Eve of the French RevolutionNecker and the Duke of OrléansLouis XVI’s fatal mistakesHis dismissal of the people’s favourites.
WE are now approaching the day when the long-pent-up storm, threatening for so great a while, was about to burst, and we must contemplate King Louis XVI and his advisers seeking for a means to placate a people at last stirred to resentment through the cruel and unjust burdens it had for generations been made to bear.
The murmurings which had long been general and indefinite were now resolving themselves into a hatred fast becoming focused upon the rich and the powerful, many of whom, it must be added, were also arrogant and dissolute.
A rude awakening among some of these, who had at last been brought to realise the imminence of the convulsion, induced them to advocate with much haste and little discretion certain concessions. These were obviously granted as acts of expediency, and with as little derogation as possible from their own interest, rather than out of any sympathy for a distressed and desperate people clamouring for relief.
So, early in 1789, the King was prompted to resort to an expedient which had not been adopted since the year 1614. He summoned the States-General to meet together at Versailles on the 5th of May, 1789.
In the deliberations of this National Council the King and his Ministers looked for support and guidance to meet the difficulties that beset them. But matters took an unexpected course. The Deputies of the Third Estate, which out-numbered the First and Second put together, demanded that all three Estates should. sit and vote as one whole indissoluble body. In spite of opposition they pushed their demand to a successful issue, and, grasping control of both legislative and executive power, forthwith resolved themselves into a permanent constitutional assembly.
The King soon found himself confronted by an irresistible authority, including a majority of men who betrayed little concern for his prerogative, and manifested a strong sympathy with the cause of the people.
In such stirring times as those which were now being experienced in France, Curtius turned to the advocates of the people’s cause for many of his subjects for his new Exhibition. Among these were many who were to figure largely in the Revolution.
Special mention must be made of two figures, added about this date, namely, Necker and Philippe, Duke of Orléans, for their models had an important bearing upon the events that followed.
Necker, at the time his model was made by Curtius and Madame Tussaud, was the French Minister of Finance. In 1775 he had claimed for the State the right of fixing the price of grain and, if necessary, of prohibiting exportation; a year later he was made Director of the Treasury, and in 1 777 he became Director-General of Finance.
His retrenchments were bitterly opposed by Queen Marie Antoinette; and his famous Compte Rendu, in 1781, occasioned his dismissal at that time. Some of his measures, such as his adjustment of taxes and his establishment of State-guaranteed annuities and State pawnshops, were a boon to suffering France. He re-tired to Geneva, but in 1787 returned to Paris, and, when M. de Calonne cast doubt on the Compte Rendu, he published a justification which drew upon him his banishment from Paris.
Recalled to office in September, 1788, he quickly made himself a popular hero by recommending the summoning of the States-General, to which reference has already been made.
On the 11th of July, 1789, he received the royal command to leave France at once; but the fall of the Bastille, three days later, frightened the King into recalling him, amid the wildest popular enthusiasm.
The Duke of Orléans, the famous Egalité, was an-other hero of the people at this time. He was looked upon coldly at Court owing to his dissolute habits.
London was frequently visited by him, and he be-came an intimate friend of the Prince of Wales, after-wards George IV. He infected young France with Anglomania an the form of horse-racing and hard drinking, and made himself popular among the lower classes by profuse charity.
In 1787 he showed his liberalism boldly against the King, and as the States-General drew near he lavished his wealth in flooding France with seditious books and papers. In the following year he promulgated his Délibérations, written by Laclos, to the effect that the Third Estate was the nation; and in June, 1789–the month that preceded the fall of the Bastille he led the forty-seven nobles who seceded from their own order to join that Estate.
The Duke presumed to become constitutional King of France, or at least Regent; but he was only a comparatively small fragment that drifted into the vortex of the Revolution itself. In 1792, when all hereditary titles were swept away, this “citizen” adopted the name of Philippe Egalité.
He was the twentieth Deputy for Paris in the National Convention, and voted for the death of the King; but in the following year retribution overtook him, for he himself was found guilty of conspiracy and guillotined.
The public distrust of the King’s party, the fatal error in bringing the foreign troops to Paris and its environs, and, finally, the banishment of Necker and the Duke of Orléans, the great champions of the people, must be regarded as the immediate cause of the catastrophe that followed.