What was wrong with the government? It was not as despotic as Prussia’s, not as corrupt as England’s; its bureaucracy and provincial administration contained some good and many able men. Nevertheless the Bourbon monarchy had failed to keep up with the economic and intellectual development of the people. Revolution came to France sooner than elsewhere because the middle classes had reached a higher stage of intelligence than in any other contemporary nation, and the alert and aroused mind of her citizenry made sharper demands upon the state than any government of the time had to meet.
Frederick II and Joseph II, devotees of philosophy and absolute monarchy, had brought into the political management of Prussia and Austria a degree of order and competence not then present in a France that loved a Latin laxity and ease. “Confusion and chaos reigned everywhere.”17 At Versailles the King’s Council conflicted in jurisdiction with the departmental ministers, who conflicted with one another because their functions overlapped, because they competed for the same public funds, and because no authority was superimposed to bring their policies into accord. The nation was divided in one way (bailliages or sénéchaussées) for the judiciary; in another (généralités) for finance, in another (gouvernements) for the army, in another (paroisses and provinces) for the Church. In each généralité the intendant conflicted with the governor and the regional parlement. Throughout France the interests of rural producers conflicted with those of urban consumers, the rich conflicted with the poor, the nobles with the bourgeoisie, theparlementswith the king. A unifying cause and a commanding will were needed; the cause did not come till 1792, the will not till 1799.
One of the worst aspects of French life was the law, and yet one of the best was the judiciary. South France kept Roman law, north France kept common and feudal law. “Justice,” said de Tocqueville, was “complicated, costly, and slow”18—though this is a universal plaint. Prisons were filthy, punishments were barbarous; judicial torture was still allowed in 1774. The judges were irremovable, usually unbribable and just; Sir Henry Maine thought that the jurists of France, “in all the qualities of the advocate, the judge, and the legislator, far excelled their compeers throughout Europe.”19 They held their office for life, and were entitled to transmit it to a son. The ablest among them found their way into the regional parlements, and the most wealthy and influential were chosen to the Parlement of Paris. By 1774 the “nobility of the robe”—the hereditary magistrates—had come to consider itself only slightly below the “nobility of the sword” in dignity and deserts. It admitted to the parlements only persons born into one or the other of the two aristocracies.
Montesquieu had argued that “intermediate bodies” between the king and the people would be useful brakes on autocratic power; he had specified the landed nobility and the magistracy as two such powers. In order to serve this braking function theparlementsclaimed authority to ratify (régistrer) or reject any royal decree as in their judgment it accorded or conflicted with established laws and rights. Several provincial parlements, especially those of Grenoble, Rouen, and Rennes, voiced semidemocratic doctrines, sometimes with Rousseauian phrases about “the general will” and “the free consent of the nation”; so the Parlement of Rennes in 1788 proclaimed “that man is born free, that originally men are equal,” and “that these truths have no need of proof.”20Generally, however, the parlements were strong defenders of class distinctions and privileges. Their contests with the royal power shared in preparing the Revolution, but as this approached they sided with the Old Regime, and fell with its fall.
Theoretically the royal power was absolute. By Bourbon tradition the king was the sole legislator, the chief executive, and the supreme court. He could have any person in France arrested and indefinitely confined without giving a reason or allowing a trial; even the kindly Louis XVI sent out such lettres de cachet. The King had inherited a costly establishment, which considered itself indispensable to the administration and prestige of the government. In 1774 the court at Versailles included the royal family and 886 noblemen, with their wives and children; add 295 cooks, fifty-six hunters, forty-seven musicians, eight architects, sundry secretaries, chaplains, physicians, couriers, guards … ; altogether some six thousand persons, with ten thousand soldiers stationed nearby. Each member of the royal family had his or her separate court; so did some special nobles, like the Princes de Condé and de Conti and the Ducs d’Orléans and de Bourbon. The King maintained several palaces—at Versailles, Marly, La Muette, Meudon, Choisy, St.-Hubert, St.-Germain, Fontainebleau, Compiègne, and Rambouillet. It was customary for him to move from palace to palace, with parts of the court following him and requiring to be housed and fed. The expenses of the King’s table in 1780 ran to 3,660,491 livres.21
The salaries of court officials were moderate, but the perquisites were elastic; so M. Augeard, a secretary in one of the ministries, was paid only nine hundred livres a year, but admitted that the post netted him 200,000 livres annually. A hundred sinecures brought the courtiers money while subordinates did the work; M. Machault received eighteen thousand livres for signing his name twice a year.22 A hundred pensions totaling 28,000,000 livres annually went to persuasive nobles or their protégés.23 A hundred intrigues were carried on to determine who should receive the careless bounty of the King. He was expected to relieve old titled families fallen into straitened finances, and to provide dowries for noble daughters on their marriage. Each of Louis XV’s surviving children received approximately 150,000 livres per year. Each minister of state was paid up to 150,000 livres as annual salary, for he was expected to entertain expansively. All this prodigality, these pensions, gifts, salaries, and sinecures were paid out of revenues drawn from the economic life of the nation. In sum the court cost France fifty million livres a year—a tenth of the total income of the government.24