Modern history


Enlightened Opinion

THE Court of Versailles, where Louis XVI passed his days according to a timetable first elaborated a century earlier, was Louis XlV’s most spectacular legacy. Nor was its influence confined to France. By the early eighteenth century admiring fellow monarchs were building imitations of the sprawling palace and its lavish ornamental gardens all over Europe. From Tsarskoje Selo outside St Petersburg in the east to Aranjuez near Madrid in the west; from Drottningholm, refuge of Swedish monarchs, in the north to Caserta in the Neapolitan south, rulers built themselves out-of-town seats to display their power and flaunt their pleasures. Nor were such piles the only homage paid by foreigners to French cultural prestige in the afterglow of the Sun King. French architecture, French furniture, French fashions dominated continental taste down to the middle of the eighteenth century; and even when, after that, things English came into vogue they made their appearance in a French mirror. Above all, educated Europe adopted the French language. With the exception of England and Spain, it was the preferred tongue of courts everywhere. Recalling court life at Schönbrunn under the Empress Maria Theresia, one of her familiars noted that ‘French was then the language of the upper classes and indeed of cultivated society in general … In those days, the greater part of high society in Vienna could say: I speak French like Diderot and German … like my nurse.’1 In Frederick Il’s Berlin or Catherine II’s St Petersburg monarchs gorged on Parisian culture created an atmosphere in which their courtiers almost completely forgot their native languages from lack of use; but even at lower levels nobody now considered themselves educated without a thorough familiarity with French. By the 1770s a certain backlash was beginning. Writers like Herder in Germany or Alfieri in Italy were raging against their compatriots’ servile deference to an alien culture. But as yet their followers were few. Meanwhile, people of education found themselves unprecedentedly well equipped to follow events in France, form judgements about what was happening there, and absorb the ever-swelling outpourings of French literary life.

While monarchs willingly subscribed to the Correspondance littéraire issued from Paris by the expatriate German Baron Grimm, from 1754, their subjects, at less cost, found an expanding range of other journals to keep them well informed. The unadventurous could confine themselves to the long-established Mercure de France for news of public events, or the Journal des savants for learned ones; but both these periodicals were semi-official and subject to close government censorship. From mid-century a wide range of more independent journals, some specialized and some not, became available. Most had an ephemeral existence, and few of those which survived could have done so without the efforts of one or two persistent individuals. Nevertheless in the seventy years between 1715 and 1785 the number almost quadrupled (from 22 to 79), and it was quite beyond the government’s resources to supervise the contents of them all. Indeed, the one it was always keenest to censor, the Jansenist Nouvelles ecclésiastiques, which from 1728 onwards kept up a regular critical commentary on the management and outlook of the established Church, always eluded attempts to find its presses. Journals identified openly with particular individuals, such as the popular, conservative Année littéraire of Fréron (appearing from 1754) or the unpredictable Annales politiques civiles et littéraires produced from 1777 by Linguet, were more vulnerable. Linguet spent the years 1780-2 in the Bastille for his journalistic excesses. But even then surrogates kept his fortnightly commentary going, and the memoirs he wrote on his release, initially appearing in his Annales before separate publication, became a best-seller with their lurid evocation of the living death suffered by all those whom the whim of despotism chose to consign to that lowering and mysterious fortress. Henceforth, however, Linguet took the precaution of publishing outside French jurisdiction, in the Austrian Netherlands. In fact, the boldest French language periodicals had always been produced beyond the frontier. Oldest and most respectable was the Gazette de Leyde, founded in Holland by Huguenot refugees in 1677 and still under Protestant direction. It provided its readers with detailed and well-informed accounts of French domestic politics and the issues at stake in them, with a gentle but persistent bias against authority. Almost as popular, though less well known, was the fortnightly Courrier d’Avignon, published from 1733 in that enclave of papal territory in the south. The more conservative but well-informedCourrier du Bas Rhin was produced in Prussian Cleves; while the intellectually radical Journal encyclopédique came out in the tiny independent south Belgian principality of Bouillon.

The circulation of such journals was Europe-wide; and demand for them grew enormously in the news-laden 1770s, with major political upheavals to report from Scandinavia, Russia, and Poland, not to mention France itself and—greatest of all—the American struggle for independence. From a few hundred in the 1750s, the Gazette de Leyde was producing around 4,200 copies by 1785. Over half of these were sold outside France; but inevitably by far the biggest single market for French-language journalism was within the kingdom itself. There, local papers also made their appearance. Paris had a weekly news and advertising sheet from early in the century. Lyons had one from 1748, and by the 1780s no self-respecting provincial centre was without one. The Journal de Pariscame out daily from 1777. Ten years later, perhaps 70,000 copies of newspapers were being regularly sold, reaching a readership of around half a million.

These developments were paralleled by book production, in so far as fragmentary evidence allows us to reconstruct it. Expanding steadily down to the 1770s, it leaped dramatically after that and went on at an accelerated rate down to the Revolution—though with some spectacular vicissitudes as censorship policies fluctuated. Technically all books, and journals too, could only be published if passed—or awarded the ‘privilege’ of being printed, as it was technically known—by a board of censors headed by an official known as the Director of the Book Trade (Librairie). To win such a privilege they had to contain nothing contrary to religion, government, and morals. The very number of censors, rising from 41 in the 1720s to 178 in 1789, reflects the expanding volume of their work. But, in practice, very few books were banned. Most of those which the censors felt unable to invest with the positive approval signified by a privilege were nevertheless granted ‘tacit permission’ to publish; and even more dubious ones could appear ‘on simple tolerance’, with the mere assurance that the police would not act against them. Nothing short of a full privilege, however, could indemnify a book from independent persecution by either the Sorbonne or a parlement; and the government normally stood aside when a sovereign court condemned a book to be publicly torn up and burned for the subversiveness of its contents. Everybody except (seemingly) the magistrates realized that there was no better way to give a book free publicity. But like journals, an important proportion of the books sold in France came from abroad—from Holland, from Avignon, from Geneva, or from Neuchâtel, another Prussian enclave whose main export appears to have been books in French. Most of these imports were unauthorized, and came in by tortuous routes to avoid the vigilance of customs men. Even authorized imports were sometimes cut to a trickle, as in the early 1770s, by punitive increases in import duties; and in 1783 the whole book trade was plunged into chaos when it was decreed that all imports would have to be inspected by the booksellers’ guild in Paris before delivery to any destination within France. The aim was to weed out pornography, sedition, and pirated editions, but the effect was to make transport costs prohibitive for all books, even in the booming market that had now established itself.

Who bought these ever-proliferating journals, newspapers, and books? Over a third of Louis XVI’s subjects could read and write, and there was a steady market for cheap popular literature such as almanacks and traditional tales of wonder, sold by travelling hawkers and known from their covers as the ‘blue library’. But cost alone restricted the sale of more sophisticated books and journals. A subscription to the Gazette de Leyde cost 36 livres a year, the Année littéraire and the Journal encyclopédique were 24livreseach, and the Courrier d’Avignon, 18. Even the most skilled craftsman would not earn more than 30 livres a week, and most earned half that or less, making even the purchase of an occasional book all but impossible. The better-off themselves might find the cost of keeping up with literature and current affairs daunting; but it was much eased in the course of the century by the appearance of subscription libraries and reading rooms, with membership fees around the cost of a single journal subscription. The first to be recorded appeared in Nantes in 1759, and thirty years later there were five more in this same city, housing more than 3,000 volumes between them. During that time similar institutions sprang up throughout the provinces, devoted, like that established in Bayeux in 1770, to ‘finding decent diversion … in reading literary and political news’.2 Sometimes they had rooms set aside for conversation, too; but discussion was the main function of a different type of institution which also blossomed over the eighteenth century—the literary society. They too had libraries, and subscribed to journals, but they also held regular public sessions, sometimes interspersed with concerts, at which their members read their own works or debated questions of the day. Sometimes, too, they organized public lectures and essay competitions. Open to all, but usually with a much higher subscription than the average reading room, they often adopted high-sounding names: Société de philalèthes, Société de philosophie et des belles-lettres, Logopanthée, Musée, Société patriotique. By 1787, noted a Dijon newspaper,3 ‘One sees societies of this sort in almost all the towns of the kingdom … such an agreeable resource for the select class of citizens in all walks of life.’ The most select of all such bodies, however, were the Academies, where membership was by election only, numbers were often deliberately limited, and the society enjoyed the official recognition of royal Letters-Patent. They, too, were largely a product of the eighteenth century. In 1700, apart from the great metropolitan bodies like the Académie française, the Académie des sciences, and the Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres, only seven provincial academies existed. By 1789 the number had risen to 35. Most had their own premises and libraries, and had in fact usually evolved from humbler literary societies; but in the end academic exclusivism was probably one reason why the latter spread so rapidly. Only 6,000 Frenchmen secured membership of an academy over the whole century, and of these a disproportionate 37 per cent or more were nobles. Yet their cultural pre-eminence was undoubted. Their rare public sessions commanded unrivalled attention, their lists of foreign associates and correspondents conferred unique prestige, and their essay competitions attracted literary hopefuls from far and wide and sometimes helped to launch a promising career: the most famous case was Jean Jacques Rousseau’s triumph in the Dijon Academy’s competition of 1750.

Access to literature, therefore, was not confined to individual buyers of books and journals; but there was no great social difference between those who bought for themselves and those who relied on institutional libraries. The reading classes were overwhelmingly made up of nobles, clerics, and the professional bourgeoisie. Mostly they lived in towns, and uncommercial towns at that. Merchants and manufacturers were far less interested in the world of ideas than magistrates, lawyers, administrators, and army officers. ‘I do not expect you will be able to sell any here’, wrote a bookseller in Bar-le-Duc to the Neuchâtel publishers promoting a new, expanded edition of the famous Encyclopédie, in 1780.4 ‘Having offered them to everybody here, nobody so far has come looking for a copy. They are more avid for trade than for reading, and their education is quite neglected … the merchants prefer to teach their children that 5 and 4 make 9 minus 2 equals 7 than in telling them to refine their minds.’ To join the expanding cultivated élite, in fact, disposable income needed to be spent not only on reading, but before that on the right sort of education.

When Louis XVI came to the throne, the French educational system was in turmoil, as was that of much of Catholic Europe. The cause was the dissolution of the Jesuits, who had dominated the higher education of Catholic élites since the late sixteenth century. Finally disbanded by the Pope in 1773, they had been expelled from France in 1764, and their 113 colleges (out of a total nearing 400) had been sequestrated. Some disappeared, some passed into the hands of other regular orders, some were taken over by secular priests under municipal supervision. In these varying circumstances, the fairly uniform curriculum they had taught dissolved, and although there was much public discussion of what to put in its place, no action on a kingdom-wide scale was taken. In 1789 one boy in 52 out of the 8–18 age range was attending a college, but the educational experience of them and their predecessors over a generation was much more diverse than that of their fathers and grandfathers. Many more were now boarders, too, cut off for long periods from their families. Even so, solid grounding in the Latin classics was still regarded as the essential foundation of a superior education. Four hours a day of Ancient Rome, its language, and its culture occupied six years of most college courses. Much of the time remaining was devoted to the inculcation of Catholic orthodoxy, although after 1760 there was time in some courses for a little geography, and some French history. Those who went beyond this basic cycle of the humanities, however—and most of those hoping for professional careers did—went on to take a further two years conventionally called ‘philosophy’, where they were introduced to the natural sciences. Here too tradition ostensibly ruled, and the authority of Aristotle went formally unchallenged. But behind this façade the lessons of the scientific revolution of the previous century, and the methods and approaches that had brought them about, had been widely propagated in the colleges from the 1690s onwards. Neither Ancient Rome nor the Christian religion had played much part in the triumph of a rational, experimental approach to natural phenomena, and it was impossible to disguise the fact. Nevertheless the new principles continued to be taught, and by the 1760s Newtonian physics in one form or another were standard fare in most colleges. Nature was to be evaluated in terms of what could be shown to work and achieve useful results. It could scarcely be expected that some at least of those who learned this lesson should not have thought about judging human affairs by the same standards, for all the precepts of obedience and orthodoxy instilled into them in earlier school years.

That, indeed, was the object of the Enlightenment, whose writers set the intellectual agenda for this generation of unprecedented literacy. It was a movement of criticism, whose advocates believed that nothing was beyond rational improvement, and that nothing was justifiable that could not be shown to be useful to humanity, or to promote human happiness. They called themselves philosophers, by which they meant independent thinkers committed to the practical improvement of the lot of their fellow men. Most of them thought the way to achieve it lay in appealing to the educated general public in works of polemic, simplification, and popularization—the very opposite, as their opponents did not fail to point out, of the traditional, detached notion of a philosopher. The supreme example, it has always been agreed, was Voltaire. Born in the last years of the seventeenth century and Jesuit-educated, by the time he was 30 he had already won a reputation for witty anti-clerical writings, and he was to remain a prolific poet and playwright all his life. But the direction of that life was changed when, in 1726, he travelled to England. Here he saw the benefits of religious pluralism and toleration, discovered the psychology of Locke, the physics of Newton, and the theoretical empiricism of Bacon. He was overwhelmed: and eight years later conveyed his discoveries to compatriots largely ignorant of English in his Lettres philosophiques. Banned and publicly burned by the parlement, they nevertheless sold sensationally well, making Locke and Newton household names in educated French circles. Voltaire also wrote works of history—indeed, he became historiographer-royal—and in 1746 was elected to the Académie française. But his brushes with authority were as constant as his jibing against the Church, and finally, in 1759, he took up permanent residence at Ferney, close to the safety of the Swiss border. Here he almost literally held court, receiving eminent pilgrims from all over Europe, conducting a voluminous correspondence, and launching ferocious propaganda campaigns against the ‘infamy’ of religious intolerance and barbarous miscarriages of justice. In 1778, after an absence of 28 years, he made a triumphal return to Paris, where he was lionized for four months in a way few writers can ever have experienced. The strain killed him. The example of his success, however, was an inspiration to innumerable ambitious scribblers throughout the later decades of the century, and later revolutionaries would look back on this tireless critic and campaigner against intolerance and injustice as one of their most distinguished intellectual ancestors.

They were more ambivalent about Montesquieu—a magistrate in the parlement of Bordeaux, a feudal lord living in a moated castle, and an apologist for noble power. Yet arguably his intellectual importance was far greater. Five years older than Voltaire, he died in 1755, leaving a much less voluminous body of writings. But he, too, first made his name in the freer-breathing days of the Regency, after Louis XIV’s death, with the satirical, titillating Lettres persanes (1721). He, too, was deeply impressed by a visit to England in 1729, a year after his election to the Académie française. But after that he fell largely silent until 1748, when he published (in Geneva) the sprawling, untidy collection of reflections entitled De l’esprit des lois. It proved the most fertile and challenging work of political thought of the century. Setting out to analyse rather than prescribe, Montesquieu argued that forms of government are the products of natural and historical circumstances and cannot therefore be varied at will. Such arguments offered comfort to all established authorities. Yet he also roundly condemned despotism, the government of one man according to no law but his own caprice; and implied that even true monarchs, who ruled only according to law, were always under the temptation and danger of becoming despotic. Intermediary powers were needed, buffers between them and their subjects, to restrain that tendency. Montesquieu suggested that in France the nobility and the parlements constituted such buffers, and not surprisingly these bodies were eager to invoke his authority in later struggles against the government. Despotism became a convenient battle cry against any exercise of power, arbitrary or not. And despite preaching that no form of government is appropriate in all circumstances, in attempting to provide an explanation for that of England Montesquieu was led to propound an ideal type most calculated to promote and preserve liberty. Political liberty could only flourish, he argued, under moderate governments; and what kept them moderate was the balance and separation of the three arms of the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary: ‘In order that power be not abused, things should be so disposed, that power checks power.’5 In a number of ways, Montesquieu seriously misunderstood how the English constitution actually worked; but the principles he thought he saw in it were to prove widely inspirational on both sides of the Atlantic, and not least in revolutionary France.

By the time Montesquieu died, the Enlightenment as a movement was beginning to come together. Persecution and harassment at the hands of the Church, or those under priestly influence, had given a growing band of speculative writers a sense of common purpose. Nowhere was it better expressed than in the great project launched in 1751 by Diderot (perhaps the first writer to live exclusively by his pen) and the mathematician D’Alembert for a multi-authored French version of a successful English compendium of current knowledge, Chambers’s Cyclopaedia. The Encyclopédie was, however, intended from the start to be more than a simple factual work of reference. Its purpose was to advance knowledge as well as summarize it, and to promote a critical attitude to everything. Its articles would, wrote D’Alembert in a foreword to the third volume (1753), ‘often give occasion for philosophic reflexions, for which the public seems today to have more taste than ever; thus it is by the philosophic spirit that we shall attempt to distinguish this dictionary. It is in that way above all that it will win the approval for which we are most anxious.’ By then its publication had already been suspended once by order of the royal Council, and as successive volumes continued to appear (soon dwarfing the two of its original model) it came under repeated attack as a repository of scepticism, atheism, and sedition. In 1759, after seven volumes, the whole project nearly foundered when its privilege to publish was withdrawn. It was only saved when Malesherbes, the liberal magistrate who was director of the book trade between 1750 and 1763, granted tacit permission to continue. The remaining volumes, bringing the entire text to seventeen, were published in 1765. No sooner was the Encyclopédiecomplete, however, than new and expanded editions began to appear, and in handier formats than the original heavy and expensive folios. By 1789, therefore, something like 25,000 copies of one version or another of this great compendium had been sold, perhaps half of them in France. And although it undoubtedly did constitute a work of reference of unprecedented quality, what sold it was its notoriety—its contempt for authority and its constant irreverent digs at the Church and religion in general. Yet by the time it became a best-seller such criticisms had become much more open and widespread, making the subterfuges and ambiguities behind which it veiled its early audacities seem timid. Diderot, disgusted with the whole enterprise long before the first edition was completed, turned from religious and philosophical to political and economic radicalism in his later years, although long habit had taught him to cover his tracks. When he died in 1784 he was chiefly known as a sentimental playwright and art critic. Nevertheless, few works were more important than the Encyclopédie which he had orchestrated and edited in promoting the values of independent thinking and indifference to authority. ‘Encyclopedism’ became a synonym for a refusal to accept anything uncritically.

Yet even Encyclopedism had its orthodoxies. Hostile to organized religion and intolerance as manifestations of vestigial barbarism and superstition, it held that philosophers were engaged in a winning battle for progress. The world was changing, nothing was doing more than ‘philosophy’ to promote that change, and it was change for the better. The material progress of the arts and sciences (of which the Encyclopédie proclaimed itself a ‘reasoned dictionary’) was inexorably improving the lot of mankind. Even if natural disasters like the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 shook their faith in the benevolence of nature, those who considered themselves enlightened continued to believe in the improvement of human institutions. The one significant exception was Rousseau. An autodidact from Geneva, in the 1740s Rousseau made a living in Paris copying music, but moving in aspiring literary circles. He knew Diderot, and collaborated in the early stages of the Encyclopédie. He made his name, however, by disputing Enlightenment orthodoxies, and by the late 1750s had fallen out with all the movement’s leading figures. In the work which first won him public notice, an entry for the Academy of Dijon’s essay-prize competition of 1750, he argued that progress in the arts and sciences had corrupted rather than improved mankind. ‘Man is naturally good’, he later wrote, recalling the moment when this intuition first struck him,6 ‘and has only become bad because of … institutions.’ This conviction suffused all his writings, emphasized by a direct, emotional style which electrified the reading public throughout Europe. His novels, Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) and Émile, ou l’Education (1762), were best-sellers, moving their readers to tears at the prospect of innocence and virtue preserved and uncorrupted in the face of the snares and iniquities of established society. These triumphs were, however, the achievement of individuals. Rousseau offered no programme for changing society wholesale to restore mankind in general to its primal innocence and goodness. Even his most enduring work, the Social Contract (1762), was not a prescription for political change, but rather a highly theoretical sketch for how political authority might be established legitimately without men losing their natural liberty. It could only work, Rousseau emphasized, in small city-states. Yet coming from the pen of one who had denounced existing society as rotten and depraving, vaunting the sovereignty of a ‘general will’ which was always for the best and never wrong, and full of striking formulas such as its very first sentence which proclaimed that men were born free but were everywhere in chains, it could not fail to stir thoughts of practical change. Though he was at pains to stress that the general will was not necessarily the will of the majority, the term passed quickly into normal usage as meaning just that. And when the established form of government and society collapsed, barely a decade after Rousseau’s death in 1778, he was remembered by those welcoming the new times as a prophet who had seen the future, and even bequeathed it a pattern-book for organizing a regenerated nation along juster and more virtuous lines.

Both Émile and the Social Contract were condemned when they appeared, and Rousseau fled the country, only returning permanently after eight years of wanderings. But it was not the political content of either work that the parlement of Paris, decreeing his arrest, found offensive. It was the affront to religion in his remarks on civil religion in the Social Contract, and the moving ‘Profession of faith of the Savoyard curate’ in Émile. The former declared Christianity a perpetual source of civil disorders, and denounced priests; the latter proclaimed that the true gospel was belief in a benevolent god of nature rather than any particular body of Christian doctrine. Rousseau’s temperament was emotional and religious, but in the eyes of the devout he appeared no less blasphemous than the mocking, irreverent Voltaire. To stem the rising tide of irreligion increasingly came to appear as the main task confronting the Church. Refutations of philosophic impieties poured from the presses, and pious laymen in positions of authority used every available means to suppress dissent. But the Church itself was not united, and its divisions opened it to yet further ridicule. Bitter quarrels over the bull Unigenitus, promulgated in 1713 against Jansenism, lasted half a century, and only died down in the late 1760s. Jansenists rejected many of the doctrines and emphases imposed on the Church after the sixteenth-century Council of Trent. The puritans of the Catholic Church, they opposed lax theology, excessive papal and episcopal power, and above all the influence of the Jesuits in Church and State. It was Jansenists in the parlement of Paris who engineered the Jesuits’ downfall, although philosophers appalled by the prospect of a Jansenist-dominated Church hurriedly claimed it as a victory for Enlightenment. But the course of the previous quarrel, with its persecution of priestly dissidents, refusal of sacraments to dying opponents of Unigenitus, and occasional spectacular displays of hysteria and holy-rolling (the so-called ‘convulsionaries’ of Saint-Médard), brought no credit or dignity to any of those involved. So it was not only the scoffing of infidels which spread the conviction that the religious life of France needed comprehensive reform. Besides, sensibilities were changing even among the orthodox. Less ostentatious forms of piety were finding greater favour. When they made wills, testators endowed fewer memorial masses, and expressed their dying beliefs in less elaborate terms. Alive, they lit fewer votive candles, and showed less interest in religious confraternities or the austerities of the monastic life. Horace Walpole, prizing in France the romantic devotional trappings that England had lost at the Reformation, was disappointed at the change of atmosphere he found in the convents of Paris in 1771:

It is very singular that I have not half the satisfaction in going into churches and convents that I used to have. The consciousness that the vision is dispelled, the want of fervour so obvious in the religious, the solitude that one knows proceeds from contempt, not from contemplation, make these places appear like abandoned theatres destined to destruction. The monks trot about as if they had not long to stay there; and what used to be holy gloom is now but dirt and darkness.7

By then, smaller monasteries were being suppressed or merged wholesale. By then, too, the quarrels over Unigenitus had lost their urgency with the defeat of the Jesuits. And, beset by unbelievers, Catholics were even showing themselves more tolerant towards French Protestants. Since the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, Protestants had enjoyed no legal existence. Their baptisms, marriages, and burials enjoyed no status at law, and their pastors committed a capital offence in conducting services. In the course of the 1760s, however, active persecution of pastors ceased, and the open-air services traditional among the Protestants of Languedoc were no longer molested. Parish priests might still fulminate against heresy, but the barbarity of intolerance was the preferred theme of many of their bishops; and while the civil authorities still sent out troops to break up Protestant services, they always sent them deliberately in the wrong direction. The horrors of intolerance seemed vividly demonstrated when, in 1762, the Toulouse Protestant Jean Calas was put to death by the parlement of Languedoc for allegedly murdering his son to prevent him embracing Catholicism. Voltaire, appalled by recent news of what proved to be the last execution of a pastor in the same area, concluded that this was a case of judicial murder inspired by superstitious bigotry. He launched a furious journalistic campaign to rehabilitate Calas, which in 1765 achieved success before the king’s Council. In 1775, after a longer struggle, he secured rehabilitation of the Sirven family, also condemned in Languedoc for murdering an apostate daughter, although they had escaped Calas’s fate by fleeing to Switzerland. Such cases stirred the conscience of educated laymen; and by the 1780s few could be found, openly at least, to uphold the penal laws against Protestants. In Necker, Louis XVI even had a Protestant minister between 1777 and 1781. The final abrogation of their disabilities, already in practical abeyance, seemed only a matter of time.

It was not only the bigotry of the Toulouse judges that outraged Voltaire. It was also the cruelty and injustice of the laws which they applied. Calas was broken on the wheel, a grisly process in which the condemned person’s limbs were smashed with iron bars and the mutilated corpse raised up for public display on a cartwheel. Even more atrocious punishments were possible. Damiens, a dim-witted jobbing servant who stabbed Louis XV with a penknife in 1757, was first tortured to obtain the names of accomplices, then pinched with red-hot irons, after which four horses tried (in vain) to pull him apart. Regicide was of course a particularly heinous crime, with dreadful echoes in French history, and Damiens’s execution was based on carefully researched precedents. Thousands thronged the place de Grève, outside the Paris Hôtel de Ville, to watch these once-in-a-lifetime refinements on the everyday spectacle of public execution. Another case Voltaire took up was that of La Barre, who in 1766, convicted of various petty adolescent acts of blasphemy and sacrilege, was tortured and burned at the stake. A copy of Voltaire’s own Philosophical Dictionary was thrown into the flames after him. Laws which condoned such things, the philosopher argued, were monstrous, irrational, and absurd, and he welcomed the French translation in 1765 of Beccaria’s plea for a more measured, humane, and torture-free system of criminal justice, Of Crimes and Punishments (1764). By the early 1770s the government was announcing plans for a general reform and codification of the laws, and Voltaire led the applause for this promise. Nothing, however, emerged during his lifetime, or for a decade afterwards, apart from the abolition in 1780 of torture to obtain confessions. But in the mid-1780s there surfaced a whole series of miscarriages of justice, which, exploited by an able younger generation of polemicists, who swamped the public with thousands of copies of legal briefs not subject to censorship, reawakened concern at the law’s cruelties, inconsistencies, and failure to safeguard innocence.

Their inspiration was Voltaire’s campaign over Calas. In order to restore the dead martyr’s name, he had successfully mobilized public opinion. The idea of public opinion was not new, but in the mid-eighteenth century its meaning changed. Previously opinion had meant something distinct from knowledge or truth; merely something that people happened to believe. Now increasingly, opinion came to imply informed judgement, and public opinion was often described as a ‘tribunal’ whose verdict was final and usually correct. ‘Among the singularities which mark out the age we live in from all others’, wrote Rousseau in 1776,8 ‘is the methodical and sustained spirit which has guided public opinions over the last twenty years. Until now these opinions wandered aimless and unregulated at the whim of men’s passions, and the endless interplay of these passions made the public float from one to another without any constant direction.’ Philosophers sought to provide such direction, and after his success over Calas, Voltaire believed it was possible. ‘Opinion governs the world,’ he wrote,9 ‘and in the end philosophers govern men’s opinions.’ But in fact they were not the first in the field. Both sides in the religious quarrels of mid-century had sought to whip up public support, the Jansenists with their elusive, secretly published Nouvelles ecclésiastiques, the Jesuits with their Journal de Trévoux, not to mention furious pamphleteering by each. And even further back, the parlements during the Regency had begun to print and publicly distribute their remonstrances, a deliberate tactic to involve educated readers in their political disagreements with the government. These techniques became standard in the 1750s as religious and financial disputes between the Crown and the sovereign courts reached a new intensity. The years between 1758 and 1764 saw a last attempt by the traditional organs of censorship to prevent open discussion of matters of state, whether religious, administrative, or financial. Attempts to suppress the Encyclopédie, the works of Rousseau, and other speculative writings were part of this pattern. So was a royal declaration of 1764 prohibiting public sale of any works relating to the finances or administration of the State. But the line could not be held; and indeed government ministers themselves came increasingly to feel that it was perhaps better for the public to be well informed than uninformed. They even turned to courting opinion for themselves. Preambles to royal edicts grew longer and longer. Unwelcome remonstrances from the parlements were not only quashed, they were refuted. When Maupeou remodelled the parlements, he hired a team of writers to praise and defend what he was doing. But, mused an anxious and well-placed observer, ‘each step makes matters worse. Somebody writes, another replies … everybody will want to analyse the constitution of the state; tempers will be lost. Issues are being raised which nobody would have dared think of … the knowledge the peoples are acquiring must, a little sooner or a little later, bring about revolutions.’10

Nothing did more to fuel this surge of public discussion than the Seven Years War. Undertaken with no clear aims, in alliance with Austria, a traditional enemy of centuries’ standing, it led to humiliating defeats on land and sea at what seemed like enormous economic cost. Taxes and state borrowing had soared, but there was nothing to show for such efforts. In these circumstances an inquest began which spared no aspect of French society or institutions, and was encouraged at a certain level by the government itself. In 1763, unprecedentedly, it even asked the parlements to make proposals for economic and fiscal reform—which produced nothing very constructive, unwisely flattered their pretensions, and left them aggrieved when, ignoring their suggestions, ministers turned in preference to the untried theories of a group calling themselves by the new and unfamiliar name of ‘Economists’.

Their founder was a royal doctor, Quesnay, who in a number of articles in the Encyclopédie in 1756, and later in his Tableau économique (1758), argued (in curious parallel to Rousseau) that there existed a natural, benevolent economic order which had been distorted by ill-judged and artificial human intervention. Economic wealth could only be unlocked by removing all unnatural burdens, particularly on agriculture, which was the only true productive activity. These ideas were developed by a number of other authors throughout the 1760s, including Mirabeau, Le Mercier de la Rivière, and Dupont de Nemours, whose book Physiocracy (1768) gave the Economists an alternative name. Paradoxically, the economic freedom preached by the Physiocrats implied a powerful, interventionist role for governments, for only they had the strength to sweep away artificial impediments to the natural economic order. Le Mercier even advocated a sort of despotism, which he called legal because its sole purpose would be to bring in the greatest of all laws, that of nature itself. Ministers had no wish to be thought despotic, but they were attracted to Physiocracy because it promised wealth. A natural, free market, with all artificial constraints removed, would make producers rich. They could then pay more taxes. As Quesnay had put it in the Encyclopédie: poor peasant, poor kingdom.

The constraints on free production were of course innumerable—customary and collective methods, feudal dues, indirect taxes, internal tolls and customs barriers, productive monopolies like guilds, local and sectional privileges. No wonder it would take a despot to remove them all. But one seemed easier to deal with than the others, since it had always been closely co-ordinated by the central government. The whole elaborate apparatus of controls on the grain trade, fixing prices and limiting export and even inter-provincial commerce, seemed ripe for rationalization. The trade had always been so carefully controlled, of course, because guaranteed supplies of bread were deemed fundamental in ensuring public order. But Physiocrats argued that freedom would create greater abundance, thereby banishing the fears immemorially associated with famine. Accordingly, in May 1763, a free internal market in grain was proclaimed, and just over a year later free export was also allowed when prices were below a certain level. A generation’s good harvests underlay the optimism behind this policy, but in the late 1760s they came to an end. When crops failed no amount of administrative tinkering could guarantee abundance, and the new freedom was blamed for aggravating if not causing the shortages of these years, A furious public debate broke out, in which partisans of the old controls accused the reformers of starving the king’s subjects and abandoning, at the behest of visionary theorists, the Crown’s age-old commitment to keeping them alive. To arguments that in the long run the high prices resulting from lack of controls would stimulate production and so eventually bring prices down, magistrates facing bread riots replied by urging practical realism, ‘The people are not wrong to complain, they are in no state to pay for their bread,’ wrote the first president of the parlement of Bordeaux to the province’s governor in 1773, after tumults which he thought had come within inches of putting the city to sack.11 ‘… their normal remark is to say we prefer to die on a gibbet rather than die of hunger, it’s shorter … Why insist on keeping up the price of bread? As for me, I confess, it seems to me that in a country where taxes are carried to excess, the king is bound to assure his subjects the only thing they have left: their lives.’ Faced with such problems, ministers wavered, but attempts to reimpose controls through preferential contracting in the early 1770s scarcely restored confidence. They were now accused of deliberately plotting to starve the people by a ‘famine pact’ which put the trade in the hands of a profiteering private monopoly.

Around 1770, in fact, confidence in the way France was governed in general rapidly began to run out. Although some of the losses of the Seven Years War were made up with the annexation of Lorraine (1766) and Corsica (1768), the Austrian alliance, which survived the war, remained deeply unpopular. When it was renewed in 1770 with the marriage of Louis XV’s grandson and heir to the Archduchess Marie Antoinette, celebrations in Paris went wrong, and 136 people were killed when a crowd stampeded. It seemed like an omen; and the feasting which continued at Versailles left bitter memories in the capital. By now the insatiable sexual appetites of Louis XV were common knowledge, and although French subjects did not begrudge their kings manly pleasures (the equally insatiable Henry IV remained the popular ideal of a good king) the latest official mistress, Mme Du Barry, was little more than a prostitute from the streets of Paris. Her position made it impossible for her not to be drawn into politics, but her role was much criticized, for she was associated with the rise of Maupeou and Terray, and the fall of the popular Duke de Choiseul. Terray, in addition to arousing popular suspicions of promoting a famine pact, declared a partial bankruptcy which outraged all holders of government stocks. His later attempts to revise tax-assessments and improve the efficiency of their collection soon won him the reputation of an extortioner. Maupeou’s attacks on the parlements, meanwhile, raised a nation-wide outcry. Although Voltaire, who always believed a strong and benevolent monarch was the best means of achieving reforms, applauded the striking down of a magistracy whom he saw as the obscurantist murderers of Calas and La Barre, most other philosophers joined the general protest. ‘We are on the verge of a crisis’, wrote Diderot as Maupeou struck,12 ‘which will end in slavery or in freedom; if it is slavery, it will be a slavery similar to that existing in Morocco or at Constantinople. If all the parlements are dissolved … farewell any … corrective principle preventing the monarch from degenerating into despotism.’ He, like everybody else, had absorbed the lessons of Montesquieu. A monarchy untempered by intermediary powers was a despotism, the worst of all governments, whose subjects enjoyed no rights, and no security. The parlements, whatever their flaws, had seemed to offer the French some protection against authority. It was now shown to be an illusion. In the protests which greeted Maupeou’s action, whether in printed remonstrances from the stricken courts or individual pamphlets, a new theme was heard: the Estates-General. The ancient national representative body had not met since 1614, and nobody had more than the haziest notion of its composition or powers; but few doubted that it would have more authority than the parlements. As Maupeou’s reforms established themselves, and the initial clamour against him died down, so did the calls for the Estates-General. But the idea was launched, and it kept recurring in political discussion over the ensuing decade and a half.

After these traumas the accession of Louis XVI was widely regarded as an opportunity for a new start. As the coffin of Louis XV was hustled away under cover of darkness, boundless hopes and expectations were invested in the unsullied young monarch. But his unsullied qualities rapidly became a public joke. Married since 1770, he seemed incapable of siring an heir, if not positively disinclined even to try. His first child, a daughter, only arrived in 1778, after medical attention. Meanwhile pamphleteering ribaldry ran riot, much of it directed against the presumed frustrations of his queen. Her extravagance, frivolity, and indiscreet political meddling in turn made her an easy target, as her unpredictable brother the Emperor Joseph II blundered through international affairs threatening to drag France at any moment into war on Austrian coat-tails. When in 1785 rumours arose that she wished to buy a fabulously expensive diamond necklace, nobody was surprised. A credulous courtier prelate, the Cardinal de Rohan, sought to ingratiate himself with her by securing it, but found himself merely the victim of an elaborate swindle. The queen was not involved, but Rohan had to vindicate himself before the parlement of Paris in 1786 in a show trial which inevitably cast implicit aspersions on her conduct. She took his acquittal as a personal insult, even though the perpetrators of the fraud were punished. The huge crowds which fêted the cardinal after his release were plainly delighted at her humiliation, and went on to condemn the petulance of the royal reaction which sent the acquitted Rohan immediately into provincial exile. With two sons now to his credit (born in 1781 and 1785), the king himself stood perhaps higher in public esteem than a decade earlier. But the scandal brought the whole world of the Court into a disrepute every bit as deep as that of Louis XV’s final years—especially when, in 1787, its cost to the taxpayers was revealed for the first time.

Nor did the restoration of the parlements bring back the political confidence shattered by Maupeou. They returned to their various seats amid huge displays of popularity, but several soon squandered their credit in vicious quarrels between ‘returner’ magistrates who had been exiled under Maupeou and ‘remainers’ who had co-operated with him. That of Paris, after a show of resistance to the reforms of the Physiocrat minister Turgot in 1775 and 1776, took no further stands against authority. ‘No doubt’, remarked a disgusted provincial judge in 1783,13 ‘there was a time when the magistrates of that august tribunal, animated by the public weal … gave forceful opposition to the ruinous enterprises of ministers … Today, enervated by the pleasures of a voluptuous life, led by ambition, they yield with blind deference to the monarch’s wishes.’ The search therefore continued for institutions that would give France more effective protection against despotism—whether ministerial, at the centre, or local, in the form of the intendants who wielded royal authority in the provinces. The intendants had never been mere passive agents of their master. Their duties were so widely defined that the scope for independent initiative had always been wide. But during the later eighteenth century they seemed to be interfering in more and more aspects of provincial life, driven by a mission to improve the lot of those whom (as they put it) they administered, whether the latter liked it or not. Some were avowed disciples of the Physiocrats, like Turgot himself before he became a minister. All were believers in rationalizing wherever they could, and putting the latest knowledge to practical public use. But, whether in forcing the alignment of streets, promoting inoculation against smallpox, moving insanitary graveyards from town centres, refusing to control bread prices, preventing the sale of diseased cattle, or devising schemes for forcing the poor to work, they outraged popular prejudices and intensified their basic unpopularity as agents of taxation. Their activity also brought them into conflict with other authorities like parlements or provincial estates, whose members did not necessarily disagree with their enlightened ends, but challenged their authority to pursue them, An intendant, declared the parlement of Besançon in September 1787,14 ‘is subject to no inspection; … his arbitrary activities, arbitrarily directed and executed, are regulated by no principle other than the most blind Despotism … His absolute power, like that of his underlings, is completely exempt from all accountability … and may with impunity effect the most shocking vexations.’

The answer to such problems was increasingly seen as provincial representative bodies in some form or other. Some provinces had them already, of course, in the form of estates. Pays d’états had intendants like other regions, but at least they could bargain with them, and share some of their powers. In Brittany, the mid-1780s were marked by repeated clashes between the two. Despite the obvious challenge to their own authority, more thoughtful magistrates in the parlements had begun to advocate the establishment of estates, or restoration of long-defunct ones, in their respective provinces from the late 1750s. In the 1770s a number of sovereign courts, like the Paris Court of Aids and the parlements of Grenoble and Bordeaux, took up the call, at least intermittently. Assemblies of leading landowners were also a favourite proposal among the Physiocrats, although they had increasing doubts about estates as a model: they were too heterogeneous and tradition-bound. Turgot and his adviser while in office, Dupont de Nemours, dreamed of a uniform hierarchy of assemblies representing landowners from village (or ‘municipality’) level up to that of provinces. The only practical step to be taken before 1787, however, was the introduction of ‘provincial administrations’ by Necker in 1778. These bodies of landowners, nominated in the first instance and comprising (like the estates of Languedoc) a quarter nobles, a quarter clergy, and one-half members of the third estate, sat not as representatives of ancient provinces but as adjuncts to intendants in their generalities. Berry and upper Guyenne received them first, and a third one was projected for the area around Boulogne when Necker lost power in 1781. It never came to fruition; but the other two, and their intermediary commissions when they were not sitting, functioned smoothly right down to the Revolution, a working if much debated model for a more representative way of administering the kingdom.

Everything Necker did was much debated. In fact his whole career and outlook was a standing challenge to established ways of doing things. A Swiss Protestant banker, largely self-made, he became well known in Paris intellectual society in the 1760s and early 1770s thanks to his wife’s much-frequented salon. Here, while he sat silent and inscrutable, she carefully cultivated his reputation for financial wizardry and general wisdom. Then in the spring of 1775, at the height of the ‘Flour War’, he published a book advocating a controlled grain trade, much to the fury of Turgot and his free-trading supporters. It won him enormous popularity—the beginning of a ‘Neckeromania’ that lasted, with ups and downs, until 1790—and carried him, though a foreigner and member of a proscribed faith, to the directorship of the treasury. Failure to find a more orthodox candidate showed how far established circles had already lost faith in their own capacities. In addition to his spectacular management of the finances.* Necker began to reorganize central accounting procedures and the structure of taxation, commissioned a nationwide survey of venality of offices in the hope of curbing its excesses, and set up provincial assemblies in part at least to offset the influence of the parlements. Above all he made constant efforts to keep public opinion on his side, recognizing more clearly than anybody so far the political importance of this new force that had emerged since mid-century. He discovered its limits too: when in 1781 he attempted to use his popularity to win a greater say in high policy-making, he was rebuffed. Nor was Louis XVI intimidated when, in another break with precedent, he resigned in protest. But that only led him further down the path of innovation. Instead of returning to banking, he spent the next few years writing a defence of his record, De l’Administration des Finances, which laid bare in great detail how central government worked. Appearing in three volumes in 1785, it was an international best-seller, setting out its author’s claims to be regarded as the natural alternative minister, whom the king must sooner or later recall to power if his government were to have any hope of retaining public confidence.

But that was only the Neckerite view. Ministers still in power felt that they had every right to public confidence. The most important policy the king had pursued, after all, had been gloriously successful. The humiliations of the Seven Years War were finally avenged in 1783 when Great Britain was forced to recognize the independence of her North American colonies. French help, on both land and sea, had played a crucial part in this achievement. Scarcely less impressive had been the way peace was maintained on the European continent while the overseas struggle went on. No wonder Vergennes, the architect of these achievements and most important of the king’s ministers after Maurepas died, viewed Necker’s antics with some contempt. But apart from its cost, involvement in America raised a whole range of further discontents in France.

Conservatives warned from the start that a king was unwise to give support to republican rebels against a fellow monarch; but public interest in America had been stirred long before the colonists declared their independence by the quarrels that preceded the break. Readers were prepared for it, too, by the Histoire philosophique des deux Indes appearing in 1772 under the name of the Abbé Raynal (though in fact a co-operative work whose contributors included Diderot). A sensational attack on European overseas expansion, it predicted the independence of colonial settlements, and, as its prophecies came true, went through over fifty editions before the end of the century. From the start of their quarrel with British authority the Americans used the language of liberty and representation, striking immediate echoes in a France obsessed with despotism. When John Adams arrived in Bordeaux in 1778, the first president of the local parlement welcomed him with the declaration that:15 ‘He could not avoid sympathising with every sincere friend of Liberty in the world … He had reason he said to feel for the Sufferers in the Cause of Liberty, because he had suffered many Years in that cause himself. He had been banished … in the time of Louis the fifteenth, for … Remonstrances against the arbitrary Conduct and pernicious Edicts of the Court.’ Few Frenchmen knew much about America first hand, until the return of the 8,000 soldiers who served there, after the peace of 1783. Raynal, who published a further book on the revolt in 1780, had never made the voyage, and nor had the authors of many of the accounts of life in the new world which attempted to satisfy public enthusiasm. But translations soon appeared of the key documents in the struggle—pamphlets like Paine’s Common Sense, the Declaration of Independence, and the constitutions of several of the new states. And Parisian high society was conquered between 1777 and 1783 by the brilliant propaganda of Franklin, the new republic’s ambassador. Already famous as the inventor of the lightning conductor, his homespun philosophizing and simple style charmed the world of the Court and the intellectual salons alike. He seemed a living advertisement for the virtues of Rousseauistic simplicity, the product of a sylvan paradise far from the jaded artificiality of Europe. And although he flourished amid metropolitan glitter, and declared publicly that he saw no prospect of changing it, he sponsored the first open attack on the principle of nobility. The renegade Count de Mirabeau’s Considerations on the Order of Cincinnatus (1784) condemned a hereditary order of chivalry which officers in the War of Independence had set up to commemorate their involvement. It was Franklin who brought the issue to Mirabeau’s attention as returned French officers like the vainglorious Lafayette appeared in Paris flaunting the new society’s insignia. Thus issues raised in America reflected critically on French society as well as French politics, and interest in the new republic and the principles it stood for continued unabated after the peace. With the return of the veterans, it even grew better informed.

But the most important thing about America did not depend on accurate information. It was the simple fact that new starts had been shown to be possible. Existing political authority could be thrown off, and institutions rebuilt from their foundations on more rational, freer lines. The improvement, the regeneration, of human laws and institutions was no longer a mere matter of Utopian dreaming. It was happening before men’s eyes in America. As Jacques-Pierre Brissot, a jobbing journalist quick to cash in on every passing fashion, wrote when he read the most popular account of America, Crèvecoeur’s Letters of an American Farmer, in 1784,16

These letters will inspire or reawaken perhaps in blasé souls of Europeans the taste for virtue and the simple life … Energetic souls will find in them something more. They will see here a country, a government, where the desires of their hearts have been realised, a land which speaks to them in their own language. The happiness for which they have sighed finally does in truth exist.

America appealed, in fact, to what Jean-Joseph Mounier, one of the leading revolutionaries of 1789, would later remember as ‘a general restlessness and desire for change’.17 It manifested itself in the vogue for wonders of all sorts, whether Franklin’s lightning rod, or the first manned flights in the hot-air balloons seen rising over so many cities in 1783 and 1784, or a craze for Mesmerism and miraculous cures effected by tapping the supposedly hidden natural forces of ‘animal magnetism’. Established religion might be losing its mystic appeal, but science was bringing other miracles to light. Seekers after this newer, truer, wisdom believed themselves most likely to find it in the ‘royal art’ of freemasonry. Between 800 and 900 masonic lodges were founded in France between 1732 and 1793, two-thirds of them after 1760. Between 1773 and 1779 well over 20,000 members were recruited. Few towns of any consequence were without one or more lodges by the 1780s and, despite several papal condemnations of a deistic cult that had originated in Protestant England, the élite of society flocked to join. Voltaire was drafted in on his last visit to Paris, and it was before the assembled brethren of the Nine Sisters Lodge that he exchanged symbolic embraces with Franklin. Masonry was riddled with hierarchy. Women were excluded (although a handful of defiant all-female lodges appeared in the 1780s), men tended to join lodges where they would find their social peers, and there were innumerable grades of perfection through which adepts could pass. But within the lodges masons spoke of themselves as brothers and equals, and they elected their officers according to their talents, not their rank. Like the members of the literary societies mushrooming everywhere over the same period, most masons were well-educated commoners—often in fact the same people—and in masonry their cultural equality was fully recognized. And whereas most masonic assemblies consisted of rituals, followed by much eating and drinking, some brothers dreamed of putting the organization to more practical use. Philanthropic collections were organized; and the Nine Sisters Lodge threw itself into the vindication of wronged innocence in the judicial crusades of the mid-1780s. Mostly they steered clear of politics; but the sensational exposure in 1787 of a plot by self-styled Illuminati to use masonic organization to subvert the government of Bavaria threw general suspicion on to a movement much of whose appeal lay in its secrecy. Belief in plots and conspiracies was yet another sign of the credulity of the times. The same cast of mind also tended to seek simple, universal formulae to resolve any problem, no matter how complex. Its limitations would be tragically exposed in the storm that was about to break.

* See below, pp. 66-8.

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