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The Eve of the French Revolution By Edward J. Lowell Characters: 26473

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

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 hated at times, and bearing, very properly, a large share of the odium of misgovernment. The idea of its legitimacy is impressed on the language of diplomacy, and we still speak of the Court of St. James, the Court of Vienna, as powers to be dealt with. Under a monarchy, people do not always distinguish in their own minds between the good of the state and the personal enjoyment of the monarch, nor is the doctrine that the king exists for his people by any means fully recognized. When the Count of Artois told the Parliament of Paris in 1787 that they knew that the expenses of the king could not be regulated by his receipts, but that his receipts must be governed by his expenses, he spoke a half-truth; yet it had probably not occurred to him that there was any difference between the necessity of keeping up an efficient army, and the desirability of having hounds, coaches, and palaces. He had not reflected that it might be essential to the honor of France to feed the old soldiers in the Hotel des Invalides, and quite superfluous to pay large sums to generals who had never taken the field and to colonels who seldom visited their regiments. The courtiers fully believed that to interfere with their salaries was to disturb the most sacred rights of property. In 1787, when the strictest economy was necessary, the king united his "Great Stables" and "Small Stables," throwing the Duke of Coigny, who had charge of the latter, out of place. Although great pains were taken to spare the duke's feelings and his pocket, he was very angry at the change, and there was a violent scene between him and the king. "We were really provoked, the Duke of Coigny and I," said Louis good-naturedly afterwards, "but I think if he had thrashed me, I should have forgiven him." The duke, however, was not so placable as the king. Holding another appointment, he resigned it in a huff. The queen was displeased at this mark of temper, and remarked to a courtier that the Duke of Coigny did not appreciate the consideration that had been shown him.

"Madam," was the reply, "he is losing too much to be content with compliments. It is too bad to live in a country where you are not sure of possessing today what you had yesterday. Such things used to take place only in Turkey."[Footnote: Besenval, ii. 255.]

It is not easy, in looking at the French government in the eighteenth century, to decide where the working administration ended, and where the useless court that answered no real purpose began. The ministers of state were reckoned a part of the court. So were many of the upper civil-servants, the king's military staff, and in a sense, the guards and household troops. So were the "great services," partaking of the nature of public offices, ceremonial honors, and domestic labors. Of this kind were the Household, the Chamber, the Antechamber and Closet, the Great and the Little Stables, with their Grand Squire, First Squire and pages, who had to prove nobility to the satisfaction of the royal herald. There was the department of hunting and that of buildings, a separate one for royal journeys, one for the guard, another for police, yet another for ceremonies. There were five hundred officers "of the mouth," table-bearers distinct from chair-bearers. There were tradesmen, from apothecaries and armorers at one end of the list to saddle-makers, tailors and violinists at the other.

When a baby is at last born to Marie Antoinette (only a girl, to every one's disappointment), a rumor gets about that the child will be tended with great simplicity. The queen's mother, the Empress Maria Theresa, in distant Vienna, takes alarm. She does not approve of "the present fashion according to Rousseau" by which young princes are brought up like peasants. Her ambassador in Paris hastens to reassure her. The infant will not lack reasonable ceremony. The service of her royal person alone will employ nearly eighty attendants.[Footnote: Mercy-Argenteau, iii. 283, 292.] The military and civil households of the king and of the royal family are said to have consisted of about fifteen thousand souls, and to have cost forty-five million francs per annum. The holders of many of the places served but three months apiece out of every year, so that four officers and four salaries were required, instead of one.

With such a system as this we cannot wonder that the men who administered the French government were generally incapable and self-seeking. Most of them were politicians rather than administrators, and cared more for their places than for their country. Of the few conscientious and patriotic men who obtained power, the greater number lost it very speedily. Turgot and Malesherbes did not long remain in the Council. Necker, more cautious and conservative, could keep his place no better. The jealousy of Louis was excited, and he feared the domination of a man of whom the general opinion of posterity has been that he was wanting in decision. Calonne was sent away as soon as he tried to turn from extravagance to economy. Vergennes alone, of the good servants, retained his office; perhaps because he had little to do with financial matters; perhaps, also, because he knew how to keep himself decidedly subordinate to whatever power was in the ascendant. The lasting influences were that of Maurepas, an old man who cared for nothing but himself, whose great object in government was to be without a rival, and whose art was made up of tact and gayety; and that of the rival factions of Lamballe and Polignac, guiding the queen, which were simply rapacious.

The courtiers and the numerous people who were drawn to Versailles by business or curiosity were governed by a system of rules of gradual growth, constituting what was known as "étiquette." The word has passed into common speech. In this country it is an unpopular word, and there is an impression in many people's minds that the thing which i

t represents is unnecessary. This, however, is a great delusion. étiquette is that code of rules, not necessarily connected with morals, by which mutual intercourse is regulated. Every society, whether civilized or barbarous, has such a code of its own. Without it social life would be impossible, for no man would know what to expect of his neighbors, nor be able promptly to interpret the words and actions of his fellow-men. It is in obedience to an unwritten law of this kind that an American takes off his hat when he goes into a church, and an Asiatic, when he enters a mosque, takes off his shoes; that Englishmen shake hands, and Africans rub noses. Where étiquette is well understood and well adapted to the persons whom it governs, men are at ease, for they know what they may do without offense. Where it is too complicated it hampers them, making spontaneous action difficult, and there is no doubt that the étiquette that governed the French court was antiquated, unadvisable and cumbrous. Its rules had been devised to prevent confusion and to regulate the approach of the courtiers to the king. As all honors and emoluments came from the royal pleasure, people were sure to crowd about the monarch, and to jostle each other with unmannerly and dangerous haste, unless they were strictly held in check. Every one, therefore, must have his place definitely assigned to him. To be near the king at all times, to have the opportunity of slipping a timely word into his ear, was an invaluable privilege. To be employed in menial offices about his person was a mark of confidence. Rules could not easily be revised, for each of them concerned a vested right. Those in force in the reign of Louis XVI. had been established by his predecessors when manners were different.

At the close of the Middle Ages privacy may be said to have been a luxury almost unknown to any man. There was not room for it in the largest castle. Solitude was seldom either possible or safe. People were crowded together without means of escape from each other. The greatest received their dependents, and often ate their meals, in their bedrooms. A confidential interview would be held in the embrasure of a window. Such customs disappeared but gradually from the sixteenth century to our own. But by the latter part of the eighteenth, modern ways and ideas were coming in. Yet the étiquette of the French court was still old-fashioned. It infringed too much on the king's privacy; it interfered seriously with his freedom. It exposed him too familiarly to the eyes of a nation overprone to ridicule. A man who is to inspire awe should not dress and undress in public. A woman who is to be regarded with veneration should be allowed to take her bath and give birth to her children in private.[Footnote: See the account of the birth of Marie Antoinette's first child, when she was in danger from the mixed crowd that filled her room, stood on chairs, etc., 19th Dec. 1778. Campan, i. 201. At her later confinements only princes of the blood, the chancellor and the ministers, and a few other persons were admitted. Ibid., 203.]

Madame Campan, long a waiting-woman of Marie Antoinette, has left an account of the toilet of the queen and of the little occurrences that might interrupt it. The whole performance, she says, was a masterpiece of étiquette; everything about it was governed by rules. The Lady of Honor and the Lady of the Bedchamber, both if they were there together, assisted by the First Woman and the two other women, did the principal service; but there were distinctions among them. The Lady of the Bedchamber put on the skirt and presented the gown. The Lady of Honor poured out the water to wash the queen's hands and put on the chemise. When a Princess of the Royal Family or a Princess of the Blood was present at the toilet, the Lady of Honor gave up the latter function to her. To a Princess of the Royal Family, that is to say to the sister, sister-in-law, or aunt of the king, she handed the garment directly; but to a Princess of the Blood (the king's cousin by blood or marriage) she did not yield this service. In the latter case, the Lady of Honor handed the chemise to the First Woman, who presented it to the Princess of the Blood. Every one of these ladies observed these customs scrupulously, as appertaining to her rank.

One winter's day it happened that the Queen, entirely undressed, was about to put on her chemise. Madame Campan was holding it unfolded. The Lady of Honor came in, made haste to take off her gloves and took the chemise. While she still had it in her hands there came a knock at the door, which was immediately opened. The new-comer was the Duchess of Orleans, a Princess of the Blood. Her Highness's gloves were taken off, she advanced to take the shift, but the Lady of Honor must not give it directly to her, and therefore passed it back to Madame Campan, who gave it to the princess. Just then there came another knock at the door, and the Countess of Provence, known as Madame, and sister-in-law to the king, was ushered in. The Duchess of Orleans presented the chemise to her. Meanwhile the Queen kept her arms crossed on her breast, and looked cold. Madame saw her disagreeable position, and without waiting to take off her gloves, merely threw away her handkerchief and put the chemise on the Queen. In her haste she knocked down the Queen's hair. The latter burst out laughing, to hide her annoyance; and only murmured several times between her teeth: "This is odious! What a nuisance!"

This anecdote gives but an instance of the well-known and not unfounded aversion of Marie Antoinette to the étiquette of the French court. But the young queen made no attempt to reform that étiquette; she tried only to evade it. Much has been written about Marie Antoinette as a woman, her terrible misfortunes and the fortitude with which she bore them having evoked the sympathy of mankind. Her conduct as a queen-consort has been less considered. The woman was lively and amiable, possessing a great personal charm, which impressed those who approached her; but that mattered little to the nation, whose dealings were with the queen. What were the duties of her office and how did she fulfill them?

The first thing demanded of her was parade. She had to keep up the splendor and attractiveness of the French monarchy. This, in spite of her impatience of étiquette, was of all her public duties the one which she best performed. Her manners were dignified, gracious, and appropriately discriminating. It is said that she could bow to ten persons with one movement, giving, with her head and eyes, the recognition due to each separately.

She had also the art of talking to several people at once, so that each one felt as if her remarks had been addressed to himself, and the equally important art (sometimes called royal) of remembering faces and names. As she passed from one part of her palace to another, surrounded by the ladies of her court, she seemed to the spectator to surpass them all in the nobility of her countenance and the dignified grace of her carriage. She had the crowning beauty of woman, a well-poised and proudly carried head. Her gait was a gliding motion, in which the steps were not clearly distinguishable. Foreigners generally were enchanted with her, and to them she owes no small part of her posthumous popularity. The French nobility, on the other hand, complained, not unreasonably, that the queen was too exclusively devoted to the society of a few intimate companions, for whose sake she neglected other people. Her court, on this account, was sometimes comparatively deserted. But a young queen can hardly be very severely blamed if she often prefers her pleasures and her friends to the tedious duties of her position. Marie Antoinette had had little education or guidance. Her likes and dislikes were strong, nor was she entirely above petty spite. "You tell me," wrote Maria Theresa to her daughter on one occasion, "that for love of me you treat the Broglies well, although they have been disrespectful to you personally. That is another odd idea. Can a little Broglie be disrespectful to you? I do not understand that. No one was ever disrespectful to me, nor to any of your ten brothers and sisters." It was no fair-weather queen that wrote this most royal reproof. Marie Antoinette never rose to this height of dignity, where the great lady sits above the clouds. In her days of prosperity she certainly never approached it. Perhaps no mortal woman ever reached it in early life. [Footnote: Mercy-Argenteau, passim, and especially i. 218, 265, 279; ii. 218, 232, 312, 525; iii. 56, 113, 132 and n., 157, 265, 490. Tilly, Mémoires, 230. Cognel, 59, 84; Wraxall, i. 85; Walpole's Letters, vi. 245 (23d Aug. 1776), etc.]

It is one of the most important duties of a queen-consort to set a good example in morals. Here Marie Antoinette was deficient. Her private conduct has probably been slandered, but she brought the slanders on herself. Beside the code of morals, there is in every country a code of proprieties, and people who habitually do that which is considered improper have only themselves to thank if a harsh construction is put on their doubtful actions. The scandals concerning Marie Antoinette were numberless and public. The young queen of France chose for her intimate companions men and women of bad reputation. Her brother, Joseph II., was shocked when he visited her, at the familiar manners which she permitted. He wrote to her that English travelers compared her court to Spa, then a famous gambling-place, and he called the house of the Princess of Guéménée, which she was in the habit of frequenting, "a real gambling-hell." Accusations of cheating at cards flew about the palace, and one courtier had his pocket picked in the royal drawing-room. The queen was constantly surrounded by dissipated young noblemen, who on race days were allowed to come into her presence in costumes which shocked conservative people. She herself was recognized at public masked balls, where the worst women of the capital jostled the great nobles of the court. When she had the measles, four gentlemen of her especial friends were appointed nurses, and hardly left her chamber during the day and evening. People asked ironically what four ladies would be appointed to nurse the king if he were ill. In her amusements she was seldom accompanied by her husband. It hardly told in her favor that the latter was a man for whom a young and high-spirited woman could not be expected to entertain any very passionate affection.

The country was deeply in debt, and during a part of the reign an expensive war was going on. It was obviously the queen's duty to retrench her own expenses, and to set an example of economy. Yet her demands on the treasury were very great. Her personal allowance was much larger than that of the previous queen, and she was frequently in debt. Her losses at play were considerable, in spite of her husband's well-known aversion to gambling. She increased the number of expensive and useless offices about her court. She was constantly accessible to rapacious favorites. The feeble king could at least recognize that he owed something to his subjects; the queen appears to have thought that the revenues of France were intended principally to provide means for the royal bounty to people who had done nothing to deserve it. On the other hand, she acknowledged the duty of private charity, and believed that thereby she was earning the gratitude of her subjects. That the taxpayer was entitled to any consideration is an idea that does not seem to have entered her mind.

Had Marie Antoinette been the wife of a strong and able king, she would probably have been quite right in avoiding interference in the government of the state. Being married to Louis XVI., it was inevitable that she should try to direct his vacillating will in public matters. It therefore becomes pertinent to ask whether her influence was generally exerted on the right side.

It is evident that in the earlier part of her reign the affairs of the state did not interest her, though her feelings were often strongly moved for or against persons. Her preference for Choiseul and his adherents, over Aiguillon and his party, was natural and well founded. The Duke of Choiseul was not only the author of the Austrian alliance and of the queen's marriage, but was also the ablest minister who had recently held favor in France. Had Marie Antoinette possessed as much influence over her husband in 1774 as she obtained later, she might perhaps have overcome what seems to have been one of his strongest prejudices, and have brought Choiseul back to power, to the benefit of the country. But her efforts in that direction were unavailing. In her relations with the other ministers, Turgot, Malesherbes, and Necker, her voice was generally on the side of extravagance and the court, and against economy and the nation. This, far more than the intrigues of faction, was the cause of the unpopularity that pursued her to her grave. If the court of France was a corrupt ring living on the country, Marie Antoinette was not far from being its centre.

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