Modern history


Choiseul’s Olympian and aristophilic hauteur did not mean that he was out of touch with the needs of government. On the contrary, he used his lofty ministerial perch during the dark days of the Seven Years War as a vantage-point from which to survey the full range of the state’s activities, and form plans for root-and-branch reform. While it rebuilt and planned to exact revenge on the English, France would need, Choiseul informed Louis XV, ‘to take precautions against [England] and to defend ourselves’ against a country which was ‘aim[ing] for supremacy in the four corners of the world’.44 It therefore needed to avoid like the plague an imprudently hasty return to war. In diplomatic terms, this meant binding France to the Austrian alliance. Choiseul accepted this out of pragmatic expediency rather than enthusiasm: by keeping its powder dry in Europe, France could focus its energies on the global stage on which English power had to be encountered. Realizing that France needed the help of the Spanish fleet if it was to be a match for the Royal Navy, Choiseul combined the Austrian alliance with underpinning the Family Compact which since 1761 had united the interests of the Bourbon rulers of France and Spain.

The cost of this diplomatic orientation was reduced influence on major changes in European power politics. Hence in 1763, France had to permit the election to the Polish throne of the Russian candidate Stanislas Poniatowski – a feeble return for several decades of manoeuvring by the Secret du Rot. Similarly, vicarious attempts to counter Russian influence in central and eastern Europe by encouraging the Ottoman Turks to attack Russia led, annoyingly, to Russian successes in the Russo-Turkish War of 1768–74.

Significantly, though France expanded under Choiseul, it was by hereditary reversion and diplomatic agreement rather than by force of arms. Following the death in 1766 of Louis XV’s octogenarian father-in-law, Stanislas Leszczinski, Lorraine, first of all, passed fully and definitively into French hands, under the terms of the international agreement brokered by Fleury in 1737. Stanislas had allowed his duchy to be governed quasi-directly from Paris, and his death merely tightened France’s grip. As a frontier province, Lorraine passed under the general surveillance of the War Minister – namely, Choiseul, himself a Lorrainer. Like most such, he did not mourn the loss of a status which was far less independent than it appeared. The local inhabitants in Choiseul’s second acquisition, however – namely, Genoan Corsica – posed more of a problem. As Fleury had realized, the acquisition of Lorraine consolidated France’s eastern frontier. Corsica, for Choiseul, provided valuable cover against the invasion of Provence (which had suffered incursions in the Wars of Spanish and Austrian Succession), as well as offering good ports and better access to Italian markets. The French had stationed troops in Corsica in the Seven Years War, but found the island turbulent and rebellious, with Pascal Paoli leading an independence movement against Genoa. The Genoan government accepted the French offer to pacify the island, agreeing that it could revert to France if Genoa proved unable to pay the costs of the operation. The French needed to deploy 25,000 troops to bring the island to order in 1768–9. With Genoa washing its hands of the island, it became French. By the end of the decade, Paoli was in exile, and most Corsican notable families – such as, for example, the Buonaparte clan – had rallied to French authority.

Though Choiseul did a great deal to consolidate France’s international situation through diplomatic craft, he also faced up to the prospect of revenge against England by major investment in the armed forces, which had suffered such humiliations in the Seven Years War. Some 100,000 men were demobbed in 1762, and the trimmer army was overhauled with new-found thoroughness. Recruitment passed out of the hands of independent recruiting sergeants into state control for the first time. The number and composition of regiments were changed too, and in 1763 the purchase of infantry regiments was ended, with regiments now, significantly, being named after provinces rather than their colonels, and with soldiers being obliged to take a loyalty oath to the king. More standardized supply of uniform and arms was introduced; chains of command were formalized; there was a further push to locate troops in barracks and garrisons; and Prussian-style disciplinary codes were introduced. The draconian was mixed with the benevolent: better pay scales were established; pensions for long-serving and disabled veterans were revamped; and there were moves to improve the quality of food supply and medical provision. The performance of the artillery in the Seven Years War had been dire, and Gribeauval, appointed Artillery Inspector by Choiseul, was encouraged to think boldly: he brought in lighter, more mobile guns and innovated with flexible forms of deployment on the battlefield which would remain standard down to 1825. The navy attracted even more attention and investment. Though a Lorrainer, Choiseul was no landlubber – his grandfather, indeed, had been enslaved by Barbary Corsairs under Louis XIV, served as commander of Saint-Domingue and the Turtle Coast and died in a sea-battle at English hands – and the duke realized the importance of a strong navy as a means of combating England and of offering protection to French merchant vessels. In 1763, he set himself the target of a fleet of 90 ships and 45 frigates before France went to war; by the early 1770s the fleet stood at some 66 ships of line, 35 frigates and 21 corvettes, nearly all of which had been built since 1762.

The attention to quality and expertise which was a hallmark of Choiseul’s reforms in the armed services was particularly in evidence in regard to officer recruitment. His recent predecessor as War Minister, the comte d’Argenson, had widened officer recruitment away from the high nobility, but Choiseul returned to the systematic favouring of the noblesse de race – very much one of his gut reflexes. This caste favouritism possibly owed something to the feeling that the poor performance of the officer corps in the Seven Years War was due to nouveaux riches and wealthy, recently ennobled families buying themselves high commands. His moves were also associated with a more general revalorization of the poor provincial nobility, who were being increasingly mythologized as the seedplot of military commitment and the cult of honour, particularly following the publication in 1757 of La Noblesse militaire, ou le Patriote français (‘The Military Nobility, or The French Patriot’) by the Chevalier d’Arc (illegitimate son of Louis XIV’s bastard, the comte de Toulouse). While attacking court luxury and the corrosive effects of wealth on traditional values, Arc urged the state to support its impoverished country gentry, making a powerful case that caste and breeding were efficacious stimulants of military professionalism – an analagous approach to that employed by Choiseul as regards government personnel.45

Arc’s work played a part in a more general recommitment to the systematic favouring of the noblesse de race within the army. In 1758, confirmation of ancient nobility was required of aspirants to high rank, while the closure of infantry regiments to the practice of purchase in 1762 was, partly at least, a bid to prevent the corrosive influence of monied arrivistes within the officer corps. The comte de Saint-Germain – ex-Jesuit, international soldier of fortune, and enthusiast for Frederick the Great – was to take the process further as War Minister from 1775 to 1777, closing all military posts to purchase. There was greater stress now on the need for young officers seeking career advancement to know something as well as someone.46 Under Choiseul, the ex-Jesuit college of La Flèche was remodelled as a prep-school for bellicose eight-year-olds wishing to advance to the École militaire. The late 1760s also saw reforms in the teaching at the artillery school at Mézières – and this too took an increasingly more elitist attitude towards recruitment. The multi-talented Duhamel du Monceau, agronomist and naval engineer, also revitalized teaching at the École de Marine for navy officers at Brest (from 1769 officially a royal institution).

Despite the patrician allure of much that Choiseul attempted, a renovating, technocratic spirit was abroad during his tenure of office which sought to rationalize and revivify government service, so that the state could strengthen the country’s infrastructure and stimulate its economy. A role model here was the Ponts et Chaussées service, generator, as we have suggested,47 of an ethic of loyal state service which prized the values of exchange in unlocking productive resources and stimulating social improvement. Motivated by reason and enlightenment, the enlightened civil engineer was to work unstintingly at his task of improving roads and building bridges for the good of humanity. A quasi-militaristic system of service and advancement by merit helped heighten the school’s esprit de corps – admission was by competitive examination, and from 1772 pupils wore uniform. They applied an acute sense of order and discipline not only to themselves but also to the workers they used under the system of the corvée and over whom they exerted a tough, quasi-military authority. The École des Ponts et Chaussées founded in 1775 served as a model for both military training establishments and other civilian establishments such as the École des Mines, founded in 1783 for mining engineers.

The spirit of experiment and innovation spread out from central government from the late 1750s and early 1760s through the capillary action of provincial Intendants. Many of the latter stuck to their traditional areas of expertise – three-quarters of the business of the Intendants at Aix-en-Provence concerned financial matters, for example – but a great many showed themselves altogether more versatile and imaginative and in tune with Choiseul’s modernizing project. Saint-Priest, for example, Intendant in Montpellier from 1750 to 1786, cooperated fruitfully with the score of bishops who dominated the Languedoc Estates in the economic development of what was becoming by the eve of the Revolution one of France’s most heavily industrialized provinces. Similarly, before being elevated to the post of Controller-General in 1774, Jacques Turgot, inveterate salon-goer, covert contributor to the Encyclopédie and friend of Voltaire and Diderot, had served from 1761 as Intendant of the poverty-stricken region of the Limousin (‘Siberia’, as he dubbed it, only half-jokingly). He modernized the mail service, improved communications, introduced free trade in grain and encouraged the adoption of new farming methods and manufacturing techniques. One of his characteristic concerns was the quest to innovate in a way which might relieve poverty among the local population and also stimulate productivity: he investigated means of making tax assessments less burdensome on the poor; arranged for a system of replacement for unpopular militia-service; set up charity workshops in times of dearth; gave tax remissions for needy families; proselytized for the humble potato, a cheap and healthy grain substitute; enthused over a new type of rat-trap he had found in Paris; and sponsored the latest public health fads. He also funded the midwifery classes of the king’s roving obstetrical emissary, Madame du Coudray, who claimed to be saving babies through reducing midwife incompetence and ignorance, and thus being ‘useful to my Patrie48 – a motto any Intendant could take for his own.

The humanitarian, patriotic language which Intendants utilized to validate their initiatives was also evident as regards state encouragement to agriculture. Duhamel du Monceau’s Traité de la culture des terres in 1750 was, it has been argued, the first original work on agronomy published in France since Olivier de Serre’s writings in the early seventeenth century, and it triggered a rash of subsequent publication, which drew heavily on English and Dutch innovation. The developing cult of agromania owed much to realization in political circles of the need to build up domestic production of food, given the vulnerability of global trading networks to British naval hegemony. From 1760, Bertin encouraged the formation of local agricultural societies, on the model of the provincial academy, to diffuse best practice and encourage innovation and emulation in farming techniques. Sixteen such bodies, scattered through the provinces, were established between 1761 and 1763, and provincial intendants were specially charged to nurture them. The foundation in the 1760s of veterinary schools at Lyon and at Alfort, just outside Paris, showed a related concern for maintaining livestock quality. The schools were very much the brainchild of Bertin, and although the latter was ousted from the post of Controller-General by Choiseul in 1763, he was continued by the king as a fifth secretary of state: the so-called ‘little ministry’ (le petit ministère), over which he presided down to the early 1780s, had responsibility for general economic issues, and spawned not only a wide-ranging set of initiatives but also a clientage network which included some of the great technocratic figures of the reign of Louis XVI, such as Lavoisier, Trudaine, Condorcet, Vicq d’Azyr and Turgot.

This emphasis on agriculture was linked to the impact that the doctrines of Physiocracy were having in government circles. In 1763, the Journal économique noted how ‘the genius of the nation turns almost entirely today to the side of the economy’.49 The Physiocrats took much of the credit for this. Though their doctrinaire adhesion to themes of support for agriculture and property-owners, free trade and liberalization of the economy won them criticism from the philosophic circles in which they had originated, the grouping was well placed to have an impact on government policy. Well connected both at court and (through Bertin) in administrative circles, they promoted cliques of true believers throughout the land in parlements, provincial estates, agricultural societies, academies, chambers of commerce and the like.

Though Choiseul personally detested Quesnay, the Physiocrats’ emphasis on breaking the shackles under which the economy was labouring appealed to the duke, whose retooling of the state presupposed a reinvigoration of the economy which would allow the government to go to war without bringing the country to penury. He consequently adopted a hands-off policy towards the Controller-General, the parlementaire Laverdy, whose appointment had formed part of Choiseul’s policy of accommodation with the Parlement, and who liked the idea of economic liberalization. In 1763–4, Laverdy passed decrees freeing the grain trade, as a means of boosting agricultural production and enriching big landowners (among whom primacy of place was taken by commercially minded high nobles). In 1767, the laws on noble derogation were lightened, so that nobles could engage in banking and manufacturing without losing their status and its associated privileges.50 The latter measure owed much to the influence of the abbé Coyer’sLa Noblesse commerçante, published in 1756. Coyer argued against Montesquieu (and, subsequently, the chevalier d’Arc), maintaining that to allow the nobility to enrich themselves would not kill off the sense of honour necessary in a monarchy: indeed it would mean that the state did not have to subsidize impoverished hobereaux, and had more to spend on professionalizing the armed forces.

Choiseul and Laverdy may have been attracted to the idea of a business nobility, but they were also attentive to the economic aspirations of commoners, and the 1760s witnessed the introduction of a wide range of other liberalizing measures, justified at some length in the language of reason, nature and humanity. In 1762, for example, urban guild privileges were cut back by a decree permitting manufacturers to locate in the countryside – a measure which gave a signal boost to rural industry. In 1763, Choiseul also heeded the request of Atlantic port merchants to relax the restrictive regulations on trade, and in 1769 he abolished the Compagnie des Indes, whose monopoly of trade beyond the Cape of Good Hope had been violently attacked by Marseille and Saint Malo business interests. From 1764 onwards, Laverdy introduced major reforms in municipal governance allowing a greater degree of participation by local inhabitants: the preamble to legislation in 1765 cited election as ‘the most appropriate means of fructifying incomes, reducing expenditures, [and] recalling the order and economy necessary in all public administrations’.51

Choiseul was not excessively enamoured of Laverdy’s municipal reforms, whose political liberalism was not to his patrician tastes. Nevertheless, the spate of economic liberalism over which he presided through the 1760s contributed to a very spirited revival of the national economy in the aftermath of the losses and failures of the Seven Years War. Colonial trade, significantly, boomed prodigiously between 1763 and 1778 despite the losses enshrined in the Treaty of Paris, and highlighted the revival in economic fortunes that Choiseul’s ministry had achieved.

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