Modern history


To survive, the French monarchy needed both determined reform and artful politics. From the government of Loménie de Brienne it got a full measure of the former and absolutely none of the latter. This was all the more surprising since Brienne was a figure from the opposition recruited to legitimize the reforms he had criticized in the Assembly of the Notables. But once this outsider had become an insider, he too fell victim to the traditional assumption that government and politics were mutually incompatible. From the standpoint of the government, politics had come to mean opposition and opposition a synonym for obstruction. Reform, then, had to be pushed through in the teeth of that obstruction, rather than implemented through cooperation.

Brienne was not, in fact, adamantly hostile to government through representation, not even to the Estates-General. In the autumn of 1788 he committed the government to convening that body, promising that it should be in place by 1792 at the latest. But given the manifestly catastrophic condition of French finance, he was unwilling to wait on the Estates-General for deliverance. Money first, elections later, were his priorities to deal with what he perceived (not unreasonably) as a national emergency. (After 1789, the governments of the Revolution would come to much the same conclusion.)

Many of his difficulties arose from disappointed public expectations. Brienne had come to power as the beneficiary of Calonne’s disgrace. There had been a brief interregnum in which the aged Bouvard de Fourqueux had been appointed Controller-General but it was precisely because he was seen as Calonne’s hanger-on that he remained repugnant to the Notables. Brienne, on the contrary, seemed acceptable to everyone. The Queen (somewhat improbably in view of the Minister’s swift attack on sinecures and court expenses) pressed his claims enthusiastically to her husband. The clergy, who had become extremely nervous about Calonne’s plans to attack their fiscal exemptions, were delighted to see an archbishop of Toulouse in high office. And public opinion assumed that he would henceforth avoid any kind of arbitrary proceeding, implementing reforms through consultation and representation. When the King addressed the Notables on April 23 he essentially recited Brienne’s own positions on a number of important issues. “Never did a King of England speak more popular truths or a more national language” was the verdict of the Archbishop of Aix.

Not all of these assumptions were confounded. In office, Brienne amended Calonne’s land tax in exactly the manner he had recommended as a Notable. Instead of a proportionate tax collected in kind, expanding along with production, Brienne redefined the tax as a specific amount of money to be determined by revenue needs each year. That amount would then be partitioned by quota, giving the taxable a clear idea of their liability from year to year. This immediately removed what had been publicized as the sinister, indefinitely expanding character of the imposition. He also adopted the Notables’ willingness to extend to all sections of the population (not just those who had previously been corvéable) the tax that was to replace the state labor conscription of the corvée. Other items on Calonne’s agenda, such as the reestablishment of the free trade in grain and the institution of a customs union, were uncontentious and passed into the new government’s program.

Once the Notables were able to inspect the government books, the bleak situation advertised by Calonne was no longer seen as a self-serving act of publicity. It was grim reality – to the tune of a current deficit of 140 million livres (later revised upward to 161 million). The magnitude of this crisis gave Brienne confidence that, unlike his predecessor, he could call on a kind of patriotic consensus to swallow stringent fiscal medicine. Moreover, the administration he gathered around him to make good his commitments to retrenchment as well as revenue was of high quality in terms of sheer intellectual and administrative abilities. It was, it is true, a strikingly close-knit group of friends and even relatives. Malesherbes’ cousin Lamoignon was persuaded by Brienne to abandon his botany for the public good and become Keeper of the Seals. Malse-herbes’ nephew La Luzerne became the Minister for the Navy after de Castries resigned over the Dutch crisis, and Brienne’s own brother was his counterpart in the war office.

Yet at the outset the government was not accused of being a family cabal. In part, this was due to the high reputation of individuals within the government for integrity as well as intelligence. Chrétien-François de Lamoignon had been one of the most generally admired and respected of the presidents of the Parlement of Paris and thus, it was assumed, a helpful liaison with the notoriously recalcitrant magistracy. Malesherbes remained something of a popular hero and as soon as he joined the government in the summer of 1788 he resumed the retrenchment of the royal household he had begun under Turgot. Superfluous châteaux and lodges were sold off, saving five million. Malesherbes even presumed to trespass on the court’s most sacred domain, the hunt, dooming whole packs of falconers, wolf hunters and boar stickers. By merging the greater with the lesser royal stables, he saved two to four million livres, though in so doing he much provoked the Queen, who saw her favorite, the Duc de Coigny, made redundant. Offices in the postal service that had been created as sinecures for the Polignac clan were abolished outright, and pensions to the under-seventy-fives (a notorious source of abuse) substantially reduced.

All this helped the plausibility of the government’s claim that it would rule sternly for the general good. And Brienne himself had established his own reputation for independence through his forthright criticisms as a Notable. He came from the circle of impressively well-read prelates (like Dillon of Narbonne and Boisgelin of Aix) who combined worldly charm and sophistication with considerable intellectual toughness. Though he suffered from a disfiguring skin disease that often left his face a mass of peeling scabs and tissue, Loménie de Brienne was thought of as a personable and congenial man: as clever as Calonne but without his vanity or deviousness. Only the playwright Marmontel, who served on a commission to draft a plan of national education, thought “his gaiety too disturbing and his countenance too calculating to trust.”

Brienne did not want to be seen merely as an engineer of fiscal rescue – crucial though that was. The legitimacy of his government he thought depended on it being seen as a reforming administration that would reach out to many different areas of French life. At the urging of Male-sherbes (who in turn was being pressed by his friend the pastor Rabaut Saint-Etienne), the civil emancipation of Protestants was undertaken, no mean accomplishment in the government of an archbishop of the Gallican Church. Rabaut had hoped for a full emancipation, meaning the public right of Protestants to practice their confession, including open worship in chapels. He also urged that public office henceforth be open to Protestants. This was to push Louis XVI (who had taken a coronation oath to “extirpate the heretic”) further than he was prepared to go. Portable, folding pulpits were to remain standard equipment for pastors-on-the-run a little while longer. But the measure passed did decriminalize the “heresy” and make it possible for marriages, births and deaths to be officially notarized and for members of the Reformed Church to practice trades and professions. A century after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the Huguenots had at last become civil persons once again.

In the same spirit of judicial liberalism, the remaining procedure by which torture was used to extract information about accomplices was abolished. The crushing boot, thumbscrews and waterpipes thus joined the general bonfire of anachronisms that blazed merrily in the very last year of the old monarchy. A committee presided over by the Parlementaire (and future revolutionary) Target also recommended a mandatory delay of execution of all death sentences, allowing for possible royal review and commutation – though the measure was ultimately unacceptable to Target’s own Parlement. And the administration of prisons – accommodation and clothing – was also made the subject of reforming inquiry.

The most formidable of all Brienne’s colleagues was not a minister at all but a figure in whom political power and intellectual authority were nonetheless concentrated to an almost alarming degree. This was Jacques, Comte de Guibert: drama critic, laureate of the French Academy and, until Clausewitz, the most influential military writer in Europe. At forty-three he was one of the great prodigies of French intellectual life. Sometimes gripped by black fits of dour Romantic melancholy, Guibert shone in public, disconcerting gatherings with his encyclopedic grasp of science, philosophy and literature. “His conversation,” wrote Necker’s daughter, Germaine de Staël (who was not easily impressed), “was the most far-ranging, spirited and fertile I have ever known.”

Guibert’s reputation had been established sixteen years earlier with the Essay on Tactics. That prophetic and forbidding document had foreseen with chilling prescience a time when war would no longer be the genteel sport of dynasts nor armies obligingly lined up in neat rows of infantry in the rational manner of Frederick the Great. Instead he predicted massive deployment of conscript armies, embroiled in wars of national ideology where distinctions between civilians and soldiers became blurred and where the theater of conflict expanded brutally to fill not just delineated zones of battle but entire regions and countries. Accordingly he remodeled logistics, field artillery and military engineering, stressing mobility, irregularity, adaptability: all cardinal sins in the old rule books. In March 1788, he regrouped regiments of cavalry and infantry into combined brigades that were then trained together intensively for battle-readiness. Not surprisingly, then, it was Guibert, a figure cut from the cloth of the “old regime,” who was (as Napoleon would freely acknowledge) the real architect of French military ascendancy in the years to come.

“Only suppose,” he wrote in a passage much quoted both at the time and since, the appearance in Europe of a people who should join to austere virtues and a citizen army a fixed plan of aggression, who should stick to it – understanding how to conduct war economically and to live at the enemy’s expense… such a people would subdue its neighbors and overthrow our feeble constitution like a gale bends the reeds.

Officially Guibert was subordinate to the Minister of the Army, the Comte de Brienne (Loménie’s younger brother), who succeeded Ségur when the latter resigned over the Dutch crisis. But in reality it was Guibert who immediately exerted control through the institution of a new war council of nine that combined serving officers with administrators and strategists: an embryonic general staff. Believing he could actually save money while making the army more efficient, Guibert closed the Ecole Militaire in Paris, which he had long suspected was more of an aristocratic finishing school than a serious training ground. So it was duly replaced by twelve provincial schools, lavishly endowed with scholarships to help the sons of country gentlemen. Bonaparte was a scholar of just one such institution, aptly enough at Brienne. The King’s own military household, another decorative institution, was likewise cut back and the honorific colonelcy-generals, reserved for the royal family, made to lapse on the death of each incumbent. Guibert also cut back sharply on the total number of the French officer corps, believing that its inflation had devalued the meaning of rank and eroded the chain of command. Most significantly, the notoriously corrupt business of military procurement was taken out of the hands of private contractors and placed under the direct administration of the state – yet another of the innovations sustained during the Revolution.

With all these and other reforms, Guibert saved something of the order of thirty million livres. With those savings he raised the pay of the common soldier from the penury into which it had fallen. But it would be misleading to represent Guibert as the Enlightenment in Arms. His darker side was fully in evidence at the same time. If anything, he made the disciplinary provisions of the army code more rather than less savage, if much less arbitrary. And neither was he any kind of social egalitarian. On the contrary, while he was prepared to see bright young men from the middle classes and professions man posts in the artillery and engineers, he believed the bulk of the officer corps had to come from the nobility. Paradoxically, this was not inconsistent with his vision of a reborn citizens’ army. What he wanted to expel from the army was the ethos of money and replace it instead with a neo-Roman ideal of patriotic sacrifice and physical courage. Those values he associated with a transformed nobility: one not defined by privilege and certainly not by wealth so much as an unbending profession of devotion to the service of the state.

Very little of this program was calculated to endear Guibert to the professional soldiers, either officers or men. The former did not care for his abrupt juggling with the independence of their regiments and even less for his puritanical attitude towards promotion. For private soldiers, the pleasure of improved pay was offset by the severe punishments codified in the new handbooks. Nor did strategists of the old school think much of Guibert’s wild notions of uninhibited warfare and demonic destruction visited on an enfeebled foe. The overall effect of his reforms was unsettling, perhaps even demoralizing in the short term. His was a truly revolutionary temperament still trapped in the body of royal government.

The more visionary the reforms of the Brienne government, the less the public liked them. The emancipation of the Protestants was deeply unpopular and provoked street demonstrations in the more pious areas of France in the west and southeast. (It was to continue to be one of the great divides during the Revolution.) The provincial assemblies which Brienne had preserved from Calonne’s proposals and which were brought into existence during the course of 1787 and 1788 had been designed as an exercise in devolution. But in much of France (though by no means all of it) they were stigmatized as the playthings of the government: tools of its tax policies.

Neither the seriousness of the financial crisis in the late spring of 1787 nor the acknowledged excellence of the government’s reforms was enough to disarm what had become insuperable political objections to traditional government procedure. The Assembly of the Notables that had been designed by Calonne to obviate opposition had, by taking itself seriously, turned conventional priorities on their heads. Representation and consent were now required not as the auxiliary of government but as its working condition. And by taking his case to the public – literally to the pulpits of the clergy – Calonne had made politics a matter of national attention. Once Pandora’s box had been opened in this way, it proved impossible to close the lid and Brienne’s administration foundered on the same contentions that had undone its predecessor. While the Notables were prepared to authorize loans to rescue the government from immediate bankruptcy and to assent to economic reforms, on the matter of the land tax and the stamp tax that supplemented it, they were adamant. Only the Estates-General had the authority to make such measures lawful. Faced with this recalcitrance, Brienne dissolved the body on May 25.

His alternatives were now starkly obvious. He could transform the monarchy into a representative regime by directly convening the Estates-General and assuming that this would generate the public confidence – and hence the public funds – needed to sustain the government. Or he could try to prevail over the anticipated opposition of the Parlements to the new tax policy by a judicious mixture of incentives and threats. The dangers of both policies were apparent, and it was unclear in the summer of 1787 by which course of action the vital matter of credit would be helped rather than hurt. And at a time when the King himself might have been expected to offer some leadership, he had collapsed into a world of compulsive alternation between hunting and eating, killing and gorging. On one occasion he was discovered weeping and bemoaning the loss of Vergennes. But through this neurotic helplessness it was apparent to Brienne that Louis was not ready to accept the kind of constitutional regime that could produce reform through consent.

This left only the path of confrontation.

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