IV. NECKER AGAIN: 1788-89

Reluctantly the King asked Necker to return to the government (August 25). Now he gave him the title of secretary of state and a seat in the Royal Council. Everyone, from the Queen and the clergy to the bankers and the populace, applauded the appointment. A multitude gathered in the courtyard of the Versailles Palace to welcome him; he came out and told them, “Yes, my children, I remain; be comforted.” Some fell on their knees and kissed his hands.29 He wept, in the manner of the time.

Disorder in the administration, in the streets, in the official and the public mind had come so close to political disintegration that the best that Necker could do was to maintain stability until the States-General convened. As a gesture to restore confidence, he put two million francs of his own into the treasury, and pledged his personal fortune as partial guarantee of the state’s engagements.30 He revoked the order of August 16 requiring bondholders to accept paper instead of money; government bonds rose thirty per cent on the market. The bankers advanced the treasury sufficient funds to tide over the crisis for a year.

On Necker’s advice the King again recalled the Parlement (September 23). Intoxicated with its triumph, it made the mistake of declaring that the coming States-General should operate as in 1614—sitting as separate classes and voting in class units, which would automatically reduce the Third Estate to political impotence. The general public, which had credited the Parlement’s claim to be defending liberty against tyranny, perceived that the liberty intended was that of the two privileged classes to overrule the king. The Parlement, by so ranging itself on the side of the feudal regime, forfeited the support of the powerful middle class, and henceforth ceased to be a factor in shaping events. The révolte nobiliaire had shown its limits and run its course; now it gave place to the bourgeois revolution.

Necker’s task was made harder by the drought of 1788, which was ended by hailstorms that ruined the stunted crops. The winter of 1788-89 was one of the bitterest in the history of France; at Paris the thermometer fell to 18 degrees below zero Fahrenheit; the Seine froze solid from Paris to Le Havre. Bread rose in price from nine sous in August, 1788, to fourteen in February, 1789. The upper classes did their best to relieve the suffering; some nobles, like the Duc d’Orléans, spent hundreds of thousands of livres feeding and warming the poor; the Archbishop gave 400,000 livres; one monastery fed twelve hundred persons daily for six weeks.31 Necker forbade the export of grain, and imported seventy million livres’ worth; famine was averted. He left to his successors or to the States-General the task of repaying the loans that he raised.

Meanwhile he persuaded the King, over the opposite advice of powerful nobles, to decree (December 27, 1788) that in the coming States-General the deputies of the Third Estate should equal in number those of the other states combined. On June 24, 1789, he sent out to all districts an invitation to vote for representatives. In the Third Estate every Frenchman above the age of twenty-four who paid any tax was entitled—and even commanded—to vote; so were all professional men, businessmen, guildsmen; in effect all the commonalty except paupers and the poorest laborers had the vote.32 The successful candidates met as an electoral committee which chose a deputy for the district. In the First Estate every priest or curate, every monastery or convent, voted for a representative in the electoral assembly of the district; archbishops, bishops, and abbots were members of that assembly ex officio; this assembly chose an ecclesiastical deputy to the States-General. In the Second Estate every nobleman above the age of twenty-four was automatically a member of the electoral assembly which chose a deputy to represent the nobility of his district. In Paris only those who paid a poll tax of six or more livres had the vote; there most of the proletariat was left out.33

Each electoral assembly in each class was invited by the government to draw up a cahier des plaintes et doléances— a statement of complaints and grievances—for the guidance of its deputy. The district cahiers were summarized for each class in provincialcahiers, and these, in whole or in synopsis, were presented to the King. The cahiers of all classes united in condemning absolutism, and in demanding a constitutional monarchy in which the powers of the king and his ministers would be limited by law, and by a nationally elected assembly meeting periodically and alone authorized to vote new taxes and to sanction new laws. Nearly all deputies were instructed to vote no funds for the government until such a constitution had been secured. All classes denounced the financial incompetence of the government, the evils associated with the indirect taxes, and the excesses of royal power, as in lettres de cachet. All demanded trial by jury, privacy of the mails, and reform of the law. All pleaded for liberty, but in their own fashion: the nobles for the restoration of their pre-Richelieu powers; the clergy and the bourgeoisie for freedom from all state interference; the peasantry for freedom from oppressive taxes and feudal dues. All accepted in principle the equal taxation of all property. All expressed loyalty to the King, but none mentioned his “divine right” to rule;34 that, by common consent, was dead.

The cahiers of the nobility stipulated that in the States-General each of the classes should meet separately and vote as a united class. The cahiers of the clergy rejected toleration, and asked that the civil rights recently granted to Protestants be revoked. Somecahiers called for a greater portion of the tithe to be left to the parish, and for access of all priests to positions in the hierarchy. Nearly all the ecclesiastical cahiers deplored the immorality of the age in art, literature, and the theater; they ascribed this deterioration to excessive freedom of the press, and called for exclusive control of education by the Catholic clergy.

The cahiers of the Third Estate voiced chiefly the views of the middle class and the peasant proprietors. They pleaded for the abolition of feudal rights and transport tolls. They demanded career open to talent for all classes to all posts. They condemned the wealth of the Church and the costly idleness of monks. One cahier suggested that to meet the deficit the King should sell the lands and rents of the clergy; another proposed the confiscation of all monastic property.35 Many complained of the devastation of farms by the animals and hunts of the nobility. They asked for universal free education, for the reform of hospitals and prisons, for the complete extinction of serfdom and the trade in slaves. A typical cahier of the peasants asserted: “We are the principal prop of the throne, the true support of the armies. … We are the source of riches for others, and we ourselves remain in poverty.”36

All in all, this election of the States-General was a proud and generous moment in the history of France. Almost, for a while, Bourbon France became a democracy, with probably a larger proportion of the people voting than go to the polls in an American election today. It was a fair election, not as disorderly as might have been expected in so novel an operation; it was apparently freer from corruption than most of the elections held in the later democracies of Europe.37 Never before, so far as we know, had a government issued so broad an invitation to its people to instruct it in modes of procedure, and to communicate to it their complaints and desires. Taken altogether, these cahiers gave the government a more complete view of conditions in France than it had ever before possessed. Now, if ever, France had the materials for statesmanship; now she had freely chosen her best men, from every class, to meet with a King who had already made brave overtures to change. All France was filled with hope as these men, from every part of the country, made their way to Paris and Versailles.

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