Modern history


Harlay de Champvallon, archbishop of Paris under Louis XIV, once remarked that ‘the king does not like things which make a noise’.41 Louis XVI’s reign was, in contrast, most definitely, an age of noise, notably by an increasingly articulate and vociferous cacophony of competing discourses and debates, expressed as much in written as oral form, which royal and ecclesiastical institutions were losing their power to muzzle. Beneath the frothy, exuberant surface, however, a silent revolution was taking place.42 A subtle, but widely ramified shift in mentalités signalled more individualized and less spiritually oriented attitudes towards life and death, while the emergence of the Great Chain of Buying demonstrated fundamental changes in ways of thinking, of believing, of behaving – and even of smiling.

It was in 1787, in fact, that a smile scandal rocked the public sphere. The smile in question was located on the face of Madame Vigée-Lebrun, in her self-portrait which was publicly displayed in the same year. ‘An affectation which artists, art-lovers and persons of taste have been united in condemning,’ noted Moufle d’Angerville’s scabrous court messenger, the Mémoires secrets, ‘and which finds no precedent among the Ancients, is that in smiling, [Madame Vigée-Lebrun] shows her teeth.’43 To depict a toothy smile was not merely to cut across representational conventions in place since Antiquity, but also to contravene procedures for the artistic expression of emotion codified in the late seventeenth century by Charles Lebrun, First Painter and multi-purpose mythologizer of Louis XIV. Open mouths in paintings had denoted that an individual was grotesque (a point underlined by the accompanying revelation of disgustingly deformed teeth), demented, plebeian, or else subject to some highly extreme emotion. In polite society, facial extremes were simply unthinkable.

It is of course ridiculously glib to suggest that the impending financial bankruptcy of the Bourbon state in the late 1780s was being matched by a perceived bankruptcy in its role as arbiter of taste in emotional expression. Yet Madame Vigée-Lebrun’s scandalously charming smile was indeed a token of a real enough shift which had taken place across the board in the sources of authority and legitimacy regarding aesthetic canons and modes of bodily presentation – and that shift would play into the character of the crisis of 1788–9. Whereas the royal court had once been viewed as the ultimate arbiter in such spheres, ‘public opinion’ had taken its place. The new toothy smile was of course predicated upon the emergence of a scientifically oriented dentistry from the 1720s onwards, plus the emergence of a corps of surgical experts capable of developing the tooth-puller’s art into preventive and cosmetic dentistry. Yet the boom in smiles which the advent of the dentist in Western culture stimulated owed nothing to the royal court, which showed very little interest in the development. Louis XV had disfigured his smile by losing teeth, sound and decayed, to inexpert tooth-drawing (like his great-grandfather), and one of his early mistresses had been legendary for halitosis. Louis XVI, one of his pages later recalled, had ‘a fine leg’, but ‘his teeth were badly arranged and made his smile rather ungraceful’. His brother, the comte d’Artois (future king Charles X), tended ‘to have his mouth continually open, which gave his face a rather unintelligent appearance’.44 The public sphere, in contrast to the royal court, was more than responsive. From mid-century onwards, newspapers were chockful of advertisements for tooth-pastes and powders, tooth-whitening agents, tooth-brushes, tooth-picks and tongue-scrapers, plus a multitude of dentures and other ‘artificial pieces’, attesting to the strength of the demand among consumers for new kinds of fashion which owed little or nothing to royal endorsement.

There were some who lamented the abdication by the royal court of its customary role in setting canons of taste. With the benefit of hindsight, the king’s page, the comte d’Hézècques, was sure that the tendency of Louis XVI and his court to be indifferent to vestimentary splendour set a bad example, and reduced the respect his subjects owed a monarch.45 Symptomatically, the unsmiling Louis XVI could not wait to get out of his massively heavy coronation robes in Reims in 1775, and he never wore them again, preferring lighter and less ceremonial dress at court which made it difficult for outsiders to pick him out from his aristocratic commensals. His wearing of the English riding-coat (redingote), popularized by his brothers and by the duc d’Orléans, showed that even the king of France seemed to have opted for the more bourgeois luxe de subsistance generally regarded as preferable to the court’s traditional luxe de décoration.46 Although Louis’s queen did more than her fair share to keep the latter afloat, in general terms evenVersailles, increasingly viewed as sterile and out of touch, seemed to bow the knee, in matters fashionable and in lifestyle choices, to the energizing dynamo of public demand that was Paris. Louis XIV’s solar temple had become, as Mercier put it, ‘a satellite’ round ‘a whirlwind’.47

Whereas many sectors of the economy were experiencing problems in the 1780s, the market for cultural and leisure pursuits stayed highly buoyant. Parisian theatre audiences had grown fast from around 1760, and a developing national taste for drama and opera was reflected in the opening of splendid provincial theatres, especially in the 1780s. The brilliant success of The Marriage of Figaro highlighted audience reactions over which, as we have seen, royal opinion had no purchase. Public opinion rather than the ruler’s cultural minions was increasingly seen as a determinant of aesthetic quality in painting too. The big audiences which since 1737 had visited the recurrent art exhibition in Paris known as the Salon ruffled the feathers of would-be connoisseurs, but undoubtedly influenced artistic practice. Whereas 7,000 individuals had visited the exhibition halls in 1755, over 21,000 were cramming in by 1788, forming, as one newspaper put it ‘a vast theatre where neither rank, favour nor wealth can reserve a place for bad taste’.48 That taste latterly took a classical republican turn, inspired by Jacques-Louis David’s celebrated Oath of the Horatii, displayed in the 1785 Salon.

The death of the patriarchs of the classic Enlightenment occurred at this time: Voltaire and Rousseau died in 1778, d’Alembert in 1783, and Diderot in 1784, while leading salonnières Mesdames du Deffand and d’Épinay passed away in 1780 and 1783. Beneath this sombre necrology, important shifts were occurring in the workings of the public sphere and in the sites in which opinion was constructed. The Parisian salons and the provincial academies, which had played a pilot role in the arbitration of national taste during the classic phase of the Enlightenment, as we have seen, were being overtaken in importance by other forms and styles of sociability and opinion-formation. In addition, print increasingly replaced polite conversation as the prime medium of intellectual exchange, contesting the dominance of academies and salons.

The press was coming to play an even greater role in the Enlightenment project, joining up the points of light throughout the kingdom to produce a better, fairer, more inclusive and (hopefully) happier nation. In this context, buyers and sellers of the commodities which emblematized the triumph of consumerism merged imperceptibly into producers and consumers of ideas on the Great Chain of Buying, and the interactive and egalitarian polity this implied.49 The ubiquity of the term commerce was significant in this respect, since it denoted both trade in goods and intellectual interchange: as the President de Brosses put it, ‘exchange occurs for words as for other commodities’.50 The editor of Affiches de l’Orléanais highlighted the periodical press’s role in ‘the communication and commerce of minds’. Newspapers certainly allowed the public to be increasingly responsive to political and cultural events: the circulation of the Gazette de France topped 12,000, for example, during the American War. We may speculate that a total newspaper circulation of 15,000 before 1750 rose to 60,000 by the mid-1780s. Newspapers reached a much wider audience than this, of course: reading rooms which developed from the 1760s onwards specialized in newspaper subscriptions (which were often too high for potential individual readers); so did coffee-houses and the embryonic clubs which began to spring up in the bigger cities in the 1780s in imitation of English and American models. Forms of collective readership – in the family or the workplace, for example – also multiplied the total number of readers, which we may conjecture was anything between a quarter and half a million individuals. The vocation of the newspaper as a marketplace overlapped, moreover, with the idea of it as a virtual public meeting or forum: theAffiches de Limoges fondly imagined the press network as ‘a kind of confraternity, a sort of academy spread out throughout the kingdom’, while, as Jacques-Pierre Brissot, moving spirit behind the Amis des Noirs (‘Friends of the Blacks’) abolitionist lobby, excitedly pointed out, a dynamic press network allowed the spirit of Athenian democracy to be replicated through the medium of print: ‘One can teach the same truth at the same moment to millions of men; through the press, they can discuss it without tumult, decide calmly and give their opinion.’51

Increasing awareness of the democratizing potential of the press in the 1780s was accompanied by growing hopes pinned on the phenomenon of freemasonry. In 1744, there had been forty-four masonic lodges in France, and this grew to 165 by 1765 and some 400 at the death of Louis XV. By 1789, the number had increased prodigiously to nearly 1,000 lodges, spread throughout the country and comprising between 50,000 and 100,000 masons, making the masonic movement the largest voluntary organization in France except the church, with one urban male in twenty in its rolls. In the early days, Cardinal Fleury had repressed the secretive movement as dangerous for religion, monarchy and morals. Yet by 1780 Marie-Antoinette was writing to her sister that ‘everyone belongs to it; everyone knows everything that takes place … It forms a society of beneficence and pleasure: they dine a lot, talk and sing – it’s not at all a group of declared atheists, since, I’m told, God is in every mouth.’52 There were indeed bishops and monks in masonic ranks, ignoring the pope’s prohibition on membership. Not only ecclesiastics preferred the conviviality of the lodge to the spirituality of the religious confraternity. Freemasons were to be found in every walk of life including among the Princes of the Blood: the first Grand Master of French masonry was the duc d’Antin, while under Louis XVI the position was held by the duc de Chartres (succeeding as duc d’Orléans from 1785, the latter had taken over from the deceased Conti as leading dynastic troublemaker).

Though many lodges retained a hyper-exclusive stance and establishment ambience, in general the social composition of masonry was skewed towards the Third Estate. Whereas the first two orders (clergy, nobility) comprised one-fifth and two-fifths respectively of membership of academies, for example, the figures for masonry were 4 and 18 per cent. Over three-quarters of masons were commoners: with bourgeois rentiers and the professional classes (lawyers, medical men, state employees, etc.) particularly in evidence. What was also distinctive about the movement was the welcome it accorded the more mobile elements within society: around one-fifth of total membership was drawn from trade and business, while army officials and students were also particularly well represented. Artisans, shopkeepers and petty clerks who belonged to no other form of Enlightenment sociability were also to be found in the fraternal ranks of masonry. The masons were in addition younger and less socially staid than the academicians.

Despite their social mixing, freemasons faithfully reflected that distancing from the common people on which the philosophes, salonnières and academicians had founded the notion of a public. Implicit in masonic identity was a claim to moral nobility and virtuous respectability which excluded working men ‘of the vilest kind’ – and most women of any description. The question of whether women could be masons at all was hotly debated, and though many women did join, this was usually in affiliative ‘lodges of adoption’, which were restricted to a tokenist, decorative and spectatorial role. Freemasons were not alone in being prey to a growing anxiety about the role of women within the world of rational debate, which reflected Rousseau’s rude republicanism, which had no room for female involvement in public affairs. The Genevan sage, it will be remembered, preferred his women in the bosom of the family, preferably breastfeeding their babies and submissively nurturing their menfolk.

The ambient Rousseauism of masonic culture which depreciated the role of workers and women was also hegemonic in new political clubs and societies (musées, lycées, clubs, etc.). Bourgeois males (plus some tame nobles) found it all too easy to get by without the female governance the salonnières had formerly provided. Women were passing from animators and facilitators of enlightened exchange to become outcasts from intellectual life. The cult of the quasi-spiritual healing of mesmerism in the same decade offered an interesting variation on this general theme. Attempts by the medical establishment to quash the experiments of the Austrian magus, Franz-Anton Mesmer, led to wealthy professionals and young liberal nobles championing his cause and developing a radical critique of the Enlightenment academy. Mesmerism was popular with women, but leading mesmerists regarded them as constituting too weak a vessel to play a part in the cult’s organization.

Masonry and mesmerism thus exemplified a version of class and gender politics which was developing more broadly in the public sphere in the reign of Louis XVI. Masonry was exemplary too in seeking to create national networks of intellectual sociability which simultaneously embodied, represented and empowered public opinion. Moves by Condorcet in the 1760s and then in the early 1770s to establish a nationwide coordinating framework for the academies had foundered, partly at least on the fears of provincial institutions that they would be dominated and controlled from Paris. Yet the wish for closer federal contacts was strong, and in 1786 the initiative of Dubois de Fosseyeux, president of the Arras Academy (of which Robespierre was a member), to create a ‘general correspondence office’ for academies met with a warm reception, and encouraged fraternizing among the different bodies. Similarly, Vicq d’Azyr, the energetic secretary of the Royal Society of Medicine, the proto-academy for medicine created in 1778, was able to enlist the help of an enthusiastic medical profession throughout France as corresponding members to build up a national data-bank for meteorological, epidemiological and other observations. Even before this, steps had been taken to organize all French masons into a national body, the Grand Orient of France. Although some lodges, usually of a more mystical and radical tendency, refused to come in, the Grand Orient did provide greater national cohesion to the lodges and highlighted the late Enlightenment wish to use cultural networks more proactively.

Freemasons not only operated within nationwide parameters, they also celebrated an ethic of humanitarian egalitarianism. The Grand Orient had crystallized this approach in 1773 by establishing formal elections, principles of majority rule and representative governance for French masonry, while the Lodge of the Nine Sisters in Paris talked of fellow masons in the New World and the Old as ‘citizens of the masonic democracy’.53 Yet in general Marie-Antoinette’s view that political and religious radicalism was not intrinsic to mainstream masonry was correct. Most masons were Christians (Protestants as well as Catholics) or Deists, and tolerance of different views was de rigueur: indeed, the student lodge in Montpellier was fairly characteristic in specifically banning members from talking either religion or politics. Conservative ideologues in the late 1790s searching out origins for the Revolution were to light on masonry as a Revolutionary creed, spawning Terrorism in its maw. Yet many masons probably enjoyed the singing, drinking and colourful rituals more than any putative political or even intellectual activity, and returned to life outside the masonic lodge with social prejudices confirmed rather than weakened. Although some of the more esoteric masonic sects experimented with daringly radical ideas, and elite Parisian and Versailles-based lodges dabbled in ministerial politicking, in general this was not masonry’s cachet, and most lodges professed an integral loyalism. (If there would be former freemasons on the Committee of Public Safety during the Terror, they would be numbered too in the ranks of the émigré armies and counter-revolutionary Chouan rebels, and in tumbrils bound for the guillotine.)

If freemasons were thus far from constituting the leading cadres of a focused programme for political upheaval, they were still highly important as schools for the public-spirited, and as laboratories of citizenship. In striking contradiction with the formal principles of absolutism (or the stuffier academies and salons), the cascade de mépris characteristic of the society of orders did not apply in masonic circles. In theory at least, dukes and princes left their coronets at the door, and although there was ranking within lodges, this was based on service, seniority and merit rather than social position in the outside world. Enclaves of meritocratic and virtuous sociability, the lodges exuded, both through and beneath their mystical aura and bizarre ritualistic practices, a thoroughgoing meliorism. Masonic discourse highlighted how goodwill and an attention to social welfare (bienfaisance) was opening up a bright new future for mankind, and that social and political harmony could be achieved in an enlarged public sphere of rational debate. There was a particularly strong emphasis on self-improvement, which was seen as an essential prerequisite for moral and intellectual leadership within society.

The sizeable nationwide masonic network was also a telling symptom of a growing yearning within the bourgeois public sphere for the rituals of a more inclusive, more socially aware and fairer society. The heart of the masonic message that self-improvement was linked to the quest to improve society chimed with the development of a more exigent culturally based politics within other sites in the public sphere in the 1780s: in the Parisian salons of Madame Necker and Madame de Genlis, for example, both of which were more overtly political than their predecessors; in the academies, whose prize essay competitions veered away from literary and philosophical to social scientific and political issues; in the press, through mémoires judiciaires chronicling causes célèbres and a host of other polemical writings; in the work of interest groups such as the slave abolitionists; and in the new political clubs, musées, mesmerist groupings and the like.

The reign of Louis XVI thus saw the mood and the temper of public debate changing in important ways. Significantly, the concern for reform which was in line with enlightened principles and responsive to the promptings of the bourgeois public sphere also echoed at the heart of the state itself. Louis XVI professed the highest respect for public opinion; chose his ministers and policies with it in mind; allowed his ministers to use philosophes as policy consultants and propagandists; prefixed his laws with ‘philosophic’ preambles; had begun to dabble in new systems of political representation; and, in his private diaries and in legislative preambles, mythologized the transcendental virtues of public opinion quite as rhapsodically as any freemason or radical journalist. Jacques Peuchet, who wrote the volumes on police (‘rational administration’) for the Encyclopédie méthodique which appeared in 1789, articulated the rationale for this union between absolute monarchy and public opinion and contrived to make it sound anything but a shotgun marriage: ‘public opinion’, he stated, ‘differs both from the spirit of obedience that must reign in a despotic state and the popular opinions which prevail in republican deliberations’.54 In a disenchanted world in which society was less united than formerly around shared Christian values, the opportunity was there for the ruler to trade in his divine-right status for the chance of popularity in and dominance over the public sphere. By adapting himself to the promptings of the public, the king might be able to steer a middle course between despotism and anarchy and patriotically produce a more civilized and happier society. In a move which owed as much to Fénelon as to Rousseau, Louis could aim to restyle himself the first among citizens, viewing virtuous attachment to the public weal as his most important kingly duty.

As the financial and economic crisis of the late 1780s started to loom, however, Louis found himself uncomfortably straddling two horses. Was he first and foremost a Bourbon monarch in the line of the revered Louis XIV? Or was he first and foremost a patriotic citizen of the bourgeois public sphere? The dilemma partly reflected the king’s astonishing propensity for vacillation and wishing to have everything both ways. He wavered between on the one hand posing as public opinion’s champion, raining down attacks on the corporative shell of the society of orders on behalf of ‘his’ peoples, and on the other proving touchy about personal criticism, resisting egalitarian trends which had implications for his own position, and displaying haughty and aristocratophilic reflexes. Many contemporaries, as we have seen, viewed the extension of royal power as inimical to the public good. Symptomatically, for example, endless assurances over the century that changes to the tax system were designed to protect the poor and weak failed to diminish the almost universal view, seemingly borne out in practice, that greater state control over the tax system would mean heavier taxes for all.

Louis’s havering between two political options was not simply a personal failing, however, nor a mere sign of insincerity. It also reflected a powerful line of schism opening up in the 1780s over the role of the state in serving social utility. The contours of that schism were often difficult to delineate – for the silent revolution had to be grasped through a babble of noise. Yet it was widely evident, not only within the sites of the burgeoning public sphere, but also increasingly amongst traditional privileged groupings ensconced within the society of orders. One of its outcrops, for example, was an impassioned debate about the role of professional competence in maximizing social utility, and how professional expertise could mesh effectively with the demands of a centralizing state on one hand and, on the other, a growing and more self-conscious public. Broadly speaking, two discourses of professionalism and public service were emerging. On one hand, there was a desire for change within the corporative framework, in ways which respected social hierarchy and vertical ties of dependence. In the case of the army, for example, post-Seven Years War reforms aimed to produce an effective and professional military force, Spartan (or possibly Prussian) in its virtues and operating within more bureaucratic and more hierarchical structures, with better training and clearer career pathways. Even the infamous Ségur ordinance of 1781 limiting military high command to noblesse de race was a professionalizing measure within this framework: the aim was not to exclude commoners rising on the basis of talent so much as to attack anoblis who had bought their posts, and yet who lacked the spirit of honour alleged to be inbred amongst the old nobility.

On the other hand, alongside this corporative discourse within the armed forces, there also developed a more overtly civic discourse of professionalism, which drew on both the equalizing rhetoric of enlightened absolutism and the more democratic values of the public sphere and which stressed horizontal and egalitarian bonds of mutual interdependence between citizens. The message echoing through a plethora of polemics and publications was that an army officer should not be hermetically sealed off by professional discipline from the wider society, but should be in some senses a citizen before he was a soldier. Le Soldat-citoyen – the ‘soldier-citizen’, to take the title of a 1780 pamphlet endorsing this view55 – had no truck with the socially elitist (and implicitly ‘unpatriotic’) corporative professionalism espoused by fellow officers, who often couched their duties in terms of being ‘subjects’ of the king rather than ‘citizens’ within the ‘nation’. ‘Patriot’ brother officers – often this turned out to be ambitious younger military men, eager to open up the hide-bound officer corps to wider social influences – prioritized allegiance to the nation above robotic obedience to their superiors.

Much the same discursive conflict between corporative and civic values was found within the church. Over the century, the clergy had emphatically adopted a classic Tridentine version of ecclesiastical professionalism grounded in accepting discipline from above, and emblematized by the wearing of the cassock ‘uniform’. Yet by the time of Louis XVI’s reign, a great many of the lower clergy in particular shifted towards grounding their version of professionalism in commitment to the nation rather than obedience to aristocratic prelates or worldly popes. Following the Dauphinois parish priest Henri Reymond, whose Les Droits des curés (‘The Rights of Parish Priests’) appeared in 1776, they saw themselves as ‘citizen priests’, for whom, as the Roman adage had it, ‘the voice of the people is the voice of God’.56 Though the initial episcopal opponents of the Unigenitus bull would have been appalled by the thought, Jansenism (and its sibling, Richerism) was stimulating a quasi-democratic call for a collective clerical say in fashioning ecclesiastical policy in the interests of the nation.

Advances in medical and surgical science over the eighteenth century had helped foster a civic discourse of medical professionalism in which the dedicated medical man was viewed as a lay equivalent to the bon prêtre, a self-sacrificing super-patriot fraternally dispensing the gift of life and good health to ailing fellow citizens. Yet the capacity to practise was viewed as being endlessly circumscribed by selfish corporatist privilege. The superior privileges of physicians over surgeons, who were more empirically oriented and more closely associated with key curative therapies such as smallpox inoculation, cataract-cutting and obstetrics, were viewed as anti-social and anti-utilitarian. Similarly, the Paris Medical Faculty’s insistence that only trained Paris graduates could practise within the capital was a selfish restrictive practice from which the health of all Parisians suffered. A free field of medical practice would allow the demand for improved medical services to be met by a burgeoning supply of ‘citizen officers of health’ (officiers de santé). The state’s repression of mesmerism led medical men who had championed the heterodox therapy to develop a full-scale attack on the academic, and by extension the political hierarchy, for it seemed only a short step from the ‘academic aristocracy’ to the aristocratic establishment.

The debate on professionalism was also found amongst numerous groups of state servants – and was given added pungency by broader critiques of government bureaucracy. A powerful blast of freedom was, it seemed, required to end the ‘injurious separation which reigns between the administration and the Nation’.57 The civil engineers of the Ponts et Chaussées service, for example, constituted the very cynosure of corporative professionalism, with their rigorous training programmes, punctilious bureaucratic regimes and unerring commitment to social utility. Yet they were increasingly criticized for technocratic arrogance and remoteness from civic concerns, and by the 1780s many younger members of the corps were stressing the need for greater attentiveness as regards the wishes of the ‘nation’ (rather than merely the orders of the king). Much the same was true in the ranks of the General Farm, widely criticized as an irresponsible leech on the body politic, despite its development of a corporative ethic of service and elegantly bureaucratic procedures of which Max Weber would have been proud.

These debates also spilled into the public discussion on venality of office. Venal officers had long defended themselves against the state’s attacks by highlighting the status of their office as private property, defence of which was the king’s constitutional duty. From the outside, this looked like selfishness and cronyism, and the monarchy was criticized for supporting a system which cut against market values purely in the state’s fiscal interests, and in a way which placed enclaves of privilege and undeserved wealth close to the levers of power. As the century wore on, however, venal officers also justified their status in terms of the professional ethic they had developed within the corporative framework, and the contribution their honed expertise made to social welfare. Just as a good cobbler was more likely to produce good shoes than a good patriot, so the jurisprudential expertise of the most prominent of venal officers – the magistrates of the Paris Parlement – made a crucial contribution to wider social welfare, they held, by keeping the ruler within constitutional bounds.

Particularly vocal over issues of reform were professional groupings whose corporative lives were regulated by the state, and which were responsive not only to the new civic sociability of the public sphere but also – especially – to the booming markets for goods and services. Although members of the more market-oriented professions had always prided themselves as being above mere mercantile considerations, improved chances of enrichment as a result of growing demand for their services led many to embrace market values, which they regarded as fully consonant with civic duty. Their commitment to freedom in trade owed less to doctrinaire commitment to Enlightenment or Physiocratic precepts or to personal worries about the price of bread (the middle classes had reserves to fall back on) than to their experience of working in a situation in which they were frequently hampered by state underpinning of corporative privilege. Strikingly, the price of venal offices went up fastest from mid-century in precisely those posts which gave access to dynamic markets for goods and services: attorneys, notaries, legal clerks, auctioneers and wig-makers. Many of these individuals appreciated the market edge which their post gave them, as well as the idea of protection from market dangers which state support promised. However, the erratic and extractive attitude of successive governments to venality, especially from the 1760s onwards, made more and more of these individuals disenchanted with state ‘support’ and willing to chance their arm in the world of the free market. This reflected a wavering between the benefits of freedom and those of state protection which many merchants and manufacturers also experienced.

The multi-tiered world of the law witnessed much the same range of corporative-vs-civic arguments. The magistrates of the parlements foregrounded their corporative legal expertise as a guarantee of constitutional rectitude, and resisted attempts to dilute their numbers or their rights, and the legal world as a whole was not short of individuals seeing in corporative privileges the foundation of professional expertise from which society necessarily benefited. Yet barristers and attorneys were probably the most vociferous of all social groupings in developing the discourse of civic professionalism. They did this in a wide range of venues, including political polemics (particularly during the years of the Maupeou crisis) and mémoires judiciaires in criminal and civil cases exposing the abuses of corporative and ‘despotic’ power. In addition, lawyers in Paris drew on the discourse of civic professionalism to revitalize a latent natural law tradition so as to defend journeymen against the ‘tyranny’ of the masters within their corporations. Their colleagues in eastern France did much the same as regards defending peasant communities against the imposition of feudal dues – a campaign which was given an added boost in 1780 when the Parlement of Besançon refused to register the royal decree abolishing serfdom. The acuity of clashes between civic and corporative notions of professionalism was sharpened in the 1780s, as throughout France barristers and attorneys, who hitherto had thrown themselves behind the corporatist parlementaire cause espoused by magistrates, began to develop independent attitudes which vaunted closer and more fruitful links with the wider society.

The corporative cells of the society of orders were thus by the 1780s engendering debates on the nature of professional service and identity within a modernized polity and a market economy, and these discussions interacted with polemics over the state and society being played out in the regenerated organs of the public sphere. Indeed, the fact that professionals – lawyers, medics, army officers, state employees – were amongst the most numerous members of masonic lodges, clubs, reading rooms and the like allowed new synergies and combinations to develop. By the 1780s, it was increasingly apparent that the bourgeois public sphere was not an entity encamped outside the royal citadel. On the contrary, many of its members were either within the state or already enjoyed its benefits, and contributed towards popularizing the contestatory interrogation of the aims and protocols of power. They set the tempo of debates in which the king was now player rather than umpire, participant rather than arbitrator. And they added their voices to the complaints of the business classes, financial milieux and tax-payers over the state’s apparent mishandling of its finances and of the wider economy.

The most vocal proponents of the new mood of politics in the 1780s were thus individuals caught up in the triangulated crossfire between the regulatory power of the corporatist state; the attractions (and some of the dangers) of a still booming market for goods and services; and an enlarged and renovated public sphere of sociability and debate. The lawyers, medical men, state employees and other professionals who had become the voice of the ‘public’ were not Tocqueville’s out-of-touch, politically naive and somewhat marginal intellectuals; nor yet were they the proto-industrial capitalists imagined by much of the Marxist tradition. Both characterizations predicate a separation between the state and civil society which was not a characteristic of the Bourbon polity. That kind of division would, however, become intrinsic to the political and social system to emerge from an impending Revolution, in which the lead was invariably taken by precisely these groupings.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!