Modern history

D) THE KING’S INFORMATION: NEWS, VIEWS, SECRETS, LIES

Do you know the number of men who compose your nation? How many men, how many women, how many farmers, how many artisans, how many lawyers, how many tradespeople, how many priests and monks, how many nobles and soldiers? What would you say of a shepherd who did not know the size of his flock? … A king not knowing all these things is only half a king.31

Fénelon, the author of Télémaque, panegyrist of virtuous monarchy, writing in 1702 with the ill-fated duke of Burgundy in mind, was in no doubt: to be virtuous, a king needed to be well-informed. Fénelon’s implied criticism of the level of information which even an absolute monarch like Louis XIV had in his possession for making decisions for the good of the state and the welfare of his people was highly apposite. French monarchs had a poor sense of even such basic facts as the size of their territories and the number of their subjects. Louis himself had joked that the map-makers had lost him half of his kingdom, when it was discovered that Marseille was 15 leagues and Brest some 30 leagues closer to Paris than had hitherto been thought, and much topographical uncertainty persisted well into the eighteenth century. Similarly, it was widely believed that France’s population was far inferior to what it had been in Ancient times: writing in the 1720s, Montesquieu argued that the contemporary level of 14 million contrasted with a level of 20 million in Roman times; later still in the century, the Physiocrat Quesnay estimated population size as 24 million around 1650, 15.5 million in 1715, and 16 million in 1755. As far as we can now judge, this latter figure was an underestimate of some 8 to 9 million!32

Reliable and disinterested information was at a premium within the political system. Representative estates and assemblies tended to defend local interests, while the capacity of other administrators was limited by the fact that, through the system of venality, they regarded their posts as much as private property as public function. The tendency of the crown to alienate parts of its activity to private bodies – such as tax farmers to collect indirect taxes – could also be a problem. No monarch was entirely sure of his annual budget before the Revolution. There was always a danger, moreover, that officials who were asked for information would provide the government with what they thought it wanted to hear. The inquiry into the state of the country launched in 1697 for the young duke of Burgundy was classic in this respect: one would hardly know the misery many provinces were then suffering, to read the glowing accounts of some Intendants who eschewed statistical accuracy for a kind of temperamental geography of their territories, which played into age-old stereotypes (Normandy was ‘industrious’, Provençals were ‘lazy’). More common than flattery in vitiating government information, however, was fear. Peasants in Languedoc in 1705 refused to provide information about their livestock because they were apprehensive lest the data should trigger a rise in the salt tax. The failure of appeals to local people in the diocese of Le Mans around the same time for information on population was due, one parish priest claimed, to the ‘false terror that these sorts of descriptions will tend to increase taxes’.33

Such perceptions were far from ill-founded. The history of statistics – and indeed of cartography – in early modern France is closely linked to the history of state formation and the development of tax-raising potential. Plans to establish a census in the 1660s, in the 1690s and then under the Regency were overtly guided by a desire to cut back on tax-evasion. Efforts to secure geographical information were similarly partial. Cartography was an instrument of power, a weapon of government. Map-makers prioritized military frontiers and areas of civil unrest – wonderful maps were drawn of the Cévennes, for example, during the guerrilla conflict of the Camisard Wars, purely for counter-insurgency reasons.

The eighteenth century was to see far more concerted and continuous efforts by the state to improve the quality and volume of information which it received to inform decision-making. This was done less through startling innovation than through adjusting and perfecting existing administrative bodies, improving the professionalism of their members and widening their sphere of competence. At the heart of government, following the failure of the Polysynody experiment, for example, there was some degree of streamlining of the form of the Royal Council inherited from Louis XIV. The State Council, whose remit was major affairs of state, and membership of which the king reserved to highly distinguished servants of the state, remained the major strategy body. It was flanked by a Council of Despatches which from Fleury onwards increased its share of domestic policy issues, and more functional committees such as the Council of Finances and the Council of Commerce, re-established by Orry in 1730.

Conciliar forms were, however, increasingly subordinated to the interests of the ministries, or secretaryships of state, back in all their pomp following the demise of Polysynody. Continuing a trend already evident under Louis XIV, the Controller-General of Finances remained the linchpin of the executive activity of government. Since the middle of the previous century, he had squeezed out of the limelight the Chancellor, quondam head of government, and over the eighteenth century the Controller-General’s authority also strayed well within the remit of the councils of state. His office also acted as a nub of domestic information, including the generation of statistical materials: in a mere two decades, for example, it conducted national inquiries into wages (1724), charitable institutions (1724), administrative officials (1725) and paper manufactories (1728), plus census inquiries in 1730 and 1744. Archival management techniques were developed so as to allow the establishment of a kind of documentary memory bank which could guide decision-making.

The councils were serviced and staffed below the level of state dignitaries and ministers by some eighty-eight masters of requests who handled other business of government, including a growing amount of routine legislation, through a sprawling collection of committees and commissions under the general title of the Private State Council (Conseil d’État privé). Wealthy Robe nobles, usually with a Parisian background, who had purchased their offices and whose families frequently intermarried, the masters of requests constituted a career-oriented administrative cadre whose strong esprit de corps proved a significant factor of cohesion within government. It was from this milieu that were selected the provincial Intendants, or Intendants de finance, justice et police, to give them their official title. The term police signified not simply the maintenance of order (in which Intendants certainly played a major role) but more generally a kind of rational and informed administration, a ‘science of government’,34 as one of its enthusiasts later put it, which extended to all aspects of regional life: alongside market regulation, the term comprehended collective health and hygiene, observance of religious worship, manufacturing and retailing, urban improvement and public works. The Intendants worked partly on their own initiative, partly through supervising the local workings of finance and justice, and monitored other local agencies such as estates, parlements, provincial governors and municipal administrations. ‘This kingdom of France is ruled by thirty Intendants,’ John Law had commented, in astonished admiration, ‘on whom depends the prosperity or wretchedness of their provinces, their abundance or their sterility.’35 If anything, their competence increased the more the century wore on.

The Intendants were the most important agents of police beyond the walls of Versailles, though there were other relatively effective and disinterested agents of the royal will: notably the Lieutenant-General of Police created for Paris in 1667, and policing agencies based on this post which were extended to the main provincial cities. The Intendants were also assisted by a couple of hundred subdelegates, unpaid assistants, who were located in most major towns, and also by the country’s 30,000 parish priests. The post-Tridentine curé, primed for obedience and dutiful to his charge, was an admirable local administrator and information conduit. He was consulted, for example, over population statistics (where his stewardship of registers for births, marriages and deaths made him particularly well informed) and in poor relief and public hygiene matters. Curés were an important part, for example, of the battery of local authorities galvanized by the 1720 plague outbreak at Marseille.

Food supply was high on the priorities list of these police bodies. Preventive operations aimed to pre-empt popular turbulence caused by high bread prices. Severe grain riots in Paris in 1725 led Lieutenant-General of Police Hérault to develop a resilient method of keeping Paris happy in bad times: with the Controller-General’s authority behind him, he bullied provincial Intendants into prioritizing the needs of the capital over their own regions, built up emergency granary supplies, made price-fixing arrangements, organized road-building and developed international links for grain supply. A key part of the new system was intelligence about the state of the harvest – the data was pooled in the Controller-General’s office. The system proved effective: extremely poor harvests between 1738 and 1741 did not result in disturbances in the capital though conditions elsewhere were grim. Controller-General Orry, opined the marquis d’Argenson, ‘would sacrifice a hundred days of famine in the provinces against one troublesome afternoon in Paris which might put him out’.36

Technical agencies offering expert advice and opinion on request, and developing a systematic body of data on which policy-makers could draw, comprised a further link in absolute monarchy’s information chain. One important form of this was the learned corps of savants. The concern of the Académie française with the purity of the French language was mocked by contemporaries for its mind-numbing pedantry, but the Academy of Sciences founded in 1666 offered a more dynamic and utilitarian model. Reorganized by the abbé Bignon in the 1690s, it was primed to be not only a regulator of legitimate scientific knowledge but also an initiator and technical innovator with a practical bent: characteristically, firearms, surveying equipment and nautical instruments headed the list of inventions which received state privileges on the Academy’s recommendation down to the middle of the eighteenth century.37 The Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres, originally founded in 1663 as an arm of Louis XIV’s propaganda machine, was revamped in 1716 and hencefoward operated as a state historical, archaeological and archival service. Other seventeenth-century academies – like those for Painting and Sculpture and for Architecture – had geared their activities around setting criteria of public taste, bututilitarianism would be the hallmark of eighteenth-century creations: there were academies for Surgery (1739), Naval Affairs (1752) and Agriculture (1761), as well as provincial academies located in the major cities and designed to relay the efforts of the Paris-based institutions.

The practical bent of Fleury’s government was also shown in the support which it gave to civil engineering in the form of the Ponts et Chaussées service established in 1716 out of a hitherto ill-organized bridges and highways service. A director, reporting to the Controller-General’s office, and aided by an inspectorate, headed a hierarchy of engineers dispersed in the pays d’élection under the authority of the Intendants. It was Controller-General Orry – who had had experience of road repairs as Intendant of Soissons in the 1720s – who took the service in hand, increasing its budget fivefold against 1700 levels and then in 1738 imposing on all inhabitants the corvée, or compulsory labour service on the highways. Orry was phlegmatic about the unpopularity of the corvée among the peasants who bore its brunt: he preferred, he stated, ‘to ask them for use of their arms, which they have, rather than money, which they don’t’.38 The fortnight’s annual labour on the roads, directed by Ponts et Chaussées engineers, according to standardized techniques and road dimensions, constructed the finest set of major roads in Europe. The policy of improved communications was also witnessed by Controller-General Orry bringing to final fruition the Cassini map of France in 1744.

The Ponts et Chaussées went from strength to strength after the appointment in 1743 as its director of Daniel Trudaine, who in 1747 secured the erection of the service into the École des Ponts et Chaussées. The new school, within which a surveying and cartographical service operated, offered a highly professional training, fostering a strong esprit de corps and an open-ended approach to scientific research and development. Other technical services also received a boost. A nationwide corps of factory inspectors developed to promote quality production in the nation’s manufacturing sector on related lines. Military engineering received similar treatment through the creation of the École de Mézières in 1748.

The period of the Regency and Fleury’s ministry thus showed a keen awareness in government circles of the extent to which knowledge and expertise could be linked to state authority in a powerful new synergy. Government attitudes towards the exchange of ideas highlighted this shift. Under the system inherited from the 1690s, the state accorded privileges to produce and distribute only works which had passed its censors, but accorded ‘tacit permissions’ to circulate works whose content was questionable but which did not quite deserve repression. A more liberal policy was evident from the late 1720s. ‘Nothing’, stated Chauvelin in the early 1730s, ‘is more deleterious to the trade in books than an excess of severity.’ The average annual number of tacit permissions trebled between the 1720s and the 1730s – and rose faster still thereafter.39

Yet this liberal and indeed enabling approach to freer communication was countered by an inherited assumption that many forms of knowledge were essentially, as contemporary parlance put it, le secret du Roi (‘the king’s secret’). The penchant for secrecy reflected the view that accurate information relating to the key factors of the state’s strength – manpower, economic resources, scientific innovation – was a legitimate monopoly of the royal person. The great 1698 inquiry sponsored by the duke of Burgundy’s circle, for example, was purportedly for his future majesty’s eyes only: ‘what you send me’, Beauvillier had informed the Intendants, ‘is not to be made public: on the contrary’.40 Extracts of the reports were only to be published in abridged form by Boulainvilliers in the late 1720s. The writings of Vauban and Boisguilbert on political economy in the last years of the reign of Louis XIV had been adjudged to cross the bounds of state secrecy: Vauban died in disgrace, Boisguilbert was exiled for his pains. The issue of public knowledge of political information had been given disastrous illumination, moreover, it was held, in the John Law episode, where the whole of the state’s finances had become an object of public scrutiny and speculation: ‘Monsieur Law’, ruminated Chancellor d’Aguesseau in 1731 during the stand-off between the government and the Parisian barristers, ‘ruined everything by teaching the world the intrinsic value of money; is this any less dangerous than revealing the mystery of the intrinsic value of power?’41 Beneath the liberal veneer, therefore, knowledge was still to be regulated and controlled by the sovereign – or those who ruled in his name. There had been four royal censors in 1624 working under the aegis of the Chancellor; by 1741 there were seventy-nine (and by 1789 nearly 200), according or refusing authorization to everything published and distributed in France.

This view that the state should keep crucial information out of the gaze of a broader public was not confined to government: the Parisian barrister and diarist Barbier, for example, praised the Regent for not talking to his mistresses about matters of state, and eulogized Fleury’s government for controlling all government information through the state gazettes during the War of Polish Succession. Fleury’s penchant for secrecy was a personal character trait – no one was ever quite sure what he was thinking – as well as a policy conviction. It left no room for discussion by private individuals of public affairs. In the late 1720s, for example, there was an effort to create a semi-public forum for political debate and discussion, the Club de l’Entresol, on the model of English political clubs. Under the dual animation of the abbé d’Alary and the eccentric veteran of the Burgundy circle, the abbé de Saint-Pierre, the club grouped together individuals from Robe and Sword nobilities, financiers and Intendants, members of the academies and a sprinkling of foreign luminaries such as Horace Walpole, and met weekly to debate digests of international and domestic news and to hear papers read on current political and diplomatic issues. Their ambition to become a state-sponsored political academy on the lines of the Academy of Sciences stood little chance of success. Jealous court factions assumed that the club was a machine designed to launch its members into government, and accused it of stirring up the public. Fleury’s frown, not long in coming, killed the association off in the early 1730s, and though a few members tried to prolong the experiment in secrecy, it passed into obscurity.

Fleury was predictably hostile too to another form of vaguely political sociability which began to appear in Paris from 1737 onwards, namely the free-masons – or frimassons, as Barbier colourfully called them.42 Masonic rituals seemed blasphemous, their secrecy and their aristocratic membership a threat to the state, and they were consequently outlawed, forcing them deeper underground. The cardinal’s penchant for secrecy in state affairs was also evident over the Jansenist controversy. The increasingly public orientation of Jansenist agitation was utterly antithetical to the secrecy-based political culture which Fleury cherished. The cardinal became hot and bothered even talking about Jansenists, and his efforts to impose silence at key junctures on the controversy revealed a sense of quiet desperation about their infractions of state mysteries.

Yet notwithstanding Fleury’s integral adherence to mysteries of state, his government was also increasingly drawn to participating in and trying to shape public attitudes. The John Law episode had highlighted the issue of confidence at the heart of state credit. Credit was malleable and elusive and could not be sustained simply by government fiat in the minds of those whom the government wanted to tax and from whom it wanted to borrow. Keeper of the Seals Chauvelin maintained that the state’s budget should be as secret as the king’s personal accounts: ‘anything which is too well known is despised or is even no longer held in veneration, an attribute which is however necessary in attracting confidence’.43 But the marquis d’Argenson’s view was more sanguine: ‘opinion governs men’, he confided to Fleury. ‘It is by opinion that men rule, and with more or less power.’44 By this token, opinion and, if need be, information needed to be managed – maybe even created.

The idea that government could act through propaganda to influence the king’s subjects in his favour was hardly new: Louis XIV had been past-master at governing by show. The tendency from the 1690s of the monarchy to style itself as a regime committed to the welfare of its subjects also propelled the state towards explaining and justifying its views, and from the 1720s onwards the government worked more assiduously in the direction of manipulating opinion in its own interests. Fleury’s government seemed to acknowledge that opinion was there to be manipulated, not ignored. Even the king – who maliciously liked to set hares running – engaged in ‘playing’ opinion. In 1729, for example, he allegedly paid the well-known charlatan and tooth-puller, le Grand Thomas, a regular fixture on Paris’s Pont Neuf, to yell out his conviction that the queen’s forthcoming baby would be a son and heir. (It was – and Thomas was duly rewarded.)45 Similarly, in 1738, Hérault paid a crowd of fishwives to yell ‘Long live the King! Long live our good M. le Cardinal!’ on the conclusion of the European peace-talks.46 News relating to public disturbances was systematically massaged: government tried to keep up a pretence that everything in Marseille was being handled effectively during the plague epidemic of 1720, even though people were dying in their tens of thousands; and during the high prices and bread shortage of 1738 to 1741 it displayed icy calm, even though Louis privately admitted that maybe one-sixth of the population had died of hunger. Nor did government shy away from news-creation and even active disinformation. In the early 1740s, for example, the Paris police funded the chevalier de Mouchy to run an intelligence bureau which reported on the state of Parisian opinion but which also acted as a sounding board for government plans by floating rumours. And in 1744, Orry ordered Intendants to sow rumours about tax increases so that his intelligence network could weigh the strength of the reaction before he finalized his financial strategy.

At the heart of Fleury’s government, therefore, was a paradox. Fleury’s traditionalist line, that politics was essentially what took place within the king’s (and his cardinal’s) head, and that the information on which government made decisions should remain state mysteries, beyond the reach of a broad public, clashed with the practices of his government, and on social and political conditions he was helping to create. Realizing that it could not count on unqualified obedience, government worked to influence opinion and manufacture consent. In addition, his government’s progressive communications policy not only promoted a general policy of openness, but also, by boosting trade and exchange, assisted in the emergence of a commercial society. As we shall see,47 the disjunction between secrecy and opinion would grow wider and more problematic as the century wore on, as the material preconditions of a broad and active public were being assembled, and as the world of print became too sprawling and tentacular to be controlled by the censorship technology available to the Bourbon state. Secrecy was becoming a chimera as government joined the game of shaping opinion, while the mystique of state was coming progressively under the microscope of a public whose views on news required more than secrets and lies.

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