Monday, July 7, 2014

Unbearably Wearisome Final Period of His Reign

Featuring James Cotter Morrison

Previously on Louis XIV Establishes Absolute Monarchy in France

Time: 1661
Place: Paris

Louis' reign continued thirty years after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, years crowded with events, particularly for the military historian, but over the details of which we shall not linger on this occasion. The brilliant reign becomes unbearably wearisome in its final period. The monotonous repetition of the same faults and the same crimes--profligate extravagance, revolting cruelty, and tottering incapacity--is as fatiguing as it is uninstructive. Louis became a mere mummy embalmed in etiquette, the puppet of his women and shavelings. The misery in the provinces grew apace, but there was no disturbance: France was too prostrate even to groan.

In 1712 the expenditure amounted to two hundred forty millions, and the revenue to one hundred thirteen millions; but from this no less than seventy-six millions had to be deducted for various liabilities the government had incurred, leaving only a net income of thirty-seven millions--that is to say, the outlay was more than six times the income.

The armies were neither paid nor fed, the officers received "food-tickets" (billets de subsistance), which they got cashed at a discount of 80 per cent. The government had anticipated by ten years its revenues from the towns. Still, this pale corpse of France must needs be bled anew to gratify the inexorable Jesuits, who had again made themselves complete masters of Louis XIV's mind. He had lost his confessor, Père la Chaise (who died in 1709), and had replaced him by the hideous Letellier, a blind and fierce fanatic, with a horrible squint and a countenance fit for the gallows. He would have frightened anyone, says Saint-Simon, who met him at the corner of a wood. This repulsive personage revived the persecution of the Protestants into a fiercer heat than ever, and obtained from the moribund King the edict of March 8,1715, considered by competent judges the clear masterpiece of clerical injustice and cruelty. Five months later Louis XIV died, forsaken by his intriguing wife, his beloved bastard (the Due de Maine), and his dreaded priest.

The French monarchy never recovered from the strain to which it had been subjected during the long and exhausting reign of Louis XIV. Whether it could have recovered in the hands of a great statesman summoned in time is a curious question. Could Frederick the Great have saved it had he been par impossible Louis XIV's successor? We can hardly doubt that he would have adjourned, if not have averted, the great catastrophe of 1789. But it is one of the inseparable accidents of such a despotism as France had fallen under, that nothing but consummate genius can save it from ruin; and the accession of genius to the throne in such circumstances is a physiological impossibility.

The house of Bourbon had become as effete as the house of Valois in the sixteenth century; as effete as the Merovingians and Carlovingians had become in a previous age; but the strong chain of hereditary right bound up the fortunes of a great empire with the feeble brain and bestial instincts of a Louis XV. This was the result of concentrating all the active force of the state in one predestined irremovable human being. This was the logical and necessary outcome of the labors of Philip Augustus, Philip the Fair, of Louis XI, of Henry IV, and Richelieu. They had reared the monarchy like a solitary obelisk in the midst of a desert; but it had to stand or fall alone; no one was there to help it, as no one was there to pull it down. This consideration enables us to pass into a higher and more reposing order of reflection, to leave the sterile impeachment of individual incapacity, and rise to the broader question, and ask why and how that incapacity was endowed with such fatal potency for evil. As it has been well remarked, the loss of a battle may lead to the loss of a state; but then, what are the deeper reasons which explain why the loss of a battle should lead to the loss of a state? It is not enough to say that Louis XIV was an improvident and passionate ruler, that Louis XV was a dreary and revolting voluptuary. The problem is rather this: Why were improvidence, passion, and debauchery in two men able to bring down in utter ruin one of the greatest monarchies the world has ever seen? In other words, what was the cause of the consummate failure, the unexampled collapse, of the French monarchy?

No personal insufficiency of individual rulers will explain it; and, besides, the French monarchy repeatedly disposed of the services of admirable rulers. History has recorded few more able kings than Louis le Gros, Philip Augustus, Philip le Bel, Louis XI, and Henry IV; few abler ministers than Sully, Richelieu, Colbert, and Turgot. Yet the efforts of all these distinguished men resulted in leading the nation straight into the most astounding catastrophe in human annals. Whatever view we take of the Revolution, whether we regard it as a blessing or as a curse, we must needs admit it was a reaction of the most violent kind--a reaction contrary to the preceding action.

The old monarchy can only claim to have produced the Revolution in the sense of having provoked it; as intemperance has been known to produce sobriety, and extravagance parsimony. If the ancien régime led in the result to an abrupt transition to the modern era, it was only because it had rendered the old era so utterly execrable to mankind that escape in any direction seemed a relief, were it over a precipice.

The End.

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