established and levied directly by the agents of the central administration, or under their all-powerful control.
Every year the Council fixed and distributed among the provinces the amount of the taille and its numerous accessories. The session and decision of the Council were secret; the taille increased year after year, and no one was aware of it.
The taille was a very old tax; in former times it had been apportioned and levied by local agents, who were independent of government, and held office in virtue of their birth, or by election, or by purchase. Such were the “seignior,” the “parochial collector,” the “treasurers of France,” the “select-men” (èlus). These titles were still in existence in the eighteenth century; but some of the persons who bore them had ceased wholly to have to do with the taille, while others were only concerned with it in a subordinate and secondary capacity. The whole real authority on the subject was in the hands of the intendant and his agents; it was he who apportioned the taille among the parishes, directed and overlooked the collectors, granted delays or remissions.
More modern imposts, such as the capitation-tax, were regulated by government without interference from the surviving officers of the old system. The comptroller-general, the intendant, and the Council fixed the amount of each impost, and levied it without the intervention of the taxables.
Let us pass from money to men.
Surprise has been expressed at the docility with which the French bore the burden of the conscription during and after the Revolution; but it must be borne in mind that they had long been used to it. The militia system which had preceded it was more onerous, though the contingents raised were smaller. From time to time, in the country parts, young men were drawn by lot to serve in militia regiments for a term of six years.
As the militia was a comparatively modern institution, none of the feudal authorities interfered with it; it was wholly under the control of the central government. The entire contingent, and the proportion to be borne by each province, were regulated by the Council. The intendant fixed the number of men to be furnished by each parish. His sub-delegate presided over the lottery, awarded exemptions, decided who were to remain at home and who were to march. It was his duty to hand over the latter to the military authorities. There was no appeal from him but to the intendant and the Council.
It may be added here that, except in the pays d’états, all public works, including those which were exclusively local, were decided upon and undertaken by the agents of the central power.
Other authorities, such as the seignior, the department of finance, the road trustees (grands voyers), were nominally entitled to co-operate in the direction of these works. But practically these old authorities did little or nothing, as the most cursory glance at the records shows. All highways and roads from city to city were built and kept in repair out of the general public fund. They were planned and the contracts given out by the Council. The intendant superintended the engineering work, the sub-delegate mustered the men who were bound to labor. To the old authorities was left the task of seeing to parish roads, which accordingly became impassable.
The chief agent of the central government for public works was the Department of Bridges and Roads (ponts et chaussées). Here a striking resemblance to our modern system becomes manifest. The establishment of Bridges and Roads had a council and a school; inspectors, who traveled each year throughout France; engineers residing on the spot, and intrusted, under the orders of the intendant, with the direction of the works. Most of the old institutions which have been adopted in modern times—and they are more numerous than is generally supposed—have lost their names while retaining their substance. This one has preserved both—a very rare instance.
Upon the central government alone devolved the duty of preserving the peace in the provinces. Mounted police (maréchaussée) were scattered over the kingdom in small detachments, ready to act under the orders of the intendants. It was with these troops, and, in case of need, with the aid of the regular army, that the intendant met all sudden outbreaks, arrested vagabonds, repressed mendicity, crushed the riots which the price of food constantly excited. It never happened that the government was driven to call upon its subjects for assistance, as had been common enough at one time, except in cities, where there was usually a civic guard, composed of men selected and officers appointed by the intendant.
The courts had preserved and frequently exercised the right of making police regulations; but they were only applicable to the territory within the court’s jurisdiction, and not unfrequently to a single place. They were liable to rejection by the Council, and were often so rejected, especially regulations made by inferior courts. On the other hand, the Council constantly made regulations that were applicable to the whole kingdom, as well on matters beyond the authority of the courts as on those which were within the scope of that authority. These regulations, or, as they were then called, Orders in Council (arrêts du conseil), were immensely numerous, especially toward the period of the Revolution. It is hardly possible to mention a branch of social economy or political organization which was not remodeled by Orders in Council during the last forty years of the old regime.
In the old feudal society, the seignior’s extensive rights were counterpoised by extensive obligations. He was bound to succor the indigent on his domain. A trace of this principle is to be found in the Prussian code of 1795, where it is said, “The seignior must see to it that poor peasants receive education. He should, as far as he can, procure means of subsistence for those of his vassals who own no land. If any of them fall into poverty, he is bound to aid them.”
No such law had existed in France for many years. When the seignior’s rights were taken from him, he shook off his obligations. No local authority, or council, or provincial, or parochial association had taken his place. The law obliged no man to take care of the poor in the rural districts; the central government boldly assumed charge of them.
Out of the proceeds of the taxes a sum was annually set apart by the Council to be distributed by the intendant in parochial charities. The needy were instructed to apply to him. In times of distress, it was he who distributed corn or rice. Annual Orders in Council directed that benevolent work-houses should be opened at places which the Orders took care to indicate; at these, indigent peasants could always obtain work at moderate wages. It need hardly be observed that charity dispensed from such a distance must often have been blind and capricious, and always inadequate.pq
Not content with aiding the peasantry in times of distress, the central government undertook to teach them the art of growing rich, by giving them good advice, and occasionally by resorting to compulsory methods. With this view it distributed from time to time, by the hands of its intendants and sub-delegates, short pamphlets on agriculture, founded agricultural societies, promised prizes, kept up at great expense nurseries for the distribution of seeds and plants. Some reduction of the burdens which weighed on agriculture would probably have proved more efficacious; but this was never contemplated for a moment.
At times the Council endeavored to force prosperity on the people, whether they would or no. Innumerable Orders compelled mechanics to make use of certain specified machinery, and to manufacture certain specified articles;r and as the intendants were not always able to see that their regulations were enforced, inspectors-general of industry were appointed to travel through the provinces and relieve them of the duty.
Orders were passed prohibiting the cultivation of this or that agricultural product in lands which the Council considered unsuited to it. Others required that vines planted in what the Council regarded as bad soil should be uprooted. To such an extent had the government exchanged the duties of sovereign for those of guardian.
[Note p, page 59.]public charities granted by the state.—favoritism.
[Note q, page 59.]example of the manner in which these public charities were distributed.
[Note r, page 60.]powers of the intendant for the regulation of manufactures.