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Teaching Resources / Memo to Thomas Jefferson

Memo to Thomas Jefferson

From: Jean Luzac, editor, Gazette de Leyde

To: Thomas Jefferson, ambassador to France and faithful reader[1]

Re: Principal Institutions of the Kingdom of France


Size and population of kingdom: approximately 240,000 sq. miles; between 26 and 28 million inhabitants, of whom: 250,000 to 300,000 nobles, 120,000 clergy (more than half nuns), 4-5 % bourgeoisie, 7-10% urban workers, 85% peasants.  Population of Paris: approx. 600,000.

Principal branches of economy: primarily agricultural, with main crops cereal grains (especially in north), wine, mixed farming in south and west.  Manufacturing growing slowly, mostly due to expansion of putting-out system for textiles.  Urban work force mostly artisans; guild regulations restrict innovation.  Per-capita economic growth almost equal to England=s, in spite of latter=s much-vaunted Aindustrial revolution,@ but overall GNP growth less because population grows more slowly.  Overseas trade growing rapidly, emphasizing colonial products, slave trade.

Nature of government: Aabsolute@ monarchy, with executive, legislative, and judicial powers concentrated in hands of king, but supposedly limited by God and by Afundamental laws@ or Aconstitution.@  Nature of this constitution in constant dispute.  Previous monarch appointed committee in 1750s to examine medieval archives and find fundamental laws; hoped-for original charter never found. 

Reigning monarch: Louis XVI, grandson of Louis XV (d. 1774).  Well-intentioned, but would not have met admissions standards of University of Virginia (or even Kentucky).  Main interests: drinking, hunting, locksmithing.  Married to Marie-Antoinette of Austria, considered to be brighter member of family but extremely conservative.  Special prosecutor has been digging into sex scandal supposedly involving Queen (Diamond Necklace Affair).  Conventional wisdom: Queen probably guilty, but chief suspect (Cardinal de Rohan) is wrong man.

Royal powers normally exercised by appointed and frequently changed ministers.  Recent practice of not sending disgraced ministers into permanent exile has increased Court intrigues, as former appointees intrigue to get jobs back by undermining successors.  Much interest in institutional reform in recent decades, especially since defeat in Seven Years= War, but successive ministers Machault, Laverdy, Maupeou, Turgot, Necker, and Calonne (to name just a few) have introduced contradictory proposals dealing with taxation, economic principles, and legal and administrative changes, none of which have been tried long enough to make much difference.  Tax system extremely inefficient; structural government deficit growing steadily; payments on debt equal 50% or more or royal revenues.  Heavy borrowing to pay for military support to ungrateful American colonists has been last straw.  Complete bankruptcy imminent.

Largest and most effective administrative network widely admired in other European countries; word Abureaucracy@ recently coined here.  Royally appointed intendants acting under ministers= instructions supervise implementation of laws and administrative measures in provinces, but often hampered by local privileges and absence of legal uniformity.

King=s Aabsolute@ power limited by 13 parlements or royal appeals courts, which claim right to Aexamine@ royal and ministerial edicts before allowing their enforcement; king can override their objections through cumbersome lit de justice process.  Courts have inherited religiously-based Jansenist habit of resisting arbitrary authority.  In some provinces, provincial Estates assemblies claim right to approve taxes, though Crown usually manipulates them successfully; ditto for municipal governments in major cities and village councils.  National quasi-legislative assembly (Estates General), divided into three houses (clergy, nobles, commoners or A3rd Estates@) never obtained much authority; hasn=t met since 1614.

Religious situation: Catholicism is public religion; attendance at services and annual confession theoretically obligatory for all subjects.  Church provides all secondary education, runs most charitable institutions (hospitals, orphanages, old-age homes), and performs administrative functions such as announcing royal edicts and registering births, marriages and burials.  Church owns approximately 10% of land in kingdom (vs. 25% for nobles, 15-20% for bourgeoisie, 45-50% for peasants).  Parish priests reasonably popular, but much criticism of wealthy Church hierarchy.  Protestants (about 3% of population) officially outlawed since revocation of Edict of Nantes (1685), but on point of obtaining civil rights (granted by Louis XVI in 1787).  Small Jewish minority has tolerated status in southwest and Alsace.

Intellectual and Cultural Atmosphere: Educated elites strongly affected by Enlightenment; works of Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau circulate extensively despite official censorship.  Royal government supports intellectual and cultural life through system of academies, pensions, royal theaters, art exhibitions, etc.  Country prides self on leading role in Europe, world-wide spread of French language as speech of educated people.  French politeness and manners considered worldwide model of elegance; French dress styles imitated even in North America.

Peasant population only slightly affected by Enlightenment.  Overall male literacy about 50%, women 30%.  Popular religious beliefs not always in accord with Church teaching.  Traditional folk beliefs in herbal medicine, healing saints, etc. derided by educated as Asuperstition@. 

International situation: One of main players in European great-power system, along with England, Prussia, Austria and Russia.  Has lost out in world-wide colonial competition with English over course of century, now largely excluded from North America and India though still retaining most valuable Caribbean colony (Saint-Domingue).  Largest army on European continent performed poorly in Seven Years= War, but subsequent reforms have improved it, especially artillery branch where young cadet Napoleone Buonaparte is currently enrolled.  Broke away from traditional alliance pattern (France + Prussia vs. England + Austria) in 1756 Adiplomatic revolution,@ but alliance with Austria remains unpopular.  Opportunistic support for American colonists resulted in defeat for England but no tangible gains for France.  Threat of bankruptcy is crippling power in European affairs.


[1] As Secretary of State, Jefferson whiled away spare time by translating this newspaper=s articles about France for publication in the Philadelphia press.  See Jeremy Popkin, News and Politics in the Age of Revolution: Jean Luzac=Gazette de Leyde, 1772-1798.