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  • 1892
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old custom, was still the living-room of the family. Sometimes the lord’s house was modern, elegant, and symmetrical; it was flanked with pavilions and in front of it was a stone terrace, with a balustrade, on which stood vases for growing plants. Inside the house were high-studded rooms with white walls and gilded mouldings. High-backed, crooked-legged chairs, in the style of the last reign, were ranged against the walls; and near the middle of the dark, slippery, well-waxed floor, were lighter seats and stools. The grandmother’s armchair with its footstool stood at the chimney corner, where the fire was religiously lighted on All Saints and put out at Easter, regardless of weather. Through the tall windows that opened down to the ground might be seen the long straight garden-walks, none too well kept, and clipped shrubs, with here and them a marble nymph, moss-grown and broken, or a fountain out of repair. The family did not spend much money in the place. There was little to do except in the season for shooting.[Footnote: Taine, _L’ancien régime_, 17. Mme. de Montagu, 59.]

In order that this last occupation may be left to the lord and his friends, game is strictly preserved, to the great detriment of the crops. Poachers are sharply dealt with, and the peasant may not have a gun to protect him from wolves. There are laws enough against the wrongs wrought by landlords and gamekeepers, against the trampling down of young wheat, against vexatious complaints and fines, but the country people say that such laws are not fairly enforced. Especially is the case hard of those who live near the _capitaineries_ or royal hunting-grounds. Here rural proprietors may not raise a new wall without permission, lest the hares be restrained of their liberty of eating cabbages. No crops can be cut until the appointed day, that the young partridges be not disturbed. Deer and rabbits live at free quarters in the cultivated fields. They are the peasants’ personal enemies, and among the first unlawful acts of the Revolution will be their wholesale destruction.[Footnote: Olivier, 78, mentions the laws protecting the crops. The universal complaint of the _cahiers_ proves the grievance. See the chapter on the _cahiers_. The _capitainerie_ of Chantilly was said to be over 100 miles in circumference. A. Young, i. 8 (May 25, 1787).]

In every village there is a church, sometimes even in small places a beautiful gothic building, oftener modest in size and of plain architecture. Once or twice in a day’s ride the red roofs and high walls of a convent come in sight, not very different in appearance from a group of farm buildings,–were it not for the chapel and its belfry;–for here in France the farms are surrounded by high walls. The interminable straight roads, fine pieces of engineering, but little traveled, stretch out between the ploughed fields, with rows of Lombardy poplars on either hand, that tantalize the sun-baked traveler with a suggestion of shade.

The peasants live in villages oftener than in detached farms, and the village itself is apt to have a rudely fortified appearance. The fields that stretch about it belong to the peasants, but with a modified ownership. Over them the lords exercise their feudal rights. There is the _cens_, a fixed rent, annual, perpetual, inseparably attached to the soil. It is paid sometimes in money, sometimes in grain, fruits, or chickens, according to deed, or to long established custom. There is the _champart_, a rent proportional to the crop, also payable to the lord; and there is the tithe which must be given to the clergy. Should the peasant wish to sell his holding, a fine called _lods et ventes_, amounting in some cases to one sixth of the price, must be paid to the lord by the purchaser, and on some estates the lord has also the right to refuse to accept the new tenant, and to take the bargain on his own account.[Footnote: Prudhomme, 37, 137, 515.]

These are the common incidents of feudal tenure. Rights analogous to them may be found in England or in Germany, wherever that system has existed. And the vestiges of a state of things far older than feudalism have not entirely disappeared. The commons of wood and of pasturage yet recall the time when agricultural lands were held by a common tenure. Even that tenure itself, with its annual redistribution of the fields, may be found in Lorraine.[Footnote: Mathieu, 322.]

There were, moreover, many irksome restrictions on the peasant. In the lord’s mill he must grind his corn; in the lord’s oven he must bake his bread; to the lord’s bull his cow must be taken. Days of labor on the lord’s land might be demanded of him. Ridiculous customs, offensive to his dignity or his vanity, might be enforced. Newly married couples were in some parishes made to jump over the churchyard wall. In other places, on certain nights in the year, the peasants were obliged to beat the water in the castle ditch to keep the frogs quiet. These customs have been considered very grievous by democratic writers, nor were they so indifferent to the peasants themselves as the lovers of the good old times would have us believe.[Footnote: See the rural _cahiers, passim_. Mathieu gives the text of a customary right of _banalité_. The fee of the _four banal_ was 1/24 of the bread by weight; the _moulin banal_, 1/12 of the flour; the _pressoir banal_, 1/10 to 1/12 of the wine; but the fees varied in different places even in one province. It was complained that presses enough for the work were not furnished, and that grapes spoiled in consequence. Mathieu, 285.]

It was not always the lord of the soil who enjoyed and exercised the feudal rights. He had sometimes sold them to strangers, in whose hands they were merely revenue, and who demanded them harshly.

The origin of these customs lay in a form of civilization that had long passed away. To understand the conditions on which the French peasants held their lands little more than a hundred years ago, we must glance back over many centuries. Feudalism began in military conquest. When the barbarians overran the Roman Empire, the victorious chiefs divided the land among their principal followers; and the titles thus conferred, although personal at first, soon became hereditary. The man who received or inherited land was expected to appear in the field with his followers at the call of his chief. The tenant, in his turn, distributed the land among his friends on conditions similar to those on which he had himself received it; and the process might be indefinitely repeated. Thus there came to be a hierarchy in the state, in which every member was responsible to his immediate superiors and obliged within certain limits to obey the man next above him, rather than the king who was supposed to rule them all. The obligations were various, according to the conditions on which the lands had been granted, but they always involved military service on the part of the grantee, and protection on the part of the grantor. The services being mutual, and the tenure the usual, or fashionable one, most persons who held land in any other way saw fit to conform to the feudal method; and absolute, or allodial owners, where the tide of conquest had left any, generally, in the course of time, surrendered their lands to some neighboring lord, and received them back again on feudal conditions.

But the tenure here described existed only among the comparatively rich and great. When the last feudal division had been accomplished, when the chief had made his last grant to his captains and the soil was divided among them, there still remained by far the larger part of the population which owed no feudal duty and held no feudal estate. The common soldiers of the invading army, the native people of the conquered country and their descendants, inextricably mixed together, remained upon the soil and cultivated it as free tenants, or as serfs. They paid for the use of the land on which they lived in money or in a share of the crops, or in services. They acknowledged the title of the feudal lords over them, and while struggling to make good bargains with their masters, they seldom set up a claim to equality, or to independence. The peasants came to think it the natural and divinely appointed order of things that they should obey and serve their lords, with a partial obedience and a limited service. To ask why they were content so to serve, would be to open one of the greatest problems of history. Whatever the reason, over a large part of the world, and through the greater part of historical time, men have consented to obey other men whom they have not selected, and have generally preferred the hereditary principle to any other in determining to whom they would look up as their rulers.

So the French peasants and their lords went on for centuries, living side by side, rendering each other mutual services, sometimes quarreling and sometimes making bargains. The peasants were called on for military service, but they and their families took refuge in the lord’s castle when the frequent wars swept over the land. The mill, whose rough machinery was still an improvement on the rude hand-mill, or on the yet more primitive mortar and pestle; the oven where the peasant could bake his bread without lighting a fire on his own hearth, after the toil of the long summer’s day; the bull of famous breed in all the country-side, were the lord’s, and all his tenants must use them and pay for them, at rates fixed by immemorial custom, or perhaps by some long forgotten bargain, made when these conveniences were first furnished to the dwellers in the land. The lord led his peasants to battle, he protected them from the inhabitants of the next valley, he decided their differences in his court, where the more considerable of his tenants sat beside him; he governed his people, well or ill, according to his character, but on the whole to their reasonable satisfaction. His government, such as it might be, was their only refuge from anarchy. The lord was governed, not very strictly, by a greater lord, who in his turn owed duty to a greater than he; until, after one or more steps, came the king, or overlord of the land.

The long struggle by which the kings of France had transformed this loose chain of allegiance into the tightened band of almost absolute monarchy, is not to be told here. From the tenth century to the seventeenth the combat was waged with varied success. The feudal lords lost much of their power, but kept much of their wealth and many of their privileges. The dukes and counts, whose fathers, in their own domains, had been as powerful as the king himself, retained their titles, and drew their incomes, but they spent their time in attendance on their sovereign. The petty lord still held his court of justice, over which his bailiff usually presided, but its functions had been gradually usurped by the royal judges. The castle, no longer needed for protection, was transformed into a country house. But many old customs and old rights were maintained, although their origin was forgotten. The peasants still worked for several days in the year on the lands of their lord, or paid a part of their crops in rent for their farms, although these had been in the possession of their forefathers for a thousand years.

This rent, or some rent, the peasants under Louis XVI. believed to be just, for they did not claim absolute ownership, but they considered the services onerous and degrading. Their ideas on these subjects were not very definite, but of late years a general sense of wrong had been growing in their minds. The long-lived quarrels which ever exist in the country-side were envenomed by stronger suspicions of injustice. It was a common complaint that the last survey and apportionment of rent had been unfair. The lords were no longer so far removed from their poorer neighbors as to be above envy. They were no longer so useful as to be considered necessary evils, as a large part of the community everywhere is prone to think of its governors.

Let us look at the life of the peasant. His cottage is not attractive; a low thatched building, perhaps without a floor. The barn is close against it, and the family is not averse to seeking the warmth of the cattle and of the dunghill. The windows are without glass, and pigs and chickens wander in and out at the open door. But the house belongs to the peasant, and is his home. He dares not improve it for fear of increased taxes. He cares not much to do so. It keeps him warm at night and dry when it rains; daylight and fine weather will find him out of doors. If he can hide away a few pieces of silver in an old stocking, he will more readily bring them out to buy another bit of ground, than waste them in useless comforts and luxuries of building.

The furniture was generally better than the house. A great bedstead, with curtains of green serge, was the principal piece, the centre of family life, the birthplace of the children, the death-bed of the parents. It was made as high as possible, to lift the sleepers above the damp ground. A feather-bed helped to keep them warm. A few cupboards and chests stood about the walls of the room, dark with age and grime. They were made of oak, or pear wood, and sometimes rudely carved. In the eighteenth century comfort had much increased in the towns, but the country had seen little change.

The dress, again, was generally better than the furniture. The costumes of the provinces are often the copy of some long-forgotten fashion of the court, simplified or changed to adapt it to rural skill and country needs. To be well dressed is a sign of respectability; to be modestly housed may pass for a sign of thrift. On Sundays, bright coats, blue, gray, or olive, made their appearance. The women came out in good gowns and clean caps. There were flowered damask waists, sleeves of white serge, wine-colored petticoats. A gold cross was a sign of comparative wealth, but silver jewelry was common. Leather shoes were worn by both sexes. On week days there were wooden shoes, or bare feet in the southern provinces, and overalls of gray linen. Under Louis XVI., cotton began to drive out the linen and woolen cloths of former years. Being cheaper and less strong, clothes were oftener renewed. The change was contrary to beauty, but favorable to cleanliness.

The food of the peasant depended much on his harvest. In good years and on good soils he was well fed; in bad years and in poor districts, ill. Bread, the chief article of his diet, was cheaper and less good than in England, the wheat flour being mixed with rye, barley, oats, chestnuts or pease. The women made a soup, or porridge, by boiling this bread in water, adding milk perhaps, or a little bit of pork for a relish. Cheese and butter were fairly plenty, for common lands were extensive. Beef and mutton would be eaten at Easter-tide or at the festival of the patron saint, and most at wedding-feasts. Wine appears to have been considered a luxury, but a common one. It would seem that a peasant who did not taste it several times a week was accounted poor; one who drank it freely but temperately twice a day would have been called rich. Tobacco, the comforter of the poor, was in common use. This description of the food of the country people applies rather to the poorer peasants, or to those whose condition was not above the average, than to those who were best off. In Normandy, good bread, meat, eggs, vegetables, and fruit, with plenty of cider, formed the daily fare in prosperous farm-houses. [Footnote: This description of the condition of the peasants is taken chiefly from Babeau, _La vie rurale._]

The peasants were not cut off from all social and political activity. Every rural parish formed a separate little community, very restricted in its rights and functions, yet not without valuable corporate powers. [Footnote: The parish and the community were generally coterminous, but were not always so. Ibid., _Le Village_, 97.] It could hold property, both real and personal; it could sue and be sued; it could elect its own officers and manage its own affairs. In the eighteenth century it became the fashion in France, as in many other countries, to divide the common lands, but many parishes still held large tracts in the reign of Louis XVI. The sale of their woods, the letting of their pastures, of fishing rights, or of the office of wine-taster in grape-growing districts, formed the revenues of the rural community. Its expenses were many and various. It repaired the nave of the church, the choir being kept in order at the cost of the priest. The parsonage and the wall round the churchyard were maintained by the parish. The drawing for the militia was at the expense of the community. So were some of the roads. It paid the schoolmaster and the syndic. Then there were incidental expenses, such as the annual mass, the carriage of letters, the keeping in order of the church clock. Sometimes the accounts of a community show a charge for a present to some influential person, capable of helping in a lawsuit, or of effecting a reduction of the taxes assessed on the parish. It was a notable feature of the communal expenses, that the lord of the village shared them with his poorer neighbors. Into these rural matters privilege did not extend.[Footnote: But this was not always the case. See the _cahier_ of the Artignose in Provence, _Archives parlementaires_, vi. 249. “Clochers et autres batiments généraux. (Les seigneurs n’en payent rien, même pour leurs biens roturiers, pour les différentes charges des communautés).”]

The public meetings of these little communities were held on certain Sundays of the year after mass, or after vespers. Sometimes the meeting took place in the church itself, oftener in front of it, on the green. There the men of the village, streaming from the porch, stood or sat in groups on the grass, under the trees. Their own elected syndic presided. Ten was a quorum for ordinary business, but two thirds of the whole number was necessary to confirm a loan. A fine could be imposed for absence, or for leaving the assembly before adjournment.

In these town meetings the affairs of the community were discussed and decided. Sales were made, land was let, repairs of public buildings or of roads were voted. The syndic was elected. A record of the proceedings was kept, and was afterwards submitted to the royal intendant for his approval, without which no action was valid. This system lasted to the eve of the Revolution, but was at that time giving way to another. Under pretense that the public meetings were disorderly, they were gradually obliged to surrender their functions to boards partly or wholly elected. But certain important matters, such as the election of a schoolmaster, were still left to the general assembly. At the same time the right of suffrage was somewhat curtailed. Voters were required to be twenty-five years old and to pay certain taxes.

The village had its elected head, the syndic,[Footnote: So called in the north of France. In the south, _consul_. Babeau, _Le Village_, 45.] whose functions were not unlike those of an American selectman.

He was the executive officer of the community, who conducted its business and had charge of its papers. The central government of the country also laid tasks upon him. He had to attend to the drawing of the militia, to report epidemics among the cattle, to enforce the laws for the destruction of caterpillars. Beside him were other officers, also elected by the inhabitants, but more directly the servants of the central power than he. These were the collectors of taxes. The syndics and collectors had much work and responsibility, with little pay and no chance of promotion. Honest and capable men were much averse to taking such places and often tried to escape it. The dishonest acquired illicit gain in them, at the expense of their fellow-subjects. Serving the community was considered less an honor than a duty, and service could be forced on the unwilling citizen; but the inhabitants in easy circumstances often found means to avoid the task, and the syndics and collectors were then chosen from among the poorer and less educated peasants. Some of them could neither read nor write.[Footnote: The above description of the political life of the village is taken chiefly from Babeau, _Le Village_. See also the _cahier_ of the village of Pin (_Paris extra muros, Archives parlementaires_, v. 22, Section 1).] A public body that wishes to be well-served must not make public service too disagreeable. France suffered at once from overpaid courtiers, and from ill-treated syndics and collectors.

The chief layman of the village was the lord’s steward (_bailli_), who exercised the judicial functions of his master. He held himself above the common peasants and his wife was called “Madame.” Her kitchen showed a greater array of pots and pans than that of her neighbors; her linen and her jewelry were more abundant than theirs. The steward and the parish priest were the most important persons in the hamlet. [Footnote: Babeau, _La vie rurale_, 156.]

The schoolmaster came far below the priest, who had over him a right of supervision. The main control of the schools, however, was in the hands of the communities, which elected the masters from candidates approved by the clergy. The latter insisted more strongly on orthodoxy than on competence. The position of the village schoolmaster was not brilliant. His house usually consisted of two rooms, one for the school and one for the family; his books were few, his clothes shabby. He was paid in part by the scholars, at the rate of three or five sous a month for reading, higher for writing and arithmetic. In some cases a tax of a hundred and fifty livres was laid on the parish for his benefit. But school was not held during the whole year; the scholars would desert in a body early in Lent, and be kept busy in the fields until November. The master might act as surgeon, or attorney, or surveyor; he might cultivate a plot of ground. He was expected to assist the priest at divine service, to lead the choir, or even to ring the bells. Simple primary schools were abundant in the country, especially in some of the northern provinces. In some villages the boys and girls went together, but the higher civil and ecclesiastical authorities, the king and the bishops, more familiar with the manners of the court than with those of the village, looked on these mixed schools with disfavor. In general it was harder for girls to get an education than for boys.[Footnote: Babeau, _La vie rurale_, 143. Ibid., _Le Village_, 277. Ibid., _L’Ecole de village_, 17, 18. Mathieu, 262. _Cahier_ of the “_Instituteurs des petites villes, bourgs, et villages de Bourgogne,” Rev. des deux Mondes_, April 15, 1881, 874. Statistics are imperfect, but from an examination of marriage registers, Babeau gathers that the proportion of persons married who could sign their names varied from nearly 89 per cent. of the men and nearly 65 per cent. of the women in Lorraine, to 13 per cent. of the men and nearly 6 per cent. of the women in the Nivernois. The central provinces and Brittany were the most illiterate parts of the country. _L’Ecole_, 3 _n_. 187. _Le Village_, 282 _n_. 3.]

The ambitious lad found means by which to rise. In spite of the heavy and badly levied taxes, he might grow rich, add new fields to his father’s farm, attain in some degree to comfort and to that consideration in his neighborhood which is perhaps the most legitimately dear to the heart of all the worldly consequences of success. Nor was it necessary to confine himself entirely to agriculture. The lower walks of the law and of medicine might be attained by the son of a peasant, and if one generation of labor were hardly long enough to reach the higher, no career, except the few reserved for the upper nobility, was beyond the aspiration of the rising man for his children or his children’s children. There was more modest promotion nearer at hand. The blacksmith and the innkeeper stood in the eyes of their poorer neighbors as instances of prosperity. The studious boy, with good luck, might become a schoolmaster, even a parish priest. The active and pushing might, with favor, aspire to some petty place under the central government; or to stewardship for the lord. To what eminence of fortune might not these prove the paths.[Footnote: Babeau, La vie rurale, 128, etc.]

Meanwhile for the unambitious, for the mass of rural mankind, there were simpler pleasures, the dance on the green of a Sunday afternoon, the weddings with their feasts and merry-makings, the fairs and the festival of the patron saint of the village. There were games, ploughing matches, grinning matches. Holidays were frequent,–too frequent, said the learned; but probably they did not often come amiss to the peasants. On those days they could throw off their cares and play as heartily as they had worked. It is generally believed that the Frenchman, and especially the French peasant, was livelier before the Revolution than he has ever been since.[Footnote: Ibid, 187. See Goldsmith’s Traveller, the lines beginning:–

“To kinder skies, where gentler manners reign, I turn; and France displays her bright domain.” ]

There was much that was hard in the condition of the rural classes, but it was better than that of the greater part of mankind. On the continent of Europe only the inhabitants of some small states equaled in prosperity those of the more fortunate of the French provinces. [Footnote: Holland and Lombardy were the richest countries in Europe. Tuscany was especially well governed just then. A. Young, i. 480. Serfdom still existed in some remote French provinces, especially in the Jura mountains. Its principal characteristic was the escheating to the lord of the property of all serfs dying childless.] And in France prosperity was growing. The peasant’s taxes were constantly getting heavier, but his means of bearing them increased faster yet. The rising tide of material prosperity, the great change of modern times, could be felt, though feebly as yet, in the provinces of France.


TAXATION.[Footnote: “I must again remark that clear accounts are not to be looked for in the complex mountain of French finances.” A. Young, i. 578. Young reckons the revenue at the entire command of Louis XVI. at 680,664,943 livres, i. 575. See also Stourm, ii. 182.]

The gross amount paid in taxes by the French nation before the Revolution will never be accurately known; the subject is too vast and complicated, and the accounts were too loosely kept. Necker in his work on the “Administration of the Finances” reckons the sum annually paid by the people at five hundred and eighty-five million livres. Bailly (whose book appeared in 1830 and has not been superseded) makes the gross amount eight hundred and eighty millions. But from this should be deducted feudal dues and fees for membership of trade guilds, which Bailly includes in his estimate, and which were certainly private property, however objectionable in their character. There will remain less than eight hundred and thirty-seven million livres as the amount paid by about twenty-six million Frenchmen, in general and local taxation, including tithes; an average of about thirty-two livres a head. Was this amount excessive? Probably not, if the load had been rightly distributed. If we allow the franc of to-day one half of the purchasing power of the livre of 1789, the modern Frenchman yet pays more than his great-grandfather did. But there can be little doubt that he pays it more easily to himself. In the eighteenth century the Englishman was probably better off than his French neighbor, but his advantage was not undoubted. Grenville, in 1769, speaks of the comparative lightness of taxes and cheapness of living which, he says, must make France an asylum for British manufacturers and artificers. Young, twenty years later, asserts that the taxes in England are much more than double those in France, but more easily borne. Necker says that England bears as large a burden of taxation as France, in spite of a smaller number of inhabitants and a less amount of money in circulation; but bears it more readily because it is better distributed. And Chastellux, while arriving at a similar conclusion, remarks that after all the French is, of all nations, the one that suffers most from taxation.[Footnote: Necker, _De l’Administration_, i. 35, 51. Bailly, ii. 275. Grenville, _The Present State of the Nation_, 35; but this statement is made in a political pamphlet, answered and apparently refuted by Burke, _Observations on a Late State of the Nation._ A. Young, i. 596. Chastellux, ii. 169. For 1891 the average taxation per head amounts to 86 francs, for 1789 to 34 livres, _Statesman’s Year Book_, 1891, p. 472, and Bailly.]

Under the old monarchy the taxes were unequally assessed in two ways. There were differences of places and differences of persons. This is pretty sure to be true of all countries, but in France the differences were very large and were not sanctioned by the popular conscience. In a country which had become strongly conscious of its unity, and which was full of national feeling, some provinces were taxed much more heavily than others, not for their own local purposes, but for the support of the central government. In the first place came those provinces which were included in the general assessment of taxes. These were divided into twenty-four districts (_generalités_), over each of which was an intendant. Twenty of these districts formed the heart of old France, extending irregularly from Amiens on the north to Bordeaux on the south, and from Grenoble on the east to the sea. To these were added the conquered or ceded provinces: Alsace, Lorraine, Bar, the Three Bishoprics, Franche Comté, Flanders, and Hainault, forming among them four districts and enjoying privileges superior to those of old France. All these formed the Lands of Election (_pays d’Election_). On the other hand were the Lands of Estates (_pays d’États_), provinces which had retained their assemblies, and with them some of their ancient rights of taxing themselves, or at least of levying in their own way those taxes which the central government imposed. This was a privilege highly prized by the provinces which possessed it. These provinces formed a fringe round France, and included Languedoc, Provence, the duchy of Burgundy, Artois, Brittany, and some others. The central administration was so oppressive, at the same time that it was clumsy and inefficient, that every province and city was anxious to compound for its taxes, and to settle them at a fixed rate, though a high one. This was accomplished on the largest scale by the Lands of Estates, but similar privileges, to a greater or less extent, were maintained by most of the cities. We must remember, here as elsewhere, that France had not sprung into being as a homogeneous nation with her modern boundaries. From the accession of the House of Capet in the tenth century, province after province had been added to the dominions of the crown. Many of them had preserved ancient rights. Customs and tolls differed among them, duties were exacted in passing from one to the other. Privileges, the prizes of old wars, rights assured in some cases by solemn treaties, had to be regarded. The wars of the Middle Ages were waged chiefly concerning legal claims. The end of the period found all Europe full of privileged territories, persons, or corporations. Privileges and rights were regarded as property. Modern struggles have been for ideas, and among the most cherished of these have been equality and uniformity. The sacredness of property and of contract have in a measure gone down before them.[Footnote: Necker, _De l’Administration_, i. ix. Bailly, ii. 276. Horn, 258. Bois-Guillebert, 207. _(La détail de la France Partie_, ii. c. vii.); Stubbs _Lectures_, 217. Walloon Flanders was in the anomalous position of forming part of a _généralité_, but possessing Estates. _Bailly_, ii. 327.]

Although the Provincial Estates differed in the various provinces which possessed them, they included in almost every case members of the three orders. The Clergy were usually represented by bishops, abbots, and persons deputed by chapters; the Nobility either by all nobles whose title was not less than a hundred years old, or by the possessors of certain fiefs; the third estate, or Commons, by the mayors and deputies of the towns. The three Orders sometimes sat apart, sometimes together. In the intervals between their sessions their powers were delegated to intermediate commissions, small boards for the regulation of current affairs. There was nothing democratic in such a constitution. Even the representatives of the commonalty were taken from among the most privileged members of their order. Nor were the powers of the Estates extensive. They bargained with the royal intendants for the gross amount of the taxes to be assessed on their provinces. They divided this sum and charged it to the various subdivisions of their territory. They levied it by taxes similar to those of the general government. [Footnote: Lucay, _Les assemblées provinciales_, 111. Necker, _Mémoire au roi sur l’établissement des administrations provinciales, passim_.]

But in spite of all drawbacks the Provincial Estates were much valued by the provinces which possessed them. They were at least a guarantee that some local knowledge and local patriotism would be applied to local affairs. Moreover, they had the right of petition, a right essential to good government, both for the information of rulers and for giving vent to the feelings of subjects. This right is, and has long been, so nearly free in English-speaking countries, that it is hard to realize that there are civilized lands where men may not quietly and respectfully express their wishes. Yet in old France, as in a large part of Continental Europe to-day, the citizen who publicly gave an opinion on public matters, or who pointed out a well-known public grievance, was considered a disturber of the peace. Under such circumstances, a body of men who were allowed to discuss and recommend might render a great service to their country by simply using that freedom. The complaints of the Estates of each province were transmitted to the king in council, by a document known as a _cahier_, and the wishes thus expressed often formed a basis of legislation, or of administrative orders.

Among the spasmodic efforts at reform made under Louis XVI. were two attempts to extend the system of local self-government. The first was made by Necker in 1778 and 1779. Provincial assemblies were established in those years by way of experiment in two provinces, Berry and Haute Guyenne. These assemblies were composed of forty-eight and fifty-two members respectively, one half being taken from among the clergy and nobility, one half from the Third Estate of the towns and the country. A third of the members of the Assembly of Berry were appointed by the king, and these elected their fellow-members, care being taken to preserve the equality of classes. One third of the members were to be renewed by the assembly itself once in three years. The body was, therefore, in no way dependent on popular election. The assembly met and voted as one chamber. Its functions were almost purely administrative, the assessment of taxes, the care of roads and the management of charitable institutions. All this was done under close supervision of the intendant and, through him, of the minister. The assembly sat only once in two years, for a time not exceeding one month, but an intermediate commission carried on its work between its sessions. The general plan of the Assembly of Haute Guyenne was similar to that of the Assembly of Berry.

Eight years passed between the establishment of these experimental assemblies and the convocation of the first Assembly of Notables at Versailles,–eight important years in French history. Necker was driven from power, but the two new bodies survived the reactionary policy of his successors, and did some good service. The fallen minister kept his popularity and his influence with the public at large. His great book on the “Administration of the Finances” was in all hands, eighty thousand copies having been rapidly sold. In it he expounds his favorite scheme of Provincial Assemblies, and praises the working of the two that have been established. He points out that they are not representative bodies, empowered to make bargains with the king and to impede the government, but administrative boards, entrusted by the sovereign with the duty of watching over the interests of the people of their districts. The Assembly of Notables of 1787 and the minister Brienne adopted Necker’s views, but not completely. They established provincial assemblies throughout France on a plan of their own. One half of the members of these new bodies were to be chosen in the first place by the king; the second half being elected by the first. But at the end of three years one quarter part of the assembly was to retire, and its place was to be filled by a true election. This, however, was not to be direct, but in three stages. A parochial board was to be created in every village, composed of the lord and the priest ex officio, and of several elected members. These parochial boards were to elect the district boards, (_assemblées d’élection_) and the latter were to elect the new members of the Provincial Assembly. The march of events after 1787 prevented these elections from taking place. But the nominated assemblies met twice, once for organization and once for business. They came too late to prevent a catastrophe, but lasted long enough to give well-founded hopes of usefulness. The great National Assembly of 1789 and its successors might have had a far less stormy history, had all France been accustomed, though only for one generation, to political bodies restrained by law.[Footnote: Necker, _Compte rendu_, 74. Ibid., _De l’Administration_, ii. 225, 292. Lavergne, _Les Assemblées provinciales sous Louis XVI_. Lucay, _Les Assemblées provinciales sous Louis XVI_., 163.]

Within a given province or district, there was no proportional equality among persons in the matter of taxation. It was sometimes said that the noble paid with his blood, the villein with his money. But the order of the Nobility had come to include many persons who never thought of shedding their blood for their country; to include, in fact, the rich and prosperous generally. These were not (as they are sometimes represented to have been), quite free from taxation. Something like one half of the taxes were indirect, and might be supposed to be paid by all classes in proportion to their consumption. Yet even for the indirect taxes, privileged persons managed to find ways partially to escape. Some of the direct taxes were deducted from salaries, or imposed on incomes, but it was said that the rich and powerful often succeeded in having their incomes lightly assessed. By way of increasing the inequality of taxation, the government had a habit, when in need of more money than usual, of adding a percentage to some old tax, instead of devising a new one, thus bearing most heavily with the new impost on those classes which were most severely taxed already.

First among French taxes, both in blundering unfairness and in evil fame, came the Land Tax or _Taille_, producing for the twenty-four districts a revenue of about forty-five million livres, or with its accessory taxes, of about seventy-five millions.[Footnote: Bailly, ii. 307. Necker, _De l’Administration_, i. 6, 35, puts the taille at 91 millions, but I think he includes the tailles abonnées, paid by the Pays d’états, although not those paid by cities.]

The taille was of feudal origin, and in the Middle Ages was paid to the lord by his tenants. In the fifteenth century, however, it had already been diverted to the royal treasury, and its product was employed in the maintenance of troops. It was therefore paid only by villeins, for the nobles served in person, and the clergy by substitute, if at all.

The exemption of the upper orders from liability to the taille clung to that tax after the reason for such freedom had ceased to exist. The tax itself early grew to be of two kinds, real and personal. The _taille réele_, common in the southern provinces of France, was a true land-tax, assessed according to a survey and valuation on all lands not accounted noble, nor belonging to the church, nor to the public. The distinction between noble and peasant lands was an old one; and the peasant lands paid the tax even when owned by privileged persons. [Footnote: Turgot, iv. 74.]

Over the greater part of France, however, the _taille réele_ did not exist, and only the _taille personelle_ was in force. This bore on the profits of the land and on all forms of industry; but the churchmen and the nobles were exempt, at least in part.[Footnote: There appears to have been a limit to the exemption of nobles cultivating their own lands.] Owing to its personal nature, the tax was payable at the residence of the person taxed. If a peasant lived in one parish and derived most of his income from land situated in another, he was taxable at the place of his residence, at a rate perhaps entirely different from that of the parish in which his farm was situated. It might happen that a large part of the lands of a parish were owned by non-residents, and that the ability of the parish to pay its taxes was thus reduced. But there were exceptions to the rule by which the tax followed the person, and the whole matter was so complicated as to be a fertile cause of dispute and of double taxation.[Footnote: Turgot, iv. 76.]

The method of assessment and levy was peculiar. The gross amount of the taille was determined twice a year by the royal council, and apportioned arbitrarily among the twenty-four districts (generalités) of France, and then subdivided by various officials among the sub-districts (élections) and the parishes. The divisions thus made were very unequal; some provinces, sub-districts, and parishes being treated much more severely than others, apparently rather by accident or custom than for any equitable reason. An influential person could often obtain a diminution of the tax of his village. When the work of subdivision was completed, the syndics and other parish officers were notified of the tax laid on their parishes, which were thenceforth liable for the amount. But the taille had still to be apportioned among the inhabitants. For this purpose from three to seven collectors were elected in every rural community by popular vote. The collectors assessed their neighbors at their own discretion, and were personally responsible to the government for the whole amount assessed on the parish. In consideration of this, and of their labor, they were allowed to collect a percentage in addition to the taille, for their own pay.[Footnote: “Six deniers par livre” = 2 1/2 per cent. Turgot, vii. 125. Sometimes 5 per cent. Babeau, Le Village, 225.] The whole process was the cause of endless bickerings and disputes, lawsuits and appeals, and the collectors were frequently ruined in spite of all their efforts. They were ignorant peasants, unused to accounts, sometimes unable to read. In some of the mountain parishes of the Pyrenees their accounts were kept on notched sticks to a period not very long before the Revolution.[Footnote: Bailly, ii. 159. Horn, 224 Babeau, Le Village, 222, 224. Turgot, vii. 122, iv. 51. _Encyclopédie_, xv. 841 (_Taille_). A similar practice existed in the English Court of Exchequer, to a later date.]

The liability to the taille was joint. A gross sum was laid on the parish, and if one person escaped, or was unable to pay, his share had to be borne by the rest. On the other hand, if one man were overcharged, the burden of his neighbors was lightened. Thus it was every one’s interest to seem poor. And the taxes were so important a matter, taking so large a part of the yearly income, that they modified the whole conduct of life. People dared not appear at their ease, lest their shares should be increased. They hid their wealth and took their luxuries in secret. One day, Jean Jacques Rousseau, traveling on foot, as was his wont, entered a solitary farm-house, and asked for a meal. A pot of skimmed milk and some coarse barley bread were set before him, the peasant who lived in the house saying that this was all he had. After a while, however, the man took courage on observing the manners and the appetite of his guest. Telling Rousseau that he was sure he was a good, honest fellow, and no spy, he disappeared through a trap-door, and presently came back with good wheaten bread, a little dark with bran, a ham, and a bottle of wine. An omelet was soon sizzling in the dish. When the time came for Rousseau to pay and depart, the peasant’s fears returned. He refused money, he was evidently distressed. Rousseau made out that the bread and the wine were hidden for fear of the tax-gatherer; that the man believed he would be ruined, if he were known to have anything. [Footnote: Rousseau, xvii. 281 (_Confessions_, Part i. liv. iv.). Vauban, 51, and _passim_. Bois-Guillebert, 191.]

As it was for the advantage of individuals to be thought poor, so it was best for villages to appear squalid. The Marquis of Argenson writes in his journal: “An officer of the _élection_ has come into the village where my country-house is, and has said that the taille of the parish would be much raised this year; he had noticed that the peasants looked fatter than elsewhere, had seen hens’ feathers lying about the doors, that people were living well and were comfortable, that I spent a great deal of money in the village for my household expenses, etc. This is what discourages the peasants. This is what causes the misfortunes of the kingdom. This is what Henry IV. would weep over were he living now.” [Footnote: D’Argenson, vi. 256 (Sept. 12, 1750). See also vi. 425, vii. 55, viii. 8, 35, 53.]

The country people had grown to be very distrustful and suspicious wherever officials of the government were concerned. “I remember a singular feature of this subject,” says Necker. “I think it was twenty years ago that an intendant, with the laudable intention of encouraging the manufacture of honey and the cultivation of bees, began by asking for statistics as to the number of hives kept in the province. The people did not understand his intentions, they were, perhaps, suspicious of them, and in a few days almost all the hives were destroyed.” [Footnote: _De l’Administration_, iii. 232.]

No one could be induced to pay promptly, lest he should be thought to have money. The tax was due in four payments, from the first of October to the last of April, but the collection of one instalment was seldom completed before the following one was due; that of one year seldom made before the next had come. The peasants obliged the collectors to wring out the hard-earned copper pieces one or two at a time. The tardy were vexed with fines and distraints. Furniture, doors, the very rafters and floors were sold for unpaid taxes. In the time of Louis XV., if a whole village fell too much behindhand, its four principal inhabitants might be seized and carried off to jail. This corporal joint-liability was ended by a law passed under the ministry of Turgot, and apparently not repealed on his fall.[Footnote: Horn, 238; Vauban; Bailly, ii. 203; Stourm, i. 52; Turgot, vii. 119.]

The assessment and collection of the taille presented many anomalies. In some places commissioners had been appointed by the intendant, for the purpose of assessing estates and of reckoning the value of day’s labor of artisans. This method worked well and gave satisfaction, but it extended only to a few provinces.[Footnote: Babeau, _Le Village_, 214.]

From the land tax we pass to the Twentieths (_vingtièmes_ [Footnote: Not to be confounded with the _Droit de vingtième_, an indirect tax on wine. Kaufmann, 33. Notice that the two _vingtièmes_ are constantly spoken of as the _dixième_.]), which, as their name implies, were in theory taxes of five per cent. on incomes. From these the clergy only were freed (having bought of the crown a perpetual exemption). Two twentieths and four sous in the livre of the first twentieth, or eleven per cent., was the regular rate in the reign of Louis XVI., and was expected to bring in from fifty-five to sixty million livres a year. A third twentieth was laid in 1782, to last for three years after the end of the war of the American Revolution, then in progress. This twentieth brought in twenty-one and a half millions only, on account of various exemptions that were allowed. The liability to the twentieths was not joint but individual; so that when a deduction was made from the amount charged to one tax-payer, the sum demanded of the others was not increased.

An attempt was made to levy the twentieths on the various sorts of income. The product of agriculture paid the largest part, but a percentage was retained on salaries and pensions paid by the government, and the incomes of public officers receiving fees was estimated. In spite of the desire to include every income in the operation of this tax, it was generally believed that valuations were habitually made too low, and that unfair discrimination took place. The inhabitants of some provinces, on the other hand, were thought to be overcharged. Attempts at rectification were resisted by the courts of law, the doctrine being asserted that the valuation of a man’s income for the purposes of this tax could not legally be increased. It is instructive to compare the interest thus shown in the rights of the upper classes, who shared in the payment of the twentieths, with the indifference manifested to the arbitrary manner in which the common people were treated in levying the Land Tax.[Footnote: Necker reckons the two _vingtièmes_ and four sous at 55,000,000 livres. _De l’Administration_, i. 5, 6. _Compte rendu_, 61. Ibid., _Mémoire au roi sur l’establissement des administrations provinciales_, 25. Necker abolished the _vingtième d’industrie_ applied to manufactures and commerce. _Compte rendu_, 64. In his later book he speaks of it as subsisting in a few provinces only. _De l’Administration_, i. 159. Turgot, iv. 289. Stourm, i. 54.]

The poll tax (_capitation_) was one only in name. It was in fact a roughly reckoned income tax, and the inhabitants of France were for its purposes divided into twenty-two classes, according to their supposed ability to pay. In the country, the amount demanded for this tax was usually proportioned to that of the personal taille. People who paid no taille were assessed according to their public office, military rank, business, or profession. The rules were complicated, giving rise to endless disputes. In theory the very poor were exempt, but the exemption was not very generous, for maid-servants were charged at the rate of three livres and twelve sous a year, and there were yet poorer people who paid less than half that amount. If the poor man failed to pay, a garrison (_garnison_) was lodged upon him. A man in blue, with a gun, came and sat by his fire, slept in his bed, and laid hands on any money that might come into the house, thus collecting the tax and his own wages. The amount levied by the poll-tax and accessories was from thirty-six to forty-two million livres a year.[Footnote: Bailly, ii. 307. Necker, _De l’Administration_, i. 8. Mercier, iii. 98, xi. 96. Mercier thinks that the _capitation_ was more feared than the _dixième_, and than the _entrées_, because it attached more directly to the individual and to his person. Does this mean greater severity in collection? Notice that he writes of Paris, where there is no taille.]

The indirect taxes of France were mostly farmed. Once in six years the Controller General of the Finances for the time being entered into a contract, nominally with a man of straw, but actually with a body of rich financiers, who appeared as the man’s sureties, and who were known as the Farmers General. The first operation of the Farmers, after entering into the contract, was to raise a capital sum for the purpose of buying out their predecessors, of taking over the material on hand, and of paying an advance to the government; for although many individual Farmers General held over from one contract to the next, the association was a new one for each lease. In 1774, just before the death of King Louis XV., a new contract was made, and the capital advanced amounted to 93,600,000 livres. The Farmers were allowed interest on this sum at the rate of ten per cent. for the first sixty millions, and of seven per cent. for the remaining 33,600,000 livres. This interest was, however, taxed by the government for the two twentieths.

The rent paid by the Farmers under this contract was 152,000,000 livres a year, for which consideration they were allowed to collect the indirect taxes and keep the product. This system, which is at least as old as the New Testament, is now generally condemned, but in the eighteenth century it found defenders even among liberal writers.

The Farmers General in the contract of 1774 were sixty in number, but they did not divide among themselves all the profits of the enterprise. It was the habit to accord to many people a share in the operations of the farm, without any voice in its management. The people thus favored were called croupiers; king Louis XV. himself was one of them. His Controller General, the Abbé Terray, received a fee of three hundred thousand livres on concluding the contract, and the promise of one thousand livres for every million of profits. When the bargain had been struck and the advance paid, he announced to the Farmers that further croupes would be granted, and that sundry payments must be made to the treasury. The profits of the undertaking were thus materially reduced. The Farmers at first threatened to throw up their bargain, but the Controller told them that if they did so he would not return their advances, but only pay interest on them. In spite of this swindle, the lease turned out on the whole much to the benefit of the Farmers.

In 1780, when the lease above mentioned expired, Necker was Director of the Finances. He introduced reforms into the General Farm, cutting down the number of Farmers from sixty to forty, and reducing their gains. The collection of certain taxes was taken from them, and entrusted to new companies. His contract was for a rent of 122,900,000 livres and the advance was forty-eight millions, for which the Farmers received seven per cent. Moreover, the latter were not to take the whole profit above the rent of the Farm. The first three millions of that profit went to the treasury, which also received one half of the remaining gains, but croupes and pensions on the Farm were totally abolished. Necker reckons the total sum drawn yearly by the Farmers from the people under his administration at 184,000,000 livres, and the sums collected by the two new companies of his own devising, for the collection of the excise on drinkables and for the administration of the royal domains at 92,000,000 more.

The Farmers General were the most conspicuous representatives in France of the moneyed class, which was just rising into importance beside the old aristocracy, by whose members it was despised but courted. Many of the Farmers were of low origin and had risen to fortune by their own abilities. Others belonged to families which had long made a mark in the financial world. Their luxurious style of life was admired by the vulgar and derided by the envious. The offices of the Farm occupied several historic houses in Paris. In the chief of these the French Academy had once held its sittings under the presidency of Séguier, and the walls and ceilings shone with pictures from the brushes of Lebrun and Mignard. The warehouses and offices for the monopoly of tobacco occupied a fine building between the Louvre and the Tuileries, where once the duchesses of Chevreuse and of Longueville had prosecuted their political and amorous intrigues. The discontented tax-payers grumbled the louder at seeing the hated publicans so handsomely lodged.[Footnote: The total receipts of the Farm, according to Necker, were 186,000,000 livres. Against this sum must be set 2,000,000 for salt and tobacco sold to foreigners; 16,000,000 for the cost of salt and tobacco, and 8,000,000 for the cost of other articles to the Farm. The amount of actual taxation collected by the Farm would therefore seem to have been about 160,000,000. Necker, _De l’Administration,_, i. 9,14, iii. 122. Lemoine, _Les derniers fermiers généraux, passim._ Bailly, ii. 185, _n_. and _passim_. _Encyclopédie_, vi. 515 (_Fermes, Cinq grosses_) vi. 513, etc. (_Fermes du roi_). Bertin, 480. Mercier, xii. 89.]

The first and most dreaded of the indirect taxes was the Salt Tax (_gabelle_). As salt is necessary for all, it has from early days been considered by some governments a good article for a tax, no one being able to escape payment by going entirely without it. To make the revenue more secure, every householder in certain parts of France was obliged to buy seven pounds of salt a year at the warehouses of the Farm, for every member of his family more than seven years old. In spite of this, a certain economy in the use of the article became the habit of the French nation, and the traveler of the nineteenth century may bless the government of the Bourbons when for once in his life he finds himself in a country where the cooks do not habitually oversalt the soup.

The unfortunate Frenchmen of the eighteenth century had to pay dear for this culinary lesson. But in this matter as in others they did not all pay alike. The whole product of the salt tax to the treasury was about sixty million livres, of which two thirds, or forty millions, was taken from provinces containing a little more than one third of the population of the kingdom. Necker, who much desired to equalize the impost, mentions six principal categories of provinces in regard to the salt tax; varying from those in which the sale was free, and the article worth from two to nine livres the hundred weight, to those where it was a monopoly of the Farm, and the salt cost the consumer about sixty-two livres. Salt being thus worth thirty times as much in one province as in another, it was possible for a successful smuggler to make a living by a very few trips. The opportunity was largely used; children were trained by their parents for the illicit traffic, but the penalties were very severe. In the galleys were many salt-smugglers; people were shut up on mere suspicion, and in the crowded prisons of that day were carried off by jail-fevers.[Footnote: Necker, _De l’Administration_, ii. 1. Ibid., _Compte rendu_, 82, and see the map of France divided according to the _gabelle_ in the same volume. Bailly, ii. 163. Clamageran, iii. 84 _n._, 296, 406. For the numerous officers and complicated system of the _gabelle_, see _Encyclopédie_, vii. 942 (_Grenier a sel_); _Quintal_=100 French pounds; but which of the numerous French pounds, I know not.] Of all known stimulants, tobacco is perhaps the most agreeable and the least injurious to the person who takes it; but no method of taking it has yet been devised which is not liable to be offensive to the delicate nerves of some bystander. It is probably on this account that a certain discredit has always attached to this most soothing herb, and that it seldom gets fair treatment in the matter of taxation. Over a large part of France, containing some twenty-two millions of inhabitants, tobacco had been subject to monopoly for a hundred years when Louis XVI. came to the throne,[Footnote: With an interval of two years, during which it was subject to a high duty. Stourm, i. 361.] yet the use of the article had become so general that this population bought fifteen million pounds yearly, or between five eighths and three quarters of a pound per head. Of this amount about one twelfth was used for smoking in pipes, and the remainder was consumed in the pleasant form of snuff. Three livres fifteen sous a pound was the price set by the government and collected by the Farmers, and the tobacco was often mouldy.[Footnote: Necker, _De l’Administration_, ii. 100. Babeau, _La vie rurale_, 78.]

The excise on wine and cider (_aides_) was levied not only on the producer, but also on the consumer, in a most vexatious manner, so that the revenue officers were continually forcing their way into private houses, and so that the poor peasant who quietly diluted his measure of cider with two measures of water was lucky if he got off with a triple tax, and did not undergo fine and forfeiture for having untaxed cider in his house. It was moreover a principle with the officers of the excise that wine was never given away; and as a tax was due on every sale the poor vine-dresser could not give a part of the produce of his vineyard to his married children, or even bestow a few bottles in alms on a poor, sick woman without getting into trouble, and all this notwithstanding the fact that in France in the eighteenth century, when tea and coffee were unknown to the rural classes, and when drinking water was often taken from polluted wells, wine or cider was generally considered necessary to health and to life.

It is needless to consider in detail the duties on imports and exports (_traites_). From the beginning of the eighteenth century until three years after the end of the American War, commerce between France and England was totally prohibited as to most articles, and subjected to prohibitory duties in the case of the few that remained. This state of things was tempered by a great system of smuggling, so successfully conducted that insurance in many cases was as low as ten and even as five per cent. Goods were sometimes taken directly from one coast to the other on dark nights, and no reader of the literature of the last century will need to be reminded that the “free traders” who brought them were favorably received by the people among whom they might come to land. Sometimes the articles were sent by circuitous routes through Holland or Germany, on whose frontiers the same walls of prohibition did not exist. But there were many things which could not conveniently be smuggled, and in their case the want of competition, and still more the lack of standards of comparison, tended to retard and injure production. While improved machinery for spinning and weaving was common in England, the old spindle, wheel, and house-loom still held their own in France. In the year 1786, a commercial treaty was signed between the two countries. By its provisions French wines were put on a better footing, and many manufactured articles, as hardware, cutlery, linen, gauze, and millinery were to pay but ten or twelve per cent. The confusion of business which was the natural result of so great a change had not ceased to be felt when the great Revolution began to disturb all commercial relations.

It was not at the frontiers alone that commerce was subject to tolls and duties. Trade was hampered on every road and river in the kingdom, and so complicated were these local dues that it was said that not more than two or three men in a generation understood them thoroughly.

Duties on food were then as now collected at the entrance of many French cities (_octrois_). In the last century they were often partial in their operation; such of the burghers as owned farms or gardens outside the walls being allowed to bring in their produce without charge, while their poorer neighbors were obliged to pay duties on all they ate. In Paris some kinds of food, and notably fish, were both bad and dear, because the charges at the city gate were many times as great as the original value.[Footnote: See the pathetic _cahier_ of the village of Pavaut, _Archives parlementaires_, v. 9. Vauban, _Dîme royale_, 26, 51. Montesquieu, iv. 122 (_Esprit des Lois,_, liv. xiii. c. 7). Necker, _De l’Administration_, ii. 113. _Encyclopédie méthodique, Finance_, iii. 709 (_Traites_). Turgot, vii. 37. Mercier, xi. 100. Stourm, i. 325.]

There was another burden which shared with the taille and the gabelle the especial hatred of the French peasantry. This was the villein service (_corvée_) which was exacted of the farmers and agricultural laborers. The service was of feudal origin, and, while still demanded in many cases by the lords, in accordance with ancient charters or customs, was now also required by the state for the building of roads and the transportation of soldiers’ baggage. The demand was based on no general law, but was imposed arbitrarily by intendants and military commanders. The amount due by every parish was settled without appeal by the same authorities. The peasant and his draft-cattle were ordered away from home, perhaps just at the time of harvest. On the roads might be seen the overloaded carts, where the tired soldiers had piled themselves on top of their baggage, while their comrades goaded the slow teams with swords and bayonets, and jeered at the remonstrances of the unhappy owner. The oxen were often injured by unusual labor and harsh treatment, and one sick ox would throw a whole team out of work. The burden, imposed on the parish collectively, was distributed among the peasants by their syndics, political officers, often partial, who were sometimes accompanied in their work of selection by files of soldiers, equally rough and impatient with the refractory peasants and the wretched official. Turgot, who was keenly alive to the hardships of the _corvée_, abolished it during his short term of power, substituting a tax, but it was restored by his successor immediately on his fall, and was not discontinued until the end of the monarchy. [Footnote: The _corvées_ owned by the lords were limited by legal custom to twelve days a year. _Encyclopédie_, iv. 280 (_Corvée_). I can find no such limitations of _corvées_ imposed by the government. Some regard seems to have been paid to peasants’ convenience in fixing the season of _corvées_ of road building, but none in those of military transportation. Compensation was given for the latter, but it was inadequate, hardly amounting to one fourth of the market price of such labor. Turgot, iv. 367. Bailly, ii. 215.]

It is entirely impossible to discover, even approximately, what proportion of a Frenchman’s income was taken in taxes by the government of Louis XVI. We may guess that the burden was too large, we may be sure that it was ill distributed, yet under it prosperity and population were slowly increasing.

Let us take the figures of Necker, as the most moderate. It is the fashion to make light of Necker, and he certainly was not a man of sufficient strength and genius to overcome all the difficulties with which he was surrounded, but he probably knew more about the condition of France than any other man then living. Let us then take his figures and suppose that the two twentieths, and the four sous per livre of the first twentieth, produced the eleven per cent. which they should theoretically have given. In that case eleven per cent. of the country’s income was equal to fifty-five million livres. But at that rate the direct taxes and tithes would have taken more than half the income, and the indirect taxes more than the other half, and French subjects would have been left with less than nothing to live on. Clearly, then, the twentieths did not produce anything like the theoretical eleven per cent.

M. Taine has gone into the question with apparent care, and his figures are adopted by recent writers, but they would seem to be open to the same objection. He reckons that some of the peasants paid over eighty per cent. of their income. But if a man could pay that proportion to the government year after year and not die of want, how very prosperous a man living on the same land must be to-day if his taxes amount only to one quarter or one third of his income. The real difficulty is one of assessment. We can tell approximately how much the country paid; we can never know the amount of its wealth.

How far did the rich escape taxation? The clergy of France as a body did so in a great measure. They paid none of the direct taxes levied on their fellow subjects. They made gifts and loans to the state, however, and borrowed money for the purpose. For this money they paid interest, which must be looked on as their real contribution to the expenses of the state. But in this again they were assisted by the treasury. The amount which finally came out of the pockets of the clergy by direct taxation would appear to have been less than ten per cent. of their income from invested property.

The nobility bore a larger share. The only great tax from which the members of that order were exempted was the taille, forming less than one half of the direct taxation, less than one sixth of the whole. But in the other direct taxes, their wealth and influence sometimes enabled them to escape a fair assessment.

The indirect taxes also bore heavily on the poor. They were levied largely on necessaries, such as salt and food, or on those simple luxuries, wine and tobacco, on which Frenchmen of all classes depend for their daily sense of well-being. The gabelle, with its obligatory seven pounds of salt, approached a poll-tax in its operation.

The worst features of French taxation were the arbitrary spirit which pervaded the financial administration, the regulations never submitted to public criticism, and the tyranny and fraud of subordinates, for which redress was seldom attainable.[Footnote: Horn, 254.] We groan sometimes, and with reason, at the publicity with which all life is carried on to-day. We turn wearily from the wilderness of printed words which surrounds the simplest matters. But only publicity and free discussion will prevent every unscrupulous assessor and every arbitrary clerk in the custom-house from being a petty tyrant. They will not by themselves procure good government, but they will prevent bad government from growing intolerable. In France, as we have seen, to print anything which might stir the public mind was a capital offense; and while the writer of an abstract treatise subversive of religion and government might hope to escape punishment, the citizen who earned the resentment of a petty official was likely to be prosecuted with virulence.



Certain financial practices, not immediately connected with taxation, call for a short notice; for they are among the most famous errors of the government of old France. One of these was the habit of issuing what were called anticipations.[Footnote: Anticipations. “On entendait par la des assignations sur les revenus futurs, remises aux fournisseurs et autres creanciers du Tresor et negociables entre leurs mains.” Clamageran, iii. 30. Necker, _Compte rendu_, 20. Stourm (ii. 200) thinks the amount not excessive, while acknowledging that it was so considered. The Anticipations formed in fact the floating debt of the government. Gomel, 287.] These were securities with a limited time to run, payable from a definite portion of the future revenue. They were a favorite form of investment with certain people, and a great convenience to the treasury, but they constantly tended to increase to an amount which was considered dangerous. Thus the revenue of each year was spent before it was collected; and loans were contracted, not for any urgent and exceptional necessity of the state, but for ordinary running expenses. Another practice was the issuing by the king in person of drafts on the treasury. Such drafts (_acquits de comptant_) were made payable to bearer, and it was therefore impossible for the controller of the finances to know for what purpose they had been drawn. Originally a device for the payment of the private expenses of the king, these drafts had become favorite objects of the cupidity of the courtiers; because from their form it was impossible to trace them and discover the recipient. Under Louis XVI. they absorbed more money than ever before. It was very easy for that weak prince to give a check to any one who might ask him. Turgot made him promise to stop doing so, but he had not the strength to keep his word.[Footnote: Clamageran, in. 380, n. Bailly, i. 221, ii. 214, 259. The foreign office made use of ordonnances de comptant to the amount of several millions annually, for subsidies to foreign governments, expenses of ambassadors, secret service, etc. Stourm, ii. 153.]

From an early time the custom of selling public offices had taken root in France. Before the middle of the fourteenth century we find Louis X. selling judicial places to the highest bidder, and less than a hundred years later the practice had extended so that all manner of petty offices were sold by the government. This method of raising money was so easy that, in spite of the remonstrances of estates general and the promises of kings, it was continually extended. In the sixteenth century, as a greater inducement to purchasers, the offices were made transferable on certain conditions, and in 1605 they became subjects of inheritance. Places under government were thus assimilated to other property and passed from the holder to his heirs. The law which established this state of things was called _Édit de la Paulette_, after one Paulet, a farmer of the revenue.

This sale of offices bore a certain resemblance to a loan and to a tax. The services to be performed were often unimportant, sometimes worse than useless. But the salary attached to the office might be considered the interest of money lent to the crown; or if the office-holder were paid by fees, he was enabled to make good to himself the advance made to the government by drawing money from the tax-payers. Very generally the two forms of profit to the incumbent were combined, together with a third, the possession, namely, of privileges, or exemption from taxation, attached to the office.

In managing its revenue from this source, the treasury dealt fairly neither with the office holders nor with the public. Places were created only to be sold, and before long were abolished, either without any promise of compensation to the buyers, or with promises destined never to be fulfilled. This want of faith kept down the price, which was often but ten years’ purchase of the income of the place. Yet rich and poor were eager to buy. “Sir,” said a minister of finance to King Louis XIV., “as often as it pleases your Majesty to make an office, it pleases God to make a fool to fill it.”

Thus it came to pass that most places about the royal person, in the courts of justice and in the treasury, and many in the municipal governments, the professions, and the trades, were subject to sale and purchase. Numberless persons waited at the royal table, sat in the high courts of Parliament, weighed, measured, gauged, sold horses, oysters, fish, or sucking pigs, shaved customers or gave hot baths, as public functionaries and by virtue of letters patent sold to them by the crown. The clerk kept his register, not because the information it contained would be useful to the government, but because he or some one else had lent money, on which the public was now paying interest in the form of registration fees. Thus the custom of selling offices was cumbrous and objectionable.[Footnote: Montesquieu defends the custom, however. He maintains that the offices in a monarchy should be venal; because people do as a family business what they would not undertake from virtue; every one is trained to his duty, and orders in the state are more permanent. If offices were not sold by the government they would be by the courtiers. Montesquieu, iii. 217 (_Esprit des Lois_, liv. v. cxix.). See also De Tocqueville, iv. 171 (_Anc. Reg_. ch. xi.). In many cases offices were desired more for the sake of distinction and privilege than for profit. The income was often very small. Clamageran, ii. 196, 378, 569, 615, 665; iii. 23, 24, 102, 155, 200, 319. Necker, _De l’Administration_, iii. 147. Thierry, i. 163. Pierre de Lestoile, 390, _n_.]

While the taxes of France were thus devised without system and levied without skill, the attention of a thoughtful part of the nation had been turned to financial matters. About the middle of the century arose the Physiocrats, the founders of modern political economy. Their leader, Quesnay, believed that positive legislation should consist in the declaration of the natural laws constituting the order evidently most advantageous for men in society. When once these were understood, all would be well, for the absurdity of all unreasonable legislation would become manifest. He taught two cardinal principles; first, “that the land was the only source of riches, and that these were multiplied by agriculture;” and, second, that agriculture and commerce should be entirely free. The former of these doctrines, after exercising a good deal of influence by calling attention to the injustice and oppression with which the agricultural class in France was treated, has ceased to be believed as a statement of absolute truth. The latter, adopted with great enthusiasm by many generous minds, has exercised a deep influence on modern thought.

Manufactures, according to Quesnay, do no more than pay the wages and expenses of the workmen engaged in them. But agriculture not only pays wages and expenses, but produces a surplus, which is the revenue of the land. He divides the nation into three classes: (1) the productive, which cultivates the soil; (2) the proprietary, which includes the sovereign, the land-owners, and those who live by tithes, in other words the nobility and the clergy; and (3) the sterile, which embraces all men who labor otherwise than in agriculture, and whose expenses are paid by the productive and proprietary classes. Therefore he argues that taxes should be based directly on the net product of real estate, and not on wages nor on chattels. In other words, all taxes should be levied directly on the income derived from land, and indirect taxation in every shape should be abolished.

Liberty of agriculture, liberty of commerce! “Let every man be free to cultivate in his field such crops as his interest, his means, the nature of the ground may suggest as rendering the greatest possible return.” “Let complete liberty of commerce be maintained; for the regulation of commerce, both internal and external, which is most safe, most accurate, most profitable to the nation, consists in full liberty of competition.” These doctrines of Quesnay, joined with the ideas of property and security, form the basis of the modern school of individualism. [Footnote: Lavergne, _Les Économistes,_ 105. Quesnay, _Oeuvres,_ 233,306,331 _(Maximes du gouvernement économique d’un royaume agricole Maxime,_ iii. v. xiii. xxv.). Turgot, iv. 305. Bois-Guillebert appears to have been the principal precursor of the Physiocrats. Horn, _L’Économie politique avant les Physiocrates, passim;[Greek physis] = nature,[Greek kratos] = power.]

The body of doctrines long known as “political economy,” (for the words seem now to be used in a larger sense), bore the mark of their origin in the eighteenth century. Here, as elsewhere, it was the belief of Frenchmen of that age that the application of a few simple rules derived from natural laws would solve the difficulties of a complicated subject. The principles of political economy were conceived as forming “a true science, which does not yield to geometry itself in the conviction which it carries to the soul, and which certainly surpasses all others in its object, since that is the greatest well-being, the greatest prosperity of the human race upon the earth.”[Footnote: 2. Abbé Beaudeau, quoted in Lavergne, _Les Économistes,_ 179.] Quesnay and Gournay founded branches of the economic school. The latter, who printed nothing, is chiefly known through the encomiums of Turgot. Gournay was a merchant, and recognized that commerce and manufactures are hardly less advantageous to a state than agriculture. This is the chief difference of his teaching from that of Quesnay. Gournay is the author of the famous maxim: _Laissez faire; laissez passer;_ and his whole system depended on the idea “that in general every man knows his own interest better than another man to whom that interest is entirely indifferent;” and that “hence, when the interest of individuals is exactly the same as the general interest, the best thing to do is to leave every man to do as he likes.”[Footnote: Turgot, iii. 336 (_Éloge de M. de Gournay_).]

The best known member of the economic school in France was Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, born in Paris on the 10th of May, 1727, of a family belonging to the higher middle class. His father was _prevost des marchands_, or chief magistrate of the city. Young Turgot was at first educated for the ecclesiastical life, and indeed pursued his studies in that direction until a bishopric seemed close at hand. But he felt no vocation to enter the priesthood. Turgot was too much the child of his century to be content to put his great powers into the harness of the Roman Church; he was, as he told his friends who remonstrated with him on abandoning his brilliant prospects, too honest a man to wear a mask all his life.

At the age of twenty-four, Turgot turned finally from the study of divinity to that of law and administration. He was rapidly promoted to the place of a _maître des requêtes_, a member of the lowest board of the royal council, and nine years later he became intendant of the district of Limoges. It was the poorest in France, but Turgot soon became so much interested in its welfare that he refused to exchange it for a richer one. In spite of years of dearth and of the extraordinary measures of relief which they made necessary, he went energetically to work at all manner of permanent reforms. He effected improvements in the apportionment and levy of the taille. He abolished the onerous _corvée_. He diminished the terror of compulsory service in the militia, by permitting the engagement of substitutes. He encouraged agriculture by distributing seeds and offering prizes for the destruction of wolves, which were still numerous in his district, and he waged a successful war on a moth that was ravaging the wheat crop. He assisted in the introduction of the manufacture of pottery, still one of the leading industries of Limoges. His reports are among the most valuable material in existence for the study of the condition of old France.

Soon after the accession of Louis XVI., Turgot was called to the ministry, first, for a very short time, as secretary of the navy, and then as Controller of the Finances. Two courses were open to the new minister. Malesherbes, his close adherent, standing in high official position, urged him to summon the Estates General, or at least the Provincial Estates, and rule constitutionally. Such action would have been a great, a serious innovation, but it was not on this ground that Turgot opposed it. Like most of the economists of his day, he believed at once in freedom and in despotism. “The republican constitution of England,” he had said, “sets obstacles in the way of the reform of certain abuses.” Turgot had a plan for the benefit of mankind. None but a despot could carry it out for him. France and the world were to be set right; and it would take absolute power to compel them into the best course.

The new Controller of the Finances could not afford to wait. “You accuse me of too great haste,” he said to a friend, “and you forget that in my family we die of the gout at fifty.” But this haste, combined with his awkward and haughty manners, proved the cause of his ruin. The courtiers, whose perquisites were in danger, were disgusted at his simplicity and economy. Although he was the friend of absolute government, he was accused of republican austerity. And his measures were not more popular than his manners. The harvest of 1774 had been bad, and famine was in the land. Turgot met the situation by declaring commerce in grain free throughout the kingdom. The harvest was again bad in 1775, and riots broke out, for the common people had it firmly in their minds that the price of bread was fixed by the government. Turgot put down disturbances with a high hand, and persevered in his measures. He abolished the _corvée_ on roads and public works throughout France. In truth it would have been better to modify and regulate it, for in poor countries many men had rather work on the roads than pay for them, but such considerations as this were foreign to his mind. He, moreover, abolished the trade-guilds (_jurandes_), which possessed the monopoly of most kinds of manufactures and trades, saying that God, in giving man needs and making labor his necessary resource, had made the right to work the property of every man, and that this property is the most sacred and inalienable of all.[Footnote: Turgot, viii. 330. Yet the monopolies in certain trades, as those of apothecaries, jewelers, printers, and booksellers, were retained, probably because their strict regulation and supervision was considered necessary. The guilds were reestablished, with modifications, on the fall of Turgot. _Encyclopédie méthodique, Commerce_, ii. 760, 790.] But Turgot’s ideal of freedom was entirely industrial and commercial, and not at all political or social. He forbade all associations or assemblies of masters or workmen, holding that the faculty granted to artisans of the same trade to meet and join in one body is a source of evil. Under Turgot’s system, the individual workman would not have escaped the tyranny of the masters’ guild only to fall under that of the trades-union; but one of the most essential privileges of a freeman would have been denied him. Individual liberty to work, and political liberty to combine, have not yet been made perfectly to coincide.

The innovations thus introduced were great; the interests threatened were powerful. The Parliament of Paris rallied to the defense of vested rights. It refused to register the edicts issued to enforce the minister’s innovations.

The king held a bed of justice and forced their registration; but his weak nature was tiring of the struggle. Turgot was unpopular on all sides, and Louis never supported a truly unpopular minister. “Only M. Turgot and I love the people,” he cried, in his impotent despair; and then he gave way. Malesherbes, the principal supporter in the royal council of the Controller General of the Finances, was the first to go. Thereupon Turgot wrote the king a long and harsh letter, blaming him for Malesherbes’s resignation. “Do not forget, sir,” said he, “that it was weakness which put the head of Charles I. on the block; it was weakness which formed the League under Henry III., which made crowned slaves of Louis XIII. and of the present king of Portugal; it was weakness which caused all the misfortunes of the late reign.” Kings to whom such language as this can be used are not strong enough to bear it. Turgot was dismissed twelve days after sending the letter.[Footnote: May 12, 1776. Lavergne, _les Économistes_, 219. Turgot, iii. 335; viii. 273, 330. Bailly, ii. 210.]

The financial situation of France was undoubtedly serious. The cause of this was far less the amount of the debt, or the excess of expenditure over revenue, than the total demoralization of the public service. The annual deficit at the accession of Louis XVI. is variously stated at from twenty to forty million livres a year.[Footnote: From four to eight million dollars.] Such a deficiency would have nothing very appalling for a strong minister of finance, supported by a determined sovereign, and could have been overcome by economy alone. The expenses of the court were not less than thirty millions. Turgot proposed to reduce them by five millions immediately and by nine millions more in the course of a few years. Twenty-eight millions were spent in pensions, and it requires but a superficial knowledge of the state of France to assure us that many of these were bestowed without sufficient reason. [Footnote: Stourm sets the pensions at thirty-two millions, and thinks that the improper ones did not exceed six or seven millions, ii. 134.] Important reductions might have been made in the expenditures of most of the departments without impairing their efficiency. But to have done this many interests would have had to be disturbed, many hardships inflicted. Amiable persons, living without labor at the public cost, would have been deprived of their revenues. Other agreeable and influential men and women would have had to live without pleasant things which they had been brought up to expect. The good-nature of the king made him shrink from inflicting pain. He would approve of the best plans of economy, he would promise his minister of finance to adhere to them, he would depart from them secretly at the solicitation of his wife or of his courtiers. The poor man wanted “to make his people happy,” and he could not bear to see those of his people who came nearest to him discontented. The successor of Turgot was a mere courtier, not even personally honest, whose career was fortunately cut short by death within a few months of his nomination.

The war of the American Revolution was drawing near, and old Maurepas, the prime minister, felt the need of a competent man to take charge of the finances. A name was suggested to him,–that of Necker, a successful banker. But Necker was a Protestant, a Swiss, a nobody. The title of Controller was too high for him, so a new post was created, and he was made Director-General of the Finances, coming into office in October, 1776.

It has been the fate of Necker to excite strong enthusiasm and violent objurgation; but in fact he was little more than commonplace. An ambitious man, he wanted to make a reputation, to build up the royal credit, to found a national debt, like that of England. Did he really believe that such a debt would pay its own interest, without additional taxes, or did he rely on economy of expenditure and good administration, not only to balance the ordinary accounts, but to cover the interest of the war-loans which he was obliged to contract? How far did his cheerful manifestoes deceive himself? What might he not really have accomplished if the royal support had been anything more solid than a shifting quicksand? These questions cannot be answered satisfactorily. Neither Necker, nor anybody else, knew exactly what the government owed, or what it borrowed. The loans contracted by Necker himself are believed to have amounted to five hundred and thirty million livres. Of this sum it is thought that about two hundred millions were employed in covering the annual deficit for five years, and that three hundred and thirty millions were spent for the extraordinary demands of the war. The money was raised chiefly by state lotteries and by the sale of life annuities, although many other means also were employed.

The royal lottery had been a favorite device earlier in the century. As practiced by Necker and some of his predecessors it combined the features of gambling and of investment. Every ticket, in addition to its chance of drawing a prize, was in itself a pecuniary obligation of the government, either carrying perpetual interest at four per cent., or to be repaid at its full price in seven or nine years without interest. The prizes were sums of money or annuities. Thus the ticket-holder did not lose his whole stake, and ran the chance of winning a fortune. But the operation was not brilliant for the government.

Nor was the sale of annuities more judiciously managed. Here, as in the lotteries, Necker copied old models, without making any improvements of importance. No account was taken of the age of the annuitants, but incomes were sold at a fixed rate of ten per cent, of the capital deposited for one life, nine per cent, for two lives, eight and a half for three, eight for four. The bankers and financiers of the day were shrewd enough to profit by this arrangement.

They bought up the obligations, and named healthy children as the annuitants. The chance of life of these selected persons was more than fifty years, and as the children were usually chosen at about the age of seven, the treasury would be called on to pay its annuities for an average term of between forty and forty-five years. As the current rate of interest on good security was about six per cent, the operation was not a very promising one for the state.

In spite of all these blunders Necker was liked by the nation. He recognized the need of economy and honestly tried to reduce expenses. He succeeded in cutting off a little of the extravagance of the court and in simplifying the collection of the revenue. He tried to establish provincial assemblies and to equalize the incidence of the salt-tax. And above all, in order to sustain the royal credit, he took the country into his confidence to some extent, and prophesied pleasant things. But he did not stop there. The national accounts had long been considered a government secret; Necker resolved to publish them to the world. His famous “Compte rendu au roi” appeared in February, 1781. The portrait of the author, excellently engraved on copper, stares complacently from the frontispiece, above an allegorical picture, where we can make out Justice and Abundance, while Avarice appears to bring her treasures, and a lady in high, powdered hair, and no visible clothing, gazes astonished from the background. The contents of the report are not such as we are in the habit of expecting in financial documents, but are rhetorical and self-complacent. The ordinary revenues of the country are said to exceed the expenditures by ten million livres. As a matter of fact, no such surplus existed, but Necker was an optimist by temperament, and was moreover anxious to bolster credit. The nation was delighted, but Maurepas and the court were shocked. The cupidity of the courtiers was painted in the account in glowing language. Such a publication was dangerous in itself, and the economical measures already taken, with those announced as to follow, threatened many interests. Even the old prime minister trembled for his personal power. Necker had obtained the removal from office of one of the adherents of Maurepas, while the latter was kept in Paris by the gout. So the usual machinery of detraction was put in motion. Letters, pamphlets, and epigrams flew about. While the larger part of the public was singing Necker’s praises, the smaller and more influential inner circle was conspiring against him. He might yet have prevailed but for an act of imprudence. Although the most conspicuous and popular man in the kingdom, he had hitherto been excluded from the Council of State. He now asked to be admitted to it. Louis XVI., whose Catholicism was his strongest conviction, replied that Necker, as a Protestant, was inadmissible by law. Thereupon the latter offered to resign his place as Director of the Finances, and the king, by the advice of Maurepas, accepted his resignation.[Footnote: Gomel, _passim._]

From this time all real chance of the extrication of Louis XVI. from his financial difficulties, without a radical change of government, disappeared forever. The controllers that succeeded Necker only plunged deeper and deeper into debt and deficit. It is needless to follow them in their flounderings. A long experience of the vacillation of the government both as to persons and as to systems had discouraged the hopes of conscientious patriotism, and strengthened the opposition to reform of all those who were interested in abuses. From the well-meaning king, if left to his own ways, nothing more could be hoped. Pecuniary embarrassment, with Louis, as with many less important people, was quite as much a symptom of weakness as a result of unmerited misfortune.



We have seen that the church had an irreconcilable enemy in Voltaire; that the government of France had found a critic of weight and importance in Montesquieu; that the Economists had attacked the financial organization of the country. But the assaults of the Philosophic school were not leveled at the religious and civil administration alone. The very foundations of French thought, slowly laid through previous ages, were made in the reign of Louis XV. the subject of examination, and by a very dogmatic set of thinkers were pronounced to be valueless. Nor were men left at a loss for something to put in the place of what was thus destroyed. The teachings of Locke, explained and amplified by Condillac and many others, obtained an authority which was but feebly disputed. The laws against free speech and free printing, intended for the defense of the old doctrines, deterred no one from expressing radical opinions. Only persons of conservative and law-abiding temperament, the natural defenders of things existing, were restrained by legal and ecclesiastical terrors. The champions of the old modes of thought stood like mediaeval men at arms before a discharge of artillery, prevented from rushing on the guns of the enemy by the weight of the armor that protected them no longer. The new philosophy, stimulated and hardly impeded by feeble attempts at persecution, was therefore able to overrun the intellectual life of the nation, until it found its most formidable opponent in one who was half its ally, and who had sprung from its midst, the mighty heretic, Rousseau.

The most voluminous work of the Philosophers is the “Encyclopaedia,” a book of great importance in the history of the human mind. The conception of its originators was not a new one. The attempt to bring human knowledge into a system, and to set it forth in a series of folio volumes, had been made before. The endeavor is one which can never meet with complete success, yet which should sometimes be made in a philosophic spirit. The universe is too vast and too varied to be successfully classified and described by one man, or under the supervision of one editor. But the attempt may bring to light some relation of things hitherto unnoticed, and the task is one of practical utility.

The great French “Encyclopaedia” may claim two immediate progenitors. The first is found in the works of Lord Bacon, where there is a “Description of a Natural and Experimental History, such as may serve for the foundation of a true philosophy,” with a “Catalogue of particular histories by titles.” The second is Chambers’s Cyclopaedia, first published in 1727, a translation of which Diderot was engaged to edit by the publisher Le Breton. Diderot, who freely acknowledges his obligation to Bacon, makes light of that to Chambers, saying in his prospectus that the latter owed much to French sources, that his work is not the basis of the one proposed, that many of the articles have been rewritten, and almost all the others corrected and altered. There is no doubt that the whole plan of the “Encyclopaedia” was much enlarged by Denis Diderot himself.[Footnote: Bacon, iv. 251, 265. Morley, _Diderot_, i., 116. Diderot, _Oeuvres_, xiii. 6, 8. “If we come out successfully we shall be principally indebted to Chancellor Bacon, who laid out the plan of a universal dictionary of sciences and arts _at a time when there were, so to speak, neither sciences nor arts_.”]

This eminent man was born at Langres in 1713, the son of a worthy cutler. He was educated by the Jesuits, and on his refusal to enter either of the learned professions of law or medicine, was set adrift by his father,–who hoped that a little hardship would bring him to reason,–and found himself in Paris with no resource but the precarious one of letters. Diderot lived from hand to mouth for a time, sleeping sometimes in a garret of his own, sometimes on the floor of a friend’s room. Once he got a place of tutor to the children of a financier, but could not bear the life of confinement, and soon threw up his appointment and returned to freedom. When any friend of his father turned up on a visit to the town, he would borrow, and the old cutler at Langres would grumble and repay. Gradually the young author rose above want. He became one of the first literary men of his day and one of the most brilliant talkers, rich in ideas, overflowing in language, subtle without obscurity, suggestive, and satisfying; yet always retaining a certain shyness, and “able to say anything, but good-morning.” Yet he was soon carried away by the excitement of conversation and of discussion. He had a trick of tapping his interlocutor on the knee, by way of giving point to his remarks, and the Empress Catharine II. of Russia complained that he mauled her black and blue by the use of this familiar gesture, so that she had to put a table between herself and him for protection. Diderot was fond of the young, and especially of struggling authors. To them his purse and his literary assistance were freely given. He was delighted when a writer came to consult him on his work. If the subject were interesting he would recognize its capabilities at a glance. As the author read, Diderot’s imagination would fill in all deficiencies, construct new scenes in the tragedy, new incidents, new characters in the tale. To him all these beauties would seem to belong to the work itself, and his friends would be astonished, after hearing him praise some new book, to find in it but few of the good things which he had quoted from it.

Diderot’s good nature was boundless. One morning a young man, quite unknown to him, came with a manuscript, and begged him to read and correct it. He prepared to comply with the request on the spot. The paper, when opened, turned out to be a satire on himself and his writings.

“Sir,” said Diderot to the young man, “I do not know you; I can never have offended you. Will you tell me the motive which has impelled you to make me read a libel for the first time in my life? I generally throw such things into the waste-paper basket.”

“I am starving. I hoped that you would give me a few crowns not to print it.”

Instead of flying into a passion, Diderot simply remarked: “You would not be the first author that ever was bought off; but you can do better with this stuff. The brother of the Duke of Orleans is in retreat at Saint Genevieve. He is religious; he hates me. Dedicate your satire to him; have it bound with his arms on the cover; carry it to him yourself some fine morning, and he will help you.”

“But I don’t know the prince; and I don’t see how I can write the dedicatory epistle.”

“Sit down; I’ll do it for you.”

And Diderot writes the dedication, and gives it to the young man, who carries the libel to the prince, receives a present of twenty-five louis, and comes back after a few days to thank Diderot, who advises him to find a more decent means of living.

The people whom the great writer helped were not always so polite. One day he was seeing to the door a young man who had deceived him, and to whom, after discovering it, he had given both assistance and advice.

“Monsieur Diderot,” said the swindler, “do you know natural history?”

“A little; I can distinguish an aloe from a head of lettuce, and a pigeon from a humming-bird.”

“Do you know the formica leo?”


“It is a very clever little insect. It digs a hole in the ground, shaped like a funnel. It covers the surface with fine, light sand. It attracts silly insects and gets them to tumble in. It seizes them, sucks them dry, and then says: `Monsieur Diderot, I have the honor to wish you good-morning.'” Whereupon the young man ran downstairs, leaving the philosopher in fits of laughter.[Footnote: Morley, Diderot and the Encyclopaedists. Scherer, Diderot, passim. Morrellet, i. 29. Marmontel, ii. 313. Mémoire sur Diderot, par Mme. de Vandeul, sa fille (a charming sketch only 64 pages long) in Diderot, Mémoires, Corresp., etc., vol. i.]

As a writer, the great fault of Diderot is one not common in France. He is verbose. As we read his productions, even the cleverest, we feel that the same thing could have been better said in fewer words. There is also a lack of arrangement. Diderot would never take time to plan his books before writing them. But these faults, although probably fatal to the permanent fame of an author, are less injurious to his immediate success than might be expected. A large part of the public does not dislike a copious admixture of water in its intellectual drink. And Diderot reconciles the reader to his excessive flow of words by the effervescence of his enthusiasm. It is because his mind is overfull of his subject that the sentences burst forth so copiously.

The first writing of Diderot that need engage our attention is his “Letter on the Blind,” published in 1749. This letter deals with the question, how far congenital deprivation of one of the senses, and especially blindness, would modify the conceptions of the person affected; how far the ideas of one born blind would differ from the ideas of those who can see. The bearing of this question on Locke’s theory that all our ideas are derived from sensation and reflection is obvious. Diderot, in a manner quite characteristic of him, took pains to examine the cases of persons who had actually been blind and had recovered their sight, and where these failed him, supplied their places by inventions of his own.[Footnote: Condorcet says of Diderot, “faisant toujours aimer la verité, même lorsqu’entrainé par son imagination il avait le malheur de la méconnaitre.” D’Alembert, _Oeuvres_, i. 79 (_Éloge par Condorcet_). There is a great deal in this remark. Unless we can enter into the state of mind of men who tell great lies from a genuine love of abstract truth, we shall never understand the French Philosophers of the 18th century.]

Diderot’s principal witness is Nicholas Saunderson, a blind man with a talent for mathematics, who between 1711 and 1739 was a professor at the University of Cambridge. Diderot quotes at some length the atheistic opinions of Saunderson, giving as his authority the Life of the latter by “Dr. Inchlif.” No such book ever existed, and the opinions are the product of Diderot’s own reasoning. When an author treats us in this way our confidence in his facts is hopelessly lost. His reasons, however, remain, and the most striking of these, in the “Letter on the Blind,” is the answer given to one who attempts to prove the existence of God by pointing out the order found in nature, whence an intelligent Creator is presumed. In answer to this, the dying Saunderson is made to say: “Let me believe… that if we were to go back to the birth of things and of times, and if we should feel matter move and chaos arrange itself, we should meet a multitude of shapeless beings, instead of a few beings that were well organized…. I can maintain that these had no stomach, and those no intestines; that some, to which their stomach, palate, and teeth seemed to promise duration, have ceased to exist from some vice of the heart or the lungs; that the abortions were successively destroyed; that all the faulty combinations of matter have disappeared, and that only those have survived whose mechanism implied no important contradiction, and which could live by themselves and perpetuate their species.”[Footnote: Diderot, i. 328.] The step from the idea here conveyed to that of the struggle for existence and of the survival of the most fit is not a very long one.

For his “Letter on the Blind,” Diderot was imprisoned at Vincennes. The real cause of this punishment is said to have been a slight allusion in the “Letter” to the mistress of a minister of state. But this may not have been the only cause. There occurred about this time one of those temporary seasons of severity which are necessary under all governments to meet occasional outbursts of crime, but to which weak and corrupt governments are liable with capricious frequency. Diderot sturdily denied the authorship of the “Letter,” lying as thoroughly as he had done in that piece of writing itself, when he invented the name of Inchlif and forged the ideas of Saunderson. This time there was more excuse for his untruth; for the disclosure of his printer’s name might have sent that unfortunate man to prison or to the galleys. The imprisonment of Diderot himself, at first severe, was soon lightened at the instance of Voltaire’s mistress, Madame du Châtelet. Diderot was allowed to see his friends, and even to wander about the park of Vincennes on parole. After three months of captivity he was released by the influence of the booksellers interested in the “Encyclopaedia.” [Footnote: Morley, _Diderot_, i. 105.]

The first volume of that great work was in preparation. Diderot, whose untiring energy was unequal to the task of editing the whole, and who was, moreover, insufficiently trained for the work in some branches, and notably in mathematics, gathered about him a band of workers which increased as time went on, until it included a great number of remarkable men. First in importance to the enterprise, acting with Diderot on equal terms, was D’Alembert, an almost typical example of the gentle scholar, who refused one brilliant position after another to devote himself to mathematics and to literature. Next, perhaps, should be mentioned the Chevalier de Jaucourt, a man of encyclopaedic learning, who helped in the preparation of the book with patient enthusiasm, reading, dictating, and working with three or four secretaries for thirteen or fourteen hours a day. Montesquieu, whose end was approaching, left behind him an unfinished article on Taste. Voltaire not only sent in contributions of his own, but constantly gave encouragement and advice, as became the recognized head of the Philosophic school. Rousseau, whose literary reputation had recently been made by his “Discourses,” contributed articles on music for a time; but subsequently chose to quarrel with the Encyclopaedists, whose minds worked very differently from his. Turgot wrote several papers on economic subjects, and in the latter part of the work, Haller, the physiologist, and Condorcet were engaged.

The publication of the “Encyclopaedia” lasted many years, and met with many vicissitudes. The first volume appeared in 1751, the second in January, 1752. The book immediately excited the antagonism of the church and of conservative Frenchmen generally. On the 12th of February, 1752, the two volumes were suppressed by an edict of the Council, as containing maxims contrary to royal authority and to religion. The edict forbade their being reprinted and their being delivered to such subscribers as had not already received their copies. The continuation of the work, however, was not forbidden. It was believed at the time that the administration took this step in order to silence the Jesuits, to please the Archbishop of Paris, and perhaps to be beforehand with the Parliament, which might have taken severer measures. It was also intimated that certain booksellers, jealous of the success of the undertaking, were exerting influence on the authorities. All these enemies of the “Encyclopaedia” were not content with their first triumph. A few days after the appearance of the edict, the manuscripts and plates were seized by the police. They were restored to the editors three months later. The work was one in the performance of which many Frenchmen took pride. It is said that the Jesuits had tried to continue it, but had failed even to decipher the papers that had been taken from Diderot. The attack of the archbishop, who had fulminated against the great book in an episcopal charge, had served the purpose of an advertisement; such was the wisdom and consistency of the repressive police of that age.

From 1753 to 1757 the publication went on without interruption, one volume appearing every year. Seven volumes had now been published, bringing the work to the end of the letter G. The subscription list, originally consisting of less than two thousand names, had nearly doubled. But the forces of conservatism rallied. In 1758 appeared Helvetius’s book “De l’Esprit,” of which an account will be given in the next chapter, and which shocked the feelings of many persons, even of the Philosophic school. Few things could, indeed, have made the Philosophers more unpopular than the publication by one of their own party of a very readable book, in which the attempt was made to push their favorite ideas to their last conclusions. This is a process which few abstract theories can bear, for the limitations of any statement are in fact essential parts of it. But human laziness so loves formulas, so hates distinctions, that extreme and unmodified expressions are seized with avidity by injudicious friends and exulting foes.

The feeling of indignation awakened in the public by the doctrines of Helvetius gave opportunity to the opponents of the “Encyclopaedia.” That work was denounced to the Parliament of Paris, together with the book “De l’Esprit.” The learned court promptly condemned the latter to the flames. The great compilation, on the other hand, of which the volume of Helvetius was said to be a mere abridgment, was submitted to nine commissioners for examination, and further publication was suspended until they should report. While proceedings before the Parliament were still pending, the Council of State intervened, and the “Encyclopaedia” was arbitrarily interdicted, its privilege taken away, the sale of the volumes already printed, and the printing of any more, alike forbidden.

It is characteristic of the condition of things existing under the weak and vacillating government of Louis XV, that the interdict pronounced against the “Encyclopaedia” did not stop its printing. The editor and the publishers determined to prepare in private the ten volumes that were still unmade, and to launch them on the world at one time. To this work Diderot turned with boundless energy. D’Alembert, however, was discouraged, and retired from the undertaking. For six years Diderot labored on, never safe from interference on the part of the government, and managing a great enterprise, with its staff of contributors and its scores of workmen, while constantly liable to arrest and imprisonment. Diderot worked indefatigably also with his pen; writing articles on all sorts of subjects,–philosophy, arts, trades, and manufactures. To learn how things were made he visited workshops and handled tools, baffled at times by the jealousy and distrust of the workmen, who were afraid of his disclosing their secret processes, or of his giving information to the tax-gatherer.

The sharpest blow was yet to fall. The “Encyclopaedia” was issued by an association of publishers which paid Diderot a moderate salary for his services. Of these publishers one, named Le Breton, was the chief. He is said to have been a dull man, incapable of understanding any work of literature. It was his maxim that literary men labor for glory, and publishers for pay, and consequently he divided the income of the “Encyclopaedia” into two parts, giving to Diderot the glory, the danger, and the persecution, and reserving the money for himself and his partners. From his position in Paris he felt sure of being able to foresee any new order launched against the “Encyclopaedia” while the printing was in progress, and of providing against it. But the time of publication was likely to be marked by a new storm. Under these circumstances Le Breton resorted to a trick. After Diderot had read the last proof of every sheet, the publisher and his foreman secretly took it in hand, erased and cut out all that seemed rash or calculated to excite the anger of religious or conservative people, and thus reduced many of the principal articles to fragments. Then, to make the wrong irremediable, they burned the manuscripts, and quietly proceeded with the printing. This process would seem to have been continued for more than a year. One day in 1764, when the time of publication was drawing near, Diderot, having occasion to consult an article under the letter S, found it badly mutilated. Puzzled at first, he presently recognized the nature of the trick that had been played him. He turned to various parts of the book, to his own articles and to those of other writers, and found in many places the marks of the outrage. Diderot was in despair. His first thought was to throw up the undertaking and to announce the fraud to the public. The injury that would have been done to Le Breton’s innocent partners, the danger of publishing the fact that the “Encyclopaedia” was still in process of printing,–a fact of which the officers of the government had only personal and not official knowledge,–determined him to go on with the publication. It may be that Le Breton’s changes had been less extensive than Diderot, in his first excitement on making the discovery, had been led to believe. In examining the “Encyclopaedia” no alteration of tone is observable between the first seven and the subsequent volumes; and Grimm, to whom we owe the story, acknowledges that none of the authors engaged with Diderot in the work complained or even noticed that their articles had been altered.

In 1765 the ten volumes which completed the alphabet (making seventeen of this part of the work) were delivered to the subscribers. As a precautionary measure, those for foreign countries were sent out first, then those for the provinces, and lastly those for Paris. The eleven volumes of plates were not published until 1772. A supplement of four volumes of text and one of plates appeared in 1776 and 1777, and three years later a table of contents in two volumes.[Footnote: Several volumes of the original edition have the imprint of Neufchatel, and the supplement has that of Amsterdam, although all were actually printed in Paris. The _Encyclopaedia_ was reprinted as a whole at Geneva and at Lausanne. Editions also appeared at Leghorn and at Lucca; besides volumes of selections and abbreviations. Morley, _Diderot_, i. 169. For the _Encyclopaedia_, see Morley, _Diderot_, _passim._ Soberer, _Diderot_; the correspondence of D’Alembert and Voltaire in the works of the latter. Diderot, _Mémoires_, i. 431 (Nov. 10, 1760). Grimm, vii. 44, and especially ix. 203-217, an excellent article. Barbier, v. 159, 169; vii. 125, 138, 141; also in the work itself the word _Encyclopédie_ in vol. v. Mr. Morley thinks that the article _Genève_, in vol. vii. of the _Encyclopaedia_, especially excited the church and the Parliament to desire its suppression. The same article drew from Rousseau his letter to D’Alembert on the theatre at Geneva, which marks the separation between Rousseau and the Philosophers. But in the _Discours préliminaire_ D’Alembert had attacked Rousseau’s _First Discourse_. For the excitement caused at Geneva by the article, see Voltaire, lvii. 438 (Voltaire to D’Alembert, Jan. 8, 1758). It is perhaps superfluous to remark that Grimm’s account of the character and ideas of Le Breton, which has been followed above, is probably not unbiased.]

What was the great book whose history was so full of vicissitudes? Why did the French government, the church, and the literary world so excite themselves about a dictionary? The “Encyclopaedia” had in fact two functions; it was a repository of information and a polemical writing. Condorcet has thus stated the purpose of the book. Diderot, he says, “intended to bring together in a dictionary all that had been discovered in the sciences, what was known of the productions of the globe, the details of the arts which men have invented, the principles of morals, those of legislation, the laws which govern society, the metaphysics of language and the rules of grammar, the analysis of our faculties, and even the history of our opinions.”[Footnote: D’Alembert, _Oeuvres_, i. 79 (_Éloge par Condorcet_).] So comprehensive a scheme was not without danger to those classes which claimed an exclusive right to direct men’s minds. As for the double nature of the book, we have the words of two of the men most concerned in its preparation. First there is an anecdote by Voltaire, certainly inaccurate, probably quite imaginary, but setting forth most clearly one cause of the interest which the “Encyclopaedia” excited.

“A servant of Louis XV. has told me that one day when the king his master was supping at Trianon with a small party, the conversation turned on shooting and then on gunpowder. Somebody said that the best powder was made of equal parts of saltpetre, sulphur, and charcoal. The Duke of La Vallière, better informed, maintained that for cannon the proper proportion was one part of sulphur, one of charcoal, and five of well-filtered, well-evaporated, and well-crystallized saltpetre.

“`It is absurd,’ said the Duke of Nivernois, `that we should amuse ourselves every day with killing partridges in the park of Versailles, and sometimes with killing men or getting ourselves killed on the frontier, and not know exactly what we kill with.’

“`Alas! we are in the same state about all things in the world,’ answered Madame de Pompadour. `I don’t know of what the rouge is composed that I put on my cheeks, and I should be much puzzled to say how my stockings are made.’

“`It is a pity,’ then said the Duke of La Vallière, `that His Majesty should have confiscated our encyclopaedic dictionaries, which cost us a hundred pistoles apiece. We should soon find in them the answers to all our questions.’

“The king justified his confiscation. He had been warned that the twenty-one volumes in folio, that were to be found on all the ladies’ dressing-tables, were the most dangerous thing in the world for the French monarchy; and he wished to see for himself if that were true before he allowed the book to be read. After supper he sent for a copy, by three servants of his bed-chamber, each of whom brought in seven volumes, with a good deal of difficulty.

“They saw, in the article on gunpowder, that the Duke of La Vallière was right. Madame de Pompadour soon learned the difference between the old-fashioned Spanish rouge, with which the ladies of Madrid colored their cheeks, and the rouge of the ladies of Paris. She learned that the Greek and Roman ladies were painted with the purple that came from the murex, and consequently that our scarlet was the purple of the ancients; that there was more saffron in the Spanish rouge and more cochineal in the French.

“She saw how her stockings were made on the loom, and the machine used for the purpose filled her with astonishment. `Oh, what a fine book, sir!’ she cried. `Have you confiscated this store-house of all useful things in order to own it alone, and to be the only wise man in your kingdom?’

“They all threw themselves upon the volumes, like the daughters of Lycomedes on the jewels of Ulysses. Each found at once whatever he sought. Those that had lawsuits on hand were surprised to find the decision of their cases. The king read all the rights of his crown. ‘But, really,’ said he, `I don’t know why they spoke so ill of this book.’

“`Do you not see, sir,’ said the Duke of Nivernois, `that it is because it is very good? People do not attack poor and flat things of any kind. When the women try to make a new-comer appear ridiculous, she is sure to be prettier than they are.’

“All this time they were turning over the pages, and the Count of C—- said aloud, `Sir, you are too happy that men should have been found in your reign able to know all the arts and to transmit them to posterity. Everything is here, from the way of making a pin to that of casting and