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Chapter 7:

The cabinet of Louis Sixteenth.

July—August, 1774.

in France, Louis the Sixteenth had selected minis-
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ters, of whom a part only were disposed to take advantage of the perplexities of England; but they were the more likely to prevail from the unsteadiness of the administration, which sprung from his own character and made his life a long equipoise between right intentions and executive feebleness. His countenance, seeming to promise probity, betrayed irresolution. In manner he was awkward and embarrassed, and even at his own court ill at ease. His turn of mind was serious, inclining even to sadness; and his appearance in public did not accord with his station or his youth. He had neither military science, nor martial spirit, nor gallant bearing; and in the eyes of a warlike nation, which interpreted his torpid languor as a want of courage, he was sure to fall into contempt.

In the conduct of affairs, his sphere of vision was narrow; and he applied himself chiefly to details [87] or matters of little importance. Conforming to the

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public wish, he began by dismissing the ministers of the late king, and then felt the need of a guide. Marie Antoinette would have recalled Choiseul, the supporter of an intimate friendship between France and Austria, the passionate adversary of England, the prophet and the favorer of American independence. But filial respect restrained the king, for Choiseul had been his father's enemy. He turned to his aunts for advice; and their choice fell on the Count de Maurepas from their regard to his experience, general good character, and independence of the parties at court.

Not descended from the old nobility, Maurepas belonged to a family which, within a hundred and fifty years had furnished nine secretaries of state. He had himself held office in the last days of Louis the Fourteenth; and had been sent into retirement by Louis the Fifteenth for writing verses that offended the king's mistress. At the age of seventy-three, and after an exile of twenty-five years, he was still as he had been in youth, polite, selfish, jealous, superficial, and frivolous. Despising gravity of manner and airs of mystery as ridiculous, and incapable of serious passion or profound reflection, he charmed by the courtesy and ease of his conversation. He enjoyed the present moment, and was careless of the future which he was not to share; taking all things so easily, that age did not wear him out. Full of petty artifice in attack, of sly dexterity in defence, he could put aside weighty objections by mirth and laugh even at merit, having no faith in virtues that were difficult, and deriding the love of country as a vain boast or a [88] stratagem to gain an end. With all the patronage of

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France in his gift, he took from the treasury only enough to meet his increased expenses, keeping house with well-ordered simplicity, and at his death leaving neither debts nor savings. Present tranquillity was his object, rather than honor among coming generations. He was naturally liberal, and willing that the public good should prevail; but not at the cost of his repose, above all, not at the risk of his ascendency with the king. A jealousy of superior talents was his only ever wakeful passion. He had no malignity, and found no pleasure in revenge; when envy led him to remove a colleague who threatened to become a rival, he never pursued him with bitterness, or dismissed him to exile. To foreign ambassadors he paid the attentions due to their rank; but the professions which he lavished with graceful levity, had such an air of nothingness, that no one ever confided in them enough to gain the right of charging him seriously with duplicity. To men of every condition he never forgot to show due regard, disguising his unfailing deference to rank by freedom of remark and gaiety. He granted a favor without ever showing the despotism of a benefactor; and he softened a refusal by reasons that were soothing to the petitioner's selflove. His administration was sure to be weak, for it was his maxim never to hold out against any one who had power enough to be formidable, and he wished to please alike the courtiers and public opinion; the nobility and the philosophers; those who stickled for the king's absolute sway, and those who clamored for the restoration of parliaments; those who wished [89] a cordial understanding with England and those who
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favored her insurgent colonies.

Louis the Sixteenth was looking for an experienced and firm guide to correct his own indecision; and he fell upon a complacent, well-mannered old gentleman, who had the same fault with himself, and was only fit to give lessons in etiquette, or enliven business by pleasantry. Yet the king retained Maurepas as minister more than seven years without a suspicion of his incompetency. No statesman of his century had a more prosperous old age, or such felicity in the circumstances of his death, which happened at the moment of his king's greatest domestic happiness in the birth of a son, and amidst the shouts of France for the most important victory of the century, achieved during his administration.

Declining a special department, Maurepas, as the head of the cabinet, selected his own associates, choosing men by whom he feared neither to be superseded nor eclipsed. To the Count de Vergennes was assigned the department of foreign affairs. The veteran statesman, then fifty-seven years old, was of plebeian origin, and married to a plebeian; unsupported by the high nobility and without claims on Austria or Marie Antoinette. His father had been president of the parliament at Dijon. His own diplomatic career began in 1740, and had been marked by moderation, vigilance, and success. He had neither the adventurous daring, nor the levity of Choiseul; but he had equal acquaintance with courts, equal sensitiveness to the dignity of France, and greater self-control. He was distinguished among ministers as indefatigably laborious, conducting affairs with method, [90] rectitude, and clearness. He had not the rapid intui-

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tions of genius, but his character was firm, his mode of thinking liberal, and he loved to surround himself with able men. His conversation was reserved; his manner grave and coldly polite. As he served a weak king, he was always on his guard, and to give a categorical answer was his aversion. Like nearly every Frenchman, he was thoroughly a monarchist; and he also loved Louis the Sixteenth, whose good opinion he gained at once and ever retained. Eleven years before, he had predicted that the conquest of Canada would hasten the independence of British America, and he was now from vantage ground to watch his prophecy come true.

The philosophers of the day, like the king, wished the happiness of the people, and public opinion required that they should be represented in the cabinet. Maurepas complied, and in July, 1774, the place of minister of the marine was conferred on Turgot, whose name was as yet little known at Paris, and whose artlessness made him even less dangerous as a rival than Vergennes. ‘I am told he never goes to mass,’ said the king, doubtingly, and yet consented to the appointment. In five weeks, Turgot so won upon his sovereign's good will, that he was transferred to the ministry of finance. This was the wish of all the philosophers; of D'Alembert, Condorcet, Bailly, La Harpe, Marmontel, Thomas, Condillac, Morellet, and Voltaire. Nor of them alone. ‘Turgot,’ said Malesherbes, ‘has the heart of L'Hopital, and the head of Bacon.’ His purity, moreover, gave him clearsightedness and distinctness of purpose. At a moment when everybody confessed that reform [91] was essential, it seemed a national benediction that

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a youthful king should intrust the task of amendment to a statesman, who preserved his purity of nature in a libertine age, and joined unquestioned probity to comprehensive intelligence and administrative experience.

The annual public expenses largely exceeded the revenue, and extortions to meet the deficit fell on the humble and the weak. Yet the chief financial officers grew enormously rich, and were adepts in refined luxury, masking their revels by an affectation of philosophy. ‘We are well off,’ they would say; ‘of what use is reform?’ The land tax, the poll tax, the best tithes of the produce for the priest, twentieths, military service, taxes on consumption, labor on the highways, crushed the peasantry. The indirect taxes were farmed out to commissioners, who had power to enforce extortionate demands by summarily sending the demurrers to the galleys or the scaffold.

The protective system superintended the use of capital. The right to labor was a privilege sold for the benefit of the finances, and labor itself was so bound in the meshes of innumerable rules, that manufactures grew up timidly under the dangerous favor of arbitrary encouragement. The progress of agriculture was still hindered by the servitudes of the soil. Each little farm was in bondage under a complicated system of irredeemable dues, to roads and canals; to the bakehouse and the brewery of the lord of the manor; to his winepress and his mill; to his tolls at the river, the market, or the fair; to ground rents, and quit rents, and fines on alienation. [92] The game laws let in the wild beasts and birds to

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fatten on the growth of the poor male's fields; and after his harvest provincial custom-houses blocked domestic commerce; the export of corn, and even its free circulation within the realm, was prohibited; so that one province might waste from famine, and another want a market for its superfluous production.

Out of this sad state Turgot undertook to lift his country. ‘It is to you personally,’ said he to Louis the Sixteenth, ‘to the man, honest, just, and good, rather than to the king, that I give myself up. You have confided to me the happiness of your people, and the care of making you and your authority beloved; but I shall have to combat those who gain by abuses, the prejudices against all reform, the majority of the court, and every solicitor of favors. I shall sacrifice myself for the people; but I may incur even their hatred by the very measures I shall take to prevent their distress.’ ‘Have no fear,’ said the king, pressing the hand of his new comptrollergeneral; ‘I shall always support you.’

The exigencies of his position made Turgot a partisan of the central unity of power; he was no friend to revolutions; he would have confined the parliaments of France to their simple office as judges; he had no predilection for states general, or a system like that of England. To unobstructed power, enlightened by advice, he looked for good laws, and a vigorous administration. He would have no bankruptcy, whether avowed or disguised; no increase of taxes, no new loans; and the king solemnly accepted his financial system. [93]

The vices of the nobility had demoralized the

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army; from the navy there was also little promise, for that department was intrusted to Sartines, who had been trained to public life only as an officer of police. The warlike nation had never had so unwarlike an administration. Maurepas had been feeble, even from his youth; the king was neither a soldier, nor capable of becoming one.

Yet in France the traditional policy, which regarded England as a natural enemy, and sought a benefit to the one country by wounding the other, was kept alive by the Bourbon princes; by the nobles who longed to efface the shame of the last treaty of peace; by the farmers of the revenue, who were sure to derive rapid fortunes from the necessities of war; by the ministers who brooded over the perfidious conduct of the British government in 1755 with a distrust that never slumbered. France, therefore, bent its ear to catch the earliest surging of American discontent. This it discerned in the instructions from the congress of Virginia to its delegates in the continental congress. ‘They are the first,’ observed the statesmen of France, ‘which propose to restrain the act of navigation itself, and give pledges to oppose force by force.’

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