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Richelieu, and the separate sovereignties were consolidated into one entire mass.
During 175 years (from 1614 to 1789,) France had been without even the appearance of a legislative voice. Every thing was under the controul of a government habitually corrupt and cruel. The people were often depressed by ignorance, by poverty, and extortion. The men of wealth and distinction were purchased either by courtly honours, or presents and pensions, or by a lavish waste of the public revenue. They were exempted in some sort from the duty of contributing to the revenue, which was endeavoured to be exclusively wrung from the grasp of the poor, the weak, and the laborious. They were prevailed upon to countenance, by being admitted into a partnership of the use of arbitrary imprisonment, punishment without an accusation and without a hear ing, and the confinement of the Bastile.
The old government of France was, no doubt, liable to these and other objections,
both in its principles and practice. In the reigns of Louis XIV. and XV. it was a very arbitrary and oppressive system. Its defects appeared the more striking to a Briton, when contrasted with the admirable constitution which he himself enjoyed. There is not a more common source of error, in reasoning on subjects of polity, than an opinion that the same government may answer equally well among people of different characters, or that what would be evil to one nation must be so to another. The most profound political philosopher of antiquity bestows a considerable portion of his Treatise on Politics in shewing the absurdity of any general or abstract form of government as applicable to every case, and the necessity of adapting constitutions to the existing circumstances. A greater or less degree of restraint is necessary, according to the knowledge and dispositions of a nation as well as an individual. Britons, in judging of the French Government, did not accurately apply the consideration of national character. It would be, they knew, a very bad and intolerable govern
ment in Britain; therefore they concluded it must be a very bad and intolerable government for France. They had not investigated the French mind, sentiments, and habits, so deeply as to see that our neighbours in the aggregate required a much closer curb than
At the same time it must be admitted, that the old system of France was much more arbitrary than was necessary, and that the power was frequently intrusted to persons who were guilty of the grossest abuses; and though the administration of Louis XVI. was mild and liberal, yet the tenure of their rights continued the same to his subjects. It depended on the will of an individual. Nor was it unreasonable to pro
pose that there should be a control over the monarchical and aristocratical part as well as over the democratical.
Besides the nature of the government, other causes, some more remote and general, some more immediate and special, contributed
to prepare and excite the French to seek a change. Learning becoming daily more prevalent in Europe, and having been fostered in France by the ostentatious vanity of Louis XIV. though limited, during his reign, to subjects of taste and sentiment, or to physics, yet soon extended to those of moral philosophy and politics; discussions by no means favourable to the theoretical approbation of such a government as that of France, however prudence might dictate a practical acquiescence. These speculations took a more abstract and metaphysical form than in countries where liberty was a practical benefit; probably, because at the time it was impossible to have their practical effect experimentally ascertained. As learning, in general, increased, these disquisitions in that metaphysical mode became common in France, but hitherto only among scholars. Their connection with America afterwards dissemi
nated principles of Freedom among the people in general. The enormous expences incurred by her projects of aggrandizement, the profligacy of her court, and the profu
sion of her ministers, had thrown the finances of France into the greatest embarrassment. The inferiority of the revenue to the expenditure was such as to announce approaching bankruptcy, unless most speedy means were employed to bring the expence within the income. Calonne advised the calling of the Notables. The Notables found an assembly of the States necessary. Calonne was banished; Neckar was appointed Minister of Finance. Letters were issued for convoking the States-General. The spirit of liberty becoming more fervid from the heat of elections, the action and re-action of opinion, sentiment, and sympathy, the States assembled. It was proposed by Government that they should meet in three different chambers, according to ancient usage. The people apprehended, that if they were in separate bodies, the clergy and nobility might controul the third estate; and as they had resolved, not merely to make financial regulations, but to procure the redress of grievances, they conceived that the two privileged orders, from dependence on the Court, and for