Modern history


Crisis and Collapse 1776–1788

EVER since the disasters of the Seven Years War Frenchmen had longed to see British arrogance humbled, and the power of ‘the modern Carthage’ broken. By the time Louis XVI ascended the throne that process seemed well under way, as the quarrel between Great Britain and her thirteen North American colonies deepened. French observers looked on with growing interest, and by the spring of 1776 Vergennes, the Foreign Secretary, was convinced that ‘Providence had marked out this moment for the humiliation of England’.1 He persuaded the king that it would be to France’s advantage to intervene. In April secret supplies began to be sent to the Americans, and the first steps were taken to mobilize French naval strength. Thus began a deterioration in French relations with the British which culminated in February 1778 in a treaty of alliance between France and the United States, followed by five years of all-out warfare. When it ended, the British empire did indeed appear to have been shattered, France was revenged, and her international prestige stood gloriously restored. But the effort had brought the State to the brink of financial exhaustion.

It had not been unforeseeable. Aware of the burden of debt bequeathed by previous wars, Turgot had warned the king on assuming office as Comptroller-General in 1774 that economies were essential to the restoration of financial health. Otherwise ‘the first gunshot will drive the State to bankruptcy’.2 A month before his fall from power in May 1776 Turgot denounced Vergennes’s proposal to intervene in America on the grounds that the cost would permanently destroy all hope of financial reform without necessarily helping to weaken Great Britain at all. On both counts time proved him right. In 1776, however, Turgot’s fellow ministers had lost faith in both his policies and his judgement; and in any case within six months a successor had been found who seemed confident of squaring the circle. In October 1776 Necker was appointed Director of the Treasury. Necker was not plucked from obscurity. He had carefully established himself as a man of influence and ability who offered alternatives to Turgot’s austere policies, and his appointment aroused high expectations. He was determined not to increase taxes. He believed that ordinary income and expenditure could be brought into balance by economies and reorganization of budgetary structures to eliminate profiteering by financiers. Order in the finances would engender confidence; and confidence would enable the king to borrow money to meet extraordinary expenditure. The most extraordinary of all expenditure was that incurred by war.

Necker financed French involvement in the American war almost entirely by loans. No new direct taxation was imposed while he was in power. Interest incurred on the loans was charged to ordinary expenditure, and Necker claimed to have found the extra money for this from economies and ‘ameliorations’. Under this system he raised 520 million livres in loans between 1777 and his resignation in May 1781, Most of them were fully subscribed with remarkable speed, and the parlement of Paris only raised difficulties over registering the first. Generous terms and high interest rates accounted for some of this success, but Necker believed its true foundation was public confidence in his management. In February 1781, beset by a whispering campaign organized by ministerial rivals and discontented financiers, he sought to sustain that confidence with an unprecedented gesture. With the consent of the king he published the first ever public balance sheet of the French monarchy’s finances, the Compte rendu au roi. It showed ordinary revenues to be exceeding expenditure by over 10 million livres, after three years of war and no increases in taxation. The public, which bought thousands of copies, was convinced. Nobody asked about extraordinary accounts, where the real cost of the war was recorded. For the next seven years people would say, whenever ministers complained of financial difficulties, that affairs had been under control in Necker’s time. This conviction would carry him back to power in 1788. But in 1781 the Compte renduprepared his downfall. Buoyed up by the public adulation it brought him, he sought to force the king to admit him to the innermost council, from which he was excluded by his religion. The king, advised by Maurepas and Vergennes, refused, and Necker resigned.

The Compte rendu had so identified Necker’s personal credit with that of the State that the blow to confidence was substantial. His successor Joly de Fleury felt obliged at last to increase taxation, with predictable objections from several of the parlements. These were overridden without much difficulty, however, and the new revenues enabled the Crown to offer interest on further loans. Between May 1781 and the end of 1782, accordingly, almost 252 millions more were raised. All told the American war cost France something over 1,066 million livres; and the expense did not end with the conclusion of peace in 1783. The third vingtième tax, introduced in July 1782, was to run until three years after the war ended; and Calonne, who became Comptroller-General in November 1783, found himself obliged to go on borrowing.

Calonne was intendant of Flanders, his native province, returning there in 1778 after a thirteen-year absence. On his rise through the administrative hierarchy he had acquired the reputation of a slippery time-server with naked ambitions. But his connections at Court were excellent, and he was trusted by Vergennes, now the dominant minister of state. Calonne’s appointment was popular at Versailles, and he certainly made no efforts to impose economies on the Court, as Turgot and Necker had. Indeed, he believed that lavish spending on ‘useful splendour’ was good for credit. It appeared to work: between 1783 and 1787 Calonne was able to borrow over 653 millions. But by 1785 doubts were surfacing about how long this could go on. In that year Necker published hisAdministration des Finances, at once a vindication of his own record and an implicit condemnation of Calonne’s. The parlement of Paris, which had not demurred at registering new loans since 1777, objected so vehemently to that of December 1785 that its members had to be called in a body to Versailles and told explicitly by the king that he had the fullest confidence in his Comptroller-General. Even so the loan, despite generous terms, was subscribed only sluggishly, and throughout the spring of 1786 there were persistent rumours in Paris that Calonne was about to be dismissed. The queen and her favourites were certainly throwing all their influence behind his ministerial rivals; but with Vergennes on his side he was safe. ‘There appears at present no disposition whatever to economy in the finances of this kingdom’, noted the sharp-eyed British chargé d’affaires with some disgust on 24 August 17863

… Purchases of great value continue to be made and works of immense expense to be carried on in different Royal establishments. M. de Calonne by his unbounded liberality and complaisance to people of high rank and distinction, supports himself still in his most important situation, but the easing the burdens of the people and the interest of the Nation seem to be as perfectly disregarded as they ever were by the most corrupt of his predecessors.

He did not know that four days beforehand Calonne had proposed to Louis XVI the most radical and comprehensive plan of reform in the monarchy’s history.

Calonne claimed that he had been working on his Plan for the Improvement of the Finances for two years before he presented it to the king. It certainly took Louis XVI several months to understand it and authorize its implementation. At the outset Calonne had to convince the monarch that it was necessary at all. In 1786, the Comptroller-General explained, there would be a deficit of 112 millions, almost a quarter of expected income. Yet at the end of the year the third vingtième would expire, and for the next ten there would be a heavy annual burden of debt redemption on short-term loans raised since the beginning of the American war. Almost half the annual revenue was absorbed by debt-service. Well over half the next year’s revenue had been spent in advance in short-term loans (anticipations) raised from financiers on the security of expected tax-yields—a normal enough practice, but not on this colossal scale.

It is impossible [Calonne concluded] to tax further, ruinous to be always borrowing, and not enough to confine ourselves to economical reforms … with matters as they are, ordinary ways being unable to lead us to our goal, the only effective remedy, the only course left to take, the only means of managing finally to put the finances truly in order, must consist in revivifying the entire state by recasting all that is vicious in its constitution.4

That would involve a three-part programme. First came a series of sweeping fiscal and administrative reforms designed to ‘establish a more uniform order’. They centred around the proposal to abolish the existing three vingtièmes and their various surcharges, along with all the exemptions, compoundings, and special provisions enjoyed by privileged groups and corporations. This complex structure would be replaced by a ‘territorial subvention’, a permanent direct tax levied in kind on all landowners, with no exemptions, at the moment of harvest. The new tax would be assessed and administered by the taxpayers themselves in provincial representative assemblies working in cooperation with the intendants. Calonne estimated that this new tax would bring in 35 millions more than thevingtièmes; and it would be augmented yet further by a whole range of other innovations such as an extended stamp tax and better administration of the royal domain.

Even more impressive yields could be expected if the taxpayers could be made more prosperous; and Calonne planned to achieve this by the second part of his programme, aimed at economic stimulation. Advised by Dupont de Nemours, the former associate of Turgot, Calonne took up several of the Physiocratic policies that had lapsed when the latter fell in 1776. He proposed to abandon controls on the grain trade, abolish internal customs barriers, and commute the corvée into a tax where this had not already happened. Vergennes, meanwhile, in September 1786, concluded a free-trade treaty with Great Britain which was expected to benefit French agriculture. But neither these measures nor the fiscal reforms could be expected to show instant results. Time would have to be bought, and the immediate crisis averted, by further borrowing. The third part of Calonne’s plan was designed to create the confidence to sustain new loans. Before sending his measures to the parlements for registration, Calonne proposed to have them endorsed by a show of national consensus, which would disarm any criticism in advance and persuade lenders that the country was behind the minister in his determination to restore financial health. The obvious forum for seeking such support, much discussed since the political crisis of 1771, was the Estates-General. Calonne considered the idea, only to reject such an unwieldy body as too unpredictable. Remonstrances from the parlements were bad enough: obstruction from people who saw themselves as the nation’s elected representatives might be far worse. Besides, precedents also existed for another kind of representative body, an Assembly of Notables, whose members were all royal nominees and could therefore be handpicked. They would of course be ‘People of weight, worthy of the public’s confidence and such that their approbation would powerfully influence general opinion’.5 But the honour of being chosen alone ought to make them docile. With a public show of backing from the leading men of the kingdom for his plans, Calonne did not doubt that the loans to make them possible would be forthcoming.

Louis XVI finally authorized this plan on 29 December 1786. An Assembly of Notables was ordered to convene at Versailles on 29 January 1787 to consider the king’s views on ‘the relief of his peoples, the ordering of his finances and the reform of various abuses’. No other details were given and speculation ran riot. In the event the Assembly did not convene until 22 February as first Calonne and then Vergennes fell ill. Vergennes, the only minister who supported Calonne whole-heartedly, died on 13 February. During all these delays the 144 chosen nominees had plenty of time to get to know each other, and the 64 provincials among them were able to sense the mood of the capital. Less than ten of the Notables were non-nobles; 18 were clerics, 7 were princes of the blood, each assigned to preside over a working party (bureau). Most of the 36 dukes, peers, and other great lords were generals, provincial governors, and others with experience of authority; but they included ambitious celebrities like Lafayette, the self-proclaimed hero of the American war. There were also 12 senior administrators, 38 sovereign court magistrates, 12 representatives of the pays d’états, and 25 civic dignitaries. And as soon as they met, and heard what the Comptroller-General proposed, it became apparent that the Notables would not be the meek and ductile collaborators Calonne had expected, Inexperienced as he was in managing political assemblies, he totally miscalculated the forces he had let loose, and how to handle them.

In a controversial political career Calonne had made many enemies, and they were well represented in the Assembly. Members of the parlements had been hostile to him ever since the 1760s, when he had been closely involved in authoritarian moves against them. The first president of the parlement of Paris, a Notable like most of his provincial counterparts, was a personal enemy. Leading prelates had been alienated by attempts since 1783 to bully the clergy into increasing its contributions to the royal finances; yet in choosing the clerical contingent Calonne was content to act on the advice of Loménie de Brienne, archbishop of Toulouse, skilled from years of manipulating clerical assemblies and the estates of Languedoc in the politics of intrigue, and known to harbour his own ministerial ambitions. Only Vergennes among Calonne’s ministerial colleagues had been fully aware of his plans, and the rest felt no commitment to supporting him. Some hoped to use the Assembly to destroy him; others were known disciples of Necker. And the Swiss wonder-worker himself, though not a member of the Notables, was a central figure in their deliberations from the very start. He had many admirers in the Assembly; and when Calonne, in his opening speech, declared that the royal finances were running a substantial deficit, everyone immediately thought of the Compte rendu. If Necker could achieve a surplus after three years of war and no new taxation, why now was there a deficit after three years of peace and a third vingtième? Calonne’s lavish spending and heavy borrowing were notorious. There was a perfectly reasonable suspicion that if there was a crisis—and at this stage the minister offered no figures to prove that there was—then he was responsible.

Yet if Calonne’s proposals had come from anybody else there is little doubt that the Notables would have welcomed them more warmly. They were, after all, ‘More or less the result of all that good minds have been thinking for several years’, as Talleyrand put it.6 And in the event the vast majority of them were accepted with very little complaint. Criticism was largely confined to the territorial subvention, the provincial assemblies, and a proposal to force the clergy to redeem its corporate debt. Even then the Notables declared themselves unequivocally in favour of the basic principles of equality of taxation and representation of the taxpayers in its assessment and apportionment. But, landowners as all the Notables were, they questioned whether a perpetual, variable tax falling entirely on people like themselves was fair, and whether the proposal to levy it in kind was practicable. And, members as they all were of the first two orders of the realm, they thought nobles and clergy should be guaranteed a proportion of the seats in the provincial assemblies, and that the work of these bodies, if they were to be truly representative, should not be subject to the veto of the intendants. The bishops, finally, saw the proposal for redemption of the clerical debt as a prolongation of the minister’s earlier attacks on the Church. They knew that if their debt, incurred on the government’s behalf, was liquidated, they would lose the best guarantee of the clergy’s time-honoured right of self-taxation. They declared themselves incapable of assenting to any changes touching the Church without the authorization of the Assembly of the Clergy. Magistrates, likewise, announced that they could not predetermine the attitude of the sovereign courts they sat in. Most of the Notables, indeed, felt uncertain about who they spoke for. ‘We were not the representatives of the Nation’, Lafayette later wrote to George Washington,7 ‘but ... we declared that altho’ we had no right to impede, it was our right not to advise unless we thought the measures were proper, and that we could not think of new taxes unless we knew the returns of expenditure and the plans of economy.’ This proved the real sticking-point during the first week of the Assembly. At first Calonne contended that since the king had seen the full accounts they should accept his good faith. The Notables countered that in that case there was no point in soliciting their support. Eventually, on 2 March, Calonne reluctantly revealed his estimates, and in doing so explicitly condemned the Compte rendu of 1781 as false and misleading. The Neckerites were outraged, while those who did not know who to believe demanded to see even more detailed accounts in order to make up their own minds. On 3 March came the first overt claim that the Notables had no power to approve new taxation. That right, declared Leblanc de Castillon, procurator-general of the parlement of Aix, belonged only to the Estates-General.

All these proceedings had formally taken place in secret. The public was agog to have news of the Assembly, rumours abounded, and a good deal of more or less accurate information leaked out. It fuelled a flurry of pamphleteering, most of it hostile to the minister. In addition to despotism, profligacy, and incompetence, it was now alleged by the most notorious pen-for-hire of the day, the dissolute Count de Mirabeau, that Calonne was also guilty of shady stock-exchange dealings. This atmosphere encouraged the Notables in their demand for full accounts, and in detailed criticism of Calonne’s plan. They were all the more scandalized, therefore, when on 12 March he blandly observed at a plenary session that the king was glad to note their broad approval. Despite vehement protests, Calonne proceeded to publish this speech, which proved the first sign of a fundamental change of tactics. Having failed to browbeat the Notables in private, he now attempted to take advantage of the intense public interest to subject them to outside pressure. On 18 March he sponsored a pamphlet calling for the full proceedings of the Assembly to be made public. On 31 March, with the ground thus prepared, he published the full original texts of his proposals. They were accompanied by an introduction (Avertissement), which was also separately printed and circulated free to parish clergy with the request that they read it from the pulpit. It was clearly designed to arouse public suspicion about the motives of Calonne’s critics. The Notables’ doubts, it implied, were mere pretexts:

We will be paying more! ... No doubt; but who? Only those who were not paying enough; they will pay what they owe according to a just proportion, and nobody will be overburdened.

Privileges will be sacrificed! … Yes: justice demands it, need requires it. Would it be better to put further burdens on the unprivileged, the people?

There will be a great outcry! … That was to be expected. Can general good be done without bruising a few individual interests? Can there be reform without some complaints?8

But this bold attempt to foment social antagonisms against the minister’s leading critics fell flat. The Notables sent further indignant protests to the king, and the public proved completely unresponsive to Calonne’s appeal. It was received as a desperate last throw by a discredited political gambler. And so it proved to be. Even the king was now dismayed by the lack of progress in the Assembly, and his minister’s seeming inability to convince anyone of his honesty and good intentions. Courtiers, ministerial rivals, and men of ambition moved in for the kill. Louis XVI, committed to the reforms, resisted to the last; and on the morning of 8 April he dismissed Miromesnil, head of the judiciary and his longest-serving minister, ostensibly for failing to support Calonne. But later that day the Comptroller-General himself was dismissed. The king had clearly concluded that only new men could hope to push any reforms at all through; and the general celebration which greeted the news of Calonne’s fall certainly seemed to promise an improvement in the political atmosphere.

But finding a replacement did not prove easy. Miromesnil was succeeded by Lamoignon, a member of the Notables, long known as one of the more able presidents of the parlement of Paris, and an advocate of judicial reforms. The appointment was popular, but the central problem confronting the State was financial, and capable men willing to take over the fallen minister’s programme were not so readily found. Necker was still the public’s favourite, but the king disliked him. On the very weekend of Calonne’s dismissal he had flouted express royal instructions not to publish a vindication of the Compte rendu against the minister’s attacks. He was exiled from Paris for his effrontery. The other obvious candidate was Brienne, who from the start had hoped to use the Notables as a stepping-stone to power. The king disliked him, too, but after entrusting the finances for three weeks to a bureaucratic nonentity who proved quite unable to handle the Notables, he yielded. Informed that royal stock was steadily falling and that without some gesture to restore confidence credit might soon run out, the king, on 1 May, appointed Brienne Chief of the Royal Council of Finances. Credit revived instantly. Nobody seemed more likely to be able to engineer a successful outcome to an experiment that had already gone seriously wrong than one of the Notables’ own most capable, intelligent, and flexible members.

Brienne himself was also confident of success. He thought that if the territorial subvention could be modified to a tax in cash yielding a prearranged amount over a set and limited number of years, and if the clergy and nobility could be guaranteed seats in the provincial assemblies, the Notables would be satisfied. He presented these modifications to leading members of the Assembly on 9 May. But during the ministerial upheavals of the preceding month the Notables had done little but scrutinize the accounts, and the more they saw the more confused they had become. Before agreeing even to a modified version of the Calonne plan, they now insisted that the true condition of the finances must be established beyond dispute. The best way of achieving this, more and more of them were coming to believe, was through a permanent commission of auditors. Brienne had no objections to the idea, but the king thought it an unacceptable infringement of his prerogative. He vetoed it. His decision brought all constructive activity in the Assembly to an end. They had no authority, the Notables now declared, to consent to or authorize new taxes. ‘It seems to me’, declared Lafayette in the bureau where he sat on 21 May,9 ‘that this is the moment for us to beseech His Majesty to fix, immediately, in order to render account to him of all measures and settle their happy outcome forever, the convocation of a truly national assembly.’ ‘What, Sir,’ burst out the Count d’Artois, the king’s brother, ‘are you calling for the Estates-General?’ ‘Yes, my lord,’ replied the young glory-hunter, ‘and even better than that.’

This now became the universal cry; and Brienne quickly recognized that no further progress with the Notables was likely. They had to be brought to an end before irreparable damage was done; and on 25 May they were. In an uncontested closing speech Brienne announced that he intended to press on with the modified territorial subvention, the provincial assemblies, and various other measures in the plan originally formulated by Calonne. Having so ringingly declared that they represented nobody, the Notables had no alternative to accepting their dismissal on these terms. ‘At least,’ the mayor of Montauban explained,10 ‘you cannot say we have voted for any taxes.’ Nevertheless the Assembly was a turning-point. It marked the beginning of a political crisis that was only to be resolved by revolution. Convoked to deal with hitherto unacknowledged financial problems, its three-month sitting revealed in rare detail to the country and to the world how serious they were. The effect was to throw public doubt on the capacity of absolute monarchy to manage the nation’s affairs, and to encourage subsequent resistance to any measures the Crown might propose. Brienne saw this clearly enough.

If the Assembly of Notables [he had predicted to the king (who agreed) on 16 April] separates without having assured a balance between receipts and expenses, and it becomes necessary, after its separation, to have recourse to taxes, it is to be feared that great resistance will be encountered. This assembly was called because it was judged that its opinion would overcome all foreseeable obstacles. Lack of that opinion would produce much the same effect as outright opposition.11

But opposition there had been, and it had culminated in loud calls for the institution which Calonne had ruled out in his original strategy as too dangerous—the Estates-General. This stance was bequeathed to future opponents of the government’s plans, and it was extremely popular. The unprecedented political spectacle of the Assembly of Notables had involved public opinion in politics to an extent not seen since 1771 and this time the interest aroused did not die away. Calonne himself had helped to sustain it by his ill-judged attempt to bring pressure on the Notables with the Avertissement. His fall from power discredited him entirely and vindicated the Notables in public esteem. The parlements, which were now required to register the modified remnants of his plan, knew that the public expected a resolute show of opposition.

Brienne’s ministry (in August he was awarded the title of Principal Minister, unused since 1726) also felt obliged to press ahead with a programme of reforms. After all, the difficulties which had led Calonne to formulate his original plan—the lapse of the thirdvingtième and heavy debt redemptions falling due—were still there. And although the archbishop’s arrival in power revived credit sufficiently to float a successful new loan in early May, it could only be a stopgap. Besides, the international situation had suddenly darkened over the spring. The Dutch Republic had been teetering on the brink of civil war for four years as self-styled ‘patriots’ sought to curtail the constitutional role of the Stadtholder William V of Orange. Vergennes’s policy had been to support the patriots, but the British and the Prussians were now encouraging a princely counter-offensive. To lend the patriots further support might require military intervention, with all its attendant costs. Some resolution of the budgetary crisis was therefore a matter of increasing urgency.

The ministry began to send its measures for registration in the parlements at the end of June. Some of them encountered little resistance. Free trade in grain, the commutation of the corvée into a tax, and even the edict setting up provincial assemblies passed in Paris without trouble. Only the parlement of Bordeaux, which had been on record since 1779 as an advocate of strong provincial estates for the province of Guyenne, voiced more than formal reservations about the vagueness of the powers these assemblies were to exercise. It refused to register this or anything else until they were clarified. But the focus of public attention was the parlement of Paris where, thanks to its status as the Court of Peers, no fewer than twenty-one former Notables were entitled to sit and opine. Everybody knew that the real battle would be joined over the taxation edicts which were the kernel of the government’s programme. First to arrive, on 2 July, was the extension of stamp duty, and on this the parlement clearly established its general position. It refused to register until the government justified the tax-increase by producing accounts. The king replied that there were enough former Notables in the court to know how matters stood; in any case the parlement had no right to vet the royal finances. He ordered immediate registration. Instead of that, however, the parlement decided to send further remonstrances in which it declared itself incapable of sanctioning a perpetual tax. That right belonged solely, it declared, to the Estates-General. Rather than take issue with this argument, the government now sent the territorial subvention for registration. It, too, was rejected after a long discussion, not unanimously but by a clear majority, on 30 July. Again the Estates-General were called for, and there was no doubting the popularity of the magistrates’ stand. Great crowds assembled whenever the parlement met, the salons of high society were almost unanimous in urging the magistrates to keep up their opposition, and all over the capital political clubs and discussion groups were mushrooming, reading together and sometimes sponsoring an ever-swelling flow of pamphlets and broadsheets, now appearing at a rate of more than one a day. When the government decided, on 6 August, to force registration of the new taxes in a lit de justice, the ceremony was held at Versailles, away from the rebellious atmosphere of the capital. On this occasion a whole programme of administrative economies was announced, in the hope of softening the blow of a forced registration; and the atmosphere was so calm that Louis XVI snored audibly through much of the proceedings. But back in Paris the next day the biggest crowd anyone could remember thronged the palace of justice as the parlement debated its response. It declared the forced registration null and illegal. Three days later it voted to proceed against Calonne for criminal mismanagement of public funds; and on the thirteenth it condemned the forcibly registered laws once more to thunderous applause. Ministers were now growing alarmed. Even those who had doubted the wisdom of so rapid a recourse to a lit de justice recognized that the Crown must quickly recapture the initiative and calm the effervescence in the capital. So they all supported the next step, a time-honoured one in conflicts with the sovereign courts. On 15 August the parlement was exiled to Troyes.

Defiant though the leaders of the parlement felt, none of them thought of resisting the royal orders. History suggested that such exiles were never permanent, and were usually ended by some compromise or even surrender on the Crown’s part. Older and more hesitant magistrates willingly complied in the hope that a calmer atmosphere would now descend. But initially there were tumultuous protests in Paris, led by law clerks thrown out of work by the transfer of legal activity to the provinces. Forced registration of the tax-edicts in other Parisian sovereign courts, carried out by the king’s brothers, produced catcalls, jostling, and clashes with the princes’ escort of guards. In the days following there was open defiance of the city police, and talk of a mass march to Versailles. ‘The abuse bestowed on the King and Queen and the Archbishop of Toulouse’, noted an English observer,12 ‘is incredible.’ But the government continued to act with newfound vigour. All clubs were now closed. Booksellers were ordered to clamp down on unauthorized publications. Troops cleared the palace of justice and began to patrol the streets day and night. Meanwhile proceedings against Calonne were quashed (although by now he had fled to England), and to show that the new firm policy applied outside the capital too, the parlement of Bordeaux was also exiled to Libourne, a small town some distance from its normal seat. By the first week in September, the government appeared to be back in control, although the Paris parlement had ordered its subordinate courts not to register or publish the tax-edicts, and protests were now pouring in from provincial parlements about the whole drift of royal policy. What the government could not control was the situation in the Dutch Republic. There, a confrontation between the Hohenzollern princess of Orange and the patriots at the end of June had led to a Prussian ultimatum. On 13 September Prussian troops crossed the frontier, with the open connivance of Great Britain, and by the beginning of October they were masters of the entire Republic. French intervention to support the patriots was generally expected. ‘The political conversation of every company I have seen’, observed Arthur Young on 16 September,13 ‘is much more on the affairs of Holland than on those of France.’ But on 28 September the French foreign secretary Montmorin admitted that there was no possibility of intervention. The financial crisis had meant that throughout the summer no proper preparations had been made. The contrast with the resolute days of Vergennes was glaring, another blow to the government’s prestige. A lasting resolution of the country’s internal problems offered the only serious prospect of restoring it.

Lamoignon, who dreamed of a comprehensive reform of the French law, was beginning to talk about action on the scale of Maupeou to break the parlements’ powers of resistance once and for all. Brienne preferred negotiation with the exiles of Troyes, sensing that many of the magistrates had been pushed by the electric atmosphere of the capital beyond what they knew were the limits of wisdom. Besides, by mid-September he had elaborated a new plan. Ever since the Notables the Crown’s leading critics had been calling for full accounts and drastic economies as prerequisites of new taxation. He now proposed to offer both, in the context of a five-year programme designed to restore financial health by 1792. Neither the stamp tax nor the territorial subvention, he now announced, were necessary to the success of this plan, provided the two existing vingtièmes could be prolonged and levied on a more equitable basis. He therefore offered to terminate the parlement’s exile and withdraw the two new taxes in return for registration of the prolongation of the old. A majority of magistrates was persuaded to agree. On 20 September, accordingly, the exile was revoked, and the parlement entered at once upon its normal autumn vacation. It was understood that, on reassembling in November, it would be presented with a new loan edict intended to keep the government afloat during its five-year retrenchment.

Public reaction to this compromise was a mixture of scepticism and disgust. Although the parlement had declared once again, in agreeing to prolong the vingtièmes, that only the Estates-General could sanction new taxation, it appeared by the very act of registration to have abandoned that principle. The provincial parlements, who had rallied round their exiled colleagues, felt betrayed—especially that of Bordeaux, which remained in exile. The law clerks of Paris spent three days and nights celebrating the end of the exile with fireworks and bonfires where Calonne was burned in effigy. But pamphleteers were less flattering, and hostility to the government continued unabated.

The feeling of everybody [Arthur Young recorded in Paris on 13 October] seems to be that the Archbishop will not be able to do anything towards exonerating the State from the burden of its present situation; some think that he has not the inclination; others that he has not the courage; others that he has not the ability. By some he is thought to be attentive only to his own interest; and by others that the finances are too much deranged to be within the power of any system to recover, short of the States-General of the kingdom; and that it is impossible for such an assembly to meet without a revolution in the government ensuing.14

Brienne’s own optimism, however, continued incorrigible. Even the idea of the Estates-General no longer alarmed him. Indeed, he now resolved to incorporate it in his five-year plan. By 1792, he thought, with the hand of government immeasurably strengthened by the plan’s success, the Estates might be safely assembled to celebrate recovery. And to promise this now, before the plan even went into operation, would surely induce the parlement not to obstruct the loans essential to its working.

Nevertheless the archbishop left nothing to chance. Before presenting the loans for registration he took good care to ascertain that a broad spectrum of opinion in the parlement would view them favourably. And in order to invest the parlement’s registration with added authority, he decided that it should take place in the king’s presence, at an unprecedented Royal Session. It would not be a lit de justice, since all present would be allowed to opine freely. Approval given in these circumstances would carry the sort of weight once hoped for from the Assembly of Notables. The session took place on 19 November, with the peers present in force. It began with the introduction of an edict, long known to be in gestation, according civil rights to French Protestants. The aim was to foster an atmosphere of good will. Protestant refugees from Orange reprisals in Holland now pouring into northern France made its promulgation at this moment particularly appropriate. But the real business of the session was a proposal to borrow no less than 420 millions between 1788 and 1792, falling annually from 120 millions in the first year to 60 in the last. These funds would be used to pay off short-term debts due for redemption over that period, and bring down the level of anticipations. Stringent economies were also promised over the same period, including rationalization of the royal household, the armed forces, and the financial bureaucracy. Brienne gave notice that he was resuming the policy of Terray, Turgot, and Necker, abandoned by Calonne, of eliminating the role of private financiers in budgetary administration, and centralizing operations in a single, bureaucratically organized royal treasury. For 8¼ hours members of the parlement delivered their opinions. Even the acknowledged leader of the younger extremists among the magistrates, Duval d’Eprémesnil, supported the loans, although he called for the Estates-General to be convened in 1789. Others preferred 1788. And even though some spoke against the loans, there seemed to be a clear majority in favour. But it was never put to the test. At the end of the proceedings the king reiterated the promise of the Estates by 1792, and ordered registration of the loans as if this were a lit de justice. To general astonishment the Duke d’Orléans, head of the junior branch of the royal family and heir to a long tradition of obstructionism, suddenly rose and protested that this was not legal. At one of the most finely balanced moments in his country’s history, the king of France was caught completely off guard. ‘I don’t care …’, he stammered, ‘it’s up to you … yes … it’s legal because I wish it.’

In a country so exercised about the threat and the evils of despotism, no reply could have been more catastrophic. Government by whim was what was presumed to have produced the malversations of Calonne; it was what the Estates-General were intended to remedy. Therefore the king’s words turned what seemed destined to be a governmental triumph into a disaster. The loans were registered; but when the king had gone (watched by silent crowds) the parlement continued to sit. After 3½ more hours of lively debate, joined in by Orléans, it formally dissociated itself from the registration. The next day Orléans and the two leaders of the protests after the king’s departure, Fréteau and Sabatier, were exiled to the country by lettres de cachet. On the day following, the peers were forbidden to take their seats in the parlement. It was now open war between the court and the ministry. The king quashed the proceedings which had followed his departure on the nineteenth. When the magistrates called for the revocation of the exiles, they were brushed aside. They responded by prevaricating over the registration of the edict on Protestantism, which had not been considered at the Royal Session. It was only registered on 29 January 1788, after the parlement had adopted a new line of attack on despotism by denouncing all lettres de cachet as illegal and contrary to public and natural law (4 January 1788). The king had the declaration struck from the registers in his presence, and on 13 March this procedure was itself denounced in new remonstrances. Provincial parlements now joined in the hue and cry. Bordeaux, still in exile at Libourne, denounced lettres de cachet and refused to transact any business or register any new laws. Others delayed registration of the prolonged vingtièmes, or refused it outright. Several sent remonstrances, and all joined in the clamour for an immediate meeting of the Estates-General. And although all except Bordeaux had registered the edict establishing provincial assemblies, a number now followed the Gascon court in expressing a preference for provincial estates, with their wider constituencies and stronger powers. The conduct of such provincial assemblies as had met since the previous summer only strengthened these doubts. Nominated rather than elected, most of them agreed to compound in advance their vingtièmes, a practice which Brienne (following Calonne) had promised to abandon. Those refusing to compound had been subjected to punitively heavy assessments. All this seemed to vindicate the doubts expressed by the parlement of Bordeaux and, less vehemently, by others. Only the pays d’états proved able to bargain with a government that now appeared determined to press on with its programme in the teeth of every protest.

It was much fortified by the success of the loans registered on 19 November. The first one was fully subscribed within days, no doubt reflecting the extremely favourable terms on which it was offered. Assured thus of paying its way for the moment, the government was able to turn its full attention to dealing with the parlements. Rumours of a general remodelling even more thorough than that of 1771 were circulating as early as January. By April they had reached the most distant provinces, and nobody doubted them. Accordingly, the parlement of Paris spent that month staking out its constitutional position in unambiguous terms so that there could be no doubt of the good cause in which it was destined to suffer. On the thirteenth it sent remonstrances denouncing the irregular conduct of the Royal Session of the previous November. On the twenty-ninth it forbade tax-collectors to bring in new assessments for the vingtièmes. The next day it voted to remonstrate yet again against the king’s reply to the protestations of the thirteenth. He had then made the time-worn accusation that the pretensions of the courts reduced the kingdom to an aristocracy of magistrates. Their consistent advocacy of the Estates-General since the previous July, they countered, gave the lie to that: ‘No, Sire, there is no aristocracy in France, but no despotism; such is the Constitution.’15 And they went on to enumerate what the constitution guaranteed:

The heir to the Crown is designated by the law; the Nation has its rights; the Peerage likewise; the Magistracy is irremovable; each province has its customs, its capituations; each subject has his natural judges, each citizen has his property; if he is poor, at least he has his liberty. Yet we dare to ask: which of these rights, which of these laws can stand up against the claims by your ministers in Your Majesty’s name?

These remonstrances were presented on 4 May. The day before, on the motion of d’Eprémesnil, the parlement issued a solemn declaration of what it saw as the fundamental laws of the realm, including ‘the right of the Nation freely to grant subsidies through the organ of the Estates-General regularly convoked and composed’, the right of the parlements to register new laws, and the freedom of all French subjects from arbitrary arrest. It bound its members not to co-operate in any measures directed against it. Not even in 1771 had such extreme language been heard, and on 4 May the king ordered the arrest of its movers, Goislard de Montsabert and d’Eprémesnil. They took refuge with the parlement, which voted to remain in session until the crisis was resolved. For eleven hours during the night of 5-6 May the court refused to surrender them to the military officers sent to take them into custody. ‘Arrest us all!’, the magistrates cried, and only the next morning, with armed troops surrounding the palace of justice, did the two give themselves up. They were whisked away to state prisons in the south, watched by apprehensive crowds who were once more thronging the approaches to the parlement. No doubt this was why the long-awaited moves against the court were promulgated at Versailles, where the magistrates were convoked for a lit de justice on 8 May.

The judicial reforms there announced were the last attempt by the French monarchy to remain absolute. They sought to destroy permanently the ability of the parlements to obstruct policy by manipulating their rights of registration and remonstrance. These powers were now to be vested in a Plenary Court made up of a selection of prominent persons reminiscent of the Assembly of Notables. The parlements were to be reduced to simple appeal courts; while at the same time their jurisdiction was to be diminished from below by upgrading forty-seven subordinate courts to the status of grand bailliage. The diminution of business that was bound to result would make many magistrates redundant, so large numbers of offices were to be suppressed. But, as on 19 November, contentious measures were preceded by one designed to win over enlightened opinion. This time it was a series of reforms intended to eliminate from the criminal law abuses and anomalies highlighted by several spectacular miscarriages of justice that had come to light since 1785. Further reforms were promised. A few days beforehand, after much advance publicity, the government had also published a new Compte rendu designed to reassure the public that financial reforms were under way and working. Brienne and Lamoignon clearly recognized that their measures must carry public opinion if they were to succeed.

For a moment it looked as if they might. Paris seemed stunned by the long-awaited blow, and remained, as the British ambassador reported, ‘perfectly quiet’.16 The parlement, and the other sovereign courts of the capital where the king’s brothers had conducted simultaneous lits de justice, were put at once into vacation, with orders not to reassemble until further notice. In the provinces, where governors on 8 May imposed the same laws, along with any still unregistered since the previous year, at military sessions, the presence of troops guaranteed order. But within days murmurs of protest began to be heard, and by the beginning of June they had grown into a deafening, nationwide roar.

In Paris the lower courts refused to register the new laws and had to be forced. The bar voted not to co-operate with any of the new judicial structure, and the members of a commission of jurists set up by Lamoignon a few months beforehand to advise him on criminal law reform all resigned. In the provinces most sovereign courts flouted the order putting them into vacation and reassembled to pass defiant resolutions. In Bordeaux, where the parlement’s exile was terminated on 8 May, huge popular demonstrations, fireworks, and a general illumination of windows greeted the return of leading magistrates from Libourne. Other parlements renewed the call for the Estates-General, and at Toulouse, Besançon, Dijon, Metz, and Rouen their members had to be silenced and exiled from the town by mass distributions of lettres de cachet. When the military governor of Dauphiné attempted to do the same at Grenoble on 7 June, there were riots during which four people were killed and around forty injured. Troops were bombarded from the rooftops in what would be remembered as the ‘Day of Tiles’. In Pau on 29 June angry crowds smashed in the locked doors of the parlement and reinstalled the magistrates. In Rennes the authorities lost control of the streets for almost two months to mobs of law clerks, students, and chairmen who drove the intendant out of the city on 9 July. He blamed the local commandant for this ignominy. ‘I never complained that we had not soldiers enough;’ he protested to Brienne,17 ‘decisive orders were what we were most in need of.’ But the commandant in Brittany was not the only army officer reluctant to order his men to fire on rioters. All over the country rumours circulated of officers openly hostile to the government. Brienne’s reforms and economies, after all, had not spared the army; many proud units had been cut or disbanded, and military careers disrupted. In the end no officer disobeyed decisive orders; but civilian nobles in many parts held unauthorized assemblies which passed resolutions backing the parlements and calling for Estates, both national and provincial. The nobility of turbulent Brittany dispatched a deputation to Versailles with orders to denounce the king’s ministers as criminals; the deputies were arrested in the road and thrown into the Bastille. Louis XVI was scandalized by this ‘noble revolt’; but not only nobles were involved. The clergy, Brienne’s own order, joined in the protests. Finally assembling early in May to discuss plans for the Church pending since the Assembly of Notables, its representatives offered a derisory don gratuit and petitioned the king for an immediate meeting of the Estates-General and regular ones thereafter. And while all this clamour was going on, justice came to a standstill as most lower courts refused to recognize the new order. A few, dazzled by the prospect of promotion to the status of grand bailliage and anxious to revenge themselves for generations of haughty disdain on the part of the parlements, offered tentative compliance. Most, even if tempted by this line of conduct, saw the future as too uncertain to risk offending superiors who might yet return in triumph, as in 1774.

Brienne and Lamoignon thought strong nerves would be enough to face out the clamour. It had worked for Maupeou in 1771. The memory of the chancellor, still alive and watching events with a grim sense of vindication from his fourteen-year exile, haunted everybody involved in the crisis. One key to his success in 1771 had been to split the opposition, and this appears to have been the main aim of Brienne’s next move. On 5 July he announced that the king would welcome views or ideas on how the promised Estates-General should be constituted. The declared intention was to establish the national body on the best possible lines; but the hope was to distract public attention from the judicial reforms, divide opinion along new lines, sow dissension among the different interest groups and estates of the realm, perhaps even produce ideas that would make any meeting more manageable, and reassure the public, finally, that the Estates-General were to meet despite the recent reassertion of authority. In provincial town halls civic officials began to comb through their records for precedents; but the outpouring of hostile pamphlets—534 between May and September, and mostly now in the provinces—was hardly affected at all. Not until Brienne and Lamoignon had fallen from power did the public at large turn its attention seriously to the question of the form of the Estates-General.

They were brought down by what every measure introduced by successive ministers over the preceding eighteen months had been intended to avoid—bankruptcy. The underlying position remained sound enough thanks to the loans of the previous November, although the despotism of the May coup, evoking as it did memories of the partial bankruptcies which had accompanied Maupeou’s reforms, left the markets nervous. The weak spot of the published budget for 1788 lay in the 240 millions worth ofanticipationsrequired to balance it. The confident calculations of Brienne’s Compte rendu took no account of the fiscal chaos and tax-arrears produced by months of attempted reform and hasty changes of policy. If defiance of the government on the scale of May and June continued, that position could only get worse, and then the anticipated tax-revenues might well not materialize. And on 13 July something happened which made it unlikely that they would in any case. A colossal hail storm destroyed much of the harvest in the Paris basin. This, and bad weather elsewhere in the country, meant that peasants would have difficulty meeting tax-demands in 1789. Anticipations were therefore unattractive, even to the financiers who normally covered them; and since Brienne’s known intention was to resume the policy of Terray, Turgot, and Necker and gradually eliminate these same financiers from their traditional role, they felt even less obligation to come to his assistance. The blow fell at the beginning of August, when Brienne was told that the treasury was empty and nobody would accept any further anticipations. In a desperate attempt to reanimate credit with a bold political gesture, on 8 August Brienne announced a specific meeting date for the Estates-General: 1 May 1789. But this time the markets did not react. On 16 August, accordingly, the treasury suspended payments. Creditors were forced to accept interest-bearing government paper, a sort of forced loan. The long-dreaded bankruptcy had at last arrived, and panic seized the stock market as government funds plummeted and there was a run on the most important bank. Brienne, at the end of his resources, recognized that only one man now enjoyed the credit, prestige, and seemingly flawless public record to restore calm: Necker. His last act as principal minister was to persuade a reluctant king to recall the popular idol. It took a week of negotiations and importunity, but on 24 August Necker agreed to serve. The next day Brienne resigned.

His was the last attempt to save the old regime, and it had failed. His entire programme disappeared with him, as did Lamoignon and his. Necker made it clear from the start that he regarded himself as little more than a caretaker until the Estates-General met. The bankruptcy of the monarchy was therefore not only financial, but political and intellectual, too. It had collapsed in every sense, leaving an enormous vacuum of power.

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