Victims, Authority, and Terror: The Parallel Deaths of d'orlaeans, Custine, Bailly, and Malesherbes

By George Armstrong Kelly | Go to book overview

chapter 3. Preparing for the New Politics

In 1774 the Prince de Conti, the leading defender of the parlements, soon to be restored by Louis XVI, had been acclaimed at the Opera.1 Philippe, then the young Duc de Chartres, would aspire to the same kind of popularity. He had joined his father in Conti's protest and had suffered temporary exile from the court of Louis XV, even though he was "by conviction and by duty of birth...the most zealous defender of royal authority...."2 Retrospectively from London in 1790, he justified his politics in the following terms:

Three times [i.e. 1771, 1787, and 1789 ] I was the victim [of a lack of liberty], and each of these three passing occasions increased my taste for it, although they were intended to destroy it.

The first time, without really seeking reasons, I followed my impulses, those of trust in public opinion and example.... I cannot say that conduct was entirely my conduct....

The second time, my motive was in not wanting to contradict by a public act positions that I had previously supported publicly.

But the third time, my behavior was entirely the result of my ideas and the effect of my will.3

This account of the self-education of a prince, probably drafted by Choderlos de Laclos, speaks of the existence of a dominant taste (goût dominant) in every person, which in the case of the author has always been liberty.4 Despite the learned reference to the "will," we may take this to mean the liberty of the physical person.

In 1785, when Philippe d'Orléans acquired his father's titles and fortune, it was just becoming clear that France was running to its ruin. The ambitious Necker first made the country aware of its fiscal plight.5 He and his successor Calonne blamed each other for the damage. But that was not precisely the point. Over more than half a century the court's prodigality had dissipated the resources of the nation, and new taxation could no longer staunch the wound. Calonne suggested mild reforms on 20 August 1786. There were three possible ways to navigate. As had not been done since 1614, the king could summon an Estates-General of the realm: this threatened to hand the power of the purse over to the estates, especially the nobility. Or the king could try to rule by arbitrary lits de justice: but incessant quarrels with the parlements, now heavily backed by public opinion, might easily lead to a breakdown of order and authority.

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