Monday, June 30, 2014

Take Their Goods and Burn Their Houses

Featuring James Cotter Morison

Previously on Louis XIV Establishes Absolute Monarchy in France

Time: 1661
Place: Paris

A perfect giant of administration, Colbert found no labor too great for his energies, and worked with unflagging energy sixteen hours a day for twenty-two years. It is melancholy to be forced to add that all this toil was as good as thrown away, and that the strong man went broken-hearted to the grave, through seeing too clearly that he had labored in vain for an ungrateful egotist. His great visions of a prosperous France, increasing in wealth and contentment, were blighted; and he closed his eyes upon scenes of improvidence and waste more injurious to the country than the financial robbery which he had combated in his early days. The government was not plundered as it had been, but itself was exhausting the very springs of wealth by its impoverishment of the people.

Boisguillebert, writing in 1698, only fifteen years after Colbert's death, estimated the productive powers of France to have diminished by one-half in the previous thirty years. It seems, indeed, probable that the almost magical rapidity and effect of Colbert's early reforms turned Louis XIV's head, and that he was convinced that it only depended on his good pleasure to renew them to obtain the same result. He never found, as he never deserved to find, another Colbert; and he stumbled onward in ever deeper ruin to his disastrous end.

His first breach of public faith was his attack on the Spanish Netherlands, under color of certain pretended rights of the Queen, his wife--the Infanta Marie Thérèse; although he had renounced all claims in her name at his marriage. This aggression was followed by his famous campaign in the Low Countries, when Franche-Comté was overrun and conquered in fifteen days. He was stopped by the celebrated triple alliance in mid career. He had not yet been intoxicated by success and vanity; Colbert's influence, always exerted on the side of peace, was at its height, the menacing attitude of Holland, England, and Sweden awed him, and he drew back. His pride was deeply wounded, and he revolved deep and savage schemes of revenge. Not on England, whose abject sovereign he knew could be had whenever he chose to buy him, but on the heroic little republic which had dared to cross his victorious path. His mingled contempt and rage against Holland were indeed instinctive, spontaneous, and in the nature of things. Holland was the living, triumphant incarnation of the two things he hated most--the principle of liberty in politics and the principle of free inquiry in religion.

With a passion too deep for hurry or carelessness he made his preparations. The army was submitted to a complete reorganization. A change in the weapons of the infantry was effected, which was as momentous in its day as the introduction of the breech-loading rifle in ours. The old inefficient firelock was replaced by the flint musket, and the rapidity and certainty of fire vastly increased. The undisciplined independence of the officers commanding regiments and companies was suppressed by the rigorous and methodical Colonel Martinet, whose name has remained in other armies besides that of France as a synonyme of punctilious exactitude.

The means of offence being thus secured, the next step was to remove the political difficulties which stood in the way of Louis' schemes; that is, to dissolve Sir W. Temple's diplomatic masterpiece, the triple alliance. The effeminate Charles II was bought over by a large sum of money and the present of a pretty French mistress. Sweden also received a subsidy, and her schemes of aggrandizement on continental Germany were encouraged. Meanwhile the illustrious man who ruled Holland showed that kind of weakness which good men often do in the presence of the unscrupulous and wicked. John de Witt could not be convinced of the reality of Louis' nefarious designs. France had ever been Holland's best friend, and he could not believe that the policy of Henry IV, of Richelieu and Mazarin, would be suddenly reversed by the young King of France. He tried negotiations in which he was amused by Louis so long as it suited the latter's purpose. At last, when the King's preparations were complete, he threw off the mask, and insultingly told the Dutch that it was not for hucksters like them, and usurpers of authority not theirs, to meddle with such high matters.

Then commenced one of the brightest pages in the history of national heroism. At first the Dutch were overwhelmed; town after town capitulated without a blow. It seemed as if the United Provinces were going to be subdued, as Franche-Comté had been five years before. But Louis XIV had been too much intoxicated by that pride which goes before a fall to retain any clearness of head, if indeed he ever had any, in military matters. The great Condé, with his keen eye for attack, at once suggested one of those tiger-springs for which he was unequalled among commanders. Seeing the dismay of the Dutch, he advised a rapid dash with six thousand horse on Amsterdam. It is nearly certain, if this advice had been followed, that the little commonwealth, so precious to Europe, would have been extinguished; and that that scheme, born of heroic despair, of transferring to Batavia, "under new stars and amid a strange vegetation," the treasure of freedom and valor ruined in its old home by the Sardanapalus of Versailles, might have been put in execution. But it was not to be.

Vigilant as Louis had been in preparation, he now seemed to be as careless or incompetent in execution. Not only he neglected the advice of his best general, and wasted time, but he did his best to drive his adversaries to despair and the resistance which comes of despair. They were told by proclamation that "the towns which should try to resist the forces of his majesty by opening the dikes or by any other means would be punished with the utmost rigor; and when the frost should have opened roads in all directions, his majesty would give no sort of quarter to the inhabitants of the said towns, but would give orders that their goods should be plundered and their houses burned."

Continued on July 2, 2014

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