Remonstrance of Court of Aides (1775)

The Court of Aides was a special chamber of the Parlement of Paris dealing with taxation. It, too, could issue "remonstrances" to protest against royal edicts that it opposed. In this remonstrance, the Court of Aides protests against reforms proposed by ministers to the newly crowned king, Louis XVI. The court argues generally for the right of the "nation"—as represented by the Parlements, naturally—to consent to all taxation. The court calls for greater "publicity" of the debate over taxation, so that a broader group of people could express themselves, as well as the Parlements. Although the crown tried to prevent this remonstrance from being published, it was widely circulated and undermined the new King’s efforts to establish good working relations between his ministers and the Parlementary courts. It also inspired such ministers as Turgot and then Necker to push for reforms of the monarchy from within.


Sire:

As your reign begins, we must make Your Majesty aware of the real state of the People, for their condition is lost in the brilliant spectacle of the court. It may even be that you have been led to form tragic misconceptions about the condition of the rest of the nation from the joy and affection shown by all those who could approach Your Majesty at your accession [to the throne]. . . . This nation, Sire, has always shown its enthusiasm and affection for its masters by making the greatest effort to maintain the splendor of their throne. Your Majesty must at least be made aware of what these enormous contributions have cost Your unfortunate People. . . .

But there is an important truth, Sire, which it is our duty to bring to your attention. Taxes have been levied with impunity upon your subjects under the pretext that they are required in order to strengthen sovereign authority. A league has formed between the enemies of the courts and those who make the People suffer under the weight of arbitrary taxes. In order to replace the magistracy and its services, this league lent their support to its destruction. The sacrifice of the People to their cupidity was the result. . . .

We would wish, Sire, that there were others besides ourselves who could acquaint you with these distressing truths. Why can Your Majesty not abandon today those fatal maxims of government, or just that policy introduced a century ago by jealous ministers, which has reduced all the Orders of the State to silence with the sole exception of the Magistracy? Why is it not possible for the nation to speak for itself about its most cherished interests? Then, Sire, we would most gladly turn over to others the task of informing you of the excesses committed by this very same ministry which wanted to destroy us! But since we alone still enjoy that ancient right of Frenchmen that allows us to speak to our kings and freely protest against infractions of the law and national rights, we must not show our enemies a generosity which would make us guilty before the entire nation. . . .

France, and perhaps the whole of Europe, is burdened with the weight of taxes. The rivalry of the major powers has led them to spend enormous sums at every opportunity. This has made taxes necessary, and these taxes are redoubled due to the enormous national debt contracted during previous reigns. Your Majesty must remember that if your ancestors were covered with glory, the price for that glory is still being paid for by the present generation. . . . .

Those who benefit from your benevolence and magnificence are always before your eyes, while the wretches robbed of their subsistence by harsh taxes go unseen. It has therefore become necessary to compare these two groups in order to see the shocking, but not exaggerated, condition of the People . . . [M]ay you always be a witness to it, Sire! . . .

There would be a definite advantage for Your Majesty, and an immense one for the People, in simplifying the existing taxes and the laws ensuring their collection. . . .

Allow us, Sire, to make use of the term "tyranny," odious as it is. Allow us to dispense with awkward circumlocutions when we have important truths to bring to your attention. The tyranny against which we are protesting today is exercised, without your knowledge, by emissaries of the administration, people totally unknown to Your Majesty. . . . We place the label of "tyranny" only on that type of administration that tends to deprive your subjects of the right of appeal which is so important for them and does not remove from your protection those who oppress the People. . . .

It seems that such a form of government [tyranny] cannot exist in nations which have laws, customs and enlightenment. In civilized countries, even where the prince enjoys absolute power, the condition of the People should be very different. However absolute the authority may be, justice can be rendered by the deliberation of courts bound by fixed laws. If judges depart from these laws, one can appeal to higher courts, and finally to the sovereign. These appeals are possible because all the rules governing authority are written down, recorded, and introduced into the public records, because every citizen can find a knowledgeable defender, and because the public itself is the censor of the judges. And justice is not only rendered to individuals, but also to corporate bodies, communities, cities and entire provinces. And in order to be able to defend their rights, there should be assemblies and representatives.

Thus, in a civilized country, even one subject to an absolute power, there ought to be no interest, either general or individual, which is not defended. All those entrusted with the exercise of sovereign power should be subject to three types of restraint: the law; appeal to higher authority; and public opinion. . . .

Even in the most well-educated country, even during this century which has the most civilized customs, we are threatened with that form of government in which the sovereign cannot be enlightened, however sincerely he may want to be. France, like the rest of western Europe, was once governed by feudal law, but each kingdom has experienced different revolutions since that form of government was destroyed. . . . In France, the nation has always had a profound awareness of its rights and freedoms. Our tenets have been recognized by our kings on more than one occasion, and our leaders have even basked in the glory of being the sovereigns of a free People. However, the articles of this freedom have never been written down, and the real power, the power of arms, which under the feudal government was in the hands of the great nobles, has been totally concentrated in the hands of the King.

Consequently when there have been great abuses of authority, the representatives of the nation have not been satisfied with merely complaining about bad administration. They have felt obliged to demand the nation's rights. They spoke not only of justice, but of liberty. In response to their efforts, the ministers, always quick to seize upon ways of shielding their administration from examination, have had the cleverness to call into question both the protesting bodies as well as the protests themselves. To appeal to the King against his ministers has been regarded as an attack on his authority. . . . The most powerful kings on earth have been persuaded that they must fear even the tears of a submissive People. . . .

1. An attempt has been made to abolish the real representatives of the nation.

2. The protests of those representatives whom it has been impossible to destroy have been rendered illusory.

3. There is a desire even to make such protests impossible. To achieve this end, two kinds of secrecy have been introduced. One seeks to conceal the operations of the administration from the eyes of the nation and from Your Majesty himself. The other hides the identity of the administrators from the public.

. . . The general assemblies of the nation have not been convoked for one hundred and sixty years, and for a long time before that they were very infrequent. We might even venture to say that they had become almost useless because they were not involved in setting of taxes, one of their most important roles. Several provinces had their own assemblies or provincial Estates [called Pays d'Etats]. Many have been deprived of this important privilege, and in the provinces where the assemblies of Estates still exist, their jurisdiction has been restricted within limits which become narrower every day. It would not be an overstatement to say that in our provinces there exists a sort of continuous warfare between the agents of arbitrary power and the representatives of the People, a war in which tyranny makes new conquests every day.

The provinces which had no provincial Estates were called Pays d'Election. There, courts called "Elections" actually existed and were composed of persons elected by the province itself. They fulfilled some of the functions of the provincial Estates, at least in the matter of apportioning taxes. These courts still exist under the name of "Elections," but the name is all that remains of their original purpose. Their officials are no longer truly elected by the province, and those that are, are made to be almost totally dependent upon the intendants for the exercise of the functions remaining to them. . . .

At least each corporate body and each community of citizens had retained the right to administer its own affairs. We cannot say that this right was part of the original constitution of the realm, because it goes back much further than that. It is a natural right, the right of reason. Nonetheless, even this has been taken away from your subjects. . . .

Step by step we have come from the time when powerful ministers made it a political principle not to allow the national assembly to meet, to a time where the deliberations of the inhabitants of a village are declared void if they have not been authorized by the intendant. If a community has to make an expenditure it must obtain the consent of the intendant's sub-delegate, regardless of how small that expenditure may be. They must also follow the plan he has chosen, employ the workers he favors, and pay them as he decides. And if the community wishes to sue someone, its action must also be authorized by the intendant. The community's case must be pleaded before this first tribunal before being brought into the courts of justice, and if the intendant's opinion goes against the inhabitants, or if their adversary can bring influence to bear upon the intendant, the community is deprived of the ability to defend its rights. . . .

However, it was necessary to give the nation some seeming satisfaction when the Estates were no longer being convened, so the kings announced that the courts of justice would take the place of the Estates and that the magistrates would be the representatives of the People. But after having given the magistrates this title in order to console the nation for the loss of its ancient and veritable representatives, every opportunity was taken to emphasize that the functions of the judges were limited to their own region and to matters of litigation. The same limits were also placed upon the right of representation.

Thus, any possible abuse could be committed in the administration without the King ever learning about it from either the representatives of the People (since in most provinces they no longer exist), from the courts of justice (since they are dismissed as incompetent as soon as they venture to speak of administrative matters), or from individuals who have learned from severe examples that it is a crime to invoke the justice of their sovereign. Yet despite all these obstacles, public outcry, a type of protest which can never be totally extinguished, has always been feared by administrators. Perhaps they also fear that one day a king would, of his own accord, demand an accounting of the administration's secrets. Therefore, they wished to make such an accounting impossible, or at least to ensure that one could only be rendered by the administrators themselves, without any risk of contradiction. This is why they have gone to such lengths to introduce clandestine administration everywhere. . . .

Source: Mémoires pour servira l'histoire du droit public en France (Brussels, 1775).