Modern history


The years 1787 and 1788 saw the collapse of France’s high international standing in the aftermath of the American War. To France’s long-acknowledged cultural hegemony in Europe, the Treaty of Versailles of 1783 had added a global diplomatic triumph which augured brilliantly for the future, and an economic boom stimulated by a government whose financial position was sound (or so Necker’s Compte Rendu gave all to believe). Now, the monarchy seemed morally and financial bereft, the economy was in trouble and Bourbon diplomacy was in utter disarray, bordering on paralysis.

Diplomatic failures were both symptom and cause of government weakness. Vergennes had emerged from the American War determined to establish closer relations with the United Provinces, alongside whom France had fought, and whose naval strength and commercial power made an excellent counterweight against Britain. This was a delicate operation. First, the internal affairs of the Dutch were unstable at that time. Second, such a move risked alienating France’s ally, Austria, which might feel that it threatened the adjacent Austrian Netherlands (or Belgium). Third, Joseph II, sole Austrian emperor since the death of Maria Theresa in 1780, was still restlessly seeking territorial aggrandisement. The river Scheldt had been closed to the shipping of the Austrian Netherlands at Utrecht in 1713 so as to protect the commercial interests of the neighbouring United Provinces. This measure had severely weakened Belgian Antwerp, and Joseph now urged the river’s opening, following up with the suggestion that Austria should exchange its Belgian possessions for Bavaria. France joined with Prussia in blocking these moves and ironing out Austro-Dutch differences and in November 1785, Vergennes signed a defensive alliance with the Dutch. The urban ‘Patriot’ faction then dominant in the United Provinces was, however, engaged in a bitter dispute with the conservative and pro-British Stadtholder. The matter required careful handling, and Vergennes was hobbled by his fellow ministers Breteuil, representing Marie-Antoinette’s pro-Austrian lobby, and Calonne. Even before Vergennes’s death in February 1787, it was clear that France was losing out. In September 1787, following a personal assault on the Stadtholder’s wife, who was sister to the new king of Prussia, Frederick William II, the latter sent in troops to overthrow the Patriots (many of whom fled the country) and, with England making threatening naval manoeuvres in his support, restored the Stadtholder’s power. France thus lost the friendship of the Dutch, who next year entered into formal alliance with Prussia, while Austria was still smarting over French lack of commitment.

France had been brought to a depressing state of diplomatic nullity – a situation underlined in the East, where Vergennes’s efforts to balance the friendship of both Turkey and Russia proved embarrassingly unsuccessful. British and Prussian intelligence sources had made it crystal clear to both governments that France had neither the resources nor the will to engage in military action in 1787–8. The government was simply too absorbed in domestic difficulties at the nub of which was, precisely, the country’s ability to convert economic resources into armed might. Looking across the Channel at the ‘prodigious’ way in which the English built up their armed forces, Vergennes sagely noted that although France had ‘more solid resources than England, [it is] far from being able to call them into play so easily. This is the result of [public] opinion, which cannot develop in an absolute monarchy to the extent that it can in a mixed monarchy.’58 This was quite a compliment to how powerful public opinion had become, since earlier in the century English commentators such as Arthur Young had estimated that it was precisely the absolute monarch’s ability to default on his debts which gave the French potential superiority over the British.59 Now, however, things looked different. Credit, Necker’s daughter, Madame de Staël, subsequently recorded him as saying, ‘is only [public] opinion applied to financial affairs’.60 This was an equation which, as Vergennes noted, boxed in even a putatively absolute ruler’s financial options.

The years 1787–8 were to see this Anglo-French conundrum playing itself out. While Britain successfully restored its finances following its American humiliation, the French crown sought – with ever more difficulty – to put its financial affairs in order by seeking to come to an accommodation with public opinion. The government would find the public playing hard-to-get, and short-term credit hard to find. This was not simply because ministers introduced unpopular fiscal policies in an attempt to stimulate the economy and to fend off the growing threat of state bankruptcy. In addition, its new aura of military incapacity weakened its popular appeal. Military success was one of the most heavily resorted-to trump-cards of the great nation – territorial aggrandisement and international gloire had always been key components of the Bourbon dynasty’s political project.61 The need for defence of the realm justified higher taxes, while from mid-century, as we have seen, a kind of militaristic royal populism had developed in the public sphere. Louis XV had been ‘Well-Beloved’ at Metz in 1744 precisely because he had risked his life in flying to the frontier to lead his country. Even in spite of his later unpopularity, in practice he benefited from the patriotism whipped up in and after the Seven Years War. Louis XVI had built on this, notably by his success in the American War. His visit in 1786 to Cherbourg – whose naval defences were a kind of patriotic talisman in the anti-English struggle62 – showed the potential force of royal populism. The state’s financial incapacity, however, put mobilization of opinion around issues of war and peace beyond the scope of government at a moment when, in the context of serious financial crisis, it needed all the help it could get.

In order to institute the financial recovery of the state, Controller-General Calonne embarked upon what was to prove his last gamble. Certain that he would be unable to drive through the Parlement the drastic financial measures he estimated were essential to state solvency, he decided to call the Parlement’s bluff. The magistrates’ remonstrances invariably invoked their representative role vis-à-vis the public. Calonne now determined to present a package of wide-reaching reforms to a body which could be viewed as more representative of the wishes of the nation than the venal office-holding magistracy. He found this body – the Assembly of Notables – mothballed in the junk-room of absolutist monarchy. It had last met at Cardinal Richelieu’s behest in 1626 very precisely so as to supply a more manageable form of public endorsement than the Parlement. It was to this archaic body, which customarily was handpicked by the king from the three estates of the realm, that Calonne chose to refer his reforms, which were set out in thePrécis d’un plan d’amélioration des finances (‘Outline of a Plan to Improve the Finances’), which he presented to the king in August 1786. The voice of the Assembly would, Calonne hoped, ‘carry weight in the opinion of the public generally’,63 and smooth the way for financial redressment.

Calonne’s programme was far more ambitious than merely finding an alternative to the third vingtième, which was scheduled to end by 1787.

The idea was to do away with the vingtièmes altogether, replacing them with a unitary land tax. This would be payable in kind, thus making it inflation-proof, and it would fall on all landowners irrespective of social rank. Unlike the vingtièmes, which had time-limits, it would be a permanent tax and would be graduated, according to property value. The assessment, banding and collection processes would be supervised, under the guidance of the local Intendant, by three tiers of local assemblies – at parish, district, and provincial levels. Calonne’s network of provincial assemblies more closely resembled those formerly proposed by Turgot than the bodies instituted by Necker, in that they had an elective element and their membership was on the basis of landholding, without any division into three estates. More than a touch of Turgotian liberalism was evident too in ancillary reforms aimed to reactivate the economic boom on which Calonne’s whole policy was predicated: the commutation of the corvée, the abolition of internal customs frontiers and the freeing-up of the circulation (and in most circumstances, the export) of grain.

In order to extricate the state from its severe financial plight, Calonne was thus bidding both to introduce a fairer and simpler system of tax-collection and, through proportional taxation, to draw more heavily on that wealthy elite which, after all, he had devoted the entirety of his tenure in office fattening up. Though the king was initially appalled by Calonne’s programme – ‘This is pure Necker!’ he ejaculated64 – he became enthused by the ethos of fairness about the reforms, which were designed to alleviate the lot of the common people, to whose welfare Louis was sentimentally attached. Though he was far from well-informed on the condition of his subjects, it was clear that economic difficulties were adding to the problems of the poor. The context for Calonne’s innovations was thus rather impropitious, and his situation was further weakened in early 1787 during preparations for the Assembly of Notables. A chain of bankruptcies of major financiers, led by that of Navy Treasurer Baudard de Saint-James, undermined the Controller-General’s borrowing facility. Working tirelessly on preparations for the Assembly, Calonne fell ill, and this delayed its opening, as did the unexpected death of Vergennes in February 1787. The latter was the minister whom Louis had found it easiest to trust. His support for Calonne had been crucial in shielding the Controller-General from the ire of the other ministers, Breteuil, Ségur and Castries, who were dead set against the convocation of the Assembly. These mishaps gave valuable time to the forces of opposition to gather and to frame their arguments for the moment when, on 22 February 1787, the Assembly opened.

Calonne’s biggest asset for the success of his gamble was the wholehearted support of his monarch. Louis opened the first session evoking the spirit of Good King Henry IV and calling for general interests to prevail over the sectional. ‘This is my work’, he stated in private, ‘and I will see it through’.65 Yet Calonne’s powers of political management of the Assembly were to be no more effective than his record in parlementary management. He thunderstruck the assembled dignitaries by revealing from the start the extent of the annual deficit – some 112 million livres: quite a distance from the ten million livres surplus announced by Necker in 1781. Around 40 per cent of state expenditure was going on servicing past loans, with the army and navy taking a further 25 per cent. The state, it seemed, had been laid low by war and its debts. Yet as Keeper of the Seals Miromesnil informed the king, with more than a little collegial schadenfreude, most members of the Assembly ‘fear that the deficit in your revenues has not been sufficiently demonstrated’.66Indeed, the deficit was so unexpectedly colossal that many deputies thought that they were being tricked by phony figures into agreeing to emergency measures.

Calonne had arranged for his proposals to be discussed in seven committees, each of which was chaired by a Prince of the Blood (to all of whom he had been amply generous over the previous years). Of all the chairs, only the comte d’Artois, Calonne’s sometime partner in stock manipulation, did his job in winning the minister support. Although some of the proposals seemed acceptable in principle, the Assembly jibbed at the form in which they were presented – and the man who was presenting them. Calonne’s reputation for financial double-dealing and corruption made him seem, one observer noted, ‘a combination of the abuses he wanted to reform’.67 Most of the political and social elite would have thought twice about buying a used cabriolet from him, let alone accepting the radical package of measures he was proposing. As Austrian ambassador Mercy privately noted, the whole ‘rigmarole’ seemed ‘no more than a petty trick to raise more money’.68

Necker’s many supporters in the Assembly felt that Calonne’s claims about the deficit were less well founded than those of the Genevan maestro. Ecclesiastical representatives orchestrated by the ambitious protégé of Marie-Antoinette, archbishop Loménie de Brienne of Toulouse, expressed concern about the potential loss of historic church rights. Others worried about the provincial assemblies, which were seen as both too democratic (because they ignored distinctions of rank) and too despotic (because they would probably end up in the claws of provincial Intendants). It was the proposed land-tax, however, which drew most of the flak. The 150-strong Assembly was composed of individuals whose wealth lay in land – and who would be the first to suffer from such a tax: prelates, great nobles of Sword and Robe, representatives from the pays d’état and over a score of heads of municipal governments. Less selfishly, the members also picked up on parlementary discourses over taxation which had been maturing since the 1750s, highlighting the fear that the legal basis for the state was being overturned by ‘despotic’ direct executive agents of the ruler.69 The kind of universal peacetime impost which overrode historic privileges which Calonne championed was implicitly, they maintained, unconstitutional. The idea that the authorization of such a tax required the assent of the Estates General – which had last met in 1614, and had a better claim to represent the nation than either the Assembly or the parlements – was initially floated, almost as a provocation, by the marquis de La Fayette, picking up a suggestion made by Malesherbes during the Maupeou crisis. It soon gathered a broad measure of support.

By early April, it was apparent that the whole exercise was failing disastrously to deliver what Calonne had wanted. The Assembly had simply not produced the answers for which it had been rigged, and indeed it had influenced the public more against the reforms than for them. The political establishment and the public sphere were so awash with suspicion of the whole ‘rigmarole’ that Calonne was finding it impossible to attract short-term credit. Desperate to rally potential creditors, he circulated a supplément d’instruction (‘Supplement to the Instruction’), which made it explicit that the programme of reforms was wholly and unconditionally endorsed by the king. At the same time, he issued a rather demagogic document, the Avertissement (‘Notice’), distributed gratis and read out in pulpits across the land, which argued that anyone opposing the reforms was motivated by selfish and sectional interests. This appeal to the Third Estate was both too little and too late (as well as being pretty unconvincing: after all, only two of thehand-picked members of the Notables did not enjoy noble status). Not even Louis’s personal endorsement was enough to save his wobbling Controller-General now. Much to his regret, and after a standard measure of royal havering which included replacing Miromesnil as Keeper of the Seals by Lamoignon, the king dismissed Calonne. One of Calonne’s aides, Bouvard de Fourqueux, was initially appointed as Controller-General, but this failed to work out, and the king was obliged to place his government in the hands of Calonne’s most acerbic critic in the Assembly, Loménie de Brienne.

The appointment of Brienne, who was made chef du conseil on 1 May (and in August, principal ministre), was a triumph for his patron Marie-Antoinette, and marked the arrival of a queen as a major player in the Bourbon polity for the first time since Anne of Austria, Louis XIII’s wife. This was a surprisingly swift about-turn, following Marie-Antoinette’s wretched fortunes in the Diamond Necklace affair. She and ‘her’ ministers Breteuil, Castries and Ségur had not even been consulted over the convocation of the Assembly of Notables, and the sobriquet ‘Madame Deficit’ had started to be used about her in recognition of her extravagant ways. Her star now began to rise even as her husband’s fell. The king took the departure of Calonne very hard: he had agreed with Calonne’s policies, which he believed were in line with the wishes of his cherished public, and he felt he was being forced to dismiss him – probably the first time this had happened to a French king since the Frondeurs had forced the child Louis XIV to remove Mazarin in 1649. Louis distrusted ‘priestly rabble’ almost as much as ‘Neckerite rabble’,70 and disliked Brienne’s determination to convince the political nation that Calonne had been a crook. The king found the archbishop’s chronic eczema repulsive and was shocked by the minister presumptuously resting his elbows on the council table. Louis went into a depression, growing ever more doom-laden: in one lit de justice over the summer he would be observed snoring. More important for Brienne than the king’s disengagement and eeyorish bad temper, however, was the consistency of the queen’s favour.

From these inauspicious beginnings, Brienne fashioned a remarkable reforming ministry which fell only in late 1788, a final victim to the financial bugbear with which, to all intents and purposes, it had by then become impossible to deal within the traditional template of Bourbon political culture. A political prelate with an excellent administrative record in the Languedoc Estates, Brienne had advanced ‘philosophical’ views – Louis had once turned him down as archbishop of Paris on the grounds that the primate of the French church should at least believe in God – and brought them into his ministry with him. Malesherbes was reintroduced as minister without portfolio, heading a ministerial think-tank which – to dévot disgust – included philosophe reinforcements, Condorcet and Morellet, as well as the Parisian magistrate, Adrien Duport, and the barrister Target. Breteuil, now sidelined in the queen’s affections, was no longer a threat, and the cohesion of Brienne’s team was increased by having his own brother, the comte de Brienne, appointed to the War Ministry, with Malesherbes’s nephew, the comte de La Luzerne, taking on the Navy post. The new Keeper of the Seals, Lamoignon (Malesherbes’s cousin), distinguished himself with a range of humane enlightened reforms, notably modernization of criminal procedure (including the removal of the last traces of judicial torture and rationalization of lower courts) and, in November 1787, the granting of civil status to France’s 700,000 Protestants.

Brienne’s assault on Calonne had been partly at least a means of career leverage for himself. As soon as he came to power, he realized that the state’s financial situation was indeed dire – the deficit was running 20 to 30 per cent worse than even Calonne had stated. He therefore jettisoned his hostility to Calonne’s reform package and tried to get the Notables to stomach a modified version of it. The Assembly refused to bite, and was dismissed. Brienne now had to essay a course of action from which Calonne had recoiled, namely, forcing substantial measures of reform through the recalcitrant Parlement. Free trade in grain and the commutation of the corvée did get through, as did the installation of provincial assemblies, though these now had the three orders reinstated, albeit with the number of Third Estate deputies doubled. As anticipated, however, the Parlement cut up rough over a new stamp duty on public and printed documents – which would have effectively been a tax on credit, since credit arrangements would necessarily be inscribed on stamped paper; and it also fired off against a revised version of the land tax, now to be collectable in cash, not kind. The measures were enforced by lit de justice on 6 August 1787, but when the Parlement objected even to this it was exiled for its pains to Troyes. Brienne carried on negotiating, however, and in late September came to an agreement whereby the two laws were withdrawn. In return, the restored Parlement agreed to the imposition of two vingtièmes for five years. The Prussian invasion of the United Provinces at this time highlighted France’s weakened international position, and the crying need for structural reforms in the crown’s finances.

On assuming power, Brienne had promised the king big savings through economies, and from the summer onwards he engaged in swingeing attacks on the Royal Household. War was declared on sinecures: the king’s porte-chaise d’affaires, who carried the king’s personal privy,71 and sundry cravat-holders and royal wolf-hunters were cut. A single edict in January 1788 disposed of some 173 positions within the queen’s household. Brienne linked up with the spirit of Necker’s reforms in financial administration, streamlining the offices of the Contrôle-générale and effectively creating a unified state treasury which could – and did – produce overall statements of accounts. By themselves, however, such measures were never going to refloat the ship of state. Expenditure on the Household and on court pensions was actually falling over the century as a proportion of the total government spend: it represented around one-sixth in 1788 as against about one-quarter in 1726. Nevertheless, financial stringency in this domain had a powerful ideological effect in boosting creditors’ confidence in the regime’s fiscal management and in appeasing a public opinion increasingly critical, as we have seen, of court extravagance and economic parasitism.

Like all of Louis XVI’s finance ministers, Brienne found himself caught between a rock and a hard place. The severity of the state’s financial problems made an economy drive little more than window-dressing. Yet so profound was the general cynicism about the state’s tax policies that even a new graduated tax dressed up in a rhetoric of social justice was universally assumed to mean heavier taxes for all. On the other hand, however, a squeeze on the state’s creditors was also by now beset with political perils. The old days of scapegoating a few financiers were long gone – the Chambre de Justice option, for example, had looked ineffectual even in 1716. The state was so firmly bricked into networks of credit, which incorporated the king’s own bureaucracy as well as national and international individuals and groupings, that any gesture in the direction of reducing interest payments on state annuities would be lambasted as ‘despotic’. The Terray years (to which Louis had a strong personal aversion) had shown that such manoeuvres could be expected to lead on towards a political crisis which would damage confidence and worsen the negotiating terms under which the state borrowed money in the future. Furthermore, since the Regency, the state’s creditors had become much more numerous and more socially mixed. The fiscal system worked not merely to pump the wealth of the monied and landed elite into the state’s coffers; despite the disasters of the Law System, it also sucked in the savings of a formidable proportion of the rest of society. Early in the century around a quarter of solid wage-earners in Paris held government paper on their deaths; by the time of Louis XVI, the figure was up to two-thirds of the group. Ownership was as much a consumerist trait as possession of a wig, a coffee-pot or a shaving mirror. The financier and publicist Clavière reckoned that as many as 300,000 individuals throughout France were state creditors by the time of Louis XVI.72 The great majority of these were also both tax-payers and fully paid-up members of the bourgeois public sphere. This meant that any government innovation regarding either taxation or manipulation of state credit would have immediate impact on and ramifications within the wider public, a fact which demonstrated the correctness of Necker’s view that state credit was merely a financial incarnation of public opinion.73

Brienne’s economy measures took time to bear fruit in terms of savings, and a shortage of short-term credit saw the Principal Minister knocking on the Parlement’s door again on 19 November requesting authorization for further loans, and in return agreeing to the convocation of the Estates General in 1792, when the vingtièmes would expire. The king attended the session in person, but a procedural mix-up left the assembled worthies uncertain whether the king was forcibly registering the loans by lit de justice or whether he was assuming that his presence in the Parlement ensured there was no opposition to the proposal. When the duc d’Orléans stepped forward from the bench of peers to query the constitutionality of the proceedings, the king quashed him with disdain: ‘It is legal because it is my will’ (‘C’est légal parce que je le veux’) – as pure, unadulterated and politically insensitive a distillation of absolutist doctrine as ever came out of the mouth of a French king in public.

From the autumn of 1787 into early 1788, matters were delicately poised. The tough stance in the parlementary session of 19 November reaped dividends for Brienne’s short-term position, particularly when followed up with the exile by lettre de cachet of Orléans and the arrest of two of his most prominent parlementaire supporters. ‘The Archbishop is very steady to all his plans of economy,’74 reported the British ambassador in Paris, the duke of Dorset, in November and the fact that the new loans were taken up by investors suggested growing confidence in the government’s strategy. The Parlement felt on the defensive – in the new year rumours were about that Maupeou would soon be recalled to dish out further punishment. Within the Parlement, political initiative was passing to the younger and more radical magistrates. More strongly represented in the subaltern chambers, they began to sketch out an ideological position from which they might best defend themselves from royal assault. The councillor, Duval d’Eprémesnil, notorious for having privately urged the ‘debourbonization’ of France, was particularly vocal in the campaign for the convocation of the Estates General. The demand was the centrepiece of the ‘Declaration of the Fundamental Laws of the Kingdom’ which, on Duval’s prompting, the Parlement issued on 3 May and which also attacked arbitrary arrest through lettres de cachet, and endorsed the irremovability of magistrates.

On 8 May 1788, the hammer blow fell. Brienne’s ‘May Edicts’, forcibly registered by lit de justice, stipulated the reorganization of the higher courts, with the parlements losing much judicial authority to new subaltern appeal courts called grands bailliages; in addition, a Plenary Court (cour plénière) was created (though ministers tried to pass it off as the re-establishment of an ancient body) comprising the Paris Parlement’s Grande Chambre plus all major ministers of the crown and high dignitaries of the realm. This would have responsibility for registering legislation, thus confining the parlements to a purely judicial role. A further decree placed all parlements on vacation. Dorset complacently reported to London that ‘the storm, which threatened the internal tranquillity of this kingdom, will blow over’.75 He could not have been more wrong.

The summer and early autumn of 1788 saw insubordination towards royal authority spreading throughout France, spearheaded by the nobility who, whilst vigorously defending their own privileges, prided themselves on protecting the nation from ministerial despotism. In Paris, it was the parlementaires who had fanned the flames of urban dissent, fitfully gaining noisy support from the legal world of barristers and legal clerks and from the popular classes. Much the same was now true of the main parlementary centres in the provinces. A handful of institutions had already been involved in political clashes under Louis XVI: Grenoble and Besançon in particular had put up a fight against the 1782 vingtième edict. From late 1787, many other parlements joined in, reviving the old arguments of the ‘union of classes’ which had been current in the 1760s and early 1770s. Parlements expressed fraternal support for the suspended Paris institution, and went on to oppose further financial edicts and the establishment of provincial assemblies, which they viewed as mouthpieces of central authority which would reduce rather than extend provincial particularism. The plans to remove power from the parlements to a Plenary Court – ‘a senate of slaves’ in one view76 – met universal condemnation. The military mobilizations required to register the edicts in the provincial parlements were the occasion for ringing declarations of opposition to ministerial despotism, attacks on lettres de cachet and vigorous championing of provincial patriotism, while a number of bodies called for the Estates General as the only means of arbitrating the financial and political crisis. There were popular risings in support of the persecuted magistrates in Pau, Rennes and Grenoble. The ‘Day of the Tiles’ on 7 June saw inhabitants in the latter city raining projectiles from their rooftops on to the heads of the soldiery.

The temper of the resistance movement of 1788 was essentially aristocratic even if the nobility in this – as most other things – was often profoundly divided in its opinions and also drew other classes into its slipstream. The Frondeur intransigence of the Robe was applauded by many court nobles. A handful of peers made it clear to the king that they would not serve on the new Plenary Court, while Brienne found his position at court undermined by the score-settling of what he called ‘that whole tribe of favourites who looked on the public treasury as an inexhaustible storehouse which I would not let them loot’.77 The archbishop found himself attacked by his own order too: fellow aristocrats amongst the episcopacy led the assault on royal policies in the Assembly of Clergy which met over the summer of 1788. The usually docile discussions fixing the clergy’s tax donation, the so-called don gratuit, turned into a farrago of recrimination, including complaints about the granting of civil status to Protestants, which some ecclesiastics saw as changing the spiritual basis of the regime. The rump of the dévot interest seemed to have no qualms about throwing in their lot with their erstwhile foes, the parlements, and in the end, the Assembly offered only a pitiful additional 1.8 million livres over two years instead of the 8 million which Brienne had requested. There was also a great deal of discontent with the ministry in that other noble-dominated arm of state, the army. Brienne’s policy of economies had affected the livelihood of many career officers, while his brother’s administrative reforms at the War Ministry, coming on top of Saint-Germain’s reforms in the 1770s, also stirred up resentment. In a number of garrisons, notably at Rennes and Grenoble, there was vocal opposition among junior officers to the policing of riots caused by Brienne’s May Edicts.

Turbulence also revolved around the new provincial assemblies, about a score of which had been established in the pays d’élection over the previous summer and autumn. It was the government’s intention that these bodies should operate only under the authority of the Intendants, the king’s local representatives: for in the view of the king himself, the monarchy was ‘absolute because authority is not shared’.78 Yet provincial opinion was often more hopeful: in Dauphiné, the comte de Virieu saluted this ‘most complete and happiest of revolutions’. ‘The hour is striking’, he exclaimed, ‘for us finally to think and talk for ourselves.’79 One minor noble in the Anjou announced his intention in his local assembly of ‘getting fat on the remains of the Intendant’.80 Many Intendants did indeed view a reduction of their powers as inevitable, though others remained sure they could turn the assemblies into lapdogs. Just how local patterns of power would have been negotiated remained moot. For although the assemblies set to work fairly purposively, and functioned well alongside the district and municipal authorities created at the same time, the tergiversations of the summer of 1788 put the experiment on hold in most places. Besides their role in diffusing ideas and hands-on experience of local representative politics and administration, these assemblies were also significant for promoting moves for change regarding provincial estates. There were sometimes calls for an increase in the representation of the Third Estate in existing bodies in the pays d’état, along the lines of the provincial assemblies. Elsewhere there were demands for the reintroduction of estates in areas where these had been removed by the advance of absolutism.

The issue of provincial estates was given added acuity by political developments at the centre in July and August. Brienne found himself being outgunned by the advance of noble-led opposition and, even more pertinently, by a shortage of short-term credit to tide him through the crisis. Government normally had to rely on advances in respect of the following year’s tax revenue. The problems of political crisis were exacerbated on one hand by the continuing money- and credit-famine consequent on the counterfeiting scandal of 1786, and on the other by poor weather over the summer of 1788 which augured ill for tax income in 1789. In these circumstances, financiers proved unwilling to offer credit, especially to a minister like Brienne whose policies were precisely based on reducing the state’s dependence on financial cliques.

Under the cosh of noble intransigence, Brienne essayed a startling pirouette. First, he sought to utilize the promise of the Estates General as a means of mobilizing the bourgeois public sphere on the king’s side. ‘Since the nobility and the clergy abandon the king, who is their natural protector,’ Brienne expostulated, then ‘he must throw himself into the arms of the commons and use them to crush the other two.’81 Accordingly, his edict of 5 July 1788 made an open appeal to all-comers to provide ideas and opinions on how exactly the Estates should be composed and run. Brienne had closed down political assemblies and societies and censored the press during the crisis of 1787, yet he now put government support behind a pamphlet campaign to undermine the historic and constitutional claims of the parlements. The second feature of Brienne’s manoeuvre was to mobilize opinion in the provinces against the parlements. He had had a delegation of Breton nobles seeking a meeting of their local estates clapped into irons, but almost at once, in the summer of 1788, began to look more favourably on the return of provincial estates. His aim was to counterbalance parlementaire claims, and also to boost the Third Estate by promoting forms of organization (notably doubling of the numbers in the Third Estate, voting by head in a single assembly) favouring them. If there had to be representative organs, moreover, Brienne preferred them to be provincial ones, which would be more malleable. If by 1792 the new provincial bodies were working well, he cunningly calculated, this would obviate the need for a national body. In the autumn, authorization was consequently given for provincial estates in Dauphiné, Provence and Franche-Comté, where they had been either discontinued or politically neutered since 1628, 1639 and 1674 respectively. A blanket re-establishment of all such bodies in provinces was subsequently promised.

By appealing to the provinces and to the Third Estate to counterbalance what were already coming to be called the other two ‘privileged orders’ – as though privilege was not intrinsic to Bourbon public law and rampant in all three estates! – Brienne repeated Calonne’s demagogic gesture of April 1787. Yet once more, however, the move was both too little and too late. Time was running out for the Principal Minister. Credit could not be commanded back to life: on 8 August, in a desperate attempt to rally public confidence, he agreed to the convocation of the Estates General on 1 May 1789, and suspended the operation of the Plenary Court until that time. The following week – on 16 August – he effectively defaulted on the state’s obligations: treasury bills bearing 5 per cent interest were introduced for the payment of government creditors. The dreaded word ‘bankruptcy’ was on everyone’s lips, and there was a rush on the Caisse d’escompte to cash paper holdings.

Brienne had not only been unable to acquire the confidence of the public; he had also destroyed state credit in the process. Since the aftermath of the John Law System in the 1720s, government had rejected a single credit source (on the lines of Britain’s Bank of England) in favour of the utilization of the multiple corporate bodies within the state, adjudged more politically prudent. That credit was not forthcoming highlighted the scale of Brienne’s alienation of the corporative nexus. His position was now impossible. Significantly, Marie-Antoinette, urged by Artois, shifted her backing from the archbishop to Necker, who, as ever, was waiting in the wings. On 26 August, Brienne was dismissed and the king, much to his personal disgust, was obliged to recall Necker as Director-General of Finances. This was the first ministerial recall of this order in the eighteenth century – normally ministers retired or were exiled.82 In addition, the king granted the Genevan a place on the conseil d’état – a request for which had been the occasion of his dismissal in 1781 (though the 1787 toleration decree made this now a less problematic religious gesture). A ministerial reshuffle followed. Lamoignon, his judicial reforms in tatters, was replaced and went off and shot himself. Breteuil, who had shown sympathy with the provincial nobles over the summer, retired from the stage too, his favour with the queen now only a dim memory. But there were no illusions now about fresh starts. Necker saw his role less as budding political architect than as caretaker-cum-firefighter. He had to douse down the flames of noble and provincial unrest and keep the state in one piece until a full and satisfactory resolution of political imponderables could be attempted in the Estates General. He seems to have been genuinely worried that the country was on the brink of civil war, and his first gesture was to bring forward the meeting of the Estates General to 1 January 1789.83 This pacificatory move – plus the political credit which he personally enjoyed – helped to stabilize the finances.

On his dismissal, Brienne’s parting shot to the king had been to ‘be sure to avoid an unconditional recall of the parlements or your monarchy will be destroyed and the state with it’.84 Louis ignored him, recalling the parlements to the plenitude of their powers on 23 September. Would Brienne prove a prophet? Truth to tell, the omens for the monarchy did not look good. A whole set of recalls, reappearances and reoccurrences in 1787 and 1788 had highlighted the fragile state of the Bourbon polity: the first Assembly of Notables since 1626; the first Estates General since 1614; the first dismissal since the Fronde of a minister in whom the king had confidence (Calonne); the first Protestant in the conseil d’état (Necker) since long before the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes; the dissolution of the equation between confessional identity and citizenship established by that Revocation; a queen more powerful than any since Anne of Austria; the convocation of provincial estates which had last met under Richelieu and Colbert; the role of the Intendants more in question than at any other time since the reign of Louis XIII; and so on. The whole debate on the nature and forms of political legitimacy – given added piquancy by the concatenation of economic, financial and diplomatic disasters – made it appear that the most distinctive features of Bourbon absolutism were imperilled.

British envoy Daniel Hailes, reporting back to London on the completeness of the parlementary victory, noted: ‘[c]ertain it now is that these Bodies, which the Government has so long affected to despise, have at last raised themselves to a degree of consequence, from their negative authority that, if they choose to display it, nothing can withstand.’85 Certainly the parlements were back – and back in style, as was witnessed by the street rejoicings which accompanied their return from exile, recalling the unanimous enthusiasm of 1775. Yet their triumph would flatter only to deceive. Within six months, the magistrates would be cravenly currying favour with ministers and offering to work with them against rising democratic forces.

When the turbulent magistrate Duval d’Eprémesnil had tauntingly urged the ‘debourbonization’ of France, he had in mind a return to an alleged aristocratic golden age pre-dating the arrival of Bourbon absolutism. But the rules of the political game – and the numbers of players – had changed since the Wars of Religion and the Fronde. Public opinion, the genie which Calonne and Brienne had tried so hard to coax out of its bottle for their own purposes, was from late 1788 defiantly establishing itself in the political arena. ‘This deity of the modern age’86 now appeared to express itself untrammelled by the promptings of government and threatened to prove as corrosive of parlementary pretensions as of the vestiges of life in the decaying body of Bourbon absolutism. ‘Debourbonization’ seemed now to threaten the powers of the parlements as well as of the dynasty. At the height of the May crisis of 1788, a Parisian lawyer had noted that

there are now in Paris and in the whole of the Kingdom the names of three parties: that of the royalists, that of the parlementaires and that of the Nationals. These latter two have made common cause [and] the Nationals hope that this alliance will be long.

Yet by the end of that year, the Swiss publicist, Mallet du Pan, would be announcing, ‘The controversy has completely changed. King, despotism and constitution are now minor questions. The war is between the Third Estate and the other two orders.’87

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