Tension between Rich and Poor

The Marquis de Mirabeau, a well–educated nobleman, worried about the migration of French nobles to the cities and the passing of lands into the hands of "new men," wealthy commoners without a sense of paternal obligation toward the peasants on that land. In a 1756 treatise entitled The Friend of Men, or Treatise on Population, he expressed concern about rising tensions between wealthy landowners and poor peasants, which he thought signaled a decline in morality.


By the simple act of giving work to poor people, the resident seigneurs did an infinite amount of good. We are all familiar with the habit of continually giving presents to one’s seigneurs, and know that this impulse was so strong that it took on near manic proportions. But in my lifetime alone I have seen this habit virtually die out, and rightfully so. In this life every good deed must be related to something, and if the scales are weighted, the heavier side is naturally the stronger. The seigneur is no longer good for anything, and so it is in the normal order of things for him to be forgotten by the people, just as he has forgotten them. And it cannot be said that this is a carry-over over from the former system of servitude, for this would either be completely erroneous or said in bad faith. In the areas where giving presents is still practiced, the good people, even the poorest amongst them, would be mortified should their presents be refused or should the seigneur tried to pay them back by offering them a present of equal or greater value. I have witnessed this a hundred times.

What remains of the tyranny dating from our fathers’ time demonstrates that, at a minimum, the peasants knew the seigneur just as he knew them. And whatever one’s opinion may be of human malevolence, an axiom that has been accepted and proven by experience is that those who know us and have worked with us will deal with us more fairly that those to whom we are total strangers. The principle of dulcis amor patriae is based on the truth of this adage. Consequently, when nobody knows his seigneur anymore, everyone will steal from him—which is completely natural.

Another reason, closely related to the former, is that fiefs are constantly being transferred to new owners. A country is never more secure than when its constitution perpetuates succession within the same family. The same can be said, on a smaller scale, for each of the members making up that state. I am not dealing with political considerations here; rather, I am working humbly in the countryside. But in passing I cannot resist saying that, all other things being equal, respect for the old system maintains an orderly hierarchy among the rural inhabitants. I have seen examples of communities that have purchased their rights from their seigneur who was trying to sell them, only to give themselves back to him. I have seen hundreds of people who were saddened by the mere rumor of such a change, and even more who were tranquil and obedient with their old seigneur, but entered into all sorts of lawsuits with the new. And people are much more ready to turn to litigation if the new seigneur is the grandson of a certain Jacques, with the last name of Lafontaine, who cannot claim that his father had a title when he had purchased the land. Peasants have a fine ear and a good memory, and they constantly repeat that their seigneur is no better than they are. If he is wealthier, it is only because he knew more about making money. As for all his additional income, he is welcome to eat two dinners.

A final reason for the discrediting of land ownership in France, but one infinitely less problematic than all the others, is the high interest rate on money. Sloth, a sister of luxury… is the reason why all its adherents prefer a fixed interest that can be collected by a lackey when it comes due, to all the thought and supervision that would have to be given to working the land. They prefer their peace and quiet to the benefits that could be derived from time, industriousness, and stability. The higher the interest rates on their money, the less these latter advantages are apt to be appreciated.

The prosperity of a state is also harmful to agriculture if it fosters a set of values, based on lavishness and spectacle, which brings about a disgust and rejection by those in agriculture.

When studying a country in its primitive state of isolation and self-reliance, it is irrefutable that all classes and all men of a state live off of the landowners; this principle is universally recognized. A spring originating in headlands or on high ground fertilizes a region as far as its water can spread. However, a spring that originates in a low lying area only forms a swamp, until it wends its way and is lost in the nearest river, completely useless to the surrounding fields.

I compare the first spring to the landowner who is the keystone of all the surrounding industry. Because of his position he must take the lead in production, for no one has more at stake than him. Should he do so, he invigorates the entire region and protects the isolated farmer. Even if the backwardness of the area does not allow him to have open and educated views, which today is highly unlikely, he will still emit some of the good that is endemic to his very position. If, on the other hand, he is at the center of consumption, he becomes the spring that produces the low-lying swamp, contributing to the inundation of the terrain that was already too wet to begin with.

The luxury enjoyed by the nobility will necessarily exhaust its landed wealth, for we shall see how the yield from even the most fertile land, if it is converted into to luxury goods, amounts to almost nothing. The nobility surrounds the king and tries to persuade him that the state’s riches are meant to be passed from the prince to his subjects, and that the most worthy way to show generosity is to satisfy the nobility. The number of persons seeking favors grows every day. He who receives a pension of 6,000 livres is being given the taxes collected from six villages. The tax revenue, already reduced by the profits skimmed off by the tax collectors, is exhausted by such generosity. The nobility, which, if it stayed at home could be the support, strength, and luster of the state, unwittingly acts as a veritable leech.

Source: Marquis de Mirabeau, L'Ami des hommes ou traité de la population (Paris, [1756] 1883), 62–66, 80–83, 85–88.