Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XVII.: HOW ATTEMPTS TO RELIEVE THE PEOPLE PROVOKED REBELLION. - The Old Regime and the Revolution
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CHAPTER XVII.: HOW ATTEMPTS TO RELIEVE THE PEOPLE PROVOKED REBELLION. - 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 ATTEMPTS TO RELIEVE THE PEOPLE PROVOKED REBELLION.
AS the people had not appeared for a single instant on the public stage for a hundred and forty years, the possibility of their ever appearing there was forgotten, and their insensibility was regarded as a proof of deafness. Hence, when some interest began to be taken in their lot, they were discussed publicly as though they had not been present. It appeared as though it was supposed that the discussion would only be heard by the upper classes, and that the only danger was lest these might not be made to understand the case.
The very classes which had most to fear from popular fury declaimed loudly and publicly against the cruel injustice which the people had so long suffered. They took pleasure in pointing out to each other the monstrous vices of the institutions which weighed upon the people. They employed rhetoric to paint their sufferings and the inadequate rewards for their labor. Thus, in their endeavor to relieve the lower classes, they roused them to fury. I am not speaking of writers—I allude to the-government, to its chief agents, themselves members of the privileged classes.
When the king endeavored to abolish corvées thirteen years before the Revolution, he stated in the preamble of the ordinance, “With the exception of a few provinces (pays d’états), nearly all the roads of the kingdom have been made gratuitously by the poorest portion of our subjects. The whole burden has fallen upon those who have no property but their labor, and whose interest in the roads is very slender; the landowners, who are really interested in the matter—for their property increases in value in proportion to the improvement in the roads—are privileged exempts. By compelling the poor to keep the roads in repair, to give their time and their labor for nothing, we have deprived them of their only safeguard against poverty and hunger, in order to make them toil for the benefit of the rich.”
When an effort was made, at the same time, to remove the restraints which the system of industrial corporations imposed on workmen, it was proclaimed in the king’s name “that the right to labor is the most sacred of all properties; that any law which infringes that right is essentially null and void, as being inconsistent with natural right; that the existing corporations are, moreover, abnormal and tyrannical institutions, the product of selfishness, cupidity, and violence.” Such expressions were perilous indeed; but it was more dangerous still to utter them in vain. A few months later, corporations and corvées were re-established.
It was Turgot, it is said, who put these words in the king’s mouth. Most of his successors followed the example. When the king announced, in 1780, that from that time forth the augmentations of the taille would be made public by registry, he took pains to add as a commentary, “The persons liable to pay the taille have been not only tormented by the vexatious manner in which it is collected, but have been exposed besides to unexpected augmentations in the amount levied, and that to such an extent that the taxes paid by the poorest portion of our subjects have increased much more rapidly than those levied on the richer classes.” Again, when the king, not daring to equalize all the taxes, endeavored to establish the principle of equality in the collection of those which were already paid by all classes in common, he said, “His majesty hopes that the rich will not complain of being placed on the same level as the poor in the performance of a duty which they ought long ago to have shared more equally.”
In times of scarcity, especially, greater efforts seem to have been made to inflame the passions of the people than to supply their necessities. An intendant, desirous of stimulating the charity of the rich, would speak of “the injustice and the harshness of those landowners who owe all they have to the labor of the poor, and who leave the unfortunate laborers, broken down in their service, to perish of hunger.” On a similar occasion, the king declared that it was “his majesty’s intention to protect the poor against schemes which compelled them to work for the rich at a rate of wages fixed by the latter, and thus exposed them to lack the very necessaries of life. The king will not permit one portion of mankind to be surrendered to the cupidity of another.”
To the close of the monarchical era, the struggle between the various administrative branches of government gave rise to all sorts of manifestations of this kind; each disputant accused his rival of being the cause of the people’s misery. This is seen distinctly in the quarrel which took place between the king and the Parliament of Toulouse on the subject of the movement of breadstuffs. The Parliament declared that “the false policy of the government endangered the subsistence of the poor;” and the king replied that it was “the ambition of the Parliament and the greed of the rich which caused the public distress.” Thus on both sides efforts were made to convince the people that their sufferings were the work of their superiors.
These matters were not stated in private letters; they are to be found in public documents, which the government and the Parliament took care to print by thousands. In the course of his explanations, the king told some harsh truths both of his predecessors and of himself. “The state treasury,” said he once, “has been embarrassed by the profusion of several reigns. Several of our inalienable domains have been sold far below their value.” “Industrial corporations,” he is made to say on another occasion, with more truth than prudence, “are the especial product of the fiscal greed of kings.” Farther on he says, “If money has often been thrown away in useless expenses, and the taille has increased beyond measure, the fact must be charged upon the administrators of the finances, who, finding an increase of the taille the easiest, because the most secret method of meeting their difficulties, have had recourse to that plan, though almost any other would have been less burdensome to our subjects.”u
All this was addressed to the educated classes, in order to prove the merit of measures which certain private interests opposed. As for the people, it was taken for granted that they heard all, but understood nothing.
It must be admitted that the very benevolence which prompted the relief of these poor people concealed a large share of contempt for them. One is reminded of Madame de Duchatelet, who, according to Voltaire’s secretary, had no objection to undress before her servants, as she was not convinced that valets were men.
Nor was the dangerous language quoted above confined to Louis XVI. or his ministers. The very privileged classes who were the most immediate objects of popular hatred never spoke otherwise. It must be acknowledged that the upper classes in France concerned themselves about the condition of the poor long before they learned to fear them: their interest in popular sufferings was prior to the first suspicion that those sufferings might eventuate in their ruin. This is especially visible in the ten years which preceded 1789. The peasantry were the theme of constant conversations, of abiding sympathy. Remedies for their evils were suggested incessantly. Light was thrown on their chief grievances, and the fiscal laws which pressed heavily on them were loudly censured. But their new friends were as thoughtless in their sympathy as they had formerly been in their insensibility.
Read the reports of the Provincial Assemblies which were convened in some parts of France in 1779, and, at a later period, throughout the kingdom; study the public documents which they have left us, and you will be touched with the humanity and amazed at the singular imprudence of their language.
The Provincial Assembly of Normandy declared, in 1787, that “the money appropriated by the king to the roads has often been so used as to be convenient to the rich, but useless to the poor. It has often been employed to render the approach to a chateau more agreeable, while the entry of a bourg or village has been neglected.” At the same assembly, the two orders of the nobility and the clergy, after having described the vices of the system of corvées, offered spontaneously to devote 50,000 livres to the improvement of the roads, “so that,” as they say, “the internal communications of the province may be made practicable without costing the people any thing.” It would have been less onerous to the privileged classes to have substituted a general tax for the corvées, and to have paid their share; but even in abandoning the benefit of unequal taxation, they liked to preserve the name of being exempt. They sacrificed the useful portion of their rights, but they preserved what was odious.
Other assemblies, wholly composed of persons who were, and intended to remain, exempt from the taille, painted, in equally sombre colors, the evils which that tax inflicted on the poor. They drew a frightful sketch of its abuses, and scattered copies broadcast. And, singular to state, with these striking marks of interest in the people’s welfare, they intermingled, from time to time, public expressions of contempt. The people had inspired sympathy without ceasing to inspire disdain.
The Provincial Assembly of Upper Guienne, pleading with warmth the cause of the peasantry, alluded to them as “ignorant and gross beings, turbulent spirits, and rude and indocile characters.” Turgot, who did so much for the people, used language very similar.v
Expressions as harsh were commonly used in documents destined to a wide publicity, and intended to be seen by the peasantry. It was as if the writers had been living in one of those European countries like Gallicia, where the upper classes speak a different tongue from the lower, and can not be understood by them. Feudal lawyers of the eighteenth century, who often evince an unusual spirit of justice, moderation, and tenderness for copyholders and other feudal debtors, still occasionally speak of low peasants. These insults appear to have been technical (de style), as the notaries say.
Toward 1789, the sympathy for the people grew warmer and more imprudent. I have had in my hands circulars, addressed by several Provincial Assemblies, in the early part of 1788, to the people of several parishes, inquiring for the details of their grievances. One of these was signed by an abbé, a nobleman of high degree, three men of rank, and a burgher, all members of the assembly and acting in its name. This commission directed the syndic of each parish to convene the peasantry, and inquire of them what complaints they had to make of the manner in which the taxes were levied upon them. “We are aware,” it said, “that most of the taxes, and especially the gavel and the taille, are disastrous in their effects upon farmers; but we desire to ascertain the particulars of each abuse.” Nor does the curiosity of the Assembly rest there. They want to know the number of persons who are exempt from taxation in the parish; whether they are noblemen, ecclesiastics, or commoners; what is the nature of their privileges; what is the value of their property; whether they reside on their estates; whether the parish contains much Church property, or, as the phrase then was, much land in mortmain, not merchantable; and what its value may be. Even these inquiries fall short of their requirements. They desire to know what sum of money would represent the share which each privileged person would have to bear in taxes, taille and its accessories, capitation-tax, corvées, if taxation weighed equally on all.
This was simply inflaming the passions of each individual by the recital of his wrongs, pointing out their authors to him, encouraging him by indicating the smallness of their number, stealing into his inmost heart to light up his cupidity, his envy, his hatred. It seemed as though the Jacquerie, the Maillotins, the Sixteen, had been wholly forgotten; and as if no one knew that the French, who are naturally the gentlest and even the kindest people in the world so long as they are in repose, become the most barbarous race alive when violent passions pervert their natural disposition.
I have, unhappily, been unable to procure all the answers which the peasants made to these murderous inquiries, but I have found a few of them, and they suffice to indicate the spirit of the whole.
They give with care the name of every privileged person, whether belonging to the nobility or the middle classes. Occasionally they describe, and invariably criticise his mode of life. They enter into curious calculations with regard to the value of his property; they enlarge upon the number and nature of his privileges, and especially upon the injury which they inflict upon the neighborhood. They enumerate the bushels of wheat which he receives by way of dues; they estimate enviously his revenue, which they say is advantageous to no one. The curate’s fees—his salary, as they have already begun to say—are excessive; they remark bitterly that the Church exacts money for every thing, and that a poor man can not even be buried gratuitously. As for the taxes, they are all ill-distributed and oppressive; not one obtains favor at their hands, and all are spoken of in violent language breathing absolute fury.
“The indirect taxes are odious,” they say; “not a household but the tax-gatherer invades; nothing is sacred either from his eyes or his hands. The registry duties are crushing. The receiver of the taille is a tyrant whose cupidity shrinks from no measure of annoyance for honest people. The bailiffs are no better; no honest farmer is safe from their ferocity. The collectors are obliged to ruin their neighbors in order to save themselves from the voracity of these despots.”
The inquiry is no mere preliminary of the Revolution; it is part of it, speaks its language, wears its features.
One among the many points of difference between the religious revolution of the sixteenth century and the French Revolution is especially striking. In the sixteenth century, most of the nobility took the side of the new religion from ambitious or interested motives; while the people, on the contrary, embraced it from conviction, and without expecting any profit from the change. In the eighteenth century this was not the case. It was disinterested principle and generous sympathy which roused the upper classes to revolution, while the people were agitated by the bitter feeling of their grievances, and a rage to change their condition. The enthusiasm of the former fanned the flame of popular wrath and covetousness, and ended by arming the people.
[Note u, page 221.]arbitrary increase of the taxes.
[Note v, page 224.]style in which turgot speaks of the people of the country parts in the preamble of a royal declaration.