Taxes rose even as prosperity declined. Colbert’s massive system of state-regulated commerce and industry had begun to collapse before his death (1683). Partly it died through the drain of men from farms and factories to camps and battlefields. Chiefly it died through self-strangulation: governmental regulations stifled the growth that might have come under less supervision and restraint, more liberty to breathe, to experiment, and to err. Enterprise found itself bound by a maze of orders and penalties; the complex mechanism of economic activity, moved by the toilsome hunger of the many and the inventive greed of the few, groaned and stumbled under a mountain of rules, and threatened to halt. So soon as 1685 we hear the cry of laissez faire, sixty-five years before Quesnay and Turgot, ninety-one before Adam Smith. “The supreme secret,” said one of Louis XIV’s intendants, “is to allow complete freedom of trade. Never had manufacturers and commerce so wasted away in this realm as since we have taken it into our heads to build them up by the decrees of the state.” 21 Other factors contributed to decay. Huguenots fleeing from persecution took with them their economic skills, and sometimes their savings too. Commerce suffered from the King’s desire to conquer rather than to trade. Exports were balked by foreign tariffs retaliating against French import dues. The English and the Dutch proved to be better seamen and colonizers than the proud and impatient Gauls; the Compagnie des Indes failed. Taxes discouraged agriculture, and a dishonest currency confused and palsied finance.
The ministers who served Louis after the death of Colbert could not compare in ability with those whom the King had inherited from Richelieu and Mazarin. Colbert’s son Jean Baptiste, the Marquis de Seignelay, received the ministries of commerce and marine; Claude Le Peletier took charge of finance, but was soon succeeded by Louis Phélypeaux, Seigneur de Pontchartrain; Louvois remained minister of war. The new men were awed by Louis XIV’s accumulated glory and authority; they feared to make decisions, and the machine of state waited upon the burdened mind of the King. Only Louvois had a will of his own, and it was all for war—against the Huguenots, against the Netherlands, against any prince or people that stood in the path of expanding France. For Louvois had built the finest army in Europe; he had trained it to discipline and bravery, had equipped it with the latest weapons, and had taught it the gentle art of the bayonet.* How could such a force be fed, or keep its morale, unless it fought and won?
France looked upon that army with pride, all the rest of Europe heard of it with anger and dread. When, in May, 1685, Louis claimed part of the Elector Palatine’s estate as the inheritance of the dead Elector’s sister Charlotte Elisabeth, now Duchesse d’Orléans, the princes of the Empire wondered what demands would come next from the aggressive King. The tension rose when Louis in effect bound Cologne, Hildesheim, and Münster to France by securing the election of his nominees as their episcopal princes (1686). On July 6 the Catholic Emperor Leopold I and the Catholic Elector Maximilian II Emanuel of Bavaria joined the Protestant Great Elector of Brandenburg, the Protestant King Charles XI of Sweden, and the Protestant Stadholder William III of the United Provinces in forming the League of Augsburg for defense against any attack upon their territories or their powers. The Emperor was still busy with the retreating Turks, but their defeat at the “second Mohács” (1687) and at Belgrade (1688) freed the Imperial troops for action on the Empire’s western front.
The King of France now made the pivotal mistake of his military career. The Stadholder had expected him to renew the assault upon Holland; instead, Louis decided to invade Germany before the Imperial forces could be assembled on his frontier. On September 22, 1688, he dispatched his main divisions toward the Rhine, with a characteristic speech to the twentyseven-year-old Dauphin: “My son, in sending you to command my armies, I give you opportunities of making your merit known; show it to all Europe, so that when I come to die, no one will perceive that the King is dead.” 23 On September 25 the French army swept into Germany. Within a month it took Kaiserslautern, Neustadt, Worms, Bingen, Mainz, and Heidelberg; on October 29 the strategic fortress of Philippsburg fell; on November 4 the triumphant Dauphin advanced to attack Mannheim.
Perhaps it was these victories that began the downfall of the King. For they committed him to a long war with a swelling host of foes; they freed Holland from fear of an early invasion; they induced the States-General of the United Provinces to give its consent and support to the conquest of England by William III. As soon as he had certified his power, William turned England from a dependency into an enemy of France, and pleaded with his new subjects co take their part in defending the political and religious liberty of Europe. Parliament hesitated; it suspected that William’s main interest was to save Holland; and Holland was England’s greatest commercial competitor. But again the victories of France strengthened William’s plea.
Louvois had urged Louis to let him devastate the Palatinate in order to deprive the oncoming enemy of any local means of subsistence. Louis reluctantly agreed. In March, 1689, the French army sacked and burned Heidelberg and Mannheim, then Speyer, Worms, Oppenheim, parts of the archbishopric of Trier and the margraviate of Baden; nearly all the German Rhineland was ruined. Voltaire described the atrocity with the conscience of a good European:
It was in the heart of winter. The French generals could not but obey; and accordingly they announced to the citizens of those flourishing and well-ordered towns, to the inhabitants of the villages, and to the masters of more than fifty castles, that they would have to leave their homes, which were to be destroyed by fire and sword. Men, women, old people, and children departed in haste. Some went wandering about the countryside; others sought refuge in neighboring territory, while the soldiery . . . burnt and sacked the country. They began with Mannheim and Heidelberg, the seats of the Electors; their palaces, as well as the houses of the common citizens, were destroyed. . . . For the second time this beautiful country was ravaged by Louis XIV; but the flames of the two towns and twenty villages which Turenne had burned in [the 1674 devastation of] the Palatinate were but sparks compared with this conflagration. 24
From all Germany, the Netherlands, and England a cry rose for vengeance against the King of France. German pamphleteers denounced the French soldiers as Huns dead to any human feelings; they described Louis as a monster, a blasphemer, a barbarian worse than any Turk. German historians taunted the French people with having received their civilization from the Franks (i.e., Germans) and their universities from the Holy Roman emperors (i.e., Germans). 25 Pierre Jurieu, Huguenot exile in Holland, had already published there a powerful diatribe, Les Soupirs de la France esclave (The Sighs of a France Enslaved), branding Louis as a bigoted tyrant, and calling upon the French people to depose him and establish a constitutional monarchy. The French press replied with appeals to the citizens to hurl back these insults into the face of the enemy, and come to the rescue of their brave, beleaguered, beloved King. On May 12, 1689, England joined the Empire, Spain, the United Provinces, Denmark, and Savoy in the first Grand Alliance, which pledged itself to defend each of its members against external aggression. The war was now of Europe against France.
Louis responded by raising his armies to 450,000 men, his navy to 100,000 personnel; Europe had never seen such armed hosts before. The King melted down his silverware to help taxation pay the cost of these multitudes; he ordered all private individuals, and many churches, to do the same; and he allowed Pontchartrain to remint and depreciate the currency by ten per cent. The minister created new offices, restored old ones that had lapsed, and sold them to place-seekers infatuated with titles. “Every time your Majesty creates an office,” he said to Louis, “God creates a fool to purchase it.” 26
Seignelay advised the King to order his fleet to cut off Ireland from England. It might have been done, for on June 30, 1690, Admiral de Tourville, with seventy-five ships, defeated a combined Dutch and English fleet at Beachy Head, off the East Sussex coast. But Louis sent only two thousand men to support James II in Ireland; a larger force might have won the battle of the Boyne (July 1, 1690), and might have kept England and its Dutch King too busy in Ireland to fight on the Continent. William III, by the victory, was free to go to Holland (1691) and lead English and Dutch troops against the French. In 1692 Louis attempted an invasion of England; a fleet from Toulon was ordered to sail north and join a fleet under Tourville at Brest; together they were to beat down any English resistance, and carry thirty thousand troops across the Channel. The squadron from Toulon, checked by a storm at Gibraltar, failed to reach Tourville, who had to fight unaided the united Dutch and English fleets; he was defeated in a decisive engagement off La Hogue, near Cherbourg (May 19, 1692), and the invasion was turned back. After this victory England remained mistress of the seas, free to capture from France one after another of her colonies. The Channel protected England till our time.
On land the French continued their victories, though at enormous cost in materials and men. In April, 1691, proud to anesthesia under the eyes of their King, they besieged and took strategic Mons. Louvois died on July 7, but Louis was not quite displeased at being freed from his aggressive minister of war; he proposed henceforth to guide all military policy himself. He observed an old French custom when he gave Louvois’ post to Louvois’ son, the amiable and tractable twenty-four-year-old Marquis de Barbezieux. In June, 1692, Louis led his troops in person to the capture of Namur; then, leaving the command to the Duc de Luxembourg, he returned to sip his glory at Versailles. William III surprised the Duke at Steenkerke in July; the French, at first routed, recovered order and courage under the direction and example of their ill but invincible general; once more the victory was French but dearly bought. There Philippe II d’Orléans, future regent of France but not yet fifteen, fought in the van, was wounded, and returned to fight again. There young Louis, Duc de Bourbon-Condé (grandson of the Great Condé), veteran of three sieges, and François Louis de Bourbon, Prince de Conti, and Louis Joseph Duc de Vendôme (great-grandson of Henry IV), and many others of the French nobility displayed the gallant bravery that made them, despite their idle extravagance in peace, the idols of their people in war, and exemplars even to the enemy. “What a nation you are!” exclaimed Count Salm, one of their prisoners. “There are no foes more to be feared in battle, and no more generous friends in victory.” 27
A year later the same French army, under the same general, defeated William at Neerwinden, near Brussels; here too the slaughter was immense—twenty thousand of the Allies, eight thousand of the French. No matter how often William was beaten, he soon appeared with a new army and fresh funds. In August, 1694, he recaptured Namur, and France discovered that after five years of bloodshed it had failed to conquer even the Spanish Netherlands. Other French armies won victories in Italy and Spain, but found it hard to hold their gains against foes and supplies rising replenished on every side. In July, 1694, an English fleet sailed to attack Brest; some friends in England (including, it was said, Marlborough himself 28) had betrayed the plan to James II; so forewarned, the French lined the coast at Brest with guns, and the English were repulsed with heavy losses.
In January, 1695, the Maréchal de Luxembourg died, and Louis was left with only second-rate generals. Though its soil had been hardly touched by the Allies, France was feeling the burden of a new kind of war, in which no hired mercenaries fought the battles, but whole nations were conscripted for competitive massacre. Even while they acclaimed their generals, their heroes, and their victories, the French people, taxed as never before, were nearing exhaustion in body and spirit. In 1694 famine was added to destitution; in one diocese alone there were 450 deaths from starvation. 29 The national economy verged on collapse. Transportation was in chaos, for the repair of bridges and roads had almost stopped during the war. Internal trade was choked by tolls exacted at a hundred places on rivers or land. Foreign commerce, already hampered by import and export dues, was made almost impossible by enemy fleets and privateers. Those who had lived by coastal fishing or trade were ruined. Hundreds of towns were depleted of their resources by their support of troops quartered upon them. Poverty, famine, disease, and war reduced the population of France from some 23,000,000 in 1670 to some 19,000,000 in 1700. 30 The province of Touraine lost a fourth of its people; its capital, Tours, had only 33,000 left of the 80,000 who had peopled it under Colbert. Hear the reports of intendants from various parts of France toward the end of the seventeenth century:
This town, formerly rich and flourishing, is today without any industry. . . . There were formerly manufactures in this province, but today they have been abandoned. . . . The inhabitants formerly obtained much more from the soil than they do at present; agriculture was infinitely more flourishing twenty years ago. . . . Population and production have diminished by one fifth these last thirty years . . . 31
In 1694 Fénelon, soon to be archbishop of Cambrai, addressed to Louis XIV an anonymous letter which is one of the high-water marks of the French spirit:
SIRE, he who takes the liberty to write you this letter has no worldly interest. He writes through neither disappointment nor amibition, nor through desire to mingle in great affairs. He loves you without being known to you; he sees God in your person. . . . There is no evil that he would not gladly suffer to make you recognize the truths necessary to your salvation. If he speaks strongly to you, do not be surprised; it is only because truth is free and strong. You are not used to hearing it. People accustomed to be flattered mistake for resentment, bitterness, or excess that which is only pure truth. It would be treason to the truth not to show it to you. . . . God is witness that he who now speaks to you does so with a heart full of zeal, of respect, of fidelity and devotion for everything that concerns your real interest. . . .
For some thirty years past your chief ministers have overturned all the ancient maxims of state to raise your authority to the utmost, because it was in their hands. No one spoke any more of the state and its laws; they spoke only of the King and his good pleasure. They have extended your revenues and your expenditure without limit. They have raised you to the skies in order, they say, to efface the grandeur of all your predecessors combined, but actually they have impoverished all France to establish at the court a monstrous and incurable luxury. They have wished to elevate you upon the ruin of every class in the state—as if you could be great while ruining all the subjects upon whom your greatness depends. True, you have been jealous of authority, . . . but in reality each minister has been master within the scope of his administration. . . . They have been hard, haughty, unjust, violent, and of bad faith. In domestic and foreign affairs they have known no rule but to threaten, remove, or destroy everything that opposed them. . . . They have accustomed you constantly to receive extreme praises verging upon idolatry, which, for your own honor, you should have rejected with indignation. They have made your name hateful—and the whole French nation unbearable—to neighboring peoples. They have retained none of our old allies, because they wanted only slaves. They have been the cause, through twenty years, of bloody wars . . . whose only motives were glory and vengeance. . . . All the frontiers that have been extended by war have been unjustly acquired. You have always wished to dictate peace, to impose conditions, instead of arranging them with moderation; that is why no peace has endured. Your enemies, shamefully struck down, have only one thought: to stand up again and unite themselves against you. Is it surprising? You have not even stayed within the limits of the peace terms that you so proudly dictated. In time of peace you have made war and immense conquests. . . . Such conduct has aroused and united all Europe against you.
Meanwhile your people, whom you should have loved as your children, and who have till now been so devoted to you, are dying of hunger. The cultivation of the earth is almost abandoned; the towns and the countryside are depopulated; all industry languishes, and no longer supports the workers. All commerce is destroyed. You have consumed half the wealth and vitality of the nation to make and defend vain conquests abroad. . . . All France is now but a vast hospital, desolate and without provisions. The magistrates are worn out and despised. . . . Popular uprisings, so long unknown, increase in frequency. Paris itself, so near you, is not exempt; its officials must tolerate the insolence of rebels, and spread money to appease them. You are reduced to the sad and disgraceful extremity of letting sedition go unpunished and therefore grow, or to slaughter without pity people whom you have driven to despair by snatching from them, through taxes for war, the bread that they toil to earn by the sweat of their brows. . . .
For a long time now the arm of God has been raised above you, but He is slow to strike because He pities a prince who all his life has been surrounded by sycophants, and because, also, your enemies are His. . . . You do not love God, you only fear Him, and with a slavish fear. . . . Your only religion consists in superstitions, in petty superficial observances . . . You love only your glory and your gain. You bring back everything to yourself, as if you were the god of the earth, and everything else were made to be sacrificed to you. On the contrary, God has put you in this world only for your people. . . .
We have hoped, Sire, that your Council would draw you away from the wrong road; but it has neither the courage nor the strength. At least Mme. de M. [Maintenon] and M. le D. de B. [Beauvilliers] might use the confidence you place in them to undeceive you; but their weakness and timidity are a disgrace and scandal before the world. . . . You ask, perhaps, Sire, what it is they should do. This: they should show you that you must humble yourself under the powerful hand of God, if you do not wish Him to humble you; that you must ask for peace, and expiate by that humiliation all the glory which you have made your idol. . .; that to save the state you must as soon as possible restore to your enemies all that you cannot with justice retain.
Sire, he who tells you these truths, far from opposing your interests, would give his life to see you such as God wishes you to be; and he will not cease to pray for you.*
Fénelon did not dare send this letter directly to the King; he had it delivered to Mme. de Maintenon, perhaps hoping that though she might not show it to Louis, she would be moved by it, as reflecting the mood of the people, to use her influence for peace. She turned it over to Archbishop de Noailles, with this comment: “It is well written, but such truths only irritate or discourage the King. . . . We must lead him gently in the way he should go.” 33 She had written in 1692: “The King knows the sufferings of his people, and he seeks all means of relieving them.” 34 Doubtless she knew what reply he would have made to Fénelon: that the maxims of Christianity could not be used in dealing with states; that a generation of Frenchmen might justly be sacrificed if thereby the future of France could be ensured by natural and more defensible boundaries; and that an attempt to secure peace from the united and vengeful allies would open France to invasion and dismemberment. Caught in the conflict between the religion of brotherhood and the philosophy of war, Maintenon went more and more frequently to St.-Cyr, and sought in the fellowship of the young nuns the happiness that she had not found in power. 35
Toward the close of the war Pierre Le Pesant, Sieur de Boisguillebert, lieutenant général of the region around Rouen, brought to Pontchartrain a plan to mitigate the economic chaos and public destitution. “Listen to me patiently,” he urged the finance minister; “you will at first take me for a fool; then you will see that I deserve attention; finally you will be satisfied with my ideas.” Pontchartrain laughed at him and sent him away. The angry magistrate published his rejected manuscript as Le Détail de la France (1697). It denounced the multiplicity of taxes, which fell heavily upon the poor, lightly upon the rich; it condemned the Church for absorbing so much land and wealth; it excoriated the financiers whose sticky fingers clung to the taxes they collected for the King. 36 The argument was weakened by exaggerations, careless statistics, and erroneous views of French economic history before Colbert; but it was sharpened by insights that a government accustomed to regulate everything was not equipped to understand. Boisguillebert was among the first to reject the mercantilist delusion that the precious metals are in themselves wealth, and that the purpose of trade is to accumulate gold. Wealth, he held, is an abundance of goods and of the power to produce them. The ultimate wealth is land; the farmer is the base of the economy, and his ruin involves the ruin of all; ultimately all classes are bound in a community of interests. Every producer is a consumer, and any advantage that he secures as a producer is sooner or later annulled by his disadvantage as a consumer. Colbert’s regulatory system was a mistake; it was hampering production and hardening the arteries of trade. The wisest way is to let men produce, sell, and buy freely within the state. Let the natural ambition and acquisitiveness of men operate with a minimum of legal restraint; so freed, they will invent new methods, enterprises, uses, tools; they will multiply the fertility of land, the products of industry, and the range and activity of commerce; and the resultant increase of wealth will provide new revenue for the state. Inequities will arise, but the economic process itself will remedy them. Here again was laissez-faire, two centuries before the heyday of free-enterprise capitalism in the Western world.
The King and his ministers might be forgiven if they felt that a war against half of Europe was no time to attempt so far-reaching an economic revolution. Instead of reforming the economy they raised taxes. In 1695 a poll or head tax was decreed, supposedly for every male adult in France; it was excused as temporary, it continued till 1789. In theory nobles, priests, and magistrates were to be subject to it; actually the clergy bought exemption with a moderate subsidy, while nobles and financiers found loopholes in the law. Every device was used to elicit money from the people. Lotteries were organized, offices were sold, the currency was debased, rich men were courted and prodded for loans. The King himself entertained the banker Samuel Bernard, luring millions from him by the hypnotism of the royal aura and charm. Despite taxes and devices old and new, the total revenue of the state in 1697 was 81,000,000 livres; the expenses were 219,000,000.
At last Louis confessed that his victories were bleeding the life from France. He bade his diplomats come to terms with his enemies. Their skill in a measure rescued him. In 1696 they persuaded the Duke of Savoy to sign a separate peace. Louis let it be whispered that he would end his support of the Stuarts and would recognize William III as King of England. William himself was finding that money was dearer than blood. “My poverty is incredible,” he complained, but Parliament grew more and more reluctant to pour out pounds to supply his troops. He required, as a preliminary to peace, the expulsion of James II from France. Louis refused, but he offered to restore nearly all the cities and terrain that his armies had won during the war. On September 20, 1697, the Peace of Ryswick (near The Hague) ended the “War of the Palatinate” with England, Holland, and Spain. France kept Strasbourg and Franche-Comté, and regained Pondicherry in India and Nova Scotia in America, but French tariffs were lowered to Dutch trade. On October 30 a supplementary peace was signed with the Empire. Both the Emperor and the King of France expected the early death of Charles II of Spain; and the chancelleries of Europe understood quite well that what had been signed was only a truce in preparation for a greater war, in which the prize would be the richest empire in the world.