Soulavie on the troubled legacy of Louis XV (1801)

soulavie louis xvJean-Louis Soulavie (1751-1813) was a French scientist, clergyman, diplomat and historian. Born in Antraigues in southern France, Soulavie studied theology in Avignon and became an ordained priest in 1776. He also studied and conducted research into the natural sciences, particularly geography and geology. In the early 1780s, Soulavie published a ground-breaking natural history of France that spanned seven volumes. This work estimated the age of the Earth to the several hundred million years; it also noted the after-effects of the 1783 Laki volcanic eruption. Soulavie became an active participant in the French Revolution, joining the Jacobin club, taking the clerical oath and representing the Republic in Switzerland. Soulavie survived the revolution, despite his alignment with Robespierre, and turned his hand to historical writing. In this extract from 1801, Soulavie attributes most of pre-revolutionary France’s problems to the incompetent management and wasteful spending of Louis XV:

“Louis XV, at his death, bequeathed to the French monarchy a number of legacies which, after a lapse of 18 years, were doomed to overturn and destroy it to its very foundation.

When the daughter of [Austria’s] Maria Theresa became queen of France, she sowed the seeds of dissension in the Bourbon family. Fatal animosities were soon to take place between her and the children of Louis XV, his two sisters-in-law and the grandees employed about her person.

The Count d’Artois led so licentious a life as to draw on himself, before his misfortunes, the contempt of every Frenchman who had any regard for decency and public decorum.

With regard to the administration of affairs, the king [Louis XV] had left it in the hands of the most profligate [wasteful] men… A national and irrecoverable bankruptcy had rendered [Louis XV’s finance minister] Abbé Terray an object of general condemnation…

The arbitrary measures of the Duke of Aiguillon and Maupeou excited all those against the royal authority, who were weary of the absolute and military power of the French kings – and even all the advocates for despotic sway, because the king had exceeded all bounds by degrading the kingdom in the eyes of his subjects, and still more in those of foreign powers. The nation was unanimous in its wish for a change in administration.

The taxes were raised to such a pitch that several of the provinces were unable to pay their assistants. Many peasants [from] provinces naturally barren and presenting obstacles to cultivation relinquished the lands of their forefathers, finding their crops inadequate to the amount of ruinous taxation.

With regard to the expenditure, such was the size of the [royal] court that without a radical and extensive reform of this branch of finance, a reform of which the court was incapable, the kingdom was in danger of a general bankruptcy, and of a revolution…

The nation had, before this, been disturbed by two powerful rival factions, which had made war on each other. Now they conjointly made war on the state – a dangerous circumstance, the forerunner of the dissolution of social order which takes place when governments [are] in a state of distress or blindness…

Everything bore the appearance of relaxed authority in all the other departments of state. The navy, which had been nearly annihilated in the last war with England, was not rebuilt… The army was no better attended to than the navy; mere courtiers were at the head of it, in whose conduct impartial judges could discover nothing but general ignorance, want of skill in military operations and shameful defeats in the Seven Years War…”