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The Eve of the French Revolution By Edward J. Lowell Characters: 13287

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

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 ma?tres 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 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 ma?tres 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.]

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