He was archbishop of Toulouse, but so notoriously a freethinker that the philosophes hailed his advent to power. When, six years before, he had been recommended to succeed Christophe de Beaumont in the metropolitan see, Louis XVI had protested, “We must at least have an archbishop of Paris who believes in God.”21 One of his most satisfying coups as minister of finance was to have himself transferred to the archbishopric of Sens, which was much richer than that of Toulouse. He persuaded the Notables to approve his plan for raising eighty million francs by a loan, but when he asked consent to the new land tax they again pleaded lack of authority. Seeing that the Notables would do no more, Louis politely dismissed them (May 25, 1787).
Brienne attempted economies by asking cuts in the expenditures of each department; the departmental heads resisted; the King did not sustain his minister. Louis reduced his household expenses by a million francs, and the Queen accepted a similar reduction (August 11). Brjenne had the courage to refuse monetary demands by the court, by the friends of the Queen, by a brother of the King. It is to his credit that he carried through the reluctant Parlement (January, 1788), against the resistance of most of his fellow prelates, the royal edict extending civil rights to Protestants.
He was unfortunate in having come to power at a time when crop failures and the competition of British imports had spread an economic recession that lasted till the Revolution. In August, 1787, hungry rioters in Paris shouted revolutionary slogans and burned some ministers in effigy. “The feeling of everybody,” noted Arthur Young on October 13, “seems to be that the Archbishop will not be able to exonerate the state from the burden of its present situation; … that something extraordinary will happen; and a bankruptcy is an idea not at all uncommon.”22 And on the seventeenth: “One opinion pervaded the whole company, that they are on the eve of some great revolution in the government; … a great ferment in all ranks of men, who are eager for some change; … and a strong leaven of liberty, increasing every hour since the American Revolution.”23
The reforms which Calonne and Brienne had advocated, and which the King had accepted, had yet to be registered and recognized as law by the parlements. The Paris Parlement agreed to freeing the grain trade and commuting the corvée into a monetary payment, but it refused to sanction a stamp tax. On July 19, 1787, it sent to Louis XVI a declaration that “the Nation, represented by the States-General, alone has the right of granting to the King the resources which might prove indispensable.”24 The Paris public approved this pronouncement, forgetting that the States-General, as thus far known in French history, was a feudal institution heavily weighted in favor of the privileged classes. Not forgetting this, the nobility of the sword approved the declaration, and henceforth allied itself with the parlements and the noblesse de robe in that révolte nobiliaire which prepared the Revolution. Louis hesitated to call the States-General, lest it should end the absolutism of the Bourbon monarchy by asserting legislative powers.
In August, 1787, he presented to the Parlement an edict for a tax on all land in all classes. The Parlement refused to register it. Louis summoned the members to a lit de justice at Versailles, and ordered the registration; the members, returning to Paris, declared the registration void, and again demanded a States-General. The King banished them to Troyes (August 14). The provincial parlements rose in protest; riots broke out in Paris; Brienne and the King yielded, and the Parlement was recalled (September 24) amid popular rejoicing.
The conflict was renewed when the Parlement refused to sanction Brienne’s proposal to raise a loan of 120,000,000 livres. The King called a “royal session” of the Parlement (November 11, 1787), at which his ministers presented arguments for registering the measure. The Parlement still refused, and the Duc d’Orléans cried out, “Sire, it is illegal!” Louis, in an unusually reckless burst of temper, answered, “That makes no difference! It is legal because I wish it”—thus plainly asserting absolutism. He ordered the edict registered; it was done; but as soon as he had left the hall the Parlement revoked the registration. Informed of this, Louis exiled the Duc d’Orléans to Villers-Cotterêts, and sent two of the magistrates to the Bastille (November 20). Protesting these and other arrests without trial, the Parlement sent to the King (March 11, 1788) “remonstrances” containing words that pleased nobles and commoners alike: “Arbitrary acts violate irremovable rights. … Kings rule either by conquest or by law. … The nation asks from his Majesty the greatest good that a king can give to his subjects—liberty.”25
The ministry thought to pacify the Parlement by yielding to its demand for publication of the government’s revenues and expenditures. This made matters worse by revealing a deficit of 160,000,000 livres. The bankers refused to lend more to the state unless the Parlement sanctioned the loan; the Parlement vowed it would not. On May 3, 1788, it issued a “Declaration of Rights” which reminded Louis XVI and his ministers that France was “a monarchy governed by the king, following the laws,” and that Parlement must not surrender its ancient right to register royal edicts before these could become laws. It again called for a States-General. The ministers ordered the arrest of two Parlement leaders, d’Éprémesnil and Goislard (May 4); this was done amid wild confusion in the hall and angry protests in the street. On May 8 Brienne announced the intention of the government to establish new courts, headed by a Cour Plénière which alone would henceforth have the power of registering royal edicts; the parlements were to be restricted to purely judicial functions, and the whole structure of French law was to be reformed. Meanwhile the Paris Parlement was “put on vacation”—in effect suspended from operation.
It appealed to the nobility, the clergy, and the provincial parlements. All came to its support. Dukes and peers sent to the King protests against abrogating the traditional rights of the Parlement. An assembly of the clergy (June 15) condemned the new Plenary Court, reduced its “gratuitous gift” from a past average of twelve million livres to 1,800,000, and refused any further aid until the Parlement should be restored.26 One after another the provincial parlements rose against the King. The Parlement of Pau (capital of Béarn) declared it would register no edicts rejected by the Parlement of Paris; and when force was threatened against the magistrates the people took up arms to protect them. The Parlement of Rouen (capital of Normandy) denounced the ministers of the King as traitors, and outlawed all persons who should use the new courts. The Parlement of Rennes (capital of Brittany) issued similar decrees; when the government sent soldiers to dismiss it these were faced by the armed retainers of the local nobility.27 At Grenoble (capital of Dauphiné), when the military commander proclaimed a royal edict dissolving the local parlement, the populace of the town, reinforced by peasants summoned by the tocsin, pelted the reluctant troops with tiles from the roofs, and compelled the commander, on pain of being hanged from his chandelier, to withdraw the edict of the King (June 7, 1787, the “Journée des Tuiles,” or Day of Tiles). The magistrates, however, obeyed a royal order to go into exile.
The Grenoble community made history by its reaction. Nobles, clergy, and commonalty resolved to re-establish the old Estates of Dauphiné for a meeting on July 21. Since the Third Estate had led the victory on the “Day of Tiles,” it was accorded “representation equal to that of the two other orders combined; and it was agreed that in the new assembly voting should be by individuals and not by classes; these agreements set precedents that played a part in the organization of the national States-General. Forbidden to meet at Grenoble, the Dauphiné Estates met at Vizille, a few miles away; and there, under the leadership of a young lawyer, Jean-Joseph Mounier, and a young orator, Antoine Barnave, the five hundred deputies drew up resolutions (August, 1788) upholding the registration rights of the parlements, demanding abolition of lettres de cachet, calling for a States-General, and pledging itself never to consent to new taxes unless a States-General sanctioned them. Here was one beginning of the French Revolution: an entire province had defied the King, and had declared, in effect, for a constitutional monarchy.
Overcome by the almost nationwide revolt against the royal authority, the King surrendered, and decided to summon a States-General. But, as 174 years had passed since the last meeting of this body, and the growth of the Third Estate made it impossible to use the old forms of procedure, Louis XVI issued to the people (July 5, 1788) an extraordinary appeal as an order of the Royal Council:
His Majesty will endeavor to approximate earlier practices; but when these cannot be determined he wishes to offset the deficiency by ascertaining the will of his subjects. … Accordingly the King has decided to command that all possible researches concerning the aforementioned matters be made in all the depositories of each and every province; that the results of such investigations be transmitted to the provincial estates and assemblies, … which in turn shall apprise his Majesty of their wishes. … His Majesty invites all scholars and educated persons in his kingdom … to direct to the Keeper of the Seals all information and memoirs connected with matters contained in the present decree.28
On August 8 Louis summoned the three classes of France to send deputies to a States-General which was to meet at Versailles on May 1, 1789. On the same day he suspended the Cour Plénière, which soon faded from history. On August 16 the government in effect acknowledged its bankruptcy by announcing that till December 31, 1789, the obligations of the state would be paid not all in currency but partly in paper, which all citizens should accept as legal payment. On August 25 Brienne resigned, loaded with favor and wealth, while the Paris public burned him in effigy. He retired to his rich see at Sens, and there, in 1794, he killed himself.