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ART. III. -Memoires relatifs a l'Histoire de France, pendant
le 18mo. Siecle. Svo. Paris : 1846. Didot.
IN some histories, as the Roman and the English, it is difficult to fix the precise limits of any particular epoch. The stream of each peculiar movement, whether monarchical, aristocratic, or popular, is heard rumbling in its caverns long before it breaks into light; the elements of all three are constantly present, however subdued their form ; and they manifest themselves from time to time, as circumstances arise to develop them, without ever startling the reader by any change which he might not fairly have anticipated. In consequence, the course of events goes on from the commencement to the end just as a philosopher would have it; each event due to some particular cause inherent in the political frame; and each change dependent on principles strongly rooted, and decided in their operations as due to feelings equally strong and decided in the nation itself.
By its own natural growth, and little disturbed by foreign influences, the body politic grows into maturity or sinks into decay.
In other nations, as the Greek and the French, the uncertainty of the national character has made the history equally uncertain. Events succeed each other with an Oriental inconsequence: piquant and changeful, their annals amuse the general reader, but they sadly perplex the philosopher. The march of extraneous ideas and circumstances, acting upon national tendencies without fixedness or stability, is constantly interrupting the natural development of causes. A strong line of demarcation is thus drawn between one period and another, as those extraneous circumstances have found the opportunity of pouring into the nation their whole influence—an influence before altogether excluded and then suddenly admitted. In the Greek history, a nation at the height of prosperity in the one page becomes powerless in the next, and the reader has some difficulty in tracing the circumstances which have led to the change, or finding occurrences sufficiently definite to account for it. In France, the life of a single individual usually determines a complete epoch: at his death everything is changed, as fresh ideas let suddenly into the nation urge in a new direction its feelings and prejudices--sometimes raising them to the highest enthusiasm-sometimes depressing them to the most absurd fatuity or the most frivolous folly.
It is thus that, at the death of Louis XIV., the modern epoch commences in France, without any previous signs by which its coming could have been foretold. Until then the age of chivalry was in its glory-latterly in point-lace and velvet, instead of spear and cuirass; but the courtly assemblage of knights and dames was the same as heretofore-idle, brave, and gallant-untainted with plebeian notions or plebeian bloodwithout any principle but honour or any pursuit but excitement. The same, too, was their homage to their master, given as a tribute rather than as a debt, yet none the less rigorously exacted : they knelt, like gentlemen, with a proud servility, as to the chief of their society rather than to their political sovereign. In all the manners and customs of the old court is seen the spirit of the feudal times, modified in form but not in
Louis XIV. died, and within ten years, beings, of whom the great king would scarcely have acknowledged the existence, began to influence the politics of the country. Theorists, philosophers, men of letters, ventured to ask and even to claim attention in the presence of the paladins of the old court. English ideas, as they were called, crept into society in a nation where society was everything; and a loose and irreverent tone respecting high places pervaded the social world, on which the political world was more dependent than it chose to acknowledge. The popular movement, which had blazed forth without fixed meaning or purpose in the days of the Jacquerie and the Fronde, began to assume a definite form : the long-robed men of the parliament, advocates without birth or fortune, ventured to assume a spirit of opposition to the government on every internal question: altogether a change had come over the spirit of the nation ; and yet, how short was the time since the first breath of such a change had rustled in the noble forests through which the old king had disported his pomp and circumstance so magnificently !
Associated with this change from the beginning, and with all the phases of that change to the present moment the sole thread on which the strange incidents of modern French history can be hung together is the house of Orleans. The princes of that house are the incarnation of modern political conduct: men not simply without principle, but almost without the affectation of it, following the exigences of the hour with an obedience so willing that they would seem to have no feelings of their own which they could even make a merit of sacrificing ; adopting the notions of the hour just as they arose without consideration, and abandoning them as they declined without regret. As
public men, loose, undignified, almost ignoble—in private, acute, affable, fascinating—they have learned the habit of giving to their public conduct that smallness of aim and shrewdness in trifles which would be admissible in a clever country magistrate intent on a road bill
, or on marrying his daughter to the heir of the next estate. Too able to be despicable, too unprincipled to be respected, they have been at all times the type of the timeserving politicians of a period without settled notions on any subject, intent only on expedients of the hour. Fond of power -more as increasing their private than their European influence-loving the velvet and jewels of the monarchy rather than the crown or sceptre, they have been satisfied with a useful rather than a respected authority, contented to keep up appearances abroad and to prevent positive misfortune at home. As they have watched the changes of the day, so their fortunes have always depended upon it: they have lived politically from hand to mouth, and their firmest consciousness of power has ever been accompanied with a sense of the possibility of its failure.
These characteristics, by wbich the whole race has been distinguished, are precisely such as would be transmitted by family tradition from father to son. Meanwhile, the circumstances under which they have been placed in power have been as similar as the family character-at all times with a title doubtful or disputed—opposed to the prejudices of ancient statesmen, and dependent on principles adverse to ancient interests. They have been, in consequence, compelled to rely for assistance on other than the old supports or former alliances of the monarchy. Hence their coquetry with the parliaments, their tampering with popular writers, their appeals to popular feelings and excitements; and the consequence of all this-their tendencies towards the only nation which recognises the influence of either parliament, press, or popular excitement. Yet all these alliances have been managed with a jealousy and bitterness which has prevented the alliances themselves from becoming respectable, or the use to be made of them permanent or complete. To make a clever use of each in turn when powerful, and to take a clever advantage of them when weakto allow them just to reach that development which the interest of the moment required, and to sap by petty stratagems the benefit which others would derive from them—such has been at all times their policy. Hence has arisen that series of artifices and contrivances which marks throughout the tact and the paltriness of the house of Orleans, forming the leading feature in their conduct with the same invariable result-a partial success at the commencement, and utter failure in the whole at the
last. Excellent managers of single incidents, they have proved .themselves but sorry conductors of the entire policy of a great country.
The publication of the "Memoires” of the eighteenth century in France is peculiarly interesting at the present moment, when the results of the ideas then introduced are presenting scenes so strange, and of which it is so difficult to foresee the termination. The “ Memoires” themselves—those of Duclos, Marmontel, Besenval, &c.-were sufficiently well known; but their appearance in a popular form ought to give them a circulation among general readers. Written by people of all classes—statesmen, waitingmaids, philosophers, fops--they have all the similarity of the French character, depicting with sparkling vivacity the rouged face of society tricked out in all its finery, yet so rouged and tricked that the languor and hollowness are conspicuous in every feature. It is true of all periods that an accurate idea of the spirit of the age is only to be gathered from a perusal of contemporary histories: it is still more true of the period to which we now refer, of which the ever-varying hues are lost if not caught at once. Memoirs in France take the place of history, because the annals of society are the annals of the nation. We seize the opportunity thus presented us of collecting the most striking traits of a time which has marked the commencement of the modern epoch-a time of which the influence is even yet in its infancy, and of which the continental monarchies have yet to feel the full force, both in their politics and in their habits.
The death of Louis XIV. left the kingdom in a state of disorganization in almost every department of government and society. In the revenue, not to speak of an enormous and increasing deficit—to say nothing of the exemptions claimed by the wealthiest part of the community from payment of taxes almost or altogether, there was in the collection of these taxes a looseness and irregularity more dangerous than even definite exemptions. The collection of a particular tax, claimed by the monarch on his accession, was not finished in the reign of Louis XIV. till within five years of his death. It was a constant practice of the collectors to accept bribes for falsifying the returns of property. Men of influence at court-ecclesiastics more especially-contrived to get a fair rating cut down to onefourth. The names of more than one dignitary of the Church are associated with contrivances of this kind, which exhibit all the ingenuity of a smuggler in cheating the revenue. In the government itself the claims of the parliament led to endless difficulties. The power possessed by these bodies, while analogous to that of our own parliament in enabling them to clog the wheels of the government, rested on a very different foundation. The original privileges of the French parliaments were simply those of administering the law. By degrees, before they administered a new law, they claimed the right of recognizing it, and finished by denying the force of laws not registered by themselves, even when those laws related to the personal government of the kingdom and were in no way connected with the judicial tribunals. Their refusal of recognition was usually followed by some violent act on the part of the government. The parliament protested-were exiled—and finished by suspending their functions, and, by consequence, the course of justice. Suitors complained, inconvenience after inconvenience arose, and the whole kingdom became irritated. Louis XIV., in his more vigorous days, used to settle these disputes in a very summary way.
He assembled the parliament-made his appearance with whip and boots—and registered his own edicts in the faces of the members. But in times when the ruling powers were weakened, and contending parties looked around them for assistance, the parliament added the reality to the claims of power. The consequence of these disputes was an utter uncertainty in legal administration, and the confusion was still further heightened by disputes in the parliament itself. That body consisted of laymen, in the first instance, who held their position by office; and, in the second, of dukes and peers, who held their position by hereditary rank and had but little sympathy with the gown. These quarrels were usually on questions of simple etiquette, but they were not on that account a whit less bitter.
Nor was the religious state of the kingdom more satisfactory. The liberties of the Gallican Church were always talked about ;
one knew exactly in what they consisted, and the illdefined limit between the power of Government and that of the Pope subjected every edict respecting the Church to contention; while these edicts, turning chiefly on points of doctrine, puzzled the secular authorities, who, nevertheless, would not consent to forego the right of decision because they could not understand its grounds. The Duke of Orleans, after a night of debauchery, assembled round him guards and marshals of France to discuss the merits of a bull issued respecting the operations of divine grace! Thus, these questions became a matter of party; and whether the Papal parties prevailed or its opponents, the Church itself became a scene of the most utter disorganization. This was still further increased by the secular ambition of the ecclesiastics, and the influence derived from the