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- The Eve of the French Revolution - 2/64 -

questions are difficult to answer. The Philosophers of the eighteenth century pronounced them unanswerable. They did not in all cases advise the establishment of democratic government as a cure for the wrongs which they saw in the world. But they attacked the things that were, proposing other things, more or less practicable, in their places. It seemed to these men no very difficult task to reconstitute society and civilization, if only the faulty arrangements of the past could be done away. They believed that men and things might be governed by a few simple laws, obvious and uniform. These natural laws they did not make any great effort to discover; they rather took them for granted; and while they disagreed in their statement of principles, they still believed their principles to be axiomatic. They therefore undertook to demolish simultaneously all established things which to their minds did not rest on absolute logical right. They bent themselves to their task with ardent faith and hope.

The larger number of people, who had been living quietly in the existing order, were amused and interested. The attacks of the Philosophers seemed to them just in many cases, the reasoning conclusive. But in their hearts they could not believe in the reality and importance of the assault. Some of those most interested in keeping the world as it was, honestly or frivolously joined in the cry for reform and for destruction.

At last an attempt was made to put the new theories into practice. The social edifice, slowly constructed through centuries, to meet the various needs of different generations, began to tumble about the astonished ears of its occupants. Then all who recognized that they had something at stake in civilization as it existed were startled and alarmed. Believers in the old religion, in old forms of government, in old manners and morals, men in fear for their heads and men in fear for their estates, were driven together. Absolutism and aristocracy, although entirely opposed to each other in principle, were forced into an unnatural alliance. From that day to this, the history of the world has been largely made up of the contests of the supporters of the new ideas, resting on natural law and on logic, with those of the older forms of thought and customs of life, having their sanctions in experience. It was in France that the long struggle began and took its form. It is therefore interesting to consider the government of that country, and its material and moral condition, at the time when the new ideas first became prominent and forced their way toward fulfillment.

It is seldom in the time of the generation in which they are propounded that new theories of life and its relations bear their full fruit. Only those doctrines which a man learns in his early youth seem to him so completely certain as to deserve to be pushed nearly to their last conclusions. The Frenchman of the reign of Louis XV. listened eagerly to Voltaire, Montesquieu and Rousseau. Their descendants, in the time of his grandson, first attempted to apply the ideas of those teachers. While I shall endeavor in this book to deal with social and political conditions existing in the reign of Louis XVI., I shall be obliged to turn to that of his predecessor for the origin of French thoughts which acted only in the last quarter of the century.



When Louis XVI. came to the throne in the year 1774, he inherited a power nearly absolute in theory over all the temporal affairs of his kingdom. In certain parts of the country the old assemblies or Provincial Estates still met at fixed times, but their functions were very closely limited. The _Parliaments_, or high courts of justice, which had claimed the right to impose some check on legislation, had been browbeaten by Louis XIV., and the principal one, that of Paris, had been dissolved by his successor. The young king appeared, therefore, to be left face to face with a nation over which he was to exercise direct and despotic power. It was a recognized maxim that the royal was law. [Footnote: Si veut le roi, si veut la loi.] Moreover, for more than two centuries, the tendency of continental governments had been toward absolutism. Among the great desires of men in those ages had been organization and strong government. A despotism was considered more favorable to these things than an aristocracy. Democracy existed as yet only in the dreams of philosophers, the history of antiquity, and the example of a few inconsiderable countries, like the Swiss cantons. It was soon to be brought into greater prominence by the American Revolution. As yet, however, the French nation looked hopefully to the king for government, and for such measures of reform as were deemed necessary. A king of France who had reigned justly and strongly would have received the moral support of the most respectable part of his subjects. These longed for a fair distribution of public burdens and for freedom from unnecessary restraint, rather than for a share in the government. The admiration for the English constitution, which was commonly expressed, was as yet rather theoretic than practical, and was not of a nature to detract from the loyalty undoubtedly felt for the French crown.

Every monarch, however despotic in theory, is in fact surrounded by many barriers which it takes a strong man to overleap. And so it was with the king of France. Although he was the fountain of justice, his judicial powers were exercised through magistrates many of whom had bought their places, and could therefore not be dispossessed without measures that were felt to be unjust and almost revolutionary. The breaking up of the Parliament of Paris, in the latter years of the preceding reign, had thrown the whole body of judges and lawyers into a state of discontent bordering on revolt. The new court of justice which had superseded the old one, the Parlement Maupeou as it was called, after the name of the chancellor who had advised its formation, was neither liked nor respected. It was one of the first acts of the government of Louis XVI. to restore the ancient Parliament of Paris, whose rights over legislation will be considered later, but which exercised at least a certain moral restraint on the royal authority.

But it was in the administrative part of the government, where the king seemed most free, that he was in fact most hampered. A vast system of public offices had been gradually formed, with regulations, traditions, and a professional spirit. This it was which had displaced the old feudal order, substituting centralization for vigorous local life.

The king's councils, which had become the central governing power of the state, were five in number. They were, however, closely connected together. The king himself was supposed to sit in all of them, and appears to have attended three with tolerable regularity. When there was a prime minister, he also sat in the three that were most important. The controller of the finances was a member of four of the councils, and the chancellor of three at least. As these were the most important men in the government, their presence in the several councils secured unity of action. The boards, moreover, were small, not exceeding nine members in the case of the first four in dignity and power: the Councils of State, of Despatches, of Finance, and of Commerce. The fifth, the Privy Council, or Council of Parties, was larger, and served in a measure as a training-school for the others. It comprised, beside all the members of the superior councils, thirty councilors of state, several intendants of finance, and eighty lawyers known as _maîtres des requêtes_. [Footnote: De Lucay, _Les Secrétaires d'État, 418, 419, 424, 442, 448, 449.]

The functions of the various councils were not clearly defined and distinguished. Many questions would be submitted to one or another of them as chance or influence might direct. Under each there were a number of public offices, called bureaux, where business was prepared, and where the smaller matters were practically settled. By the royal councils and their subordinate public offices, France was governed to an extent and with a minuteness hardly comprehensible to any one not accustomed to centralized government.

The councils did nothing in their own name. The king it was who nominally settled everything with their advice. The final decision of every question was supposed to rest with the monarch himself. Every important matter was in fact submitted to him. Thus in the government of the country, the king could at any moment take as much of the burden upon his own shoulders as they were strong enough to bear.

The legislative power was exercised by the councils. It was a question not entirely settled whether their edicts possessed full force of law without the assent of the high courts or parliaments. But with the councils rested, at least, all the initiative of legislation. The process of lawmaking began with them, and by them the laws were shaped and drafted.

They also possessed no small part of the judiciary power. The custom of removing private causes from the regular courts, and trying them before one or another of the royal councils, was a great and, I think, a growing one. This appellate jurisdiction was due in theory partly to the doctrine that the king was the origin of justice; and partly to the idea that political matters could not safely be left to ordinary tribunals. The notion that the king owes justice to all his subjects and that it is an act of grace, perhaps even a duty on his part, to administer it in person when it is possible to do so, is as old as monarchy itself.

Solomon in his palace, Saint Louis under his oak, when they decided between suitors before them, were exercising the inherent rights of sovereignty, as understood in their day. The late descendants of the royal saint did not decide causes themselves except on rare occasions, but in questions between parties followed the decision of the majority of the council that heard the case. Thus the ancient custom of seeking justice from a royal judge merely served to transfer jurisdiction to an irregular tribunal.[Footnote: De Lucay, _Les Secrétaires d'État_, 465.]

The executive power was both nominally and actually in the hands of the councils. Great questions of foreign and domestic policy could be settled only in the Council of State.[Footnote: Sometimes called Conseil d'en haut, or Upper Council.] But the whole administration tended more and more in the same direction. Questions of detail were submitted from all parts of France. Hardly a bridge was built or a steeple repaired in Burgundy or Provence without a permission signed by the king in council and countersigned by a secretary of state. The Council of Despatches exercised disciplinary jurisdiction over authors, printers, and booksellers. It governed schools, and revised their rules and regulations. It laid out roads, dredged rivers, and built canals. It dealt with the clergy, decided differences between bishops and their chapters, authorized dioceses and parishes to borrow money. It took general charge of towns and municipal organization. The Council of Finance and the Council of Commerce had equally minute questions to decide in their own departments.[Footnote: De Lucay, _Les Secrétaires d'État_, 418. For this excessive centralization, see, also, De Tocqueville, _L'ancien Régime et la Révolution_, passim.]

Evidently the king and his ministers could not give their personal attention to all these matters. Minor questions were in fact settled by the bureaux and the secretaries of state, and the king did little more than sign the necessary license. Thus matters of local interest were practically decided by subordinate officers in Paris or Versailles, instead of being arranged in the places where they were really understood. If a village in Languedoc wanted a new parsonage, neither the inhabitants of the place, nor any one who had ever been within a

The Eve of the French Revolution - 2/64

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