. 10
( 13)


erto unrecognised Romanians and Greek Orthodox.53 ]
When the Saxon representatives raised the issue of their privileges, the emperor
said, mildly but with warmth, ˜I desire to bring love and unity and I want everyone
to work together. Have you other matters?™ [They replied that they were in dif¬-
culty because their schoolteachers depended for their income on collections from
the faithful, but Joseph had forbidden all religious begging, which he believed
was a means whereby Catholic clergy and especially monks robbed the deluded
poor to promote superstition and their own well-being.] The emperor asked how
much was collected for each teacher yearly. They could not answer. Joseph said
this wasn™t very good for the teachers. He went on:
Your clergy and teachers need to be paid better and more regularly than Catholics
because they have wives and children. If my subjects were Turks, their dervishes
would have to be well enough paid to live . . . I would like to bring all church
funds together and divide them fairly, but the Catholic clergy keep on putting
hindrances in the way. I have the devil of a time with them.
We were astonished by these remarks, which HM made more in jest than in
anger. [ Joseph said he couldn™t change his decree and allow superstition and
clerical greed to prosper again. The Evangelicals must simply arrange to pay
their teachers proper salaries.]
This encounter seems absolutely characteristic. First, as Blanning has
pointed out, Joseph showed not the slightest concern for his personal
safety in such circumstances. Secondly, he stood ¬rm on his principles
and edicts. Thirdly, he discussed the issues reasonably. Fourthly, he made
quite a good joke, which was only too likely to be taken at face value and
to persuade his hearers that he was more sympathetic to them than he
really was. The clearest examples of his indiscretion re¬‚ect his sympathy
with the peasants in the face of landlord tyranny: Maria Theresa blamed
his incautious remarks for having encouraged the Bohemian peasants™
revolt of 1775, and the sympathy he showed to Horia about the repres-
sion of peasants by both government and nobles™ of¬cials in Transylvania
certainly played a large part in provoking the rebellion of 1784“5.54 And
¬fthly, it was not entirely uncharacteristic that he later made an excep-
tion to his prohibition on collections. On 2 May 1785 he issued a decree
reciting in very strong terms his objections to them, but then went on
to allow the Calvinists “ not the Lutherans who had petitioned him in

53 On these issues M. Bernath, Habsburg und die Anf¨ nge der rum¨ nischen Nationsbildung
a a
(Leiden, 1972), esp. part III; A. Schaser, Josephinische Reformen und sozialer Wandel in
Siebenb¨ rgen (Stuttgart, 1989), esp. pp. 40“71; in English D. Prodan, Supplex libellus
valachorum (Bucharest, 1971), esp. ch. XI.
54 My J.II, I, p. 350; Prodan, Supplex libellus valachorum, p. 252; S. Schuller, Samuel von
Brukenthal (2 vols., 1967“9), II.124“8; vast material in Pascu, Izvoarele.
266 Derek Beales

1783 “ to take collections for the support of their pastors, but only as a
temporary measure while the matter was inquired into.55
The concept of the public sphere, as it has been popularised, focuses
on literate, educated discussion of general political issues in newspa-
pers, pamphlets, coffee-houses, reading societies and Masonic lodges.
It certainly has not been taken to include ˜sel¬sh™ petitioning by illiterate
peasants. But, as I have shown, the public sphere clearly embraced the
petitioning that Joseph elicited, at least to the extent that many contem-
porary observers wrote about it with surprise and admiration, as they did
about the emperor™s affability, approachability and lack of condescension.
If, however, the public sphere is taken to embrace all interaction
between government and people which involves exchanges of views, then,
at least in the Monarchy under Joseph II, petitioning was a major element
in it. The reach of his call for petitions was far greater than that of the
public sphere as normally understood. Though most of the petitions he
received were written, in many cases they were based on statements by
illiterates. The emperor issued numerous edicts to try to make available
professional or semi-professional ˜advocates™ to all those with grievances
against their lords or the government so that they could compose peti-
tions in the proper form.56 And it is plain that, at least in certain cases,
the petitions, and Joseph™s encounters with ordinary people, contributed
to legislation. His discussions with ˜the whole universe™ in the Banat in
1768 certainly had much to do with the dismantling of the bureaucratic
management of the province. After visiting Lombardy in 1769 Joseph
was able to say that 4,000 of the 5,000 petitions he had received objected
to the tax-farm. They must have strengthened his opposition to it and
they certainly weighed with Maria Theresa and Kaunitz, who, to the cha-
grin of the resident minister, Count Firmian, abolished the tax-farm in
1771.57 It was obviously important that on his visits to Transylvania in
1773 and 1783 he received petitions from many Wallachians, Vlachs or
Romanians, who constituted over half the population, but did not count
as one of the three privileged so-called nations, Hungarians, Saxons and
Szekler, and practised a religion, Greek Orthodoxy, with less status in the

55 MOL C 23, no. 477 (2 May 1785).
56 At the same time as the patent of 1 September 1781 establishing a system whereby serfs
could complain against their lords was published, an Instruktion f¨ r Untertansadvokaten
was published. (See R. Rosdolsky, Untertan und Staat in Galizien (Mainz, 1992), esp.
ch. 5.) In Josephs des Zweyten R¨ mischen Kaisers Gesetze und Verfassungen im Justizfache
(Prague and Vienna, 1786) a circular of 23 January 1782, occupying pp. 118“37 (and
they are large pages), ordains how petitions are to be drafted, with model versions. This
mainly (but not entirely) relates to requests by departments and of¬cials.
57 My J.II, I, pp. 248“51, 266“71; Bernath, Habsburg und die Anf¨ nge der rum¨ nischen
a a
Nationsbildung, part III.
Joseph II, petitions and the public sphere 267

province even than Unitarianism. The Hungarians, Szekler and Saxons
treated the Romanians as irredeemably servile and stupid. Joseph, how-
ever, recognised that they had potential and anyway were men and citi-
zens. This was also partly because of his experience with the army in the
adjacent military frontier region, which had taught him that Romanians
made perfectly good soldiers. Without the visits of the emperor and his
talks to petitioners, it seems very unlikely that he would have introduced
concivility, parity between the Romanians and the other nations, in 1781.
This was something the local government would never have accepted, let
alone proposed, if Joseph had not been there himself and appraised the
situation. From the of¬cials™ point of view, as also in Galicia, the problem
was not that his travels taught him too little: they told him too much.
His receptivity to petitions contributed to arouse opposition to his
regime in the bureaucracy. Both Starhemberg and Leopold acknowl-
edged that Joseph™s receiving petitions made him ˜populaire™ or ˜popo-
lare™, a word which in their mouths was disdainful.58 But they, and many
other ministers like Firmian in Milan or Brukenthal in Transylvania, com-
plained that this attention to the opinions of the P¨ bel was inappropriate,
disrupted the steady and languid procedures of the administration “ and
compelled it to limit the powers, and what Maria Theresa and Joseph
called the tyranny, of the nobles, with whom the of¬cials sympathised.59
Brukenthal™s biographer declares that the petitions
neither furthered justice nor supplied needs. Speedy decisions about them could
lead to gross mistakes and cause subjects to lose all con¬dence in the orderly
process of administration and justice; or it increased the work of the departments,
which were required to investigate the origins of all these cases. For at this time
the ruler had total power and everyone sought help from him. The Grace of God
conferred on him also set the ruler™s ˜grace™ above all law.60

These remarks evidently re¬‚ect Brukenthal™s opinions and correspond
to those of other of¬cials. Sir Humphrey would have concurred. But
it does not appear to be true that Joseph often overrode ordinary pro-
cedures, though he certainly tried to accelerate them. Leopold tells us
that by 1784 the of¬cials were so discontented that they were deliber-
ately discrediting all Joseph™s reforms with the public even before they
were of¬cially announced. And why? Because, he says, Joseph had main-
tained his policy, laid down in 1765, of trusting the senior ministers and
never listening to the lesser of¬cials, while allowing ˜the universe to bring
him their complaints™. Any Flemish, Galician or Romanian peasant or

58 Leopold, ˜Relazione™; Starhemberg to Kaunitz, 30 June 1781 (Berichte 253).
59 This is emphatically Rosdolsky™s thesis in Untertan und Staat, and it is hard to gainsay.
60 S. Schuller, Samuel Brukenthal (2 vols., Munich, 1969), p. 88.
268 Derek Beales

ordinary inhabitant of Vienna could get an interview on the Controleur-
Gang, but no junior of¬cial.61
Petitioning a monarch has the air of a medieval survival. Individual peti-
tions about personal circumstances do not have the aura of the British
petitions from and to parliament or of the French cahiers. Nor do they ¬t
into the world of gazettes, coffee-houses, reading societies and Masonic
lodges. Looking for a twenty-¬rst-century British comparison, one might
suggest that MPs™ surgeries ¬ll something of the same function. But peti-
tions to the absolute ruler could be rather more effective, especially when
they impinged on general issues, since there was no parliament standing
between the petitioner and the ruler, or when they revealed misconduct
on the part of of¬cials whom the ruler had the power to discipline or
dismiss. In Joseph™s Monarchy his call for petitions and his attention to
them, both in his eyes and in the petitioners™, were a notable aspect of
relations between government and people. Either it ought to be included
within ˜the public sphere™, or at least those who write about the public
sphere should acknowledge the existence of these hundreds of thousands
of direct contacts between monarch and subject, contacts that included
the chattering classes but reached far deeper into society than clubs, the
press and pamphlets, and undoubtedly in¬‚uenced policy.
If petitioning, as exploited by Joseph II, has some claim to be included
within ˜the public sphere™, it can hardly be regarded as an aspect of ˜mod-
ernisation™. Perhaps a consideration of the role that petitioning played in
Joseph™s conception of government might lead to a reconsideration of
his status as a ˜moderniser™. This is surely not ˜anonymous government™
even if it is centralised. Nor is it ˜indirect, bureaucratic government™ as
opposed to ˜direct, personal social control™. Still less is it ˜media-based™
rather than relying on ˜personal communications™. Joseph was as much
inclined to develop certain older methods as certain newer ones. He glo-
ri¬ed the impersonal state, elevated the status of the bureaucracy and
provided it with the sort of ˜modern™ pension scheme which is about to
become obsolete. But his government was as personal as any ruler™s has
ever been.
61 Leopold, ˜Relazione™.
13 The court nobility and the origins of the
French Revolution

Munro Price
University of Bradford

On 21 May 1787, the marquis de la Fayette rose and delivered a speech
to the bureau presided over by Louis XVI™s younger brother, the comte
d™Artois, in the assembly of notables at Versailles. In the main this was a
technical examination of the new taxes the crown was proposing to tackle
the ¬nancial crisis facing France. La Fayette™s conclusion, however, was
startling. Assuming that it would take ¬ve years for the reforms under
discussion to bear fruit, he proposed that the happy moment of their
completion should be crowned by the convocation of a national assembly.
This phrase struck his audience like a bolt from the blue. As La Fayette
put it in his memoirs:
From the effect produced by these two words pronounced for the ¬rst time, one
would not have thought that only two years later, they would reappear with an
explosive force that would dominate France and the world. ˜What, Monsieur!™
exclaimed the comte d™Artois, ˜you are demanding the convocation of the Estates
General?™ ˜Yes, Monseigneur™ [I replied], ˜and even more than that.™1

To historians today, familiar with La Fayette™s subsequent role in the
French Revolution, his voicing of these sentiments in 1787 may not seem
so surprising. Yet as Artois™s reply makes clear, to his listeners at the
time they were both unexpected and shocking. Although he did have
something of a radical reputation from his participation in the American
War of Independence, La Fayette was also a distinguished noble, of a line
that had been admitted three times to the honours of the court in the
course of the century, and allied through his wife to one of the greatest
aristocratic families of all, the Noailles.2 For such a ¬gure to call for the

1 M´moires, correspondance et manuscrits du g´n´ral Lafayette (6 vols., Paris, 1837“8),
e ee
2 The standard biography of La Fayette is the multivolume work by Louis Gottschalk,
Lafayette Comes to America (Chicago, 1935); Lafayette Joins the American Army (Chicago,
1937); Lafayette and the Close of the American Revolution (Chicago, 1942); Lafayette between

270 Munro Price

Estates General, an act which would shake the world of Versailles to its
foundations, was to men like Artois almost inconceivable.
This chapter reconsiders why so many prominent nobles, of whom La
Fayette is only the most famous, between 1787 and 1789 turned on the
court that had bred them and, often in de¬ance of their material self-
interest, threw themselves into the struggle for a new political order. In
particular, it draws on the two major arguments put forward in the past
thirty-¬ve years to explain this conundrum. The ¬rst is that of Daniel
Wick, set out in an article of 1980 and then in more detail seven years
later in his published thesis.3 This links the espousal by prominent nobles
of the revolution in its early stages to loss of favour at court, above all at the
hands of Marie Antoinette, over the previous decade. The second inter-
pretation has been advanced most effectively by Tim Blanning himself
in The Culture of Power and the Power of Culture.4 This stresses frustrated
nationalism rather than disaffection with court politics as these nobles™
essential grievance. In this analysis, disgust at France™s disastrous defeat in
the Seven Years™ War, particularly among those nobles who were serving
of¬cers, turned them increasingly over the next quarter-century towards
radical politics and away from an obsolete court perceived to have failed
the nation.
A ¬nal section will apply both these analyses in a case-study of the
most powerful disaffected court noble of all, Philippe, duc d™Orl´ ans. e
Despite his importance in the ¬rst years of the revolution, Orl´ ans has
been somewhat neglected by historians for some decades now. Largely
this is an understandable reaction to the partisan conspiracy theories that
¬rst blossomed while the duke was still alive, and which cast him as the
demon king of the revolution. Yet although he falls outside Daniel Wick™s
¬eld of inquiry, Orl´ ans both illustrates and ampli¬es many of his themes.
He can also be seen as an example of the frustrated and militaristic young
nobles of the 1770s and 1780s analysed by Tim Blanning, though “
unsurprisingly given the duke™s quicksilver temperament “ with some
highly personal variations.

the American and the French Revolution (Chicago, 1950); (with M. Maddox), Lafayette in
the French Revolution, through the October Days (Chicago and London, 1969); (with M.
Maddox), Lafayette in the French Revolution: From the October Days through the Federation
(Chicago and London, 1973). There is also a good recent French biography: E. Taillemite,
La Fayette (Paris, 1989).
3 D. Wick, ˜The Court Nobility and the French Revolution: The Example of the Society
of Thirty™, Eighteenth-Century Studies 13 (1980), pp. 263“84 and A Conspiracy of Well-
Intentioned Men: The Society of Thirty and the French Revolution (New York and London,
4 T. C. W. Blanning, The Culture of Power and the Power of Culture: Old Regime Europe,
1660“1789 (Oxford, 2002).
Nobility and the origins of the French Revolution 271

Daniel Wick ¬rst outlined his conclusions in his 1980 article ˜The Court
Nobility and the French Revolution: The Example of the Society of
Thirty™, and they have had considerable in¬‚uence among historians since.
Wick™s starting-point is the well-attested fact that since Louis XVI never
took a mistress and increasingly concentrated his affection on his queen,
in the course of the reign Marie Antoinette was able to unite both these
roles, which had previously been divided, and wield unprecedented power
at court. Unfortunately, Wick argues, Marie Antoinette never understood
the cardinal rule of court politics as laid down by Louis XIV: a balance
had to be maintained in the distribution of patronage so that families and
factions remained in a state of equilibrium, with the crown as the ultimate
arbiter.5 Instead, she foolishly concentrated almost all her favour on her
small group of personal friends, the so-called queen™s soci´t´, dominated
by the parvenu Polignacs. In addition, her frequent withdrawals from
Versailles to lead the simple life with these friends, at the Petit Trianon
and elsewhere, robbed the rest of the court of that other vital component
of patronage, access to its source.
Wick™s most striking ¬nding is how many members of the Society of
Thirty, the extremely in¬‚uential Parisian pressure-group set up in late
1788 to in¬‚uence the forthcoming elections to the Estates General in a
liberal direction, came from court families previously shut out of favour
by Marie Antoinette. In fact, the name ˜Society of Thirty™ is something
of a misnomer, since within a month of its ¬rst meeting in November
1788 the group™s membership had swelled to ¬fty-¬ve. Of these ¬fty-¬ve,
nineteen, or over a third, were court nobles. Some, like the duc de Lauzun,
had fallen out with the queen personally. More, like the duc de Fronsac
and the duc d™Aiguillon, came from families that had been at daggers
drawn with her since her arrival in France. The ¬nal, and most numerous,
group belonged to court clans like the Noailles that had lost pensions and
positions to the Polignacs. The Noailles and their relations supplied two
prominent members of the Society of Thirty “ the vicomte de Noailles
and, inevitably, his brother-in-law La Fayette. In this perspective, it was
less ideology than that old staple of court culture, family politics, that
motivated the liberal nobles on the eve of the revolution.6
The evidence for Wick™s argument is certainly striking, but it does
not tell the whole story. Wick™s model of Louis XVI™s court, with Marie

5 The best recent works on patronage and faction under Louis XIV are R. Mettam, Power
and Faction in Louis XIV™s France (Oxford, 1988) and S. Kettering, Patrons, Brokers and
Clients in Seventeenth-Century France (New York, 1986).
6 Wick, A Conspiracy of Well-Intentioned Men, pp. 121“9, 141“5.
272 Munro Price

Antoinette and her soci´t´ on one side and a growing opposition of dis-
contented courtiers on the other, certainly holds good for the late 1770s
and early 1780s. Yet court politics, as all its practitioners knew, was never
static, but constantly changing, and those of France were no exception.
In fact, between 1784 and 1788 three major developments substantially
altered the map of political faction and political culture at Versailles.
The most dramatic of these was unquestionably the diamond neck-
lace affair, which mesmerized the court and the political nation from the
arrest of the cardinal de Rohan on Assumption Day 1785 for ˜conspiring
against the queen™s honour™ to his acquittal by the parlement of Paris
on 31 May 1786. While many details of the affair remain mysterious,
the prevailing view is that Rohan, who was hated by the queen, was per-
suaded by the con¬dence trickster Mme de la Motte, who claimed to be
an intimate of Marie Antoinette, that if he bought her a fabulous diamond
necklace that she was known to covet, he would immediately be restored
to favour. Naturally, Mme de la Motte stipulated that she should pass
the necklace to the queen, and when she absconded with it the scandal
broke. Beginning as a sordid fraud, the affair became political because
the queen™s enemies saw its potential as a means of attacking her through
taking Rohan™s side. In the ministry, these included the foreign minister
Vergennes and the ¬nance minister Calonne, while a strong oppositional
faction in the parlement of Paris eventually convinced its colleagues to
acquit Rohan at his trial.
In many ways, the affair simply con¬rmed the tendencies Wick
describes, adding to the ranks of Marie Antoinette™s enemies at court
and extending them to include a majority of the parlement. On the other
hand, it was so divisive that it inevitably changed the landscape of court
politics. The ministry, in particular, was so deeply split by the affair that
it did not long survive, and this in turn helped polarize allegiances at
Overlapping the diamond necklace affair, and encouraged by it, was a
crucial shift in court politics that had begun at least a year before. This
was the growing estrangement between the queen and her soci´t´, and the
latter™s migration across the political spectrum towards her opponents.
This was probably motivated by material gain; to sustain its lifestyle, the
queen™s soci´t´ needed to have the ¬nance minister on its side, and from

7 On the diamond necklace affair, see F. Mossiker, The Queen™s Necklace (New York, 1961).
On its cultural implications, see S. Maza, Private Lives and Public Affairs: The Causes
C´l`bres of Eighteenth-Century France (Berkeley, CA, 1993), pp. 167“212. On its politi-
cal context, see M. Price, Preserving the Monarchy: The Comte de Vergennes, 1774“1787
(Cambridge, 1995), pp. 170“86.
Nobility and the origins of the French Revolution 273

November 1783 this was Marie Antoinette™s enemy Calonne.8 When
Calonne was forced from of¬ce in April 1787, the Polignacs and their
circle also faced a reckoning. This reversal of fortune creates a problem
for Wick™s argument. At the very moment that the liberal court nobles
were emerging as a political force, the queen™s soci´t´ they hated was itself
in semi-disgrace. If resentment at loss of favour had really motivated the
Richelieus and the Noailles, then the clique they held responsible had
already been brought low.
The ¬nal upheaval, an immediate consequence of the fall of Calonne,
was the most important of all. This was the de¬nitive storming of the
ministry by the queen in the person of her chosen candidate, the arch-
bishop of Toulouse, Lom´ nie de Brienne, who became leading minister
in April 1787 and principal minister four months later. To tackle the dan-
gerous ¬scal and political crisis that had just toppled Calonne, Brienne
embarked on a major programme of reforms. Although the components
of the package varied over the next eighteen months according to circum-
stance, they included a land tax payable by the nobility and clergy as well
as the Third Estate, a stamp tax, substantial new loans, severe economies
at court and wide-ranging reform of the army.9
Brienne™s policy was certainly radical, and as the short-term political
crisis worsened he was forced to implement it by increasingly authori-
tarian means. Both these factors played into his opponents™ hands. The
sheer number of targets he attacked united his disparate enemies in a
wide-ranging coalition, while his ever-harsher methods “ culminating in
the breaking of the parlements in May 1788 “ gave them an unmissable
target of their own: despotism. Just how far Brienne™s adversaries were
motivated by constitutional principle or by simple self-interest remains
controversial. What is clear is that opposition to despotism provided an
extremely spacious tent under which the most diverse and even discor-
dant groups “ the nobility, the higher clergy, the urban bourgeois and the
urban crowd “ could cluster together.
Such an alliance was bound to create unlikely bedfellows, and nowhere
is this clearer than in the case of the court nobility. Some were unques-
tionably radicalized, and set out on a path that would lead them to the
Society of Thirty and ultimately, as deputies for the nobility in the Estates
General, to join the Third Estate in June 1789. Yet the scale of Brienne™s
reforming drive, and particularly his economies at court, allowed some
unlikely candidates to pose as victims of despotism. In a particularly ironic

8 See Price, Preserving the Monarchy, pp. 150“4.
9 The standard account of Brienne™s reforms is J. Egret, La pr´-r´volution fran¸aise, 1787“
ee c
1788 (Paris, 1962).
274 Munro Price

twist, these even included the queen™s soci´t´. In August 1787, the duc de
Polignac lost his position as postmaster-general and its salary of 50,000
livres a year, and the duc de Coigny his of¬ce of master of the horse.
Polignac took the blow with good grace, but Coigny did not; he almost
struck the king in a rage, and his friend the baron de Besenval memo-
rably rebuked the queen for supporting unconstitutional measures: ˜One
goes to bed not knowing whether or not one will wake up destitute,™ he
snapped. ˜One might as well be in Turkey.™10
The Polignacs are an important, but not the only, example of the truth
that courtiers who lost favour at court under Louis XVI did not all end
up as liberal nobles in 1789. Brienne™s reforms alienated many important
aristocrats who could hardly have been called liberal in 1787 and whose
political trajectory thereafter would tend even further to the right. The
Seven Years™ War veteran the mar´ chal de Broglie led a virtual mutiny
against Brienne™s military reforms as governor of Metz, and refused to sit
in the plenary court set up in May 1788 to register general laws in place
of the parlements.11 Yet in June 1789 he commanded the army gathered
by Louis XVI to confront the Estates General and the people of Paris,
and in 1792 led the army of the emigr´ princes to join the Austro-Prussian
´ e
invasion of revolutionary France. For Broglie and those who shared his
views there was no contradiction here: they opposed radicalism in 1788
when it came from the crown; they did so again in 1789 when it came
from the people.
For a ¬nal example of this ˜opposition from the right™, one returns to
that most spectacularly disgraced courtier of all, the cardinal de Rohan.
The cardinal was unable to participate in the pre-revolution because after
the diamond necklace affair he had been exiled to the Auvergne. In 1789,
however, he was released and a few months later elected to the constituent
assembly, where he was predictably hailed as a victim of despotism. Yet
the sufferings that the king and queen had in¬‚icted on him in no way rad-
icalized him; or if they did, they sent him in the opposite direction from
the Society of Thirty. Like Broglie, Rohan rallied to those ultra-royalists
who rejected even the limited concessions Louis XVI was prepared to
grant during the revolution. After denouncing the constituent assem-
bly™s religious policy, he retired to his bishopric of Strasbourg where he
attempted to foment counter-revolution, before emigrating de¬nitively in

10 Ibid., pp. 75“8; Baron de Besenval, M´moires, eds. S. A. Berville and J. F. Barri` re
e e
(3 vols., Brussels, 1823), III.182“4.
11 Wick, A Conspiracy of Well-Intentioned Men, p. 143; Egret, La pr´-r´volution, p. 92.
12 See E. H. Lemay, Dictionnaire des constituants (2 vols., Oxford, 1991), II.825“6.
Nobility and the origins of the French Revolution 275

These cases show that there were more ways for great nobles to react to
loss of favour than by espousing the popular cause. Far from it; Rohan,
Broglie and the Polignacs responded by taking the path of reaction as
far as it could go, to the court of the emigr´ French princes at Koblenz.
´ e
Disaffection from Versailles, important though it may have been, did not
lead inevitably to support for the revolution. Daniel Wick™s work reveals
an important truth about the court nobility and the origins of 1789, but
not the only one.

If alienation from the court was not the sole factor that motivated some
eminent nobles to become revolutionaries, what were the others? They
were complex and varied, but frustrated nationalism must rank very high
among them. One point on which almost all contemporaries and subse-
quent historians agree is that the defeats of the Seven Years™ War deeply
discredited the French monarchy. The one common factor in all the
memoirs of the liberal nobles of 1789 is fury at the humiliations France
had suffered between 1756 and 1763, and hatred of the national enemy
that had in¬‚icted them “ England. These feelings were only heightened
by the fact that so many of these men were soldiers. Fully sixteen of the
twenty-three sword nobles in the Society of Thirty, for example, were
military men.13
For these young noble of¬cers, the American War offered a golden
opportunity to take revenge on their neighbour across the Channel. The
most famous of them, La Fayette, provides the best example. To judge
by his memoirs, his unauthorized voyage to join Washington™s army was
motivated as much by Anglophobia as by love of liberty. His r´ sum´ in
e e
his memoirs of the causes of the con¬‚ict makes this very clear:
Having crowned herself with laurels and enriched herself with conquests, having
gained mastery of every sea and insulted every nation, England had turned her
pride against her own colonies . . . so that the obstinacy of her king, the passion
of her ministers, and the arrogance of the English people, had forced thirteen of
her colonies to declare their independence. No better cause had ever presented
itself to mankind; it was the last combat of liberty, and defeat would have left her
neither hope nor shelter . . . At the same time the destinies of France and England
would be decided; England saw that over half of her territory, and the best half,
could be lost. But if she recaptured these thirteen colonies, it would be the end
of the French Antilles and of our possessions in Africa and Asia, of our seaborne
trade and thus of our navy, in short, of our political existence.14

13 Wick, A Conspiracy of Well-Intentioned Men, pp. 107“8, 342.
14 M´moires, correspondance et manuscrits, I.8“9.
276 Munro Price

This vision of an Anglo-French struggle to the death may seem apoca-
lyptic, but there is no doubt that La Fayette, and many of his contempo-
raries, believed it sincerely at the time. Interestingly, while La Fayette™s
Anglophobia may have cooled after England™s defeat in the American
War, it by no means disappeared. Writing to an unknown correspon-
dent in 1786, he did admit that he now found the English agreeable as
The humiliation of the [Seven Years™ War] and their insolence during the peace,
gave me an aversion to them . . . but now I meet them with pleasure, and whether
as a Frenchman, an American soldier or as an ordinary person, I am quite at my
ease amid this proud nation.

However, La Fayette continued,
my conversion is not yet complete. While avoiding the stupidity of treating them
as personal enemies, I cannot forget that they are the enemies of French glory
and French prosperity.15

It is well known that the American Revolution cast a long shadow over
the French Revolution, but is perhaps worth re-emphasizing just how
long. To return to the Society of Thirty, there was a hard core of six
of its sword noble membership of twenty-three who had actually served
in America “ La Fayette himself, the vicomte de Noailles, Alexandre,
Charles and Th´ odore de Lameth, and the duc de Lauzun. Of the fur-
ther ten who were army of¬cers, several took part in the war to a lesser
degree, and its rhetoric rubbed off on them too. The in¬‚uence is just as
clear on the robe nobles in the society. Its moving force, the councillor
Adrien Duport, headed a group of younger magistrates in the parlement
of Paris who advocated a liberal constitution so passionately that they
were dubbed ˜the Americans™. Given the importance of the Society of
Thirty, and the fact that fully twenty-¬ve of its ¬fty-¬ve members were
elected to the Estates General in 1789, the signi¬cance of the American
example becomes very striking.16
A second example of frustrated nationalism could be found even closer
to home. If England was hated as the direct cause of France™s humiliation
in 1763, a more insidious loathing was reserved for Austria. A strong cur-
rent of court and public opinion felt that by jettisoning traditional French
foreign policy and precipitating the Seven Years™ War, the 1756 alliance
with the Habsburgs had been disastrous for France. According to this
analysis, France had been dragged into a damaging European war simply
to help Austria win her feud against Frederick the Great of Prussia. To

15 16
Ibid., II.160“1. Wick, A Conspiracy of Well-Intentioned Men, pp. 161, 166.
Nobility and the origins of the French Revolution 277

these rational geopolitical arguments was added a more pathological dis-
trust of the Habsburgs as old enemies still pursuing anti-French policies
under the guise of friendship.
All of these strands came together in the campaign waged at court
against Marie Antoinette from the moment she set foot at Versailles.
The new dauphine, and from 1774 queen, was not only a symbol of
the Austrian alliance™s permanence, to her detractors she was one more
example of the underhand Habsburg tactic of using women as agents of
domination by marrying them off to their allies. Hence the appearance
of political and pornographic libels against Marie Antoinette from the
early 1770s on, and which probably originated with the anti-Austrian
faction at court. Marie Antoinette retaliated with the only weapon at her
disposal, by withholding patronage from those she deemed responsible.
It is no coincidence that many of those families shut out of favour by the
rise of the soci´t´, such as the Richelieus and the Noailles, were members
of the anti-Austrian faction. Thus their dislike of Marie Antoinette, and
her defensive withdrawal into her own circle, became a self-reinforcing
It was only after 1789, with the government™s loss of control over
the press and Marie Antoinette™s identi¬cation with counter-revolution
and foreign intervention in France, that Austrophobia attained its fullest
development, and the ¬‚ow of libels against the queen signi¬cantly
increased. Between 1774 and 1787, Austrian demands on France, and
French perceptions that she was being exploited by Austria, were kept
in check by the skill of Louis XVI and his foreign minister Vergennes.
Although crises over the Bavarian succession and the Scheldt brought
Franco-Austrian relations to the brink of rupture, the main aim of French
foreign policy was preserved: a general peace was maintained on the con-
tinent and France was left free to settle scores with England overseas.17
With victory in the American War, the French monarchy was success-
fully riding the nationalist tiger. It was not, however, suf¬ciently aware

17 On French Austrophobia see the important articles by T. E. Kaiser, ˜Who™s Afraid
of Marie Antoinette? Diplomacy, Austrophobia and the Queen™, French History 14:3
(September 2000), pp. 241“71; G. Savage, ˜Favier™s Heirs: The French Revolution and
the secret du roi™, Historical Journal 41 (1998), pp. 225“58. On Louis XVI™s and Ver-
gennes™s policy towards Austria see J. Hardman and M. Price (eds.), Louis XVI and the
Comte de Vergennes: Correspondence, 1774“1787 (Oxford, 1998), passim. On the pamphlet
literature against Marie Antoinette see V. R. Gruder, ˜The Question of Marie Antoinette:
The Queen and Public Opinion before the Revolution™, French History 16:3 (Septem-
ber 2002), pp. 267“98; S. Burrows, Blackmail, Scandal and Revolution: London™s French
Libellistes, 1758“1792 (Manchester, 2006); C. Thomas, La reine sc´l´rate: Marie Antoinette
dans les pamphlets (Paris, 1989); and L. Hunt, ˜The Many Bodies of Marie Antoinette:
Political Pornography and the Problem of the Feminine in the French Revolution™, in
L. Hunt (ed.), Eroticism and the Body Politic (Baltimore, MD, 1991), pp. 108“30.
278 Munro Price

of the consequences if it fell off. These became painfully obvious four
years later, with the Prussian invasion of Holland. As Tim Blanning has
forcefully argued in both The Culture of Power and The French Revolution-
ary Wars, this marked a crucial stage in the collapse of the old regime.18
The Dutch alliance was perhaps France™s greatest gain from the Amer-
ican War. Above all, it opened up the prospect of her using the Dutch
colonial empire in the Far East as a base from which to expel England
from India. In September 1787, however, preoccupied with the ongoing
¬nancial and political crisis, Brienne failed to support France™s clients, the
Dutch Patriot party, against a Prussian invasion to restore the authority of
the pro-British and pro-Prussian Stadtholder. France lost a vital strategic
alliance, and even her status as a great power seemed to be at risk.19
The most important consequences of all were domestic. A wave of
injured national pride engulfed the French political nation, and especially
those young noble of¬cers who had fought in or supported the American
War. As one of them, the comte de S´ gur, put it in his memoirs:
Prompt help [for the Dutch] would undoubtedly have resolved everything; our
fatal irresolution guaranteed the triumph of our rivals, betrayed the secret of our
weakness, and marked the ¬rst signs of a political decadence which we only shook
off later through the efforts and the volcanic eruptions of a revolution.20
Many other retrospective accounts con¬rm the sense of national humil-
iation felt after the unopposed Prussian invasion of Holland, and under-
line the extent to which it alienated opinion from the regime, particularly
in the army. Yet S´ gur also raised a further point that makes an important
link between the American victory and the Dutch debacle. For young lib-
eral noblemen like himself, he wrote, what was particularly galling about
the failure to support Holland was that it was another republic that was
calling for French aid.21 Having championed the cause of liberty in the
United States, France was now betraying it in the United Provinces. When
the same government that had abandoned the Dutch then turned on its
own people in May 1788, the bonds of allegiance became dangerously
strained. Here too, S´ gur™s comments are telling. Repeating his convic-
tion that the only way Brienne could have ˜diverted the passions that were
agitating and leading the country astray™ was by a just war in defence of
Holland, he added damningly:
18 Blanning, The Culture of Power, pp. 421“3.
19 T. C. W. Blanning, The Origins of the French Revolutionary Wars (London, 1986), pp. 47“
51; O. T. Murphy, The Diplomatic Retreat of France and Public Opinion on the Eve of the
French Revolution, 1783“1789 (Washington, DC, 1997); M. Price, ˜The Dutch Affair and
the Fall of the ancien r´gime, 1784“1787™, Historical Journal 38 (1995), pp. 875“905.
20 Comte de S´ gur, M´moires, ou souvenirs et anecdotes (3 vols., Paris, 1825“7), III.199“200.
e e
21 Ibid., pp. 249, 262.
Nobility and the origins of the French Revolution 279

This tactic, however, was the only one that the archbishop-minister did not dare
to try. It was offered, even dictated to him: but it frightened his feeble spirit.
Timid against our natural enemies, but bold against his own nation, he could not
bring himself to use force against rival powers, but risked a coup d™´ tat against
his own people and the parlements, which in turn provoked, by a sort of appeal
to the nation, the convocation of the Estates General and sounded the hour of
the revolution.22

The increasing reluctance of army of¬cers to carry out orders to repress
the civilian population in 1788 and 1789 is well known. Whether this
amounted to a defection of the army from the royal government, or even
to a military coup, is more controversial.23 From the ranks of the Society
of Thirty, the comte Destutt de Tracy refused to order his regiment to
repress demonstrations in favour of the parlement of Brittany in 1788,
and his was not an isolated case.24 On the other hand, neither in 1788 nor
during the far more serious confrontation of July 1789 did young noble
of¬cers actually lead their men over to the side of the crowds defying the
government. Yet perhaps this was not necessary. As Samuel Scott has
shown, the decision not to use force against the insurgent Parisians on 14
July was prompted not by the fact that the troops were actually unreliable,
but that so many of¬cers insisted to their commander the mar´ chal de
Broglie that they were. One wonders for how many of these of¬cers
giving warning that their men would not march was simply a less risky
way of refusing to obey orders of which they disapproved. Either way,
it had the same result: the offensive was not taken, the Bastille fell, and
the National Assembly was saved. If there is such a thing as a tacit coup
d™´ tat, then July 1789 provides a good example.

Between them, the analyses of Daniel Wick and Tim Blanning add sub-
stantially to our knowledge of the motivation of the liberal nobility on
the eve of the revolution. Yet they can also be extended to include the
greatest liberal noble of all, and the one who probably had the most signif-
icant effect on the events of 1789, Louis-Philippe-Joseph, duc d™Orl´ ans.
An enigmatic and deeply controversial ¬gure, Orl´ ans has tended to deter

22 23 See Blanning, The Culture of Power, pp. 426“7.
Ibid., p. 262.
24 E. Kennedy, A Philosophe in the Age of Revolution: Destutt de Tracy and the Origins of
˜Ideology™ (Philadelphia, 1978), p. 15.
25 S. F. Scott, The Response of the Royal Army to the French Revolution (Oxford, 1978),
pp. 60“2.
280 Munro Price

scholarly historians.26 However, the insights of Wick and Blanning, when
applied to the duke, shed considerable light on his motivation and actions.
If any court noble had the resources to make his opposition effective, it
was the duc d™Orl´ ans. For a start, as the king™s cousin and ¬rst prince of
the blood he had a reversionary interest in the throne, although after 1775
and the birth of male heirs ¬rst to the comte d™Artois and then to Louis
XVI this prospect receded. On a more practical level, he was the richest
man in France after the king himself. His appanage, which included the
duchies of Orl´ ans, Valois and Chartres, the county of Soissons and the
Palais-royal in Paris, brought him an annual revenue of between three
and four million livres on the eve of the revolution. His own patrimonial
inheritance, which encompassed the duchy of Montpensier as well as the
chateau of Saint-Cloud, added a similar yearly sum. Finally, Orl´ ans™s
marriage in 1769 to the only daughter of another prince of the blood,
the immensely wealthy duc de Penthi` vre, secured him not only a dowry
of six million livres, but also an inheritance that would make the next
Orl´ ans generation the richest princely family in Europe.27
In exactly the same way as the court nobles studied by Wick, Orl´ ans™s
path to opposition began with estrangement from Marie Antoinette. This
development was particularly spectacular since for several years the two
had been close friends and allies. When Marie Antoinette ¬rst arrived at
Versailles in 1770 to marry the future Louis XVI, the duc de Chartres,
as Orl´ ans was then styled since his father was still alive, was one of
the few of her new relations with whom she had anything in common.
Their political stance was the same: both loathed the ageing Louis XV™s
mistress, Mme du Barry, and his ministers d™Aiguillon, Maupeou and
Terray, and supported the recall of the parlements exiled and remodelled
in 1771. Marie Antoinette and Chartres also shared the same taste; the
pleasure garden he laid out in 1773 at Monceau in western Paris provided
the inspiration for her efforts at the Petit Trianon. Above all, until the
late 1770s Chartres was a pivotal ¬gure in Marie Antoinette™s soci´t´, on
excellent terms with both Mme de Polignac and his fellow-rake the baron
de Besenval.28
Signi¬cantly, the root of the quarrel that transformed Chartres from
one of Marie Antoinette™s closest friends into her greatest enemy was a

26 The principal scholarly works on the duc d™Orl´ ans are A. Britsch, La jeunesse de Philippe-
Egalit´ (Paris, 1926); B. F. Hyslop, L™apanage de Philippe-Egalit´, duc d™Orl´ans, 1785“
e e e
1791 (Paris, 1965); G. A. Kelly, ˜The Machine of the duc d™Orl´ ans and the New Politics™,
Journal of Modern History 51 (1979), pp. 667“84; and E. Lever, Philippe-Egalit´ (Paris,
27 G. Antonetti, Louis-Philippe (Paris, 1994), pp. 28“33.
28 Lever, Philippe-Egalit´, pp. 137“52.
Nobility and the origins of the French Revolution 281

military matter. Like so many of the liberal nobles analysed by Daniel
Wick, Chartres was frustrated by the gilded constraints of Versailles, and
longed to break out of them and achieve something of his own, preferably
in the traditional outlet of the armed forces. Again like them, he saw
his great chance in the American War. In an original twist of his own,
however, he chose to serve not in the army, but the navy, which no royal
prince had done before. Partly this was simple pragmatism; his cousins
Artois and Cond´ both had better claims to advancement in the army
than he, and he also had hopes of inducing his father-in-law Penthi` vre
to resign his prestigious and lucrative sinecure of grand admiral of France
in his favour. Yet, as his two tours of duty in 1775 and 1776 showed,
Chartres did show some commitment to his naval career, and took his
duties seriously.29 By the eve of the American War, it seemed that the
navy had provided him with a secure niche and a promising future.
The war itself, however, ruined these prospects. On its outbreak,
Chartres was appointed inspector-general of admiral d™Orvilliers™s Brest
¬‚eet, and in addition given command of its third division. Yet at the battle
of Ushant on 27 July 1778, in circumstances which still remain unclear,
he failed to respond promptly to a signal from d™Orvilliers to envelop the
English rearguard, thus missing the chance of a decisive victory. When
the news reached Versailles, Chartres only made his position worse by
vicious attacks against the navy minister, whom he accused of blackening
his conduct, and against the war minister, whom he suspected of blocking
a possible sideways move into the army.30 Louis XVI was furious, and
Marie Antoinette had no option but to follow her husband™s lead. When
Chartres, in a last desperate attempt to retrieve his reputation, tried in
July 1779 to join the expeditionary force being sent to America under an
assumed name, it was she, writing on her husband™s behalf, who ordered
him back. The letter is one of the very few cases of the queen transmitting
her husband™s wishes in a direct command:

The king is acquainted and displeased, Monsieur, with your desire to attach
yourself to his army. The constant refusals he has had to oppose to the most
pressing demands in the area which most deeply concerns him [i.e. requests by
young court nobles to serve in the expeditionary force], and the effects that your
example would have, make me see only too clearly that he will accept no excuses
and make no exceptions. The pain this causes me has made me agree to accept
the task of communicating to you his intentions, which are quite positive. He feels
that by sparing you the severe form of an order, he will lessen your distress at his
decision while ensuring your swift submission.31

29 30 Ibid., pp. 167“81.
Ibid., pp. 153“60.
31 This letter is reproduced in ibid., p. 183.
282 Munro Price

This document is especially signi¬cant since it constitutes written proof
of a formal breach between Marie Antoinette and a future liberal noble
of 1789. For most of the latter, the queen™s disfavour was shown in more
subtle ways, by exclusion from her inner circle or the material bene¬ts of
her patronage. From the moment he received Marie Antoinette™s letter,
however, Chartres was in semi-disgrace. True, he was not actually exiled,
but everybody at court knew that the king and queen were deeply dis-
pleased with him, and had signi¬ed this to him in explicit terms. For his
part, from this moment on Chartres regarded Louis XVI, and especially
Marie Antoinette, as his enemies. The ˜Ushant affair™ was thus decisive
in transforming Chartres into an oppositional ¬gure, with all the con-
sequences that would ¬‚ow from that stance. As his mistress and closest
adviser Mme de Genlis put it later in her memoirs: ˜This fatal resentment
had the most unhappy in¬‚uence on his character and his destiny.™32
Like so many other young French aristocrats, Chartres had sought in
war the ful¬lment “ and the glory “ that the world of Versailles could not
offer them. In this, he was typical of the young of¬cers whose political
evolution from the American War to the Dutch disaster Tim Blanning has
charted. Unlike them, however, his foray had ended not in a triumphant
return, but disfavour and discredit. The chief causes of this failure were
purely personal, and ascribable to Chartres™s inexperience and volatility.
One should not therefore take the parallel between Chartres™s American
war and that of the other liberal nobles of 1789 too far. What can be
argued, however, is that Chartres had already experienced by 1779 the
frustration and humiliation that the Dutch debacle would in¬‚ict on them
in 1787, though in his case there was also a whiff of personal dishonour.
Chartres™s alienation from Versailles also had a spatial dimension,
important both in itself and in its consequences. As William R. New-
ton has shown in his excellent recent study of the living arrangements at
court, the expansion of the royal family under Louis XV and Louis XVI
had serious practical implications for the princes of the blood.33 When-
ever a new royal offspring was born or reached the stage of constituting
a household, the extra space needed was usually gained at their cousins™
expense. For the latter, the menace of being turned out of a comfortable
apartment for something often inferior became a fact of life. The Orl´ ans,
however, were particularly hard hit, and it is dif¬cult not to conclude that
this may have been connected to their increasing alignment with the oppo-
sition to royal policy. Although he never embraced the extremes his son

32 Cited in ibid., p. 184.
33 W. R. Newton, L™espace du roi: la cour de France au chˆ teau de Versailles, 1682“1789 (Paris,
2000), p. 32.
Nobility and the origins of the French Revolution 283

later did, Chartres™s father the duc d™Orl´ ans generally took the side of
the parlements in their disputes with the crown. Whether or not it was
intended as a punishment, the fact that he was forced to move four times
at Versailles in the ten years from 1747 to 1757 can hardly have improved
his relations with Louis XV.34
From 1757 to 1780 Orl´ ans and Chartres were allowed to enjoy undis-
turbed the apartment allotted to them on the ¬rst ¬‚oor of the Aile des
Princes looking out on to the Parterre du Midi. In 1780, however, this
happy state came to an end when Louis XVI expropriated the lodging
to give more room to his younger sister Madame Elisabeth. This latest
compulsory move had two particularly galling aspects. Firstly, it meant
that the Orl´ ans lost their last foothold on the prestigious garden fa¸ ade
e c
of the Aile des Princes. Secondly, they were making way not only for
Madame Elisabeth but also for her lady-in-waiting Diane de Polignac,
cousin of Marie Antoinette™s favourite and a key member of the soci´t´. ee
There was, however, one feature of the apartment they must have been
glad to leave. When Diane de Polignac™s maids took up residence, they
were morti¬ed to ¬nd that their rooms were directly under a large and
leaky latrine. Here at least, the Orl´ ans had the last laugh.35
Although the duke and his son were rehoused in the north-eastern
corner of the Aile des Princes, they rarely lived there. The eviction of 1780
thus marked their de¬nitive alienation from the court. More important
still, it decisively shifted Chartres™s focus towards Paris. It hardly seems a
coincidence that just ¬ve months after the loss of the Versailles apartment,
the duc d™Orl´ ans formally made over to his son his Paris residence, the
Palais-royal. Over the next three years, Chartres made his new property
the focus of a remarkable, and in many ways visionary, urban development
project. His plan was to enclose the Palais-royal™s famous gardens by
arcaded rows of houses and shops, and to recoup his investment from the
rents they would yield. Begun in the summer of 1781, the transformation
was complete by August 1784.36
Unfortunately for Chartres, the Palais-royal venture failed to yield the
hoped-for pro¬ts. What it did become was an extraordinary and mul-
tifunctional public space in the heart of Paris. It was the capital™s most
fashionable pleasure garden and social centre, containing elegant estab-
lishments like the Caf´ de Foy and the Caf´ du Caveau and, from January
e e
1785, a large theatre. It was also a noted place of assignation, famous
for the prostitutes who gathered in the ˜Camp des Tartares™, the area of
wooden booths at the open end of the gardens. Yet the Palais-royal was
also a cultural space. In April 1784 a literary club, the Lyc´ e, opened

34 35 36
Ibid., p. 34. Ibid., pp. 37, 253. Lever, Philippe-Egalit´, p. 223.
284 Munro Price

its doors, followed in December by the scienti¬c museum founded by
the famous balloonist Pilatre de Rozier, which remained an important
meeting-place for the Parisian intellectual elite until the revolution. Pilatre
de Rozier™s museum was soon joined by a literary and artistic society, the
Club des Arts, and an exclusive Masonic lodge, the Club Olympique.37
The full importance of the Palais-royal, however, only becomes appar-
ent in comparative perspective. In The Culture of Power, Tim Blanning
has drawn a striking contrast between late eighteenth-century Versailles
and Vienna as symbols of state power. Versailles remained immured in
the conception of kingship perfected by Louis XIV, ruled by etiquette
and dangerously disconnected from the artistic, intellectual, cultural and
social concerns of an increasingly prosperous and cultivated population.
Yet in Austria, Joseph II was determined to reach out to precisely the
sort of people the French Bourbons were rejecting. He closed down
Schonbrunn, the Habsburg Versailles, and moved instead into an unpre-
tentious villa in the Augarten. Signi¬cantly, he also opened up much of
the dynasty™s private space to the public. He turned the Glacis around the
old city of Vienna into a public recreation ground, followed by the Prater
in 1766 and the Augarten in 1775. Two years later, he transformed the
Belvedere palace into a public art gallery.38
The case of the Palais-royal adds a further dimension to the contrast
between Versailles and Vienna. In Austria, the emperor himself saw the
need to use architecture and planning to forge bonds with the new type
of public and ˜public opinion™ created in the course of the century. In
France, on the other hand, this process was initiated not by the king,
but by a disaffected prince of the blood. Admittedly, the pro¬t motive,
which loomed large in the duc de Chartres™s mind, was absent from that
of Joseph II. Yet the result of both men™s efforts was remarkably similar:
˜democratic™ public spaces in which all classes could mix freely together,
and enjoy a variety of experiences from simple leisure to cultivation of
the arts and sciences. Beside these, hierarchical Versailles, increasingly
deserted by the nobility as well as the public, had a palpable air of decline.

37 Ibid., pp. 223“6. On Louis-Philippe-Joseph™s rebuilding of the Palais-royal, see R. H´ ron
de Villefosse, L™anti-Versailles ou le Palais-royal de Philippe-Egalit´ (Paris, 1974) and V.
Champier and G. R. Sandoz, Le Palais-royal d™apr`s des documents in´dits (2 vols., Paris,
e e
1900). On the importance of the Palais-royal in the early stages of the revolution see D. M.
McMahon, ˜The Birthplace of the Revolution: Public Space and Political Community
in the Palais-royal of Louis-Philippe-Joseph d™Orl´ ans, 1781“1789™, French History 10
(1996), pp. 1“29. For its wider role as a centre of Parisian leisure, see R. M. Isher-
wood, Farce and Fantasy: Popular Entertainment in Eighteenth-Century Paris (New York
and Oxford, 1986).
38 Blanning, The Culture of Power, pp. 415“18, 430“1.
Nobility and the origins of the French Revolution 285

On 18 November 1785, Chartres™s father died, and he became in his
turn duc d™Orl´ ans. He was now ¬rst prince of the blood, and this fact only
served to enhance his standing in the opposition to Louis XVI and Marie
Antoinette. Two years later, he used this status to create a political sen-
sation. When the parlement of Paris refused to accept Brienne™s reform
programme in the summer of 1787, he ostentatiously sided with the recal-
citrant magistrates. Then, at the royal session called on 19 November to
secure the passage of a compromise package, when Louis XVI ordered
the edicts to be registered without a vote, Orl´ ans electri¬ed the gathering
by rising and declaring the proceedings illegal. This dramatic interven-
tion cost the duke four months of exile at his chateau of Villers-Cotterets
north-east of the capital, but made him a hero to the Parisians.39
When the Estates General were called in late 1788, Orl´ ans threw
immense resources into the election campaign. He was never a member
of the Society of Thirty, but his aim was the same as its own: to ensure
that the political programme the deputies brought to the estates, in the
form of their cahiers of grievances, were as liberal as possible. He even
issued instructions to the deputies elected from his domains, and a model
cahier for them to use, in the form of two widely diffused pamphlets, the
Instructions donn´es par SAS Monseigneur le duc d™Orl´ans a ses repr´sentants
e e ` e
aux bailliages, and D´lib´rations a prendre dans les assembl´es de bailliages.
ee ` e
The ¬rst was written by the soldier, writer and adventurer Choderlos de
Laclos, more famous today as the author of Les liaisons dangereuses; the
second by the abb´ Siey` s. Signi¬cantly, Orl´ ans was introduced to both
e e e
men by friends of his in the Society of Thirty; Laclos was presented to
him by the vicomte de Noailles, and it was at Lauzun™s country cottage
at Montrouge that he met Siey` s and commissioned him to write the
Siey` s and Laclos, however, formed only a small part of Orl´ ans™s elec-
e e
toral and publicity machine. Contemporary accounts are sometimes dif-
¬cult to verify, but at various points in this period the duke seems to have
employed an extraordinarily brilliant and diverse group of talents, includ-
ing several future leaders of the revolution: Brissot, Mirabeau, Duport,
Dumouriez, Danton, Desmoulins, Bar` re and Marat. For this reason
alone, Orl´ ans™s political importance in 1789 and beyond can never be
Unsurprisingly, these developments had a major effect on the Palais-
royal. Already a recreational and cultural space, it now became a political
one. From 1787 on, the Lyc´ e, founded as a literary club, and numbering

39 Lever, Philippe-Egalit´, pp. 261“6.
40 41
Kelly, ˜The Machine of the duc d™Orl´ ans™, pp. 672, n. 21, 679“80.
e Ibid., p. 674.
286 Munro Price

Condorcet, Chamfort and La Harpe among its members, turned its atten-
tion ¬rmly to politics. According to Bar` re, it ˜became a real centre of
moral and political opposition to the court and the ministry™. In the win-
ter of 1788 the club des Enrag´ s, co-founded by Siey` s, was opened. It
e e
was followed in February by the Club de Valois, dominated by liberal
nobles many of whom also belonged to the Society of Thirty. Orl´ ans e
protected it, and made frequent appearances there. As France™s ¬nan-
cial and political crisis worsened, the Palais-royal became the capital™s
principal focus of discussion, agitation and radicalism. All these develop-
ments culminated on 13 July 1789, when Camille Desmoulins climbed
on to a chair at the Caf´ de Foy and called on Paris to rise against the
Following Daniel Wick™s analysis, it would be tempting to see Orl´ ans™s
espousal of the revolution as a direct consequence of his spectacular loss of
court favour in 1779. Yet while his breach with Marie Antoinette was
undoubtedly a major factor in his move into opposition, it was not the
only one. Of all the major revolutionary ¬gures, Orl´ ans has been perhaps
the most consistently vili¬ed, and his radicalization ascribed to the worst
of motives “ a savage resentment of the queen, and ultimately a desire
to usurp the throne. Orl´ ans certainly had major character ¬‚aws; he was
weak and inconsistent, and had a vicious streak, especially where women
were concerned. His political energies were also seriously undermined by
debauchery and, by the end, alcoholism.43 This does not mean, however,
that he was incapable of responding to ideals. The demands for liberty
¬rst heard in America and then from 1787 in France awoke in him a
powerful echo, even though they chie¬‚y appealed to his desire to free
himself from all constraint. As he put it to the baron d™Escars in early

I don™t give a damn what the Estates General accomplish, but I wanted to be
there at the moment when they took up the matter of individual liberty, so as to
give my vote to a law that would assure me . . . that whenever I wanted to leave
for London, Rome, or Peking, nothing could get in my way. I couldn™t care less
about the rest.44

Yet from this highly personal starting-point, Orl´ ans did broaden his
focus to support almost all the reforms championed by liberals on the eve
of the revolution. The best guide to his views in 1789 is the Instructions he
issued to guide the deputies elected to the Estates General from his lands,
written by Laclos, which are virtually a political programme in their own

42 43 Antonetti, Louis-Philippe, pp. 162“3.
Lever, Philippe-Egalit´, pp. 250, 281“4.
44 Cited in Kelly, ˜The Machine of the duc d™Orl´ ans™, p. 668.
Nobility and the origins of the French Revolution 287

right. Unsurprisingly, the ¬rst freedom they demand is ˜the liberty to
live where one wishes, to go, to come, to stay where one wants, with no
impediment™. The list continues with freedom from arbitrary arrest and
the right to a fair trial, complete liberty of the press and con¬dentiality of
correspondence. This is followed by essentially constitutional articles: the
regular and frequent summoning of the Estates General, no new taxation
to be granted by the Estates General without sight of full public accounts,
a general and fair tax system, and root-and-branch civil and criminal law
reform to be undertaken by the Estates General.45 The Instructions may
have had their origins in the duke™s personal grievances, but they were
also a sincere endorsement of a new form of politics.

What new light do the arguments of Tim Blanning and Daniel Wick, both
in general and as analysed in the case of the duc d™Orl´ ans, shed on how
the court nobility reacted to the crisis of the old regime? There is much
evidence that loss of favour at Versailles caused individuals and families
to take up an oppositional stance, whether to the left or to the right of
the king, the queen and the ministry. There is even more evidence that
the left-wing noble opponents of the government in 1788 were already
motivated by that volatile mixture of liberalism and nationalism that was
to dominate so much of the revolution. What all these nobles had in
common was disgust at a representational court culture that had signally
failed to satisfy them either materially or spiritually. The most spectacular
example of this was Orl´ ans, but he had many imitators.
Of these two aspects, the material was perhaps the least important.
The Namierite approach adopted by Daniel Wick that sees the liberal
nobles as driven essentially by their own self-interest tells us much about
their motivation, but by no means all. Was La Fayette™s outburst in front
of the comte d™Artois in the Notables solely prompted by the fact that
his Noailles relatives had fallen out with Marie Antoinette, or Orl´ ans™s
protest at the royal session of 19 November 1787 by his loss of court
favour eight years before? It does not seem a suf¬cient reason for so
many of these great nobles to have adopted a position so radically at odds
with their own material interests, even if they could not have foreseen
just how radically at odds this would be after 1789. As Guy Chaussinand-
Nogaret has argued, what remains striking is just how much many French
nobles, both of court and country, were prepared to give up in the name

45 Ibid., pp. 680“1.
288 Munro Price

of principle, whether liberal, nationalist, or simply patriotic.46 This was
certainly how they saw it at the time. As the duc de Montmorency-
Luxembourg, one of the more conservative members of the Society of
Thirty, put it in a retrospective letter to the vicomte de Chataigner at the
end of 1789:
No, M. le vicomte, I have never compromised either with my honour or my duty,
I have opposed and attacked those in authority when they were all-powerful and
showering me with favour. I have demanded liberty and the rights of citizens at
the expense of my fortune, and I have preached the same religion throughout my
public life.47
One might argue that these words were hypocritical, or told only part
of the story. Yet it might be wisest to take them at face value.

46 G. Chaussinand-Nogaret, La noblesse au 18`me si`cle: de la f´odalit´ aux lumi`res (Paris,
e e e e e
1976), pp. 193“4.
47 P. Filleul, Le duc de Montmorency-Luxembourg, premier baron chr´tien de France, fondateur
du Grand Orient, sa vie et ses archives (Paris, 1939), p. 258.
14 The French Revolution and the
abolition of nobility

William Doyle
University of Bristol

The French Revolution is perhaps the ¬rst movement in history to be
remembered largely through its dates. The most famous is, of course,
14 July 1789, the day the Bastille fell; but there are a number of others,
scarcely less famous: 10 August 1792, the overthrow of the monarchy; 9
Thermidor 1794 in the revolutionary calendar, the fall of Robespierre;
or 18 Brumaire 1799, the accession to power of Napoleon. Those who
know the ¬eld more closely could easily suggest more, but few, perhaps,
would instantly think of 19 June 1790 among them. Yet on that day, two
events happened in the National Assembly, both memorable in their way.
One was essentially trivial, the other quite momentous. And yet the trivial
incident often claims more space in histories of the revolution, while the
momentous one scarcely rates more than a passing mention or a footnote
in most general accounts.
The trivial one arose out of the order of the day in the National Assem-
bly. The ¬rst anniversary of the fall of the Bastille was approaching, and
the Assembly was discussing how to commemorate it. It decided ¬rst of
all to set up a special uniformed company to be called the ˜Conquerors
of the Bastille™ and made up of those who could prove that they had been
present on the great day. It then decided to admit a number of deputa-
tions keen to express their patriotic sentiments. The last of these was led
by Jean-Baptiste Cloots (he had not yet renamed himself Anacharsis),
a renegade imperial baron, though a Prussian subject, notorious on the
streets of Paris for his eccentric commitment to revolutionary causes.1
The deputation he led in was made up of what he called ˜representatives
of the human race™, or, as the of¬cial record puts it, ˜of English, Prus-
sians, Sicilians, Hollanders, Russians, Poles, Germans, Swedes, Italians,
Spaniards, Brabanters, Li` geois, Avignonese, Swiss, Genevans, Indians,

1 On Cloots, see Roland Mortier, Anacharsis Cloots, ou l™utopie foudroy´e (Paris, 1995). On
this session, see pp. 125“33.

290 William Doyle

Arabs, Chaldeans, etc.™2 There was also a Turk who harangued the
Assembly in an accent so thick that nobody could understand it. But
the star was Cloots, who called himself the ˜Orator of the Committee of
Foreigners™, and asked that these alien admirers of the revolution should
be given special seats at the ceremonies planned for 14 July, to witness the
celebration of a freedom still denied in most of their native lands. The
president of the Assembly granted the request, with the provision that
afterwards they return home to recount what they had seen. Then they
¬led out. Home for many of them, it was rumoured, was not so far
from the Assembly; and perhaps they returned there via the theatre from
which it was suspected they had borrowed their colourful costumes. The
whole episode seemed at worst a joke, at best an embarrassment. It has
been remembered and recorded ever since as an example of how cheap
and meretricious the French Revolution could be, the sort of demagogic
episode that Tim Blanning loves to hold up to implicit ridicule.3
And it is seldom recalled that it happened on the same day as something
far more signi¬cant. No sooner had the Assembly returned to the order
paper than an almost unknown deputy from the deepest rural south-west,
called Lambel,4 wrenched the whole discussion off course by declaring:
˜Today is the graveyard of vanity. I ask that all persons should be forbidden
from taking the title of count, baron, marquis, etc.™ That was all he said.
But immediately his lead was seized on by several of the prominent orators
of the Assembly, all nobles “ the brothers Lameth, Lafayette, Noailles,
Montmorency “ to call for the entire abolition of nobility. ˜Hereditary
nobility™, declared Charles de Lameth, a noble deputy of impressive pedi-
gree, ˜is shocking to reason and wounding to true liberty; there can be
no political liberty, there can be no emulation for virtue where citizens
have any other dignity than that attached to the functions entrusted to
them, or other glory than that which they owe to their actions.™ ˜This
motion™, added Lafayette, ˜is so necessary that I do not believe it needs
any support; but if it does, I declare that I am for it with all my heart.™
And then, when another nobleman, this time visibly shaken, blurted out
a protest, a Third Estate deputy from Normandy (who had himself pre-
viously feigned nobility by taking a particle in his name)5 rose to declare

2 J. Madival and E. Laurent, Archives parlementaires de 1787 a 1860: s´rie I (Paris, 1879“ ),
` e
3 E.g. The Origins of the French Revolutionary Wars (London, 1986), pp. 73“4; The French
Revolutionary Wars, 1787“1802 (London, 1996), pp. 60“1.
4 Joseph-Marie Lambel (1747“1807), Third Estate deputy for Villefranche de Rouergue.
See Edna Hindie Lemay (ed.), Dictionnaire des constituants 1789“1791 (2 vols., Oxford
and Paris, 1991), II.508“9.
5 Guillaume Fran¸ ois Charles Goupil de Pr´ felne (1727“1801), Third Estate deputy for
c e
Alen¸ on. See Lemay, Dictionnaire, I.418“19.
The French Revolution and nobility 291

that he had long before drafted out a decree to outlaw nobility, and that
he just happened to have it with him. He read it out, and his text formed
the basis of what ¬nally emerged as a decree of the Assembly later in
the evening, after a good deal of impassioned but sometimes rambling
debate. The National Assembly, it declared, abolished hereditary nobility
forever. The use of titles was forbidden, and henceforth no French citizen
could use any other name but that of his or her family. Liveries and the
display of coats of arms were forbidden likewise.
Now, unlike the pantomime charade led on to and off the ¬‚oor by
Cloots, this really was momentous. The whole of Europe had been ruled
and dominated since time immemorial by hereditary elites claiming, and
generally recognised as possessing, the quality of nobility. They had often
been the subject of hostility, hatred even, and criticism; but nobody had
ever tried, until now, to abolish nobility itself, in the conviction that, by
implication, society could continue to function entirely without nobles,
or would indeed function less well if their status or quality continued to be
recognised. Here was a quite fundamental attempt to change the cultural
basis of society, to expunge from history a type of identity which had
been regarded for centuries as both desirable in itself, and a necessary
quali¬cation for the legitimate exercise of both social and public authority.
If the episode with Cloots exempli¬es the cheap and tacky side of the
revolution, this one surely stands as an example of the limitless sweep of its
ambitions, and the seeming con¬dence of its leaders that such ambitions
could be achieved. Or was it, at the same time, evidence of their fears:
fears that, until the very idea of nobility was eliminated, the gains achieved
in 1789 might yet prove neither safe nor permanent?
After all, defeating the pretensions of the nobility had been what the rev-
olution of 1789 was mostly about. Once the king conceded that the only
way to resolve the state™s ¬nancial problems was by convoking the Estates
General, the traditionally organised national representative assembly that
had not met for almost two centuries, the status and power of the nobility
posed immediate and unavoidable problems. The built-in veto which the
tripartite structure of the Estates handed to the nobility and the clergy
combined had the potential to block any sort of reform. And so the whole
of the period between September 1788 and June 1789 was dominated by
a struggle to destroy that structure “ and indeed to defend it on the part
of the majority of the nobility. All those months of con¬‚ict unleashed
what had never really taken place earlier in the eighteenth century: a
debate about whether the nobility performed any sort of useful func-
tion at all. The potential for an attack on nobility, of course, had always
existed in the most basic premises of the Enlightenment. If all men are
born equal, how can any of them enjoy any sort of hereditary superiority?
292 William Doyle

But the fact was that Europe was dominated and governed by men who
did think themselves hereditarily superior. So there was nothing practical
to be done about it. This goes a long way towards explaining the oft-
repeated paradox that large numbers of the leading standard-bearers of
the Enlightenment were in fact noblemen. And if there was debate about
nobility in the century preceding the revolution, it revolved not around
whether or how to get rid of it, but on how its value to society could be
maximised.6 Thus, the 1750s in France saw the famous quarrel over com-
mercial nobility, with the abb´ Coyer arguing on one side that if nobles
abandoned their traditional disdain for trade they could both bene¬t soci-
ety materially and solve the age-old problem of nobles too poor to afford
their claims to superiority; and the chevalier d™Arc replying that the true
noble vocation was military, and that the best way to make the most of
that was to guarantee the nobility a monopoly of of¬cer ranks in the army.
It is true that these exchanges implicitly raised the question of whether a
nobility was needed at all; but once again it was a question that nobody
with any power to act took very seriously. Instead, the French govern-
ment began to look with increasing favour on policies that gave nobles
something useful to do, even if that actually entailed keeping those who
were not noble out of more and more areas of public and professional
life. There were some isolated voices (such as d™Argenson, or Holbach,
both nobles themselves) condemning the whole principle of nobility root
and branch, but it was usually in the context of wider preoccupations,7
and if they were heard at all it was as voices crying in the wilderness.
The ¬rst time such a voice reached a mass audience was as late as
1784. We know it reached thousands because we know how many people
came to see, or bought copies of, the play it was in: Beaumarchais™s
Marriage of Figaro.8 It depicts a feckless, immoral nobleman trying to
invoke abandoned feudal rights to sleep with his valet™s ¬anc´ e. At one
point the play™s hero denounces him: ˜Nobility, fortune, rank, position “
it all makes you so proud! What have you done to have so much? You

6 See Jay M. Smith, The Culture of Merit: Nobility, Royal Service, and the Making of Absolute
Monarchy in France, 1600“1789 (Ann Arbor, MI, 1996), and Nobility Re-imagined: The
Patriotic Nation in Eighteenth Century France (Ithaca, NY, 2005).
7 D™Argenson, whose Consid´rations sur le gouvernement ancien et pr´sent de la France (1765)
e e
appeared posthumously, was mainly concerned about elaborating new political structures;
and Holbach™s anti-noble polemics were embedded in one chapter of the anonymous
Ethocratie, ou le gouvernement fond´ sur la morale (1776) which sought to advise the new
king Louis XVI about an overall ethical approach to government. The only overt attack by
a non-noble, devoted entirely to the subject, appears to have been by the clerical essayist
Pierre Jaubert, published anonymously: Eloge de la Roture: d´di´ aux roturiers (London,
8 See the lively discussion by Tim Blanning in The Culture of Power and the Power of Culture
(Oxford, 2002), pp. 432“5.
The French Revolution and nobility 293

gave yourself the trouble of being born, that™s all. Otherwise you™re pretty
ordinary.™ More than 97,000 people in Paris heard these words during the
play™s ¬rst run.9 It was only a few lines in a ¬ve-act play, but the character
of Count Almaviva was drawn with such hostility from the very start that
the criticism was unmistakeable. Louis XVI could see that. That was no
doubt part of his reason for preventing the play™s performance for several
years.10 But he was eventually persuaded to relent “ by great nobles at
court. And the traf¬c jams around the theatre while the play was being
performed were caused by aristocratic carriages delivering their owners
to see a representative nobleman denounced and lampooned.
So, a world without nobility still, just ¬ve years before the revolution,
did not seem a realistic or threatening proposition. Or at least not on
the European side of the Atlantic. But in the newborn United States a
noble-free world already existed, ironically too helped to independence
by the noble-of¬cered French army and navy. Yet for a time this free-
dom from old world ways seemed under threat when certain of¬cers of
the now disbanding Continental Army of the United States decided to
commemorate their role down the generations by establishing a heredi-
tary veterans™ association, known as the Society of the Cincinnati “ after
the Roman dictator Cincinnatus, who left his farm to save his country
and returned to the plough as soon as the job was done.11 They even
commissioned a French of¬cer to design a special badge and ribbon for
members and their eldest male descendants to wear. But many of the
citizens of the new republic saw this as an order of chivalry, the germ
of an American nobility, and incompatible with republican principles. A
¬erce controversy raged throughout the last months of 1783 and much
of 1784, culminating in George Washington, president of the Society,
threatening to resign unless heredity was dropped. It was, and the con-
troversy died away; but not before it had been transmitted to Europe
by the efforts of the American minister in Paris, Benjamin Franklin.12
Even as French of¬cers who had served in America, like Lafayette or the
Lameths, queued up for their insignia to ¬‚aunt around the streets and

9 John Lough, Paris Theatre Audiences in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (London,
1957), p. 182.
10 The main source for the king™s reaction to the play, however, Mme Campan™s M´moires e
sur la vie de Marie-Antoinette (1823), ch. 11, emphasises that his outrage was directed
at Figaro™s strictures in the same speech on government. Campan recalled at the same
time that although the king found much of the play in poor taste, he also praised some
of it.
11 Minor Myers, Jr, Liberty without Anarchy: A History of the Society of the Cincinnati (Char-
lottesville, VA, 1983), and more recently Markus Hunemorder, The Society of the Cincin-
˝ ˝
nati: Conspiracy and Distrust in Early America (New York, 2006).
12 See Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin (New York, 1938), pp. 707“10.
294 William Doyle

salons of Paris, Franklin received a copy of the most incendiary pamphlet
produced by the controversy, the Considerations on the Society or Order of
Cincinnatus by Judge Aedanus Burke of South Carolina.13 Franklin gave
it to Mirabeau, still at this point a desperate and renegade noble journal-
ist, suggesting that he produce a French version, embellished with a few
notes supplied by Franklin from a tract he had himself written but decided
it was unwise to publish.14 Mirabeau accepted; and the result, appearing
late in 1784 as France was still echoing to the sensation of Figaro, was
what Franklin called ˜a cover™d satire against noblesse in general™. In the
¬rst work he signed with his own name and title, Mirabeau denounced the
nobility as a band of parasites descended from barbarian marauders, and
poured scorn on heredity anyway. From Franklin he took the idea that
after nine generations only 1/512 of an original ancestor™s blood would
still be ¬‚owing in a descendant™s veins. The true source of this ancestor
worship, he proclaimed, was vanity, and mere opinion; and in a repub-
lic, dedicated by nature to liberty and civil equality, any form of nobility
was a threat. Published at ¬rst in England15 and signed by a notorious
rake and adventurer, it was perhaps easy to dismiss this polemic. Besides,
within a few months of its appearance Franklin, its original inspirer, had
gone back to America. But within three years it had been translated into
English, Dutch and German, and in the perspective of what was to hap-
pen in France within ¬ve years, it can be seen as an opening shot in a
campaign that was to culminate on 19 June 1790. And it is interesting
that, in the controversies immediately following the abolition of nobility,
the crib used by Mirabeau which Franklin had written (including that
famous calculation) was printed for the ¬rst time as Franklin™s work in
the Journal of the mainstream revolutionary club, the Society of 1789.16
The result of these polemics, along with a series of scandals and con-
troversies arising out of noble pretensions or acts of apparent exclusivism
in the early and mid-1780s, was to provide a repertoire of examples,
precedents and arguments within recent memory for those who wished
to attack the claims and pretensions of the nobility to separate represen-
tation and powers over the winter of 1788“9. Everything was raked up
in these exchanges, everything was thrown in, and polarised positions

13 John C. Meleney, The Public Life of Aedanus Burke: Revolutionary Republican in Post-
revolutionary South Carolina (Columbia, SC, 1989).
14 Franklin to Sarah Bache, 26 January 1784, in J. A. Leo Lemay (ed.), Franklin: Writings
(New York, 1987), pp. 1084“9.
15 Consid´rations sur l™ordre de Cincinnatus, ou imitation d™un pamphlet anglo-am´ricain, par le
e e
comte de Mirabeau (London, 1784) (dated 20 September).
16 Journal de la Soci´t´ de 1789 8 (24 juillet 1790), pp. 9“16, with an introductory letter from
Philippe Antoine Grouvelle (1757“1806), formerly Chamfort™s secretary. The news of
Franklin™s death had recently been announced by Mirabeau to the Assembly on 11 June.
The French Revolution and nobility 295

were rapidly taken up from which, once articulated, it was dif¬cult to
withdraw. And suddenly it seemed as if the only alternative to a world in
which nobles ruled the roost in almost every sphere, was one in which
they ruled nothing at all “ except in whatever capacity they might have as
men of property. No sort of argument about the very existence of a nobil-
ity failed to surface in the press and pamphlet war that raged over that
winter. The most famous was, of course, Siey` s™s pivotal tract Qu™est-ce
que le Tiers Etat?, which argued that no sort of privileged or separate order
could form part of a nation, and that an order which claimed descent and
legitimation from a horde of Frankish conquerors should pack up and go
back to the forests of Germany. The idea of Frankish conquest, usually
ascribed to the early eighteenth-century writer Boulainvilliers, but in fact
much older,17 was by no means subscribed to by everybody, not even
all nobles, but it was a marvellous Aunt Sally to shy at; and so much
other noble ideology proved an easy target, too. By the summer of 1789,
accordingly, every politically conscious person was fully familiar with all
the arguments against nobility; and everybody knew, too, how to demolish
all the counter-arguments that nobles and their defenders might put up.
In short, as in so many other spheres, the onset of the French Revolution
unlocked the potential of the Enlightenment.
And so it is no surprise that once the separate powers and status of
the orders in the Estates General had been overthrown in June 1789, the
structure of noble power in general rapidly collapsed. On the night of 4
August, within six weeks of the ¬nal merger of the orders into a National
Assembly, the whole structure of privilege was swept away. That night,
nobles lost their feudal dues and prerogatives, their tax-exemptions and
all sorts of juridical advantages. The main means by which the nobility
recruited newcomers, through venal of¬ces, also disappeared.18 A few
weeks later, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen pro-
claimed careers open to the talents, and service to the nation as the only
legitimate claim to public distinction.
What is striking is the extent to which nobles accepted all this.19 Most
may not have liked it, but they felt they had to, and could, live with it.
Both inside and outside the Assembly, many threw themselves into the

17 See Harold A. Ellis, Boulainvilliers and the French Monarchy: Aristocratic Politics in Early
Eighteenth Century France (Ithaca, NY, 1988).
18 See William Doyle, Venality: The Sale of Of¬ces in Eighteenth Century France (Oxford,
1996), pp. 1“2, 273“82.
19 See Patrice Higonnet, Class, Ideology and the Rights of Nobles during the French Revoluton
(Oxford, 1981), pp. 57“66; and Timothy Tackett, Becoming a Revolutionary: The Deputies
of the French National Assembly and the Emergence of a Revolutionary Culture (1789“1790)
(Princeton, NJ, 1996), pp. 181“2.
296 William Doyle

revolution™s work of reform, accepting that the old regime was gone, and
that it was now time to build something new and better. Besides, the
revolution at this stage was not all loss. They were still nobles, after all.
Their lands were still intact. They still wore their swords, ribbons and
decorations. American veterans, proud to have participated in an earlier
revolution, still sported their Cincinnati insignia. They still used their
titles, displayed their coats of arms, dressed their servants in livery. And
for many, there was a positive gain in what had been done. One of the
most basic preoccupations revealed in the noble cahiers of 1789 was the
desire to purify noble recruitment. That meant, above all, eliminating
the acquisition of nobility by purchase in the form of ennobling of¬ces.
This aspect of the venality of public of¬ces had completely transformed
the character of the French nobility since the sixteenth century. Purchase
had become the main everyday gateway to the noble order, and had made
the nobility of France the most open elite in Europe.20 But it was a
process that nobles had always found troubling. The essence of belief in
the ideology of nobility was that it was a thing of the blood, a matter of race
(as some did not hesitate to claim) and strictly incapable of acquisition
by outsiders. Even those “ and it was by far the majority of the French
nobility in 1789 “ whose own lineage was traceable to purchase over
the preceding two centuries soon embraced the myth, and welcomed the
closing of the door by which their own families had entered. But when the
sale of all of¬ces was abolished on 4 August 1789 this door was suddenly
slammed shut. No new nobles could now be recruited, unless by criteria
of merit which in any case had yet to be formulated. At last, then, the
nobility could become the true hereditary caste which it liked to think


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