The middle classes were now powerful in the state, for they filled all but those lofty ministries that needed the aura of a family tree. They were the bureaucracy. Their wits having been sharpened by natural selection in the economic arena, they proved more skillful and competent than the un-prodded and lackadaisical scions of the vegetating nobility. The noblesse de robe in the parlements and the magistracies really belonged to the bourgeoisie in origin and character. The middle class governed the communes, the forty provinces, the commissaries of war, supplies, and communications, the care of mines, roads, streets, bridges, rivers, canals, and ports. In the army the generals were nobles, but they followed campaigns planned for them by middle-class strategists in Paris.73The bourgeois form of the French state in the nineteenth century was already prefigured in the eighteenth.
The administration of France was generally acknowledged to be the best in Europe, but it had mortal defects. It was so centralized, pervasive, and detailed that it checked local initiative and vitality, and wasted much time in the transmission of orders and reports. Compared with England, France was a stifling despotism. No meetings of the people were permitted, no popular suffrage was taken except in minor local affairs, no Parliament checked the king. Louis XV improved the government by neglecting it, but he delegated to his ministers such royal powers as the issuance of lettres de cachet, and this authority was often abused. Sometimes, it is true, such “secret letters” served to accelerate governmental action by evading technical details of administrative procedure (“red tape”). Onelettre de cachet of Louis XIV established the Comédie-Française in 1680. Some lettres saved the reputation of a family by summarily imprisoning a miscreant member without a public trial that would have bared private woes; some, as in Voltaire’s second sojourn in the Bastille, prevented a forgivable fool from completing his folly. In several cases they were issued at the request of a desperate parent (like the elder Mirabeau) to discipline an unruly son. Usually, in such instances, incarceration was genteel and brief. But there were many cases of flagrant cruelty, as when the poet Desforges was confined for six years (1750–56) in an iron cage for denouncing the government’s expulsion of the Young Pretender from France.74 If we may believe the generally accurate Grimm, the government was so grateful to Maurice de Saxe for his victories on the battlefield that it sent a lettre de cachet to the poet Charles Favart commanding him to add his wife to the list of Saxe’s concubines.75 Any offense to a noble by a commoner, any major criticism of the government, might bring a lettre de cachet and imprisonment without trial or stated cause. Such arbitrary orders created a mounting resentment as the century progressed.
French law was as retarded as French administration was advanced. It varied from province to province, recalling their former isolation and autonomy; there were 350 different bodies of law in different regions of France. Colbert had made an unsuccessful attempt to systematize and define French law in the Ordonnance Criminelle of 1670, but even his code mingled confusedly medieval and modern, Germanic and Roman, canon and civil legislation. New laws were made on the need of the moment by the king, usually at the urging of his ministers, with only a hurried inquiry into their consistency with existing laws. It was difficult for the citizen to discover what the law was in his particular place and case.
Criminal law was enforced in the counties by the maréchaussée, or mounted police, and in the larger cities by municipal police. Those in Paris had been well organized and trained by Marc René de Voyer d’Argenson, who not only fathered famous sons, but, as lieutenant general of police from 1697 to 1718, earned the nickname “Damné” because he looked like the Devil. In any case he was a terror to the criminals of Paris, for he knew their haunts and ways; and yet (Saint-Simon assures us) he “was full of humanity”76—a Joubert before Les Misérables.
An arrested person was confined, before his trial, under conditions hardly different from those designed for punishment. He might, like Jean Calas, spend months in chains and mental torture, in filth and daily danger of disease. If he tried to escape his property was confiscated. If charged with a major crime he was not allowed to communicate with a lawyer. There was no right of habeas corpus, no trial by jury. Witnesses were questioned separately and privately. If the judge believed the suspected man guilty, but had insufficient evidence to convict him, he was authorized to use torture to elicit a confession. Such judicial torture declined in frequency and severity under Louis XV, but it remained a part of French legal procedure until 1780.
Penalties ranged from fines to dismemberment. The pillory was favored for punishing dishonesty in business. Thieves and other petty criminals were flogged as they were drawn at a cart-tail through the streets. Theft by domestics might be punished with death, but employers rarely invoked this law. Condemnation to the galleys was officially ended in 1748. Death was the statutory penalty for a great variety of offenses, including sorcery, blasphemy, incest, homosexuality, and bestiality. Decapitation and burning at the stake were no longer used, but execution could be enhanced by “drawing and quartering” the condemned, or by breaking his limbs with an iron bar as he lay bound to a wheel. “A capital execution,” we are told, “was always looked forward to with delight by the people, especially in Paris.”77
The judiciary was almost as complicated as the law. In the countryside there were thousands of feudal courts administering local law, and presided over by judges appointed by the proprietary seigneur; these courts could deal only with petty cases, could impose no penalty beyond a small fine, and were subject to appeal; but the peasant found it difficult and expensive to win a suit against a lord. Above these seignorial courts were those of the territorial bailli and sénéchal. Many towns had communal courts. Over all these lower tribunals were presidial courts administering royal law. The king might appoint special courts for special purposes. The Church tried its clergy by its own canon law in ecclesiastical courts. Lawyers swarmed in and around the various courts, profiting from a French passion for litigation. Thirteen major cities had parlements composed of judges acting as supreme courts for these cities and their environs; the Paris Parlement so served nearly a third of France. Each parlement claimed that until it had passed upon, accepted, and registered it, no edict of king or government became law. The royal Council of State never admitted this claim, but often allowed the parlements the right of remonstrance. The drearier part of French history revolved around these contested claims ofparlements and king.
Between the Paris Parlement and the king stood the ministries and the court. All the ministers together constituted the Conseil d’État, or Council of State. The court consisted of the ministers plus those nobles or clergymen or distinguished commoners who had been presented to the king, plus the aides and servants of these courtiers. Strict protocol marked out each courtier’s status, qualifications, precedence, privileges, and duties, and an elaborate and detailed code of etiquette eased the friction and burdened the lives of several hundred proud and jealous individuals. Lavish ceremonies alleviated the monotony of court routine, and provided the mystic ambience indispensable to royal government. The favorite amusements at court were gossip, eating, gambling, hunting, and adultery. “In France,” reported the Neapolitan ambassador, “nine tenths of the people die of hunger, one tenth of indigestion.”78 Enormous sums were lost and won at play. To pay their debts courtiers sold their influence to the highest bidder; no one could obtain an office or a perquisite without a substantial fee to some member of the court. Nearly every husband at court had a mistress, and nearly every wife a lover. No one grudged the King his concubines; the nobles merely complained that in Mme. de Pompadour he had taken a commoner to his bed when they would have felt honored to have him deflower their daughters.
Though Louis XV had officially come of age in 1723, he was then only thirteen years old, and he turned over the administration to Louis Henri, Duc de Bourbon. The Comte de Toulouse, legitimized offspring of Louis XIV, had been considered for the post, but had been rejected as “too honest to make a good minister.”79 “Monsieur le Duc” himself was a man of good will. He did his best to alleviate the poverty of the people; he thought to do this by an officially fixed scale of prices and wages, but the law of supply and demand defeated his hopes. He dared to lay an income tax of two per cent upon all classes; the clergy protested, and conspired for his fall.80 He allowed too much influence to his mistress, the Marquise de Prie. She was clever, but her intelligence fell short of her beauty. She maneuvered the marriage of Louis XV to Marie Leszczyńska, hoping to keep the young Queen in tutelage; however, Marie soon lost her influence. Mme. de Prie favored Voltaire, alienated the clergy, and led the Duke to attack the episcopal tutor who had recommended him to the King as chief minister. But the King admired and trusted his tutor beyond any other man in the state.
André Hercule de Fleury had been made bishop of Fréjus in 1698, royal tutor in 1715. Soon he gained a dominant influence over the boy’s mind. The bishop was tall, handsome, pliant, gracious; a bit lazy, and never pushing his fortune, but he arrived. Michelet and Sainte-Beuve believed that Fleury, as preceptor, had weakened the young monarch’s character with carefree indulgence, and had trained him to favor the Jesuits;81 but Voltaire, no friend of the clergy, thought highly of Fleury both as tutor and as minister:
Fleury applied himself to mold the mind of his pupil to business, secrecy, and probity, and preserved, amid the hurry and agitation of the court, during the minority [of the King], the good graces of the Regent and the esteem of the public. He never made a merit of his own services, nor complained of others, and never engaged in cabals or intrigues of the court.… He privately endeavored to make himself acquainted with the affairs of the kingdom at home, and its interests abroad. In a word, the circumspection of his conduct and the amiability of his disposition made all France wish to see him at the head of the administration.82
When Fleury learned that his continuing influence in the determination of policy had provoked the Duc de Bourbon to recommend his dismissal from the court, he made no attempt to maintain his place, but quietly withdrew to the monastery of the Sulpicians at Issy, a suburb of Paris (December 18, 1725). The King ordered the Duke to ask Fleury to return. Fleury did. On June 11 Louis XV, responding to the evident desire of the court, the clergy, and the public,83 abruptly commanded Bourbon “to retire to Chantilly and remain there till further orders.” Mme. de Prie was banished to her château in Normandy, where, bored to death, she poisoned herself (1727).
Fleury, still advancing by retreating, took no official position; on the contrary he persuaded the King to declare that henceforth he himself would rule. But Louis preferred to hunt or gamble, and Fleury became prime minister in all but name (June 11, 1726). He was now seventy-three years old. Many ambitious souls looked for his early death, but he ruled France for seventeen years.
He did not forget that he was a priest. On October 8 he revoked the two per cent tax so far as it concerned the clergy; they responded with a don gratuit of five million livres to the state. Fleury asked their support to his request for a cardinal’s hat, which he needed for precedence over the dukes in the Council of State; it was given him (November 5), and now he made no effort to conceal the fact that he was ruling France.
He astonished the court by remaining as modest in power as he had been in preparation. He lived with an almost parsimonious simplicity, satisfied with the reality, without the appurtenances, of power. “His exaltation,” wrote Voltaire, “made no change in his manners, and everyone was surprised to find in a prime minister the most engaging, and at the same time the most disinterested, courtier.”84 “He was the first of our ministers,” said Henri Martin, “who lived without luxury and died poor.”85 “He was perfectly honest, and never abused his position.”86 He was “infinitely more tolerant than his entourage.”87 He dealt amiably with Voltaire, and winked at the private practice of Protestant rites; but he gave no toleration to the Jansenists.
He attended in his leisurely way not only to the formation of policy but to the administration of the government. He chose his aides with discerning judgment, and managed them with both firmness and courtesy. Under him Henri François d’Aguessau continued with his long task (1727–51) of reforming and codifying the law, and Philibert Orry restored order and stability to the finances of the state. Avoiding war until he was forced to it by the dynastic ambitions of the ruling family, Fleury gave France long periods of peace that allowed her to reinvigorate her economic life. His success seemed to justify in advance the arguments soon to be voiced by the physiocrats, that to govern little is to govern well. He promised to halt inflation, and kept his word. Internal and foreign commerce expanded rapidly; revenues rose. Spending the revenues with resolute economy, checking the cost of court festivities, he was able to remove from all classes (1727) the two per cent income tax, and to lower the taille that fell so heavily upon the peasantry. He returned to the cities and towns the right to elect their own officials. Under the example of his personal rectitude the morals of the court reluctantly improved.
Against these credits some major debits raise their heads. He allowed the farmers general to continue their collection of taxes without ministerial interference. To further the vast plan of road building conceived by the intendants he established the corvée that put the peasants to work with no reward but food. He founded military schools for the sons of the aristocracy, but he economized imprudently by neglecting the repair and extension of the navy; soon French commerce and colonies were at the mercy of English fleets. He trusted too fondly to his ability to keep the peace with England.
So long as Robert Walpole ruled England, the Cardinal’s pacific policy prospered. The two men, though poles apart in morals and character, agreed on the desirability of peace. In 1733, however, his advisers on foreign affairs persuaded him into a halfhearted attempt to replace the King’s father-in-law, Stanislas Leszczyński, upon the throne of Poland. But Leszczyński proposed to reform the Polish constitution and set up a strong government; Russia and Austria preferred a Poland hamstrung by the liberum veto; in the War of the Polish Succession (1733–38) they chased Leszczyński from Warsaw and then from Danzig; Fleury, averse to a major conflict, advised Stanislas to retire to Nancy and Lunéville as titular “king of Lorraine.” It was not all a disaster; Leszczyński and the Powers agreed that on his death Lorraine, which was predominantly French, should revert to France. It so transpired in 1766.
Fleury, eighty-eight years old, strove with all his waning energy to keep France out of the War of the Austrian Succession (1740). A woman overruled him. Félicité de Nesle, Marquise de Vintimille, who for the time being was sharing the King’s bed, listened in rapture to Charles Auguste Fouquet, Comte de Belle-Isle, grandson of the artistic embezzler, Nicolas Fouquet, whom Louis XIV had so profitably deposed. Belle-Isle told her that Fleury was an old fool; that now, when Frederick II of Prussia was attacking the young Maria Theresa of Austria, a golden opportunity had come for dismembering her empire; France must join Frederick and share the spoils. The charming mistress sang these strains to her royal lover; she urged him to take the reins from the Cardinal’s timid hands, and make France glorious again. Fleury pleaded with him that both honor and interest forbade Belle-Isle’s scheme; England would not let Austria be destroyed to make France so dangerously great; France would have to fight England too; and France was doing so well in peace! On June 7, 1741, Louis declared war on Austria. On November 2 5 Belle-Isle captured Prague, and nearly all France agreed with him that Fleury was an old fool.
After a year of war the shifty Frederick, deserting France, signed a secret truce with Austria. The Austrian armies, so released, moved into Bohemia and began to encircle Prague; it was only a matter of time before Belle-Isle and his twenty thousand men, already harassed by a hostile population, would be compelled to surrender. On July 11, 1742, Fleury sent to the Austrian commander, Count von Königsegg, a humiliating appeal for mild terms to the French garrison. “Many people know,” he wrote, “how opposed I was to the resolutions we took, and that I was in a way forced to consent.”88 Königsegg sent the letter to Maria Theresa, who at once gave it to the world. A French army was sent to rescue Belle-Isle; it never reached him. In December Belle-Isle, leaving six thousand sick or wounded men behind, led his main force out of Prague to the frontier at Eger; but the flight took place in wintry weather over a hundred miles of mountainous or marshy terrain covered with snow or ice and infested with enemy raiders; of the fourteen thousand men who began that march twelve hundred died on the way. France applauded the brilliant salvage of a humiliating reverse. Fleury gave up his ministry, retired to Issy, and died (January 29, 1743), ninety years old.
The King announced that henceforth he would be his own prime minister.