Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XVI.: THAT THE REIGN OF LOUIS XVI. WAS THE MOST PROSPEROUS ERA OF THE OLD MONARCHY, AND HOW THAT PROSPERITY REALLY HASTENED THE REVOLUTION. - The Old Regime and the Revolution
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CHAPTER XVI.: THAT THE REIGN OF LOUIS XVI. WAS THE MOST PROSPEROUS ERA OF THE OLD MONARCHY, AND HOW THAT PROSPERITY REALLY HASTENED THE REVOLUTION. - 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 THE REIGN OF LOUIS XVI. WAS THE MOST PROSPEROUS ERA OF THE OLD MONARCHY, AND HOW THAT PROSPERITY REALLY HASTENED THE REVOLUTION.
IT can not be questioned but the exhaustion of France under Louis XIV. commenced long before the reverses of that monarch. Symptoms of weakness may be detected in the most glorious years of his reign. France was ruined before she had ceased to conquer. Who has not read the terrible essay on Statistics of Administration which Vauban has left us? In memorials addressed to the Duke of Burgundy at the close of the seventeenth century, before the outbreak of the disastrous war of Succession, all the intendants allude to the growing decay of the nation, and do not speak as though it were of recent origin. One observes that population has greatly fallen off within his province of late years; another says that such a town, formerly rich and flourishing, now affords no demand for labor. One reports that there used to be manufactures in the province, but they have been abandoned; another, that the soil was more productive, and agriculture more flourishing twenty years ago than it is now. An intendant of Orleans was positive that population and production had fallen off twenty per cent. within thirty years. Partisans of despotism and warlike sovereigns should be recommended to read these documents.
As these evils grew out of the faults of the Constitution, neither the death of Louis XIV. nor even the advent of peace restored public prosperity. Writers on government and social economy, in the first half of the eighteenth century, invariably held to the opinion that the provinces were not recovering—that their decline was steadily progressive. They asserted that Paris alone was increasing in size and wealth. Intendants, ministers, men of business, agreed with men of letters on this point.
I confess that, for my part, I disbelieve this steady decline of France during the first half of the eighteenth century; but the universality of the belief in it, even among those who were best fitted to judge, shows that no sensible progress was being made. All the public documents of the time which I have seen, in fact, indicate a sort of social lethargy. The government revolved in the old routine circle, creating nothing new; cities made hardly any effort to render the condition of their inhabitants more comfortable and more wholesome; no private enterprise of any magnitude was undertaken.
About thirty or forty years before the Revolution broke out, the scene changed. Every portion of the social body seemed to quiver with internal motion. The phenomenon was unprecedented, and casual observers did not notice it; but it gradually became more characteristic and more distinct. Year after year it became more general and more violent, till the whole nation was aroused. Beware of supposing that its old life is going to be restored! ’Tis the awakening of a new spirit, which gives life only in order to destroy.
Every one is dissatisfied with his condition, and seeks to change it. Reform is the cry on every side. But it is sought impatiently and angrily; men curse the past, and dream of a state of things opposite in every particular to that which they see before them. The spirit soon penetrates the government itself; transforms it inwardly without changing its outward form; leaves the laws as they were, but alters their administration.
I have said elsewhere that the comptroller-general and the intendants of 1740 were very different personages from the comptroller-general and the intendants of 1780. This is shown in detail in the official correspondence of the time. At both periods intendants were invested with the same authority, employed the same agents, used the same arbitrary means; but their objects were different. In 1740 intendants were engrossed with the business of keeping their province in order, levying militia, and collecting the taille; in 1780 their heads were full of schemes for enriching the public. Roads, canals, manufactures, commerce, and agriculture above all, absorbed their attention. Sully was then the fashionable model of an administrator.
It was at this period that the agricultural societies I have mentioned began to be established; that fairs began to be common, and prizes to be distributed. I have seen circulars from the comptroller-general which read more like agricultural treatises than public state papers.
The change that had come over the spirit of the governing class was best seen in the collection of the taxes. Though the laws were as unequal, as arbitrary, as harsh as ever, their faults were materially alleviated in practice.
M. Mollien, in his Memoirs, observes that, when he “began to study the fiscal laws, he was terrified by what he discovered: exceptional courts allowed to sentence men to fine, imprisonment, corporal punishment for mere omissions; tax-farmers exercising plenary authority over persons and property on the sole responsibility of their own oath, &c. Fortunately, he did not confine his studies to the letter of the law, and he soon discovered that there was as much difference between the text of the law and its application, as there was between the style of living of the old and modern school of financiers. The courts were always inclined to extenuate offenses and mitigate penalties.”
The Provincial Assembly of Lower Normandy said, in like manner, in 1787, “The tax levy may lead to abuses and vexations innumerable; we are, however, bound to admit that in practice the law has been carried out with moderation and discretion of late years.”
Official documents abundantly justify this assertion. They prove conclusively that life and liberty were respected; they indicate, moreover, a general concern for the ills of the poor: a new sentiment. The state rarely employed violence with the poor, but often remitted their taxes or granted them alms. The king subscribed to all the country work-houses or poor-houses, and occasionally founded new ones. I find that more than 80,000 livres were distributed by the state in charity, in Haute-Guienne alone, in the year 1779; 40,000 in Touraine in 1784; 48,000 in Normandy in 1787. Louis XVI. would not always leave this branch of public business to his ministers; he often took charge of it himself. When a decree was drawn to fix the indemnity due to the peasantry for the damage done to their fields by the royal game in the neighborhood of the captainries, the king drafted the preamble himself, and indicated the method which the peasants were to pursue in order to obtain speedy justice. Turgot describes this good and unfortunate sovereign bringing him the draft in his own handwriting, and saying, “You perceive that I work, too, on my side.” If the old regime were described as it really was during the last years of its existence, the portrait would be flattering and very unfaithful.
Simultaneously with these changes in the mind of governed and governors, public prosperity began to develop with unexampled strides. This is shown by all sorts of evidence. Population increased rapidly; wealth more rapidly still. The American war did not check the movement: it completed the embarrassment of the state, but did not impede private enterprise; individuals grew more industrious, more inventive, richer than ever.
An official of the time states that in 1774 “industrial progress had been so rapid that the amount of taxable articles had largely increased.” On comparing the various contracts made between the state and the companies to which the taxes were farmed out, at different periods during the reign of Louis XVI., one perceives that the yield was increasing with astonishing rapidity. The lease of 1786 yielded fourteen millions more than that of 1780. Necker, in his report of 1781, estimated that “the produce of taxes on articles of consumption increased at the rate of two millions a year.”
Arthur Young states that in 1788 the commerce of Bordeaux was greater than that of Liverpool, and adds that “of late years maritime trade has made more progress in France than in England; the whole trade of France has doubled in the last twenty years.”
Due allowance made for the difference of the times, it may be asserted that at no period since the Revolution has public prosperity made such progress as it did during the twenty years prior to the Revolution.q In this respect, the thirty-seven years of constitutional monarchy, which were periods of peace and rapid progress for us, can alone compare with the reign of Louis XVI.
Considering the vices of the government and the burdens which weighed upon industry, the spectacle of this great and increasing prosperity is astonishing; so astonishing, indeed, that some political writers, finding themselves incapable of explaining the fact, have denied it altogether, on the same principle that Molière’s doctor refused to believe that a patient could be cured contrary to rule. How was it possible that France could prosper and grow rich with unequal taxes, diversified customs, town dues, feudal rights, trade guilds, venal offices, etc.? For all these, France did begin to grow rich and develop its resources on all sides; and for the simple reason that, independently of these misshapen and inharmonious machines, which seemed better calculated to retard than to accelerate social progress, society was held together and driven toward public prosperity by two very simple but very powerful agents: the one a government, strong without being despotic, which maintained order every where; the other a nation whose upper classes were the most enlightened and the freest people on the Continent, and in which individuals were at liberty to make money if they could, and to keep it when made.
Though the king used the language of a master, he was, in reality, the slave of public opinion. From public opinion he derived all his inspirations; he consulted it, feared it, flattered it. Absolute in theory, he was limited in practice. As early as 1784, Necker said in a public document, “Foreigners rarely realize the authority wielded by public opinion in France; they can not readily understand the nature of that invisible power which rules even over the royal palace. It does so, however.” He mentions the fact as a matter beyond dispute.
It is a superficial error to ascribe the greatness and power of a nation to the mechanism of its legislation; for in this matter the product is due less to the perfection of the instrument than to the strength of the power used. Look at England; how much more complicated, and varied, and irregular do her laws seem than ours!r Yet where is the European nation whose public credit stands higher, or in which private property is more extensive, more varied, and safer, or society sounder or more opulent? The fact does not spring from the excellence of this or that law, but from the spirit which pervades the whole body of English legislation. The imperfection of special organs is immaterial, the vital spirit is so strong.
Measurably with the increase of prosperity in France, men’s minds grow more restless and uneasy; public discontent is imbittered; the hatred of the old institutions increases. The nation visibly tends toward revolution.
More than this, those districts where progress makes the greatest strides are precisely those which are to be the chief theatre of the Revolution. The extant archives of the old district of Ile de France prove that the old regime was soonest and most thoroughly reformed in the neighborhood of Paris. In no other pays d’élection were the liberty and property of the peasant so well secured. Corvées had disappeared long before 1789. The taille was more moderate, more regular, more evenly distributed there than in any other part of France. A perusal of the law which reformed it in 1772 is absolutely essential to those who would understand how powerful an intendant could be, whether for good or for evil. In this law the tax appears in a new light. Government commissioners visit each parish once a year and convene the whole community; the relative value of estates is settled publicly; the means of each citizen ascertained by fair discussion; the taille is distributed with the concurrence of all who are to pay it. The arbitrary power of the syndic, the old useless recourse to violence, are done away with. The taille retains its inherent vices, no doubt, under the best system of collection; it is levied on one class of taxables only, and weighs upon their industry as well as upon their property, but in all other respects it is a very different affair from the tax of the same name in the neighboring districts.s
On the other hand, the old regime was nowhere in so high a state of preservation as on the borders of the Loire, especially near its mouth, in the swamps of Poitou and the moors of Brittany. That is the very place where the civil war broke out, and the Revolution was resisted with most obstinacy and violence. So that it would appear that the French found their condition the more insupportable in proportion to its improvement.
One is surprised at such an anomaly, but similar phenomena abound in history.
Revolutions are not always brought about by a gradual decline from bad to worse. Nations that have endured patiently and almost unconsciously the most overwhelming oppression, often burst into rebellion against the yoke the moment it begins to grow lighter. The regime which is destroyed by a revolution is almost always an improvement on its immediate predecessor, and experience teaches that the most critical moment for bad governments is the one which witnesses their first steps toward reform. A sovereign who seeks to relieve his subjects after a long period of oppression is lost, unless he be a man of great genius. Evils which are patiently endured when they seem inevitable, become intolerable when once the idea of escape from them is suggested. The very redress of grievances throws new light on those which are left untouched, and adds fresh poignancy to their smart: if the pain be less, the patient’s sensibility is greater.t Never had the feudal system seemed so hateful to the French as at the moment of its proximate destruction. The arbitrary measures of Louis XVI.—insignificant as they were—seemed harder to bear than all the despotism of Louis XIV. The short imprisonment of Beaumarchais aroused more emotion in Paris than the Dragonnades.
No one in 1780 had any idea that France was on the decline; on the contrary, there seemed to be no bounds to its progress. It was then that the theory of the continual and indefinite perfectibility of man took its rise. Twenty years before, nothing was hoped from the future; in 1780 nothing was feared. Imagination anticipated a coming era of unheard-of felicity, diverted attention from present blessings, and concentrated it upon novelties.
Besides these general reasons for the phenomenon, there were others of a particular nature and equally potent. Though the administration of the finances had been improved with the other departments, it was still marked by the faults which are inseparable from absolute governments. It was secret and irresponsible, and hence many of the mischievous practices of Louis XIV. and XV. were still in use. The very efforts which the government made to develop public prosperity, the assistance it occasionally lavished upon the needy, the public works it undertook, increased its expenses without proportionally increasing its revenue; hence the king’s embarrassments were even greater than those of his predecessors. Like them, he often made his creditors suffer; like them, he borrowed on all sides privately, and without calling for tenders. His creditors were never sure of their interest; indeed, their only guarantee for their capital was the personal faith of the sovereign.
An observer who is reliable, for he was an eye-witness, and better placed for observation than most people, says on this subject, “The French ran great risks in dealing with their own government. If they invested money in its securities, they were never sure of the time when the interest would be paid. If they built ships, mended roads, clothed soldiers for the government, they had no security for repayment of their advances, no certainty when the debt would be considered due; in fact, they were forced to calculate the chances of losing on a contract with ministers just as they would do on a bottomry bond.” He adds, very sensibly, “At this time, especially when the development of industry created an unusual thirst for the acquisition of property, and a new liking for ease and comfort, those who had lent money to the state felt more keenly than they would have done at another time the bad faith of the creditor who, of all others, ought to have been the last to forget the sanctity of a contract.”
The abuses with which the French government was charged were not new, but the light in which they were viewed was. More crying faults had existed in the financial department at an earlier period, but since then changes had taken place, both in government and in society, which made them more keenly felt than before.
Within the last twenty years the government had acquired an unwonted activity, and had taken part in all kinds of new enterprises. It had thus become the largest consumer of industrial products, and the greatest contractor in the kingdom. A prodigious increase had taken place in the number of those who had money relations with it, who were interested in its loans, speculated in its bargains, or were its salaried servants. At no former period were private fortunes so deeply involved with the state finances. Bad financial management had formerly been a public evil, now it became disastrous to a thousand private families. In 1789 the state owed nearly 600 millions to creditors who were themselves in debt, and whose grievances were aggravated by the personal injury inflicted on them by the remissness of the state. And be it remarked that the irritation of this class of malcontents increased in proportion to their number; for a speculative mania, a thirst for riches, a taste for comfort spreading as business became extended, troubles of this kind appeared intolerable to those who, thirty years before, might have borne them without complaint.
Hence it happened that capitalists, merchants, manufacturers, and other business men or financiers—who are usually the most conservative class of the community, and the stanchest supporters of government, and who will submit patiently to laws which they despise or detest—were now more impatient and more resolutely bent on reform than any other section of the people. They were especially determined on a revolution in the financial department, never dreaming that a radical change in that branch of the government must involve the ruin of the whole.
How could a catastrophe have been avoided? On one side, a nation in which the desire for wealth increased daily; on the other, a government unceasingly engaged in exciting and disturbing men’s minds, now inflaming their avarice, now driving them to despair—rushing to its ruin by both roads.
[Note q, page 211.]A similar spirit of progress manifested itself at the same time in Germany, and there, as in France, was accompanied by a desire for a change of institutions. See the picture which a German historian draws of the state of his country at that time:
[Note r, page 212.]how the organization of the english courts proves that institutions may have made secondary faults without failing in their original object.
[Note s, page 213.]advantages enjoyed by the district of paris.
[Note t, page 214.]The administration of the old regime comprised a multitude of different powers, which had been created—rather to help the treasury than the government—at various times, and often intrusted with the same sphere of action. Confusion and conflicts of authority could only be avoided on condition that each power should agree to do little or nothing. The moment they shook off inertia, they clashed and incommoded each other. Hence it happened that complaints of the complications of the administrative system and of the confusion of powers were much more pressing just before the Revolution than they had been thirty or forty years previous. Political institutions had grown better, not worse; but political life was more active.