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The Eve of the French Revolution By Edward J. Lowell Characters: 19760

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

The new birth of learning in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had been followed by the strengthening and centralization of government, both in church and state. France had its full share of this change. Its civil government became the strongest in Europe, putting down every breath of opposition. Against the political conduct of Louis XIV neither magistrate nor citizen dared to raise his voice. The Church of France, on the other hand, in close alliance with the civil power, became almost irresistible in her own sphere. The Catholic Church throughout Europe had been the great schoolmaster of civilization. It had fallen into the common fault of schoolmasters, the assumption of infallibility. It was, moreover, a state within all states. Its sovereign, the Pope, the most powerful monarch in Christendom, is chosen in accordance with a curious and elaborate set of regulations, by electors appointed by his predecessors. His rule, nominally despotic, is limited by powers and influences understood by few persons outside of his palace. His government, although highly centralized, is yet able to work efficiently in all the countries of the earth. It is served by a great body of officials, probably less corrupt on the whole than those of any other state. They are kept in order, not only by moral and spiritual sanctions, but by a system of worldly promotion. They wield over their subjects a tremendous weapon, sometimes borrowed, but seldom long or very skillfully used by laymen, and called, in clerical language, excommunication. This, when it is confined to the denial of religious privileges, may be considered a spiritual weapon. But in the eighteenth century the temporal power of Catholic Europe was still in great measure at the service of the ecclesiastical authorities. Obedience to the church was a law of the state. Although Frenchmen were no longer executed for heresy in the reign of Louis XVI., they still were persecuted. The property of Protestants was unsafe, their marriages invalid. Their children might be taken from them. Such toleration as existed was precarious, and the Church of France was constantly urging the temporal government to take stronger measures for the extirpation of heresy.

The church had succeeded in implanting in the minds of its votaries one opinion of enormous value in its struggle for power. Originally and properly an association for the practice and spreading of religion, the corporation had succeeded in making itself an object of worship. One great reason why atheism took root in France was the impossibility, induced by long habit, of distinguishing between religion and Catholicism, and of conceiving that the one may exist without the other. The by-laws of the church had become as sacred as the primary duties of piety; and the injunction to refrain from meat on Fridays was indistinguishable by most Catholics, in point of obligation, from the injunction to love the Lord their God.

The Protestant churches which separated themselves from the Church of Rome in the sixteenth century carried with them much of the intolerant spirit of the original body. It is one of the commonplace sneers of the unreflecting to say that religious toleration has always been the dogma of the weaker party. The saying, if it were true, which it is not, yet would not be especially sagacious. Toleration, like other things, has been most sought by those whose need of it was greatest. But they have not always recognized its value. It was no small step in the progress of the human mind that was taken when men came to look on religious toleration as desirable or possible. That the state might treat with equal favor all forms of worship was an opinion hardly accepted by wise and liberal-minded men in the eighteenth century. It may be that the fiery contests of the Reformation were still too near in those days to let perfect peace be safe or profitable.

Yet religious toleration was making its way in men's minds. Cautiously, and with limitations, the doctrine is stated, first by Locke, Bayle, and Fénelon in the last quarter of the seventeenth century, then by almost all the great writers of the eighteenth. The Protestants, with their experience of persecution, assert that those persons should not be tolerated who teach that faith should not be kept with heretics, or that kings excommunicated forfeit their crowns and kingdoms; or who attribute to themselves any peculiar privilege or power above other mortals in civil affairs; in short, they exclude the Catholics. Atheists also may be excluded, as being under no possible conscientious obligation to dogmatize concerning their negative creed. The Catholics maintain the right of the sovereign to forbid the use of ceremonies, or the profession of opinions, which would disturb the public peace. Montesquieu, a nominal Catholic only, declares that it is the fundamental principle of political laws concerning religion, not to allow the establishment of a new form if it can be prevented; but when one is once established, to tolerate it. He refuses to say that heresy should not be punished, but he says that it should be punished only with great circumspection. This left the case of the French Protestants to all appearances as bad as before; for the laws denied that they had been established in the kingdom, and the church always asserted that it was mild and circumspect in its dealings with heretics. Voltaire will not say that those who are not of the same religion as the prince should share in the honors of the state, or hold public office. Such limitations as these would seem to have deprived toleration of the greater part of its value, by excluding from its benefits those persons who were most likely to be persecuted. But the statement of a great principle is far more effectual than the enumeration of its limitations. Toleration, eloquently announced as an ideal, made its way in men's minds. "Absolute liberty, just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty, is the thing we stand in need of," cries Locke, and the saying is retained when his exceptions concerning the Catholics are forgotten. "When kings meddle with religion," says Fénelon, "instead of protecting, they enslave her."[Footnote: Locke, vi. 46, 46 (Letter on Toleration). Bayle, Commentary on the Text "Compelle intrare" (for atheists), ii. 431, a., Fénelon, Oeuvres, vii. 123 (Essai philosophique sur le gouvernement civil). Montesquieu, Oeuvres, iv. 68; v. 175 (Esprit des Lois, liv. xii. ch. v. and liv. xxxv. ch. x.). Felice, Voltaire, xli. 247 (Essai sur la tolérance).]

The Church of France had long been cruel to her opponents. The persecution of the French Protestants, which preceded and followed the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, is known to most readers. It was long and bloody. But about the middle of the eighteenth century it began to abate. The last execution for heresy in France appears to have taken place in 1762. A Protestant meeting was surprised and attacked by soldiers in 1767. Some eight or ten years later than this, the last prisoner for conscience' sake was released from the galleys at Toulon. But no religion except the Roman Catholic was recognized by the state; and to its clergy alone were entrusted certain functions essential to the conduct of civilized life. No marriage could be legally solemnized but by a Catholic priest. No public record of births was kept but in the parish registers. As a consequence of this, no faithful Protestant could be legally married at all, and all children of Protestant parents were bastards, whose property could be taken from them by the nearest Catholic relative. It is true that the courts did much to soften the execution of these laws; but the judges, with the best intentions, were sometimes powerless; and all judges did not mean to act fairly by heretics.

Slowly, during the lifetime of a generation, the Protestants gained ground. The coronation-oath contained a clause by which the king promised to exterminate heretics. When Louis XVI. was to be crowned at Rheims, Turgot desired to modify this part of the oath. He drew up a new form. The clergy, however, resisted the innovation, and Maurepas, the prime minister, agreed with them. The young king, with characteristic weakness, is said to have muttered some meaningless sounds, in place of the disputed portion of the oath.

In 1778, an attempt was made to induce the Parliament of Paris to interfere in behalf of the oppressed sectaries, It was stated that since 1740, more than four hundred thousand marriages had been contracted outside of the church, and that these marriages were void in law and the constant cause of scandalous suits. But the Parliament, by a great majority, rejected the proposal to apply to the king for relief. In 1775, and again in 1780, the assembly of the clergy protested against the toleration accorded to heretics. It is not a little curious that at a time when a measure of simple humanity was thus opposed by the highest court of justice in the realm, and by the Church of France in its corporate capacity, a foreign Protestant, Necker, was the most important of the royal servants.

The spirit of the church, or at least of her leading men, is expressed in the Pastoral Instruction of Lefranc de Pompignan, Archbishop of Vienne, perhaps the most prominent French ecclesiastic of the century. The church, he says, has never persecuted, although misguided men have done so in her name. The sovereign should maintain the true religion, and is himself the judge of the best means of doing it. But religion sets bounds to what a monarch should do in her defense. She does not ask for violent or sanguinary measures against simple heretics. Such measures would do more harm than good. But when men have the audacity to exercise a pretended and forbidden ministry, injurious to th

e public peace, it would be absurd to think that rigorous penalties applied to their misdeeds are contrary to Christian charity. And in connection with toleration, the prelate brings together the two texts, "Judge not, that ye be not judged;"-"but he that believeth not is condemned already." This plan of dealing gently with Protestants, while so maltreating their pastors as to make public worship or the administration of sacraments very difficult, was a favourite one with French churchmen.

The great devolution was close at hand. On the last day of the first session of the Assembly of Notables, in the spring of 1787, Lafayette proposed to petition the king in favor of the Protestants. His motion was received with almost unanimous approval by the committee to which it was made, and the Count of Artois, president of that committee, carried a petition to Louis XVI. accordingly. His Majesty deigned to favor the proposal, and an edict for giving a civil status to Protestants was included in the batch of bills submitted to the Parliament of Paris for registration. The measure of relief was of the most moderate character. It did not enable the sectaries of the despised religion to hold any office in the state, nor even to meet publicly for worship. Yet the opposition to the proposed law was warm, and was fomented by part of the nobility and of the clergy. One of the great ladies of the court called on each counselor of the Parliament, and left a note to remind him of his duty to the Catholic religion and the laws. The Bishop of Dol told the king of France that he would be answerable to God and man for the misfortunes which the reestablishment of Protestantism would bring on the kingdom. His Majesty's sainted aunt, according to the bishop, was looking down on him from that heaven where her virtues had placed her, and blaming his conduct. Louis XVI. resented this language and found manliness enough to send the Bishop of Dol back to his see. On the 19th of January, 1788, the matter was warmly debated in the Parliament itself. D'Espréménil, one of the counselors, was filled with excitement and wrath at the proposed toleration. Pointing to the image of Christ, which hung on the wall of the chamber, "would you," he indignantly exclaimed, "would you crucify him again?" But the appeal of bigotry was unavailing. The measure passed by a large majority.[Footnote: For the last persecution of the Protestants, see Felice, 422. Howard, Lazzarettos, 55. Coquerel, 93. Geffroy, i. 406. Chérest, i. 45, 382. For the oath, Turgot, i. 217; vii. 314, 317. See also Dareste, vii. 20, Lefranc de Pompignan, i. 132. Geffroy, i. 410; ii. 85. Droz, ii. 38. Sallier, Annales fran?aises, 136 n. The majority was 94 to 17. Seven counselors and three bishops retired without voting.]

It was not against Protestants alone that the clergy showed their activity. The church, in its capacity of guardian of the public morals and religion, passed condemnation on books supposed to be hostile to its claims. In this matter it exercised concurrent jurisdiction with the administrative branch of the government and with the courts of law. A new book was liable to undergo a triple ordeal. A license was required before publication, and the manuscript was therefore submitted to an official censor, often an ecclesiastic. Thence it became the custom to print in foreign countries, books which contained anything to which anybody in authority might object, and to bring them secretly into France. The presses of Holland and of Geneva were thus used. Sometimes, instead of this, a book would be published in Paris with a foreign imprint. Thus "Boston" and "Philadelphia" are not infrequently found on the title-pages of books printed in France in the reign of Louis XVI. Such books were sold secretly, with greater or less precautions against discovery, for the laws were severe; an ordinance passed as late as 1757 forbade, under penalty of death, all publications which might tend to excite the public mind. So loose an expression gave discretionary power to the authorities. The extreme penalty was not enforced, but imprisonment and exile were somewhat capriciously inflicted on authors and printers.

But a book that had received the imprimatur of the censor was not yet safe. The clergy might denounce, or the Parliament condemn it. The church was quick to scent danger. An honest scholar, an upright and original thinker, could hardly escape the reproach of irreligion or of heresy. Nor were the laws fairly administered. It might be more dangerous to be supposed to allude disagreeably to the mistress of a prince, than to attack the government of the kingdom. Had a severe law been severely and consistently enforced, slander, heresy, and political thought might have been stamped out together. Such was in some measure the case in the reign of Louis XIV. But under the misrule of the courtiers of his feeble successors, no strict law was adhered to. There was a common tendency to wink at illegal writings of which half the public approved. Malesherbes, for instance, was at one time at the head of the official censors. He is said to have had a way of warning authors and publishers the day before a descent was to be made upon their houses. Under laws thus enforced, authors who held new doctrines learned to adapt their methods to those of the government. Almost all the great French writers of the eighteenth century framed some passages in their books for the purpose of satisfying the censor or of avoiding punishment. They were profuse in expressions of loyally to church and state, in passages sometimes sounding ludicrously hollow, sometimes conveying the most biting mockery and satire, and again in words hardly to be distinguished from the heartfelt language of devotion. They became skillful at hinting, and masters of the art of innuendo. They attacked Christianity under the name of Mahometanism, and if they had occasion to blame French ministers of state, would seem to be satirizing the viziers of Turkey. Politics and theology are subjects of unceasing and vivid interest, and their discussion cannot be suppressed, unless minds are to be smothered altogether. If any measure of free thought and speech is to be admitted, the engrossing topics will find expression. If people are not allowed pamphlets and editorials, they will bring out their ideas in poems and fables. Under Louis XV and Louis XVI, politics took possession of popular songs, and theology of every conceivable kind of writing. There was hardly an advertisement of the virtues of a quack medicine, or a copy of verses to a man's mistress, that did not contain a fling at the church or the government. There can be no doubt that the moral nature of authors and of the public suffered in such a course. Books lost some of their real value. But for a time an element of excitement was added to the pleasure both of writers and readers. The author had all the advantage of being persecuted, with the pleasing assurance that the persecution would not go very far. The reader, while perusing what seemed to him true and right, enjoyed the satisfaction of holding a forbidden book. He had the amusement of eating stolen fruit, and the inward conviction that it agreed with him.[Footnote: Lomenie, Vie de Beaumarchais, i. 324. Montesquieu, i. 464 (Lettres persanes, cxlv.). Mirabeau, L'ami des hommes, 238 (pt. ii. oh, iv.). Anciennes Lois, xxii. 272. Lanfrey, 193.]

The writers who adopted this course are mostly known as the "Philosophers." It is hard to be consistent in the use of this word as applied to Frenchmen of the eighteenth century. The name was sometimes given to all those who advocated reform or alteration in church or state. In its stricter application, it belongs to a party among them; to Voltaire and his immediate followers, and especially to the Encyclopaedists.

"Never," says Voltaire, in his "English Letters," "will our philosophers make a religious sect, for they are without enthusiasm." This was a favorite idea with the disciples of the great cynic, but the event has disproved its truth. The Philosophers in Voltaire's lifetime formed a sect, although it could hardly be called a religious one. The Patriarch of Ferney himself was something not unlike its pontiff. Diderot and d'Alembert were its bishops, with their attendant clergy of Encyclopaedists. Helvetius and Holbach were its doctors of atheology. Most reading and thinking Frenchmen were for a time its members. Rousseau was its arch-heretic. The doctrines were materialism, fatalism, and hedonism. The sect still exists. It has adhered, from the time of its formation, to a curious notion, its favorite superstition, which may be expressed somewhat as follows: "Human reason and good sense were first invented from thirty to fifty years ago." "When we consider," says Voltaire, "that Newton, Locke, Clarke and Leibnitz, would have been persecuted in France, imprisoned at Rome, burnt at Lisbon, what must we think of human reason? It was born in England within this century." [Footnote: Voltaire (Geneva ed. 1771) xv. 99 (Newton). Also (Beuchot's ed.) xv. 351 (Essai sur les Moeurs) and passim. The date usually set by Voltaire's modern followers is that of the publication of the Origin of Species; although no error is more opposed than this one to the great theory of evolution.] And similar expressions are frequent in his writings. The sectaries, from that day to this, have never been wanting in the most glowing enthusiasm. In this respect they generally surpass the Catholics; in fanaticism (or the quality of being cocksure) the Protestants. They hold toleration as one of their chief tenets, but never undertake to conceal their contempt for any one who disagrees with them. The sect has always contained many useful and excellent persons, and some of the most dogmatic of mankind.

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