Travels through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett

Letter XXXVI

Nice, March 23, 1766.

DEAR SIR — You ask whether I think the French people are more taxed than the English; but I apprehend, the question would be more apropos if you asked whether the French taxes are more insupportable than the English; for, in comparing burthens, we ought always to consider the strength of the shoulders that bear them. I know no better way of estimating the strength, than by examining the face of the country, and observing the appearance of the common people, who constitute the bulk of every nation. When I, therefore, see the country of England smiling with cultivation; the grounds exhibiting all the perfection of agriculture, parcelled out into beautiful inclosures, cornfields, hay and pasture, woodland and common, when I see her meadows well stocked with black cattle, her downs covered with sheep; when I view her teams of horses and oxen, large and strong, fat and sleek; when I see her farm-houses the habitations of plenty, cleanliness, and convenience; and her peasants well fed, well lodged, well cloathed, tall and stout, and hale and jolly; I cannot help concluding that the people are well able to bear those impositions which the public necessities have rendered necessary. On the other hand, when I perceive such signs of poverty, misery and dirt, among the commonalty of France, their unfenced fields dug up in despair, without the intervention of meadow or fallow ground, without cattle to furnish manure, without horses to execute the plans of agriculture; their farm-houses mean, their furniture wretched, their apparel beggarly; themselves and their beasts the images of famine; I cannot help thinking they groan under oppression, either from their landlords, or their government; probably from both.

The principal impositions of the French government are these: first, the taille, payed by all the commons, except those that are privileged: secondly, the capitation, from which no persons (not even the nobles) are excepted: thirdly, the tenths and twentieths, called Dixiemes and Vingtiemes, which every body pays. This tax was originally levied as an occasional aid in times of war, and other emergencies; but by degrees is become a standing revenue even in time of peace. All the money arising from these impositions goes directly to the king’s treasury; and must undoubtedly amount to a very great sum. Besides these, he has the revenue of the farms, consisting of the droits d’aydes, or excise on wine, brandy, &c. of the custom-house duties; of the gabelle, comprehending that most oppressive obligation on individuals to take a certain quantity of salt at the price which the farmers shall please to fix; of the exclusive privilege to sell tobacco; of the droits de controlle, insinuation, centieme denier, franchiefs, aubeine, echange et contre-echange arising from the acts of voluntary jurisdiction, as well as certain law-suits. These farms are said to bring into the king’s coffers above one hundred and twenty millions of livres yearly, amounting to near five millions sterling: but the poor people are said to pay about a third more than this sum, which the farmers retain to enrich themselves, and bribe the great for their protection; which protection of the great is the true reason why this most iniquitous, oppressive, and absurd method of levying money is not laid aside. Over and above those articles I have mentioned, the French king draws considerable sums from his clergy, under the denomination of dons gratuits, or free-gifts; as well as from the subsidies given by the pays d’etats such as Provence, Languedoc, and Bretagne, which are exempted from the taille. The whole revenue of the French king amounts to between twelve and thirteen millions sterling. These are great resources for the king: but they will always keep the people miserable, and effectually prevent them from making such improvements as might turn their lands to the best advantage. But besides being eased in the article of taxes, there is something else required to make them exert themselves for the benefit of their country. They must be free in their persons, secure in their property, indulged with reasonable leases, and effectually protected by law from the insolence and oppression of their superiors.

Great as the French king’s resources may appear, they are hardly sufficient to defray the enormous expence of his government. About two millions sterling per annum of his revenue are said to be anticipated for paying the interest of the public debts; and the rest is found inadequate to the charge of a prodigious standing army, a double frontier of fortified towns and the extravagant appointments of ambassadors, generals, governors, intendants, commandants, and other officers of the crown, all of whom affect a pomp, which is equally ridiculous and prodigal. A French general in the field is always attended by thirty or forty cooks; and thinks it is incumbent upon him, for the glory of France, to give a hundred dishes every day at his table. When don Philip, and the marechal duke de Belleisle, had their quarters at Nice, there were fifty scullions constantly employed in the great square in plucking poultry. This absurd luxury infects their whole army. Even the commissaries keep open table; and nothing is seen but prodigality and profusion. The king of Sardinia proceeds upon another plan. His troops are better cloathed, better payed, and better fed than those of France. The commandant of Nice has about four hundred a year of appointments, which enable him to live decently, and even to entertain strangers. On the other hand, the commandant of Antibes, which is in all respects more inconsiderable than Nice, has from the French king above five times the sum to support the glory of his monarch, which all the sensible part of mankind treat with ridicule and contempt. But the finances of France are so ill managed, that many of their commandants, and other officers, have not been able to draw their appointments these two years. In vain they complain and remonstrate. When they grow troublesome they are removed. How then must they support the glory of France? How, but by oppressing the poor people. The treasurer makes use of their money for his own benefit. The king knows it; he knows his officers, thus defrauded, fleece and oppress his people: but he thinks proper to wink at these abuses. That government may be said to be weak and tottering which finds itself obliged to connive at such proceedings. The king of France, in order to give strength and stability to his administration, ought to have sense to adopt a sage plan of oeconomy, and vigour of mind sufficient to execute it in all its parts, with the most rigorous exactness. He ought to have courage enough to find fault, and even to punish the delinquents, of what quality soever they may be: and the first act of reformation ought to be a total abolition of all the farms. There are, undoubtedly, many marks of relaxation in the reins of the French government, and, in all probability, the subjects of France will be the first to take advantage of it. There is at present a violent fermentation of different principles among them, which under the reign of a very weak prince, or during a long minority, may produce a great change in the constitution. In proportion to the progress of reason and philosophy, which have made great advances in this kingdom, superstition loses ground; antient prejudices give way; a spirit of freedom takes the ascendant. All the learned laity of France detest the hierarchy as a plan of despotism, founded on imposture and usurpation. The protestants, who are very numerous in southern parts, abhor it with all the rancour of religious fanaticism. Many of the commons, enriched by commerce and manufacture, grow impatient of those odious distinctions, which exclude them from the honours and privileges due to their importance in the commonwealth; and all the parliaments, or tribunals of justice in the kingdom, seem bent upon asserting their rights and independence in the face of the king’s prerogative, and even at the expence of his power and authority. Should any prince therefore be seduced by evil counsellors, or misled by his own bigotry, to take some arbitrary step, that may be extremely disagreeable to all those communities, without having spirit to exert the violence of his power for the support of his measures, he will become equally detested and despised; and the influence of the commons will insensibly encroach upon the pretensions of the crown. But if in the time of a minority, the power of the government should be divided among different competitors for the regency, the parliaments and people will find it still more easy to acquire and ascertain the liberty at which they aspire, because they will have the balance of power in their hands, and be able to make either scale preponderate. I could say a great deal more upon this subject; and I have some remarks to make relating to the methods which might be taken in the case of a fresh rupture with France, for making a vigorous impression on that kingdom. But these I in list defer till another occasion, having neither room nor leisure at present to add any thing, but that I am, with great truth — Dear Sir, Your very humble Servant.

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