If we were to believe Saint-Simon, the most inspiring maxims of our youth were contradicted by the career of Guillaume Dubois. He had all the vices, and every success except succès d’estime. Hear Saint-Simon again on his fellow councilor:
His intellect was of the most ordinary kind; his knowledge the most commonplace; his capacity nil; his exterior that of a ferret, of a pedant; his conversation disagreeable, broken, always uncertain; his falsehood written upon his features…. Nothing was sacred to him…. He had a declared contempt for faith, promises, honor, probity, truth; took pleasure in laughing at all these things; was equally voluptuous and ambitious…. With all this he was soft, cringing, supple, a flatterer, a false admirer, taking all shapes with the greatest facility…. His judgment… was involuntarily crooked…. With such defects it is surprising that the only man he was able to seduce was M. le Duc d’Orléans, who had so much intelligence, such a well-balanced mind, and so much clear and rapid perception of character87
—which should have led the acidulous author to doubt the perspicacity of his jealousy. We must confess, however, that Duclos agrees with Saint-Simon.88
Dubois was in his sixtieth year when the Regency gave him power. He was a bit dilapidated, having survived several venereal diseases,89 but he was able to entertain Mme. de Tencin when she fell out of Philippe’s arms. In any case he must have had some intellectual acumen, for he managed foreign affairs reasonably well. He took a fat bribe from Britain to do what he thought was good for France. The Whigs in England and Emperor Charles VI in Austria were plotting to repudiate the Treaty of Utrecht and renew the war against France. Philip V, not content with the throne of Spain, was itching to be king of France, and thought an entente with England would clear his way. If England, Spain, Austria, and the Austrian Netherlands (“Belgium”) should unite in another Grand Alliance, the old circumvallation of France would rise again, and all the policies and victories of Richelieu and Louis XIV would be annulled. To forestall such a union Dubois and Philippe signed an accord with England and the United Provinces (“Holland”) on January 4, 1717. This was a boon to France, to the European balance of power, and to Britain; for if France and Spain had come under one head their combined fleets would have challenged England’s control of the seas. It was also a boon to the new and insecure Hanoverian monarchy in England, since France was now pledged to give no further aid to the Stuart claimants to the English crown.
The Spanish government was outwitted, and was not pleased. Its ruling minister, Alberoni, joined in the plot of Cellamare and the Duchesse du Maine to overthrow the Regent and make Philip V king of France. Dubois unearthed the conspiracy, and persuaded the reluctant Philippe to follow England in declaring war against Spain (1718). The Treaty of The Hague (1720) ended this conflict. To consolidate the peace, Dubois arranged the mating of Philip’s daughter to Louis XV, and of Philippe’s daughters to Philip’s sons. The marriages were contracted on the frontier island of Bidassoa (January 9, 1722), and were celebrated with an auto-da-fé.90 As the Infanta María Ana Victoria was only three years old, it would be some time before Louis XV could elicit from her an heir to the throne; if in this interim the young King should die, the Regent would become king of France, and Dubois would be his perpetual minister.
He climbed subtly step by step. In 1720 he was made archbishop of Cambrai; by the humor of history a Protestant king, George I, asked the skeptical Regent to persuade the Pope to give Dubois this famous archiepiscopal see, recently ennobled by Fénelon; and the bishops of France, including the saintly Massillon, joined in the ceremonies conferring this dignity upon a man whom many Frenchmen considered an epitome of sin. Dubois felt himself inadequately rewarded for his services to France. He used French money to promote to the papacy a candidate pledged to send him a red hat. Innocent XIII sadly kept the promise, and the Archbishop became Cardinal Dubois (July 16, 1721). A year later he was made principal minister of the realm, with a salary of 100,000 livres. As he had an income of 120,000 livres from his archbishopric, and 204,000 from seven abbeys, and 100,000 as superintendent of the post, and an English pension reckoned by Saint-Simon at 960,000, Dubois now had an annual income of some 1,500,000 livres.91 His only worry was that his wife, who was still alive, might refuse his bribes, reveal her existence, and invalidate his ecclesiastical dignities.92
Time caught up with him. On February 5, 1723, Louis XV came of age, and the Regency ended. Still only thirteen, the King, enjoying life at Versailles, asked Philippe to continue to govern the kingdom, and Dubois remained Philippe’s principal aide. But on August ı the Cardinal’s bladder burst, and suddenly, loaded with livres, he was dead. Philippe took over the administration, but with him too time had run out. Surfeited with women, stupefied with drink, losing his sight, losing even his good manners, he bore in semiconsciousness the contumely of a regime that had begun with almost universal good will and was ending in official abasement and public contempt. The doctors warned him that his mode of life was killing him. He did not care. He had drunk the wine of life too greedily, and had reached the dregs. He died of an apoplectic fit, December 2, 1723, falling into the arms of his mistress pro tem. He was forty-nine years old.
Philippe d’Orléans does not impress us as a bad man, despite the gamut of his sins. He had the vices of the flesh rather than of the soul: he was a spendthrift, a drunkard, and a lecher, but he was not selfish, cruel, or mean. He was a man of mercy, brave and kind. He won a kingdom by a gamble, and gave it away with light heart and open hand. His wealth provided him with every opportunity, his power offered him no discipline. It is a pitiful sight—a man brilliant in mind, liberal in views, struggling to repair the damage done to France by the bigotry of the Great King, letting noble purposes drown in meaningless intoxication, and losing love in a maelstrom of debauchery.
Morally, the Regency was the most shameful period in the history of France. Religion, beneficent in the villages, disgraced itself at the top by anointing men like Dubois and Tencin with high honors, so losing the respect of the emancipated intellect. The French mind enjoyed comparative freedom, but used it not to spread a humane and tolerant intelligence so much as to loose human instincts from the social control necessary to civilization; skepticism forgot Epicurus, and became epicurean. Government was corrupt, but it preserved peace long enough to let France recover from a devastating reign of grandeur and war. The “System” of Law collapsed in bankruptcy, but it gave a powerful stimulus to the French economy. Those eight years saw the spread of free education, and the liberation of art and literature from royal tutelage and domination; they were the years of The Embarkation for Cythera, of Gil Blas, of Oedipe, of Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes. The Regency sent Voltaire to the Bastille, but it gave him such freedom and toleration as he would never know again in France even in the hour of his triumph and his death.