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The desire to ease the burdens placed on the people is too praiseworthy in a sovereign and conforms so much with the wishes of your parlement, that the latter could never conceive of dissuading Your Majesty from such a noble and legitimate goal.
But when projects, with such pleasant prospects, lead to real and increased injustices and even imperil the constitution and the tranquility of the state, it is our faithful duty, without seeking to place obstacles in the way of your beneficence, to establish laws against the imprudent efforts being made to commit Your Majesty to a course of action whose pitfalls and dangers have been concealed from you. . . .
Your parlement understood that the edict substituting a universal, indefinite, and perpetual land tax for the corvée, under the guise of the apparent relief it offers the people, could at first glance have seemed a beneficent act inspired by love of humanity. But at the same time, Sire, your parlement was sure that a more careful examination of the edict would reveal to Your Majesty that it represents a policy burdensome even for those whom you wish to help, and contrary to the sense of justice that motivates you.
Justice, Sire, is the first duty of kings. Without it, the rarest of virtue can produce the most unfortunate of results. It is justice that determines the true value of royal actions, and once it has left its mark on a reign, that monarch will forever be revered.
The first rule of justice is to preserve for every man that which belongs to him. This is the fundamental rule of natural law, as well as of the law of nations and of civil government. It is a rule that consists not only of maintaining property rights, but also of preserving personal rights, in addition to those which derive from the prerogatives of birth and Estate.
From this rule of law and equity it follows that any system designed to create an equality of duties between men, even under the guise of humanity and benevolence, would tend to destroy those distinctions that are necessary to a well-ordered monarchy, and quickly result in disorder. The inevitable result of absolute equality would be the overthrow of civil society, which is maintained in harmony only through the hierarchy of power, authority, precedence, and distinction which keeps each man in his place and protects all states of being from confusion.
This social order is not only essential to the practice of every sound governmentÑit has its origin in divine law. The infinite and immutable wisdom obvious in the universe established an unequal distribution of strength and character, necessarily resulting in inequality in the conditions of men within the social order. Despite the best efforts of the human mind, this 'universal law' is found in every realm, in turn maintaining the order that preserves it. . . .
In the assembly created by these different orders, all the people of your kingdom are your subjects, and all must contribute to the needs of the state. But general order and harmony must be upheld even in this contribution. The personal responsibility of the clergy is to fulfill all the functions relating to education and religion and to aid the unfortunate through alms. The noble devotes his life to the defense of the state and assists the sovereign by providing council. The last class of the nation, which cannot render such distinguished service to the state, fulfills its obligation through taxes, industry and physical labor. . . .
These institutions were not formed by chance, and time cannot change them. To abolish them, the whole French constitution would have to be overturned. . . .
In freeing the last class of citizens from the corvée that it has been subject to until now, the edict transfers the burden to the two orders of the state which have never had to pay it. There will no longer be any difference between your subjects. The noble and the cleric become subject to the corvée or the tax that replaces the corvée, which amounts to the same thing.
Sire, this is not a struggle between rich and poor, as some have tried to convince you. It is a governmental question, and a most important one, since it is a matter of knowing whether all your subjects can or should be treated identically, and whether differences in conditions, ranks, titles and precedence should cease to be acknowledged. . . .
It was the descendants of those ancient knights who placed or kept the crown on the head of Your Majesty's forefathers. It was these noble descendents, poor and virtuous, who, for so many centuries shed their blood for the extension and defense of the monarchy, and who, with another kind of magnanimity, have neglected their own fortunes or spent them in order to dedication themselves entirely to the public good. The revenues of these pureblooded nobles are limited to the modest yield of the lands inherited from their fathers which they cultivate with their own hands, often without the help of any servants other than their children. Gentlemen such as these could be exposed to the humiliation of seeing themselves dragged off to the corvée! . . .
Consequently, in reflecting on the law and the constitution of this state, Your Majesty will no longer doubt that this plan, against which Your parlement protests only so that it may fulfill its duty, clearly leads to the annihilation of the time-honored exemptions for the nobility and the clergy, to the confusion of Estates, and to the subversion of the monarchy's constitutional principles.
Parlementary Argument against the Edict Suppressing the Guilds presented to the King at the lit de justice [seat of justice] of 12 March 1776
Liberty is without doubt the principle of all actions, it lies at the core of each Estate, and, above all, it is the life force and primary impetus of commerce. But Sire, this belief, so common today and which is heard from one end of the kingdom to another, must not be understood to mean unlimited liberty that knows no other law than its own vagaries, and acknowledges no rules beyond its own. This kind of liberty is nothing more than a veritable independence which would soon be transformed into unfettered license, opening the door to every abuse. This source of wealth would then become a source of destruction, a source of disorder, an occasion for fraud and plunderÑthe inevitable result being the total annihilation of the arts and of artisans, of confidence and of commerce. . . .
Sire, your subjects are divided into as many different bodies as there are Estates in the kingdom: the clergy, the nobility, the high courts and lower tribunals, the officers attached to these tribunals, the universities and academies, the banks and commercial companies. In every part of the state there are bodies that can be seen as links in a great chain, the first link of which is in the hands of Your Majesty as head and sovereign administrator of all that constitutes the body of the nation.
The very idea of destroying this precious chain should be appalling. The corporations of merchants and artisans form a necessary part of this indivisible whole which contributes to the general security of the realm. Sire, because independence is a defect in the political constitution and men are always tempted to abuse liberty, the law has instituted corporations, created guilds, and established regulations. The law has wished to prevent fraud of all kinds and to remedy all abuses. The law watches equally over the interest of the buyer and the seller; it maintains mutual confidence between the two; it is, so to speak, under the guarantee of the public trust that allows the merchant to display his merchandise before the customer and for the customer to receive it with confidence from the merchant. Guilds can be considered as so many small republics occupied solely with the general interest of all its members. And if it is true that the general interest results from the merging of the interests of each individual, it is equally true then that each member, in working for his own personal advantage, works necessarily, even without wishing to, for the true benefit of the whole community. To loosen the springs that move this multitude of different bodies, to annihilate the guilds, to abolish the regulations, in a word to disperse the members of all the corporations, is to destroy all the various means which commerce itself must want for its own preservation. Every manufacturer, every artisan, every worker will see himself as an isolated entity, dependent only upon himself and free to indulge his often disordered imagination. All subordination will be destroyed, there will be no more checks and balances, and the desire for profit will drive all the workshops. Since honesty is not always the surest way to wealth, the entire public, native and foreign alike, will be the constant dupes of well-prepared secret schemes designed blind and entice them. Sire, do not believe that in our constant concern with the public welfare we are yielding to foolish terrors. Our resolution has been prompted by the most powerful arguments, and Your Majesty would be within his rights to accuse us one day of prevarication if we tried to hide them. Our principal motivation is the interest of commerce in general, not only in the capital but in the entire kingdom, not only in France, but in all of Europe, in fact, in the entire world.