Modern history


The Triumvirate had already begun to disintegrate before the death of Louis XV and accession of his adolescent grandson, the duc de Berry, destroyed it altogether. The new ruler had never been emotionally close to his predecessor, away from whose contagious dying body he had been studiously kept. Dauphin at eleven following the death of his father, the ‘grand dauphin’ in 1765, and still (just) a teenager on his accession, the new Louis XVI had not even progressed to sitting on the State Council, and felt he was too young to have the burden of rule thrust upon him. Even though – following the example of Louis XIV, whose memory he venerated – he was determined to rule without a Principal Minister, he realized he needed help. An avid enthusiast for Fénelon’sTélémaque, he looked desperately around for a Mentor to start him on his political odyssey. He could expect nothing from his own family – he shared the view of his father that the Condé and Orléans cadet branches were political troublemakers. Though in the early 1770s he had congratulated Maupeou for having ‘put the crown back on the head’ of Louis XV,16 Maupeou’s rather limited reforming zeal looked played out by 1774, and his ministry was widely unpopular and stood accused of despotic arrogance and corruption.

In the end, Louis fastened for a Mentor on a ministerial has-been whose main credit was grounded in three decades of royal service and an extensive knowledge of government, namely, the gouty septuagenarian Maurepas. The latter’s disgrace from Louis XV’s court in 1749 (before Louis had been born) as a result of an intrigue orchestrated by Madame de Pompadour had not lost him credit in the eyes of the grand dauphin, who on his deathbed in 1765 had commended him to his son. ‘I am king’, Louis now wrote to Maurepas, recalling him to take up a place on the State Council, ‘and am only twenty years old and don’t have all the knowledge I need.’17 Maurepas had no other brief in government than to be around for regular consultation with the king, and this awkward position made him initially vulnerable to factional sniping, notably from Choiseulites clamouring for the recall of their patron. He strengthened his position, however, by persuading Louis to dismiss both Maupeou and Terray in a court putsch on 24 August (d’Aiguillon had been ousted a little earlier). The other beneficiaries of this ministerial reversal were ex-Intendant Turgot, recently appointed Navy Minister and now promoted to the post of Controller-General, and the Norman parlementaire Miromesnil, a Maurepas client, who was made Keeper of the Seals. The career diplomat, Vergennes, took over Foreign Affairs, the heroic, gnarled veteran, the comte de Saint-Germain, took the War Ministry, with Paris Police Lieutenant Sartine appointed Navy Minister. This cleansing of the Maupeouian political stables owed much to the background influence of Maurepas, but a good deal of public attention focused on the person of Turgot, the most dynamic of the new ministry and, in the astonished acclamation of the abbé Galiani, that rare bird, ‘an Encyclopédiste who’s made it!’18 Turgot’s appointment gave the new ministry a philosophical and secularist hue which mortally offended the dévot faction – the duc de Croÿ, for example, called Turgot’s appointment ‘the greatest blow to religion since Clovis’19 and huffed and puffed in vain against the apparent seizure of government patronage by the philosophe faction. The dévots were further discomfited by the subsequent appointment in 1775 as Minister for the Royal Household of the liberal ex-censor and friend of the philosophes Lamoignon de Malesherbes, who as President in the Paris Cour des Aides had been amongst the most virulent opponents of the Maupeou coup.

‘I helped [Louis XV] win a case which had lasted three hundred years,’ Maupeou, evoking his dissolution of the parlements, oracularly pronounced on returning the seals to the crown, ‘[Louis XVI] wishes to resume the case. He is the master.’20 And indeed one of the first things the new ministry did was to negotiate the recall of the parlements, popular support for which had swollen in the weeks following the collapse of the Triumvirate. Maurepas, a scion of the Phélypeaux clan, which had provided royal ministers in an unbroken line for nearly a century and a half, was not unsympathetic to the plight of his fellow Robins in the parlements. His aphorism, ‘no parlements, no monarchy’,21 however, highlighted a lack of appreciation of how political rhetoric and practices had changed since his last encounter with power. The Paris Parlement was triumphantly reinstated in its pre-1771 form in early November, and provincial parlements were recalled over the next year or so.

The recall of the parlements was seen as heralding a new start which would bind the nation together following the despotic divisiveness of the Maupeou years. The move highlighted the young monarch’s agonized desire to rule in ways which won the acclaim of his subjects. This wish to please was moral and political principle as well as personal quirk. His tutors when he was a boy, the duc de La Vauguyon and the ultra-royalist publicist Moreau, had inculcated in him a strong sense of the need to be a virtuous ruler responsive to the interests of his peoples. When he was twelve he had written (and published on his own little printing press) a work entitled Moral and Political Maxims Drawn from ‘Télémaque’, which was thoroughly suffused with Fénelonian principles. From his wide reading of works of history, moreover, he culled examples of good kings who were to be imitated, bad ones to be despised: a good reign was one in which the people were happy, and this required a high level of personal morality in the ruler – solicitude for the less fortunate, openness in dealings, tolerance of diversity, and an absolute commitment to royal duty. This equation between private and public goodness was one reason why, as Dauphin, Louis had found it difficult to stomach the vices of his rouégrandfather, and one of his first acts as king was to declare that only persons of ‘recognized morality’ would henceforth be presented at court. Louis also detested his predecessor’s crushing insouciance towards public opinion. ‘I must always consult public opinion,’ the new king had once noted in his schoolboy notebooks, ‘it is never wrong.’22 Initially at least, he was as good as his word: ‘It may be considered politically unwise’, he observed, defending his decision to recall the parlements, ‘but it seems to me that it is the general will [sic] and I wish to be loved.’23

In his quest to inspire his people’s love, Louis felt he had found a soul-mate in Turgot. This did not derive from Turgot’s notorious indifference to religion – which indeed jarred with the religious inspiration the king drew from the example of his painstakingly pious father. Yet Louis’s moralistic view of politics chimed harmoniously with Turgot’s lofty commitment to humane reform. The Controller-General promised his young monarch greater prosperity for the population, which he aimed to achieve with, as he put it, ‘no bankruptcy, no tax increases, no borrowing’ – a slogan diametrically opposed to the unpopular and, for Louis, immoral policies of the Triumvirate. Turgot was an odd mix of a thinker and a man in a hurry (the linguistic legacy of his spell in power, fittingly, would be the turgotine, the speedier and more streamlined public carriages he introduced). An intellectual who kept abreast of discoveries across the sciences, he was convinced, his admirer, Condorcet, noted, ‘that the truths of moral and political science are capable of the same certainty as those that form the system of physical science, even in those branches like astronomy that seem to approximate mathematical certainty’.24 Yet Turgot was more of a pragmatist than this chillingly hubristic quotation suggests. Though his name was closely linked to that of the Physiocrats, he was less an armchair intellectual like Quesnay or the elder Mirabeau than a doer in the vein of Bertin and Trudaine, with, like them, a thorough administrative savvy, honed in his case in more than a decade as Intendant in the Limousin. He had no shortage of big ideas but he lacked either time or inclination to persuade anyone that they were right. Galiani was exaggerating when he said that Turgot would run France like a slave plantation,25 but the new Controller-General certainly preferred the exposition and implementation of his ideas to dealing with the messy irregularities of dissent.

Turgot held that the key to unlocking the economy’s potential, producing greater prosperity and happiness, was an economic freedom he defended with the passion of the true believer. ‘The freer, the more animated and the more extensive trade is,’ he argued, ‘the more swiftly, efficaciously and abundantly can the people be supplied.’26 A reduction in market regulation would let the mechanisms of supply and demand work in ways which would bring landowners profits and consumers affordable foodstuffs. Similarly, state and corporative regulation of labour and production needed to be removed, since it acted as a block on output and inhibited the ability of the poor to make their own livelihoods in freedom. The government needed to stand back from the economy, intervening only in marginal cases where it seemed that the play of vested interests and human passions might adversely affect collective felicity. What set Turgot apart from other individuals who had preceded him at the levers of governmental power was his quintessentiallyphilosophe view that society could and should be reconstructed on the basis of human reason rather than through divine injunction or jurisdictional legality. With exemplary energy and relish, he set about his self-assigned task of delivering to his ruler a prosperous and happy society without recourse to higher taxes, government loans or state bankruptcy, cresting the wave of post-Maupeouian popularity to drive through a radical programme of reform attuned to the rational principles associated with the Physiocrats.

On 13 September 1774, Turgot removed all regulation of grain markets, liberalizing the grain trade along lines essayed in 1763–4, and subsequently abandoned. In February 1775, a further package of reforms – the ‘Six Acts’ – was introduced, including the abolition of trade guilds and the ending of the corvée (the peasant labour tax used for road-building), which was to be replaced by a new property tax payable by all but the clergy. These radical reforms brought howls of protest – both from that public whose opinion Louis in theory so esteemed (and whose support Turgot took for granted), and from within the social and political establishment. Turgot was blinkered as regards the good faith of political opponents, and ascribed hostility to his views as deriving from ignorance or knavery. Yet free trade in grain would never be a popular reform in a country in which, despite the sizeable incursions of commercial capitalism, the molecular multiplicity of physical, geographical and institutional obstacles to freedom of movement inevitably produced pockets of grain shortage when harvests were poor. Fear of the pacte de famine had become an inescapable datum of social and political life. Turgot was unlucky, moreover, in that the introduction of his liberalization measures coincided with a grain crisis caused by bad weather in 1774, which doubled bread prices. Market disturbances, originating in Burgundy in late 1774 and then rippling outwards through much of the remainder of northern France the following year, produced numerous attacks on bakers, rich farmers, hard-hearted seigneurs and other alleged ‘monopolists’. There were also episodes of taxation populate, in which angry crowds stopped convoys of grain moving out of dearth-affected areas, and sold off the grain at what was adjudged a ‘fair price’. In late spring, the rioting wave had reached Paris and Versailles. Laisser-faire in economics, tender in social outlook, Turgot proved politically tough when hordes of grain rioters challenged his policies. The young king gave him the force he needed to meet popular violence with armed repression, and by May the so-called ‘Flour War’ (‘guerre desfarines’) was brought to a close in a flurry of intimidatory public executions.

The popular violence of the Flour War was less of a threat to Turgot’s position than the way in which it opened him up to attack from sources within the political nation antagonistic to reform. The liberalization of the grain trade had been combined with reductions in the privileges of the General Farm, and the financial milieux affected were quick to encourage opposition to the ministry. Particularly prominent was a grouping orchestrated by the Swiss millionaire banker, Jacques Necker, whose overtly anti-Turgotian Essai sur la législation du commerce des grains (‘Essay on Grain-Trade Legislation’) in 1775 took the fight out into the public sphere. (Turgot responded by launching Condorcet and Morellet against the Genevan upstart.)

The reinstated parlements also joined in the fun of discomfiting the opinionated Controller-General. The Parisian magistrates had shown no gratitude towards the young ruler for bringing it back from the dead. The lit de justice of 12 November 1774 which restored them had struck quite the wrong note: Louis presented the recall as an act of royal grace and pardon rather than a belated act of monarchical submission to the majesty of France’s fundamental laws. Administrative changes made at the same time, slimming down the number of parlementary chambers, increasing the powers of the Presidial courts, limiting the remit of parlementary remonstrances, and threatening the use of a ‘plenary court’ as a means of imposing discipline on the courts, caused further resentment. In addition, the freeing of the grain trade was also ill-viewed by the magistrates for trampling over their own customary powers of regulating markets in the interest of consumers. By mid-1775, moreover, they were becoming aware of further major reforms in the government pipeline. Turgot was reputed to want to introduce elective representative assemblies within the provinces, for example, as well as wishing to reform the system of lettres de cachet and maybe to give freedom of conscience to Protestants and to permit the redemption of feudal dues.

Magistrates viewed the Turgot ministry as being so hell-bent on far-going reforms that the very corporative structure of the state was under threat – a view also held by the Princes of the Blood, who, with the irrepressible Conti to the fore, had lost no time in taking their seats amongst the magistrates. The Parlement’s defensive posturing was particularly outspoken in attacks on the legislation on the corvée and over the abolition of the guilds. (They managed to make the latter measure sound as though it infringed the most fundamental nerve of the state – even though under Colbert the Parlement had inveighed furiously against the creation of guilds!) ‘Any system which, in a well-ordered monarchy, under the guise of humanity and beneficence’, their remonstrances stated, ‘tends to establish an equality of duty between men and to destroy necessary distinctions would lead to disorder; a consequence of absolute equality would be the destruction of civil society.’27 ‘Necessary distinctions’ were taken to include juridical ones: theparlementaireshighlighted the crucial constitutional importance of the three estates, each of which had different rights and responsibilities. In this light, the introduction of a general tax like the commuted corvée was only the thin end of the wedge of a ministerial despotism which might go on to annihilate France’s historic corporative hierarchy. Turgot seemed even more dangerous than Maupeou, not least because he appeared to believe his own propaganda.

The Parlement’s remonstrances were not effective, and the Six Acts were enforced by a lit de justice in March 1776. Yet they had taken much of the shine off Turgot’s erstwhile popularity: the welcome new broom had become the hatefully despotic scourge of constitutional rectitude. Furthermore, there was much displeasure in the court at the economies which Turgot was making in state expenditure on the royal household. In particular, the mountain of military reforms introduced by his colleague, Saint-Germain – who seemed even more a man in a hurry than he – amplified suspicions of the government’s intentions. Saint-Germain’s efforts to rationalize the structure of the army led to the disbanding of a number of regiments (with a consequent loss of commands for courtier generals), the abolition of venality for military posts and a meritocratic privileging of technical competence which many found threatening.28

If ever there was a time when Turgot needed the confidence of his monarch it was now. But Louis was not to prove good at steadfastness. Faced with burgeoning waves of discontent among the parlements and in the royal court, and with his ministry unable even to dominate the Parisian salons and public opinion, which had formerly been one of its strengths, Louis went into the indecisive mode which was to become his forte. Neither as unintelligent nor as indolent as he has often been portrayed, Louis invariably floundered when circumstances called for intestinal fortitude. The comte de Provence famously represented conversing with his royal elder brother as like keeping two oiled billiard-balls in the palm of a hand.29 The wily Maurepas had spotted this temperamental deficiency, and played it to his own interest. He had become alarmed at the way that his colleague Turgot’s reforms were stirring up discontent at all levels of the state, and was attentive to parlementary arguments that the very soul of the Bourbon polity was in the balance. Keeper of the Seals Miromesnil also shared with the magistrates a deep-dyed hostility to anti-corporatist reforms which cut against the grain of jurisdictional hierarchy, and he quietly cultivated links with the most vocal parlementaires. Also now working against his ambitious colleague was Foreign Minister Vergennes, who viewed Turgot as a rival and also regarded as irksome the Controller-General’s adamantine opposition to French support for England’s rebellious American colonies: ‘the first gunshot’, Turgot had dramatically pontificated, ‘would drive the state to bankruptcy’.30

Black propaganda by courtiers and by Turgot’s fellow ministers weakened the king’s commitment to a statesman with whom he had seemed to share so much, but whose lack of respect for tradition was proving irksome. He was furious at the Enlightenment progressivism Turgot exemplified in one of his reports which, in the king’s eyes, sought to condemn ‘venerable institutions which the author claims to be the product of centuries of ignorance and barbarism, as if the reigns of my three predecessors could be equated with those of the dark ages’.31 True to the precepts of those predecessors, Louis also disliked the way that Turgot was assuming the airs of a principal minister. ‘Monsieur Turgot wants to be me’, he darkly reflected, ‘and I do not want him to be me.’32 On 12 May 1776, Louis consequently dismissed his reformist Controller-General, who had been so scornfully condemnatory towards the hallowed traditions of the Bourbon polity. Turgot was replaced by the altogether more anodine Clugny, another former Intendant. By the end of the year, all Turgot’s reform programme – the liberalized grain trade, the abolition of guilds, the ending of the corvée – had been rescinded.

Louis XVI’s backing for a renovatory and radical ministry had frittered away when placed under the strain of factional tugs and personal ambitions. The limitations of the new monarch’s view of public opinion as a lodestar of policy had been ruthlessly exposed (though he clung on to it no less determinedly). His recall of the parlements had been predicated on a spirit of aggiornamento in political culture which had patently failed to happen – the magistrates, with the Princes of the Blood in tow, had instantly resumed the obstructive and difficult habits of yore. Added to the obstacles which reforming ministers like Turgot (and indeed Maupeou and Terray before him) now had to face was the king’s havering inconstancy.

Louis XVI’s problem was less an attachment to principles than the inconvenient fact that those principles – fidelity to his historic legacy as ruler, a devotion to ethical rule and an enlightened regard for public opinion – often conflicted with each other. His coronation in June 1775 proved a supreme example of the mutual incommensurability of his good intentions.33 In a briefing document in late 1774, Turgot had urged the king to modernize the ceremonies for an enlightened age. Holding an abbreviated and updated ceremony in Paris rather than Reims, he argued, would be less costly, attract more revenue from visitors, and provide a more satisfactory and open ceremony in which the king would gain ‘new calls on the love and gratitude of his peoples’. A monarchy grounded in popular assent rather than divine right, Turgot held, did not require archaic ceremonial to be played out in all its increasingly anachronistic detail. The coronation ceremony, rock of monarchical tradition, seemed suddenly to be exposed to the corrosive power of the public sphere. Radical pamphleteers argued that the coronation offered a chance for king and people to seal a solemn pact of alliance, rehearsing the social contract. Others – among whom one might even class Turgot himself, who privately expressed the view that the coronation represented ‘the most useless and also the most ridiculous of all the useless expenses’ – mocked the ‘absurd ceremony’ as ‘a political charade’.

Louis made some concessions to Turgot and there were a few ‘enlightened’ gracenotes in the ceremony. Yet overall, the king was more guided by those of his prelates who saw the coronation as a religious rite of renewal in which the monarch could make a sacred, even missionary pledge in an age of irreligion. It was held according to immemorial custom in Reims, and its liturgy was resolutely medievalist and theocratic. It concluded, for example, with the new sacred monarch touching some 2,400 paupers for the King’s Evil – the first time the ceremony had been held for more than a generation. The part of the coronation oath calling for the extirpation of heretics was retained (to the intense annoyance of Protestants and philosophes alike) on the grounds that Louis XIV was its author and that therefore it would be unseemly, as Louis put it, to ‘displace the traditional limits [ … ] where wisdom [had] placed them’. The construction of theatre benches in the nave of the cathedral, the unseemly theatrical applause which greeted key parts of the ceremony, and the manifest difficulty of many participants apart from the king himself to keep a straight face gave the event, despite flashes of timeless majesty which impressed even Voltaire, the air of comic opera. But it was comic opera with a dark message: the common people were kept out of the cathedral, and the customary part of the ceremony in which the monarch was presented before the people in his regalia for popular acclaim was removed altogether for fear that it be interpreted as incipient contractualism. In the changed discursive universe of the late Enlightenment, in which political debate had been increasingly secularized, and in which even Louis XV had regarded evocations of divine right as off limits, the coronation seemed unwittingly – and to the blithe unconcern of the new monarch – to be inventing new forms of religious sectionalism and political conservatism.

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