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The Ancien Regime

By a singular privilege nothing important has happened in Europe in which France has not had a part; no great political or social experiment has been attempted without her; her history recapitulates and sums up the history of modern civilisation. Originally one found only in Gaul a confused mixture of foreign peoples, strangers to each other, Iberians and Gaels, Cimbri and Teutons, Greeks and Italians, dominated by the old Celtic race. And it required the genius of Caesar and his ten legions to conquer and subdue them. Rome organised the chaos for the first time. But this empire, for which her poets claimed eternity, crumbled to pieces under the accumulated vices of her government.

The centralized government of France was by no means a creation of the 19th century, but a production of the Ancien Regime. Since the days of Richelieu, ministers of finance and their intendants and delegates had taken the exclusive charge of police of every kind, public works and plans, the economic and spiritual welfare of the people. The elementary principles of political liberty and parliamentary constitution, of independent local administration and commercial freedom, were destroyed thereby.

Privileges were once the reward of political service done by the heads and leaders of the people in their own territories. Then, the landlord lived in the midst of his dependents-his own interest was identical with their welfare, he was linked with them by natural and traditional ties, and appeared as their powerful advocate whenever the State attempted any arbitrary and oppressive measure. Now bureaucratic government divided the landowners from the people, and by the unjustified continuance of their'privileges set the two henceforth in opposition. For because the nobleman paid no taxes, the burgher and farmer had to make up the deficit. Because he retained the right of chase, his game had to be fed on the crops of his tenants. If a not inconsiderable number of the higher middle classes gained the special privileges of nobility, the burthens of the rest of the people were only increased thereby.

After the State, the Churph, and the landlord had received their rates, the share of the farmer in the proceeds of his land never amounted to more than a half, and often his taxes rose to eighty per cent. of his income. On the other hand, the privileged classes paid at least a fifth less than the just proportion, and knew how to obtain on a yearly average at least a hundred millions in the shape of presents, pensions, &c. With increasingly few exceptions, there was no more thought of any care to be taken of the lower classes by the higher. Prelates and magnates streamed towards Versailles; all that the peasants knew of them was from their unmerciful agents coming for rent and taxes. Thus France fell asunder into two worlds without, unfortunately, any reciprocal knowledge or common interest, divided by contempt and hatred-worlds that lived on side by side, the smaller in wealth, enjoyment, elegance, and luxury, and, above all, brilliant idleness; the larger in poverty, wretchedness, ignorance, savagery, and, above all, in ever-growing and devouring bitterness of heart-a condition such as no other nation of Christian Europe had ever before come to.

The brilliant and empty position of the higher class led step by step to ruin. These distinguished personages had no earnest and strenuous activity; to be civil officials appeared to the majority of them below their dignity. They adopted the army as a mere sphere of chivalrous adventure, for even there, there was no question for them of rigid discipline; they left the drilling and care of their troops to subalterns and sergeants. Bishops and abbots drew immense revenues, and gallantly offered their devotion to fair dames, but as to divine services and cure of souls, they were the affair of needy priests and hungry vicars. The only field for their ambition and interest was the Court, the salon, good society. To shine there was the object of their distinguished lives. And as the French people have ever been largely endowed with grace and esprit, these efforts resulted in a perfection of personal appearance, a virtuoso-ship of social intercourse, a fixed and yet highly elastic code of bon ton, such as the world never saw before or since. Until then the first class of a great nation had never been known to make the formation of an exquisite society its highest, nay, its only life-purpose, to subordinate and sacriBce mental activity, moral strength, and individuality of character to the promotion and claims of this cultus. Here the final end of existence was enjoyment in all imaginable degrees, and thought and action were rigidly directed to it. That the greatest part of life should be spent in society was the most pressing requirement of politeness, the reciprocal recognition without which all society becomes unendurable.

The conventional forms in which this recognition clothed itself became the law of this great world, and the consequences were felt on all sides. Any appearance of individual peculiarity or opinion came to be held unfitting; to be other or better than the rest was an offence against manners. Equally forbidden was the manifestation of any strong passion, a thing by its very nature opposed to the sway of conventionality. Vice therefore was excused if it presented itself gracefully, and almost honoured if it brought a startling and exciting variety into the monotony of daily life. Mental enjoyments were as welcome as sensual, provided they could be had without trouble or labour, for the aim was not to be informed, but amused, and so any kind of knowledge was good, with the exception of the tedious. Hence it followed that all mental acquirement was estimated not by the worth of its content but the excellence of its form : abstract intelligence in the service of enjoyment, such was the motto of this society. Genial originality, unconscious creative power, native vigour, were thoroughly antipathetic there, or only tolerated in so far as they made themselves subservient to the ruling mood.

Spiritual and temporal magnates had been almost sovereigns in the districts in which they fulfilled the duties of government, preserved internal and external peace, protected local interests, and consequently imposed taxes and corvees upon their dependents, while often successfully resisting royal aggression-all these magnates were now as unconditionally as the mass of the people subjected to the royal bureaucracy and forced out of all political activity-thenceforth, as hated parasites, they had to live at the cost of the working people.

The King, therefore, assembled them at his Court, where, in compensation for their loss of liberty and honour, pensions and presents-always at the cost of the people-were heaped upon them. Thus the popular hatred went on intensifying with every generation, and was at length the source and essential element of the great Revolution.

The Fatal Three is the term for the fact that the succession of three brothers has been singularly fatal in France. The Capetian dynasty terminated with the three succeeding brothers (sons of Philippe IV. le Bel), viz. Loui sX., Philippe V., and Charles IV. The Valois line came to an end by the succession of the three sons of Henri II, viz. Francois II., Charles IX., and Henri III. Similarly, the Bourbon dynasty terminated with the three sons of Louis the Dauphin, viz. Louis XVI., Louis XVTII., and Charles X. The empire also consisted of Napoleon I, Napoleon II, and Napoleon III.

Still the historian should not forget the actual achievements of this great bureaucracy. Under Colbert's guidance it created the civic order and economical beginnings of modern France. It, for the first time in France, rendered throughout a century a burghers' war an impossible thing, and it stimulated internal traffic by roads and canals, which gave rise to countless industrial and commercial undertakings. Later, under Turgot and Necker, it waged, on behalf of the people, war against the pressure of privileges, thought primarily of reform and progress, and saw with bitter regret the defeat of its popular efforts by the opposition of the nobles.

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