Modern history

III NOBLESSE OBLIGE?

In the morning Président Hénault was a magistrate. In the evening he was an aristocrat. In the morning he would clothe himself in somber black robes and denounce the evils of ministerial tyranny. Faced with despotism, neither he nor his colleagues would flinch from their duty to protect the “fundamental laws” of the Nation. Well before sunset he would await one of his twelve coaches and return to the stupendous hôtel in the rue Saint-Honoré where he held court. He would be amply fed by what was commonly acknowledged to be Paris’s best kitchen and would eat from Sèvres porcelain laid on a green marble table. Since his dining room was furnished with twenty-eight chairs and ten fauteuils, he was generally in a position to receive company and often did. It would be entertained beneath a vast Bohemian crystal chandelier and over-looked by a dazzling collection of art in which Italian history paintings shared the walls with Watteau and ter Borch.

To the revolutionary sensibility the discrepancy between political utterance and social habitat would be a kind of moral crime. To the modern reader it may seem at least incongruous that les Grands and the nobility more generally could have remained unchallenged as the natural leaders of a political opposition until the very eve of the Revolution. More concretely it may seem odd that a monarchy so consistently frustrated in its will by the collective opposition of the judicial nobility should not have exploited their social vulnerability more decisively.

This was, in fact, exactly what its most far-sighted ministers recommended. As far back as 1739, the most visionary and forceful of all Louis XV’s public servants, René-Louis de Voyer, the Marquis d’Argenson, wrote a treatise outlining what he himself called a “royal democracy.” Known in court circles (which, like Malesherbes, he detested) as “the Beast,” d’Argenson was not the average government minister. An afficionado of English novels, he was the admiring reviewer of Fielding’s Tom Jones; but he was also the friend of Voltaire, an avid reader of the seventeenth-century British regicide Algernon Sidney and an advocate of a French air force aloft in hot-air balloons. His proposals for reform in the Considerations on the Government of France were so radical that they could only be published in 1764, thirty years after they had been written, and in Amsterdam. The real author, many surmised, must have been Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

But it was d’Argenson, the son of Louis XIV’s Keeper of the Seals and the descendant of one of the most ancient Parlementaire families in France, who proclaimed the hereditary nobility as the source of all the evils in French government and society. It was their irresponsibility that allowed the provinces to fester and rot; it was they who treated public offices like casually acquired private property and who frustrated even the best intentions of conscientious intendants. The only way to overcome their obstruction, in his view, was for the monarchy to embrace democracy, for “democracy is as much a friend to monarchy as the aristocracy is an enemy.” If the Parlements purport to represent the “people,” he argued, their bluff should be called by instituting elected provincial assemblies. A national representation might even be elected indirectly and be accountable to the electors every two years. Upon this base the King – who would be rescued from the corruptions of the court by governing from the Tuileries, not Versailles – would preside over a true republic of citizens, rather than a subdued body of subjects. “What a beautiful idea,” d’Argenson exclaimed, “…a republic protected by a King.”

Within this realm, the separate orders would remain but heredity would be abolished. Nobility would be conferred strictly according to service and merit and would have only honorific status. Among a community of equals, each would have the same rights and obligations. Governed by an honest corps of public servants who held office by appointment rather than by purchase, citizens would relinquish only the taxes needed for their protection and would do so gladly since they were in effect surrendering a portion of their private property to a pool of the public domain that they could claim was equally theirs. Even military service would seem more like an honor than a burden since from this transformation would undoubtedly come a rejuvenated sense of the patrie.

D’Argenson’s new France uncannily anticipated the revolutionary prescriptions of 1789 and 1791, especially in its emphasis on the embrace between citizens and king and the obliteration of any intermediate jurisdictions that could come between them. This is not to suggest that d’Argenson’s utopia would have been a mere aggregate of atomized individuals bouncing against each other like beans in a bottle. His understanding was that “royal democracy” would be more than the sum of its parts: a purified patrie in which the individual interests of citizens would become harmonized into a new kind of collective community.

It was not beyond the remotest possibility that such a fantasy could become reality in the late eighteenth century. Marie-Antoinette’s brother, the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II, imagined himself to be just such an enlightened despot and pater patriae. Though he dispensed with any thought of local or national representation, in the name of an uninterrupted relationship between sovereign and citizens, he launched a violent and uncompromising assault on his own hereditary aristocracy. As edict after edict tumbled from his inexhaustible pen, commoners and aristocrats were designated to share the same schools, the same graveyards, the same taxes. Nobles who balked before the draconian scheme of state service, which alone was to justify their status, would be sent to perform useful work like sweeping the streets of Vienna.

The wages of audacity were not much more gratifying than those of reticence, for Joseph’s reign ended, like Louis XVI’s, in wholesale insurrection in 1790. One major reason for the debacle was the chronic inadequacy of bureaucratic resources that the monarchy could put into the field to enforce its will over and against the local nobility. And while the Bourbons were not faced with having to administer an empire that stretched discontinuously from the Scheldt to the Danube, their dependence on local elites for effective provincial administration was no less serious. The model of central government (one largely reiterated in de Tocqueville’s famous account), inherited from Colbert and Louis XIV, was of the commissaires départis – the intendants – faithfully carrying out instructions from the royal council, if necessary against the obstruction of local magistrates and corporations. And the history of Louis XV’s reign was plagued by direct confrontations between intendants and provincial military governors on the one hand, and recalcitrant Parlements on the other. But at least as often, the story was one of local collaboration. The intendant, after all, whatever his inclinations, had little choice. The personnel of his bureaux, responsible for everything from troop movements to the containment of epidemics, from highways, bridges and canals to institutions of public relief and the suppression of brigand-age, was paltry. In 1787, for example, Bertrand de Moleville, the Intendant of Brittany, had just ten clerks he could call on in his central office. He was, it is true, supported by sixty-three local assistants – the subdélégués – but they were either hopelessly underpaid or often not paid at all and not always reliable. In the Dauphiné, Bove de La Caze claimed that of his sixty-five subdéléguéshe thought only twenty really capable of fulfilling their duties.

In these circumstances there was no option for the intendant but to rely as much as he could on the collaboration of the local notables, whether of magistrates and aldermen in the towns or the local tribunals in the countryside. In many cases this was the natural thing to do, for officers of the royal administration and those of the Parlements were, after all, not so alien to each other as their respective ideologies often suggested. They were all from the same service nobility, connected by education and often even by family ties of marriage or blood. The famous clans of the Lamoignon and Joly de Fleury, for example, supplied members to high positions in both royal government and the Parlements. The Maupeou family, which is most often remembered for providing the Chancellor, who was the most determined scourge of the Parlements, had, for a long time, sent members to the sovereign courts. The same is true for the Séguiers and many other similar dynasties. Moreover, Louis XVI’s government recognized the need to harmonize as much as possible the interests of government and local elites by departing from the earlier policy of never sending intendants to provinces where they had personal or family ties.

There was another reason why the Bourbons were unlikely to follow d’Argenson’s recommendation that they establish their power on the tomb of the hereditary nobility. Both Louis XV and his grandson prided themselves on being “the first gentleman of France.” And in this familiar title there lay an entire set of assumptions about royal legitimacy that wholly precluded the oxymoron of a revolutionary monarchy. The phrase meant, in particular, that the crown existed to protect the elaborate bundle of corporate entities, each invested with something like a “little sovereignty,” that together made up the kingdom. Responding to the Turgot edicts in March 1776, the Advocate-General of the Paris Parlement, Séguier, compared this system with a great chain binding together the different links – the three estates, or orders; guilds and corporations; universities and academies; commercial and financial associations; courts and tribunals. At the center was the crown itself holding the chain together, and without the guarantee of its good faith in this matter all these delicate reciprocities would fall asunder and with them all social peace.

At different times, of course, Louis XVI toyed with the possibility of modifying this constraining concept of his sovereignty as a presidency of privilege. His support of Turgot’s reforms and later of Necker’s abolition of venal offices went in this direction. But in both these cases, experiment was followed by ignominious withdrawal and the restoration of what had been annulled. In fact the crown’s own position with regard to privilege was deeply ambiguous. On the one hand, it remained in the crown’s interest, if for no other than fiscal reasons, to extend its paternal authority over recalcitrant areas of society. It was Necker’s ambition, as we have seen, to try to replace venal intermediaries in the financial bureaucracy with directly accountable bureaucrats. But on the other hand, the crown was equally busy not just tolerating but extending privilege, even in those self-same areas of finance. This was in part from a deep reluctance to abandon a system of sale of offices which brought the hard-pressed Treasury something like four million livres a year. But it was also because in each creation of office it was hoped new lines of clientage and allegiance might be created that would strengthen rather than weaken the monarchy’s political hand.

Superficially this might seem hopelessly short-sighted. If the crown truly wished to mobilize its authority, it should surely, by modern lights, have been busy suppressing, rather than extending, the world of corporate privilege and association. But this modern view is so clouded by the normative vocabulary of the Revolution itself that it is bound to misunderstand the real nature of privilege in late eighteenth-century France. Privilege could function as successfully as it did precisely because it was not what subsequent revolutionary polemics made it seem to be: an ossified, archaic system of exclusion that by definition denied access to the qualified aspirant and which, cumulatively, made any kind of social and economic progress impossible.

To begin with, privilege was not a monopoly of the nobility. Tens of thousands of commoners had been brought within its fold, either by virtue of the offices they held in municipal corporations and guilds, or by marrying into privileged families. Conversely, as we have already seen, privilege and especially nobility did not always carry with them the rights of exemption from taxes. But most important of all, in the second half of the eighteenth century access to the privileged orders became easier and easier to gain. To protest against nobility on the grounds of exclusion was to beat against an open door. Which is why the historian seeks in vain for some putative revolutionary class – let us call them the bourgeoisie – thwarted in upward social mobility, and bent on the destruction of the privileged orders. In 1789 there would indeed be such a group but their most significant and powerful members would come not from outside but from the inside of the nobility and the clergy. And they were not the product of an “aristocratic reaction” but its exact opposite: an aristocratic modernization.

Never had the avenues to nobility been broader or more welcoming than under Louis XVI. In a brilliant history of the society and culture of this nobility, Guy Chaussinand-Nogaret sees this process of social assimilation as so effortless that “a noble was nothing more than a successful bourgeois.” To take the Parlements – those bastions of aristocratic values – as an example, a full two thirds of all the magistrates of the Parlements of Metz and Perpignan were newly ennobled commoners. In Bordeaux, Pau and Douai the figure was one half and in Rouen and Dijon one third. Paris was the great exception but primarily because the magistrates there were promoted from within the legal order according to stricter rules of professional seniority. And inside that body the escalator of status moved with reassuring predictability. Fully one quarter of the entire French nobility – some six thousand families – were ennobled during the eighteenth century and two thirds during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This was, as Chaussinand-Nogaret insists, a young social class. Indeed if Lawrence Stone is correct, and the British aristocracy was not an open but a relatively closed elite, the stereotypes of France and England should be completely reversed. It was in Britain that a landed aristocracy resisted newcomers to form a kind of unbreakable crust on the top of politics and society, whereas in France, the elite was fluid and heterogeneous, constantly groping for sources of human and economic replenishment.

Ennoblement in France could come in one of many different ways. It was possible to receive it directly from the crown by “letters patent” as a mark of particular service. Military men, engineers, intendants and, to an increasing degree, artists, architects and men of letters were recognized in this way. If one had the funds it was possible to buy an entitling office, like the secrétaire du roi. No less than fifteen hundred nobles joined the order through the Paris Chamber in this way. Then again local notables – mayors, aldermen,prévôts des marchands (the officers responsible for patrolling markets and tradesmen), judges, even town clerks – all had some entitlement to nobility if they served continuously over a specified period, often no more than two years. Then a whole battery of bigwigs who had organized some grand reception for the King or a member of the royal family might well receive a formal mark of reconnaissance (recognition) that would elevate him to the second order.

Chaussinand-Nogaret also emphasizes an important change in the stated criteria for ennoblement in the second half of the century. Instead of lineage being mentioned, the reasons for promotion become, almost invariably, those of service, talent and merit. So that, as he argues, where in the previous century the ennobled bourgeois was required to divorce himself entirely from his background and immerse himself totally in a new and alien culture of honor, in the later eighteenth century the process of social integration worked the opposite way about. The nobility had become colonized by what modern historians think of as “bourgeois” values: money, public service and talent. This change represented a fundamental caesura in the continuity of French history. For it takes back to the eighteenth century the birth date of the class of “Notables” that dominated French society and government until at least the First World War. We can now see that that elite was not a creation of the Revolution and the Empire but of the last decades of the Bourbon monarchy, and that it marched into the nineteenth century not as a consequence of the French Revolution, but in spite of it. In the circumstances the designation old regime seems more of a misnomer than ever.

If the French nobility was open to new blood it was also open to new ideas and occupations. One of the prevailing clichés of old-régime history is that privilege was inimical to commercial enterprise. But even a cursory examination of the eighteenth-century French economy (itself far more dynamic and abundant than the stereotype allows) reveals the nobility deeply involved in finance, business and industry – certainly as much as their British counterparts. The monied nobility drew their income from a wide variety of sources which included rents and profits from landed estates, government bonds and debt notes and urban real estate. That portfolio is familiar. Less well known, however, is the extent to which they were important participants in banking, maritime trade, especially in the booming Atlantic economy, and in industrial enterprise of the most innovative kind. At the very heart of the French elite, then, was a capitalist nobility of immense significance to the future of the national economy.

This would not have surprised the Abbé Coyer. In 1757 he published his Development and Defense of the System of a Commercial Nobility, which was meant to overcome lingering prejudices that the nobility might harbor about the dishonorable nature of business – as well as to resist what he took to be the sentimental neofeudalism of his protagonist the Chevalier d’Arcq. The Chevalier’s mission was to turn the aristocracy away from the morally poisoned world of money and back to the simple virtues of patriotic, preferably military, service. Both doctrines were to influence the revolutionary generation, that of the crusading Chevalier perhaps more than that of the businessman Abbé. But there is little doubt that any reluctance on the part of the well-to-do to seek the most lucrative investments for their capital had disappeared. And in 1765 a royal edict officially removed the last formal obstacles to the nobility (other than the magistrature) directly participating in trade and industry.

And participate they did. Pooling their capital, nobles founded a wide variety of commercial concerns, from a horse-importing business to a company set up to convert spoiled wine into vinegar. Another syndicate manufactured the lighting oil and acquired the monopoly to illuminate the streets of Paris and provincial cities. The nobles were especially well placed to exploit opportunities linked to foreign policy, so that it is not surprising to discover great families in the shipbuilding and armaments trade, especially in Brittany. But it was colonial trade with its high risks but even higher rates of return that attracted them like flies to a honey pot, and substantial fortunes were made and lost in the West Indies.

Many of the investors in these businesses (as in the banks and finance companies managing the royal debts) were silent partners. But there was an impressive number of nobles actively engaged in what were the formative industrial enterprises in France. For example, the King’s youngest brother, the Comte d’Artois, may have been the frivolous hunting and cards-addicted ne’er-do-well that the popular journalists satirized. But he was also an owner of factories that made both porcelain and iron. In the latter case he took personal care to draw up contracts specifying details of the furnaces and heavy equipment. Prominent coalmine owners included the Rastignacs of Périgord, the ducs de Praslin of Normandy, the Duc d’Aumont in the Boulonnais and the ducs de Lévis in the Roussillon. The Advocate-General of the Parlement of Dijon in Burgundy, Guyton de Morveau, was the first entrepreneur at Chalon-sur-Saô ne to experiment with coke, from which he supplied fuel to his own glassworks. The Duc d’Orléans had glassworks at Cotteret, textile plants at Montargis and Orléans; the Vicomte de Lauget had paper mills; the Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt a linen manufacture – examples that could be multiplied indefinitely. The most advanced industry of all – metallurgy – was wholly dominated by the nobility. The great de Wendel dynasty, which built the massive works at Le Creusot, is for some inexplicable reason often thought of as bourgeois but in fact it had been ennobled since 1720 – at least as long as many of the prominent Parlementaires – and in company with two aristocratic Treasurers-General, Saint-James and Sérilly, the concern grew to be the most formidable industrial concentration of both workers and capital in western Europe. Equally it was aristocratic capitalists who provided the entrepreneurial assets – both monetary and human – to begin building steam engines, start the mechanical exploitation of coal mines and introduce cotton machinery from Britain into factories in the north and east of the country.

The French nobility, then, did not hold their noses while raking in the cash. They positively wallowed in plutocracy. The marriages made between overmortgaged young nobles and monied bourgeois heiresses that proliferated over the course of the century were not, as Chaussinand-Nogaret emphasizes, thought of as mésalliances but as golden opportunities. This was at least because the education and life-style of the opulent bourgeois and the grandiose noble were, to all intents and purposes, indistinguishable. A greater or lesser degree of splendor was a function of wealth, not of legal status.

Not all the nobility was in this fortunate position. For every noble entrepreneur inspecting coke furnaces or spinning jennies in his powdered perruque and silk breeches, there were ten who vegetated on their country estates in a condition of genteel shabbiness. No less than 60 percent of the nobility – some sixteen thousand families – lived in conditions that ranged from modest dilapidation to outright indigence. At the very bottom there were those (perhaps five thousand families) who were too poor to possess the minimal accoutrements of nobility – a sword, a dog and a horse. If they were lucky they sold trout from a stream or thrushes from the woods they nominally owned. Many lived in conditions indistinguishable from the peasants who surrounded them, and not necessarily the better-off peasants. In the countryside around Angoulême one Antoine de Romainville, for example, plowed the stony fields with his ox just as his neighbors did. At his death he left his son nothing other than some straw chairs and his debts. Others more indebted still landed in prison or were reduced to begging for alms from the Church.

At an only slightly superior level were impoverished country gentry, living off their farms and a little rent. For this class – perhaps 40 percent of the total – there could be no question of any kind of urban life. Often they depended crucially on placing their children in the Church or the military to keep their small property intact. These were the hobereaux whom Arthur Young saw in the Bordelais – squires whose wardrobe was so thin that they had to stay in bed while their breeches were repaired.

The Abbé Coyer’s recipe for these distressed noblemen – that they should in effect leave the land and join the marketplace as productive members of a bustling commonwealth – was bound to fall on deaf ears. Insofar as they read at all (itself unlikely) they were much more likely to respond to the Chevalier d’Arcq’s call for a renewal of patriotic duty. And by the same token it was the poorest among the nobility who clung to their privileges with the greatest tenacity. Privilege was, in many cases, all that they had and in many others, their seigneurial dues were the difference between squalor and destitution. It was with some consciousness of their plight that the notorious loi Ségur was passed in 1781 confining commissions in the army to noble families that could trace their lineage back at least four generations. Often mistaken as evidence of the “aristocratic reaction,” the loi Ségur was in fact testimony to the feeling that there was an increasingly desperate need to protect at least some portion of the public realm from the invasiveness of money, the ubiquitous softness of social distinctions.

At the other end of the scale, les Grands could afford to dispense with many of their privileges altogether. When they defended them it was not for pecuniary value so much as from a belief in the propriety of corporate institutions. In 1788 and 1789 they would in fact divide along lines of generation and conviction rather than of social status or economic position as to whether to retain or discard traditional legal distinctions. Among the poorer nobility, opinion seems to have been more unanimous in opposing the abolition of their prerogatives. Ironically, it was the electoral process which, for the first time, eliminated the immense distance between the mighty and the midgets among the nobility, so that the poor and the many could actually dictate to the few and the sophisticated what the collective position of the noble estate should be. A similar process of polarization within the First Estate – the clergy – produced, as we shall see, the opposite result, with poor curés pressing democracy on a rich and recalcitrant episcopacy. But in both cases, the disintegration of the old order occurred not when outsiders exasperated with their exclusion from privilege determined to destroy it by force. It came instead from insiders, enamored of d’Argenson’s vision of aristocrats-become-citizens, pulling down the walls of their own temple and proclaiming the advent of a democratic monarchy on its debris.

By 1788, Montesquieu, the paragon of noble constitutionalism, was being attacked by noble radicals. The young Parlementaire lawyer Mounier accused him of conveniently defending everything that he found to be established. Another commentator, Grouvelle, reproached him even more directly:

O Montesquieu, you were a Magistrate, a Gentleman, a rich man; you found it congenial… to demonstrate the advantages of a government in which you occupied an advantageous place.

The Comte d’Antraigues went even further in the first and most famous of all the aristocratic pronouncements of self-liquidation. Moving significantly from historical precedent and immemorial laws to the much more radical vocabulary of natural rights, he claimed that legitimacy rested alone with the Third Estate, for that

is the people and the People is the foundation of the State; indeed it is the State itself; the other orders are merely political divisions while by the immutable laws of nature the people are by law everything… it is in the people that all national power resides and it is for them every state exists and for them alone.

The People so apostrophized, though, would not behave themselves in quite the manner ordained by aristocratic radicalism. If the Comte d’Antraigues began as revolutionary he would end as counter-revolutionary.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!