Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.
As we discussed last time, almost every aspect of Ancien Régime France was in need of reform. But unfortunately reform was just not happening. It would be a mistake, though, to picture the years leading up to 1789 as a period of lethargic inertia. The kingdom’s problems were well known to the royal ministry, and through the 1770s and 1780s, they did attempt to address a few of the more flagrant issues. Unfortunately, these stabs at reform provoked resistance from whatever group happened to be profiting from the existing system, whether that profit came in the form of money or power or status.
What this all wound up boiling down to was a running battle between those who believed that France’s problems could be solved only by refounding the kingdom on the principles of enlightened absolutism, and those who believed that traditional privileges, rights, and interests must be protected from the encroaching tentacles of tyranny. Both were partly right, both were partly wrong, and combined, they ensured that nothing of great substance was done until it was way too late.
So when we were discussing the Enlightenment last time, I purposefully left out a discussion of this concept of enlightened absolutism because I thought it would work well as an introduction to the stuff we’re going to be talking about today as power passes from Louis XV to Louis XVI.
Now, enlightened absolutism, or enlightened despotism, is a concept that can trace its roots back at least as far as the philosopher King of Plato’s Republic. And in 18th century Europe, it meant a monarch who was educated in modern ideas, concerned about the wellbeing of his subjects, and who wielded enough power to force through the kind of reforms advocated by enlightened men of letters.
Because, as it turns out, most of the philosophes running around out there, including, for example Voltaire, were in favor of strengthening the monarchy, not weakening it. My European friends out there won’t find this the least bit surprising, but it’s a little off kilter for us Americans because the guys who represent the American Enlightenment, guys like Franklin and Jefferson and Madison, they all wound up Republicans. But back in the Old World, enlightenment thinkers surveyed the political landscape and determined that the only way to drag their kingdoms into the modern era was if a wise and benevolent and powerful executive did the pulling.
During the 18th century, there was a trio of monarchs who seemed to prove this point: Frederick the Great of Prussia, who ruled from 1740 to 1786 and is essentially the great enlightened monarch; Catherine the Great of Russia, who ruled from 1762 to 1796; and then Joseph II, who was Holy Roman Emperor from 1741 to 1790. All three, in their own way, modernized their kingdoms, promoted the arts and sciences, reformed outdated legal systems, military structures, and economic relationships you know like all the reforms that Ancien Régime France was desperately in need of – especially if France hoped to keep up with her rapidly modernizing European rivals.
But, of course, power is a zero sum game, so strengthening the central monarchy meant that someone or something out there was going to get weaker. And what’s kind of ironic is that the guy who everyone tended to revere as the great French political scientist, that is Montesquieu, did not believe in enlightened absolutism at all. As I mentioned last time, Montesquieu approached politics with an aristocratic worldview that favored curtailing rather than enhancing royal power; he advocated separating and balancing power, not dumping it all in the hands of one man.
And we don’t have to look very far to come up with an explanation for this worldview because Montesquieu spent his formative years in the Parlement of Bordeaux and in Ancien Régime France, the Parlement were the institution that stood to lose the most if enlightened absolutism wound up carrying the day.
As we’ll soon see, the years leading up to the Revolution can easily be framed as a conflict between the monarchy on the one hand and the Parlement on the other. As it would turn out, it was a conflict that neither would win.
So, as you know, the Parlement were in the main judicial court of final appeal. Originally, there was just the one. It was based in Paris and covered the whole kingdom. But as new provinces were absorbed, regional Parlement were established. For example, the one based in Bordeaux that Montesquieu was a member of.
On the eve of the Revolution, there were thirteen, collectively made up of somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 magistrates who formed the cream of the rogue nobility. Their seats were technically purchased from the crown, but by the late 18th century, they had all been held and passed down through multiple generations. So the members of the Parlement occupied a kind of middle ground between the old old nobility and the new new nobility.
They also represented a provincial check on the centralizing instincts of the monarchy. The members of the provincial Parlement were all distinguished local leaders who battled incessantly with the royally appointed intendants over the implementation of policy. They were hyper aware of their privileges and the special role that they played in the political order of the Ancien Régime.
What was that special role? Well above and beyond their judicial functions as courts of appeal, it turned out that any law promulgated by the King had to be registered in the Parlement to take effect. The magistrates took this active registration seriously and did not believe it was their job to provide a mere rubber stamp for the King, because not only were they allowed to consider and debate the proposed new law, they were allowed to send back to the King a remonstrance, tallying up the things they didn’t like and then delay registration until the King either stripped out offending clauses or provided satisfactory reasons for keeping them in.
This gave the Parlement collectively a sense that they were the defenders of political liberty in France, because without them keeping watch the King would quickly become a tyrant. Now, of course, as with so many other French political institutions, the Parlement had been pretty well brought to heel by Louis XIV. After his death, they started to flex their political muscle again, constantly pushing back against the ministries of Louis XV, perfecting the art of delay and obstructionism and forcing the King to modify or give up anything he wasn’t ready to battle to the death over.
But there was a limit to how far the Parlement could hold back the monarchy, because at the end of the day, the King held the final trump card, a trump card called the Lit de Justice. This was the King exercising his prerogative to come down to the Parlement in person and after a fancy ceremony, forced registration of the new law by his own royal authority.
Now, if you’re the King, you don’t want to resort to a Lit de Justice, because it looks bad. And concepts like public opinion are starting to work their way into the political process. But during the reign of Louis XV, the use of the Lit de Justice picked up because it had to. The Parlement were pushing back against royal edicts with increasing frequency, especially after the first veigntième was created in 1749. That was that 5% income tax that was levied on everyone equally.
As you can imagine, the nobles of the Parlement did not think much of this tyrannical encroachment on their privileges and they fought its implementation. And this is a good example of why so many French philosophes supported the idea of enlightened absolutism. All the Royal ministry was trying to do was get the government on sound financial footing by spreading taxes more equitably across the Three Estates. What could be more rational and more beneficial? And here’s this little click of self interested nobles trying to stop it just because they didn’t want to kick in their fair share. It’s maddening. That said, the magistrates were pretty good at convincing the public that the cause of the Parlement was synonymous with the cause of liberty and justice. And public opinion generally supported them in their battles with the monarchy.
These running battles finally came to a head during the last ministry of Louis XV, a ministry led by a guy named René Nicolas de Maupeou. Now, Maupeou came up through the ranks of the Paris Parlement, and during the 1750s, he was actually a key player in the defense of the Parlement against royal encroachment, a defense he continued to wage when he became President of the Parlement in 1763.
But then, in 1768, Maupeou became Lord Chancellor, that is, the Royal Minister in charge of the French judiciary. No doubt his colleagues in the Parlement hoped that from this position, Maupeou would continue to defend their interests. But the appointment put him on the other side of the political fence, as it was the Lord Chancellor’s job to ensure that royal decrees were duly registered by the Parlement, and Maupeou embraced his new role as advocate for the monarchy.
After being appointed Lord Chancellor, Maupeou engaged in some court intrigues far too esoteric for us to get into here that resulted in the appointment of Joseph Mairie Terray as Controller-General of Finances in 1769, and then Maupeou’s own appointment as Chief Minister in December 1770.
Now, Maupeou and Terray were interested in putting the monarchy on better financial footing, and so they naturally targeted noble tax privileges. But they also had their eye on reforming the tax farming used to collect all those indirect taxes we talked about last week. To ensure the reforms could be implemented smoothly, Maupeou started undercutting the authority of his old friends in the Parlement.
He issued decrees designed to limit their ability to stall legislation, and he hindered the ability of the 13 Parlement to collectively communicate with each other. The Paris Parlement, of course, refused to register these decrees. And so in December 1770, just as he was being appointed Chief Minister, Maupeou convinced Louis XV to issue the Lit de Justice and force registration.
Once he was officially Chief Minister, he punished the Paris Parlement by suspending their functions and exiling them from the city, which was a pretty audacious power play. After sweeping aside the Paris Parlement, Maupeou set himself to creating a completely new judicial system for France. He established the Temporary Judicial Council to keep the wheels of justice moving until he could implement his new scheme, which featured six superior court districts and a reconstituted Paris Parlement that would be staffed by magistrates appointed and paid by the Crown, rather than by nobles who had inherited their positions, you know, like he had once done.
But this was just the beginning. Maupeou was aiming at nothing less than the wholesale abolition of the ungodly patchwork of courts that define the French judicial system, hopefully replacing it with a uniform set of laws and courts. Resistance from the provincial Parlement to all of this was, of course, swift, which led Maupeou to simply suspend and banish whoever didn’t like the new order.
Now, this is all pretty heavy handed, but alongside the resistance, it would appear that a lot of people in the legal community looked at the reforms with undisguised relief. The Paris bar agreed to carry on their legal work under the new framework, and many ambitious and or enlightened lawyers were all too happy to take up appointments in a system that promised to be more rational and more equitable.
With the Parlement out of the way, Maupeou and Controller-General Terray went back to trying to establish a better tax structure and rein in the abuses of the tax farmers. But all this ultimately accomplished was to add to the Ministry’s growing list of really powerful enemies. Maupeou managed to hold the line because he retained the confidence of Louis XV. But Louis XV was pretty checked out by this point in his reign and not particularly popular with anyone anyway. So with each passing year support for Maupeou’s grand reorganization dwindled, especially because backers of the Parlement were, as I said, quite adept at framing all of this as a battle not between a modernizing ministry and selfish defenders of old privilege, but rather as a battle between a tyrannical ministry and the great defenders of French liberty.
When Louis XV finally died in May 1774, it swept away the last political leg Maupeou and his allies had to stand on. After a few months, the new 19 year old King Louis XVI was convinced to scrap the whole reform project, sack Maupeou and his Ministry, and reinstate the Parlement to their former positions.
But though the return of the Parlement was greeted with great public fanfare, the whole business left everyone just a little worse for the wear. The prestige of the monarchy was damaged by Maupeou’s heavy handed tactics, and the Parlement were now divided internally between those in the legal community who had fought the good fight and those who had tried to reconcile themselves to the new order, leading to petty squabbles when the old order was reinstated that didn’t make anyone look good.
One final note on this, just for the sake of historical trivia, is that Maupeou wound up being the last Lord Chancellor of France, because when he was dismissed, he refused to resign his office and was still technically Lord Chancellor when the office was abolished by the Constituent Assembly in 1790.
Although any hope at reforming the judicial system was now pretty much dead, there was still a chance for economic and financial reform. But after Controller-General Terray was shown the door along with Maupeou in August 1774, those economic and financial reforms took on an entirely different character, because the new Controller-General was a guy named Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, who was an acolyte of something called physiocracy.
Physiocracy was an economic theory that existed in between the dying theory of mercantilism and the rising classical liberalism that Adam Smith was currently hard at work on up in Scotland. The physiocrats believe, first and foremost, that the wealth of the nation was rooted exclusively in the land. It wasn’t about amassing gold or having a favorable balance of trade with rival powers. It was about agricultural labor. Everything else was merely a secondary offshoot.
But when it came to those secondary offshoots, like manufacturing and trade, the physiocrats further believe that the economy should be as free as possible. So they believe, for example, that the guild system wasn’t an anachronism that needed to die, that the web of internal customs barriers was crippling trade, and that all the indirect taxes on consumer goods hurt the entire commercial chain, from producer all the way to consumer. It was, in fact, one of the leading physiocrats, a guy named Vincent de Gournay, who allegedly coined the term laissez faire, which roughly translates as let do, as in let the economy run itself.
So, as I said, our new Controller-General Turgot was into all this stuff. Having fallen in with the physiocrats back in the 1750s, Turgot began publishing his own works on economics and philosophy, and like many other contemporary philosophes, including his great friend Voltaire, contributed articles to the encyclopedia. But it was his work as intendant of Limoges that really cemented his reputation.
Appointed in 1761, he would serve there until he was elevated into the Royal Ministry in 1774, and during those 13 years, he was able to put his theories into practice, and Limoges became a little physiocrate laboratory. It was a region hit particularly hard by the haphazard and regressive system of taxation, and Turgot worked hard to complete a modern land survey to distribute the land taxes more equitably.
He also sought to lessen the burden of indirect taxes on consumer goods, and most especially, convert the corvée, the system of forced labor for public works, into a money tax assessed on the province as a whole, which was designed to spread the cost of building and maintaining the roads around to everybody.
During this period, he also continued to publish his attacks on the crushing great load of obstacles to unleashing the full power of the French economy. With the ascension of Louis XVI, Turgot was immediately appointed Minister of the Navy and then shortly thereafter, named Controller-General of Finances, an appointment that was widely applauded by the philosophe community. And no one clapped harder than his old friend Voltaire.
Turgot wasted no time getting to work. The state finances were in a bad way. Deficits from the seven years were still lingered. The tax structure, as we now know, was as inefficient as it was inadequate, and the monarchy itself continued to spend money as if nothing at all was the matter.
But before getting into what he no doubt hoped would be the thoroughgoing overhaul of French finances, Turgot first did what he could to cut expenses, and he pursued across the board economies in every department, up to and including favors and pensions, doled out by the royal family to favorites. This, as you can imagine, ruffled more than a few feathers and earned Turgot a number of powerful enemies. But it also brought expenses down enough to earn him some credibility with the Dutch bankers, from whom Turgot secured a pretty favorable loan to cover the remaining deficits.
But Turgot’s great dream, his great obsession, was setting the grain trade free. Up until now, there were all kinds of restrictions on how and when and where grain could be sold, all the way down to enforced price controls on bread, which was the staple of the French peasant diet.
Turgot wanted to do away with the entire regulatory structure. It was forever depressing the French economy, which was rooted, remember, in agriculture, because it forced farmers to sell below the worth of their labor. If the grain was set free and sold where it was needed, when it was needed, for whatever price it could fetch, the entire French economy would blossom. Sure, there might be some kinks at first, but in the long run, wages and prices would no doubt be brought into proper alignment that more accurately reflected the true worth of the French economy and everyone, landowner, farmer, consumer would be better off.
Unfortunately for Turgot, he launched this project in late 1774, just as France was being hit by bad harvests, at least bad harvests in some areas and good harvest in other areas. With all the previous restrictions on the grain trade lifted, those with a grain surplus were now free to sell to those with a grain deficit at exactly the kind of premium you might expect. It’s called supply and demand. It’s new, but you’ll get used to it. But it was not just the hard hit areas that paid the premium. Free of regulation the landowners with plenty of grain to sell were all too happy to move their entire supply out of the home province to fetch the higher prices. Unless, of course, you’d care to match the price I’m getting over there.
The peasants did not take kindly to these sorts of arbitrary price hikes. And though the terminology wasn’t around yet, the peasants had a rudimentary belief in the so called moral economy, where the King, as father protector, was supposed to make sure his subjects were not gouged by unscrupulous profiteers in times of want. So to the average peasant, by following Turgot’s new free trade system, the King was failing to perform his most basic duty to his subjects. And when that happened, they felt perfectly justified in taking action, which is how we get to the Flour War of 1775.
The Flour War was a widespread series of uprisings in April and May 1775 that targeted landowners, merchants, traders, bakeries, royal officials, and anyone else who seemed to be unjustly profiting from the depleted grain supply. These uprisings were driven in part by a reoccurring paranoid fantasy within the peasantry that the price increases could not simply be about abstract laws of supply and demand working themselves out. It had to be some sort of conspiracy, a conspiracy that they dubbed the Famine Pact.
The Famine Pact was about a shadowy group of large landowners being in cahoots with evil royal ministers to intentionally withhold grain from the market to drive up prices. It wasn’t true, of course, but given the atmosphere, fear and paranoia were the order of the day. By early May 1775, the tumult hit Paris, where bakeries were looted, and then finally, Versailles itself, where protesters gathered outside the palace to demand that the King take action.
In the end, young Louis XVI bowed to the pressure, and after sending out 25,000 troops into the provinces to restore order, he returned to a system of fixed prices that forced farmers to move their grain from where it was to where it was needed without any additional markup.
Though the crisis quickly passed. In the Flour War, we get a glimpse of what’s to come because in the late 1780s, even worse harvests will combine with the still smoldering peasant resentment to spark an even greater wave of rural uprisings.
But though the Flour War was bad, it didn’t immediately take Turgot down, and he was allowed to keep moving forward with his reforms, even if maybe his most cherished idea, that of substituting a single land tax for the parade of indirect taxes, it’s probably now a dead letter.
Of further interest to us here at the Revolutions podcast is the fact that at this same moment, the Spring of 1775, the American War of Independence is breaking out, and Controller-General Turgot winds up being the principal opponent of France getting involved with the American War. Now, given his wider Enlightenment beliefs, he sympathized and cheered on the Americans, but argued that for France to actually commit money was, like, insane. The deficit is barely manageable, our revenue system stinks, and you want me to approve a whole new set of loans to finance a war halfway across the world? No, thank you.
But Foreign Minister Vergennes made the more persuasive case that it would be quick and cheap and best of all, humiliate the British. Now, I got to say, if I was in the Royal Ministry in 1775, I would be totally opposed to getting into this war. But as a good patriotic American, I would like to say thank you, Vergennes – even if you had a major hand in ultimately engulfing your kingdom in the flames of chaos and revolution.
Turgot would, of course, be proven right. The American War was neither quick nor cheap, and it only kind of humiliated the British. But that prescience did him no good, and he had by now pretty much alienated everyone from the lowliest peasant right up to the Queen herself. And he was probably already a dead man walking when he issued the six edicts in January 1776, two of which were particularly controversial: the partial suspension of the trade guilds and a nationwide conversion of the corvée into a money tax he had already done as an intendant of Limoges.
To make matters worse, in the introductory statement to these edicts, he specifically said that this was all about attacking noble privilege, which meant that the edicts had to be forced through the Parlement by a Lit de Justice, which was pretty much the last time Louis XVI stuck his neck out for Turgot. And by May 1776, court intrigue forced him to resign.
So, as with Maupeou, Turgot tried to advance the cause of enlightened absolutism and use it to reform and modernize aspects of the Ancien Régime that were long overdue for reform and modernization. And he was met with pushbacks strong enough to topple both him and his reforms. The interesting thing, though, is that in the Flour War, Turgot faced resistance not from the most privileged classes, but from the very least privileged classes.
So, successfully establishing the kind of enlightened absolutist regime advocated by the philosophes required a King who was as tough as he was farsighted, someone who was willing to overcome the complaints of both his closest courtiers and the anger of the peasant mobs. Unfortunately, Louis XV wasn’t much interested in the job, especially as he neared death. And Louis XVI was as tentative as he was inexperienced, so neither King was exactly the perfect candidate to bring enlightened absolutism to France.
There was still hope for young Louis XVI, though, and maybe as he grew into the Crown, it would sit more confidently on his head. Maybe he too would one day join the pantheon of Frederick and Catherine in the great modernization of Europe. Or maybe it would turn out that tentative vacillation was not a character flaw of young Louis XVI but a character flaw of Louis XVI period, whatever his age might be. I wonder which it could be?
Next week, we will push through the last decade of the Ancien Régime before the merde starts to really hit the fan in 1786 and introduced the man whose fate wound up being tied so closely to the early days of the Revolution, the Swiss Protestant wonderboy financier Jacques Necker, and his magical ability to distinguish between ordinary and extraordinary royal expenditure.
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