Choiseul was succeeded by a “Triumvirat” in which d’Aiguillon was foreign minister, René-Nicolas de Maupeou was chancellor, and Abbé Joseph-Marie Terray was contrôleur des finances. Terray gave Du Barry all the funds that she demanded; otherwise, however, he reduced expenditures heroically. He suspended amortization, and lowered the rate of interest on governmental obligations; he devised new taxes, dues, and fees, and doubled the tolls on internal transport; altogether he saved 36,000,000 livres, and added 15,000,000 to income. In effect he delayed financial collapse by partial bankruptcy, but many men suffered through governmental defaults, and added their voices to an unsettling discontent. Soon the deficit grew again, and reached 40,000,000 livres in the last year of the reign (1774). What would today seem to be a modest national debt for a nation with fiscal stability was an added cause for anxiety to those who had lent money to the government, and who now heard with less hostility the mounting cries for change.

The culminating crisis in the final decade of Louis XV was the struggle of his ministers to preserve the absolute power of the king against the active rebellion of the parlements. These (as we have seen) were not representative or legislative bodies like the British Parliament; they were judicial chambers serving as appellate courts in thirteen cities of France. In addition, like the English Parliament versus Charles I, they claimed to defend, against royal absolutism, the “fundamental law,” or established customs, of their regions; and since the Regent Philippe d’Orléans had confirmed their “right of remonstrance” against royal or ministerial edicts, they advanced to the claim that no such edict could become law unless they accepted and registered it.

If the parlements had been elected by the people, or by an educated and propertied minority (as in Britain), they might have served as a transition to democracy, and in some measure they were a wholesome check upon the central government; generally, therefore, the people supported them in their conflicts with the king. Actually, however, the parlements, almost entirely composed of rich lawyers, were among the most conservative forces in France. As the “nobility of the robe,” these lawyers became as exclusive as the “nobility of the sword”; “parlement after parlement decreed that new posts carrying nobility were to be restricted to … families already noble.”83 The Paris Parlement was the most conservative of all. It competed with the clergy in opposing freedom of thought or publication; it banned, and sometimes burned, the books of the philosophes. It had been won to Jansenism, which brought a Calvinist theology into the Catholic Church. Voltaire noted that the Jansenist Parlement of Toulouse tortured and killed Jean Calas, and that the Parlement of Paris approved the execution of La Barre, while the ministry of Choiseul reversed the Calas judgment and protected the Encyclopedists.

Christophe de Beaumont, archbishop of Paris, aggravated the conflict between the Jansenists and the orthodox Catholics by ordering the clergy under his jurisdiction to administer the sacraments only to persons who had confessed to a non-Jansenist priest. The Paris Parlement, with wide public approval, forbade the priests to obey this order; it accused the Archbishop of fomenting a schism, and seized some of his temporal possessions. The King’s Council of State called this procedure illegally confiscatory, and bade the Parlement withdraw from religious disputes. The Parlement refused; on the contrary, it drew up “Grandes Remontrances” (May 4, 1753) which in a degree foreshadowed the Revolution: they professed loyalty to the King, but told him that “if subjects owe obedience to kings, these on their side owe obedience to the laws”;84 the implication was that the Parlement, as guardian and interpreter of the law, would act as a supreme court over the king. On May 9 the Council of State issued lettres de cachet banishing most members of the Paris Parlement from the capital. The provincial parlements and the people of Paris rose to the support of the exiles. The Marquis d’Argenson noted, in December, that “the Parisians are in a state of subdued excitement.”85 The government, fearing a popular rising, ordered its soldiery to patrol the streets and protect the house of the Archbishop. In March, 1754, d’Argenson wrote: “Everything is preparing for civil war.”86 Cardinal de La Rochefoucauld devised a face-saving compromise; the government recalled the exiles (September 7), but ordered the Parlement and the clergy to refrain from further dispute. The order was not obeyed. The Archbishop of Paris continued his campaign against Jansenism, and so vigorously that Louis banished him to Conflans (December 3). The Parlement declared that the papal bull against Jansenism was not a rule of faith, and bade the clergy ignore it. The government vacillated, but finally, needing a loan from the clergy to prosecute the Seven Years’ War, it ordered the Parlement to accept the papal bull (December 13,1756).

The violent debate turned many heads. On January 5, 1757, Robert-François Damiens attacked the King in a Versailles street, and stabbed him with a large penknife; then he stood by, awaiting arrest. Louis told his negligent bodyguard, “Secure him, but let no one do him any harm.”87 The wound proved minor, and the assailant claimed: “I had no intention to kill the King. I might have done this had I been so inclined. I did it only that God might touch the King’s heart, and work on him to restore things to their former footing.”88 In a letter from prison to the King he repeated that “the Archbishop of Paris is the cause of all the disturbance about the sacraments, by having refused them.”89 He had (he said) been aroused by the speeches he had heard in the Parlement; “if I had never entered a court of justice … I should never have gotten here.”90 Those speeches had so excited him that he had sent for a physician to come and bleed him; none came; had he been bled (he claimed), he would not have attacked the King.91 The Grand’ Chambre of the Parlement tried, convicted, and sentenced him, and condemned his father, mother, and sister to perpetual banishment. Damiens suffered the tortures prescribed by law for regicides: his flesh was torn by red-hot pincers, he was splashed with boiling lead, he was torn apart by four horses (March 28, 1757). Highborn ladies paid for points of vantage from which to see the operation. The King expressed disgust with the tortures, and sent pensions to the banished family.

The attempt won some sympathy for the King: Jews and Protestants joined in prayers for his speedy recovery; but when it was learned that the wound was, in Voltaire’s phrase, only a “pinprick” (piqûre d’épingle), the tide of public support turned back to the Parlement. People began to discuss representative government versus absolute monarchy. “They see in the parlements” wrote d’Argenson, “a remedy for the vexations they suffer. … Revolt is smoldering.” In June, 1763, the Paris Parlement again affirmed that “the verification of the laws by Parlement is one of those laws that cannot be violated without violating that law by which the kings themselves exist.”92 The Parlement of Toulouse went further, declaring that the law required “the free consent of the nation”;93 but by “nation” it meant the parlements. On July 23, 1763, an important judicial body, the Cour des Aides, under the presidency of the brave and honest Malesherbes, submitted to the King a report on national poverty and the incompetence and corruption in the administration of the national finances; it begged him to “listen to the people themselves through the voice of their deputies in a convocation of the States-General of the realm.”94 Here was the first clear demand for that national assembly which had not been called since 1614.

In the crucial struggle that resulted in the expulsion of the Jesuits from France (1764)95 the Paris Parlement seized the offensive, and forced the hand of the King. In June and November the Parlement of Rennes, supreme judicial court of Brittany, dispatched strong remonstrances to Louis against the oppressive taxes levied by the Duc d’Aiguillon, then governor of the province. Receiving no satisfaction, it suspended its sittings, and most of its members resigned (May, 1765). Its procureur général, Louis-René de La Chalotais, published an attack upon the central government. He, his son, and three counselors were arrested and charged with sedition. The King ordered the Rennes Parlement to try them; it refused, and all the parlements of France, backed by public opinion, supported the refusal. On March 3, 1766, Louis appeared before the Parlement of Paris, warned it against conniving at sedition, and proclaimed his resolve to rule as an absolute monarch.

In my person alone resides the sovereign power. … To me alone belongs the legislative power, unconditional and undivided. All public order emanates from me. My people and I are one, and the rights and interests of the nation, which some dare to make a body separate from the monarch, are necessarily united with mine, and rest in my hands alone.96

His vows, he added, had been not to the nation, as the Parlement asserted, but only to God. The Parlement of Paris continued to defend that of Rennes, but on March 20 it officially accepted, as “inevitable maxims,” the doctrine that “the sovereignty belongs to the king alone; he is accountable only to God; … the legislative power resides entirely in the person of the sovereign.”97 Choiseul and others urged the King to make responsive concessions. La Chalotais and his fellow prisoners were released, but were exiled to Saintes, near La Rochelle. D’Aiguillon was recalled from Brittany, and joined Choiseul’s foes. The Parlement of Rennes resumed its sittings (July, 1769).

Voltaire entered the conflict by issuing in 1769 his Histoire du Parlement de Paris, par M. l’abbé Big. He denied authorship of the book, and wrote a letter criticizing it as “a masterpiece of errors and awkwardness, a crime against the language”;98 even so, it was his. Though written in haste, it showed considerable historical research, but it lacked impartiality; it was a long arraignment of the Parlement as a reactionary institution that had at every turn opposed progressive measures—e.g., the establishment of the French Academy, inoculation for smallpox, and free administration of justice. Voltaire accused the parlements of class legislation, superstition, and religious intolerance. They had condemned the earliest printers in France; they had applauded the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre; they had sentenced the Maréchal d’Ancre to be burned as a witch. They had been instituted, said Voltaire, for purely judicial functions, and had no authority to legislate; if they took this authority they would replace the autocracy of the king with an oligarchy of rich lawyers, entrenched beyond any popular control. Voltaire had written this long brief during the ascendancy of Choiseul, whose liberal tendencies encouraged the belief that progress could most readily be made through a king enlightened by an enlightened minister. Diderot did not agree with Voltaire; he argued that however reactionary the parlements had been, their claim of the right to supervise legislation served as a desirable check on royal tyranny.99

The return of d’Aiguillon to Paris brought on a new crisis. The Parlement of Rennes accused the Duke of malfeasance; he submitted to a trial of these charges by the Parlement of Paris; when it became clear that he would be pronounced guilty Mme. du Barry appealed to the King to intervene. Chancellor Maupeou supported her, and on June 27, 1770, Louis announced that the hearings were revealing state secrets and must be terminated. He annulled the reciprocal complaints, pronounced both d’Aiguillon and La Chalotais innocent, and ordered all parties to the dispute to refrain from further agitation. Defying these commands as an arbitrary interference with the lawful course of justice, the Parlement declared that the testimony had seriously compromised the honor of d’Aiguillon, and recommended his abstention from all functions as a peer until he had been cleared by due process of law. On September 6 the Parlement published an arrêté, or decision, that flung down the gauge to the King:

The multiplicity of the actions of an absolute power exercised everywhere against the spirit and letter of the constitutive laws of the monarchy is unequivocal proof of a premeditated project to change the form of government, and to substitute, for the always equal force of the laws, the irregular actions of arbitrary power.100

Then the Parlement adjourned till December 3.

Maupeou used the interval to prepare an uncompromising defense of royal power. On November 27 he issued, over the King’s signature, a decree that, while admitting the right of remonstrance, forbade any rejection of an edict renewed after remonstrances had been heard. The Parlement replied by requesting the King to surrender the evil counselors of the throne to the vengeance of the laws.101 On December 7 Louis summoned the Parlement to Versailles, and in an official lit de justice he bade them accept and register the November 27 decree. On returning to Paris the magistrates decided to abstain from all functions of the Parlement until the November decree should be withdrawn. Louis ordered them to resume their sittings; the order was ignored. Choiseul tried to make peace at home to wage better war abroad; Louis dismissed him; now Maupeou dominated the Council of State while Du Barry fluttered about the King. She showed him Vandyck’s portrait of England’s Charles I, and warned him of a like fate: “Your Parlement too will cut off your head.”102

On January 3, 1771, Louis again ordered the acceptance of the November edict. The Parlement replied that the edict violated the basic laws of France. On January 20, between one and four o’clock in the morning, the musketeers of the King delivered to each magistrate a lettre de cachet giving him a choice between obedience and exile from Paris. The great majority of them protested love of the King, but remained obdurate. Within the next two days 165 members of the Paris Parlement were banished to divers parts of France. The people cheered them as they left their Palais de Justice.

Maupeou now moved to supplant the parlements with a new judicial organization. By a royal decree he set up in Paris a supreme court composed of the Council of State and some complaisant jurists; and at Arras, Blois, Châlons, Clermont-Ferrand, Lyons, and Poitiers he established conseils supérieurs as appellate courts for the provinces. Some judiciary abuses were reformed, venality was interrupted, justice was henceforth to be administered without charge. Voltaire hailed the reforms and rashly predicted: “I am absolutely sure that the Chancellor will carry off a complete victory, and that the people will love it.”103 But the people could not contentedly accept the destruction of so ancient an institution as the parlements; there is nothing so often condemned, and so deeply loved, as the past. The majority of the public scorned the new courts as added tools of royal autocracy. Diderot, though he had no delusions about the parlements, mourned their passing as “the end of constitutional government.... In one moment we have jumped from the monarchical state to the most complete despotic state.”104 Eleven peers of the realm, and even some members of the royal family, expressed their disapproval of Maupeou’s attempt to replace the parlements. There was no visible commotion among the people, but the words liberté, droits (laws), and légalité, which had lately been much heard in the Parlement, now ran from mouth to mouth. Satires on the lecher King took on new audacity and bitterness. Placards called upon the Duc d’Orléans to lead a revolution.

Almost without willing it the parlements, despite their conservatism, were caught up in a ferment of revolutionary ideas. The Discourses of Rousseau, the communism of Morelly, the proposals of Mably, the secret meetings of Freemasons, theEncyclopédie’sexposure of abuses in the government and the Church, the flock of pamphlets circulating through the capital and the provinces: all these stood in violent opposition to the claim of absolute power and divine right by a do-nothing and sexually promiscuous King. “M. Tout le Monde”—i.e., public opinion—was on the move as a force in history.

Until 1750 the brunt of criticism had fallen upon the Church, but thereafter, goaded by the suppression of the Encyclopédie, it fell increasingly upon the state. Wrote Horace Walpole from Paris in October, 1765:

Laughing is out of fashion. … Good folks, they have no time to laugh. There is God and the King to be pulled down first; and men and women, great and small, are devoutly engaged in the demolition. … Do you know who the philosophes are, or what the term means here? In the first place, it comprehends almost everybody; and, in the next, means men who, vowing war against popery, aim, many of them, at a subversion of all religion, and still many more at the destruction of regal power.105

This, of course, was an exaggeration; most of the philosophes (Diderot particularly excepted) were supporters of monarchy, and fought shy of revolution. They attacked the nobility and all hereditary privilege; they pointed out a hundred abuses and called for reform; but they shuddered at the thought of giving all power to the people.106 Nevertheless Grimm wrote in his Correspondance for January, 1768:

The general weariness with Christianity, which is manifested in all parts, and especially in Catholic states; the disquiet which is vaguely agitating the minds of men, and leading them to attack religious and political abuses—[all this] is a phenomenon characteristic of our century, as the spirit of reform was of the sixteenth, and it foreshadows an imminent and inevitable revolution.107

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