Europe 1789

Map: Europe 1789

Old Regime Provinces

Map: Old Regime Provinces

Bossuet, "The Nature and Properties of Royal Authority"

Reality never matched the popular image of the all-powerful French King. Even Louis XIV, exalted by his own propagandists and many historians as the Sun King, never actually enjoyed that kind of authority. Theories of divine right, which linked the King to God, proved untenable for many. Yet, by the reign of Louis XIV the monarch was no longer a weak power against which nobles were regularly in revolt.

We pick up the story of the French monarchy at the beginning of the eighteenth century, by which time the Bourbon Kings had taken on an unprecedented level of responsibility for ruling all of France. Previously they had shared this task with the higher nobles—princes, dukes, and counts. However, many continued to compete with the crown for authority, from the lords of the manors to municipal and regional governments. Even the King's own officers—especially the judges of the royal law courts—were only partly under the control of the monarchy. So the actual functioning of government was a balance between the King, the royal bureaucracy, and local elites consisting of nobles and non-nobles who made money from the land they owned, professional fees, financial investments (especially in royal bonds), and wholesale commerce.

To a historian, perhaps the most interesting aspect of eighteenth century French politics was a battle being waged among political theorists. In general, those closest to the King favored classical notions of monarchy, such as the theory developed in the late seventeenth century by Jacques-Bénigné Bossuet for Louis XIV, which became known as absolutism. Other eighteenth-century descriptions of monarchy advocated centralizing power in the hands of the King. When the Franks first decided to establish their own government to replace the fading Roman Empire, argued Jacob-Nicolas Moreau, they entrusted the King with all authority.

To spread ideas such as Moreau's, French monarchs published newspapers supporting their actions. In one such periodical, the Gazette of France, the crown took a subtle rather than a propagandistic approach: it never mentioned its opponents and treated royalty with total reverence—even though the news being reported was not necessarily the most important events of the day. But the monarchy's position on its role in society did not always need cloaking. In 1765 Louis XV informed the highest law courts in the land in no uncertain terms of his divine right to rule and his unquestioned authority. Even up to 1787, on the eve of the Revolution, the King told these same judges that he was the "sovereign chief" who held his power indivisibly.

Despite all this royal bravado, the monarchy faced significant challenges —some even life threatening, as Louis XV discovered on 5 January 1757, when a domestic servant named Robert-François Damiens tried to kill the King. Damiens succeeded only in scratching Louis XV with his knife. Not surprisingly, supporters of the monarchy regarded this act as a heinous crime and thought that its perpetrator must have been a madman who should be exorcised from society. But mixed in with the public outcry over the assassination attempt were rumors of plots against the monarchy.

Some said that Damiens had been motivated by criticisms of the King for his involvement in recent religious controversies. Specifically, Louis XV had supported an order by the Archbishop of Paris that priests must deny last rites to those who adhered to Jansenism, a stricter, more ascetic version of Catholicism than the Jesuit beliefs favored by the circle at court. Among those who opposed the King on this question were the magistrates of the nation's chief law courts, the Parlements—which not only heard criminal and civil cases but also were responsible for registering all royal edicts. In their view, His Majesty had violated the traditions of the French monarchy. This broader debate was echoed in Damiens's own testimony, in questions posed by his investigators, and in various pamphlets published about the attack and ensuing trial. For a monarchy quick to deny that any such opposition could exist, the trial of Damiens provided an opportunity to search out (and presumably suppress) all dissidence—even among such unlikely critics as the nuns of the convent of St. Joseph. Finally, having satisfied themselves that Damiens had indeed acted alone, the magistrates of the Parlement ended the entire affair and the life of the would-be assassin, by staging a spectacular public execution.

The Damiens affair demonstrates the monarchy's general problem: religious controversies were stirring up antagonistic sentiments. The Parlementary magistrates articulated historically justifiable and specific criticisms of the crown. Even though they were judges in royal courts of law, the magistrates could protest against royal edicts by issuing "remonstrances," rather than registering them as new laws. Through such protests, which were sometimes printed, the judges could enunciate their views to an ever-growing audience of interested observers, referred to as the "public" or "nation."

In their first responses to the edicts suppressing Jansenism, the magistrates were quite circumspect. Although they attacked not only the clergy's deed but also an edict issued by the royal government, they claimed to be allying themselves completely with the monarch. The judges retained this basic pose of subservience to royal authority, even while defying it, although their rhetoric became more overtly antimonarchical as the long reign of Louis XV brought crisis upon crisis.

The conflict between the Parlements and the King moved to other topics and intensified in 1756, with the onset of a new war with Britain. In the wake of extraordinary expenses and a poor military performance in the Seven Years' War, many began complaining about royal taxes. The Parlementof Paris argued that only its participation in government could restore public confidence in the government and thereby ensure sufficient credit to cover the mounting deficit. These views emanated from a particular version of French history that attributed the sovereignty of the first kings to counsels of nobles (from whom the Parlementary magistrates now claimed descent); thus, by tradition, kings needed the consent of the Parlements to rule legitimately.

The legal battle between one of these bodies, the Parlement of Brittany, and the King lasted from 1765 to 1770. The specific issue was whether the central administration had the right to govern directly in a province that had always enjoyed a substantial degree of autonomy. In the heat of this battle, the judges, supported by the other regional Parlements and by many commentators in the press, defended their predominance in local matters and by implication, the distinct privileges, or "liberties," of each region of France. In response, the King invoked absolutist doctrine.

As relations between the Parlement of Brittany and the King deteriorated, Louis XV eventually recognized that he had to act decisively. In 1770 he selected a new set of ministers, led by the "triumvirate" of chancellor René Maupeou, the Abbé Joseph Terray as finance minister, and the Duke d'Aguillon as foreign minister. These ministers set out to "reform" the royal government. A first step necessitated securing even more power for the King's hand-picked ministers. The Parlements objected angrily: such centralization, they said, would violate the "liberties" of the "nation" to participate in the government through the Parlements and regional Estates. Frustrated by this continual opposition to his decrees, the King dissolved all thirteen Parlements, "exiled" the magistrates, and created new courts.

The crisis did not end until four years later, when Louis XV died suddenly of smallpox and his successor Louis XVI recalled the former magistrates to their seats, setting off a new round of protests. While continuing as before to proclaim their loyalty to the monarchy, the magistrates once again defended their traditional "liberties" against the "reform" plans of the new King's ministers. Amid these controversies, a lesser court responsible for collecting taxes on food and drink also protested fiscal policies, but now these magistrates added an explosive new wrinkle to their objections. In his policy-making decisions, this court claimed, the King needed to rely not just on the Parlements but on "publicity": that is, the views of the "public" in making policy.

Louis the Sixteenth, King of France and of Navarre

Louis the Sixteenth, King of France and of Navarre

Remonstrances of Parlement of Paris against Turgot’s Six Edicts (1776)

Against this century-long onslaught, the monarchy and its supporters managed a response that moved well beyond divine-right absolutism. The writer Voltaire, although not a constant advocate of monarchical rule, nevertheless argued that "enlightened" monarchs with a great deal of centralized power provided the best political model for a country as large as France and one with such a complex society. He made this point in many of his works, including his biography of Louis XIV, which stressed the Sun King's internal improvements.

Other supporters of the monarchy believed that the King alone responded to "public opinion" rather than personal interest, while still others turned to Enlightenment theories of law to assert that monarchs held power "naturally" and thus for the general good. At the same time, successive ministers proposed that the monarchy could improve its governance by instituting proportional land taxes, elective regional assemblies, and cutting the budget. In all these ways, its supporters sought to maintain the monarchy, not just on traditional grounds, but by updating it to make it more efficient and progressive.

Yet the monarchy could not escape being tarnished, especially by clandestine "bad books"—short works generally printed outside France and smuggled into Paris and the other major cities, where they were in great demand among general readers. Some of these works contained Enlightenment philosophy challenging the monarchy or the Roman Catholic Church, while many others made scurrilous attacks on the King's entourage, especially the women in it. Some charged that the King's ministers were despotic and personally immoral, and others even disparaged the royal consorts. A particular target was Louis XV's mistress, the so-called Countess du Barry, who was often depicted as a schemer using her wiles to seduce Louis XV, undermine the government, and shift power to her allies at Versailles.

By the late 1770s, Louis XV had passed away and du Barry was long gone, but not forgotten. The attacks against her were now applied to the new queen, Marie Antoinette, daughter of Empress Maria-Theresa von Habsburg, ruler over Austria and its vast holdings in central Europe. Marie Antoinette had come to France upon her marriage in 1770 to the then crown prince. Their marriage had been intended to consolidate the recent alliance between Austria and France, reversing their traditional enmity in European affairs. Marie Antoinette's presence in the French royal family symbolized this "diplomatic revolution." Since many old-line military nobles took offense at this development — feeling that France should be fighting with Austria rather than striking alliances with it—they resented the "Austrian" Queen. Outside Versailles, in the country at large, the early popularity Marie Antoinette enjoyed as a charming princess faded once she became Queen, in part because her grace and simple elegance clearly overshadowed her retiring, rather plodding husband. In some of the "libels" printed against her, she appeared greedy and seduced by luxury. This impression was most obviously the case during the 1785–86 scandal known as the "Diamond Necklace Affair." 

The public scorn that now greeted Marie Antoinette is reflected in a pamphlet from working women who address her as familiarly as they would one another. Not only could royalty be the subject of this kind of pamphleteering, but members of the administration could also be denigrated in similarly disrespectful ways.

Locked in battle with their detractors, the eighteenth-century kings sought new ways both to exercise and to justify their power. Interestingly, the period of extreme turbulence from 1750 to 1776 was followed by a decade of quiet, with the exception of the attacks on women. A close scrutiny of the documents from this decade might suggest that the debates taking place just before 1789 resembled more closely arguments from the third quarter of the eighteenth century than the decade before 1789.

What can one make of this paradox? It would be reasonable to expect that the whole of the eighteenth century witnessed a rising crescendo of problems for the monarchy, but perhaps that chronology would be overly simplistic. Two possible interpretations present themselves to explain why French politics seemed less rather than more contentious in the 1780s. On one hand, the monarchy may have already become so weakened that there was no point in further debating its power. On the other hand, the King's popularity may have been buoyed by France's successful participation in the War of the American Revolution and the greater efficiency of His Majesty's government thanks to the reforms being carried out by his Enlightenment-influenced advisers. The documents presented here will allow a myriad of interpretations. Indeed, no single interpretation can ever be entirely complete or correct in explaining historical events as important as the outbreak of the French Revolution.