Read an Excerpt
The French and Indian War and the Conquest of New France
By William R. Nester
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2014 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
The "Absolute" Monarchy
I often started wars on whims and prolonged them out of vanity. Do not imitate me. Be a peaceful ruler, and let your first duty be to look after your subjects. Louis XIV to Louis XV
In my person alone resides the sovereign power.... To me alone belongs the legislative power, unconditional and undivided. All public order emanates from me. My people and I are one. Louis XV
Two fascinating personalities dominated French policy throughout the Seven Years' War, Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour. The king and his mistress were the only characters who remained at France's center stage from the war's beginning to its end. French policy, however, was shaped by more than two people. Their power and glamour can obscure just how decisions were made and carried out. As in any political system, policies emerged from a perpetual multi-stranded tug-of-war among shifting personalities, factions, institutions, and issues. A myriad of suitors jostled for a voice in the king's councils, while the stultifying bureaucracy charged with implementing policies and raising revenues to pay for them more often than not distorted and impeded those very same policies and pocketed the change.
So an exploration of Versailles's policies toward New France during the Seven Years' War only begins with Louis and Pompadour. The matrix of rival formal and informal power holders and seekers struggling against each other within Versailles must be mapped out and then set within the confines of the realm's broader economic and cultural straitjackets. And even that only partly explains what happened to New France. The impact of the international distribution of military, economic, diplomatic, and colonial power will await the next two chapters.
Louis and Pompadour
Louis XV was plopped atop the throne at age five on September 1, 1715, and there he remained for the next fifty-nine years until his death on May 10, 1774. Despite his long reign, he never quite escaped the shadow of his great-grandfather, Louis XIV. The Sun King was a tough act to follow.
Louis XIV had tamed a rebellious nobility by locking it up in the gilded cage of Versailles. To divert his nobility's ambitions, wealth, and power, he constructed a vast, intricate theater of the absurd in which everyone had a role, however frivolous, in serving him. The king deliberately made a spectacle of himself. From his morning lever, or official rising, to his nightly coucher, or official retirement, the court crowded into his chambers to gaze on his every move. The favored were allowed bit parts in the endless theater, slipping shoes on his royal feet or a robe around his royal body. While Louis XIV reveled in the world he created, his great-grandson thoroughly loathed the legacy. But Louis XV could resign himself to his fate by reflecting that the endless pomp was part of the price of wielding nearly absolute power.
Louis XIV had forged a powerful state through the fire of marriage, war, and his indomitable will. The state was indeed his. He ruled and spent its money as he decreed. When the burdens of rule seemed too onerous, he could always divert himself by beckoning to one or more beauties from his royal harem. The Sun King tangled more than French nobility in his web of etiquette. Great and petty rulers alike across Europe strove to imitate the splendor and silliness of Versailles. Yet, on his deathbed, Louis XIV realized that his megalomania had nearly ruined France through gluttonous luxury and disastrous wars. He drew his heir to his bed and whispered, "War is the ruin of nations. Do not follow my bad example that I have bequeathed you. I often started wars on whims and prolonged them out of vanity.... Be a peaceful ruler and let your first duty be to look after your subjects."
Few kings have had more unhappy a childhood than Louis XV. He was orphaned at age two when doctors bled to death his parents and older brother after they caught the measles. Louis would have suffered the same fate had not his governess, Charlotte Eleonore de la Mothe, duchess de Ventadour, whisked him away from the doctors' razors. Ventadour was the only mother he knew. That relationship ended when she was torn from him on his seventh birthday and replaced by François de Neufville, duc de Villeroy, a distinguished general, whose duty was to tutor Louis in the art of being a monarch. Alas, the aging but still robust warrior and womanizer Villeroy was incapable of educating the lad in anything other than earthy passions and the idea that he was an absolute monarch before whom all must bow.
Louis XIV's other choices to guide his great-grandson were much more capable—his bastard son, Philippe d'Orléans, served as regent while André Hercule de Fleury, Bishop de Frejus, tutored the lad in more pedestrian subjects. As a result, royal France was rarely better administered than during the regency. Though debauched in private, Orléans governed France with skill and vision. The economy expanded. Morals, censorship, and etiquette lightened. Arts flourished. Aside from a short-lived border war with Spain, peace reigned.
Prosperity sprang largely from the Scottish financial wizard John Law, whom Orléans tapped to handle the kingdom's finances in 1716. Law used sophisticated monetary and fiscal policies to cut much of the crushing debt left by Louis XIV, bolster revenues, lower interest rates, balance the books, and invest in industries and infrastructure that diversified and expanded the economy. In 1716, he created a central bank for France, the Banque Générale, renamed the Banque Royale in 1718. To stimulate trade, he organized the Compagnie de l'Occident that developed Louisiana, and Compagnie des Indes, which expanded France's ties to all known continents.
Midas-like, all Law touched seemed to turn to gold. In 1720, Orléans made him comptroller general. Unfortunately, Law's success inspired a speculative wave of pyramid stock purchases that bubbled then burst that same year. Thousands who had gambled all their wealth were ruined. In December 1720, Orléans fired Law and dissolved the Banque Royale. Yet Law's reforms proved more powerful. The financial meltdown burned away much of the economic fat while leaving the muscle. Within a year the economy was booming again. The expansion would last most of the century and allow Louis XV a reign as decadent and luxurious as it was long.
The regency formally ended on February 5, 1723, when Louis came of age at thirteen. The Council of Regency was renamed the King's Council. On October 25, 1723, Louis XV was formally crowned at Reims cathedral. Two months later, on December 23, 1723, a lifetime of debauchery finally claimed Orléans. Louis Henri, duc de Bourbon, quickly stepped into his place. He would not last long. Greed and a novice queen prompted his downfall.
Though teenage Louis was strapping and handsome, he was too shy to toss a handkerchief to any of the swirling parade of women and girls who longed to steal his virginity. Many wondered if the king would not satisfy his carnal hungers until his wedding night. In 1721, he was given a fiancée, Maria Ann Victoria, Spanish King Philip V's daughter. But in 1725 the Spanish princess was sent packing when Bourbon and his wife found another through whom they hoped to manipulate Louis. Bourbon convinced the council to choose as queen Marie Leszczynska, the daughter of Stanislaus, Poland's dethroned king living in exile in Nancy.
Louis was fifteen when he joined hands with Marie on September 5, 1725. The lad was a sexual wallflower no more; it was boasted that he had exercised his royal lust seven times on the wedding night. The honeymoon ended abruptly, however, when Marie tried to sweet-talk Louis into dumping his tutor and surrogate father, Fleury. The suggestion angered Louis. A tearful Marie admitted that Bourbon was behind it. This knowledge enraged Louis into committing his reign's first important decision. He abruptly dismissed Bourbon and named the seventy-three-year-old Fleury his chief minister.
Fleury held this power for the next seventeen years. He proved to be as able a ruler as Orléans, striving and largely succeeding in keeping France peaceful and prosperous by avoiding war and encouraging trade. All along he tried to instill in Louis the skills of monarchy. When Fleury died on January 29, 1743, Louis felt ready to rule alone: "As soon as the death was announced to the King, his Majesty said, 'Messieurs, I am now primeminister.'"
As for the queen, though Louis remained true to his royal duty to produce an heir, her intrigue had forever cooled his ardor for her. Louis became a father at age seventeen, and the queen would give birth to nine more children, the third of which was the long-awaited dauphin or royal heir. During the queen's pregnancies, the royal doctors forbade Louis from sleeping with her. The highly sexed king compensated with a string of three mistresses, all sisters!
What manner of king was he? Louis XV's first sobriquet was "the beloved," which became popular in 1744 after he accompanied his army to victories against the Austrians and British, followed by his illness at Metz. The sentiments of those who called him "beloved" were well-founded only by comparison to his predecessor, who had bankrupted and bled France. In 1747, René de Voyer, marquis d'Argenson, bluntly stated that "Louis XV is cherished by his people without ever, as yet, having done them any good." The king never really would.
The courtiers and masses alike gradually awakened to this reality. Yet through good and bad times, public opinion was always fickle; moods shifted with the winds of fashion and fate. In such a climate, the king could be lauded one day and pilloried the next. As Louis's popularity faded, Argenson explained that the French, "more attached to persons than to [institutions] ... attack the king in the first instance with much injustice, and oftener Louis XV, than any other." The king stood fire for the sins of his advisors—"with dull, inhuman ministers such as his, he attracts to himself more and more daily a national hatred." But rumors of his private life also turned people against him. He was hypersensitive to all the criticism, only fragments of which filtered through the layers of court to his royal ears. Louis was often "tortured with remorse; the songs and satires have had this effect upon him. He sees himself hated by his people, he considers that the hand of God is in it."
Louis meant well, but, unable to know and better himself, he could do little for his kingdom. Argenson offered this penetrating portrait: "Our monarch is a kind man at bottom, but small in conception; he understands nothing about elevated things; his mind is indolent in ... resolution and action.... He fears philosophers, without hating them; he follows courtiers of common minds and false hearts, without liking them.... He has right-mindedness, but ... lacks courage."
Why was he like that? His childhood traumas worsened Louis's natural shyness and melancholy. He was miserable during the daily rituals of exposure to a fawning or mocking court from the time they crowded into his royal bed chamber to watch him rise to the moment he turned in at night. He hid his timidity and self-doubts behind a mask of icy reserve. His introversion combined with bouts of melancholy, boredom, and inertia to make him cling to the same routines and faces as if to a social life raft; speaking to strangers terrified him.
Though bright and informed enough, Louis lacked the confidence to challenge his ministers and tended to follow the last opinion foisted upon him. He never quite reconciled the paradox of his supposed absolute, divine rule with the reality that he was the greatest prisoner of Versailles's maze of etiquette, intrigue, and ridicule. Nor, to his dying day, did he ever quite escape being a revered but powerless child manipulated by those around him.
Louis hated confrontation. The supposed absolute monarch could not criticize anyone directly. Instead, Louis displayed his displeasure with a royal snub, a refusal to speak or even look at the miscreant, let alone dine with him. Serious offenses called for more serious penalties. Unable to face those who had betrayed or disappointed him, he remained civil to the very moment when the lettre de cachet was delivered and the miscreant escorted to his country estate or to the Bastille.
Yet the popular belief that the king was lazy was untrue. Between hunts, banquets, and trysts, Louis put in long hours at the office: "The King works at present with his ministers, acquits himself well, and decides with judgment; he has a well-stored memory.... He listens to everything, even the smallest details.... It is true that he goes but little to the bottom of things ... never lending himself to a long discussion."
Louis was brave personally but despaired at witnessing the suffering of others, especially if he was partly responsible for it. The illness Louis suffered at Metz in September 1744 was likely as much psychological as physical. The campaign had emotionally drained him. The stress of presiding over the fate of tens of thousands of lives and his kingdom was withering enough, but all along he was harshly criticized for bringing along his mistress, Marie Anne de Nesle, marquise de Châteauroux.
In 1745, Louis and the dauphin rejoined Maurice de Saxe at the front, this time to witness France's narrow victory at Fontenoy on May 11. The sight of blood always nauseated him; carnage on such a vast scale shook him profoundly. He was no warmonger like his great-grandfather, and Fontenoy haunted him until his own dying day. He would do what he could to avert France's slide into the Seven Years' War, but the diplomatic slope became too slippery to avoid the plunge.
From 1745 to 1765, one advisor transcended all others at the king's side. Many believed then and now that France's policies during those two decades were largely shaped in Louis's boudoir rather than in the council chamber. Perhaps no royal mistress has ever wielded as much power as Madame de Pompadour, who served the king as both his unofficial queen and prime minister. The eighteenth century's most famous and powerful mistress was born Jeanne Antoinette Poisson in 1721 to a libertine father and social-climbing mother. Actually, her paternity remains obscure. The most likely suspects are Jean Paris-Marmontel, her mother's lover about the time she was conceived, and Fermier Général Charles François Paul, Le Normant de Tournehem. Both were extremely powerful men who would help her rise to society's pinnacle. She was educated by the Ursuline sisters at Poissy and then, more importantly, at various salons, where she refined her natural gifts for conversation, music, and acting. A convenient marriage in 1741 renamed her Madame d'Étiolles. She and her husband, Charles-Guillaume le Normand d'Étiolles spent little time together, though her beloved child Alexandrine came of their marriage.
How did Pompadour snare the king? An elaborate conspiracy won her the royal heart. She and her confederates contrived a "chance" encounter between her and Louis at the Yew Tree Ball in February 1745. Dressed as Diana, goddess of the hunt, she shot a miniature arrow at Louis, who turned and smiled. She bowed and dropped her handkerchief as she retired coquettishly. He retrieved it and threw it after her. The smitten king pursued. Their love was consummated a few days later. Within a week of the ball, he was hers.
What did the king see in his mistress? She was renowned for being one of those rare women who radiated such powerful inner and physical beauty that most people melted in her presence. George Leroy, Versailles's head huntsman and an obvious connoisseur, described her as
a little taller than most, slim, graceful, supple, elegant; her face was well assorted to her height, a perfect oval, beautiful hair, closer to light brown than blonde, rather large eyes with fine eyelashes of the same color, a perfectly shaped nose, a charming mouth, very beautiful teeth and the most delicious smile; the most beautiful skin in the world gave her a dazzling look. Her eyes had a peculiar charm which they may have owed to the uncertainty of their color; they did not have the lively sparkle of black eyes, the tender languor of blue eyes, the subtlety which belongs to grey eyes; their indeterminate color seemed to render them able to seduce in every possible way and to express all the feelings of a rapidly changing mood; thus her face reflected all sorts of looks, but always without any discordance between her features.... The ensemble of her person seemed to bridge the fine line between the last degree of elegance and the first of nobility."
More than beauty, Pompadour brought Louis gaiety through plays, concerts, dinner parties, and conversations with that age's greatest wits, artists, and philosophers, all of which animated his dull life. It was well known that she could "divert the melancholy cast of his mind from sinking into a habit of devotion. She perpetually varied his pleasures, and carried him from one palace and hunting seat to another, journeys which cost immense sums, and made the people join in the clamor which the clergy had conjured up." Even more vitally, she brought the king the intimate sanctum from others that he had wanted all his life. He discovered a woman "alluring his nature by the charm of gentleness, she soon won all and obtained the most extreme authority that can be procured by confidence, comfort, secrecy, and all the maneuvers that render courtesans by profession more completely the masters of their lovers."
Excerpted from The French and Indian War and the Conquest of New France by William R. Nester. Copyright © 2014 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.