Episode 4, ‘After Necker, Before Chaos’, explores the events that unfold after Jacques Necker’s resignation in May 1781. The absence of the popular Swiss commoner allowed conservative nobles to conduct a power grab within society, while Enlightenment ideas continued to spread throughout France as the privileged classes abused their prerogatives. Perhaps most importantly for the royal family, the Queen was embroiled in the Dimond Necklace Affair, a scandal that tainted her image permanently in the eyes of the public.
The Nobility Strikes Back
With the people’s hero vanquished from the government, the nobility used Necker’s absence as an opportunity to reassert their privileged place in society. Within days of Necker’s resignation in May 1781, reactionary nobles successfully implemented policies that strengthened their position in French society. One new policy required all officers in the infantry and cavalry to be able to prove their nobility for at least 4 generations. Another similar policy limited the accessibility of the Parlements. These policies were amongst the many that limited the social ascension of ambitious members of the Third Estate (as well as new members to the Second). Such limitations had profound effects on the stability of the Old Regime and undermined the feudal hierarchy it rested upon.
“The limitations upon the talents of the bourgeoisie, particularly upon those of ambitious lawyers, were to make them the aristocracy’s most formidable opponents.” – Historian Christopher Hibbert
Importantly, the rural gentry also used the opportunity to enact long-forgotten feudal rights which extracted more from the peasantry.
“The nobles, assured now of support from both government and magistracy, applied themselves throughout the length and breadth of France to the enforcement of their seigniorial rights. They refused to recognize any rights on the part of their subjects that were not authorized by legal contract. They increased the corvies and feudal dues, and even insisted on payment of revenue fallen into arrears for the last twenty-nine years. Moreover, they renewed the tax-registers (making the peasants responsible for all expenses of compilation), laid hands on communal property, disputed the rights of the populace over forest-lands, and tightened up their monopolistic privileges.” Historian Gaetano Salemini
Queen Marie Antoinette
Younger lovers that didn’t love
Marie Antoinette was the daughter of Empress Maria Theresa and arrived in France in 1770 as the wife of the French heir, Louis-Auguste. The future queen and her husband, the future Louis XVI, were viewed by the public as the new hope for the French monarchy as the unpopular Louis XV sat on the throne. This hope contained public disgruntlement with the Franco-Austrian alliance which facilitated the marriage in the first place. Although initially popular, Marie Antoinette was never truly able to shake off the fact that she was a foreigner (and a foreigner from a historic rival which as an ally dragged France into the Seven Years War).
Like nearly all queens, Marie Antoinette was expected to produce male heirs. Unfortunately, the young couple didn’t produce any children for many years. In fact, it was more than 3 years after the marriage until the Queen wrote to her mother stating that, “I think our marriage has been consummated.” It’s always worrisome when one doesn’t quite know if sex has or has not occurred. It took seven years of marriage until the Queen would write with certainty that the deed had been done.
Why it took the couple so long to consummate the marriage is debated. Some reports indicate that Louis actually found sex painful and that sexual relations with his wife were not really possible until an operation was performed on his penis. This was the opinion of de Mercy, the Austrian Ambassador to France. Some historians have disputed this, however, and believe instead that that young Louis was just wary of women. Perhaps the mistresses of his grandfather, Louis XV, were perceived to be a perverse influence on the court, and thus Louis XVI viewed women with suspicion. Whatever the cause, the result was the same.
Marie Antoinette, forced upon France by an unpopular alliance, became the center of public scrutiny and rumor as she continually failed to produce a child. Initially, the underground press began to depict her as an untrustworthy foreigner who meddled with the actions of the French court. However, as rumors of the sexual status of the couple became public knowledge, the underground press started to depict the new queen in a far more sinister manner. Ignored by the King, Marie Antoinette was accused of seeking pleasures elsewhere, reportedly with both men and women. To make matters worse, the increasingly unpopular Queen was then assigned the blame for the country’s debts. As the American Revolution war raged on, Necker’s Compte Rundu gave the public a view of the state’s finances and thus encouraged public scrutiny. Popular sentiment began to blame the court for wasteful extravagancies which harmed the Treasury, particularly blaming the Queen who was well known for her gambling and lavish lifestyle. Thus, Marie’s status in the public eye slowly deteriorated over the course of a decade. Initially the symbol of an unwanted alliance, her individual popularity waned as she became a meddlesome foreigner, then an adulterous, and finally a principal architect of the national debt. The result is that come 1785, the year of the Diamond Necklace Affair, the French public was all too willing to blame the Queen for a scandal she was innocent of committing.
The Diamond Necklace Affair
In 1785 the French court became engulfed in a scandal which would permanently tarnish the Queen’s public image and reinforce the perception that she was a heartless spendthrift.
Cardinal de Rohan was an ambitious member of the First Estate who sought to improve his standing at the French court. The Queen was known for pampering her favorites at court, and so the resourceful cardinal sought to win her favor. Jeanne de la Motte, a courtier who portrayed herself as a distant ancestor of a French King, convinced de Rohan that she was a close friend of the Queen and that she could win him the Queen’s favor. As a result, the cardinal began gifting Jeanne sums of money in return for ferrying notes to the Queen. Amazingly for de Rohan, the Queen wrote back, which encouraged him to continue to give money to Jeanne. In reality, the notes from the Queen were fake, written by Jeanne to keep the charade going. As the farce continued, Jeanne would eventually write a note to de Rohan that stated the Queen would like to purchase the famed diamond necklace.
The diamond necklace was a riviere necklace, a monstrosity that dangled over the wearer’s body and often ran towards the wearer’s waist. It was originally commissioned for Louis XV’s mistress Madame du Barry, but unfortunately for the jewelers and Madame du Barry, the King had died by the time the necklace had been created. Valued at more than 1.5 million livres, the prohibitive cost of the necklace meant that very few members of French nobility could actually afford to purchase it. Marie Antoinette, one such individual, didn’t particularly like neither the necklace or the individual it was originally intended for, and thus originally turned down offers to purchase it.
Cardinal de Rohan, however, now believed the Queen did want the necklace, thanks to a forged note from Jeanne de la Motte. Rohan arranged the necklace to be paid off in installments with the jewelers and then handed the necklace off to the Queen’s representative. That representative happened to be the Jeanne de la Motte’s lover, who began selling the stones piece by piece. The whole charade came undone when the first installment payment of 400,000 livres could not be paid to the jewelers, who go straight to the King for an explanation. Cardinal de Rohan was promptly arrested just moments before giving mass and was locked up in the Bastille.
What results is a public trial (Who doesn’t love a good old fashioned witch hunt?!). Unfortunately, things don’t go to plan for the innocent Queen. As the investigation and public trial goes on, the press emphasized details made the Queen appear like the real villain. Cardinal de Rohan was portrayed like a deceived and innocent holy man, so much so that when he was found innocent by the Parlement there were public celebrations in Paris. Meanwhile, Jeanne was portrayed as the real victim. According to the underground press, the Queen supposedly did employ Jeanne to acquire the necklace, and let the poor girl take the blame when the conspiracy was discovered. The botched branding that Jeanne received before imprisonment only spread rumors that the Queen (and by extension the executioner who branded Jeanne) was out to get her. The result of all this was that the Queen, already a meddlesome foreigner, an adulterous, and the principal architect of the national debt in the eyes of the public, now also became a monster. A monster that future revolutionaries would yearn to slay.
Enlightenment ideas take hold
As the nobles undertook their power grab and as the Queen was engulfed in scandal, the ideas of the Enlightenment were starting to get more traction with the bourgeoisie and some liberal sections of the nobility. Political clubs and salons were increasingly sprouting up throughout the country and the ideas of Locke, Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and others were became regularly debated. The principal driver behind this was not the decline in censorship, but instead the implementation of enlightened ideas in the American experiment. Before America, these new, in many cases radical ideas of how government should be structured (democracy) and how society should work (government for the people, by the people) were untested. Now implemented across the Atlantic, the ideas of self-government, individual liberty, and opportunity for all stood in stark contrast to the ideas underpinning the feudal Old Regime. With the feudal hierarchy suppressing the ambitions of the bourgeoisie and its unreasonable nature disgruntling many liberally-minded nobles, many Historians note that America was looked upon with awe. The result was that the foundations of the Old Regime were being eroded and being replaced with enlightenment philosophies and ideas.
“The American Revolution produced for the people of France an educational program of gigantic proportions.” – Historian Richard Mackey
“The French intellectuals could foresee in America the Nirvana of the future golden age and a model for a new France.” – Historian Richard Mackey
“It is certain that the revolution in America stimulated the energies of the middle-class revolutionaries.” – Historian Petr Kropotkin
“The revolution in America had, meanwhile, helped also to awaken minds, and to inspire them with a breath of liberty and republican democracy.” – Historian Petr Kropotkin
“The American Revolution not only won French aid, but, as any reader of the Declaration of Independence can understand, it offered practical lessons to the French enthusiasts for liberty.” – Historian Shalier Mathews
America, and the enlightened ideas the nation embodied, presented to France an alternative. To the French, this alternative seemed to be free of the burdens plaguing French society. America had no extravagant privileged orders suppressing the ambitions of the enterprising middle class. America had no court engulfed in scandal. America had no ties to the Catholic Church which was suppressing protestant minorities. America had a government that was comprised of elected citizens. It’s understandable why an increasing number of French citizens, and Europeans more broadly, began to contemplate implementing the American experiment in their own countries.
“Whether fantastically idealized or seen in a factual way, whether as mirage or as reality, America made Europe seem unsatisfactory to many people of the middle and lower classes, and to those of the upper classes who wished them well. It made a good many Europeans feel sorry for themselves, and induced a kind of spiritual flight from the Old Regime.”- Historian Robert R. Palmer