HE was the fourth—as Louis XVI was the third—son of Louis the Dauphin, son of Louis XV. Till 1791, when he was already thirty-six, he was apparently content to be the Comte de Provence, handsome, genial, enjoying and supporting literature, and contributing elegant conversation to the salon of his mistress.1 When Louis XVI tried to escape from France (1791) the Comte tried also, succeeded, and joined his younger brother, the Comte d’Artois, at Brussels. When Louis XVII, wasting away in imprisonment and grief, died at the age of ten (1795), the Comte de Provence, as the next legitimate heir to the throne of France, took the title of Louis XVIII, and considered himself the king of France through all the years of the Revolution and Napoleon. As their influence spread, Louis had to change his domicile from place to place—from Germany to Russia to Poland to Russia to England (1811). There he was supported by the government, and acquired a respect for the British Constitution.
On April 14, 1814, the French Senate, led by Talleyrand, issued the following resolution:
In conformity with the proposition of the Provisional Government, and the report of a special committee of seven members, the Senate resigns the provisional government of France to His Royal Highness the Comte d’Artois, with the title of Lieutenant General of the Kingdom, until Louis-Stanislaus-Xavier, called to the throne of France, shall have accepted the constitutional charter.2
The constitution formulated by the Senate called for amnesty to the surviving revolutionists, the prohibition of feudal dues and ecclesiastical tithes, the confirmation of purchases made from “national” property (confiscated from the Church and the émigrés), the maintenance of a Chamber of Deputies and a House of Peers, and respect for civil liberty and the sovereignty of the people.
Pleased by this invitation, disturbed by its conditions, Louis asked time for consideration. On April 24 he left England for France. From St.-Ouen, on May 2, he announced that he would respect most of the proposed constitution, but had to reject the sovereignty of the people as inconsistent with his hereditary rights as king by the grace of God. He proposed to “grant” to France and the Senate a “charter” instead of a constitution. The Senate would be a Chamber of Peers chosen by the king; the Corps Législatif would become a Chamber of Deputies elected by voters paying three hundred or more francs annually in direct taxes; and these two chambers were to control the revenues and expenditures of the government. Charmed by the power of the purse, the two chambers accepted the charter, the King pledged his cooperation, and the Bourbon Restoration began (June 4, 1814).
Amid this changing of the guards the Allied Powers, by the “First Treaty of Paris” (May 30, 1814), reduced France to her boundaries of 1792, and gave her Chambéry, Annecy, Mulhouse, and Montbéliard. France surrendered important colonies to England and Spain, recognized Austrian rule in north Italy, and agreed in advance to any decisions that the coming Congress of Vienna would reach about territory taken by France since 1792.
Settled down in the Tuileries, Louis XVIII felt that he had earned the right to relax and enjoy the restitution of his property. He spoke of 1814 as “the nineteenth year of my reign.” He was now fifty-nine years old, genial and courteous, lazy and slow, fat and gouty, and not every ounce a king. He resigned himself to constitutional government, and complaisantly adjusted himself to votes, oratory, factions, and a press freer than under the Directory or Napoleon. Salons for the discussion of literature and politics flourished. Mme. de Staël, triumphant, resumed her Paris gatherings, and entertained kings.
More generally enjoyed by the people was the economic success of the new regime. Louis had the good sense to leave unaltered the Napoleonic Code, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, and the structure of the economy. As Napoleon had been blessed in finding, for the vital Ministry of Finance, a man of high competence and integrity in François Mollien, so Louis XVIII found for the same office Baron Joseph-Dominique Louis, who met promptly all obligations of the Treasury, and resisted all temptations to fiscal chicanery.
The King’s court symbolized his efforts to smooth the transition between the two regimes. There was, in the first year of the reign, little retaliation against those who had served Napoleon; the Emperor’s marshals, excepting Davout, mingled freely with pedigreed royalists at the Bourbon court. Members of the lower nobility, like M. and Mme. de Rémusat, who. had been favorites with Napoleon, rushed to worship at the refurbished shrine. Talleyrand’s quip that the Bourbons had “learned nothing and forgotten nothing” might have been true of the Comte d’Artois—good-natured and good-looking, but foolishly proud; but it could not justly be applied to Louis XVIII. Napoleon himself, at St. Helena, testified to the rapidity with which most of the French people accepted theancien régime nouveau, as if falling readily into old habits too long established to have been completely displaced.
Nevertheless, there were some elements of discord and discontent. The Church repudiated the Concordat, and insisted on the restoration of her pre-Revolution power, especially over education. A decree was obtained from the King requiring strict religious observance of Sundays and holydays; all shops except of chemists and herbalists were then to be closed from morning to evening, and no paid labor or business transport was to be allowed.3 It became dangerous not to profess Catholicism. Most troublesome of all was the Church’s apparently reasonable demand that all ecclesiastical property confiscated during the Revolution should be restored to her. This demand could not be met without a revolt of the hundreds of thousands of peasants, and members of the middle class, who had bought such property from the state. The fear of these purchasers that they might be dispossessed, in whole or in part, led many peasants, and some solid bourgeois, to think they might welcome a Napoleon returning, if cured of war.
A still active minority of the population cherished the principles of the Revolution, and worked, however clandestinely, for its revival. Severely repressed by the new regime, these “Jacobins” played with the hope that a returned Napoleon might be forced, in order to overthrow the Bourbon, to be again the Son of the Revolution. In the Army they made many converts to this hope. The marshals were captivated by the amiability of the King, but the officer class—seeing their visions of advancement fading as the nobility resumed its old monopoly of the higher posts—longed for a revival of the days when a marshal’s baton could be won and awarded on the field and day of battle. Louis XVIII, eager to balance the budget, had demobilized 18,000 officers and 300,000 privates; nearly all of these dismissed men, struggling to find a place in the economy, idealized in memory the Emperor who had dealt out glory as well as death, and had made even death seem glorious.
The discontent of the Army was the strongest of the forces that opened a door for the return of the fascinating prodigal. Add a peasantry fearing dispossession or a restoration of feudal dues; manufacturers suffering from the influx of British goods; the discomfort of all but the orthodox Catholics under the intensifying sway of the clergy; the King’s dismissal of both chambers at the end of 1814—not to return till May; and a secret yearning of the poor for the excitement and splendor of Napoleon’s France: these were frail and uncertain winds of chance, but news of them, brought to Elba, raised the spirit of the imprisoned gladiator, wounded but not dead.