Chateaubriand's memoirs, XLII, 10

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XLII, Conclusion << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XLII, 11

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XLII- Chapter 10
Historic antecedents: from the Regency to 1793

Louis XIV died. The Duc d’Orléans was Regent during the minority of Louis XV. War with Spain broke out, followed by the Cellamare conspiracy: peace was re-established with the fall of Alberoni. Louis XV attained his majority on the 15th of February 1723. The Regent succumbed ten months later. He had communicated his gangrene to France, placing Dubois in Fénelon’s chair, and elevating Law. The Duc de Bourbon became Louis XV’s First Minister, and he had as successor Cardinal Fleury whose genius consisted in his years. In 1734, the war broke out in which my father was wounded before Danzig. In 1745 the Battle of Fontenoy was fought; one of the least bellicose of our kings brought us victory in the only great classic battle we have won against the English, and the conqueror of the world added at Waterloo one more disaster to those of Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt. The church of Waterloo is adorned with the names of English officers who fell in 1815; in the church of Fontenoy there is only a stone with these words: ‘Before this stone there lies the body of Messire Philippe de Vitry who, aged twenty-seven, was killed at the Battle of Fontenoy on the 11th of May 1745.’ No marker indicates the site of the action; but they dig skeletons from the earth with flattened musket-balls in their skulls. The French bear their victories written on their brows.

Much later the Comte de Gisors, son of the Marshal of Belle-Isle, fell at Krefeld. With him the name and direct line of Fouquet was extinguished. The world passed from Mademoiselle de La Vallière to Madame de Chateauroux. There is something sad in seeing great names vanish, from century to century, beauty to beauty, glory to glory.

In June 1745 the Young Pretender began his adventure: misfortunes which I was nurtured on while waiting for Henri V to replace the English Pretender in exile.

The end of those wars announced our disasters in the colonies. La Bourdonnais avenged the French flag in Asia; his dispute with Dupleix after the taking of Madras ruined everything. The peace of 1748 suspended these misfortunes; hostilities recommenced in 1755; they opened with the Lisbon earthquake in which Racine’s grandson died. Under the pretext of some disputed territory on the Acadian border, the English without declaring war seized three hundred of our merchant vessels; we lost Canada: events immense in their consequences on which depended the deaths of Wolfe and Montcalm. Despoiled of our possessions in Africa and India, Lord Clive began the conquest of Bengal. Now, during that period, the Jansenist disputes took place; Damiens was executed by Louis XV; Poland was partitioned, the expulsion of the Jesuits carried out, the court stooped to the Parc aux Cerfs. The author of the Family Compact retired to Chanteloup, while an intellectual revolution took place led by Voltaire. Maupeou’s plenary court was installed: Louis XV left the scaffold to his favourite whom he had degraded, having passed Garat and Sanson on to Louis XVI, the one to read, and the other to execute his sentence.

The latter monarch was married on the 16th of May 1770 to the daughter of Maria Theresa of Austria: we are only too aware of what happened to her. Ministers came and went: Machault, the aged Maurepas, the economist Turgot, Malesherbes of ancient virtue and new opinions, Saint-Germain who destroyed the King’s house and gave out the fatal decree; Calonne and finally Necker.

Louis XVI recalled the Parliament, abolished feudal labour, abrogated torture before sentencing, and gave the Protestants civil rights, by recognising their marriages as legal. Support for American independence in the war of 1779, unwise for France always duped by her own generosity, was of benefit to the human race; it re-established respect for our armies and the honour of our flag throughout the whole world.

The Revolution arose ready to reveal the generation of warriors that eight centuries of heroism had lodged in its side. Louis XVI’s merits could not redeem the faults that his ancestors had left him to expiate; but the blows of Providence fall on the evil, not on the man: God only abridges the days of virtue on earth to prolong them in Heaven. Beneath the comet of 1793, the waters of the deep were unleashed; all our past glories united and lit their last fire in Bonaparte: he brought them back to us in his coffin.