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- The Eve of the French Revolution - 3/64 -


hundred miles of it, was allowed to decide on the plan and to regulate the expense, but the whole matter was reported to an office in the capital and there settled by a clerk. This barbarous system, which is by no means obsolete in Europe, is known in modern times by the barbarous name of bureaucracy.

The royal councils and their subordinate bureaux had their agents in the country. These were the intendants, men who deserve attention, for by them a very large part of the actual government was carried on. They were thirty-two in number, and governed each a territory, called a généralité. The Intendants were not great lords, nor the owners of offices that had become assimilated to property; they were hard-working men, delegated by the council, under the great seal, and liable to be promoted or recalled at the royal pleasure. They were chosen from the class of _maîtres des requêtes_, and were therefore all lawyers and members of the Privy Council. Thus the unity of the administration in Versailles and the provinces was constantly maintained.

It had originally been the function of the intendants to act as legal inspectors, making the circuit of the provincial towns for the purpose of securing uniformity and the proper administration of justice in the various local courts.[Footnote: Du Boys, i. 517.] They retained to the end of the monarchy the privilege of sitting in all the courts of law within their districts.[Footnote: De Lucay, _Les Assemblées provinciales_, 31.] But their duties and powers had grown to be far greater than those of any officer merely judicial. The intendant had charge of the interests of the Catholic religion and worship, and the care of buildings devoted to religious purposes. He also controlled the Protestants, and all their affairs. He encouraged and regulated agriculture and commerce. He settled many questions concerning military matters and garrisons. The militia was entirely managed by him. He cooperated with the courts of justice in the control of the police. He had charge of post-roads and post-offices, stage coaches, books and printing, royal or privileged lotteries, and the suppression of illegal gambling. He was, in fact, the direct representative of the royal power, and was in constant correspondence with the king's minister of state. And as the power of the crown had constantly grown for two centuries, so the power of the intendant had constantly grown with it, tending to the centralization and unity of France and to the destruction of local liberties.

As the intendants were educated as lawyers rather than as administrators, and as they were often transferred from one province to another after a short term of service, they did not acquire full knowledge of their business. Moreover, they did not reside regularly in the part of the country which they governed, but made only flying visits to it, and spent most of their time near the centre of influence, in Paris or Versailles. Yet their opportunities for doing good or harm were almost unlimited. Their executive command was nearly uncontrolled; for where there were no provincial estates, the inhabitants could not send a petition to the king except through the hands of the intendant, and any complaint against that officer was referred to himself for an answer.[Footnote: For the intendants, see Necker, _De l'administration_, ii. 469, iii. 379. Ibid., _Mémoire au roi sur l'établissement des administrations provinciales_, passim. De Lucay, _Les Assemblées provinciales_, 29. Mercier, _Tableau de Paris_, ix. 85. The official title of the intendant was _commissaire départi_.]

The intendants were represented in their provinces by subordinate officers called sub-delegates, each one of whom ruled his petty district or _élection_. These men were generally local lawyers or magistrates. Their pay was small, they had no hope of advancement, and they were under great temptation to use their extensive powers in a corrupt and oppressive manner.[Footnote: De Lucay, _Les Assemblées provinciales_, 42, etc.]

Beside the intendant, we find in every province a royal governor. The powers of this official had gradually waned before those of his rival. He was always a great lord, drawing a great salary and maintaining great state, but doing little service, and really of far less importance to the province than the new man. He was a survival of the old feudal government, superseded by the centralized monarchy of which the intendant was the representative.[Footnote: The _generalité_ governed by the intendant, and the _province_ to which the royal governor was appointed, were not always coterminous.]

CHAPTER II.

LOUIS XVI. AND HIS COURT.

A centralized government, when it is well managed and carefully watched from above, may reach a degree of efficiency and quickness of action which a government of distributed local powers cannot hope to equal. But if a strong central government become disorganized, if inefficiency, or idleness, or, above all, dishonesty, once obtain a ruling place in it, the whole governing body is diseased. The honest men who may find themselves involved in any inferior part of the administration will either fall into discouraged acquiescence, or break their hearts and ruin their fortunes in hopeless revolt. Nothing but long years of untiring effort and inflexible will on the part of the ruler, with power to change his agents at his discretion, can restore order and honesty.

There is no doubt that the French administrative body at the time when Louis XVI. began to reign, was corrupt and self-seeking. In the management of the finances and of the army, illegitimate profits were made. But this was not the worst evil from which the public service was suffering. France was in fact governed by what in modern times is called "a ring." The members of such an organization pretend to serve the sovereign, or the public, and in some measure actually do so; but their rewards are determined by intrigue and favor, and are entirely disproportionate to their services. They generally prefer jobbery to direct stealing, and will spend a million of the state's money in a needless undertaking, in order to divert a few thousands into their own pockets.

They hold together against all the world, while trying to circumvent each other. Such a ring in old France was the court. By such a ring will every country be governed, where the sovereign who possesses the political power is weak in moral character or careless of the public interest; whether that sovereign be a monarch, a chamber, or the mass of the people.[Footnote: "Quand, dans un royaume, il y a plus d'avantage à faire sa cour qu'à faire son devoir, tout est perdu." Montesquieu, vii. 176, (_Pensées diverses_.)]

Louis XVI., king of France and of Navarre, was more dull than stupid, and weaker in will than in intellect. In him the hobbledehoy period had been unusually prolonged, and strangers at court were astonished to see a prince of nineteen years of age running after a footman to tickle him while his hands were full of dirty clothes.[Footnote: Swinburne, i. 11.] The clumsy youth grew up into a shy and awkward man, unable to find at will those accents of gracious politeness which are most useful to the great. Yet people who had been struck at first only with his awkwardness were sometimes astonished to find in him a certain amount of education, a memory for facts, and a reasonable judgment.[Footnote: Campan, ii. 231. Bertrand de Moleville, _Histoire_, i. Introd.; _Mémoires_, i. 221.] Among his predecessors he had set himself Henry IV. as a model, probably without any very accurate idea of the character of that monarch; and he had fully determined he would do what in him lay to make his people happy. He was, moreover, thoroughly conscientious, and had a high sense of the responsibility of his great calling. He was not indolent, although heavy, and his courage, which was sorely tested, was never broken. With these virtues he might have made a good king, had he possessed firmness of will enough to support a good minister, or to adhere to a good policy. But such strength had not been given him. Totally incapable of standing by himself, he leant successively, or simultaneously, on his aunt, his wife, his ministers, his courtiers, as ready to change his policy as his adviser. Yet it was part of his weakness to be unwilling to believe himself under the guidance of any particular person; he set a high value on his own authority, and was inordinately jealous of it. No one, therefore, could acquire a permanent influence. Thus a well-meaning man became the worst of sovereigns; for the first virtue of a master is consistency, and no subordinate can follow out with intelligent zeal today a policy which he knows may be subverted tomorrow.

The apologists of Louis XVI. are fond of speaking of him as "virtuous." The adjective is singularly ill-chosen. His faults were of the will more than of the understanding. To have a vague notion of what is right, to desire it in a general way, and to lack the moral force to do it,--surely this is the very opposite of virtue.

The French court, which was destined to have a very great influence on the course of events in this reign and in the beginning of the French Revolution, was composed of the people about the king's person. The royal family and the members of the higher nobility were admitted into the circle by right of birth, but a large place could be obtained only by favor. It was the court that controlled most appointments, for no king could know all applicants personally and intimately. The stream of honor and emolument from the royal fountain-head was diverted, by the ministers and courtiers, into their own channels. Louis XV had been led by his mistresses; Louis XVI was turned about by the last person who happened to speak to him. The courtiers, in their turn, were swayed by their feelings, or their interests. They formed parties and combinations, and intrigued for or against each other. They made bargains, they gave and took bribes. In all these intrigues, bribes, and bargains, the court ladies had a great share. They were as corrupt as the men, and as frivolous. It is probable that in no government did women ever exercise so great an influence.

The factions into which the court was divided tended to group themselves round certain rich and influential families. Such were the Noailles, an ambitious and powerful house, with which Lafayette was connected by marriage; the Broglies, one of whom had held the thread of the secret diplomacy which Louis XV. had carried on behind the backs of his acknowledged ministers; the Polignacs, new people, creatures of Queen Marie Antoinette; the Rohans, through the influence of whose great name an unworthy member of the family was to rise to high dignity in the church and the state, and then to cast a deep shadow on the darkening popularity of that ill-starred princess. Such families as these formed an upper class among nobles, and the members firmly believed in their own prescriptive right to the best places. The poorer nobility, on the other hand, saw with great jealousy the supremacy of the court families. They insisted that there was and should be but one order of nobility, all whose members were equal among themselves.[Footnote: See among other places the Instructions of the Nobility of Blois to the deputies, _Archives parlementaires_, ii. 385.]

The courtiers, on their side, thought themselves a different order of beings from the rest of the nation. The ceremony of presentation was the passport into their society, but by no means all who possessed this formal title were held to belong to the inner circle. Women who came to court but once a week, although of great family, were known as "Sunday ladies." The true courtier lived always in the refulgent presence of his sovereign.[Footnote: Campan, iii. 89.]

The court was considered a perfectly legitimate power, although much


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