CHAPTER I. FROM THE 5TH OF MAY, 1789, TO THE NIGHT OF THE 4TH OF AUGUST
Barentin, keeper of the seals, spoke next. His speech was an amplification respecting the states-general, and the favours of the king. After a long preamble, he at last touched upon the topics of the occasion. "His Majesty," he said, "has not changed the ancient method of deliberation, by granting a double representation in favour of the most numerous of the three orders, that on which the burden of taxation chiefly falls. Although the vote by poll, by producing but one result, seems to have the advantage of best representing the general desire, the king wishes this new form should be adopted only with the free consent of the states, and the approval of his majesty. But whatever may be the opinion on this question, whatever distinctions may be drawn between the different matters that will become subjects of deliberation, there can be no doubt but that the most entire harmony will unite the three orders on the subject of taxation." The government was not opposed to the vote by poll in pecuniary matters, it being more expeditious; but in political questions it declared itself in favour of voting by order, as a more effectual check on innovations. In this way it sought to arrive at its own end, - namely, subsidies, and not to allow the nation to obtain its object, which was reform. The manner in which the keeper of the seals determined the province of the states-general, discovered more plainly the intentions of the court. He reduced them, in a measure, to the inquiry into taxation, in order to vote it, and to the discussion of a law respecting the press, for the purpose of fixing its limits, and to the reform of civil and criminal legislation. He proscribed all other changes, and concluded by saying: "All just demands have been granted; the king has not noticed indiscreet murmurs; he has condescended to overlook them with indulgence; he has even forgiven the expression of those false and extravagant maxims, under favour of which attempts have been made to substitute pernicious chimeras for the unalterable principles of monarchy. You will with indignation, gentlemen, repel the dangerous innovations which the enemies of the public good seek to confound with the necessary and happy changes which this regeneration ought to produce, and which form the first wish of his majesty."
This speech displayed little knowledge of the wishes of the nation, or it sought openly to combat them. The dissatisfied assembly looked to M. Necker, from whom it expected different language. He was the popular minister, had obtained the double representation, and it was hoped he would approve of the vote by poll, the only way of enabling the third estate to turn its numbers to account. But he spoke as comptroller-general and as a man of caution. His speech, which lasted three hours, was a lengthened budget; and when, after tiring the assembly, he touched on the topic of interest, he spoke undecidedly, in order to avoid committing himself either with the court or the people.
The government ought to have better understood the importance of the states-general. The restoration of this assembly alone announced a great revolution. Looked for with hope by the nation, it reappeared at an epoch when the ancient monarchy was sinking, and when it alone was capable of reforming the state and providing for the necessities of royalty. The difficulties of the time, the nature of their mission, the choice of their members, everything announced that the states were not assembled as tax- payers, but as legislators. The right of regenerating France had been granted them by opinion, was devolved on them by public resolutions, and they found in the enormity of the abuses and the public encouragement, strength to undertake and accomplish this great task.
It behoved the king to associate himself with their labours. In this way he would have been able to restore his power, and ensure himself from the excesses of a revolution, by himself assisting in bringing it about. If, taking the lead in these changes, he had fixed the new order of things with firmness, but with justice; if, realizing the wishes of France, he had determined the rights of her citizens, the province of the states- general and the limits of royalty; if, on his own part, he had renounced arbitrary power, inequality on the part of the nobility, and privileges on the part of the different bodies; in a word, if he had accomplished all the reforms which were demanded by public opinion, and executed by the constituent assembly, he would have prevented the fatal dissensions which subsequently arose. It is rare to find a prince willing to share his power, or sufficiently enlightened to yield what he will be reduced to lose. Yet Louis XVI. would have done this, if he had been less influenced by those around him, and had he followed the dictates of his own mind. But the greatest anarchy pervaded the councils of the king. When the states- general assembled, no measures had been taken, nothing had been decided on, which might prevent dispute. Louis XVI. wavered between his ministry, directed by Necker, and his court, directed by the queen and a few princes of his family.