Not until Napoleon did France fully recover from the Seven Years’ War. High taxes had discouraged agriculture under Louis XIV; they continued to the same effect under Louis XV; thousands of acres farmed in the seventeenth century were left uncultivated in 1760, and were reverting to wilderness.15 Livestock was depleted, fertilizer was lacking, the soil was starved. Peasants kept to old clumsy metnods of tillage, for taxes rose with every improvement that increased the peasants’ wealth. Many peasants had no heat in their houses in winter except from the cattle that lived with them. Abnormal frosts in 1760 and 1767 ruined crops and vineyards in their growth. One bad harvest could condemn a village to near-starvation, and to terror of the famished wolves that lurked about.
Nevertheless economic recovery began as soon as peace was signed. The government was inefficient and corrupt, but many measures were taken to help the peasantry. Royal intendants distributed seed and built roads; agronomic societies published agricultural information, established competitions, awarded prizes; some tax collectors distinguished themselves by their humane moderation.16 Stimulated by the physiocrats, many seigneurs interested themselves in improving agricultural methods and products. Peasant proprietors grew in number. By 1774 only six per cent of the French population still labored under serfdom.17 But every increment of production brought a rise in population; the land was rich, yet the average peasant holding was small; poverty remained.
Out of peasant loins came the human surplus that went to man the industries in the growing towns. With a few exceptions industry was still in the domestic and handicraft stage. Large-scale capitalistic organizations dominated metallurgy, mining, soap-making, and textiles. Marseilles in 1760 had thirty-five soap factories, employing a thousand workers.18 Lyons was already dependent for its prosperity upon the shifting market for the product of its looms. English carding machines were introduced about 1750, and to-ward 1770 the jenny, working forty-eight spindles at once, began to replace the spinning wheel in France. The French were quicker to invent than to apply, for they lacked the capital that England, enriched by commerce, could use to finance mechanical improvements in industry. The steam engine had been known in France since 1681.19 Joseph Cugnot used it in 1769 to operate the first known automobile; a year later this was employed to transport heavy loads at four miles an hour; however, the machine got out of hand and demolished a wall, and it had to stop every fifteen minutes to replenish its water.20
With such bizarre exceptions, transport was by horse, cart, coach, or boat. Roads and canals were much better than in England, but inns were worse. A regular postal service was established in 1760; it was not quite private, for Louis XV ordered postmasters to open letters and report any suspicious content to the government.21 Internal trade was hampered by tolls, external trade by war and loss of colonies. The Compagnie des Indes went bankrupt, and was dissolved (1770). Trade with European states, however, increased substantially during the century, from 176,600,000 livres in 1716 to 804,300,000 livres in 1787; but some of the increase merely reflected inflation. Trade with the French West Indies flourished in sugar and slaves.
A gradual inflation, due partly to debasement of the currency, partly to rising world production of gold and silver, had a stimulating effect upon industrial and commercial enterprise; the businessman could usually expect to sell his product at a higher price level than that on which he had bought his labor and materials. So the middle classes swelled their fortunes, while the lower classes had all they could do to keep income in sight of prices. The same inflation that enabled the government to cheat its creditors reduced the value of its revenues, so that taxes rose as livres fell. The King became dependent upon bankers like the brothers Paris, particularly Paris-Duverney, who so delighted Pompadour with his fiscal prestidigitation that he was able, during the war, to make or break ministers and generals.
The basic economic development in eighteenth-century France was the passage of pre-eminent wealth from those who owned land to those who controlled industry, commerce, or finance. Voltaire noted in 1755: “Owing to the increasing profits of trade … there is less wealth than formerly among the great, and more among the middle classes. The result has been to lessen the distance between classes.”22 Businessmen like La Popelinière could build palaces that were the envy of nobles, and adorn their tables with the best poets and philosophers in the realm; it was the bourgeoisie that now gave patronage to literature and art. The aristocracy consoled itself by hugging its privileges and displaying its style; it insisted upon noble birth as prerequisite to army commissions or episcopal posts; it flaunted its armorial bearings and proliferated pedigrees; it strove—often in vain—to keep able or distinguished commoners out of high administrative office and the court. The rich bourgeois demanded that career should be open to talent of whatever birth; and when his demand was ignored he flirted with revolution.
All but the peasant phase of the class war took visible form in the tumult and splendor of Paris. Half the wealth of France was siphoned into the capital, and half the poverty of France festered there. Paris, said Rousseau, “is perhaps the city in the world where fortunes are most unequal, and where flaunting wealth and the most appalling penury dwell together.”23 Sixty paupers were part of the official escort for the corpse of the Dauphin’s eldest son in 1761.24 Paris toward 1770 contained 600,000 of France’s 22,000,000 souls.25 It housed the most alert, the best-informed, and the most depraved people in Europe. It had the best-paved streets, the most splendid avenues and promenades, the busiest traffic, the finest shops, the lordliest palaces, the dingiest tenements, and some of the most beautiful churches in the world. Goldoni, coming to Paris from Venice in 1762, marveled:
What crowds! What an assemblage of people of every description! … With what a surprising view my senses and mind were struck on approaching the Tuileries! I saw the extent of that immense garden, which has nothing comparable to it in the universe, and my eyes were unable to measure the length of it.... A majestic river, numerous and convenient bridges, vast quays, crowds of carriages, an endless throng of people.26
A thousand stores tempted purses and the purseless; a thousand vendors hawked their goods in the streets; a hundred restaurants (the word first appears in 1765) offered to restore the hungry; a thousand dealers collected, forged, or sold antiques; a thousand hairdressers trimmed and powdered the hair or wigs of even the artisan class. In the narrow alleys artists and craftsmen produced paintings, furniture, and finery for the well-to-do. Here were a hundred printing shops producing books, sometimes at mortal risk; in 1774 the book trade at Paris was estimated at 45,000,000 livres—four times that of London.27 “London is good for the English,” said Garrick, “but Paris is good for everybody.”28 Said Voltaire in 1768, “We have over thirty thousand people in Paris who take an interest in art.”29 There, beyond challenge, was the cultural capital of the world.