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CHAP. power, which a strong arm could wield with irresist
ible effect, which an effeminate squanderer could not 1774. exhaust. Instead of a sovereign restrained by his May.
equals, and depending on free grants from the states, one will commanded a standing army, and imposed taxes on the unprivileged classes. These taxes, moreover,
it collected by its own officers, so that throughout all the provinces of France an administration of plebeians, accountable to the king alone, superseded in substance, though not always in form, the ancient methods of feudalism.
Like the army and the treasury the establishment of religion was subordinate to the crown. The Catholic church assumes to represent the Divine wisdom itself, and as a logical consequence, the law which it interprets should be higher than the temporal power. The Gallican church owned allegiance to the state ; and when it was observed that Jesuits had inculcated the subordination of the temporal sovereign to a superior rule under which the wicked tyrant might be arraigned, dethroned, or even slain, Louis the Fifteenth uprooted by his word the best organized religious society in Christendom; not perceiving that the sudden exile of the Jesuits and their schools of learning, left the rising generation more easy converts to unbelief. The clergy were tainted with the general scepticism; they stooped before the temporal power to win its protection, and did not scruple to enforce by persecution a semblance of homage to the symbols of religion, of which the life was put to sleep.
The magistrates, with graver manners than the clergy or the nobility, did not so much hate administrative despotism as grasp at its direction; they them
selves had so scanty means of self-defence against its CHAP. arm, that when they hesitated to register the king's decrees, even the word of Louis the Fifteenth could
May. dissolve parliaments which were almost as ancient as the French monarchy itself.
For the benefit of the king's treasury, free charters, granted or confirmed in the middle ages to towns and cities, had over and over again been confiscated, to be ransomed by the citizens, or sold to an oligarchy; so that municipal liberties were no longer independent of the royal caprice.
France was the most lettered nation of the world, and its authors loved to be politicians. Of these the conservative class, whose fanatical partisanship included in their system of order the continuance of every established abuse, had no support but in the king. Scoffers also abounded; but they did not care to restrain arbitrary power, or remove the abuses which they satirized. One universal scepticism questioned the creed of churches and the code of feudal law, the authority of the hierarchy and the sanctity of monarchy; but unbelief had neither the capacity nor the wish to organize a new civilization. The philosophy of the day could not guide a revolution, for it professed to receive no truth but through the senses, denied the moral government of the world, and derided the possibility of disinterested goodness. As there was no practical school of politics in which experience might train statesmen to test new projects, the passion for elementary theories had no moderating counterpoise; and the authors of ameliorating plans favored the unity of administration, that one indisputable word might abolish the complicated
CHAP. usages and laws which had been the deposits of many
conquests, or the growth of ages, and found a uniform
system on principles of human reason. May.
At this time the central power, in the hands of a monarch infamous by his enslavement to pleasure, had become hideously selfish and immoral; palsied and depraved; swallowing up all other authority, and yet unconscious of the attendant radical change in the feudal constitution; dreaming itself absolute, yet wanting personal respectability; confessing the necessity of administrative reforms, which it was yet unable to direct. For great ends it was helpless, though it was able to torture and distress the feeble; to fill the criminal code with the barbarisms of arrogant cruelty; to reserve for exceptional courts every accusation against even the humblest of its agents; to judge by special tribunals questions involving life and fortune; to issue arbitrary warrants of imprisonment; to punish without information or sentence; making itself the more hateful the less it was restrained.
The duty and honor of the kingdom were sacrificed in its foreign policy. Louis the Fifteenth was a tranquil spectator of the division of Poland, and courted the friendship of George the Third of England, not to efface the false notion of international enmity which was a brand on the civilization of that age, but to gain a new support for monarchical power. For this end the humiliations of the last war would have been forgiven by the monarch, had not the heart of the nation still palpitated with resentment. Under the supremacy of the king's mistress sensual pleasure ruled the court; dictated the appointment
of ministers; confused the administration ; multiplied CHAP. the griefs of the overburdened peasantry; and would have irretrievably degraded France, but for its third 1774.
May. estate, who were always rising in importance, ready to lift their head and assert their power, whenever in any part of the world a happier people should give them an example.
The heir to the throne of France was not admitted to the royal council, and grew up ignorant of business and inert. The dauphiness Marie Antoinette, in the splendor of supreme rank, preserved the gay cheerfulness of youth. She was conscious of being lovely, and was willing to be admired; but she knew how to temper graceful condescension with august severity. Impatient of the stateliness of etiquette, which controlled her choice of companions even more than the disposition of her hours, she broke away from wearisome formalities with the eager vivacity of self-will; and was happiest when she could forget that she was a princess and be herself. From the same quickness of nature, she readily took part in any prevailing public excitement, regardless of reasons of state or the decorum of the palace. Unless her pride was incensed, she was merciful; and she delighted in bestowing gifts ; but her benevolence was chiefly the indulgence of a capricious humor, which never attracted the affection of the poor.
Faithful in her devotedness to the nobles, she knew not the utter decay of their order; and had no other thought than that the traditions of centuries bound them to defend her life and name. But the rugged days of feudalism were gone by; and its frivolous descendants were more ready to draw their
CHAP. swords for precedence in a dance at court, than to
protect the honor of their future queen. From her 1774. arrival in France, Marie Antoinette was hated by the
opponents of the Austrian alliance; and even while she was receiving the homage of the court during her first years at Versailles, a faction in the highest ranks calumniated her artless impulsiveness as the evidence of crime.
On this scene of a degenerate nobility and pop lar distress; of administrative corruptness and ruined finances; of a brave but luxurious army and a slothful navy; of royal authority, unbounded, unquestioned, and yet despised; of rising deference to public opinion in a nation thoroughly united and true to its nationality, Louis the Sixteenth, while not yet twenty years old, entered as king. When, on the tenth of May, 1774, he and the still younger Marie Antoinette were told that his grandfather was no more, they threw themselves on their knees, crying, “We are too young to reign;" and prayed God to direct their inexperience. The city of Paris was delirious with joy at their accession. “It is our paramount wish to make our people happy,” was the language of the first edict of the new absolute prince. “He excels in writing prose,” said Voltaire, on reading the words of promise ; “he seems inspired by Marcus Aurelius; he desires what is good and does it. Happy they, who, like him, are but twenty years old, and will long enjoy the sweets of his reign." Caron de Beaumarchais, the sparkling dramatist and restless plebeian adventurer, made haste to solicit the royal patronage of his genius for intrigue. “Is there,” said he through De Sartines, the head of the police, “any