European Statesmen

Play Audio | Get the Book |

The remote causes of the French Revolution I have already glanced at, in a previous lecture. The most obvious of these, doubtless, was the misgovernment which began with Louis XIV. and continued so disgracefully under Louis XV.; which destroyed all reverence for the throne, even loyalty itself, the chief support of the monarchy. The next most powerful influence that created revolution was feudalism, which ground down the people by unequal laws, and irritated them by the haughtiness, insolence, and heartlessness of the aristocracy, and thus destroyed all respect for them, ending in bitter animosities. Closely connected with these two gigantic evils was the excessive taxation, which oppressed the nation and made it discontented and rebellious. The fourth most prominent cause of agitation was the writings of infidel philosophers and economists, whose unsound and sophistical theories held out fallacious hopes, and undermined those sentiments by which all governments and institutions are preserved. These will be incidentally presented, as thereby we shall be able to trace the career of the remarkable man who controlled the National Assembly, and who applied the torch to the edifice whose horrid and fearful fires he would afterwards have suppressed. It is easy to destroy; it is difficult to reconstruct. Nor is there any human force which can arrest a national conflagration when once it is kindled: only on its ashes can a new structure arise, and this only after long and laborious efforts and humiliating disappointments.

It might have been possible for the Government to contend successfully with the various elements of discontent among the people, intoxicated with those abstract theories of rights which Rousseau had so eloquently defended, if it had possessed a strong head and the sinews of war. But Louis XVI., a modest, timid, temperate, moral young man of twenty-three, by the death of his father and elder brothers had succeeded to the throne of his dissolute grandfather at just the wrong time. He was a gentleman, but no ruler. He had no personal power, and the powers of his kingdom had been dissipated by his reckless predecessors. Not only was the army demoralized, and inclined to fraternize with the people, but there was no money to pay the troops or provide for the ordinary expenses of the Court. There was an alarming annual deficit, and the finances were utterly disordered. Successive ministers had exhausted all ordinary resources and the most ingenious forms of taxation. They made promises, and resorted to every kind of expediency, which had only a temporary effect. The primal evils remained. The national treasury was empty. Calonne and Necker pursued each a different policy, and with the same results. The extravagance of the one and the economy of the other were alike fatal. Nobody would make sacrifices in a great national exigency. The nobles and the clergy adhered tenaciously to their privileges, and the Court would curtail none of its unnecessary expenses. Things went on from bad to worse, and the financiers were filled with alarm. National bankruptcy stared everybody in the face.

If the King had been a Richelieu, he would have dealt summarily with the nobles and rebellious mobs. He would have called to his aid the talents of the nation, appealed to its patriotism, compelled the Court to make sacrifices, and prevented the printing and circulation of seditious pamphlets. The Government should have allied itself with the people, granted their requests, and marched to victory under the name of patriotism. But Louis XVI. was weak, irresolute, vacillating, and uncertain. He was a worthy sort of man, with good intentions, and without the vices of his predecessors. But he was surrounded with incompetent ministers and bad advisers, who distrusted the people and had no sympathy with their wrongs. He would have made concessions, if his ministers had advised him. He was not ambitious, nor unpatriotic; he simply did not know what to do.

Next Page