The Last Days of Absolute Monarchy - The French Revolution

Louis XV at first possessed the affections of his people to such a degree, that he was named the 'Much-beloved;' and when he was attacked by a dangerous illness in Metz, the whole land went into mourning, and his recovery was celebrated by the greatest rejoicings. But this love gradually changed into hatred and contempt when the king gave himself up to the most shameless debaucheries, and surrendered the government of the country, the command of the army, and the decision upon points of law and state policy, to the companions of his orgies and the ministers of his lusts and pleasures; and when mistresses, without morals or decency, ruled the court and the empire. Among these women, none possessed greater or more enduring • influence than the Marchioness of Pompadour, who guided the whole policy of France for a period of twenty years, filled the most important offices with her favorites, decided upon peace or war, and disposed of the revenues of the state as she did of her private purse, so that, after a life passed in luxury and splendor, she left millions behind her. She and her creatures encouraged Louis' excesses and love of pleasure, that he might plunge continually deeper in the pool of vice, and leave to them the government of the state. For the rest, the Pompadour used her position and her influence with a certain dignity, and with tact and discretion; but when the countess Du Barry, a woman from the very dregs of the people, occupied her place, the court lost all authority and respect.

When Louis XV, in consequence of his excesses, was carried off in the midst of his sins by a frightful distemper, the treasury was exhausted, the country in debt, credit gone, and the people oppressed by their burdens.

It was under these melancholy circumstances, that an absolute throne descended to a prince who certainly possessed the best of hearts, but a weak understanding; who was good-natured enough to wish to relieve the condition of the people, but possessed neither strength nor intellect for efficient measures. This prince was Louis XVI. Weak and indulgent, he allowed the frivolity and extravagance of his brothers, the count of Provence (afterwards Louis XVIII), and the count of Artois (Charles X) and permitted his wife, Marie Antoinette, the highly-accomplished daughter of Maria Theresa, to interfere in matters of state, and to exert a considerable, influence upon the court and government. The queen, by her pride and haughty bearing, incurred the dislike of the people, so that they ascribed every unpopular measure to her influence, and put a bad construction upon every liberty she allowed herself in private.

The prevailing want of money, and the disordered state of the revenue, could only be remedied by including the nobility and clergy in the taxation, by large reforms in the whole system of government, like those proposed by Turgot and Malesherbes, and by order and economy in the expenditure. But Louis XVI had neither strength nor resolution to carry out such decisive measures; and as for economy, the extravagant court of Versailles would not listen to it. The Genevese banker, Necker, who undertook the management of the finances after Turgot, was as little in a position as his predecessor to reduce the disorder in the state economy; and when, upon the occasion of a loan, he exposed the financial condition of France in a pamphlet, he drew upon himself the displeasure of the court and the aristocracy to such a degree, that he was obliged to resign his office. This happened at a time when the American war had increased the scarcity of money, and aroused the feeling of liberty and republicanism in France. It was, therefore, a great misfortune for the French monarchy, that just at this critical moment the frivolous and extravagant Calonne undertook the management of the finances. This man departed from the frugal plan of Necker, acceded to the wishes of the queen and the necessities of the princes and courtiers, and deluded the world with high-sounding promises of putting an end to all difficulties. The most splendid festivals were celebrated in Versailles, and the talents of Calonne loudly extolled. But his means, also, were soon exhausted.

The popular favorite Necker, was a second time summoned, in 1788, to the ministry. He first allayed the irritation by repealing resolutions against the parliament, and then made preparations for summoning the Estates. Owing to this, there soon arose a division between him and the parliament and Notables, whom he had again consulted. The latter were of opinion that the new assembly should conform itself, both as to the number of representatives and the mode of procedure, to the Estates of 1614, while Necker wished to allow a double representation to the third Estate, and that they should vote individually, and not as a class; a view that was supported by some of the ablest writers of the nation in a multitude of pamphlets. (Abbé Sieyes: 'What is the third Estate?') Necker's opinion triumphed. An order of the king fixed the number of noble and ecclesiastical members at 300 each, that of the citizens at 600, and appointed the following May as the time of opening. Necker was the hero of the day, but he was not the pilot of the ship, he only 'drove the wind. '