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CHAPTER X.: HOW THE DESTRUCTION OF POLITICAL LIBERTY AND CLASS DIVISIONS WERE THE CAUSES OF ALL THE DISEASES OF WHICH THE OLD REGIME DIED. - 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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HOW THE DESTRUCTION OF POLITICAL LIBERTY AND CLASS DIVISIONS WERE THE CAUSES OF ALL THE DISEASES OF WHICH THE OLD REGIME DIED.
OF all the fatal diseases which assailed the constitution of the old regime, the most deadly was the one I have just described. Let us return to the source of this strange and terrible malady, and see how many other troubles had the same origin.
Had the English wholly lost their political liberties and all the local franchises dependent thereon during the crisis of the Middle Ages, it is reasonable to suppose that the classes which comprise their aristocracy would have held themselves quite aloof from the people, as the corresponding classes did in France. It was the spirit of liberty which compelled them to remain within reach of the people, in order to come to an understanding with them when required.
It is curious to note how ambition prompted the English nobility to mix familiarly with their inferiors, and to treat them as equals when necessity seemed to require it. Arthur Young, from whom I have quoted already, and whose work is one of the most instructive that can be consulted on Old France, relates how, while he was staying at the country-house of the Duke of Liancourt, he expressed a wish to converse with some of the most skillful and intelligent farmers of the neighborhood. The duke sent his intendant for them, upon which the Englishman remarks: “An English nobleman, in the like case, would have asked three or four farmers to dinner with his family, and would have had them sit by the side of the noblest ladies. I have seen that a hundred times over in our island, but you may travel from Calais to Bayonne without seeing any thing of the kind here.”
Beyond a doubt, the British aristocracy was naturally more haughty and more averse to familiarity with its inferiors than the same class in France, but the necessities of its position imposed restraints. It was willing to sacrifice any thing for power. For centuries the only alterations in the taxes were made in favor of the poorer classes. Notice, I beg, how widely neighbors may be made to differ by different political principles!m In the eighteenth century, in England, the only exemptions from taxes were enjoyed by the poor, in France by the rich. There the aristocracy had assumed all the burdens in order to enjoy the power of governing; here they steadily refused to pay taxes, as their only consolation for the loss of political power.
During the fourteenth century, the maxim N’impose qui ne veut (no taxation without the consent of the taxables), appears to have been as solidly established in France as in England. It was frequently quoted; deviations from it were regarded as acts of tyranny, absolute conformity with it constitutional. At this period our institutions were analogous, in many respects, to those of the English. But thenceforth the destinies of the two nations began to deviate, and became more unlike from century to century. They might be compared to two lines, which, starting from adjacent points in slightly different directions, separate more widely the more they are prolonged.
I venture to assert that when the nation, wearied out by the long disorders which had accompanied the captivity of King John and the insanity of Charles VI., allowed the kings to impose a tax without its consent, the nobles basely concurring on condition that they should be exempt, they sowed the seed of all the abuses and mischiefs which troubled the old regime during its existence, and led to its violent death; and I admire the singular sagacity of Commines when he says, “When Charles VII. gained the right of imposing the taille at will without the consent of the States, he greatly changed his spirit (son âme) and that of his successors, and dealt his kingdom a wound that will bleed for a long time to come.”
See how the wound has been enlarged by time; trace the consequences of this one act.
Forbonnais remarks with truth, in his learned “Researches on French Finances,” that, during the Middle Ages, monarchs usually lived on the produce of their domains; “and as extraordinary necessities,” he adds, “were met by extraordinary taxes, they bore equally on the clergy, the nobility, and the people.”
Most of the general taxes, voted by the three orders during the fourteenth century, were of this character. Nearly all the taxes established at this time were indirect, that is to say, they bore on all consumers indiscriminately. When the tax was direct, it bore, not on property, but on incomes. For instance, nobles, clergy, and commoners were required to abandon to the king a tithe of their income. And the rule with regard to taxes laid by the States-General applied with equal force to those which were laid by the Provincial States within their territories.
It is true that even then the direct tax, called taille, did not bear on men of rank, who were exempt in consideration of serving gratuitously as soldiers in time of war. But the taille, as a general tax, was restricted in its operation; it applied to seigniories more than to the kingdom.
When the king first undertook to impose a tax of his own will and mere motion, he was well aware that policy indicated the selection of one which did not bear upon the nobility, and which they—who were the most powerful class in the kingdom, and the only rivals of the sovereign—would not be provoked to resist; and, accordingly, he chose the taille.
Inequalities enough existed already between the various classes of Frenchmen; this new distinction was more sweeping than all, and aggravated while it confirmed the others. Thenceforth, in proportion to the increased necessities which were produced by the enlarged ambition of the central power, the taille increased and multiplied, till the original amount levied was decupled, and every new tax was a taille.n Year by year the tax-gathering divided society anew, and re-erected the barrier between the taxables and the exempts. The first condition of the tax being its imposition, not on those who could afford to pay it, but on those who could not afford to resist it, government was driven into the monstrous anomaly of sparing the rich and burdening the poor. It is said that Mazarin once intended to supply a pressing exigency by a tax on the principal houses in Paris; but, meeting with more resistance than he had anticipated, he simply added the five millions he wanted to the taille levy. His design had been to tax the most wealthy citizens; in fact, he taxed the poorest; but the treasury got the money.
Taxes so unequal yielded a limited revenue; but there was no limit to the necessities of the throne. Still, king after king refused to convoke the States in order to obtain subsidies, and refrained from taxing the nobility lest the annoyance should provoke them to insist on a return to constitutional usage. Hence those prodigious and mischievous financial tours de force, which marked the history of the French treasury during the last three centuries of the monarchy.
A careful study of the financial and administrative history of the old regime shows to what straits and dishonest shifts the want of money will reduce a government, however mild it may be, so long as it is unchecked, and fears neither publicity on the one hand, nor revolution—that safeguard of popular liberty—on the other.
That history teems with instances of royal properties sold, then resumed as inalienable; of violated contracts; vested rights trampled; public creditors sacrificed at every crisis; the public faith constantly broken.o
Privileges, granted as perpetual, were constantly revoked. If it were possible to sympathize with the sufferings of martyrs to vanity, one would pity those unfortunate new-made noblemen who, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, were so often called upon to pay for honors and unjust privileges, whose price they had fully paid at the time of the original purchase. Louis XIV., for instance, annulled all the titles of nobility that had been granted during the ninety-two years previous, though most of them had been granted by himself. Their possessors could only retain them on paying more money, “all these titles having been granted by surprise,” says the edict. An example which Louis XV. took care to imitate eighty years afterward.
It was pronounced illegal for militia-men to serve by substitute, as the practice would tend to enhance the value of recruits.
Cities, corporations, hospitals, were forced to repudiate their engagements in order to lend their money to the king. Parishes were hindered from undertaking useful works for fear that the taille might be less regularly paid if their resources were divided.
It is related that M. Orry and M. Trudaine, who were respectively comptroller-general and director-general of the department of Bridges and Roads, formed a plan for the commutation of seigniorial corvées on highways into an annual payment in money, to be applied to repairing the roads of each canton. There is much instruction in the reason which deterred these able officials from executing their design; they were afraid, it is said, that it would be impossible to prevent the treasury from embezzling the money, and obliging the people both to labor on the roads and to pay for their repairs besides. I do not hesitate to say that no private individual could escape ruin if he conducted his affairs as the great monarch in all his glory managed the public business.
All the old mediæval institutions, whose faults were aggravated as every thing around them improved, may be traced to a financial origin; the same is true of the pernicious innovations of a later date. To pay the debts of a day, powers were created which lasted centuries.
A particular tax, called the freehold duty (droit de franc fief), had been laid at a very remote period on commoners who possessed estates noble. This duty created the same division among lands as existed among men; and each helped the other. The freehold duty hindered the fusion of the nobility and the people on the neutral ground of real estate; and I dare say it was more effective than any thing else in keeping them apart. It opened a gulf between the nobleman and his neighbor. In England, nothing so powerfully aided the fusion of the two classes as the abolition, in the seventeenth century, of all the distinguishing marks which served to separate feudal lands from freeholds.
During the fourteenth century the feudal freehold duty was light, and only exacted at long intervals. During the eighteenth, when the feudal system was nearly abolished, it was rigorously levied every twenty years, and amounted to a twelvemonth’s income of the land. Sons paid it on succeeding to their father. The agricultural society of Tours stated, in 1761, that “this duty was infinitely injurious to the progress of agricultural science. No tax levied by the king’s government is so vexatious or so onerous in the country parts as this one.” Another contemporary observed that “this imposition, which was originally paid but once in a lifetime, has become a very cruel exaction.” The nobility wished to see it abolished, for it operated to hinder commoners from buying their estates;p but the necessities of government involved its maintenance, and even its extension.
The Middle Ages have been unjustly blamed for much of the mischief produced by the trade-corporations. There is every reason to believe that, in the origin, trade-companies and trade-unions were formed merely for the purpose of uniting the members of each craft together, and establishing a sort of free government for each branch of industry, in order to assist and control the operatives. It does not appear that Saint Louis contemplated any thing beyond this.
It was not till the beginning of the sixteenth century, when the revival of civil and religious liberty was in full progress, that the idea of placing labor on the footing of a privilege to be purchased of government was first broached. It was not till then that each craft became a small, close aristocracy, and a start was given to those monopolies which were so injurious to the progress of the arts and so odious to our ancestors. From the time of Henry III., who generalized, if he did not actually create the evil, to that of Louis XVI., who extirpated it, it may be said that the system of trade-companies acquired fresh strength and extension every year; and this, while the progress of society as steadily aggravated their inconvenience, and common sense revealed their absurdity. Year after year the close corporation system was adopted by new trades, while the privileges of the old companies were constantly on the increase. The evil reached its climax at the period which is usually termed the glorious portion of the reign of Louis XIV.; for that was the time when the government stood in most urgent need of money, and was most firmly resolved not to appeal to the country.
Letronne remarked very justly in 1775, “Government established trade-corporations solely for the purpose of obtaining money from them, either by the sale of patents, or by the creation of offices which the corporations were bound to buy up. The edict of 1673 carried out thoroughly the principles of Henry III. by obliging all corporations to purchase charters from government; the next step was compelling all trades not incorporated to form companies. This wretched business yielded three hundred thousand livres.”
We have already seen how the constitutions of cities were overthrown, not from political motives, but in order to supply the public coffers with resources.
The same pecuniary necessities, coupled with a fixed aversion to appeal to the States, led to the sale of offices—a feature in the old regime which gradually assumed such proportions that history may be searched in vain for a parallel. It owed its origin to fiscal ingenuity. But it was so well contrived that for three centuries it fed the vanity of the middle classes, and directed the whole of their energies toward the acquisition of place; it stamped on the national heart that rage for offices, which became the source alike of our revolutions and our servitude.
As the finances became more embarrassed, new offices were created, with exemptions from taxation or privileges by way of salary; and, as they were created to supply the wants of the treasury, and not the requirements of the public service, an immense number of them were useless or positively mischievous.q As early as 1664, when Colbert instituted an inquiry into the subject, it was discovered that the capital invested in this miserable business nearly amounted to five hundred millions of livres. It is said that Richelieu abolished a hundred thousand offices. They rose anew under fresh names. For a trifle of money, people trafficked away the right of directing and controlling their own servants. The net result of this system was a government machine, so vast, so complicated, so cumbrous, and so inefficient, that it was actually found necessary to let it stand idle, while a new instrument, constructed with more simplicity and better adapted for use, performed the work which these countless functionaries were supposed to do.r
It may be affirmed that none of these detestable institutions could have lasted twenty years if it had been lawful to discuss their merits. None would have been established or extended if the States had been consulted, or if their complaints had been noticed when they were convened. On the rare occasions when the States met during the later ages of the monarchy, they were uniformly presented as a grievance. These assemblies frequently traced all the abuses of which they complained to the king’s usurpation of the right of levying taxes arbitrarily, or, to use the energetic expressions of the fifteenth century, “of his enriching himself out of the substance of the people without the advice and consent of the three Estates.” They did not confine their remonstrances to their own wrongs; they strenuously demanded, and often succeeded in enforcing respect for the rights of the provinces and cities. Some members protested at every session against the inequality of the public burdens. They repeatedly demanded the abolition of trade-corporations. They assailed the sale of offices century after century with increasing warmth. “To sell offices,” they said, “is to sell justice, which is infamous.” When the system of venal offices was firmly established, they complained of its abuse as persistently as ever. They exclaimed against the creation of useless and dangerous privileges; but all was in vain. These institutions were barricades against the people. They were devised in order to obviate the necessity of convening the States, and to conceal from the public eye taxes which the government dared not exhibit in an honest light.
Nor were the good kings any better in this respect than the bad ones. It was Louis XII. who systematized the sale of offices, and Henry IV. who first sold hereditary ones. So weak was personal virtue against the vice of the system!
It was the desire to avoid meeting the States which led to the original grant of political power to the Parliaments, whence the judiciary became mixed with government in a manner that could not but be prejudicial to business. Policy dictated the establishment of new guarantees in the room of those that were taken away; for the French, who are patient enough under moderate despotisms, do not like the sight of them; and it is always wise to surround absolute power in France with a fence which, though it may not impede its movements, may conceal them from the public eye.
In fine, it was through fear lest the nation, whose money the kings wanted, should insist upon the restoration of its liberties, that class divisions were kept up; for by this means organized resistance or a common understanding was rendered impossible, and the government was certain of having to deal with each small clique separately. In the long course of French history, there reigned many distinguished sovereigns, several who were men of wit, some who were men of talent, while nearly all were men of courage; but there was not a single one who tried to efface class distinctions, or to promote union otherwise than as a condition of dependence. I am wrong; there was one who did desire to see the people united, and tried with all his heart to unite them, and that one—wonderful mystery of God’s judgments!—was Louis XVI.!
The great crime of the old kings was the division of the people into classes. Their subsequent policy followed as a matter of course; for when the wealthy and enlightened portion of a people are debarred from combination for public purposes, self-government becomes impossible, and tyranny becomes a necessity.
Turgot, in a secret report to the king, observes sadly, “The nation is composed of several disunited classes and a divided people; hence no one takes thought for any thing but his own private interest. Public spirit is a thing unknown. Villages and cities have no mutual relations with each other, nor have the counties (arrondissements) in which they are situate. They are even unable to come to an understanding for the repair of the common roads. An incessant warfare is carried on between rival claims and pretensions; the decision is invariably referred to your majesty or your servants. An order from you is required before people will pay taxes, or respect the rights of their neighbors, or even exercise their own.”
It was no slight task to reunite people who had been strangers to each other, or foes for so many centuries. It was very difficult to teach them to come to an understanding for the transaction of their common business. Division was a comparatively easy achievement. We have furnished the world with a memorable illustration of the difficulty of the reverse process. When, sixty years ago, the various classes into which French society was divided were suddenly brought together, after a separation of several centuries, their only points of contact were their old sores; they only met to tear each other in pieces. Their rival jealousies and hatreds survive to this day.
[Note m, page 125.]Arthur Young, in his Journey in 1789, draws a picture in which the condition of the two societies is so agreeably sketched and so skillfully set that I can not resist giving it here.
[Note n, page 127.]The church of X., election of Chollet, was falling into ruin. Measures were being taken to repair it, according to the plan indicated by the Order of 16th December, 1684, that is to say, by a tax on all the citizens. When the collectors proceed to levy the tax, the Marquis of X., seignior of the parish, declares that, as he undertakes to repair the choir without assistance, he can not be expected to contribute to the tax. The other inhabitants reply very reasonably that, as seignior and large tithe-holder (he possessed, no doubt, the tithes enfeoffed), he was bound to repair the choir, and that he was by no means, on that account, relieved from his obligation to contribute to the other repairs. On reference to the intendant, he decides against the marquis and in favor of the collectors. The records of the affair contain more than ten letters of the marquis, each more pressing than the last, begging that the other people of the parish be made to pay in his stead, and condescending to call the intendant “monseigneur,” and even to “supplicate him.”
[Note o, page 128.]example of the manner in which the government of the old regime respected acquired rights, formal contracts, and city or associate liberties.
[Note p, page 131.]The case cited in the text is not the only one in which the privileged classes perceived that they were affected by the feudal dues which weighed upon the peasantry. An agricultural society, composed wholly of privileged persons, said, thirty years before the Revolution,
[Note q, page 133.]All public functionaries, including the agent of the tax-farmers, enjoyed exemptions from taxes. The privilege was granted them by the ordinance of 1681. An intendant says, in a letter addressed to the minister in 1782, “The most numerous class of privileged persons consists of clerks of the gabel, of traites, of the domain, of the post, of aids, and other excise of all kinds. One or more of these are to be found in every parish.”
[Note r, page 133.]Venal offices were not wholly unknown abroad. In Germany some small sovereigns had introduced the system; but they had applied it to but few offices, and these subordinate ones. The system was carried out on a grand scale in France only.