Chateaubriand's memoirs, V, 1

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book V - Chapter 1
First political stirrings in Brittany – A glance at the history of the Monarchy



Paris, September 1821. (Revised December 1846)

My various residences in Brittany, in the years 1787 and 1788, initiated my political education. The Provincial States presented a model of the States-General: also the specific disturbances that heralded those of the nation broke out in two regions, Brittany and the Dauphiné.

The transformation which had taken place over two centuries came to fulfilment: France having passed from feudal monarchy to the monarchy of the States-General, from the monarchy of the States-General to the monarchy of the parliaments, from the monarchy of the parliaments to absolute monarchy, tended towards representative monarchy, through the struggle between the magistracy and royal authority.

Maupeou’s parliament, the establishment of provincial assemblies, with the vote per head, the first and second assemblies of Notables, the plenary Court, the formation of grand bailiwicks, the civil reintegration of the Protestants, the partial abolition of torture, that of days of unpaid labour, and the equal distribution of tax payments, were successive proofs of the revolution which was taking place. But at that time one could not see the trend of events, each occurrence seemed an isolated accident. In all historical periods there is a driving-spirit. Seeing only one point, one cannot see the rays converging to the focus of all other points; one cannot detect the hidden agent which produces the general life and movement, like water or heat in a machine: that is why, at the start of a revolution so many people think it enough to break a wheel in order to prevent the torrent from flowing or the vapour from exploding.

The eighteenth century, the century of intellectual action, not material action, would not have succeeded in changing the laws so swiftly if it had not come across the right vehicle: the parliaments, and in particular the Paris parliament, became the instruments of a philosophical system. All opinion aborts in powerlessness and frenzy, if it is not vested in an assembly that empowers it, gives it a will, furnishes it with a language and arms. It is, and always will be, through bodies, legal or illegal, that revolutions arrive and will arrive.

The parliaments had reason for revenge: absolute monarchy had snatched from them an authority usurped on behalf of the States-General. Forced registrations, lits de justice (special sessions of the parliament over which the king presided) and imposed exile, in making the magistrates popular, drove them to demand freedoms of which they were not at heart sincere partisans. They called for the States-General, not daring to admit that they desired legislative and political power for themselves: in that way they hastened the resurrection of a body whose inheritance they had already received, which in renewing its existence, immediately limited them to their own speciality, justice. Men almost always damage their own interests when they are moved by wisdom or passion: Louis XVI restored the parliaments which forced him to call the States-General; the States-General, transformed itself into the National Assembly, and then the Convention, destroyed both throne and parliaments, putting to death both the judges and the monarch from whom justice emanated. But Louis XVI and the parliaments acted in that way because they were, without realising it, the means to engender a social revolution.

The idea of the States-General then was in everyone’s mind, only one could not see where it would lead. It was a question, for the masses, of making good a deficit that the lowliest banker today would take it upon himself to eliminate. So violent a remedy, applied to so trivial a problem demonstrated that we had entered unknown regions politically. For the year 1786, the only year for which the financial accounts are well-attested, receipts were 412,924,000 livres, expenditure was 593,542,000 livres: the deficit was 180, 618, 000 livres, reduced to 140 millions, by 40 million 610 thousand livres of savings. In that budget, the King’s household was reckoned at the immense sum of 37 million 200 thousand livres: the princes’ debts, the acquisition of various châteaux and the depredations of the Court were the reasons for that excess.

They wished to revive the States-General as they were in 1614. Historians always cite their form at that time, as if, after 1614, no one had ever heard a word of the States-General, nor asked for them to be summoned. Yet, in 1651, the orders of nobility and clergy, meeting in Paris, called for the States-General. A large collection of the acts passed, and speeches made, at that time, still exists. The Paris parliament, all powerful at that time, far from seconding the wishes of the two senior orders, condemned their assembly as illegal; which was correct.

And whilst I am pursuing this, I wish to note another serious matter that has escaped those who, without knowledge of it, have involved and involve themselves in French history. We speak of the three orders, as essential constituents of the States described as general. Well, it often happened that various bailiwicks only nominated deputies from one or two of the orders. In 1614, the bailiwick of Amboise nominated representatives for neither the clergy nor the nobility: the bailiwick of Chateauneuf-en-Thimerais sent no representative of the clergy or the third estate; Le Puy, La Rochelle, Le Lauraguais, Calais, La Haute-Marche, Châtellerault sent no representative of the clergy, nor Montdidier et Roye of the nobility. None the less the States of 1614 were called States-General. Also the ancient chronicles, expressing themselves in the most correct manner, say, in speaking of our national assemblies, the three States, or the notable personages, or the bishops and the barons, as appropriate, and attribute to assemblies so composed the same legislative power. In various provinces, the third estate, though summoned, appointed no delegates, and for a natural but less obvious reason. The third estate had seized the magistracy; it had driven out the men of the sword; it reigned there in an absolute manner, except in various parliaments of the nobility, as judge, advocate, prosecutor, clerk etc; it made civil and criminal law, and with the aid of parliamentary usurpation, even exercised political power. The fortune, honour, and life of the citizen, was its concern: everyone abided by its judgements, every head bowed beneath its sword of justice. When it enjoyed such boundless power, what need for it to seek a feeble fraction of that power in assemblies where it only appeared on its knees?

The people, transformed into monks, took refuge in the cloister, and governed society through religious opinion; the people transformed into tax-collectors and bankers, took refuge in finance, and governed society through money; the people changed into magistrates, took refuge in tribunals, and governed society through the legal system. The great kingdom of France, aristocratic in its regions or provinces, was collectively democratic, under the leadership of its king, with whom it agreed perfectly, and almost always progressed in harmony. It is that which explains its long existence. There is a new history of France to write concerning all this, or rather the history of France has not yet been written.

All the great questions mentioned above were particularly at issue in the years 1786, 1787 and 1788. The minds of my compatriots found in their natural energy, in the privileges of province, clergy and nobility, in the collision between parliament and the States, abundant inflammatory matter. Monsieur de Calonne, one time steward of Brittany, had furthered division by favouring the cause of the third estate. Monsieur de Montmorin, and Monsieur de Thiard were too weak as commandants to allow the Court party to dominate. The nobility joined forces with the parliament, which itself was noble; now it resisted Monsieur Necker, Monsieur de Calonne, the Archbishop of Sens; now it repressed the popular movement that its opposition had at first encouraged. It assembled, deliberated, protested; the communes and municipalities assembled, deliberated and protested in a contrary manner. The particular matter of the fouage (a feudal tax) by becoming entangled with more general matters increased the feelings of enmity. To understand this, it is necessary to explain the constitution of the Duchy of Brittany.