Page images

character, the order, regularity, and justice which he introduced, and the plans for future improvement which he devised. He encouraged agriculture, promoted learning, proposed improvements in the inland navigation, and was instant in his endeavors to promote toleration and annihilate the influence of fanaticism. To Henry Fourth, therefore, we must ascribe the late prosperity of France, and its safety from dismemberment and civil murders. In 1624, the ministry of Cardinal Richilieu commenced, and during the eighteen years that it continued, his powerful influence was pernicious to liberty. To increase the royal authority at home, and extend the influence of France on the councils of Europe, were the guiding principles of his policy. Richilieu endeavored to destroy virtue by converting honest men into courtiers. In order to weaken the influence of the nobles in the provinces, and destroy their popularity, he obliged them to live in Paris.' 'His system of policy, which went to invigorate the head at the expense of all the other members of the body politic, created the fatal ascendency of Paris over France.' p. 85. Yet, at the death of Richilieu and Louis Thirteenth, France was beginning to gather some of the fruits of the wise administration of Sully.' The state of society, of industry, and of letters, was improving. Corneille had already begun his career of glory, and Descartes filled Europe with his reputation. The nation, however, was still involved in superstition, and the laws enjoined death as a punishment for whatever superstition might convert into crime.

[ocr errors]

Of Louis Fourteenth we have never been able to hold a very elevated opinion. Admiration is lavished on kings, for whom fewer virtues, than are necessary to ensure respect as a private man, gain the reputation of justice, clemency, and a liberal fondness for the arts. Louis was educated to play the king, and this he learnt to do with success. He knew how to impose by a stateliness of manner, but that very stateliness betrays a weakness of character, and a consciousness of wanting direct superiority; and the pleasure, which he received from observing that others were intimidated by his deportment, betrays all the insignificance of vanity. As a politician he was unjust and cruel; criminally ambitious; still more criminally fanatical; prodigal and improvident. He found a kingdom in opulence, and at his death he left the

nation impoverished and the finances in a state of ruin. Of the merits of his ministers and their claims to public gratitude, the most different estimates have been formed; but during his long career the administration had no unity of character, a sure proof that his own mind did not direct it. When Louis Fourteenth read Telemachus, he called it a libel on his reign. What severer censure can be passed on his character as a king?

As to the arts, he encouraged them in so far as they were subservient to his own vanity. Some of the first artists of his age were employed in decorating the palace walls of Versailles; but the subjects given them were of a nature to chill the warm impulses of genius. And in letters it is melancholy to learn, that Racine, the finest poet of his age, could be so weak as to pine under royal censure; still more melancholy to find the virtuous Archbishop of Cambray rejected and persecuted, for inculcating simple lessons of morality. But not to insist on his particular hostility to one who desired, and another who deserved his protection, we do not read, that Louis called forth original genius, or rewarded it very bountifully, nor that he rewarded any but such as repaid his protection by flattery.

It is right, that the French should regard the age, in which Louis sat upon the throne, as an age of national glory. But it was glorious, not for the extended dominions of his kingdom, nor for the splendid victories, which were followed by as disastrous defeats; but because the men of letters gave to France a moral influence throughout the continent. The Grecian masterpieces in tragedy were imitated, and dramas were composed in rivalship of them, with the same severity of invention and careful execution, the same unity of design and manner, the same nobleness and heroic efforts of passion, and the Grecian heroes reappeared on the stage in their ancient sublimity, having lost only so much of their peculiar characteristics, as was needed to secure for them the sympathies of a modern nation. The French taste became the European taste; the French models were in the hands of every well educated person of each sex, and thus the intelligence and literature of France were successful in gaining universal sovereignty, which was the more secure because willingly conceded. This command over the mind was

achieved by the men of letters, not by Louis; and the Muse never manifested her superiority more remarkably.

And why should not the truth be spoken plainly of the character of Louis Fourteenth as a private man? He was a libertine, and yet a superstitious devotee. He was duped by his courtiers, governed by his mistress, beloved by nobody. How could he have been amiable, in whose hour of death not one friend was present? Mercenary hands closed the eyes of the monarch, who had at one time made Europe tremble for her independence. There is but one passage in his life, which is full of moral interest. It is the moment, when just before his end he calls his grandson to his bedside, and gives him the advice as of a man, whom approaching death had taught the wisdom of moderation. 'Do not imitate me,' says he, in the taste which I have had for war; follow good counsels; endeavor to be a solace to your people, that which I was so utterly unhappy as not to have been.' Louis Fourteenth died, as one ambitious of conquest deserves to die, a disappointed man. His history teaches the necessity of making a noble end the grand object of life, so that, if it be not attained, the mind may at least be saved from misery, through a consciousness of noble purposes.

We do not desire to investigate the impiety and profligacy of the succeeding regency and reign. Religion, justice, sound policy, human nature, even the majesty of God, were wilfully outraged, mocked, and profaned. It is known, that the licentiousness of the East was renewed at Paris; but under what a difference of circumstances. In the East the voluptuousness of the sovereign is countenanced by hereditary usage, by the established laws, by the national religion. But in a Christian country, a Christian king introduced a wide spreading, desolating profligacy, in opposition to public morals, in violation of the laws, and in defiance of the religion, whose precepts should intimidate the audacity of libertinism, and teach the necessity of selfdenial.

With respect to the revolution, we may observe, that it was accelerated during this period by the increasing derangement of the finances, by the profligacy of the court, which took from religion its sanctity, from the nobles their ancient respectability, from the throne its dignity and its terror, and lastly by the misrule of corrupt ministers, who weakened the

government at home, and deprived it of all foreign influence. Louis Sixteenth, it has often been observed, in a peaceful situation might have exercised all the virtues of philanthropy. But he had not mind enough to perceive in what condition he was placed, nor resources and energy enough to act with promptness and decision in the emergencies, which were continually rising. His adhesion to the popular measures came too tardily to inspire gratitude or confidence in his sincerity. His policy was vacillating; at one time he seemed to recognise the folly of opposing the public will; and at another to entertain a secret hope of successfully counteracting it. He showed some traces of magnanimity in overstepping ancient prejudice, and making a protestant, a foreign republican, and still worse in the view of hereditary pride, a merchant, his minister of finances; but the appointment of a plebeian was followed by his dismission and banishment, so that the king exposed his feebleness by yielding, while he alienated all confidence by attempting to recede.

Mr Somerville is always careful to vindicate the spirit of liberty from participation in crime, and his remarks on the crisis now under consideration are more circumstantial. Two points become clear from considering the preceding periods of history. France needed to be relieved from the weight of feudal oppression, and the moral and intellectual condition of the nation was such, as could have been expected from the long continuance of a depraved and depraving despotism. The government was weak; the national religion was subverted; the courtiers had become wastefully prodigal; internal commerce was restricted by unjust laws; agriculture was injured by the multitude of holidays; the court was licentious; vague and perhaps perverse notions of liberty were circulating among the people; the throne was supported by few men of untarnished integrity; opinion had ceased to be the support of monarchy; the demands of the treasury surpassed its resources; and feudal usage still exempted the nobles and the clergy from taxation. Add to this the condition of the nation; that the nobles were for the most part ignorant and corrupt; fond of their privileges and vain of their distinction; that the people, little advanced in civilization, only felt themselves oppressed and on the verge of ruin;

[blocks in formation]

that wit and genius were busy in throwing ridicule on the false pretensions of the higher orders, and the absurdities of despotism; that men of cunning, reason, and overpowering eloquence were engaged in discussing the character of governments and the methods of reform; and that politicians of most acute understandings, some of them ingenious in sophistry, others of consummate natural gifts, but of little practical experience, were investigating every subject connected with education, government, and religion.

As an expedient against present ruin the States General were assembled. This was the moment, when it became possible for the people to express their discontent, to enforce their just demands, and to secure for themselves a guarantee against future oppression. Yet several circumstances were of inauspicious omen. The privileged orders were still infatuated with a love of their rank and immunities; the king and the royal party were never prudent enough to foresee what would be imperatively demanded; and, instead of conceding in season to excite confidence in the people, they retained everything till it was violently claimed. The States General, formed into a Constituent Assembly, were prepared to reform; yet in a country where no free institutions had ever existed, how was it possible to collect a class of practical statesmen? Moreover, they began a reform, to which no limits were set, and where there were no landmarks to guide. Yet the doctrine of liberty was asserted with temperance and success, and humanity has no cause to blush for the principles which the assembly maintained.

The Constituent Assembly,' says Mr Somerville, 'proclaimed universal toleration in matters of religion, and thus made virtue the test of piety, and took away from hypocrisy the mask of truth; it rendered monastic seclusion obligatory only on the consciences of devotees, and thus relieved many from the intolerable hardship of being imprisoned for life, in spite of repentance. It abolished Lettres de Cachet, and thus deprived the king of the power of exiling and ruining any individual, or of shutting him up for life in solitary confinement to gratify private resentment, or the persecuting caprice of any great man; it forbade the future use of torture, and thus deprived the amateurs of cruelty of all opportunity of enjoying spectacles of agony; it ordered all criminal prosecutions to be carried on in public, and thus stript prosecutors and false witnesses of the chance of perjuring themselves with impunity; whilst,

« PreviousContinue »