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The Noblesse Under the Third Republic

The Government of the Republic having acted on the fiction that under a regime of which Equality is the official principle no titles can exist, the widest scope was given to private enterprise. Under the Third Republic, the Legion of Honor, though opposed to the principle of equality, was bestowed on the ground of desert, achievement, or service. But nobiliary titles were every year assumed wholesale by French subjects without pretence of meritorious or useful actions, and were in most cases conferred by their wearers. Apart from the theory that, none being recognised by the Republic, all titles of nobility borne by French citizens are irregular, there are a certain number in use in France as authentic, as regularly inherited and as interesting in origin as any in Europe. But so multitudinous are the persons who assume noble affixes according to their fancy, that outside those of the chiefs of ducal houses, no Frenchman but a learned expert can judge whether a title held by one of his countrymen, whatever his social position, be his due heritage or an unwarranted assumption.

The system which the more plausible of the assumers of titles have followed is as follows. A descendant in the male line of a family noble before the Revolution is quite aware that, being the younger son of younger sons, under the Old Regime he would have borne no title without a new creation. But, if he be overscrupulous, he reasons, "Under the Ancient Monarchy I should have been noble ; I should have enjoyed certain privileges; and the only modern compensation for their disappearance being a title I have the right to use one." Not one in twenty of the persons so situated takes the trouble to argue thus.

A man adopts a title, which perhaps his father used irregularly before him, because his friends do likewise. The offshoots of ducal houses set an example in the democratic use of these adornments, and in some of them there are dozens of multiplying younger branches, each member of which styles himself "Comte," and transmits the same designation to all his male posterity in perpetuity. These families, in thus styling themselves, defied tradition and profited from the disorder caused by the Revolution. In provinces where few of the local noblesse under the old Monarchy bore titles, its authentic representatives, perceiving that others with less claim than they to nobiliary attributes assumed them, called themselves under the Third Republic counts or barons for the first time in their immemorial annals.

If the ancient gentry and the cadets of once great houses were willing to take such liberties with the usages of their order, the scions of the Revolutionary nobility of the Empire naturally did likewise; while multitudes of others followed suit who can trace no connection either with the courtiers of Versailles or the magistrates of the Ancient Regime, with Napoleon's soldiers of fortune and functionaries, or with any one who has ever been granted a title by a ruler of France. It is obvious that a man who has some renown in literature or art, or even in industry, could not suddenly announce to the world that he had made himself a marquis or a baron ; but, considering that any French citizen may assume a title with perfect impunity, and that its assumption in time may increase his own consideration, as well as augment the dowries he may demand for his sons when he arranges their marriages, it is surprising that any obscure people of independent means remain in France who have the self-restraint not to endow themselves with these ornamental advantages.

If a monarchy were re-established, the sovereign, whether absolute or constitutional, would have to take every precaution to conciliate all classes of his new subjects, and he would hasten his return into private life if he began to meddle with the fancies of his most devoted adherents. An important supporter of the Comte de Paris related that he knew several holders of palpably home-made titles, who, having offered their fealty to the pretender and their purses to his cause, had received gracious letters from Sheen or from Stowe, commencing "Mon cher Comte" or "Mon cher Marquis," and signed "Philippe." These the recipients treated as patents of nobility not less authentic than those whereby Charles IX and Henry IV respectively, conferred the dukedoms of Thouars and of La Tremoille on the ancestor of the titulary of those ancient fiefs.

It is more surprising that the Government of the Republic had taken no step to curb the irregularity which it connives at by a paradoxical application of the doctrine of Equality. The fiction is that titles borne by French subjects have no existence, so to recognise them even for the purpose of limiting their use would bring them into being and infringe the principle of equality.

The Government of the Republic does, however, recognise titles. In the official lists of the Legislative Chambers a member is invested with any nobiliary rank he likes to give himself. There are also many of the diplomatic servants of the Republic who bear titles which are formally confirmed by their Government in the documents accrediting them to foreign courts. Moreover, when the President visits the provinces in state he is accompanied by functionaries of the Protocole, the power which regulates the ceremonial etiquette of the Republic, some of whom in the official account of the solemnities are formally described as noblemen. Therefore the Republic cannot repudiate its responsibility, which is grave for a reason not often recognised.

The objection to the unlimited multiplication of titles at the will of the wearers is not merely a sentimental regret that a large section of the nation should bring ridicule on dignified or picturesque traditions by following the example of Italy or Spain or other countries which, even though they have sovereigns to regulate such matters, ought not to be looked to by France for social guidance. The system is objectionable on economical as well as on social grounds. Each year it increases a section of the community which adds nothing to the resources of the country, while it debases the national standard of intelligence.

It is not true that the Republic has entirely precluded bearers of noble names from illustrating honorable pursuits. In the army there were young officers belonging to noble families who are said to give remarkable promise, but in time of peace such military reputation is unknown to the public. It should be said that no officer in the French service, until he has passed the rank of Colonel, was permitted to use any nobiliary title, authentic or otherwise. But superior officers of distinction rarely avail themselves of the faculty, such affixes being regarded in France as of less prestige than high combatant titles. Marshal MacMahon was scarcely ever called Duc de Magenta, though he won that title on the battle-field. General Davout, in whose favour Napoleon III revived the title conferred on his uncle by Napoleon after Jena, sometimes called himself Duc d'Auerstaedt when a General of Division under the Third Republic, and there was every reason for maintaining on the army list its glorious tradition. On the other hand, General de Galliffet let his more ancient title of Marquis fall into disuse.

The policy of the Republic in keeping out of the public service those suspected of noble lineage is an excuse pleaded for the useless lives of persons so disqualified; but though young men of gentle birth or pretensions may, for their reactionary opinions, have thus been prevented from earning a pittance in the huge army of functionaries, they have not been debarred from paths of renown in the liberal professions, in letters, or in science, or indeed in the career of politics. Since the Republic was governed by Republicans, the only department of the State in which distinction has been gained is that of Foreign Affairs, wherein the employment of men of good social position has not, for obvious reasons, been discouraged.

In the very numerous class claiming nobility, whether authentic or doubtful, ancient or modern, it would be difficult to cite, at the end of the nineteenth century, the names of six men born in the latter half of it who are known to fame or are believed to show promise. The fact is the more lamentable as attractive youths of this class on leaving school, before they sink into a pitiful existence of futility, from which the profession of arms seems to be the only way of escape, often display intelligent qualities which ought to foretoken a bright and honourable future.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:58:21 ZULU