Modern history


Absolutism Attacked


One morning in August 1776, a rather shabbily dressed, stout gentleman stood on the dockside at Rotterdam. Puffing on a pipe, his tricorn hat planted carelessly over a perruque that had seen better days, he watched intently the slow progress of timber barges as they sailed down the canal in the direction of Dordrecht. This perfectly ordinary scene struck him as astonishing. In his journal he described it as “one of the most singular spectacles that I have seen in my whole life: a whole floating town on which was nailed a fine house made of planks of wood.” Moved by curiosity, he asked, when the barge next stopped, if he might visit the floating cabin and was welcomed aboard by a woman d’un certain âge who, to his further amazement, turned out to be the owner of the whole fleet. She received him, he wrote, “most honestly, purely in my capacity as traveller.”

This traveler, known on his many journeys simply as “M. Guillaume,” was probably the best-loved man in France. He was Chrétien-Guillaume de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, who three months before had been a colleague of Turgot’s and Master of the Royal Household. For Malesherbes, this vision of floating bounty, directed by a formidable barge-woman, was about as far from old-regime France as he could come. Like the whole of the Dutch Republic it proclaimed wealth, freedom of goods and persons and the homely dignities that stood in damning contrast to the court at Versailles from which he had come. The Netherlands suited “M. Guillaume” very well. Miraculously, he thought, as did a whole caravan of distinguished French visitors who included Diderot, Montesquieu and d’Argenson, it had preserved simplicity of manners even at the height of its powers. Moreover, it was a nation of pipe smokers, and in society in France only snuff was permitted with its enameled boxes, lace handkerchiefs and fussy business with thumb and forefinger. Nor did anyone there seem to attach much store to appearance, which was as well since Malesherbes had been notorious for lumbering about, even at court, in his grimy brown coat and black hose, looking for all the world like a small-town apothecary rather than a minister of the King.

He was a passionate traveler, and regular dismissals from office (the penalty paid for his independent mind) had provided him with time to indulge himself in his real vocation: botany. Hardly had he submitted his letter of resignation to Louis XVI, following Turgot’s “disgrace,” than he was off on a walking trip to southwest France to look at viticulture and the sandy pine woods of the Landes southwest of Bordeaux. His real mission in life, he claimed, was to succeed in refuting the naturalist theories of Buffon, whom he denounced as a scoundrel as well as a fool, and to rehabilitate the work of his own intellectual master, Linnaeus. Forty volumes of his Herbier, as well as the most extensive scientific garden in France, were to accomplish this great enterprise. For Males-herbes, his château was simply a kind of glorified potting shed with a botanical reference library of a thousand works attached. In his great collection were Virginian dogwoods, Pennsylvanian junipers, Canadian spruce, as well as tropical gum trees and Brazilian nut woods. He even had an entire stand of English elms shipped from Dover on a specially commissioned packet and transplanted. To him, the most painful sight in the world – after the state of the Paris prisons – was a burned-over forest such as the one he found on his long ramble through Provence in 1767. In Holland his encyclopedic mind raced. Entranced with a culture where natural disaster was compensated for by natural ingenuity, he observed everything. Colonies of rabbits threatened the dunes but the Dutch replied by discovering a kind of shallow-rooted tree that fixed the sand. Even seaweed could be used to strengthen the dikes. Lying in a clean bed on a warm August morning at the tip of the north Holland peninsula, looking from his window at the ocean, Malesherbes felt, at last, cleansed of the dirt of court politics.

He had never really been happy in office. In Switzerland, two years later, a Protestant pastor had tried to offer the anonymous, learned disputant a vacant curacy. When Malesherbes attempted to extricate himself, the pastor assumed he was questioning his right to make the appointment, adding, reassuringly, “Mais moi, ministre.” To which his companion replied, temporarily discarding his incognito, “Et moi, ex-ministre.” In fact he reveled in this repudiation of official authority. He had turned down his friend Turgot on the first occasion the Controller-General had tried to persuade him to take office in 1774. And shortly after his departure from the ministry he found himself in an inn where two men were lamenting the removal of the fine M. de Malesherbes. “M. Guillaume” hotly disputed the ex-minister’s fitness for office, insisting that Malesherbes was simply not cut out for the job.

There was, of course, an element of inverted self-congratulation in all this. An admirer, indeed a correspondent of Rousseau’s, Malesherbes consciously struck the attitude of the honnête homme. Continuing to wear down-at-heel clothes as the Master of the Royal Household was not a matter of absent-minded slovenliness but a deliberate defiance of Versailles etiquette that prescribed court dress for ministers. If economy was to be the order of the day, let it start with him. He scored even more points from the story (probably true) that the famous dancing master Marcel, hired to instruct him as a youth, had despaired of the task and warned Malesherbes père that with such miserable deportment his son could never hope to succeed in any career of public or political distinction. Unlike that other quintessential honnête homme, Benjamin Franklin, Malesherbes was virtually incapable of insincerity or social calculation. And he had enough personal disasters and unhappinesses to endear him to a generation that believed sorrow to be a badge of nobility. In 1771, Malesherbes had found the body of his wife Marie-Françoise, the daughter of Farmer-General Grimod de La Reynière, in the woods near his house. With careful expertise she had tied a rifled musket to a tree, wound a blue silk ribbon to the trigger, propped the muzzle against her breast and pulled. Rousseau had written in condolence the best praise he knew: that “she knew neither how to feign nor to deceive. That must at least be some consolation in the affliction that all sensitive hearts must feel.”

Within Malesherbes there dwelled all the political contradictions of the old-regime nobility. Since he was temperamentally unsuited to court, Turgot put him in charge of the royal household. There he pretended not to notice the creatures of the grands appartements snickering behind their hands at this owl come among peacocks. And he used his unimpeachable reputation to prepare the way for Necker’s wholesale onslaught on court office. Despite his appearance and manners, Malesherbes had nothing to apologize for in his pedigree. His family was one of the most distinguished noble dynasties in France. As little covetous as he was, he had married into one of the richest. While the family had risen to prominence under Cardinal Mazarin as a great clan of therobe – the judicial nobility – it had, like many others, served both in royal office and in the sovereign courts that had become an unofficial opposition to absolutism. Malesherbes’ father had been chancellor and his cousin Lamoignon was to be Louis XVI’s most determined Keeper of the Seals.

When Malesherbes had taken office under Louis XV, it was in such a way as to constrain rather than enforce the authority of absolutism. He had begun his career at the age of twenty in Parlement. Between 1750 and 1775 he had occupied two positions crucial to the defense of what Malesherbes, in common with many of the elite, saw as fundamental liberties. The first of these was the freedom to read. From 1750 to 1763 he occupied the post of directeur de la librairie: the official who decided whether or not a book might be published. It need hardly be said that his attitude was one of creative complaisance. Virtually everything short of outright atheism, tracts preaching regicide and pornography got published under his regime. Most important, both Rousseau and the editors of theEncyclopédie, Diderot and d’Alembert, received the protection they needed to produce their great work. In 1752 the royal council, angered by articles in the second volume attacking the Jesuits, demanded its suppression and provided heavy fines for anyone caught printing or distributing it. Worse, Malesherbes was ordered to seize all the relevant manuscripts, plates and unbound and bound copies. Instead, he not only tipped off Diderot before the police arrived but actually persuaded him to hide the offending copy in his own house, assuming correctly that it was the last place they might look for incriminating material.

In his other office, as president of the Cour des Aides, Malesherbes proved himself to be no less willing to use high position to defend the citizen (for the word was commonly used) against the agents of absolutism. Most of the business of the Cour des Aides was to hear appeals against decisions given by the administrative tribunals of the tax and finance authorities: customs officers, excise men and the commissioners of the Farmers-General. This made it one of the more popular institutions of the old regime, and its sympathetic reputation was probably enhanced by the fact that most of its advocates and magistrates came from a lower social stratum of the nobility than the grands of the Parlements.

The President could be terrierlike in his tenacity when he became convinced an injustice had been committed. For example, an itinerant hawker from the Limousin named Monnerat had been arrested on suspicion of smuggling and thrown in the underground cells of the Bicêtre prison for twenty months without being given a hearing. On release he attempted through the Cour des Aides to win damages against the Farmers-General. This resulted in his being rearrested, at which point Malesherbes countered by apprehending the officer of the Farm. A head-on collision then ensued between the Cour des Aides and the Controller-General, Terray, that only ended when the latter dissolved the Court. But if the crown temporarily had the upper hand, the episode ensured that when the Court was reinstated under Louis XVI, its standing as a protector of the subject against arbitrary administrative justice would never be higher.

The Court had a second, no less important function. Like the thirteen high courts of Parlement, it retained the right to “register” any royal edict. Only with that ratification could edict become law, although the crown could override a prolonged refusal to register by holding a lit de justice and commanding it into execution. Also in common with the Parlements the Court had a power of “remonstrance.” At the height of royal ascendancy in the seventeenth century this power had lapsed, but following the death of Louis XIV in 1715, the Regent had restored it and with this one stroke rejuvenated the political authority of the courts. Remonstrances were, in effect, critical admonitions or protests – often in the form of lengthy lectures – against policies considered violations of the “fundamental laws” of the realm. Just what that body of fundamental law comprised was, as we shall see, a matter of serious dispute. But as the fiscal policies of Louis XV became more aggressive following each of his major wars, so remonstrances against them became correspondingly more frequent and combative.

Most of the remonstrances issuing from Parlement concerned the breach of privilege implied by taxes like the vingtième, even though Parlement claimed to be reacting to assaults on “liberties.” But those coming from the Cour des Aides from 1759 onwards had a much more radical character. For Malesherbes used his presidency to attack the entire system of taxation, especially the inequities of assessment and collection. In the first place, he argued, following Montesquieu, that under the medieval French monarchy, taxes had never been levied without the consent of the people assembled in the Estates-General. Second, it was axiomatic that the total amount of taxes ought never to exceed the proven needs of state. And for the correct relationship between revenue and necessary expenditures to be restored, some form of public accountability had to be introduced. Third, the inequities of taxation had to be addressed – between different classes of citizens and between different regions of the country.

In 1771 he would go even further. Exasperated by Parlementaire obstruction, Chancellor Maupeou had persuaded Louis XV to take drastic action. The sovereign courts were done away with altogether in favor of appointed bodies of magistrates who would do the crown’s bidding. In February 1771 Malesherbes issued a remonstrance on behalf of the Court that guaranteed its own dissolution shortly thereafter. But not before he had attacked the crown for violating fundamental rights of property by depriving the members of Parlement of their offices. This was no more than following the acceptable Parlementaire line. But the remonstrance had a sting in its tail. For in closing, Malesherbes argued that since the “nation” had been deprived of “intermediary bodies” that might defend its “fundamental laws” there was now no alternative to despotism except to summon an assembly of the nation, presumably the Estates-General. “The incorruptible witness of its representatives will at least show you if it is true whether, as your ministers ceaselessly claim, the magistrates violate the law, or whether the cause we defend today is not that of the People by whom you reign and for whom you reign.”

The conditional, even contractual basis of this sovereignty was a long way from the absolutism proclaimed in Louis XV’s formal utterance in the lit de justice that “we hold our Crown from God alone.” And in March, the King duly summoned the recalcitrant President to Versailles to witness the mortifying ceremony in which he would personally annul the Court’s remonstrance. But en route to this ritualized humiliation, an extraordinary event occurred. When Malesherbes arrived at the doors to the royal apartments, the wall of ornamental popinjays, who made a great point of condescending to the black-garbed magistrates, parted down the middle to allow the grubby little fat man undisputed access to the King. A colleague of Malesherbes’ later recalled this act of unexpected deference as “astonishing” and described the “respect and consideration… all the more striking because the men of the robe… sometimes have difficulty in entering [the apartments] even when the King has requested their presence.”

Malesherbes’ hope for the new reign was that Louis XVI might be rescued from his court. So he very reluctantly joined Turgot’s ministry on the understanding that he would not be co-opted into the world of les petits maîtres, as he contemptuously called the courtiers. And lest he still be misunderstood, before taking office he published a final remonstrance that was a massive indictment of both the spirit and the letter of French government. The bulk of the long and powerfully argued treatise was taken up with an attack on the abuses of the Farmers-General and their officers, the inequities of the taille and the need to replace the cherished “secrecy” of administration with public scrutiny and accountability. But Malesherbes also took it on himself to reiterate that this necessarily meant breaking down the bureaucratic power of intendants and substituting the elected authority of local and provincial assemblies. Only when the crown could depend on a loyal national representation would government be treated as a trust rather than a despotic imposition by those it presumed to rule.

Needless to say Louis XVI missed the point. Instead of seeing the remonstrance as an appeal to alter in its fundamentals the nature of government, he saw it as a long-winded advocacy of specific piecemeal measures to which he was not especially opposed. Likewise, in the same year, Turgot’s Memoir on Municipalities, which proposed an even more drastic decentralization of government, starting with local village assemblies and reaching all the way to a national representation, failed to make much of an impression on the King. Much of Malesherbes’ urging that the King should give public demonstrations of a new candor and public-spiritedness fell on deaf ears, or was defeated by the claims of traditional decorum advanced by Maurepas. So that while Louis was content that Malesherbes personally visit the Bicêtre prison and the Bastille (from which he emerged aghast at conditions in the worst cells), he refused the Minister’s entreaties to accompany him. Nor would he abolish, as Malesherbes strongly recommended, lettres de cachet(the instrument by which the crown could command the arrest and detention of prisoners without a hearing). Nothing much more than lip service was paid to the Minister’s cherished proposals for public toleration of Protestantism.

All the great hopes placed in Louis XVI at the time of his coronation, then, were rapidly petering out. But coming as they did from two of the most powerful men in France, the remonstrance and Turgot’s mémoire constituted a blueprint for an alternative monarchy in France: local rather than centralized, elected rather than bureaucratic, public rather than clandestine and legal rather than arbitrary.

Before long Malesherbes ran afoul of the Queen when he balked at granting an embassy to one of her more notorious favorites. But once his friend Turgot fell from power, he was able to depart with a clean conscience: he had not compromised his independence with the taint of office. He went back to his château, poring over seedlings and his immense manuscript late into the night, dressed in a gray flannel gown and white nightcap. Nor had he altogether despaired of the monarchy. The year 1775 had also witnessed his triumphal reception into the Académie Française, where he had made an inaugural address that rang with brilliant optimism for the destiny of France. His own fate and that of his king were, in fact, more closely united than he could have imagined. He would once more play the lawyer, and his unhappy client would be Louis XVI.

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