Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

Marriage of Marie Antoinette

The States-General had not been called to meet since 1614, so the people could make their grievances known only by means of petitions,—which were generally disregarded,—or through the parliaments, assemblies of judges and lawyers in some of the great cities. The Parliament of Paris becoming troublesome on account of its repeated demands for redress of grievances, the king was glad to heed the warning given by Madame du Barry when he was once gazing at the portrait of the unfortunate Charles I. of England. Said she: "Look, France! there is a king whose head was cut off because he was indulgent to his Parliament. Go, now, and be indulgent to yours!" Owing to this taunt, Louis XV. exiled seven hundred members of parliament (1771) before calling a new assembly, which was composed of men carefully selected by the chancellor Maupeou, and was hence derisively called "Maupeou's Parliament."

But the grievances continued, the court expenditures increased, and the misery of the poor became so intense that we are told more men died of hunger in one year than were slain in the course of all Louis XIV.'s wars! This sad state of affairs was well known to the king, who paid no more heed to it than to the funeral he once met, when, having inquired of what disease the man had died, and having been curtly told, "Hunger!" he merely shrugged his shoulders and passed on.

The Jesuits—members of the Society of Jesus, founded by Loyola—had done much in France, as in other countries, to stamp out Protestantism and build up the Roman Catholic Church. But in the exercise of their great influence through preaching and teaching and as a political force in the affairs of state, the Jesuits soon became the objects of great dislike on the part of many—notably the writer Pascal. When they also incurred the dislike of the king, they were banished from France, as they had already been driven from some other European countries.

To gain riches for himself, Louis XV. took part in a disgraceful speculation to raise the price of wheat. This still further intensified the sufferings of the poor, upon whom fell the heaviest burdens of taxation.

Louis XV., who fully believed that "the king is master, and necessity justifies everything," required so much money for his court and his pleasures that taxes were nearly doubled during his reign. His nobles also spent vast amounts, being very particular about their clothes, lace ruffles, silk stockings, and jewelry. Those who paid most attention to these trifles were, in those days, called "macaroni," a name with which Americans are familiar because it occurs in "Yankee Doodle." As such courtiers liked to have their pictures painted, they often patronized such artists as Mignard and Boucher, who were so fond of finery that even their shepherds are clad in silks and lead snow-white sheep by blue or pink ribbons! Thus, you see, everything was artificial, and nothing plain and real.

The minister (Choiseul) who incurred the people's hatred by raising the taxes has the credit of restoring the navy of France, and of negotiating (1770) a marriage between the king's grandson—the new Dauphin—and Marie Antoinette, a daughter of Maria Theresa, the heroine of the War of the Austrian Succession.

When Marie Antoinette came to France, a merry girl of fifteen, to be married to a heavy, awkward, yet good-natured lad of sixteen, she found a stiff court, ruled by the etiquette which had been in practice for about one hundred years, and which was severely enforced by a mistress of ceremonies whom Marie Antoinette disrespectfully called Madam Etiquette." All the formality now surrounding her proved intensely tiresome to a lively young girl, who, besides, felt the utmost contempt for Madame du Barry,—the most important person in the palace,—for the old king was merely her puppet. You will see that scorn for long-established customs, although natural enough, was to do Marie Antoinette much harm in time.

Besides a Dauphiness,—who was to be one of the most famous and unfortunate queens of France,—the country acquired during Louis XV.'s reign not only the province of Lorraine, but also the island of Corsica. This island was acquired from Genoa only a few months before the birth of Napoleon Bonaparte (Aug. 15, 1769), who thus by accident born a Frenchman—was for many years to make history for Europe.

During Louis XV.'s reign, also,—thanks to the efforts of patriotic citizens,—military, engineering, and medical schools were founded; the first asylum for deaf-mutes was instituted; a few fine roads were built; the porcelain factory of Sevres was established; the Pantheon was erected; street lamps were installed; and the first art exhibition was opened to the public.

But in 1774 this long reign came to an end. Louis. XV., who was a loathsome man, suddenly caught a loathsome disease, and died of smallpox. The terrible harvest he had so guiltily sown was left to be reaped by his innocent grandson, Louis XVI.