Bookwatch: French Politics 1774-1789
Philip Mansel looks at a definitive study of ancien regime politics.
French Politics 1774-1789: from the Accession of Louis XVI to the Fall of the Bastille
Longman 283 pp.
The ministerial politics of the reign of Louis XVI is a maze which few historians have succeeded in penetrating. The diaries, despatches and memoirs composed by participants and observers are often more of a barrier than a help, since they were treated as political weapons as well as records of events. Using the unpublished papers of such major figures as Miromesnil, Castries, Joly de Fleury and Vergennes, as well as his doctoral thesis of 1972, John Hardman succeeds better than any of his predecessors.
He describes the functions of the ministries; the circumstances behind the appointment and dismissal of the different ministers; the nature of the councils, committees and conferences of ministers; the powers of leading ministers such as Maurepas, Vergennnes and Necker; and the role of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette themselves. Hardman paints a convincing picture of uncoordinated ministries with competing jurisdictions careering towards a budget deficit - not unlike some modern governments. In 1783 Vergennes, Minister of Foreign Affairs and head of the Conseil Royal des Finances, had to issue financial drafts on his own authority while the King was asleep. In 1787 the Baron de Breteuil, Ministre de la Maison du Roi, helped destroy royal control over the Paris Parlement by intriguing in it against the reform programme of his rival Calonne. The struggle between the two minsters would persist, with dangerous consequences for the French monarchy and nobility, well into the Emigration.
Until 1787 the queen's political power, as opposed to her role as a channel through whom appointments - les graces - were solicited and communicated, was a myth. The fiction that her patronage had secured Castries the ministry of the marine is exposed: he was proposed by his friend Necker. However in 1787 the appointment of Lomenie de Brienne as principal minister 'marked the beginning of her sustained involvement in politics from which Louis XVI had hitherto been careful to exclude her'. Hardmsn believes that she attended ministerial committees.
Hardman provides his readers with many surprises. He shows that the Empress Maria Theresia had opposed the return to power of the pro-Austrian Due de Choiseul; and that in 1787 the Comte d'Artois, the friend of the Polignacs, opposed the political pretensions of the nobility. He also draws a convincing portrait of that elusive character King Louis XVI, who emerges more clearly than in Hardman's 1993 biography. The weakness and amiability of Louis XVI were myths, like the plots of Philippe Egalite, subsequently created by French counter-revolutionaries in order to mask their role in the downfall of the monarchy. In reality, as Hardman shows, Louis XVI was an authoritarian who tried to enforce three separate reform programmes, in 1787, 1788 and 1789. Better housed than any other European monarch, he yet purchased for his own pleasure two more palaces, Saint-Cloud and Rambouillet, with Foreign Ministry funds. On the other hand he was reluctant to use court favours to win or reward his ministers. The King distrusted or despised many of them, in part because of their greed for his money and favour; for their part, writes Hardman, "many of his ministers no longer believed in the system they were operating. The Marechal de Castries, Minister of the Marine, wrote in his diary in 1787: ‘it would be too distasteful to serve such a master if one were serving him alone and not the state at the same time.'
The book is marred by the author's colloquial translations. Phrases such as 'take the biscuit', 'stiff upper lip' and 'budge' seem inappropriate for the nuances of Versailles French in the 1780s. However Hardman's work will henceforth be indispensable for students wishing to learn how the French monarchy under Louis XVI worked. It is a triumphant rebuff to those who believe, as one of Hardman's teachers told him in the dark ages of the 1960s, that only the material condition of the masses matters.
Philip Mansel is the author of The Court of France 1789-1830 (Cambridge University Press, 1989) and editor of The Court Historian, newsletter of the Society of Court Studies. His latest book is Constantinople: City of the World's Desire 1453-1924 (John Murrary, 1995)
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