Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

The Minority of Louis XV.

When Louis XIV. breathed his last (1715), the most unseemly rejoicings took place, for every one was delighted that his seventy-two years' reign was at an end, and expected great things from his successor. Not only were the late king's remains insulted on their way to the Abbey of St. Denis, but his carefully drawn-up will was annulled—as, indeed, he had foreseen it would be. In fact, the five-year-old Louis XV. (great-grandson of Louis XIV.) was taken to the Parliament of Paris for the first time on purpose to have this will revoked, and to have a nephew of. Louis XIV., namely Philip, the Duke of Orleans, appointed regent of the realm during the new king's minority, instead of the persons named in the will.

So that things may be quite clear, you must bear in mind that if Louis XV. were to die before marrying and having a son to succeed him, the crown would naturally pass to his nearest male relative. But this nearest relative was the king's uncle, who some years before had been made King of Spain, and was now ruling as Philip V. of that country; and he had renounced all claims to the crown of France when he accepted that of Spain.

After him, the next of kin was the regent, the Duke of Orleans, who was therefore heir presumptive. The regent, however, knew that Philip V. would claim the throne, notwithstanding his vows, and that such a move would involve Europe in warfare; so he hoped that the little king would live and grow up to have children, so that the question would never arise. Such good care was taken of the young king's health that, in spite of a naturally delicate constitution, Louis XV. did live to reign fifty-nine years.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


The new master of France, the regent, was a talented but thoroughly unprincipled man, who, wishing to devote most of his time and energy to pleasure, intrusted the government to his former tutor, who was said to be master of all vices. They two canceled Louis XIV.'s will, freed, without question, the prisoners he had locked up in the Bastille and elsewhere, and then took a general survey of the national situation.

The finances were found to be in such a state that Saint-Simon—a nobleman who has left us fascinating Memoirs—seriously advised the regent to pronounce the state bankrupt; that is to say, unable to pay its rightful debts. Bad as he was, however, the regent would not consent to this move, although he frankly acknowledged that things had been so mismanaged that if he were a mere subject he should certainly revolt, saying, "The people are good-natured fools to suffer so long!"

Still, instead of trying to remedy these evils, the regent and his minister involved France in a short war with Spain, which added still more to the public debt. Then the regent allowed matters to drift on, while he spent most of his time in the Palais Royal in Paris, reveling with men so wicked that he often said they deserved to be treated like criminals and broken on the wheel (roues). Days and nights were thus spent in orgies of gambling, drunkenness, and other vices.

Such being the case, no one could have an exalted opinion of the regent, to whom a lady once contemptuously said, "God, after having formed man, took the mud which was left, and out of that fashioned the souls of princes and footmen!" Although the regent's sway lasted only eight years, his example did France untold harm, for too many of the nobles eagerly followed in his footsteps, and the people lost all respect for those whom they had hitherto been taught to regard as their superiors.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


The regent is also to blame for not having given Louis XV. a good education, and for surrounding him with base flatterers who were anxious only to make him realize his own importance. One tutor, leading him to the palace window, once pointed out the fine gardens and the people assembled to greet him, saying, "Behold, Sire, all this people, all that you see, is yours!"

As the plain truth, if disagreeable, was never told him, Louis XV. naturally had a queer conception of things. Once, for instance, on hearing some mention of a ruler's death, he asked in great surprise, "What! do you mean to say that kings  die?" Whereupon his embarrassed tutor stammered, "Your Majesty, . . . yes . . . sometimes!" With such an education, and amidst such surroundings, it is no wonder that Louis XV. turned out to be a very bad king, like so many others of his time, and was selfish and unprincipled.

In 1717, when only seven years old, Louis XV. received a visit from Peter the Great of Russia, who, seeing a delicate little boy come slowly down the great staircase to greet him, picked the child up, kissed him on both cheeks, and then carried him upstairs, to the great scandal of the assembled court, which had been trained for two generations in a stately and formal etiquette.

It was in the same year that John Law, a Scotchman, proposed to the regent a scheme for bettering the trade and finances of the country by establishing a new kind of bank. This plan, if carried out exactly as John Law at first intended, would have been all right, as has been demonstrated in many countries. The regent, who was very clever, saw its advantages and therefore allowed John Law to open his bank in Paris. Until then, the only kind of money was specie (gold, silver, and copper), and though there were some bankers in Paris, there were no good savings banks or safe-deposit vaults; so many people kept their funds under lock and key in their own houses. Even small fortunes thus proved both bulky and troublesome, all the more because people were sorely afraid of being robbed, as so many poor were out of work and in a desperate condition.

Law's scheme was to issue paper money and lend it at interest, keeping on hand sufficient gold or silver to redeem each paper bill on demand. He knew that many people would keep on using the paper money in business, instead of getting the coin for it. Indeed, many people who had gold or silver were only too glad to exchange it for paper, which was so much easier to carry or to conceal. Thus, before long, paper money was current everywhere, and Law's bank did a thriving business. On perceiving this fact, the regent declared that the bank should belong to the state, and, as soon as this transfer had been made, insisted that more paper money be issued, the crown lands serving this time as guarantee, as there was no more gold or silver to be had.

Meanwhile, Law had organized the "Mississippi Company," to which was given entire ownership of the vast French colony, Louisiana, in the Mississippi valley, besides a monopoly of the trade with other colonies. It was believed that there would be found rich gold mines in the Mississippi country, so the shares of this company were bought by many people. Next, the company secured all the tax-farming business in France, which was known to be very profitable.

Hitherto, the tax collecting had been done by many different men known as farmers-general, each having charge of a stated district. A farmer-general did not merely collect money for the state, as tax collectors do now; instead, he bought  the right to collect and keep  the taxes, having been told something like this: "You see, this district is assessed $100,000, but some of the people can't pay, and a few won't pay promptly. If you will give the state say $75,000 cash, you shall have the right to collect these taxes, and if you are clever about it, you can easily make about $25,000." While honest farmers-general were content to make only the amount thus agreed upon, there were, I am sorry to say, others who increased the taxes and wrung as much money as they could out of the poor people without being punished for it.

Law's company next lent the government, at interest, vast sums in paper money, with which to pay the public debt. Expeditions were sent out to find mines in Louisiana, and people believed that their gold would soon flood France. Shares of the company, selling at first for $100, were soon resold for twenty times as much, and as there always are people anxious to get rich without doing any work in exchange, throngs came to the bank to buy as many shares as they could afford. In fact, such was the demand for shares that they actually could not be printed fast enough!

At the end of three years,—during which some people who had hitherto been poor, had been living like the rich,—the crash suddenly came. The gold mines in the colonies, which were to supply the coin to redeem the paper money and shares, had not been found as yet, so the printed paper suddenly became worthless! A rhyme of the day thus describes the adventures of a shareholder:—

Monday, I bought shares;

Tuesday, I was a millionaire;

Wednesday, I set up an establishment;

Thursday, I purchased a carriage;

Friday, I went to a ball;

And Saturday . . . to the poorhouse!

Lundi, j'achetai des actions;

Mardi, je gagnai des millions;

Mercredi, j'arrangeai anon minage;

Jeudi, je fit-is Iquifiage;

Vendredi, je m'enfus au bal;

Et samedi . . . .a l'hopital!

When the fine scheme of John Law and the regent thus suddenly collapsed, the poor Scotchman barely saved his life by flight, leaving thousands of victims to realize that instead of being better off, as they had so fondly imagined, they were much poorer than before—which, you know, is the invariable result of such disastrous gambling fevers.

While there were, as we have seen, some very bad people in France, there were also fortunately many good ones. When a terrible plague broke out in Marseilles, carrying off eighty-five thousand people, Bishop Belzunce and his clerical staff worked night and day, displaying such self-sacrifice and heroism that the memory of their noble conduct still serves as an inspiration to their fellow-countrymen.