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The Ancien Regime Charles Kingsley

Lecture II -- Centralisation

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But alas! the poor sub-delegates seem to have found either very little news, or very little which it was politic to publish. One reports that a smuggler of salt has been hung, and has displayed great courage; another that a woman in his district has had three girls at a birth; another that a dreadful storm has happened, but-- has done no mischief; a fourth--living in some specially favoured Utopia--declares that in spite of all his efforts he has found nothing worth recording, but that he himself will subscribe to so useful a journal, and will exhort all respectable persons to follow his example: in spite of which loyal endeavours, the journal seems to have proved a failure, to the great disgust of the king and his minister, who had of course expected to secure fine weather by nailing, like the schoolboy before a holiday, the hand of the weather-glass.

Well had it been, if the intermeddling of this bureaucracy had stopped there. But, by a process of evocation (as it was called), more and more causes, criminal as well as civil, were withdrawn from the regular tribunals, to those of the intendants and the Council. Before the intendant all the lower order of people were generally sent for trial. Bread-riots were a common cause of such trials, and M. de Tocqueville asserts that he has found sentences, delivered by the intendant, and a local council chosen by himself, by which men were condemned to the galleys, and even to death. Under such a system, under which an intendant must have felt it his interest to pretend at all risks, that all was going right, and to regard any disturbance as a dangerous exposure of himself and his chiefs--one can understand easily enough that scene which Mr. Carlyle has dramatised from Lacretelle, concerning the canaille, the masses, as we used to call them a generation since:

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"A dumb generation--their voice only an inarticulate cry. Spokesman, in the king's council, in the world's forum, they have none that finds credence. At rare intervals (as now, in 1775) they will fling down their hoes, and hammers; and, to the astonishment of mankind, flock hither and thither, dangerous, aimless, get the length even of Versailles. Turgot is altering the corn trade, abrogating the absurdest corn laws; there is dearth, real, or were it even factitious, an indubitable scarcity of broad. And so, on the 2nd day of May, 1775, these waste multitudes do here, at Versailles chateau, in widespread wretchedness, in sallow faces, squalor, winged raggedness, present as in legible hieroglyphic writing their petition of grievances. The chateau-gates must be shut; but the king will appear on the balcony and speak to them. They have seen the king's face; their petition of grievances has been, if not read, looked at. In answer, two of them are hanged, on a new gallows forty feet high, and the rest driven back to their dens for a time."

Of course. What more exasperating and inexpiable insult to the ruling powers was possible than this? To persist in being needy and wretched, when a whole bureaucracy is toiling day and night to make them prosperous and happy? An insult only to be avenged in blood. Remark meanwhile, that this centralised bureaucracy was a failure; that after all the trouble taken to govern these masses, they were not governed, in the sense of being made better, and not worse. The truth is, that no centralised bureaucracy, or so-called "paternal government," yet invented on earth, has been anything but a failure, or is it like to be anything else: because it is founded on an error; because it regards and treats men as that which they are not, as things; and not as that which they are, as persons. If the bureaucracy were a mere Briareus giant, with a hundred hands, helping the weak throughout the length and breadth of the empire, the system might be at least tolerable. But what if the Government were not a Briareus with a hundred hands, but a Hydra with a hundred heads and mouths, each far more intent on helping itself than on helping the people? What if sub-delegates and other officials, holding office at the will of the intendant, had to live, and even provide against a rainy day? What if intendants, holding office at the will of the Comptroller-General, had to do more than live, and found it prudent to realise as large a fortune as possible, not only against disgrace, but against success, and the dignity fit for a new member of the Noblesse de la Robe? Would not the system, then, soon become intolerable? Would there not be evil times for the masses, till they became something more than masses?

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The Ancien Regime
Charles Kingsley

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