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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Why the Revolution Came
By Adolphe Thiers (1797–1877)
 
From the ‘History of the French Revolution’: Translation of Frederic Shoberl

EVERYBODY is acquainted with the revolutions of the French monarchy. It is well known that the Greeks, and afterwards the Romans, introduced their arms and their civilization among the half-savage Gauls; that subsequently the barbarians established their military hierarchy among them; that this hierarchy, transferred from persons to lands, struck root, as it were, and grew up into the feudal system. Authority was divided between the feudal chief called king and the secondary chiefs called vassals, who in their turn were kings over their own dependents. In our times, when the necessity for preferring mutual accusations has caused search to be made for reciprocal faults, abundant pains have been taken to teach us that the supreme authority was first disputed by the vassals, which is always done by those who are nearest to it; that this authority was afterwards divided among them, which constituted feudal anarchy; and that at length it reverted to the throne, where it concentrated itself into despotism, under Louis XI., Richelieu, and Louis XIV.  1
  The French population had progressively enfranchised itself by industry, the primary source of wealth and liberty. Though originally agricultural, it soon devoted its attention to commerce and manufactures, and acquired an importance that affected the entire nation. Introduced as a supplicant to the States-General, it appeared there in no other posture than on its knees, in order to be grievously abused. In process of time even Louis XIV. declared that he would have no more of these cringing assemblies; and this he declared, booted and whip in hand, to the parliament. Thenceforth were seen at the head of the State a king clothed with a power ill defined in theory, but absolute in practice; grandees who had relinquished their feudal dignity for the favor of the monarch, and who disputed by intrigue what was granted to them out of the substance of the people; beneath them an immense population, having no other relation to the court and the aristocracy than habitual submission and the payment of taxes. Between the court and the people were parliaments invested with the power of administering justice and registering the royal decrees. Authority is always disputed. If not in the legitimate assemblies of the nation, it is contested in the very palace of the prince. It is well known that the parliaments, by refusing to register the royal edicts, rendered them ineffective; this terminated in “a bed of justice” and a concession when the king was weak, but in entire submission when the king was powerful. Louis XIV. had no need to make concessions, for in his reign no parliament durst remonstrate; he drew the nation along in his train, and it glorified him with the prodigies which itself achieved in war and in the arts and sciences. The subjects and the monarch were unanimous, and their actions tended towards one and the same point. But no sooner had Louis XIV. expired than the Regent afforded the parliaments occasion to revenge themselves for their long nullity. The will of the monarch, so profoundly respected in his lifetime, was violated after his death, and his last testament was canceled. Authority was then thrown into litigation, and a long struggle commenced between the parliaments, the clergy, and the court, in sight of a nation worn out with long wars, and exhausted by supplying the extravagance of its rulers, who gave themselves up alternately to a fondness for pleasure and for arms. Till then it had displayed no skill but for the service and the gratification of the monarch: it now began to apply its intelligence to its own benefit and the examination of its interests.  2
  The human mind is incessantly passing from one object to another. From the theatre and the pulpit, French genius turned to the moral and political sciences: all then became changed. Figure to yourself, during a whole century, the usurpers of all the national rights quarreling about a worn-out authority; the parliaments persecuting the clergy, the clergy persecuting the parliaments; the latter disputing the authority of the court; the court, careless and calm amid this struggle, squandering the substance of the people in the most profligate debauchery: the nation, enriched and roused, watching these disputes, arming itself with the allegations of one party against the other, deprived of all political action, dogmatizing boldly and ignorantly because it was confined to theories; aspiring above all to recover its rank in Europe, and offering in vain its treasure and its blood to regain a place which it had lost through the weakness of its rulers. Such was the eighteenth century.  3
  The scandal had been carried to its height when Louis XVI.—an equitable prince, moderate in his propensities, carelessly educated, but naturally of a good disposition—ascended the throne at a very early age. He called to his side an old courtier, and consigned to him the care of his kingdom; and divided his confidence between Maurepas and the Queen,—an Austrian princess, young, lively, and amiable, who possessed a complete ascendency over him. Maurepas and the Queen were not good friends. The King, sometimes giving way to his minister, at others to his consort, began at an early period his long career of vacillations. Aware of the state of his kingdom, he believed the reports of the philosophers on that subject; but brought up in the most Christian sentiments, he felt the utmost aversion for them. The public voice, which was loudly expressed, called for Turgot, one of the class of economists: an honest, virtuous man, endowed with firmness of character; a slow genius, but obstinate and profound. Convinced of his probity, delighted with his plans of reform, Louis XVI. frequently repeated, “There are none besides myself and Turgot who are friends of the people.” Turgot’s reforms were thwarted by the opposition of the highest orders in the State, who were interested in maintaining all kinds of abuses, which the austere minister proposed to suppress. Louis XVI. dismissed him with regret. During his whole life, which was only a long martyrdom, he had the mortification to discern what was right, to wish it sincerely, but to lack the energy requisite for carrying it into execution.  4
  The King, placed between the court, the parliaments, and the people, exposed to intrigues and to suggestions of all sorts, repeatedly changed his ministers. Yielding once more to the public voice, and to the necessity for reform, he summoned to the finance department Necker, a native of Geneva, who had amassed wealth as a banker: a partisan and disciple of Colbert, as Turgot was of Sully; an economical and upright financier, but a vain man, fond of setting himself up for arbitrator in everything,—philosophy, religion, liberty; and, misled by the praises of his friends and the public, flattering himself that he could guide and fix the minds of others at that point at which his own had stopped.  5
  Necker re-established order in the finances, and found means to defray the heavy expenses of the American war. With a mind more comprehensive but less flexible than that of Turgot, possessing more particularly the confidence of capitalists, he found for the moment unexpected resources, and revived public credit. But it required something more than financial artifices to put an end to the embarrassments of the exchequer, and he had recourse to reform. He found the higher orders not less adverse to him than they had been to Turgot; the parliaments, apprised of his plans, combined against him, and obliged him to retire.  6
  The conviction of the existence of abuses was universal; everybody admitted it; the King knew and deeply grieved at it. The courtiers, who derived advantage from these abuses, would have been glad to see an end put to the embarrassments of the exchequer, provided it did not cost them a single sacrifice. They descanted at court on the state of affairs, and there retailed philosophical maxims; they deplored, whilst hunting, the oppressions inflicted upon the farmer; nay, they were even seen to applaud the enfranchisement of the Americans, and to receive with honor the young Frenchmen who returned from the New World. The parliaments also talked of the interests of the people, loudly insisted on the sufferings of the poor, and yet opposed the equalization of the taxes, as well as the abolition of the remains of feudal barbarism. All talked of the public weal, few desired it; and the people, not yet knowing who were its true friends, applauded all those who resisted power, its most obvious enemy.  7
  By the removal of Turgot and Necker, the state of affairs was not changed; the distress of the treasury still remained the same. Those in power would have been willing to dispense, for a long time to come, with the intervention of the nation; but it was absolutely necessary to subsist—it was absolutely necessary to supply the profusion of the court. The difficulty, removed for a moment by the dismissal of a minister, by a loan, by the forced imposition of a tax, appeared again in an aggravated form, like every evil injudiciously neglected. The court hesitated, just as a man does who is compelled to take a dreaded but an indispensable step. An intrigue brought forward M. de Calonne, who was not in good odor with the public, because he had contributed to the persecution of La Chalotais. Calonne, clever, brilliant, fertile in resources, relied upon his genius, upon fortune, and upon men, and awaited the future with the most extraordinary apathy. It was his opinion that one ought not to be alarmed beforehand, or to discover an evil till the day before that on which one intends to set about repairing it. He seduced the court by his manners, touched it by his eagerness to grant all that it required, afforded the King and everybody else some happier moments, and dispelled the most gloomy presages by a gleam of prosperity and blind confidence.  8
  That future which had been counted upon now approached: it became necessary at length to adopt decisive measures. It was impossible to burden the people with fresh imposts, and yet the coffers were empty. There was but one remedy which could be applied,—that was to reduce the expenses by the suppression of grants; and if this expedient should not suffice, to extend the taxes to a greater number of contributors,—that is, to the nobility and clergy. These plans, attempted successively by Turgot and Necker and resumed by Calonne, appeared to the latter not at all likely to succeed, unless the consent of the privileged classes themselves could be obtained. Calonne, therefore, proposed to collect them together in an assembly, to be called the Assembly of the Notables, in order to lay his plans before them, and to gain their consent either by address or by conviction.  9
 
 
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