Modern history


In 1765, Paris, then Versailles, then France, were lit up by Calais Fever. Buirette de Belloy’s play The Siege of Calais, staged at the Comédie-Française, won a quite unparalleled reception throughout the land, sparking a wave of patriotic enthusiasm. The play depicted an episode during an earlier Anglo-French conflict, the Hundred Years War, when Edward III of England, besieging the Channel port, ordered the death of six burghers whose stoical acceptance of their fate in the name of their country (later to be immortalized by Rodin) moved even the dastardly English monarch to repent. The play was unusual in making an episode in French, rather than Greek or Roman, history the focus of the action, and in portraying the bourgeoisie as demonstrating faultless devotion to their monarch when faced by the military incursions of their English neighbour, whose monarch was laying claim to the French crown.

This was a stirring patriotic allegory for a sensitive period of après-guerre. De Belloy’s fellow-playwright, Collé, noted with some envy how the play was endlessly performed to enthusiastic crowds, with one show being given gratis so that the common people of Paris could share in the patriotic paeans: ‘The marketwomen and the common people … cried out for the author, and when he appeared shouted out “Vive le Roi et M. de Belloy!”52 The court joined in the enthusiasm, and following frequent stagings at Versailles, the king awarded de Belloy a thousand écus and a golden medallion. He also allowed the playwright to dedicate to him the printed version of the text, which was soon selling like hot cakes. The play toured the provinces – Calais accorded de Belloy the freedom of the city – before being played to rhapsodic colonial audiences in Saint-Domingue.

The Siege of Calais was emphatically not to the taste of all. Theatre-lovers applauded the sentiments and the characterization, but deplored the lame versification. There was indignation too at the story that Choiseul had been so taken by the patriotism that the play had evoked that he ordered de Belloy to write more in the same vein, ‘as though one gave orders to a genius as to a pastrycook’. More significantly, many courtiers resented the popular shows of patriotism. The comte d’Ayen snootily called it ‘a tragedy fit only for cobblers’, and he was not alone at court in resenting the fact that the hero was a militaristic ruler, that the villain of the piece was a French aristocrat of the highest breeding (the turncoat Frenchman, the duc d’Harcourt) and that the play focused on the six ‘martyrs of the Patrie’ who were bourgeois. The mayor of Calais stirringly addressed the burghers:

Défenseurs de Calais, chefs d’un peuple fidèle
Vous de nos chevaliers l’envie et le modèle.

[Defenders of Calais, leaders of a loyal people,
Envy and model of our knights.]

Many of the philosophes found this patriotism disquieting too: one of the play’s most famous lines – plus je vis d’étrangers, plus j’aimais ma Patrie’ (‘the more foreigners I saw, the more I loved my fatherland’) – offended their inherent cosmopolitanism and made their customary anglomania look decidedly odd. D’Holbach’s salon was said to have condemned it outright on the grounds that ‘love of the patrie’ was ‘a prejudice’. Yet the articles on ‘patrie’ and ‘patriotisme’ which appeared in the volume of theEncyclopédiewhich appeared in 1765 caught the jingoistic mood.

The Siege of Calais phenomenon demonstrated that the reconstruction of the monarchy could be popular. Government did not have to rely on its ancient ceremonial mystique and its sacral sheen (both facets of monarchy which the hyper-materialist Choiseul disliked anyway). Enlightened values of reason and humanity were the monopoly of neither the parlements nor the philosophes. Ministers had long been in the habit of informing and shaping opinion, hiring barristers (even Jansenist ones on occasion) and literary hacks to pen government propaganda and anti-parlementaire attacks or else circulating favourable views through coffee-houses, public parks and other sites of Parisian polite sociability. The bourgeois public sphere offered an enlarged and more alert theatre on which the ministry could develop a collective sense of identity throughout the kingdom, centred on and symbolized by the person of the king. Government propaganda in the Seven Years War had exceeded itself in proto-racist attacks on the English nation, whose alleged ‘savage’ and ‘barbaric’ character contrasted with the gentler and more loveable mores of the French.53 By 1766, the pamphleteer Basset de la Marelle was arguing that one of the striking features of French (as opposed to English) patriotism was its orientation around obedience to their ruler: ‘the love of the French for their sovereign is the strongest support of the state, the unshakeable basis of the power and glory of the monarchy’.54 A population which could be moved – by a mere play – to transports of patriotic attachment to its king had evidently retained a residual fondness for the ruler which might be appealed to over the heads of the nobility and the parlements and even of the philosophe movement. Patriotism could be simultaneously plebeian and monarchical, even (in a desacralized way) absolutist – a point which writer Louis-Sébastien Mercier had in mind when, in his best-selling 1771 science-fiction novel 2440, he berated patriotism as ‘a fanaticism invented by kings and baneful to the universe’.55

A further element in this phenomenon were government-sponsored efforts to reground royal authority in an absolutist version of the national past. One of the striking features of the political battles of the 1750s had been the way in which parlementary critics – and most notably the Jansenist érudit Le Paige – had through painstaking antiquarian study provided more convincing accounts of national history than the crown was able to mount. From the late 1750s, in contrast, the government began to institute procedures to build up its own archival resources and to constitute what Keith Baker has called an ‘ideological arsenal’ which allowed the historical arguments of the parlementaires – which occasionally had a more than fanciful aspect – to be met on their own ground.56Under the patronage of Controllers-General Silhouette, then Bertin, the former Jansenist pamphleteer Jacob-Nicolas Moreau, at first alone, and from the late 1760s with an academy-style grouping called the Cabinet des Chartes, began to compile the documents which would form the state’s official memory. By the eve of the Revolution, it contained over 50,000 documents drawn from 350 archival repositories. It allowed the government to make powerful historical arguments which made up in energy what they lacked in scientific objectivity: the Preuves de la pleine souveraineté du Roi sur la province de Bretagne (‘Proofs of the Full Sovereignty of the King over the Province of Brittany’) published under Laverdy’s name in 1765, but in fact penned by Moreau, was a highly partisan absolutist polemic which sought to dismantle the historical arguments for relative autonomy being bandied about by Breton notables.

Choiseul’s government increasingly played to this nationalistic programme, which allowed the doctrines of inflexible absolutism to be mixed with the milk and honey of rational debate and beneficent humanity. Following a trend detectable, as we have suggested, from the 1690s,57 the preambles to royal edicts and other documents of monarchical authority used the language of ‘public welfare’, ‘beneficence’ and ‘patriotism’, and demonstrated a more systematic quest to explain and to ‘enlighten’ as well as to command.

Absolutist reflexes, however, died hard. The adjustment which the monarch and the state apparatus had to make to their customary ways of doing things was a difficult one. The government had long dictated the formal grounds on which public discussion occurred, and feared being seen to enter the field of debate too overtly, and having to win arguments where once the king commanded unreflective assent. The lawyer Barbier, for example, was pleased to note on one occasion that the publicly diffused remonstrances of the Parlement were greeted by ‘replies by the king’, which were ‘strong and well-written’. Significantly, however, he added ‘sensible people found it indecent that the king, for laws or taxes which he wishes to create, should be obliged to plead against his Parlement’.58 As we have seen,59 government regulated the number of printshops throughout the realm, policed the book trade, ran the only newspaper cleared to report political news (the Gazette de France) and enforced censorship throughout the land. It took the function of that censorship to uphold religious faith and public morals extremely seriously: a royal edict in 1757 promised death to anyone involved in the writing, publication or circulation of writings which threatened to injure state or religious authority and sought to trouble public order. Although the death penalty was not much invoked in practice, censorship and state interference comprised a quotidian threat for authors, publishers and readers.

The monarchical version of patriotism required more attention to public taste, more ease of manners, and more rational control over his demeanour than Louis XV was able to muster, for it implied a willingness to listen as well as to orate. ‘Whatever we say’, Miromesnil, First President of the Rouen Parlement, remarked to Controller-General Laverdy in 1765, ‘the king must speak to us ceaselessly in the language of reason and never that of anger.’60 Chance would be a fine thing: parlementaires and officials given an audience with Louis XV were invariably dismayed by his imperious air, his studied disdain for discussion, and his wilful impetuousness, which came close to brutal contempt. In a famous clash with the Paris Parlement in 1766 on the festival of the day when Christ was scourged (and consequently known as the Séance de la Flagellation (‘The Scourging Session’)), the king outlined the pristine character of royal absolutism, against those who dared to question it, in an arrogant, ahistorical manner which Louis XIV could not have bettered:

It is in my person alone that sovereign power resides … it is from me alone that my [sic] courts hold their existence and their authority … public order in its entirety emanates from me, and my people forms one with me, and the rights and interests of the nation, of which people are daring to make a body separate from the monarch, are necessarily united with mine and repose only in my hands.61

To thrust the point home, Louis ordered the publication of the speech in the Gazette de France, and its diffusion to all the sovereign courts and to the colonies – indeed, some thought the speech was aimed less at the parlementaires than at the general public. Yet such behaviour could backfire. President de Brosses of the Dijon Parlement was not alone in reacting angrily to such a performance, which seemed both grotesquely anachronistic and constitutionally threatening: ‘It’s the cannon with the biggest calibre: oriental despotism and barefaced tyranny.’62

Such bravura royal displays failed to turn the tide for le Mal-Aimé. As we have seen, the ceremonial rituals and courtly ostentatiousness of yore were failing to do their job, and monarchical authority was losing its sacral sheen. Yet Louis still invariably preferred to look back to the template of an idealized Louis-Quatorzian absolutism, with some Fenelonian touches, rather than forward to a more popular style of ‘patriotic’ monarchy of the kind that Choiseul was designing. Although de Belloy claimed, in his dedication to the Siege of Calais, that ‘Calais recalled Metz’, Louis XV showed little sign of reclaiming his erstwhile status as le Bien-Aimé.63 Indeed it was from the mid-1760s that the rumour of the pacte de famine began to circulate widely, to the effect that the king had made secret deals with speculators and grain-merchants to raise the price of grain so high that famine killed off much of the population while the heartless ruler enriched himself prodigiously.

The monarchy’s patriotic credentials were, moreover, being increasingly questioned and criticized on the forum of the public sphere – particularly by the parlements. At the height of the anti-Jesuit campaign, an apologist for the Order had accused the magistrates of deploying a ‘jargon of patriotism mixed with the language of rebellion’, while the Toulouse Parlement, for example, claimed that the Jesuits were ‘insensible to the impressions of the national spirit’.64 This tendency to couch their oppositional discourse in patriotic terms was increasingly evident in disputes from the late 1750s onwards over state finance. Judging finance the government’s Achilles heel, the Paris Parlement was increasingly seeking to make something traditionally seen as the king’s private business into an issue of rightful concern to the sovereign courts. As Barbier noted in 1760,

The Parlement is right to profit from the circumstances to extend its authority, all the more in that the people, borne down with taxes and forewarned about the administration by rumours and complaints, looks to find some moderation through the resistance of the Parlement.65

Yet accepting advice on financial matters, even from his parlements, was something to which the king found it hard to warm. From the late 1750s Physiocracy had become mode du jour in government circles, assisted by the liberalization of censorship by Book-Trade Director Malesherbes.66 When in 1760, at the height of the Seven Years War, however, the marquis de Mirabeau, one of their number, published a Théorie de l’impôt (‘Tax Theory’) which stated that taxes should only be imposed with popular consent, claimed tax on landed income to be the most equitable of impositions and called for the abolition of the General Farm, the author was imprisoned in the Bastille, then exiled to his family estates. In May 1763, the government’s lit de justice introducing reforms to re-establish the state finances at the end of the Seven Years War67 seemed to mark a liberal change of tack, for it also formally encouraged individuals to proffer proposals for reforming the national taxation system along more rational and productive lines. Yet this was soon shown up as a charade. There was an outpouring of writings calling for radical reforms of the tax system – ‘everyone at the moment is meddling at being a reformer’, noted the Journal encyclopédiaue.68 Roussel de La Tour’s scandalous La Richesse de l’état (‘The State’s Wealth’) called for the abolition of all but a single unitary tax, while the barrister Darigrand’s L’Anti-financier mounted a swingeing attack on the Farmers General. The scale and radical character of the print output frightened the government back into repression. As part of its accommodation with the Paris Parlement in November 1763, it was agreed that a committee of parlementaires should receive and process fiscal proposals, and by March 1764 a new ban had been put on them.

The course and the outcome of this episode spoke volumes about the problems of taking absolute monarchy out on to the public stage. By oscillating between the traditional repressive line and a sometimes almost shame-faced liberalism, Louis XV hoped to have the best of both worlds. He ended up with the worst. Government censorship was not repressive enough to be effective, yet the freedom it encouraged only made its censorship look more open to criticism. Parrot cries for silence on delicate political issues sounded increasingly archaic – and were quite unable to stem the rising tide of parlementary critique.

The parlementaires trained their fire on the tendency of the state to trample over legal propriety in financial affairs. For most of the 1760s, tax innovations per se were less at issue than what the parlementaires saw as the government’s progressive expansion of its administrative powers in financial matters. A prime target of parlementary critique were the unaccountable and ‘despotic’ local tax officials who were always seeking ways of ‘subjecting taxpayers to their petty authority and enveloping them in their fiscal science’,69through more efficient collection and assessment procedures. The excise-men of the General Farm attracted similar criticisms. The Farmers General were probably the most unpopular men in the country, but their local agents – portrayed as greedy, grasping and unmindful of personal freedoms – were not far behind. The Farm’s special tribunals for dealing with smuggling were particularly harshly attacked for arbitrariness and inhumanity.

The Intendants – the main provincial exponents of ‘fiscal science’ – also came under attack. Architects of schemes of humanity, beneficence and patriotism by their own account, they were roundly assailed by others for their ‘despotic’ and ‘unpatriotic’ tendencies which, the parlements argued, overstepped constitutional bounds. Besides lending support to grasping local tax officials, the Intendants also organized the road-building corvées, which were another bone of contention. The Ponts et Chaussées engineers who supervised this work were tinpot dictators, who pulled peasants off the land to build roads whose utility, it was claimed, remained to be proven. Intendants also organized the drawing of lots for militia-service – another form of royal service which won theparlements’ opprobrium. As seigneurs too, many parlementary magistrates disliked the efforts of the Intendants – notably in Burgundy – to protect peasant communities against seigneurial encroachments, as a means of ensuring that a greater part of the peasant surplus went into state coffers in the form of royal taxes. The government’s economic liberalization measures came under attack from certain parlements (others were more accepting), as did the policy of free trade in grain which the Intendants enforced locally. There was much criticism too of the tough new laws on vagrancy which Laverdy instituted between 1764 and 1767. At one stage the introduction of a parishional poor-rate to deal with local paupers was considered, and though this was dropped as a result of the Paris Parlement’s hostility to new taxes, a new network of state-funded dépôts de mendicité was created throughout the land for the incarceration of beggars and vagrants. The dépôts triggered provincial outrage for being expensive, ineffective and infringing personal freedoms: in Languedoc, for example, the Estates complained bitterly that a bonus-hungry maréchaussée was making almost indiscriminate arrests and damaging the local economy which was dependent on influxes of migrant workers at key points of the agricultural year.

The measures for which the parlements were calling from the late 1750s – fewer fiscal levies, greater economy in the state establishment, a simplified tax system, more local accountability of tax officials through the parlements – did not form a consolidated and coherent programme of reform. What was perhaps more striking than their piecemeal, uncoordinated and ad hoc content was the patriotic idiom in which these ideas were clothed. Parlementary ideas invariably evinced that most thoroughgoing national miserabilism which had impressed poor Damiens: harmful and unpatriotic government demands were driving the country to despair and depopulation. Parlementary protests were also increasingly lodged as appeals to the gallery. Just as the kings increasingly appealed to public opinion, so too the magistrates made as if to look over the shoulder of the monarch, who was the formal recipient of their remonstrances, towards the opinion of a wider public which could weigh up and adjudicate the force of their arguments and the strength of their high minded attachment to the welfare of the nation.

Policy issues were thus becoming patriotism debates, with disagreements taking the shape of a trial by propaganda, with the approval of the public as the prize. The parlementaires were ceasing to confine their invocations within the walls of the palais de justiceand were striving more systematically to extend them into the burgeoning public sphere. The basoche – the world of law including barristers, attorneys, clerks, bailiffs, ushers and the like who worked within the parlements and the other royal courts – played an important role as the cultural intermediaries of the parlements, diffusing the magistrates’ views through urban society. The links forged in the union des classes also provided a national dimension to disputes. But the means par excellence for the popularization of public debate was the printed word. The Parlement’s remonstrances had been regarded in the past as private documents which, if not quite for the king’s eyes only, were certainly not viewed as public documents. From the early 1750s, however, it became current for remonstrances to be published and circulated in thousands, even tens of thousands of copies – despite strong royal injunctions to the contrary. They jostled alongside other print forms for conveying parlementary views to a wider public – the censorship-exempt legal brief (mémoire judiciaire), the clandestine distribution networks of the Jansenist house-organ, the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques, the fertile, multiform output of Le Paige, and the increasingly well-briefed foreign press, such as the Dutch-based Gazette de Leyde.

The parlements thus played a leading role in extending the parameters of public debate, grounding their arguments in terms of their would-be representative role as regards the wider society and invoking the public as a kind of patriotic supreme court whose opinion was arbiter of justice and legitimacy. Yet their position towards the involvement of a wider public in politics was highly ambivalent. Beneficiaries of the liberalization of the terms of public debates at mid-century, and artful circum-ventors of censorship regulations, the parlementaires cast doleful and nostalgic glances back to the old ‘mystery of state’ days, and were not at all averse to falling back on repression and constraint. The magistrates were jealous not only to maintain the right of the workings of the law to be open, but also to safeguard from government their customary right to condemn published works. It was they, for example, who had drafted the 1757 edict stipulating the death penalty for publishing offences, and they similarly made great play, in 1758, of condemning Helvétius’s atheistical work De l’Esprit, which had slipped past a dozing censor. Characteristically, the crusading Jansenist radical Le Paige was particularly outspoken in his criticisms. In 1759 they followed this up by publicly condemning the first seven volumes of the Bible of the Enlightenment, Diderot’s Encyclopédie, while in 1762, it would be the turn of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose novel Émile achieved the rare distinction of uniting the Paris Parlement and Beaumont, the archbishop of Paris, in full-throated condemnation. The ambivalence of the Parlement’s position was evident in their attitudes towards open discussion of financial reform after the Seven Years War: the farrago produced by permitting open debate on tax reform ended in 1764 with the Paris Parlement openly conniving with the government in the limitation of public debate. A related case around the same time saw the famed liberalizing Director of the Book Trade, Malesherbes, in his role as magistrate in the Paris Cour des Aides, meting out an exemplary punishment to the Secretary of the Burgundy Estates for publishing offences. The sovereign courts wanted to extend the forum of debate – but not too far.

Magistrates often gave the effect of wishing to replay the Fronde, and continued to play the traditional game of bluff and counter-bluff with the government, drawing on their customary panoply of obstructive devices, speaking loudly then quietly compromising its positions. This showed only a limited sense of how the context and significance of their actions was altered by the quite different framework within which this political game was now being played. Court, government and parlements were no longer the only players. The Parlement’s ambivalence over the openness of political debate served as a reminder of the limitations of the claims of the parlementaires to ‘represent’ the people – or rather a sign that their version of representation incorporated outright repression of dissident views. The 1760s not only witnessed the promotion of parlementary squabbles to national political issues but also the elaboration of powerful critiques of the parlements, as the magistrates themselves came under closer scrutiny from the public to which it had so insistently appealed.

The public which magistrates ceaselessly invoked was not simply a figure of speech; it had begun to achieve a new sociological consistency and was beginning to find a voice of its own. Malesherbes later recognized this development, highlighting the formation of a rational reading population, whose judgement had precedence even over the magistrates of the Parlement:

Knowledge is being extended by printing; the written laws are today known by everyone … The judges can themselves be judged by an instructed Public, and that censure is much more severe and equitable when it can be exercised in a cool, reflective reading.70

We would want to add to Malesherbes’s analysis the role of improved literacy, economic growth, improved communications and greater social mobility in producing a flesh-and-blood public with rational faculties and powers of analysis. But there is no denying the critical role of the Parlement – and in particular the energetic Jansenist lobby within it – in transforming the character of politics from the 1750s and 1760s onwards. The judges could now themselves be judged, as Malesherbes noted – and in many respects they had only themselves to blame.

If, as we have suggested, the king often got the worse of both worlds, being seen as both too repressive to be liberal and yet proving too liberal to be effectively repressive, much the same was true of the parlements. A good example of this was the so-called Calas affair, which brought a cloud of international opprobrium over the Parlement of Toulouse in particular, and sullied the reputation of the parlements in general. In October 1761, Marc-Antoine, the depressive son of Protestant shopkeeper Jean Calas of Toulouse, had been found dead. It was initially assumed that the son had committed suicide, but rumours were soon circulating that his parents had murdered him in order to prevent him converting to Catholicism. Despite protesting his innocence under torture, the sexagenarian father was condemned by the Parlement in March 1762 to be broken on the wheel, a fate which he bore with stoical fortitude. To a degree, this severity was out of line with a general drift of indifference towards anti-Huguenot legislation throughout France. The Seven Years War, which pitted Catholic Spain and France against Protestant powers England and Prussia, however, reactivated older reflexes. South-west France was the particular theatre for these: the region had been riven with rumours of Protestant risings in 1755–7, with the Toulouse region involved in an incident in 1761 which had led to the execution of a Protestant pastor. The traditional annual ceremony which celebrated the delivery of the city from the Protestants in the Wars of Religion took place two months after Calas’s execution, and was a particularly strident celebration of Catholic unity – the police guards were bought new uniforms, relic shrines were specially repainted, the customary fireworks display was particularly magnificent, and Pope Clement XIII offered extra indulgences for church visits.

The Calas case became the Calas affair through the good offices of philosophe Voltaire. As soon as he heard the news of the trial and execution, he summed up the incident as a monument to Catholic intolerance, meridional superstition and judicial bigotry- and he decided to do something about it. This involved taking on both the parlements and the church. His successful embracing of the Calas cause highlighted how multi-levelled and complex politics had become by the 1760s. He was well enough connected to seek out money for the wronged Calas family from his court friends and his patrons across Europe (including Frederick II of Prussia and Gustavus III of Sweden). He was in cahoots with Parisian barristers who published best-selling legal briefs based on the arguments he provided. But most significantly of all, he took the case on to the public sphere, invoking that ‘public’, that ‘nation’, for whose support king and parlements seemed to be competing. He told the Calas story as a narrative of bigotry no fewer than six times in literary productions of different forms. The movement of opinion he provoked was such that in March 1763 the royal council decided that the case should be brought before the king for reconsideration. In June 1764, the Toulouse Parlement’s judgement was overturned. And on 5 March 1765, three years to a day after the execution of Calas, the latter was formally declared innocent. Voltaire worked through Choiseul to get Louis XV himself to offer major compensatory pensions to the Calas family, engravings of whom became best-sellers throughout Paris. Voltaire put one above his bed.

Voltaire would take up cudgels on behalf of the oppressed on a number of other occasions – he was appalled by the chevalier de La Barre case in 1766, for example, in which the Paris Parlement upheld a decision of the court at Abbeville that the young noble should have his tongue pulled out, his right hand cut off and be executed for silly juvenile pranks involving blasphemy. Such cases not only showed the political uses to which public opinion could be put. ‘Opinion governs the world and in the end thephilosophesgovern men’s opinions,’ was Voltaire’s view. They also highlighted the injustices and bigotries inherent in the legal system, and in the parlements in particular. The comte de Creutz, Danish ambassador in Paris, noted of the La Barre case that ‘everyone is surprised to see magistrates who wish to be the protectors of the people and to rein in authority demonstrate such a dark spirit of persecution’.71 On the public sphere, the parlementaires were not immune from some severe judgements by the very public they claimed to represent.

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