Louis XV : Remote Causes of Revolution – Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers

Alfred the Great : The Saxons in England
Queen Elizabeth : Woman as a Sovereign
Henry of Navarre : The Huguenots
Gustavus Adolphus : Thirty Years’ War
Cardinal Richelieu : Absolutism
Oliver Cromwell : English Revolution
Louis XIV : The French Monarchy
Louis XV : Remote Causes of Revolution
Peter the Great : His Services to Russia
Frederic the Great : The Prussian Power

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers
John Lord

Topics Covered
Long reign of Louis XV.
Decline of French military power
Loss of colonial possessions
Cardinal Fleury
Duke of Orleans
Derangement of the finances
Injustice of feudal privileges
John Law
Mississippi scheme
Bursting of the bubble
Excessive taxation
Worthlessness of the nobility
Their effeminacy and hypocrisy
Character of the King
Corruption of his court
The Jesuits
Death of the King
The reign of court mistresses
Madame de Pompadour
Extravagance of the aristocracy
Improvements of Paris
Fall of the Jesuits
The Philosophers and their writings,–Voltaire, Rousseau
Accumulating miseries and disgraceful government

Louis XV : Remote Causes of Revolution

A. D. 1710-1774.

It is impossible to contemplate the inglorious reign of Louis XV. otherwise than as a more complete development of the egotism which marked the life of his immediate predecessor, and a still more fruitful nursery of those vices and discontents which prepared the way for the French Revolution. It is in fact in connection with that great event that this reign should be considered. The fabric of despotism had already been built by Richelieu, and Louis XIV. had displayed and gloried in its dazzling magnificence, even while he undermined its foundations by his ruinous wars and courtly extravagance. Under Louis XV. we shall see even greater recklessness in profitless expenditures, and more complete abandonment to the pleasures which were purchased by the burdens and sorrows of his people; we shall see the monarch and his court still more subversive of the prosperity and dignity of the nation, and even indifferent to the signs of that coming storm which, later, overturned the throne of his grandson, Louis XVI.

And Louis XV. was not only the author of new calamities, but the heir of seventy years’ misrule. All the evils which resulted from the wars and wasteful extravagance of Louis XIV. became additional perplexities with which he had to contend. But these evils, instead of removing, he only aggravated by follies which surpassed all the excesses of the preceding reign. If I were asked to point out the most efficient though indirect authors of the French Revolution, I would single out those royal tyrants themselves who sat upon the throne of Henry IV. during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I shall proceed to state the principal events and features which have rendered that reign both noted and ignominious.

In contemplating the long reign of Louis XV,–whom I present as a necessary link in the political history of the eighteenth century, rather than as one of the Beacon Lights of civilization,–we first naturally turn our eyes to the leading external events by which it is marked in history; and we have to observe, in reference to these, that they were generally unpropitious to the greatness and glory of France, Nearly all those which emanated from the government had an unfortunate or disgraceful issue. No success attended the French arms in any quarter of the world, with the exception of the victories of Marshal Saxe at Fontenoy (1745); and the French lost the reputation they had previously acquired under Henry IV., Condé, Turenne, and Luxembourg. Disgrace attended the generals who were sent against Frederic II., in the Seven Years’ War, even greater than what had previously resulted from the contests with the English and the Dutch, and which were brought to a close by the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, in 1748. But it was not on the fields of Germany that the greatest disasters happened; the French were rifled of their possessions both in America and in India. Louisbourg yielded to the bravery of New England troops, and finally Canada itself was lost. All dreams of establishing a new empire on the Mississippi and the Gulf of St. Lawrence vanished for ever, while Madras and Calcutta fell into the hands of the English, with all the riches of Mahometan and Mogul empires. During the regency of the Duke of Orleans,–for Louis XV. was an infant five years of age when his great-grandfather died in 1715,–we notice the disgraceful speculations which followed the schemes of Law, and which resulted in the ruin of thousands, and the still greater derangement of the national finances. The most respectable part of the reign of Louis XV. were those seventeen years when the administration was hi the hands of Cardinal Fleury, who succeeded the Duke of Bourbon, to whom the reins of government had been intrusted after the death of the Duke of Orleans, two years before the young King had attained his majority. Though the cardinal was a man of peace, was irreproachable in morals, patriotic in his intentions, and succeeded in restoring for a time the credit of the country, still even he only warded off difficulties,–like Sir Robert Walpole,–instead of bravely meeting them before it should be too late. His timid rule was a negative rather than a positive blessing. But with his death ended all prosperity, and the reign of mistresses and infamous favorites began,–the great feature of the times, on which I shall presently speak more fully, as one of the indirect causes of subsequent revolution.

In singling out and generalizing the evils and public misfortunes of the reign of Louis XV., perhaps the derangement of the finances was the most important in its political results. But for this misfortune the King was not wholly responsible: a vast national debt was the legacy of Louis XIV. This was the fruit of his miserable attempt at self-aggrandizement; this was the residuum of his glories. Yet as a national debt, according to some, is no calamity, but rather a blessing,–a chain of loyalty and love to bind the people together in harmonious action and mutual interest, and especially the middle classes, upon whom it chiefly falls, to the support of a glorious throne,–we must not waste time by dwelling on the existence of this debt,–a peculiarity which has attended the highest triumphs of civilization, an invention of honored statesmen and patriotic ministers, and perhaps their benignant boon to future generations,–but rather we will look to the way it was sought to be discharged.

Louis XIV. spent in wars fifteen hundred millions of livres, and in palaces about three hundred millions more; and his various other expenses, which could not be well defrayed by taxation, swelled the amount due to his creditors, at his death, to nearly two thousand millions,–a vast sum for those times. The regent, Duke of Orleans, who succeeded him, increased this debt still more, especially by his reckless and infamous prodigalities, under the direction of his prime minister,–his old friend and tutor,–Cardinal Dubois. At last his embarrassments were so great that the wheels of government were likely to stop. His friend, the Due de Saint Simon, one of the great patricians of the court, proposed, as a remedy, national bankruptcy,–affirming that it would be a salutary lesson to the rich plebeian capitalists not to lend their money. An ingenious Scotch financier, however, proposed a more palatable scheme, which was, to make use of the credit of the nation for a bank, the capital of which should be guaranteed by shares in the Mississippi Company. John Law, already a wealthy and prosperous banker, proposed to increase the paper currency, and supersede the use of gold and silver. His offer was accepted, and his bank became a royal one, its bills going at once into circulation. Now, as the most absurd delusions existed as to the wealth of Louisiana, and the most boundless faith was placed in Law’s financiering; and as only Law’s bills could purchase shares in the Company which was to make everybody’s fortune,–gold and silver flowed to his bank. The shares of the Company continued to rise in value, and bank-bills were indefinitely issued. In a little while (1719), six hundred and forty millions of livres in these bills were in circulation, and soon after nearly half of the national debt was paid off’; in other words, people had been induced to exchange government securities, to the amount of eight hundred millions, for the Mississippi stock. They sold consols at Law’s bank, and were paid in his bills, with which they bought shares. The bills of the bank were of course redeemable in gold and silver; but for a time nobody wanted gold and silver, so great was the credit of the bank. Moreover, the bank itself was guaranteed by the shares of the Company, which were worth at one period twelve times their original value. John Law, of course, was regarded as a national benefactor. His financiering had saved a nation; and who had ever before heard of a nation being saved by stock-jobbing? All sorts of homage and honors were showered upon so great a man. His house was thronged with dukes and peers; he became controller-general of the finances, and virtually prime-minister. He was elected a member of the French Academy; his fame extended far and wide, for he was a beneficent deity that had made everybody rich and no one poor. Surely the golden age had come. Paris was crowded with strangers from all parts of the world, who came to see a man whose wisdom surpassed that of Solomon, and who made silver and gold to be as stones in the streets. As everybody had grown rich, twelve hundred new coaches were set up; nothing was seen but new furniture and costly apparel, nothing was felt but universal exhilaration. So great was the delusion, that the stock of the Mississippi Company reached the almost fabulous amount of three thousand six hundred millions,–nearly twice the amount of the national debt. But as Law’s bank, where all these transactions were made, revealed none of its transactions, the public were in ignorance of the bills issued and stock created.

At last, the Prince of Conti,–one of the most powerful of the nobles, and a prince of the blood-royal, who had received enormous amounts in bills as the price of his protection,–annoyed to find that his ever-increasing demands were finally resisted, presented his notes at the bank, and of course obtained gold and silver; then other nobles did the same, and then foreign merchants, until the bank was drained. Then came the panic, then the fall of stocks, then general ruin, then universal despondency and rage. The bubble had burst! Four hundred thousand families, who thought themselves rich, and who had been comfortable, were hopelessly ruined; but the State had got rid of half the national debt, and for a time was clear of embarrassment. The people, however, had been defrauded and deceived by Government, and they rendered in return their secret curses. The foundations of a throne are only secured by the affections of a people; if these are destroyed, one great element of regal power is lost.

Under the administration of Cardinal Fleury (1726-1743) the finances were somewhat improved, since he aimed at economical arrangements, especially in the collection of taxes. He attempted to imitate Sully and Colbert, but without their genius and boldness he effected but little. He had an unfortunate quarrel with the Parliament of Paris, and was obliged to repeal a favorite measure. After his death the country was virtually ruled by the King’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, who displaced ministers at her pleasure, and who encouraged unbounded extravagance. The public deficit increased continually, until it finally amounted to nearly two hundred millions in a single year. In spite of this increasing derangement of the finances, the court had not the courage or will to face the difficulties, but resorted to new loans and forced contributions, and every form of iniquitous taxation. If a great functionary announced the necessity of economy or order, he was forthwith disgraced. Nothing irritated the court more than any proposal to reduce unnecessary expenses. Nor would any other order, either the nobles or the clergy, consent to make sacrifices.

In such a state of things, a most oppressive system of taxation was the necessary result. In no country in modern times have the burdens of the people been so great. Taxes were imposed to the utmost extent that they were able to bear, without their consent; and upon the slightest resistance or remonstrance they were imprisoned and treated as criminals. So great were the taxes on land, that nearly two-thirds of the whole gross produce, it has been estimated, went to the State, and three-quarters of the remainder to the landlord. The peasant thus only received about one-twelfth of the fruit of his labors; and on this pittance his family was supported. Taxes were both direct and indirect, levied upon every article of consumption, upon everything that was imported or exported, upon income, upon capital, upon the transmission of property, upon even the few privileges which were enjoyed. But not one-half that was collected went to the royal treasury; it was wasted by the different collectors and sub-collectors. In addition to the ordinary burdens were enormous monopolies, granted to nobles and courtiers, by which the income of the State was indirectly plundered. The poor man groaned amid his heavy labors and great privations, without exciting compassion or securing redress.

And, in addition to his taxes, the laborer was deprived of all the privileges of freedom. He was injured, downtrodden, mocked, and insulted. The laws were unequal, and gave him no security; game of the most destructive kind was permitted to run at large through the fields, and yet the people were not allowed to shoot a hare or a deer upon their own grounds. Numerous edicts prohibited hoeing and weeding, lest young partridges should be destroyed. The people were bound to repair the roads without compensation, to grind their corn at the landlord’s mill, bake their bread in his ovens, and carry their grapes to his wine-press. They had not the benefit of schools, or of institutions which would enable them to improve their minds. They could not rise above the miserable condition in which they were born, or even make their complaints heard. Feudalism, in all its social distinctions, and in all its oppressive burdens, crushed them as with an iron weight, or bound them as with iron fetters. This weight they could not throw off, these fetters they could not break. There was no alternative but in submission,–forced submission to overwhelming taxes, robberies, insults, and injustice, both from landed proprietors and the officers of the crown.

Those, however, who lived upon the unrequited toil of the people lived out of sight of their sorrows,–not in beautiful châteaux, as their ancestors did, by the side of placid rivers and on the skirts of romantic forests, or amid vineyards and olive-groves, but in the capital or the court. Here, like Roman senators of old, they squandered the money which they had obtained by extortion and corruption of every sort. Amid the palaces of Versailles they displayed all the vanities of dress, all the luxuries of their favored life. Here, as lesser stars, they revolved around the great central orb of regal splendor, proud to belong to another world than that in which the plebeian millions toiled and suffered. At Versailles they attempted to ignore their own humanity, to forget their most pressing duties, and to despise the only pursuits which could have elevated their minds or warmed their hearts.

But they were not great feudal nobles, like the Guises and the Epernons, such as combined to awe even regal power under the House of Valois,–men who could coin money and exercise judicial authority in their own domain,–but timid and subservient courtiers, as embarrassed in their affairs as was the King himself. Nevertheless, many of the ancient privileges of feudalism were enjoyed by them. They were exempt from many taxes which oppressed merchants and farmers; they alone were appointed to command in the army and navy; they alone were made prelates and dignitaries in the Church; they were comparatively free from arrest when their crimes were against society and God rather than the government; they were distinguished from the plebeian class by dress as well as by privileges; and they only had access to court and a share in the plunder of the kingdom. Craving greater excitements than that which even Versailles afforded, they built, in the Faubourg St. Germain, those magnificent hotels which are still the dreary but imposing monuments of aristocratic pride; and here they plunged into every form of excess and folly for which Paris has always been distinguished. But it was in their splendid equipages, and in their boxes at the opera, that they displayed the most striking contrast to the habits of the plebeian people with whom they were surrounded. Their embroidered vests, their costly silks and satins, their emerald and diamond buckles, their point-lace ruffles, their rare furs, their jewelled rapiers, and their perfumed handkerchiefs were peculiar to themselves,–for in those days wealthy shopkeepers, and even the daughters of prosperous notaries, could ill afford such luxuries, and were scarcely allowed to shine in them if they would. A velvet coat then cost more than one thousand francs; while the ruffs and frills, and diamond studs and knee-buckles, and other appendages to the dress of a gentleman, swelled the amount to scarcely less than forty thousand francs, or sixteen hundred louis-d’or. If a distinguished advocate was admitted to the presence of royalty, he must appear in simple black. Gorgeous dresses were reserved only for the noblesse, some one hundred and fifty thousand privileged persons; all the rest were roturiers, marked by some emblem of meanness or inferiority, whatever might be their intellectual and moral worth. Never were the noblesse more enervated; and yet they always appeared in a mock-heroic costume, with swords dangling at their sides, or hats cocked after a military fashion on their heads. As the strength of Samson of old was in his locks, so the degenerate nobles of this period guarded with especial care these masculine ornaments of the person; and so great was the contagion for wigs and hair-powder, that twelve hundred shops existed in Paris to furnish this aristocratic luxury. The muses of Rome in the days of her decline condescended to sing on the arts of cookery and the sublime occupations of hunting and fishing; so in the heroic times of Louis XV. the genius of France soared to comprehend the mysteries of the toilet. One eminent savant, in this department of philosophical wisdom, absolutely published a bulky volume on the principles of hair-dressing, and followed it–so highly was it prized–by a no less ponderous supplement. This was the time when the cuisine of nobles was as famous as their toilets, and when recipes for different dishes were only equalled in variety by the epigrams of ribald poets. It was a period not merely of degrading follies, but of shameless exposure of them,–when men boasted of their gallantries, and women joked at their own infirmities; and when hypocrisy, if it was ever added to their other vices, only served to make them more ridiculous and unnatural. The rouge with which they painted their faces, and the powder which they sprinkled upon their hair were not used to give them the semblance of youthful beauty, but rather to impart the purple hues of perpetual drunkenness, such as Rubens gave to his Bacchanalian deities, united with the blanched whiteness of premature old age. Licentiousness without shame, drunkenness without rebuke, gambling without honor, and frivolity without wit characterized, alas, a great proportion of that “upper class” who disdained the occupations and sneered at the virtues of industrial life.

Louis XV, King of France, painting by Hyacinthe Rigaud

Louis XV, King of France, painting by Hyacinthe Rigaud

But these dissipated courtiers had a model constantly before their eyes, whose more excessive follies it were difficult to rival; and this was the King himself, whom the whole nation was called upon to obey. If Louis XIV. was a Nebuchadnezzar, unapproachable from pride, Louis XV. was a Sardanapalus in effeminacy and insouciant revelries. The shameless infamies of his life were too revolting to bear more than a passing allusion; and I should blush to tear away the historic veil which covers up his vices from the common eye. I shrink from showing to what depths humanity can sink, even when clothed in imperial purple and seated on the throne of state. The countless memoirs of that wicked age have however, exposed to the indignant eye of posterity the regal debaucheries of Versailles and the pollutions of the Pare aux Cerfs,–that infamous seraglio which cost the State one hundred millions of livres, at the lowest estimate. And this was but a part of the great system of waste and folly. Five hundred millions of the national debt were incurred for expenses too ignominious to be even named. The King, however, was not fond of pomp; it was fatiguing for him to bear, and he generally shut himself from the sight and intercourse of any but convivial friends,–no, not friends, for to absolute monarchs the pleasures of friendship are denied; I should have said, the panderers to his degrading pleasures. Never did the Papal court at Avignon or Rome, even in the worst ages of mediaeval darkness, witness more scandalous enormities than those which disgraced the whole reign of Louis XV., either in the days of his minority, when the kingdom was governed by the Duke of Orleans, or in his latter years, when the Duke of Choiseul was the responsible adviser of the crown. The Palais Royal, the Palais Luxembourg, the Trianon, and Versailles were alternately scenes of excesses which would have disgraced the reigns of the most degenerate of Saracenic caliphs. So vile was the court, that a celebrated countess one day said, at a public festival, that “God, after having formed man, took the mud which was left, and made the souls of princes and footmen.”

And the King hated business as much as he hated pomp. Unlike his predecessor, he left everything in the hands of his servants. Nothing wearied him so much as an interview with a minister, or a dispatch from a general. In the society of his mistresses he abnegated his duties as a monarch, and the labors of his life were employed in gratifying their resentments and humoring their caprices. Their complaints were more potent than the suggestions of ministers, or the remonstrances of judges. In idle frivolities his time was passed, neglectful of the great interests which were intrusted to him to guard; and the only attainment of which he was proud was a knack of making tarts and bon-bons, with which he frequently regaled his visitors.

And yet, in spite of these ignoble tastes and pursuits, the King was by no means deficient in natural abilities. He was much superior to even Louis XIV. in logical acumen and sprightly wit. He was an agreeable companion, and could appreciate every variety of talents. No man in his court perceived more clearly than he the tendency of the writings of philosophers which were then fermenting the germs of revolution. “His sagacity kept him from believing in Voltaire, even when he succeeded in deceiving the King of Prussia.” He was favorable to the Jesuits, though he banished them from the realm; perceiving and feeling that they were his true friends and the best supports of his absolute throne,–and yet he banished them from his kingdom. He was hostile too, in his heart, to the very philosophers whom he invited to his table, and knew that they sought to undermine his power. He simply had not the moral energy to carry out the plans of that despotism to which he was devoted. Sensuality ever robs a man of the advantages and gifts which reason gives, even though they may be bestowed to an extraordinary degree. There is no more impotent slavery than that to which the most gifted intellects have been occasionally doomed. Self-indulgence is sure to sap every element of moral strength, and to take away from genius itself all power, except to sharpen the stings of self-reproach. “Louis XV. was not insensible to the dangers which menaced his throne, and would have despoiled the Parliament of the right of remonstrance; would have imposed on the Jansenists the yoke of Papal supremacy; would have burned the books of the philosophers, and have sent their authors to work out their system within the gloomy dungeons of the Bastille;” but he had not the courage, nor the moral strength, nor the power of will. He was enslaved by his vices, and by those who pandered to them; and he could not act either the king or the man. Seeing the dangers, but feeling his impotence, he affected levity, and exclaimed to his courtiers Après nous le déluge,–a prediction which only uncommon sagacity could have prompted. Immersed however in unworthy pleasures, he gave himself not much concern for the future; and this career of self-abandonment continued to the last, even after satiety and ennui had deprived the appetites of the power to please. His latter days were of course melancholy, and his miseries resulted as much from the perception of the evils to come as from the failure of the pleasures of sense. A languor, from which he was with difficulty ever roused, oppressed his life. Deaf, incapable of being amused, prematurely worn out with bodily infirmities, hated and despised by the whole nation, he dragged out his sixty-fourth year, and died of the small-pox, which he caught in one of his visits to the Pare aux Cerfs; and his loathsome remains were hastily hurried into a carriage, and deposited in the vaults of St. Denis.

King Louis XV and Madame Du Barry, painting by Gyula Benczúr

King Louis XV and Madame Du Barry, painting by Gyula Benczúr

As, however, during this long reign of fifty-eight years, women were the presiding geniuses of the court and the virtual directors of the kingdom, I cannot give a faithful portrait of the times without some allusion, at least, to that woman who was as famous in her day as Madame de Montespan was during the most brilliant period of the reign of Louis XIV. I single out Madame de Pompadour from the crowd of erring and infirm females who bartered away their souls for the temporary honors of Versailles. Not that proud peeress whom she displaced, the Duchesse de Châteauroux; not that low-born and infamous character by whom she was succeeded, Du Barry; not the hundreds of other women who were partners or victims of guilty pleasures, and who descended unlamented and unhonored to their ignominious graves, are here to be alluded to. But Madame de Pompadour is a great historical personage, because with her are identified the fall of the Jesuits in France, the triumph of philosophers and economists, the disgrace of ministers, and the most outrageous prodigality which ever scandalized a nation. Louis XV. was almost wholly directed by this infamous favorite. She named and displaced the controllers-general, and she herself received annually nearly fifteen hundred thousand livres, besides hotels, palaces, and estates. She was allowed to draw bills upon the treasury without specifying the service, and those who incurred her displeasure were almost sure of being banished from the court and kingdom, and perhaps sentenced, by lettre de cachet, to the dreary cells of the Bastille. She virtually had the appointment of the prelates of the Church and of the generals of the army; and so great was her ascendency that all persons, whatsoever their rank, found it expedient to pay their homage to her. Even Montesquieu praised her intellect, and Voltaire her beauty, and Maria Theresa wrote flattering letters to her. The prime minister was her tool and agent, since royalty itself yielded to her sway; even the proud ladies of the royal family condescended to flatter and to honor her. Sprung only from the middle ranks of society, she yet assumed the airs of a princess of the blood.

From her earliest years, long before she was admitted to the court, it had been the dream of this woman to seduce the King. Her father was butcher to the Invalides, and she spent nearly all the money she could command in a costly present to a great duchess, the Princess Conti, in order to be presented. She played high, and won–not a royal heart, but the royal fancy. Her dress, manners, and extraordinary beauty increased the impression she had once before made at a hunting-party; and after the levée she was sent for, and became virtually the minister of the realm. She was unquestionably a woman of great intellect, as well as of tact and beauty, and even manifested a sympathy with some sorts of intellectual excellence. She was the patroness of artists, philosophers, and poets; but she liked those best who were distinguished for their infidel or licentious speculations. She was the friend of those economists and philosophers who sapped the foundations of the social system. An imperious and insolent hauteur and reckless prodigality were her most marked peculiarities,–just such as were to be expected in an unprincipled woman raised suddenly to high position. In spite of her power, she did not escape the malignant stings of envenomed rivals or anonymous satirists. “She was rallied on the baseness of her origin; she avenged herself by making common cause with those philosophers who overturned the ancient order.” She was both mistress and politician, but her politics and alliances subverted the throne which gave her all her glory. Her ascendency of course rested on her power of administering to the tastes and pleasures of the ‘King, and she showed genius in the variety of amusements which she invented. She reigned twenty years, and lost her empire only by death. Madame de Maintenon had maintained her ascendency over Louis XIV. by the exercise of those virtues which extorted his respect, but Madame de Pompadour by the faculty of charming the senses. It was by her that Versailles was enriched with the most precious and beautiful of its countless wonders. Her own collection of pictures, cameos, antiques, crystals, porcelains, vases, gems, and articles of vertu was esteemed the richest and most valuable in the kingdom, and after her death it took six months to dispose of it. Her library was valued at more than a million of francs, and contained some of the rarest manuscripts and most curious books in France. The sums, however, which she spent on literary curiosities or literary men were small compared with the expenses of her toilet, of her fêtes, her balls, and her palaces. And all these expenses were open as the day in the eyes of a nation suffering from ruinous taxation, from famine, and the shame of unsuccessful war!

We are impressed with the blind and suicidal measures which all those connected with the throne instigated or encouraged in this reign,–from the King to the most infamous of his mistresses. Whoever pretended to give his aid to the monarchy helped to subvert it by the very measures which he proposed. “The Duke of Orleans, when he patronized Law, gave a shock to the whole economical system of the old regime. When this Scotch financier said to the powerful aristocracy around him, ‘Silver is only to you the means of circulation, beyond this it belongs to the country,’ he announced the ruin of the glebe and the fall of feudal prejudices. The bankruptcies which followed the bursting of his bubble weakened the potent charm of the word ‘honor,’ on which was based the stability of the throne.” The courtiers, when they blazed in jewels, in embroidered silks and satins, in sumptuous equipages, and in all the costly ornaments of their times, gave employment and importance to a host of shopkeepers and handicraftsmen, who grew rich, as those who bought of them grew poor. The wealth of bankers, brokers, mercers, jewellers, tailors, and coachmakers dates to these times,–those prosperous and fortunate members of the middle-class who “inhabited the Place Vendôme and the Place des Victoires, as the nobles dwelt in the Rue de Grenelle and the Rue St. Dominique. The nobles ruined themselves by the extravagance into which they were led by the court, and their châteaux and parks fell into the hands of financiers, lawyers, and merchants, who, taking the titles of their new estates, became a parvenu aristocracy which excited the jealousy of the old and divided its ranks.” The inferior, but still prosperous class, the shopkeepers, also equally advanced in intelligence and power. In those dark and dingy backrooms, in which for generations their ancestors had been immured, they now discussed their rights, and retailed the scandals which they heard. They read the sarcasms of the poets and the theories of the new philosophers. Even the tranquillity which succeeded inglorious war was favorable to the rise of the middle classes; and the Revolution was as much the product of the discontent engendered by social improvements as of the frenzy produced by hunger and despair. The court favored the improvements of Paris, especially those designed for public amusements. The gardens of the Tuileries were embellished, the Champs Elysées planted with trees, and pictures were exhibited in the grand salon of the Louvre. The Theatre Français, the Royal Opera, the Opéra Comique, and various halls for balls and festivals were then erected,–those fruitful nurseries of future clubs, those poisoned wells of popular education. Nor were charities forgotten with the building of the Pantheon and the extension of the Boulevards. The Hôpital des Enfants-Trouvés allowed mothers, unseen and unheard, to bequeath their children to the State.

There were two events connected with the reign of Madame de Pompadour–I do not say of the King, or his queen, or his ministers, for philosophical history compels us to confine our remarks chiefly to great controlling agencies, whether they be sovereigns or people; to such a man as Peter the Great, when one speaks of a semi-barbarous nation, to ideas, when we describe popular revolutions–which had a great influence in unsettling the kingdom, although brought about in no inconsiderable measure by this unscrupulous mistress of the King. These were the expulsion of the Jesuits, and the triumph of the philosophers.

In regard to the first, I would say, that Madame de Pompadour did not like the Jesuits; not because they were the enemies of liberal principles, not because they were the most consistent advocates and friends of despotism in all its forms, intellectual, religious, and political, or the writers of casuistic books, or the perverters of educational instruction, or boastful missionaries in Japan and China, or cunning intriguers in the courts of princes, or artful confessors of the great, or uncompromising despots in the schools,–but because they interfered with her ascendency. It is true she despised their sophistries, ridiculed their pretensions, and detested their government; but her hostility was excited, not because they aspired like her, like the philosophers, like the popes, like the press in our times, to a participation in the government of the world, but because they disputed her claims as one of the powers of the age. The Jesuits were scandalized that such a woman should usurp the reins of state, especially when they perceived that she mocked and defied them; and they therefore refused to pay her court, and even conspired to effect her overthrow. But they had not sufficiently considered the potency of her wrath, or the desperate means of revenge to which she could resort; nor had they considered those other influences which had been gradually undermining their influence,–even the sarcasms of the Jansenists, the ridicule of the philosophers, and the invectives of the parliaments. Only one or two favoring circumstances were required to kindle the smothered fires of hatred into a blazing flame, and these were furnished by the attempted assassination of the King, in his garden at Versailles, by Damiens the fanatic, and the failure of La Valette the Jesuit banker and merchant at Martinique. Then, when the nation was astounded by their political conspiracies and their commercial gambling, to say nothing of the perversion of their truth, did their arch-enemy, the King’s mistress, use her power over the King’s minister, her own creature, the Due de Choiseul, to decree the confiscation of their goods and their banishment from the realm; nay, to induce the Pope himself, in conjunction with the entreaties of all the Bourbon courts of Europe, to take away their charter and suppress their order. The fall of the Jesuits has been already alluded to in another volume, and I will not here enlarge on that singular event brought about by the malice of a woman whom they had ventured to despise. It is easy to account for her hatred and the general indignation of Europe. It is not difficult to understand that the decline of that great body in those virtues which originally elevated them, should be followed by animosities which would undermine their power. We can see why their moral influence should pass away, even when they were in possession of dignities and honors and wealth. But it is a most singular fact that the Pope himself, with whose interests they were allied,–their natural protector, the head of the hierarchy which they so constantly defended,–should have been made the main agent in their temporary humiliation. Yet Clement XIV.–the weak and timid Ganganelli–was forced to this suicidal act. Old Hildebrand would have fought like a lion and died like a dog, rather than have stooped to such autocrats as the Bourbon princes. A judicial and mysterious blindness, however, was sent upon Clement; his strength for the moment was paralyzed, and he signed the edict which dispersed the best soldiers that sustained the interests of absolutism in Europe.

The effect of the suppression of the order in France was both good and ill. The event unquestionably led to the propagation of an impious philosophy and all sorts of crude opinions and ill-digested theories, both in government and religion, in the schools, the salons, and the pulpits of France. The press, relieved of its most watchful and jealous spies, teemed with pamphlets and books of the most licentious character. The good and evil powers were both unchained and suffered to go free about the land, and to do what work they could. There are many who feel that this combat is necessary for the full development of human strength and virtue; who maintain that the good is much more powerful than the evil in any age of moral experiences; and who believe that angels of light will, on our mundane arena, prevail over angels of darkness,–that one truth is stronger than one thousand lies, and that two can put ten thousand to flight. There are others, again, who think that there is a vitality in error as well as a vitality in truth, as proved seemingly by the prevalence of Pagan falsehoods, Mohammedan empires, and Papal superstitions. But to whatever party clearness of judgment belongs, one thing is historically certain,–that never was poor human nature more puzzled by false guides, more tempted by appetites and passions, more enslaved by the lust of the eye and the pride of life, than during the latter years of the reign of Louis XV. Never was there a period or a country in Christendom more frivolous, pleasure-seeking, sceptical, irreligious, vain, conceited, and superficial than during the reign of Madame de Pompadour. No; never was there a time of so little moral elevation among the great mass, or when so few great enterprises were projected for the improvement of society.

And it was from society thus disordered, inexperienced, and godless that all restraints were removed from the ancient and venerated guardians of youth, of religion, and of literature. Judge what must have been the effects; judge between these opposing theories, whether it were better to have the institutions of society guarded by selfish, ambitious, and narrow-minded priests, or to have the flood-gates of vastly preponderating evil influences opened upon society already reeling in the intoxication of the senses, or madly raving from the dethronement of reason, the abnegation of religious duties, and the extinction of the light of faith. I would not say that either one or the other of these horrible alternatives is necessary or probable in these times, that we are compelled to choose between them, or that we ever shall be compelled; but simply, that, in the middle of the eighteenth century, and in France,–that semi-Catholic and semi-infidel nation,–there existed on the one hand a most execrable spiritual despotism exercised by the Jesuits, and on the other a boundless ferment of destructive and revolutionary principles, operating on a people generally inclined, and in some cases abandoned, to every folly and vice. This despotism, while it was selfish and unwarrantable, still had in view the guardianship of morals and literature,–to restrain men from crimes by working on their fears; but society, while it sought to free itself from hypocritical and oppressive leaders, also sought to remove all social and moral restraints, and to plunge into reckless and dangerous experiments. It was a war between these two social powers,–between unlawful despotism and unsanctified license. We are to judge, not which was the better, but which was the worse.

One thing, however, is certain,–that Madame de Pompadour, in whom was centred so much power, threw her influence against the Jesuits, and in favor of those who were not seeking to build up literature and morals on a sure and healthy foundation, but rather secretly and artfully to undermine the whole intellectual and social fabric, under the plea of liberty and human rights. Everybody admits that the writings of the philosophers gave a great impulse to the revolutionary storm which afterwards broke out. Ideas are ever most majestic, whether they are good or evil. Men pass away, but principles are indestructible and of perpetual power. As great and fearful agencies in the period we are contemplating, they are worthy of our notice.

Although the great lights which adorned the literature of the preceding reign no longer shone,–such geniuses as Molière, Boileau, Racine, Fénelon, Bossuet, Pascal, and others,–still the eighteenth century was much more intellectual and inquiring than is generally supposed. Under Louis XIV. intellectual independence had been nearly extinguished. His reign was intellectually and spiritually a gloomy calm between two wonderful periods of agitation. All acquiesced in his cold, heartless, rigid rule, being content to worship him as a deity, or absorbed in the excitements of his wars, or in the sorrows and burdens which those wars brought in their train. But under Louis XV. the people began to meditate on the causes of their miseries, and to indulge in those speculations which stimulated their discontents or appealed to their intellectual pride. Not from La Rochelle, not from the cells of Port Royal, not from remonstrating parliaments did the voices of rebellion come: the genius of Revolution is not so poor as to be obliged to make use of the same class of instruments, or repeat the same experiments, in changing the great aspects of human society. Nor will she allow, if possible, those who guard the fortresses which she wishes to batter down to be suspicious of her combatants. Her warriors are ever disguised and masked, or else concealed within some form of a protecting deity, such as the fabled horse which the doomed Trojans received within their walls. The court of France did not recognize in those plausible philosophers, whose writings had such a charm for cultivated intellect, the miners and sappers of the monarchy. Only one class of royalists understood them, and these were the Jesuits whom the court had exiled. Not even Frederic the Great, when he patronized Voltaire, was aware what an insidious foe was domiciled in his palace, with all his sycophancy of rank, with all his courtly flattering. In like manner, when the grand seigneurs and noble dames of that aristocratic age wept over the sorrows of the “New Héloïse,” or craved that imaginary state of untutored innocence which Rousseau so morbidly described, or admired those brilliant generalizations of laws which Montesquieu had penned, or laughed at the envenomed ironies of Voltaire, or quoted the atheistic doctrines of D’Alembert and Diderot, or enthusiastically discussed the economical theories of Dr. Quesnay and old Marquis Mirabeau,–that stern father of him who, both in his intellectual power and moral deformity, was alike the exponent and the product of the French Revolution,–when the blinded court extolled and diffused the writings of these new apostles of human rights, they little dreamed that they would be still more admired among the people, and bring forth the Brissots, the Condoreets, the Marats, the Dantons, the Robespierres, of the next generation. I would not say that their influence was wholly bad, for in their attacks on the religion and institutions of their country they subverted monstrous usurpations. But whatever was their ultimate influence, they were doubtless among the most efficient agents in overturning the throne; they were, in reality, the secret enemies of those by whom they were patronized and honored. “They cannot, indeed, claim the merit of being the first in France who opened the eyes of the nation; for Fénelon had taught even to Louis XIV., in his immortal ‘Télémaque,’ the duties of a king; Racine, in his ‘Germanicus,’ had shown the accursed nature of irresponsible despotism; Molière, in his ‘Tartuffe,’ had exposed the vices of priestly hypocrisy; Pascal, in his ‘Provincial Letters,’ had revealed the wretched sophistries of the Jesuits; Bayle even, in his ‘Critical Dictionary,’ had furnished materials for future sceptics.”

But the hostilities of all these men were united in Voltaire, who in nearly two hundred volumes, and with a fecundity of genius perfectly amazing and unparalleled, in poetry, in history, in criticism,–yet without striking originality or profound speculations,–astonished and delighted his generation. This great and popular writer clothed his attacks on ecclesiastical power, and upon Christianity itself, in the most artistic and attractive language,–clear, simple, logical, without pedantry or ostentation,–and enlivened it with brilliant sarcasms, appealing to popular prejudices, and never soaring beyond popular appreciation. Never did a man have such popularity; never did a famous writer leave so little to posterity which posterity can value.

While Voltaire was indirectly undermining the religious convictions of mankind, the Encyclopedists more directly attacked the sources of religious belief, and openly denied what Voltaire had doubted. But neither Diderot nor D’Alembert made such shameless assaults as the apostles of a still more atheistic school,–such men as Helvetius and the Baron d’Holbach, who advocated undisguised selfishness, and attributed all virtuous impulses to animal sensation. More dangerous still than these ribald blasphemers were those sentimental and morbid expounders of humanity of whom Rousseau was the type,–a man of more genius perhaps than any I have named, but the most egotistical of that whole generation of dreamers and sensualists who prepared the way for revolution. He was the father of those agitating ideas which spread over Europe and reached America. He gave utterance in his eloquent writings to those mighty watch-words, “Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality,” that equally animated Mirabeau, Robespierre, and Jefferson. But the writings of the philosophers will again be alluded to in the next lecture, as among the efficient causes of the French Revolution.

When we contemplate those financial embarrassments which arose from half a century of almost universal war, and those awful burdens which bent to the dust, in suffering and shame, the whole people of a great country; when we consider the absurd and wicked distinctions which separated man from man, and the settled hostility of the clergy to all means of intellectual and social improvement; when we remember the unparalleled vices of a licentious court, the ignominious negligence of the government to the happiness and wants of those whom it was its duty to protect, and the shameless insults which an infamous woman was allowed to heap upon the nation; and then when we bear in mind all the elements of disgust, of discontent, of innovation, and of reckless and impious defiance,–can we wonder that a revolution was inevitable, if society is destined to be progressive, and man ever to be allowed to break his fetters?

On that Revolution I cannot enter. I leave the subject as the winds began to howl and the rains began to fall and the floods began to rise, and all together to beat upon that house which was built upon the sand.


Lacretelle’s Histoire de France; Anquetil; Henri Martin’s History of France; Dulaure’s Histoire de Paris; Lord Brougham’s Lives of Rousseau and Voltaire; Memoires de Madame de Pompadour; Mémoires de Madame Du Barry; Revue des Deux Mondes, 1847; Château de Lucienne; L’Ami des Hommes, par M. le Marquis de Mirabeau; Maximes Générales du Gouvernement, par Le Docteur Quesnay; Histoire Philosophique du Règne de Louis XV., par le Comte de Tocqueville; Mémoires Secrets; Pièces Inédites sous le Règne de Louis XV.; Anecdotes de la Cour de France pendant la Faveur de Madame Pompadour; Louis XV. et la Société du XVIII. Siècle, par M. Capefigue; Alison’s introductory chapter to the History of Europe; Louis XV. et son Siècle, par Voltaire; Saint Simon; Mémoires de Duclos; Mémoires du Duc de Richelieu.

Peter the Great : His Services to Russia

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers