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A Popular History of France from the Earliest Time

De Malesherbes has doubts about everything


Perhaps

the task was above human strength; it was certainly beyond that of M. Turgot. Ever occupied with the public weal, he turned his mind to every subject, issuing a multiplicity of decrees, sometimes with rather chimerical hopes. He had proposed to the king six edicts; two were extremely important; the first abolished jurorships (_jurandes_) and masterships (_maitrises_) among the workmen. "The king," said the preamble, "wishes to secure to all his subjects, and especially to the humblest, to those who have no property but their labor and their industry, the full and entire enjoyment of their rights, and to reform, consequently, the institutions which strike at those rights, and which, in spite of their antiquity, have failed to be legalized by time, opinion, and even the acts of authority." The second substituted for forced labor on roads and highways an impost to which all proprietors were equally liable.

This was the first step towards equal redistribution of taxes; great was the explosion of disquietude and wrath on the part of the privileged; it showed itself first in the council, by the mouth of M. de Miromesnil; Turgot sprang up with animation. "The keeper of the seals," he said, "seems to adopt the principle that, by the constitution of the state, the noblesse ought to be exempt from all taxation. This idea will appear a paradox to the majority of the nation. The commoners (_roturiers_) are certainly the greatest number, and we are

no longer in the days when their voices did not count." The king listened to the discussion in silence. "Come," he exclaimed abruptly, "I see that there are only M. Turgot and I here who love the people," and he signed the edicts.

The Parliament, like the noblesse, had taken up the cudgels; they made representation after representation. "The populace of France," said the court boldly, "is liable to talliage and forced labor at will, and that is a part of the constitution which the king cannot change." Louis XVI. summoned the Parliament to Versailles, and had the edicts enregistered at a bed of justice. "It is a bed of beneficence!" exclaimed Voltaire, a passionate admirer of Turgot.

The comptroller-general was triumphant; but his victory was but the prelude to his fall. Too many enemies were leagued against him, irritated both by the noblest qualities of his character, and at the same time by the natural defects of his manners. Possessed of love "for a beautiful ideal, of a rage for perfection," M. Turgot had wanted to attempt everything, undertake everything, reform everything at one blow. He fought single-handed. M. de Malesherbes, firm as a rock at the head of the Court of Aids, supported as he was by the traditions and corporate feeling of the magistracy, had shown weakness as a minister. "I could offer the king only uprightness and good-heartedness," he said himself, "two qualities insufficient to make a minister, even a mediocre one." The courtiers, in fact, called him "good-heart" (_bonhomme_). "M. de Malesherbes has doubts about everything," wrote Madame du Deffand; "M. Turgot has doubts about nothing." M. de Maurepas having, of set purpose, got up rather a serious quarrel with him, Malesherbes sent in his resignation to the king; the latter pressed him to withdraw it: the minister remained inflexible. "You are better off than I," said Louis XVI. at last, "you can abdicate."


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