The Séance Royale

Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.

Last week, we stepped away from the final financial crisis that was busy rocking the Ancien Régime to take a look at the wider world of international politics, diplomacy, and war that the French Revolution was about to explode in the middle of. 

And as I kind of suspected would happen, in trying to mash that much information into that small of a box, I flubbed a few details along the way. So we get to start with two quick corrections. One from listener Joe, when I was talking about the major political turnover in Russia at the end of the Seven Years’ War,  I should not have said “and then the old tsar died”, because it was not some dude that died at the end of 1761 it was in fact the Empress Elizabeth. My apologies to Empress Elizabeth for confusing her with some dude. 

Second, as a number of listeners pointed out, Frederick the Great had no children. Of course he had no children, it’s actually a whole little subchapter of Prussian history all its own. I should have said that his successor, Frederick William II, was not quite the man his uncle was, because Frederick William II was Frederick the Great’s nephew, not his son. Though while I’m here, I may as well throw in that Frederick William II will get to style himself King of Prussia rather than King in Prussia, because his uncle, Frederick the Great, did arbitrarily assert a preposition change round about the first partition of Poland. 

Okay, so getting back to the main story, we left off two weeks ago with the ousting of Controller-General Calonne from the Royal Ministry after he failed to convince the Assembly of Notables to approve his reform package. Taking his place, sort of, was the Archbishop of Toulouse, Loménie de Brienne. Having established himself as one of Calonne’s most vocal critics in the assembly of Notables, Brienne was brought into the Ministry in May 1787 in the hopes that he would be a more effective advocate of reform than the politically condescending Calonne had been. 

I say Brienne only sort of took Calonne’s place because Brienne was not appointed Controller-General. That job went to a historical non-entity you don’t need to worry about. Brienne was instead appointed head of the Royal Council of Finance. 

Now, the Royal Council of Finance was an old ministerial committee that, for as long as anyone could remember, had been filled with ceremonial appointees who never really met as a group and who wielded no power. But the pushback from the Assembly of Notables led to the revival of the Council as a real institution, the idea being that the royal finances needed broader oversight than had been provided by the previous string of secretive and despotic Controllers-General. So though it is correct in spirit to say that Brienne succeeded Calonne, just remember that his position is head of the Royal Council of Finance, not Controller-General. 

But for the moment this was as far as the King was willing to go when it came to increasing oversight. The Notables, however, emboldened by their ousting of Calonne and the placement of their own man inside the government, wanted still more. They wanted assurances that if they approved the reforms that deficits wouldn’t come back. They wanted annual publication of the King’s expenses. They wanted more of a say in who sat on the Council of Finance or better yet, they wanted a totally independent auditing committee who would be tasked with assisting a Controller-General. 

But the King was reluctant to commit to anything that would diminish his majesty and he refused to give in to these new demands. This led to a protracted back and forth through May 1787 that went nowhere fast. The Notables were willing to improve new temporary loans but they were clearly not going to accept any of the major reform initiatives. Public opinion had started to factor into their deliberations and they were relishing in their role as defenders of you know, whatever.

On May 21 the Marquis de Lafayette gave voice to the rising call to reconvene the Estates General, it being the only institution that could truly exercise oversight over the monarchy. And listening to all of this, Brienne decided that though he had just recently been one of its leaders, the Assembly of Notables had now outlived its usefulness. It had been called to give the King political cover and all it was doing now was obstructing his will. 

So Brienne announced that he was going to go ahead and take the reform package dutifully modified to reflect your suggestions to the Paris Parlement for immediate registration. And on May 25, 1787 the Assembly of Notables was disbanded. It was time for the real fight to begin. 

The magistrates of the Paris Parlement of course had been sitting on the sidelines just waiting for their chance to get into the game. Now that the Assembly of Notables had refused unconditional support and Calonne had been driven from the Ministry in disgrace they were basically jumping up and down and saying “please, please put me in coach”. 

After their showdown with Chancellor Maupeou back in the early 1770s had left them weak and divided, they now recognize this as a golden opportunity to get the upper hand on the King. Of the leaders inside the Parlement I will note two in particular: one a fiery arch conservative the other a young liberal noble. Their political leanings would naturally take these two men in opposite directions once the Parlement stopped being the center of attention, but for now they fought on the same side. 

The fiery arch conservative was Jean-Jacques Duval d’Eprémesnil. Raised in Paris and trained in the law, d’Eprémesnil entered the Parlement as a young counselor just as it was being brought back to Paris after the fall of Maupeou in 1774. The young lawyer quickly established himself as one of the most eloquent and passionate defenders of the traditional rights of the Parlement, earning him enemies at court, especially when he gleefully jumped into the middle of the diamond necklace affair and used it as an opportunity to rail against the Queen in particular and the monarchy in general. 

But though this cast him as one of the principal opponents of the Bourbon dynasty, he was no radical liberal and certainly no revolutionary. He railed with equal vengeance against the whole long tradition of the Enlightenment. His entire life and career was dedicated to establishing the preeminence of the aristocracy. And he believed that in the current crisis, the role of the Parlement should be to obstruct whatever the King proposed, forcing him to call the Estates General, which would naturally be controlled by and serve the ends of the nobility. 

His ally in the fight against the Royal Ministry was a young lawyer who came at the crisis from a completely different trajectory. This was 28 year old Adrian Duport. Duport was not the orator that d’Eprémesnil was – not by a long shot,  but he saw clearly that the Ancien Régime was dying and that the Kingdom needed a new constitution that would bring France into the modern age. He was an admirer of the American Revolution and was associated with Lafayette, and believed that the Estates General had to be called, and that their job should not just be to approve new taxes, but also to draft this whole new constitution for France. 

But critically, Duport was a liberal noble, not some crazy liberal republican. The aristocracy could and should play a major role in the new political order, but not his courtiers, who led on the basis of old privileges, but rather as citizens who led by virtue of their education, experience, and superior merit. 

After the Assembly of Notables was dissolved, the Paris Parlement convened in a special session to await the King’s attempt to register the reform package. This special session was called a Court of Peers, which was nothing more than the members of the Paris Parlement being joined by the Seven Princes of the Blood and a few other high ranking nobles. And in the case of this particular Court of Peers, that meant that 21 men who had served in the assembly of Notables now sat in the Paris Parlement. 

But that little detail is not nearly as important as the other new twist in the fight, because when Brienne started presenting the reforms for registration, the resulting debate did not occur in a private room closed to the public. There would be, for the first time, an audience. 

In the early going, this audience was drawn primarily from the 2,000 or so clerks and bailiffs and young lawyers who were attached to the workings of the Parlement and for whom this debate was the center of the universe. Mostly younger and mostly liberal and/or radical, they cheered speakers who preached resistance and hissed at those who advised compliance. 

The existence of the audience will soon become a key feature of the French Revolution, which is in pretty marked contrast to the English and American revolutions, where all the great oratory was directed at fellow members of parliament or, say, the continental Congress. But the leaders of the French Revolution always had a crowd to play too, and the impact of turning governance into theater would play a major role in how things would unfold

When Brienne started presenting the reforms at the end of June 1787, though, he started with the easy stuff – items that were sure to be registered without a fight, including turning the corvée into a money tax, establishing free trade in grain, and the creation of provincial assemblies to assess and collect the new taxes. This was all mostly noncontroversial stuff for the members of the Paris Parlement, though, as we will see next week, the bit about provincial assemblies would find much stiffer resistance in the provincial Parlement, who were not too keen on some kid horning in on their turf. 

But the Paris Parlement finally started pushing back on July 2, when Brienne brought in the proposal to enlarge the scope of the stamp tax. The stamp tax was loved by the Ministry for the same reason it was hated by the Parlement, its burden would primarily fall on the upper classes rather than the poor peasants, whose life did not revolve around paper the way that it did for, say, merchants, bankers and lawyers. 

As the magistrate drove one by one to denounce the stamp tax, more than a few of the younger liberals delighted in getting to rehash the very same arguments made by the daring American revolutionaries who had so bravely stood up to the tyranny of King George over this exact same issue. 

The tactic that the Parlement used to fight the extension of the stamp tax was to delay registration until the King sent along his detailed plan for how the royal books would be kept in the future. They didn’t want to approve a new tax just to watch it all disappear into Marie Antoinette’s jewelry collection (pause for laughter and applause). The King refused and pointed out that this was way beyond anything the Parlement had a right to demand. Then the magistrates pointed out to the King that technically, what he was asking them to do was way beyond what he had a right to demand. 

On July 26, they issued a remonstrance calling on His Majesty to withdraw the stamp tax and convene the Estates General. Brienne decided not to press the issue, and he did pull back the stamp tax. But that was mostly because the stamp tax was small potatoes compared to the other big revenue initiative that needed to be registered –  the universal tax on land, the linchpin of the whole project. 

Brienne had modified the land tax to be for specific monetary amounts determined annually, rather than Calonne’s endlessly rising tax into infinity. But even with this modification in place, on July 30, the Parlement flat out said, no, we cannot register this. It’s a new tax and new taxes mean you have to call the Estates General. 

But everyone knew that the King’s next move would not be to call the Estates General. Instead, it was clearly time for a good old fashioned Lit de Justice, which, as you’ll recall, was that unbeatable constitutional trump card held by the King. On August 6, the Paris Parlement was called as a body up to Versailles for the ceremony of forced registration. 

On the hottest day of the year, some 400 magistrates and ministers packed into a hall of the Palace of Versailles to hear the King’s official statement that, in his estimation, the reforms were necessary, and so he was registering them by his own royal will. Unfortunately for the monarchy’s public relations department, the official ceremony of the Lit de Justice involved the King being seated on a bed of pillows – don’t ask. And while the ceremony unfolded, you know, the one where he was forcing through edict’s critical to the survival of the monarchy, the King fell asleep. He started snoring. Guys had to raise their voices to be heard. It was hot and it was stuffy and he was sitting on a bed of pillows, but still Louis, man, have a cup of coffee. 

When the Parlement reconvened the next day in Paris, they immediately went back on the attack and bluntly declared the previous day’s Lit de Justice to be an illegal usurpation of power. Then Adrian Duport opened up a major broadside on former Controller-General Calonne, holding him responsible for the criminal mismanagement of the Royal Treasury. Calonne, exiled to Lorraine, did not like the sound of these accusations one bit, quietly slipped over to England, making him arguably the first emigrate of the French Revolution. 

He planned to stay abroad until the heat was off and did try to come back when the Estates General got called the following year. But by then, he was a reviled public whipping boy and forbidden to return. He would wind up attaching himself to the emigrate court of the Comte d’Artois and then when the Revolution just kept going, he resettled back in London. He would not return to France until 1802, when Napoleon let him back in just in time to die a month later. 

But Duport’s attacks on Calonne were not about attacking Calonne. They were about attacking the King. And to the continued cheering of the audience, d’Eprémesnil, Duport, and their colleagues declared their outright refusal to execute the King’s illegal edicts. 

The King, as you can imagine, was not amused. On August 14, every member of the Paris Parlement was handed an individual Lettres de Cachet, ordering them to leave the radically energized Paris and reconvene in the sleepy town of Troyes. A Lettre de Cachet was simply an assigned order directly from the King and it can be used for all kinds of things. But one of those things was delivering penal judgments that could not be appealed as in, you are now exiled to Troyes, leave immediately. 

Lettres de Cachet were hugely unpopular and pretty high up on everyone’s list of tyrannical abuses that needed to be reformed. As in, the King shouldn’t be allowed to do this anymore. But for the moment, it had the force of absolute law. The magistrates left Paris and reconvened at Troyes far away from the adoring audiences they had been playing to, and removing them from the salons and clubs where they had been urged nightly to continue resisting the King. 

The exile of the Parlement was met by protests from a few of the lesser courts around Paris and also by a few street demonstrations, though we’re talking about dozens of people here, not thousands. It was enough, though, for the King to order regular armed patrols through the streets of Paris and then further the closing of all those private clubs where men and women had met to chat about current events. And at this point, I am contractually obligated to mention, as every historian does, that the chess club was among those closed, which indicates just how sweepingly paranoid the King was becoming. 

On August 26, Brienne was officially elevated to the post of Principal Minister. And though he too was obviously annoyed at the Parlement, he decided it was time to start walking back from whatever brink they were all approaching. He took no action against the lesser courts for their shows of solidarity, and then he started sending conciliatory letters to the Parlement to arrange a compromise. 

Now, I’ve seen this compromise described as both Brienne exercising shrewd political judgment and totally caving into pressure. And I got to say, I tend towards the latter, because the basis of the compromise is that the King would withdraw the land tax, collect the existing veigntième more rigorously, and then take out new loans to cover any shortfalls. It’s hard to see this as anything but a complete cave in. He basically gave up everything he had been previously fighting for. 

The Parlement was, of course, amenable to this compromise, and after spending a month bored out of their minds in Troyes, on September 13, they accepted the deal, though they reaffirmed in no uncertain terms that they would never register a new tax. A week later, they were recalled to Paris, where they were met by cheering crowds, fireworks and a nice big bonfire where Calonne was burned in effigy. It was good to be home. 

But though this compromise satisfied the magistrates of the Paris Parlement, it scared the bejesus out of the regime’s bankers. The expected land tax was basically the thing that had been holding them at bay. But Brienne somehow managed to talk his way through it and pointed out that though the projected deficit for 1788 was a cool 160 million livre, most of that was for loan repayments that would then be coming off the books by collecting the veigntième more efficiently, revenue would go up over the next few years, while cost came down. So, yes, we’ll need to take out a few more annual loans until we hit equilibrium about five years down the road, but every year, the size of the loan will drop until we’re out from under this thing. 

The bankers were still understandably nervous but when Brienne refused to commit troops to the United Provinces to fight the invading Prussians, which is happening right now, temporarily bumping the battle between the King and Parlement off the front page, that kind of brutal fiscal reasoning had to ease their minds a little bit, even if the rest of France was utterly scandalized. 

Now, the Parlement took a much needed vacation after returning from exile, so it wasn’t until November that they reconvened to register the loans that would be necessary to make Brienne’s fiscal compromise work. But by now, divides were starting to open up amongst the magistrates. The older conservatives were happy with the compromise and willing to register the new loans Brienne requested. But the younger liberals felt betrayed. They believed that this had all been about pushing France in a new direction, not falling back into old habits. 

Brienne soothed them by recommending to the King that the Estates General be called at some point in the next five years, calculating, of course, that by then the crisis would be passed and the Estates would simply get together, say good job, and then go home. 

But a funny thing happened on the way to the compromise. The King totally went off script right in the middle of it. Like, literally right in the middle of it. 

On November 19, 1787, the King came down in person to convene the Parlement in a Séance Royale, a royal session. This was not a Lit de Justice. There wasn’t any ceremonial hooplaw. The King was not sitting on a bed of pillows, and it was not about forced registration. This was simply the King attending a session of the Parlement. As part of the non-hoopla, the magistrates were told that they could speak their minds freely, and a few of them did, some maybe a little too freely for the King’s taste. But still, all seemed like it was on track and Brienne believed that they had the votes to approve the loans. 

But then, just before the votes were counted, the King suddenly veered off track, possibly influenced by a reactionary minister who whispered something in his ear, possibly that the vote was about to go against His Majesty and, boy, that would be embarrassing. The King suddenly spoke up and said “okay, these loans are necessary, I’ve promised to call the Estates General. My word should be sufficient for you, so I order you to register the edicts”. 

The magistrates were taken aback. With this stunning turn hanging in the air, the Duke d’Orléans, the one Prince of the Blood, who was well and truly estranged from the Court of Versailles, got up and stammered an objection, saying that the King’s actions were illegal. But Louis dismissed him and said “it is legal because I will it”. Then he got up and left. 

The magistrates looked around at each other in confusion and decided to continue the session, agreeing that the King was, at this point, way outside of his prerogatives. The next day, the King ordered a Lettre de Cachet against d’Orléan and two of his associates, exiling them from Paris. Then he ordered the Parlement to send him a delegation at once with the registration he had ordered in hand. And as much as they hated it, there was little they could do but comply. Then the King expunged the record of the Séance Royale to eliminate all record of resistance to his will. This royal session was supposed to mark the end of the conflict, or at least a temporary truce, and instead it kicked everything up a notch. If King Louis had hurt his position by falling asleep during the Lit de Justice back in August, he positively wrecked his position by staying awake for the Séance Royale. 

In immediate response to all of this, Adrian Duport opened up proceedings on the legality of Lettres de Cachet, resulting in a January 4 remonstrance to the King that they needed to be abolished. The King took no notice

Now, over the winter, the fight really moved out into the provinces because just as the disastrous Séance Royale was being held in Paris, the various provincial assemblies at the Paris Parlement had approved way back in June started to meet. But obviously, given the resulting political antagonism, the character and direction of these assemblies became hot button issues out in the provinces. But I’m going to hold off on talking about that right now so I can finish up this round of fighting between the King and the Paris Parlement, because when that round ends with the promulgation of the May edicts, the fight will move decisively out into the provinces and we can start next week’s episode with a little catch up, rather than trying to cram everything in here today. 

So the final showdown of this particular round of fighting in Paris came in April 1788. Rumors had begun to swirl that the King had grown so tired of the Parlement’s carping that he planned to break them by force. And everyone started bracing, not for polite exile, but for an outright royal coup. 

The widespread belief that they were about to be attacked led them to launch into even deeper and more bitter attacks on the despotism of King Louis XVI. The legality of November’s Séance Royale was called back into question and on April 17, a large delegation traveled to Versailles to present the King with their complaints, complaints that were simply rejected out of hand. 

So on April 30, d’Eprémesnil crafted a major remonstrance, laying out the legitimacy of a Montesquieu-style constitutional monarchy and the illegitimacy of whatever the hell King Louis thought he was doing. In a further decree on May 3, called the Declaration of the Fundamental Laws of the Kingdom, d’Eprémesnil stated flatly that the right to levy taxes lay with the Estates General and the Estates General alone, an institution that had now been seized on as a panacea for all that ailed France. 

Louis responded by digging even deeper into his royal prerogatives, known as rank despotism to everyone else. Lettres de Cachet were issued on May 4 against d’Eprémesnil and another guy whose name I won’t bother you with. I wish the other guy had been Adrian Duport, it would have made this a much neater little story, but King Louis does not seem to care about making it easier for me to explain this stuff to you. 

On May 5, the two men sought refuge inside the Parlement itself, and for the whole day, a standoff ensued. The magistrates refused to hand over their two colleagues to the King’s men, and the King’s men were hesitant about just barging in and grabbing them. But after a day of noble resistance, the Parlement agreed to hand the two men over. They were arrested and then imprisoned on May 7. 

The very next day, the Royal Ministry issued the famous May edicts. And that is what we are going to talk about next week. Designed to break utterly the Parlement now and forever, the May edicts will instead spark a backlash throughout the Kingdom that will lead directly to the King’s decision to convene the Estates General, not at some point in the next five years, but right away. Specifically in May 1789.

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