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How absolute was the French monarchy, 1715-1789? (2011) Introduction

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1777 - Emperor Joseph II wrote to mother 'Each [minister] is absolute master in his department but fears to be, not controlled, but displaced, by the sovereign . . . The king is absolute only in his power to pass from one slavery to another. He can change his ministers; but unless he is a transcendent genius he can never be the master of the conduct of affairs'
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Hierarchical administration - decentralisation and relative independence
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King may have 'negative control' - dismissal

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Corporate structures and size of kingdom - limitations

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No common legal code or administrative system, many did not speak French and numerous privileges

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Ideological issues over fundamental national laws and divine law progressive restraint of monarchy
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Escalating conflict between royal ministers, Church and parlements

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Uncertain definition of 'absolutism' - theory v. practice
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Bodin - sovereignty => indivisible + full legislative powers v. also subject to customary law

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Essential instability

Absolutism

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Despotic full control or overall control with limitations
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Perceived oscillation - ambiguous and controversial restraints on monarchy

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Louis XIV - seen as archetypal absolute monarch => centralisation of government through intendants, management of factionalism, no first minister and control of parlements
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Stable ministerial and conciliar system
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Successors failed to maintain centralised control - personal failings and ideology

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Parlements - protection of 'fundamental laws' => inalienability of royal domain, Salic law and Catholicism 'Laws' were expanded by rebellious parlements - Jansenist and Enlightenment ideas Laws and intermediary bodies => absolute but not despotic monarchy further limitation of divine law Louis XIV - undermined ecclesiastical independence but also reinforced connection between religion and politics => Gallicanism not subordination to Rome Miromesnil - king has to be absolute 'to keep all the orders of the state in line, but this absolute authority should have as its object to reconcile everything, to conserve everything and never to destroy everything'
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Clergy and magistrates use limiting notions to frustrate reform =>
deposition

Character

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Strong-willed and decisive monarch - not Louis XV and XVI
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Timid and lazy with little interest apart from foreign policy and vacillation Duke de Choiseul - Louis XV 'would, like Nero, have been enchanted to watch Paris burn . . . but lacked the courage to give the order' Louis XV - debauched court at Versailles, guarded own authority and unwilling to trust ministers => 'secret' foreign policy against official diplomacy Did not want opposition - abandonment of reforms such as Machault's taxation proposals of 1749 Louis XVI - feared opposition => almost immediate recall of Paris Parlement and failed to support Turgot's reforms Louis XVI never took a mistress - no accusations of vice => yet greater of 2 evils in Marie-Antoinette becoming an alternate source of patronage in factional world of politics Louis XVI's indecisiveness and conservatism => seen as epitomising tyranny

Factionalism

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Constantly changing ministers

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Louis XIV had never appointed Court aristocracy to offices of secretary of state - Louis XV regularly appointed them after 1750 => friction with noblesse de la robe who had traditionally dominated these positions

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Louis XIV manipulated court life but XV and XVI were not competent

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Control of secretary of state became a principal goal of Court cabals

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Louis XVI did not look impartial

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Marie-Antoinette gained control over ministerial appointments and patronage Empire

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Much war in the 18th century - only the 1720s were entirely peaceful

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Territorial claims - challenged by finance and failures in foreign policy =>
unpopularity

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Disastrous Seven Years' War => destruction of French fleet by the British in 1759

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1759 - Quebec was taken

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Lost territory in North America, nascent empire in India and possessions in West Africa and the Caribbean

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American War of Independence - brought peace and prestige =>
prohibitive cost

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Louis XV and XVI had absolute control over army until 1788 - yet financially weak Financial problems

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3 major challenges - inequalities in taxation, inefficiency and corruption of treasuries and lack of stable system of public credit
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Dependence on venality and heavy borrowing => higher interest rates than English and Dutch

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Military debts since 1688 => 68% of revenue on repayments by 1789

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Necker - funding American war almost entirely though loans

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War cost 1,066 million livres - 997 million from loans with interest of up to 10%
Great increases in direct taxation - lack of military success => parlements did not register fiscal edicts Failure of campaign to tax clergy - king was not firm enough
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More conflict with parlement Lack of full income from provinces - tax farms were inefficient and went to local treasuries rather than any centralised one Immense lack of governmental stability
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1750-74 - 10 different finance ministers
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L'Averdy - beginnings of pragmatic financial policy yet disgraced in 1769 with reversal of policies in 4 years Aristocracy and parliamentarians disliked reform - against divine order

Venality

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Best example of weakness and constraint of tradition

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Judicial and administrative offices were sold to the highest bidder - public function, revenue and privileges

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1771 - new tax on offices (the centime dernier)

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Harvouin calculated debt of offices as about 600 million livres
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Net annual revenue to king was only about 1%
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Value of offices - 1/4- 1/3 of royal borrowing

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Privilege had a measurable value - monopolies, freedom from taxation etc.
=> if value increased old offices could be revoked and recreated at a higher price
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Greater unpopularity of monarchy - privileges
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Local officials were often difficult to manage - lack of unbiased local information

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Reform was impossible - inordinate cost of reimbursing office-holders

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Reliant on an unstated role of officials - royal financiers => corps had a good credit rating
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Yet dependence on them strengthened them - should have been becoming obsolete in the face of new individualistic forces of taxation

Jansenism

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Began in 17th century - similar to Calvinism with irresistible grace and election

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Repeated papal condemnation => alliance with Parlement of Paris with many converted to Gallicanism

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1713 - Unigenitus => article 91 gave the pope the right to excommunicate the king

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1754 - ex-Jesuit Bishop of Sisteron argued that Jansenists were political heretics more than theological ones

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Manipulation of parlements - proclaimed 'our kings dependent upon their subjects' and 'supreme authority' in the 'corps of the nation'

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Jansenism + political subversion / republicanism - particularly denounced in the 1750s and 60s

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Weakness of monarchy - Louis XIV had arbitrated conflict between magistrates and clergy => Louis XV and XVI did not provide necessary leadership e.g. withholding sacraments
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Parisian diarist Barbier - 'the majority of Paris . . . is Jansenist' May 1753 - king refused the 'grand remonstrances' => magistrates went on strike and were exiled 1764 - expulsion of Jesuits => resolved major theological issues
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Yet royal mismanagement engendered ideologies of opposition

Ideology - despotism and public representation

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Constitutional and ideological legacy of Jansenism - most vocal critics of government

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Promulgation of idea of despotism

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Supported by parlement - became apologists for magisterial intervention in ecclesiastical matters

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Conflict over secular and religious jurisdiction and rhetoric of tyranny removed mystique of divine right monarchy

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At the same time as philosophes' attacks and monarchy's abdication of 'absolute' strong leadership - function of monarchy became a public debate

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Public representation - idea seen as early as 1717 in Remois canon Nicolas le Gros
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Le Paige's Lettres historiques (1753) - parlement was direct descendant of the 'union of classes'

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Embryonic theory of national sovereignty - parlements together form the one indivisible parlement of France May 1788 - Brienne's edicts => Nouvelle conference pamphlets which stated that Parlement existed 'essentially and necessarily with' the king
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Act due to 'constitutional principle' that the king's will alone could 'not make the Law' - 'the agreement of the Nation' was necessary Jansenist polemic - united Jansenism, ecclesiastical and parlementary Gallicanism and constitutionalism

Parlements

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Greatest centre of instability - most significant intermediary body seen to stop despotism
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Perceived as representative bodies - absence of the Estates-General

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1718 - Parlement of Paris to the king 'your Parlement, sire . . . is the only channel by which the voice of your people can reach you'

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Involved with Jansenism - publications such as Judicium Francium argued that the Parlement of Paris was the true parliament of the kingdom

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Demands for greater powers over the monarchical prerogative and representation

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1720 - last real victory over Parlement Paris => exiled to Pontoise due to resistance to financial reform

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Parlement was again exiled to provincial towns in 1749, 1753, 1771-4 and 1788 => yet always ended in concessions

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1751 - Parlement defeated d'Arnouville's tax of 1/20 on all incomes

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1755 - disorganised government scheme to increase power of grand council

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November 1755 - Parlement wrote some of the boldest remonstrances with explicit language of union of classes
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Louis XV - another unnecessary fight => constitutional arguments 1750s - provincial parlements were following Paris May 1757 - Bordeaux said it was the guardian of the 'ancient and fundamental laws' 1763 - Toulouse subverted royal authority by placing the Governor of Languedoc under arrest merely because he had attempted to collect new taxation ordered by government

Intensified divisions

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1765 - La Chalotais, leading magistrate of Rennes, was arrested and imprisoned without trial for 9 years
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Parlements condemned this - remonstrances make union of classes appear to be a reality
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1766 'flagellation' speech - yet case collapsed

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1771 - Maupeou's 'revolution' where parlements were remodelled extensively and their jurisdiction was reduced
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King showed absolute power => yet escalating decline of power as French society rebelled against perceived tyranny

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Diderot - by sweeping away power of intermediary bodies, Maupeou tore away spider's web which hid monarchy's despotic face => major shock to system

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Lack of confidence - second incident in late 1780s

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1787 - Louis XVI wanted Paris to register another extension to the vingtieme reminded magistrates that 'sovereign power belongs to the king alone' and 'he is accountable only to God'
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They protested that he must rule 'according to the laws' - taxation requires consent of the nation

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May 1788 - Chancellor Lamoignon's judicial reorganisation and creation of a new court
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Reminiscent of Maupeou

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Too much conflict for a theoretically absolute monarch The Assembly of Notables

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Callone announced the deficit of 112 million livres - many venal financiers declared bankruptcy

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End of absolute monarchy - failure to reform credit system

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Final loan of 500 million livres - Louis ordered registration on his own authority => Duke d'Orleans protested this was illegal
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'it is legal because I wish it' - Notables saw despotism and refused to register
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When king tried to rely on absolute authority he found it was nonexistent

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Notables to try to enlist public opinion => demand for more effective national representation

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July 1787 - first significant calls for the convocation of the Estates-General

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Widening public sphere - public increasingly influenced by parliamentary criticism

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Foreign periodicals, clandestine pamphlets and remonstrances Belief that government had become arbitrary, authoritarian and unrepresentative

Conclusion

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Rhetoric of despotism and combativeness - pre-emptive defence against tyranny rather than response to actual existence
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Meant that reform was resisted - feared degeneration into despotism

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'Absolute' monarch is not necessarily a despot - is constrained by some laws

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Yet 18th century monarchical absolutism was encroached upon from 3 sides
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Parlements, Jansenism and finance

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Lost 'absolute' nature yet retained superficial absolutist veneer => fear of despotism Lacked necessary financial basis and stable ideological validation Clergy and magistrates had invoked religious and legal standards - denied unaccountability of the crown

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Why was the French monarchy so reluctant to open its finances to public scrutiny? (2009) Introduction

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1660-Revolution only the 1720s were entirely peaceful => fiscal-military state

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Failure to publicise finances yet increased taxation demands

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Debt and continuing warfare

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Various finance ministers - could not fully achieve reform => did not want to publicise situation

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Monarchy faced 3 major financial challenges
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Inequalities in the tax system
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Inefficiency and corruption in the treasury / treasuries that administered tax
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Lack of a stable system of public credit

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J. W Merrick - In theory kingship 'by the grace of God' exempted the French kings from accountability to their subjects
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Contrast to representative Dutch + British states

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In reality, it failed to shelter them from criticism, opposition and even assault in the 18th century

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Debt

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Non-representative states never reveal finances
+ Borrowing Continuing debt from great wars 1688-1713 Beginning of C18th - astronomical state debt of some 2,000 million livres Did not want further rebellion 1710 - introduction of a direct tax on all incomes -> the 'royal tenth' 1763 - national debt at some 2,200 million livres
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Comparable to 1715
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Massive borrowing and a sharp rise in taxation Proliferation of indirect taxes Often obliged to borrow heavily At a financial disadvantage to the English and the Dutch - obtained loans far more easily
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Representative states are much more open - use of negotiation in their politics => more stable + trusted
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No parliament and bad reputation
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Made publicity of finance less advisable e.g. did not want to have to declare bankruptcy Use of extortion and fiscal blackmail - confirmed reputation for bad faith

Institutions + Administration

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Primitive nature of the financial institutions - modern techniques such as bills of exchange, discounting and even double-entry book-keeping came very late to France

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Tenacious aversion to banks in the wake of John Law's spectacular bankruptcy in 1720
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Following John Law, little trust in public finance

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