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A Popular History of France from the Earliest Time

The comptroller general asserted


The

king's speech was short and unimportant. Though honestly impressed with reminiscences of Henry IV., he could not manage, like him, to say to the notables he had just convoked, "I have had you assemble to take your counsels, to trust in them, to follow them, in short, to place myself under tutelage in your hands,--a feeling which is scarcely natural to kings, graybeards, and conquerors; but the violent love I bear my subjects, the extreme desire I have to add the title of liberator and restorer of this realm to that of king, make me find everything easy and honorable." M. de Calonne had reserved to himself the duty of explaining the great projects he had suggested to the king. "Gentle men," said he in his exordium, "the orders I am under at present do me the more honor in that the views of which the king has charged me to set before you the sum and the motives have been entirely adopted by him personally." Henry IV. might have said to the notables assembled by his successor, as he had said regarding his predecessors: "You were summoned hither not long ago to approve of the king's wishes."

The state was prosperous, at any rate in appearance; the comptroller-general assumed the credit for it. "The economy of a minister of finance," he said, "may exist under two forms so different that one might say they were two sorts of economy: one, which strikes the eye by its external strictness, which proclaims itself by startling and harshly uttered refusals,

which flaunts its severity in the smallest matters in order to discourage the throng of applicants. It has an imposing appearance which really proves nothing, but which does a great deal as regards opinion; it has the double advantage of keeping importunate cupidity at arm's length and of quieting anxious ignorance. The other, which considers duty rather than force of character, can do more, whilst showing less strictness and reserve, as regards whatever is of any importance; it affects no austerity as regards that which is of none; it lets the talk be of what it grants, and does not talk about what it saves. Because it is seen to be accessible to requests, people will not believe that it refuses the majority of them; because it has not the useful and vulgar character of inflexibility, people refuse it that of wise discretion, and often, whilst by assiduous application to all the details of an immense department, it preserves the finances from the most fatal abuses and the most ruinously unskilful handling, it seems to calumniate itself by an easy-going appearance which the desire to injure transforms very soon into lavishness."

So much easy grace and adroitness succeeding the austere stiffness of M. Necker had been powerless to relieve the disorder of the finances; it was great and of ancient date. "A deficit has been existing in France for centuries," the comptroller-general asserted. It at last touched the figure of a hundred millions a year. "What is left for filling up so frightful a void and for reaching the desired level?" exclaimed M. de Calonne: "abuses! Yes, gentlemen, it is in abuses themselves that there is to be found a mine of wealth which the state has a right to reclaim and which must serve to restore order. Abuses have for their defenders interests, influence, fortune, and some antiquated prejudices which time seems to have respected. But of what force is such a vain confederation against the public welfare and the necessity of the state? Let others recall this maxim of our monarchy: 'As willeth the king, so willeth the law;' his Majesty's maxim is: 'As willeth the happiness of the people, so willeth the king.'"

Audaciously certain of the success of his project, M. de Calonne had not taken the trouble to disguise the vast consequences of it; he had not thought any the more about pre-securing a majority in the assembly. The members were divided into seven committees presided over by the princes; each committee disposed of one single vote; the comptroller-general had not taken exception to the selections designated by his adversaries. "I have made it a point of conscience," he said, "to give suitable nominations according to the morality, and talent, and importance of individuals." He had burned his ships, and without a care for the defective composition of the assembly, he set forth, one after the other, projects calculated to alarm the privileged orders. "More will be paid," he said in the preamble printed at the head of his notes and circulated in profusion over the whole of France, "undoubtedly more will be paid, but by whom? . . . By those only who do not pay enough; they will pay what they ought, according to a just proportionment, and nobody will be aggrieved. Privileges will be sacrificed! Yes! Justice wills it, necessity requires it! Would it be better to surcharge the non-privileged, the people?"


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