Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

The Misgovernment of Louis XV

Many of the ministers throughout Louis XV.'s reign were very unscrupulous, making much money to line their own pockets by selling blank warrants (lettres de cachet). These warrants,—of which you will hear a great deal,—signed and sealed in the king's name, ordered the arrest and imprisonment in the Bastille or any other state's prison, of the person whose name was to be written on a line, purposely left blank.

The purchaser of such a blank warrant could fill it out whenever he chose, and forward it secretly to the police. Thereupon, the person whose name it bore was seized and locked up instantly, without knowing what for and without being granted any form of trial. Any one who had an enemy, or bore a secret grudge, could purchase such a warrant, and thus get rid of the person who was in his way. We are told that Madame de Pompadour, for instance, actually sent a man to prison for thirty-five years, merely because he had written a mocking rhyme about her!

As one of Louis XV.'s ministers sold no less than 50,000 of these blank warrants, and as over 150,000 were issued during his reign, you can imagine how many—probably innocent—persons were condemned to untold misery in this way. If you wish to learn the sad experience of one of these victims, you will find it in the interesting Tale of Two Cities  by Charles Dickens.

The king, whose duty it was to remedy such abuses, was instead amusing himself in many wicked and silly ways. Besides the hunt, his chief pastime was making tarts and candy, and he prided himself far more upon the dexterity with which he could chip off the top of a soft-boiled egg, than upon anything else. In fact, such was his puerile vanity, and such the silliness of the base courtiers whom he gathered around him, that when Louis chipped an egg at breakfast, they always cried, "Long live the king!" as heartily as if he had performed some heroic deed.

Meantime, many of the people, sinking under the burdens placed upon them by tax collectors and nobles, were literally starving. Their sufferings and burdens seemed more intolerable than ever before, because they were now sufficiently well informed to realize how selfish and wicked this king was, and how much money was wasted in buying him royal mantles embroidered with gold and weighing one hundred and eighty pounds, besides rich jewels and other luxuries for his favorites. In fact, the king—once called the Well-Beloved—was now secretly hated, and some people were so convinced of his infamy and heartlessness, that they actually made an ogre of him, relating with bated breath "that he bathed in the blood of little children" to keep a good complexion!

Such being the state of affairs, you will not be surprised to learn that an attempt was made to murder Louis XV. (1757). The would-be murderer, caught in the very act, and brought before the king, solemnly warned him, saying, "If you do not take the part of your people, you, the Dauphin and many others will perish before many years." But this warning fell upon deaf ears, and the execution of this man was fully as cruel as that of the assassin of Henry IV., for he was first tortured, then partly hanged, and finally torn to pieces.

With such an example as the king's in high places, you can readily imagine that many of the nobles also were leading selfish, useless, and wicked lives. But fortunately there were still many good, honorable people left, such as the aristocrat who once, when taunted for his blameless life, answered haughtily, I possess all kinds of courage except that which can brave shame."

The French people—the commoners—resented their misgovernment more and more fiercely, for they had learned many things of late years, and were daily discovering more. The progress of literature in the "Age of Louis XIV." was almost, if not quite, equaled by the advance made in science under Louis XV. In fact, it has been said that "a revolution of ink" took place in this reign, when Diderot published the first encyclopedia, Linnaeus classified plants, Buffon wrote a natural history, and other scientists also did valuable work.

The three greatest literary men of this time were Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau,—names which you will often hear. Montesquieu is noted for his criticisms of society and his historical studies; Voltaire for his brilliant work in both prose and poetry; and Rousseau for his eloquent novels and fine educational theories. But, while preaching beautifully on the duties of parents to their children, Rousseau used to drop his own in the cradle then placed at the door of all foundling asylums, simply because he did not want to have the trouble of bringing them up! Still, notwithstanding his own bad morals and example, Rousseau gave excellent advice, and his works had a tremendous influence in France for many years, although now they are principally admired for their beauty of style.

The Seven Years' War—known in United States history as the French and Indian War—lasted from 1756 till 1763. It was occasioned by England's desire to monopolize all the ocean trade, and by Austria's desire to recover territory lost to Prussia during the War of the Austrian Succession. In this conflict, France, Saxony, Austria, and Russia fought against Prussia and England, and the war raged not only in Europe, but also in America and in India, where the French had gradually been acquiring an empire, thanks to intrepid explorers and heroic soldiers. The most interesting part of this war took place in Canada, but there was also much fighting in Europe, where the French won several minor battles and lost several important ones (Rossbach, Crefeld, and Minden).

The Seven Years' War, concluded by the treaty of Paris (1763), left France shorn of the greater part of her colonial possessions, Canada and India passing into the hands of the English, who have retained their hold upon them ever since.

This war is also known as the "War of Madame de Pompadour," because she chose most of the generals who carried it on. When she perceived that the king seemed distressed after one of the defeats, she comforted him, until he could cheerily repeat his favorite maxim, "Things will last my day," to which she recklessly added, "After us, the deluge!" You see, she was so very selfish that anything which did not touch her closely seemed of no moment at all.

It was in the course of the Seven Years' War that the "Family Compact" was first made by the minister Choiseul, whereby the Bourbon rulers of France, Spain, and parts of Italy promised to uphold one another, the enemy of one country being henceforth considered a foe of all.

Two years after the war was ended, Louis XV. lost his son, the Dauphin, a very promising young man, who left three sons, all of whom were to reign over France in turn (Louis XVI., Louis XVIII., and Charles X.). The same year, the king's favorite, Madame de Pompadour, also passed away; and the cold-blooded monarch, when he saw rain falling on the day of her funeral, calmly remarked, "The Marquise will not have good weather for her journey." These were his only words of sympathy for a woman for whom he had spent many, many millions of the state money!

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


But one favorite being gone was only the signal for the appearance of another. The weak and vicious Louis XV. now became the tool of a woman of common birth, who was known as Madame du Barry. She was even more extravagant than Madame de Pompadour, encouraged the king in his evil ways, ran the state ever deeper into debt, and scandalized all decent people by her manners and language. She swore openly, talked the lowest kind of slang to induce the king to smile, and encouraged the ministers to consider the people solely "as a sponge to be squeezed."