Date: 1893

Show Summary


Scenes of the French Revolution



The Old Régime


I took part in the opening of the Estates-General, and, in spite of the pomp with which the royal power was still surrounded, I there saw the passing away of the Old Régime.

The régime which preceded 1789 should, it seems to me, be considered from a twofold aspect: the one, the general condition of the country; and the other, the relations existing between the government and the country. With regard to the former, I firmly believe that, from the earliest days of the monarchy, France had at no period been happier than she was then. . . . If several wars, undertaken with little skill, and waged with still less, had compromised the honor of her arms and the reputation of her government; if they had even thrown her finances into a somewhat alarming state of disorder, it is but fair to say that the confusion resulting therefrom had merely affected the fortunes of a few creditors, and had not tapped the sources of public prosperity; on the contrary what is styled the public administration had made constant progress. . . .

Roads had been opened connecting numerous points, and had been greatly improved in all directions. It should not be forgotten that these benefits are principally due to the reign of Louis XV. Their most important result had been a progressive improvement in the condition of agriculture.

The reign of Louis XVI had continued favoring this wise policy, which had not been interrupted by the maritime war undertaken on behalf of American independence. Many cottonmills had sprung up, while considerable progress had been made in the manufacture of printed cotton fabrics and of steel, and in the preparing of skins. . . . Louis XVI also encouraged agriculture by every means at his command. The importation of merino sheep, that precious breed which has done so much to bring wealth to the farmer and to the manufacturer of woolens, must be placed to his credit. He had established model farms, thus placing at the disposal of agriculturists the resources of theory and facilities for their application. Large edifices were being erected in Paris, while considerable building was taking place in the villages. Foreigners flocked to the capital, where reigned a display of elegance which has never been surpassed.

What was at that time the form of government in France? It was no longer that of the ancient feudal monarchy, under which the throne, surrounded by its vassals, kept the nation at a great distance from its steps; under which the power emanating from this throne impressed the people with a respect that verged on superstition; under which the sovereign might at times be exposed to the acts of rebellion of some of the more turbulent among these high vassals . . . but under which they ever ended with some treaty benefiting those who had shown themselves the most to be feared, the cost of such treaty coming as a matter of course out of the pockets of the nation and of the country. Richelieu, and after him, Louis XIV, had broken down these feudal potentates. The structure, of which they were the component parts, and which they helped to support, had been supplemented by a monarchy all for show, if one may employ such an expression, wherein the king alone had remained great and the cynosure of all eyes. Louis XIV, by fashioning it to his measure, had imparted to it something of his imposing air. . . .

The royal power, under the Regency, under Louis XV, and under Louis XVI, passed through many weak or incapable hands. It was, moreover, subjected to so many intrigues of the court and even of the boudoir, that, as a result, there was a considerable diminution of its prestige. . . .

The government was neither a hard nor a vexatious one. All things connected with it, which were not de jure tempered by the laws, were so de facto by the usages and customs of the day. The right of property was respected; for the immense majority of Frenchmen there was almost complete individual liberty. Still, this liberty was not inviolate, since, in spite of repeated protests from the parlement,1 the power of arrest, imprisonment, and exile was exercised by means of lettres de cachet.

It must be acknowledged that, with the exception of a few persons whose actions caused the government particular irritation, the rest of the citizens practically enjoyed the most complete liberty. One was free to speak, to write, to act with the greatest independence, and one could even defy the authorities in perfect security. Though the press was not legally free, yet anything and everything was printed and hawked about with audacity.2 The most sedate personages, the magistrates themselves, who ought to have curbed this licentiousness, actually encouraged it. Writings the most dangerous, and the most fatal to authority, were to be found in their possession. If, from time to time, some of the most zealous and conscientious of them denounced any flagrant case in the halls of the parlement, their action was almost treated as ridiculous, and usually led to no result. Those who will not grant that this was liberty, must perforce admit that it was license.

There still remained certain pecuniary manorial rights; but they constituted a form of property as good as any other, and which could be held by a commoner as well as by one of noble birth. The power of the seigneurs over the bodies of their vassals no longer had any existence except in fiction; about all that was left to the seigneurs of the old feudal power was the shadowy obligation to protect these same vassals.

At the time of his accession, Louis XVI completely did away with anything that might still be found oppressive in the exercise of this power. Hence there was between the nobility and the other citizens, just as there was between those citizens and the clergy, but one question in dispute, that of pecuniary privileges. . . .

The influence of the clergy did not make itself felt any more heavily on the individual than did that of the nobility. The concessions just granted to Protestants, in the matter of their civil status, had met with no obstruction on the part of the ecclesiastical power. Nothing could illustrate better how tolerant it had become. The higher clergy became reconciled to the views known as the Light of the century. With regard to the curés, who came into actual contact with the people, they merely extended their paternal care of their flocks, which also absorbed the better part of their income.

Whence came then that passion for reform, that desire to change everything which made itself manifest at the close of the eighteenth century? It was due rather to a great stirring up of ideas than to actual sufferings. So much had been written about these ideas, they had been so greatly discussed, that doubt had been cast upon all things. The sovereign authority had been in a more particular manner broken in upon, and the court of Louis XVI had not known how to restore the waning prestige of royal majesty, even in the matter of that exterior glamor which oftentimes suffices to insure the obedience of the masses.

The court, sceptical and corrupt, was composed of the descendants of the most noble families of France, but also, on the other hand, of upstarts, in whose case royal favor had stood in lieu of services. The arrogance of their pretensions was in inverse ratio to their merit, and their insolent haughtiness had rendered them odious. . . .

The irreligious, critical, and philosophical spirit, the inexplicable craze for all sorts of utopian chimeras, the lowering of the moral standard, especially the loss of respect for institutions consecrated by time, and for old family traditions, all fostered the development of the passions which were soon and forever to sweep away the old French society, the Old Régime.

1 , translated by C. E. Roche. 3 vols. New York, 1893. Charles Scribner’s Sons.

2 Pasquier, , vol. i, pp. 44–52.

1 The parlement of Paris was the royal court of justice.

2 Arthur Young also refers to the extreme liberty, or rather license, of the French press in pre-Revolutionary days. See page 215.


Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: Memoirs

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: Memoirs

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: C. E. Roche, ed., "The Old Régime," Memoirs in Readings in Modern European History, ed. Webster, Hutton (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1926), 227–230. Original Sources, accessed September 29, 2023,

MLA: . "The Old Régime." Memoirs, edited by C. E. Roche, Vol. i, in Readings in Modern European History, edited by Webster, Hutton, Boston, D.C. Heath, 1926, pp. 227–230. Original Sources. 29 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: (ed.), 'The Old Régime' in Memoirs. cited in 1926, Readings in Modern European History, ed. , D.C. Heath, Boston, pp.227–230. Original Sources, retrieved 29 September 2023, from