“THE Guard dies, it never surrenders!” Many of us, in the days of our youth, have cherished this saying; and when cold investigation proved that Cambronne gave a much less theatrical, although more military, reply to the English summons, we felt something like real grief on our disenchantment. And such has been the fate of many other wordy sparks which served to shed a deceitful light on our boyish conceptions of history. Now that we are more ready to doubt, now that we realize that the reality generally differs from the ideal, we hesitate to accept as authentic many of the verbal scintillations which some would-be historians ascribed to their heroes. Of course, the world’s greatest ones must necessarily let fall some observations which are really indicative of their rôle on the stage of life; but, alas! too many of their imputed sayings have no foundation better than the imagination of a biographer; or, at best, no better than that furnished by the theories of partisans, who have fancied that, in similar 135 circumstances, they themselves would have so spoken.
Take, for instance, the “L’État — c’ est moi” ascribed to Louis XIV. So firmly are most moderns convinced that the great monarch was guilty of this arrogance, that they adduce it as a verbal picture of his entire reign; and if perchance any doubts that the very words were uttered, they are at least accepted, in accordance with the Italian proverb, as “if not true, certainly well invented.” But did Louis XIV. ever use this phrase? Did the self-contained, dignified, and gentlemanly sovereign of then polite France descend so low as to use such language, and in circumstances and with adjuncts befitting a guard-room, perhaps, but assuredly not appropriate in the presence of a parliament? Voltaire tells us that in 1655 the seventeen-year-old King rushed into the parliament chamber, “in top-boots, and whip in hand,” and ordered the president to put an end to such assemblages.1 But Voltaire gives no authority for this assertion, and, as has been well observed, his own age renders it improbable that he had heard of the event from an eye-witness.2 If he did, 136 it is strange that not one contemporary author mentions the supposed fact. The younger Lacretelle, writing in 1820 in the “Biographie Michaud” (vol. xxv) repeats the story of Voltaire, and so does Sismondi in his “History of the French” (vol. xxiv).
Henri Martin carefully notes the King’s whip and top-boots; but it is strange that so grave an author should confound the “bed of justice” — a solemn session of Parliament, during which the King sat on a pile cushions — with a piece of bedroom furniture, and that he should find fault with the royal uncouthness in going to bed with boots and spurs unremoved.3 Then Martin informs us that Louis prohibited all self-initiated meetings of Parliament, in “four words;” that is, this author insinuates that the monarch cried, “I am the State,” when the president pleaded that the good of the country might require such meetings. Lavalée4 and Bonnechose5 also harp on the boots, spurs and whip of the young King, “who could well say, ‘L’État — c’ est moi;’” that is, according to these writers, if he did not use these very words, he might well have done so; “for they were the 137 sincere expression of a belief, and even the simple expression of a fact.”
Dareste observes (“Histoire de France,” vol. v, p. 353), that the first writer to mention the whip in the hand of Louis on this occasion was the Abbé Choisy, who wrote about the year 1700; but who, admits Dareste (who believes in the boots and spurs), was by no means a reliable authority. But Barthélemy says that he read and re-read the “Memoirs” of the Abbé, published in the “Collection Petitot” (series ii, vol. lxlll), without finding any mention of the whip. As for the top-boots which displease so many, and which Voltaire puts on the King during his supposed outburst against the Parliament in April, 1655, one of the most impartial writers of modern France, A. Cheruel, draws our attention to the fact that the King was hunting when he suddenly resolved on facing his Parliament; and that, at any rate, if he had not gone in his carriage, he would necessarily have been in top-boots, for these were then the habitual foot gear of three-fourths of the population. And, after reminding us that Paris still deserved its ancient name, Lutetiae, this author cites the commissary La Mare, who says that those of us who saw the commencement of the reign of his Majesty Louis XIV., remember how the 138 streets of Paris were so muddy that it was necessary to wear top-boots.6
Now, there is no good foundation for this story of whip, boots, and spurs; nor is there any at all for its adorning phrase, “I am the State.” The Duke de Noailles, who was the first to draw attention to this matter,7 says: “Louis XIV., resolute in abolishing the political pretensions advanced by the Parliament after the Fronde, and in restricting that body to its judiciary functions, may have shown some passion in the execution of his task, but he never acted in the cavalier fashion attributed to him — a fashion so little consistent with his ideas of the royal dignity, and with his respect for the great bodies of the State. He executed his design, firstly, in the session of December 22, 1665, with all the solemnity of a ‘bed of justice;’ and, secondly, without that solemnity, in the session of April 20, 1667. . . . These were the only sessions at which Louis XIV. assisted, and the ‘Journal’ of Olivier d’Ormesson, which enters into minute details of them, makes no mention of the 139 arrogant speech which has been so much censured.” And it is to be noted that the “Journal” cited by De Noailles is most favorable to the parliamentary cause, and therefore it would not have omitted to record any arrogance on the part of the monarch.
Nothing can be more absurd that the supposition fostered by our modern doctrinaires, and almost universally accepted, that all France was submissive to the nod of Louis XIV. “When we see the royal power so extensive and so effective,” says De Tocqueville, “we might be led to believe that all independence of spirit had disappeared with public liberty, and that the French had become used to subjection; if so, we would be greatly mistaken, for the old régime was not one of servility. Amid many institutions already prepared for absolute power, liberty survived.”8 Louis XIV. well knew, remarks De Carné,9 “how to direct reform without unchaining revolution; and he was always influenced by the truly liberal ideas which had slowly but surely made their way from the time of St. Louis to that of Richelieu.”
No ruler has ever been so much and perhaps 140 so extravagantly praised by the literary men of his day as Louis XIV.; but, to use the words of De Noailles, the universal hymn was sincere, and it contained many daring expressions which excluded all servility. The duties of a sovereign have seldom been more clearly enunciated than they were by Racine, in his great play of “Athalie” (act 4, scene 3), which was first presented, before the grand monarch’s whole court, in 1691; that is, at a period when he was in the very zenith of his glory, and therefore, as is presumed, at the culmination of his arrogance. The same may be said of the address of Boileau to the King, in 1669, one year after the taking of Aix-la-Chapelle; and of many sentiments in the “Characters” of La Bruyère. Let the reader examine these passages, and then decide whether it is at all probable that he monarch who permitted, nay gladly acclaimed, such sentiments, would have exclaimed: “L’État c’ est moi.”
While Louis XIV. was yet a boy, Cardinal Mazarin said of him that “he had in him the material for four kings and an honest man;”10 and if we read the “Memoirs” which the King prepared for the guidance of his 141 heir, we shall not only find much truth in the saying of the Cardinal-Minister, but we will agree with the not too partial Sismondi when he says that “these ‘Memoirs’ give an exalted idea of the extent and accuracy of the King’s views, and show us how hard he labored to perform his duty as a ruler, and also how profound was the moral sentiment which animated him.”11 In these “Memoirs,” remarks Barthélemy, Louis shows us the sense in which he would have used the famous phrase, if it ever could have been uttered by him. He would simply have meant to express the idea of a community of interest subsisting between king and country: “My son, we must think much more of the welfare of our subjects than of our own. It would seem that they are a part of ourselves. for they are the members of a body of which we are the head. It is only for their advantage that we should make laws for them, and our power over them should be exercised solely for their well being. . . . The position of a king is great, noble and flattering, when the king feels that he can fulfil all the engagements into which he has entered. . . . When the king has the State before his mind, he labors for himself; the welfare of one is the glory of the other. When the State is 142 prosperous and powerful, he who is the cause of all this is glorious, and he consequently enjoys, even more than his subjects, the agreeable side of life.”
And Henri Martin admits that in these “Memoirs,” Louis reveals himself entirely, as he was during the first and best part of his reign. He shows great good sense, an honesty which fails only in some thorny paths of diplomacy, very religious sentiments, and ideas as clear as his views are firm. We realize that the man was truly born for empire who could write such words concerning the severe enjoyments of labor and of duty, and on the noble pleasure of governing. He seemed to thoroughly understand the obligations of the head of the State, and that the national unity was personified in himself. He feared flatterers, and tried to avoid them. The pride which sometimes manifests itself in his grave and haughty language may be accounted for by the testimony of his satisfied conscience.”12
1 “Siècle de Louis XIV.,” chap. 25.
2 Barthélemy: “Erreurs et Mensonges Historiques,” vol. ii; Paris, 1886, 5th edit.
3 “Histoire de France,” vol. xii, p. 467; Paris, 1858, 4th edit.
4 “Histoire des Francais,” vol. iii, p. 197; Paris, 1847.
5 In the “Biographie Didot,” article “Louis XIV.”
6 “Traité de la Police.” Cheruel: “Histoire de l’Administration Monarchique en France dupuis l’Avénement de Philippe Auguste jusqu’à la Mort de Louis XIV.,” vol. ii, p. 32; Paris, 1855.
7 “Histoire de Mme. de Maintenon,” vol. iii, p. 667; Paris, 1848-58.
8 “Ancien Régime et la Révolution,” chap. xi; Paris, 1856.
9 L’Ecole Administrative de Louis XIV.,” in the Revue des Deux Mondes, July, 1857.
10 Saint-Simon: “Memoires,” vol. xxiv. p. 84, edit. 1840. See “Letters of Guy Patin,” vol. ii, cited by Barthélemy, loc. cit.
11 Loc. cit., p. 3.
12 “I have almost had to wait — J’ai failli attendre,” is another phrase which is often ascribed to the exquisitely polite Louis XIV. Such a petitesse would not have escaped the notice of the crotchety Duke de Saint-Simon, but he tells us, on the contrary, in his “Memoirs,” vol. xii, that “the king never allowed an uncomplaisant word to escape him, and if he had to reprimand or correct, which rarely happened, he always did so with more or less kindness, never with anger, and seldom with asperity.”