I am the state
In a recent podcast, I discussed the merits of concerns that the next United States President may turn Washington on its head and govern as a maniacal autocrat. I looked at the culture of the US and reached a conclusion about the likelihood of Trump ruling the States as a modern absolute monarch. This blog takes a look at absolute monarchy, investigating the limitations in practice of the man most associated with the term absolutism, Louis XIV of France.
The concept of absolutism is one in which the power of a territory is governed entirely by one person, and whether Louis XIV (1638-1715), King of France from 1643-1715, really claimed to be the state or otherwise, it is typical of the legend of his much-contested absolutism.(1) Regardless of the legend, and despite appearances (especially the incredible palace at Versailles which Louis fashioned for himself, and the fine work of his Finance Minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683), to present Louis XIV in a positive light for the attention of future historians), Louis XIV and the state were not one and the same.(2)
Three key points demonstrate that, whilst acknowledging the tremendous personal authority of Louis XIV, it would not be accurate to say that this notorious ruler oversaw an absolute monarchy. Louis’ real power, beyond the propaganda, was inextricably linked with corruption, coercion and compromise. First and foremost, in order for Louis XIV to raise the funds necessary for the state to operate (especially due to his penchant for waging war and maintaining an extravagant court), a complicated system of collaborative tax generation was essential. Secondly, Louis worked alongside nobles for mutual gain, and was quite accustomed to bribe them for even greater mutual gain. Thirdly, Louis, rather than steamrolling state institutions, was obliged to operate within limits and had a sense of how far to push his luck.
A taxing business
Louis XIV sought gloire and to strengthen France’s defensive borders.(3) Doing so was not cheap, and required that the population be taxed accordingly. But without the luxury of today’s efficient system of tax collection, gaining the revenues from across his domain was no easy task. Louis’ expansive France, drunk as it was on war without and prestige within, necessitated regional partnerships to enable the king to receive his dues.(4) Louis was content to turn a blind-eye to blatant siphoning of funds by his entrusted noble middlemen, because his only concern was the depositing of the bulk of the livres to Versailles.(5)
A classic example of the compromise system of tax collection demonstrates that Louis’ power was rather less than absolute, even when met with a seemingly simple task of tax collection. In Burgundy, a coalition, representative of the province, ensured that tax was somewhat efficiently collected and paid on time. However, in Normandy, where no such coalition existed, whilst the king could demand more tax, and in theory had more unchallenged authority, there was no mechanism for enforcing his will nor effectively collecting the revenue.(6) It was Louis’ noble tax collectors that really filled his coffers, not absolutism.
The nobles’ peace prize
Following a period in which popular unrest had manifested itself in France, Louis XIV moved to strengthen the acquiescence of nobles. Far from securing real absolute power for himself, Louis granted positions in government office to members of the higher order, along with a share of his mystical prestige, to ensure they would remain onside in the advent of further instances of revolt.(7) With regional political power sufficiently strong, no central authority could smother it.(8)
Louis XIV was not able to exert all-encompassing power, so he moved the center of courtly operations to Versailles from Paris, insisting the sycophants and hangers on took residence there. Under his watchful eye at Versailles – which John Merriman called “sort of a Euro Disney for nobles” – Louis was able to influence his courtiers and have unlimited fluid compromise readily available on tap.(9) Indeed, Louis XIV was not endeared to the realities of the game he had to play, noting to Voltaire, “Every time I create an appointment, I create a hundred malcontents and one ingrate”, which is indicative not only of Louis’ discontent with the system but, more to the point, that Louis was nethertheless obliged to operate within such a system.(10)
Louis engaged in many faire des compromis to achieve his regal grip on France, and one in particular is especially illustrative of the wider point of the check of compromise on absolutism and why it was done. Louis, as a young prince, had seen first hand the Fronde rebellion (1648-1653), which, due to its chaotic, irreverential nature, made a strong impression on the future ruler.(11) In 1655, Colbert made sure not only to backtrack on plans to abolish the paulette (a tax levied by the French Crown), but instead continued to renew it in future years, in addition to also allowing further noble concessions. Colbert was conscious of not stirring up the ire of magistrates, who were consequently able to remain away from the direct, absolute control of the king.(12)
James B. Collins drew attention to Louis’ “intelligent compromise” with the various political and socio-economical realities of his regime, noting that regardless of the power Louis held in theory, he would not be able to enforce an overhaul of customary law.(13) Louis was aware of the difference between his theoretical and practical power, and did not seek to, nor could he in any case, enforce absolute obedience, subject as he was to France’s lois fondamentales.(14)
An indictment of the lack of real absolute power Louis had is that whilst his elaborate rule appeared on the surface as a show of strength, beyond the glamour of Versailles, there were judicial officers utilizing the legal system to gently chip away at royal authority. This contrived game of theoretical power and compromise would be unmasked in the future when truly challenged, with historical, revolutionary consequences.(15)
To be sure, judges were concerned about the influence of Louis XIV in wider matters beyond their own goals. But for there and then, their posts were more important than their principals, and they were content to oblige him, safe in the knowledge that not standing in the king’s way would reap them other benefits. The king got his way, but via pragmatic politics, not because of absolute rule.(16) As Jeremy Black neatly put it, “Louis’ domestic power rested on uncertain foundations”.(17)
It is clear that Louis XIV was not an absolute monarch; there were simply too many practical obstacles in play for this to have been possible. Louis relied on coalitions for tax collection, who acquiesced out of self-interest, not out of deference. Louis played the noble game, for as subservient as he wished to make the higher orders feel by giving them the run around in the halls of Versailles, he required their assistance as a conduit for his rule. Louis had seen how pushing even nobles too far could cause an angry backlash, and Louis could not bend the entire state to his will, because even a powerful force such as the King of France could not ignore or move beyond the customs of law that existed in his domain.
Louis was an absolute showman, but he was not an absolute ruler, nor could he have been. Louis XIV, though pragmatism and the acceptance of political and socio-economic realities,was able to rule France, wage wars and bask in the glory of doing so. However, he and the state were not one and the same. His reign was undoubtedly powerful and historically significant, and for the average Frenchman, he was for all intents and purposes, the absolute ruler of legend. But in reality, and especially when it came to the less average Frenchmen who were smart and/or noble enough to understand the game, he could only be as absolute as the mutual concessions of his rule allowed. It was peace for the king’s time, via absolute appeasement.
1 M. E. Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p.304.
2 J. Russell Major, From Renaissance Monarchy to Absolute Monarchy: French Kings, Nobles & Estates, (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1997), p.365.
3 W. Doyle. France and the Age of Revolution: Regimes Old and New from Louis XIV to Napoleon Bonaparte, (London: I.B. Taurus, 2013), ProQuest ebrary, p.23.
4 W. Beik, ‘The Absolutism of Louis XIV as Social Collaboration’, Past & Present, 188, 2005, pp. 195-224, (pp. 201-202).
5 J. Collins, ‘State Building in Early Modern Europe: The Case of France’, Modern Asian Studies, 31, 1997, pp. 603-633.
6 W. Beik, ‘The Absolutism of Louis XIV as Social Collaboration’, Past & Present, 188, 2005, pp. 195-224, (p. 201).
7 S. Miller, ‘Absolutism and class at the end of the Old Regime: The case of Languedoc’, Journal of Social History, 36, 2003, pp. 871-898, (p. 873).
8 S. Clark, State and Status, (Quebec City: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995), p.41.
9 ‘European Civilization, 1648-1945’, Yale web site, http://oyc.yale.edu/transcript/571/hist-202, 8 September 2008, accessed on 5 November 2016. Note: this is transcript of a John Merriman lecture which is also available in audio form on iTunes University.
10 E. Knowles, The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p.475.
11 R. McCullough, Warfare, Coercion, Conversion and Counterinsurgency in Louis XIV’s France (Boston: Brill, 2007), ProQuest ebrary, p.53.
12 J. Russell Major, From Renaissance Monarchy to Absolute Monarchy: French Kings, Nobles & Estates, (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1997), pp. 360-361.
13 J. Collins, ‘State Building in Early Modern Europe: The Case of France’, Modern Asian Studies, 31, 1997, pp. 603-633, (pp. 622-623).
14 S. Clark, State and Status, (Quebec City: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995), p.39.
15 J. Russell Major, From Renaissance Monarchy to Absolute Monarchy: French Kings, Nobles & Estates, (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1997), p.366.
16 W. Beik, ‘The Absolutism of Louis XIV as Social Collaboration’, Past & Present, 188, 2005, pp. 195-224, (p. 219).
17 J. Black, From Louis XIV to Napoleon : The Fate of a Great Power, (London: Routledge, 2001), ProQuest ebrary, p.34.