Today’s installment concludes 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.
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Previously in Cardinal Richelieu’s Administration.
2. In the internal development of France, Richelieu proved himself a true builder. The founding of the French Academy and of the Jardin des Plantes, the building of the College of Plessis, and the rebuilding of the college of the Sorbonne, are among the monuments of this part-statesmanship. His, also, is much of that praise usually lavished on Louis XIV for the career opened in the seventeenth century to science, literature, and art. He was also a reformer, and his zeal was proved, when in the fiercest of the La Rochelle struggle he found time to institute great reforms not only in the army and navy, but even in the monasteries.
3. On the general progress of Europe, his work must be judged as mainly for good. Austria was the chief barrier to European progress, and that barrier he broke. But a far greater impulse to the general progress of Europe was given by the idea of toleration which he thrust into the methods of European statesmen. He, first of all statesmen in France, saw that in French policy — to use his own words — “A Protestant Frenchman is better than a Catholic Spaniard”; and he, first of all statesmen in Europe, saw that, in European policy, patriotism must outweigh bigotry.
4. His faults in method were many. His underestimate of the sacredness of human life was one; but that was the fault of his age. His frequent workings by intrigue was another; but that also was a vile method accepted by his age. The fair questions, then, are: did he not commit the fewest and smallest wrongs possible in beating back those many and great wrongs? Wrong has often a quick, spasmodic force, but was there not in his arm a steady growing force, which could only be a force of right?
5. His faults in policy crystallized about one; for while he subdued the serf-mastering nobility, he struck no final blow at the serf system itself.
Our running readers of French history need here a word of caution. They follow De Tocqueville, and De Tocqueville follows Biot in speaking of the serf system as abolished in most of France hundreds of years before this. But Biot and De Tocqueville take for granted a knowledge in their readers that the essential vileness of the system, and even many of its most shocking outward features, remained. Richelieu might have crushed the serf system, really, as easily as Louis X and Philip the Long had crushed it nominally. This Richelieu did not.
And the consequences of this great man’s fault were terrible. Hardly was he in his grave when the nobles perverted the effort of the Paris Parliament for advance in liberty and took the lead in the fearful revolts and massacres of the Fronde. Then came Richelieu’s pupil, Mazarin, who tricked the nobles into order; and Mazarin’s pupil, Louis XIV, who bribed them into order. But a nobility borne on high by the labor of a servile class must despise labor; so there came those weary years of indolent gambling and debauchery and “serf-eating” at Versailles.
Then came Louis XV, who was too feeble to maintain even the poor decent restraint imposed by Louis XIV; so the serf-mastering caste became active in a new way, and their leaders in vileness unutterable became at last Fronsac and De Sade.
Then came “the deluge.” The spirit of the serf-mastering caste, as left by Richelieu, was a main cause of the miseries which brought on the French Revolution. When the Third Estate brought up their “portfolio of grievances,” for one complaint against the exactions of the monarchy there were fifty complaints against the exactions of the nobility.
Then came the failure of the Revolution in its direct purpose; and of this failure the serf-mastering caste was a main cause. For this caste, hardened by ages of domineering over a servile class, despite 4th of August renunciations, would not, could not, accept a position compatible with freedom and order; so earnest men were maddened, and sought to tear out this cancerous mass, with all its burning roots.
But for Richelieu’s great fault there is an excuse. His mind was saturated with ideas of the impossibility of inducing freed peasants to work; the impossibility of making them citizens; the impossibility, in short, of making them men. To his view was not unrolled the rich newer world history, to show that a working class is most dangerous when restricted; that oppression is more dangerous to the oppressor than to the oppressed; that if man will hew out paths to liberty, God will hew out paths to prosperity. But Richelieu’s fault teaches the world not less than his virtues.
At last on December 3, 1642, the great statesman lay upon his death-bed. The death-hour is a great revealer of motives, and, as with weaker men, so with Richelieu. Light then shot over the secret of his whole life’s plan and work. He was told that he must die: he received the words with calmness. As the host, which he believed the veritable body of the Crucified, was brought him, he said: “Behold my Judge before whom I must shortly appear! I pray him to condemn me if I have ever had any other motive than the cause of religion and my country.” The confessor asked him if he pardoned his enemies: he answered, “I have none but those of the state.”
So passed from earth this strong man. Keen he was in sight, steady in aim, strong in act. A true man, not “non-committal,” but wedded to a great policy in the sight of all men; seen by earnest men, of all times, to have marshalled against riot and bigotry and unreason, divine forces and purposes.
This ends our series of passages on Cardinal Richelieu’s Administration by Andrew D. White from his book Special Article to Great Events by Famous Historians, Volume XI. published in 1905. This blog features short and lengthy pieces on all aspects of our shared past. Here are selections from the great historians who may be forgotten (and whose work have fallen into public domain) as well as links to the most up-to-date developments in the field of history and of course, original material from yours truly, Jack Le Moine. – A little bit of everything historical is here.
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