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A Popular History of France from the Earliest Time

At the coronation of Louis XVI


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grave question presented itself as regarded the king's oath: should he swear, as the majority of his predecessors had sworn, to exterminate heretics? M. Turgot had aroused Louis XVI.'s scruples upon this subject. "Tolerance ought to appear expedient in point of policy for even an infidel prince," he said; "but it ought to be regarded as a sacred duty for a religious prince." His opinion had been warmly supported by M. de Malesherbes, premier president of the Court of Aids. The king in his perplexity consulted M. de Maurepas. "M. Turgot is right," said the minister, "but he is too bold. What he proposes could hardly be attempted by a prince who came to the throne at a ripe age and in tranquil times. That is not your position. The fanatics are more to be dreaded than the heretics. The latter are accustomed to their present condition. It will always be easy for you not to employ persecution. Those old formulas, of which nobody takes any notice, are no longer considered to be binding." The king yielded; he made no change in the form of the oath, and confined himself to stammering out a few incoherent words. At the coronation of Louis XV. the people, heretofore admitted freely to the cathedral, had been excluded; at the coronation of Louis XVI. the officiator, who was the coadjutor of Rheims, omitted the usual formula addressed to the whole assembly, "Will you have this king for your king?" This insolent neglect was soon to be replied to by the sinister echo of the sovereignty
of the people. The clergy, scared by M. Turgot's liberal tendencies, reiterated their appeals to the king against the liberties tacitly accorded to Protestants. "Finish," they said to Louis XVI., "the work which Louis the Great began, and which Louis the Well-beloved continued." The king answered with vague assurances; already MM. Turgot and de Malesherbes were entertaining him with a project which conceded to Protestants the civil status.

M. de Malesherhes, indeed, had been for some months past seconding his friend in the weighty task which the latter had undertaken. Born at Paris on the 6th of December, 1721, son of the chancellor William de Lamoignon, and for the last twenty-three years premier president in the Court of Aids, Malesherbes had invariably fought on behalf of honest right and sound liberty; popularity had followed him in exile; it had increased continually since the accession of Louis XVI., who lost no time in recalling him; he had just presented to the king a remarkable memorandum touching the reform of the fiscal regimen, when M. Turgot proposed to the king to call him to the ministry in the place of the Duke of La Vrilliere. M. de Maurepas made no objection. "He will be the link of the ministry," he said, "because he has the eloquence of tongue and of heart." "Rest assured," wrote Mdlle. de Lespinasse, "that what is well will be done and will be done well. Never, no never, were two more enlightened, more disinterested, more virtuous men more powerfully knit together in a greater and a higher cause." The first care of M. de. Malesherbes was to protest against the sealed letters (_lettres de cachet_--summary arrest), the application whereof he was for putting in the hands of a special tribunal; he visited the Bastille, releasing the prisoners confined on simple suspicion. He had already dared to advise the king to a convocation of the states-general. "In France," he had written to Louis XVI., "the nation has always had a deep sense of its right and its liberty. Our maxims have been more than once recognized by our kings; they have even gloried in being the sovereigns of a free people. Meanwhile, the articles of this liberty have never been reduced to writing, and the real power, the power of arms, which, under a feudal government, was in the hands of the grandees, has been completely centred in the kingly power. . . . We ought not to hide from you, Sir, that the way which would be most simple, most natural, and most in conformity with the constitution of this monarchy, would be to hear the nation itself in full assembly, and nobody should have the poltroonery to use any other language to you; nobody should leave you in ignorance that the unanimous wish of the nation is to obtain states-general or at the least states-provincial. . . . Deign to consider, Sir, that on the day you grant this precious liberty to your people it may be said that a treaty has been concluded between king and nation against ministers and magistrates: against the ministers, if there be any perverted enough to wish to conceal from you the truth; against the magistrates, if there ever be any ambitious enough to pretend to have the exclusive right of telling you it."


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