It concluded with no new work was done, no new ideas enforced, no strong men set loose.
Continuing Cardinal Richelieu’s Administration,
our selection from Special Article to Great Events by Famous Historians, Volume XI. by Andrew D. White published in 1905. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. The selection is presented in nine easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in Cardinal Richelieu’s Administration
Each of the three orders presented its “portfolio of grievances” and its program of reforms. It might seem, to one who has not noted closely the spirit which serf-mastering thrusts into a man, that the nobles would appear in the States-General, not to make complaints, but to answer complaints. It was not so. The noble order, with due form, entered complaint that theirs was the injured order. They asked relief from familiarities and assumptions of equality on the part of the people. Said the Baron de Séneccé, “It is a great piece of insolence to pretend to establish any sort of equality between the people and the nobility”: other nobles declared, “There is between them and us as much difference as between master and lackey.”
To match these complaints and theories, the nobles made demands; demands that commoners should not be allowed to keep firearms, nor to possess dogs unless the dogs were ham-strung; nor to clothe themselves like nobles, nor to clothe their wives like the wives of nobles; nor to wear velvet or satin under a penalty of five thousand livres. And preposterous as such claims may seem to us, they carried them into practice. A deputy of the Third Estate having been severely beaten by a noble, his demands for redress were treated as absurd. One of the orators of the lower order having spoken of the French as forming one great family in which the nobles were the elder brothers and the commoners the younger, the nobles made a formal complaint to the King, charging the Third Estate with insolence insufferable. Next came the complaints and demands of the clergy. They insisted on the adoption in France of the decrees of the Council of Trent, and the destruction of the liberties of the Gallican Church.
But far stronger than these came the voice of the people: first spoke Montaigne, denouncing the grasping spirit of the nobles. Then spoke Savaron, stinging them with sarcasm, torturing them with rhetoric, crushing them with statements of facts.
But chief among the speakers was the president of the Third Estate, Robert Miron, provost of the merchants of Paris. His speech, though spoken across the great abyss of time and space and thought and custom which separates him from us, warms a true man’s heart even now. With touching fidelity he pictured the sad life of the lower orders — their thankless toil, their constant misery; then with a sturdiness which awes us, he arraigned, first, royalty for its crushing taxation; next, the whole upper class for its oppressions, and then, daring death, he thus launched into popular thought an idea:
It is nothing less than a miracle that the people are able to answer so many demands. On the labor of their hands depends the maintenance of your majesty, of the clergy, of the nobility, of the commons. What without their exertions would be the value of the tithes and great possessions of the Church, of the splendid estates of the nobility, or of our own house-rents and inheritances? With their bones scarcely skinned over, your wretched people present themselves before you, beaten down and helpless, with the aspect rather of death itself than of living men, imploring your succor in the name of Him who has appointed you to reign over them — who made you a man, that you might be merciful to other men — and who made you the father of your subjects, that you might be compassionate to these your helpless children. If your majesty shall not take means for that end, I fear lest despair should teach the sufferers that a soldier is, after all, nothing more than a peasant bearing arms; and lest, when the vine-dresser shall have taken up his arquebuse, he should cease to become an anvil only that he may become a hammer.”
After this the Third Estate demanded the convocation of a general assembly every ten years, a more just distribution of taxes, equality of all before the law, the suppression of interior custom-houses, the abolition of sundry sinecures held by nobles, the forbidding to leading nobles of unauthorized levies of soldiery, some stipulations regarding the working clergy and the non-residence of bishops; and in the midst of all these demands, as a gold grain amid husks, they placed a demand for the emancipation of the serfs.
But these demands were sneered at. The idea of the natural equality in rights of all men — the idea of the personal worth of every man — the idea that rough-clad workers have prerogatives which can be whipped out by no smooth-clad idlers — these ideas were as far beyond serf-owners of those days as they were beyond slave-owners of our own days. Nothing was done. Augustin Thierry is authority for the statement that the clergy were willing to yield something. The nobles would yield nothing. The different orders quarreled until one March morning in 1615, when, on going to their hall, they were barred out and told that the workmen were fitting the place for a court ball. And so the deputies separated — to all appearance no new work was done, no new ideas enforced, no strong men set loose.
So it was in seeming; so it was not in reality. Something had been done. That assembly planted ideas in the French mind which struck more and more deeply, and spread more and more widely, until, after a century and a half, the Third Estate met again and refused to present petitions kneeling; and when King and nobles put on their hats, the commons put on theirs, and when that old brilliant stroke was again made, and the hall was closed and filled with busy carpenters and upholsterers, the deputies of the people swore that great tennis-court oath which blasted French tyranny.
But something great was done immediately. To that suffering nation a great man was revealed; for when the clergy pressed their requests they chose as their orator a young man only twenty-nine years of age, the Bishop of Luçon, Armand Jean du Plessis de Richelieu.
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