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Arthur Young

Travels During the Years 1787, 1788 and 1789



Arthur Young (1741-1820) was an English traveler who wrote extensively on his journeys through France in the years prior to the French Revolution.

... The abuses attending the levy of taxes were heavy and universal. The kingdom was parceled into generalities [administrative districts], with an intendant at the head of each, into whose hands the whole power of the crown was delegated for everything except the military authority; but particularly for all affairs of finance. The generalities were subdivided into elections, at the head of which was a sub-delegue appointed by the intendant. The rolls of the taille, capitation, vingtiemes, and other taxes, were distributed among districts, parishes, and individuals, at the pleasure of the intendant, who could exempt, change, add, or diminish at pleasure. Such an enormous power, constantly acting, and from which no man was free, must, in the nature of things, degenerate in many cases into absolute tyranny. It must be obvious that the friends, acquaintances, and dependents of the intendant, and of all his sub-delegues, and the friends of these friends, to a long chain of dependence, might be favoured in taxation at the expense of their miserable neighbours; and that noblemen in favour at court, to whose protection the intendant himself would naturally look up, could find little difficulty in throwing much of the weight of their taxes on others, without a similar support. Instances, and even gross ones, have been reported to me in many parts of the kingdom, that made me shudder at the oppression to which [people have been subjected] by the undue favours granted to such crooked influence. But, without recurring to such cases, what must have been the state of the poor people paying heavy taxes, from which the nobility and clergy were exempted? A cruel aggravation of their misery, to see those who could best afford to pay, exempted because able! ... The corvees [a tax-in-kind; it was paid through labor service rather than in money], or police of the roads, were annually the ruin of many hundreds of farmers; more than 300 were reduced to beggary in filling up one vale in Lorraine: all these oppressions fell on the tiers etat [Third Estate] only; the nobility and clergy having been equally exempted from tailles, militia and corvees. The penal code of finance makes one shudder at the horrors of punishment inadequate to the crime....

1. Smugglers of salt, armed and assembled to the number of five, in Provence, a fine of 500 liv. and nine years galleys, in all the rest of the kingdom, death.

2. Smugglers, armed, assembled, but in number under five, a fine of 300 liv. and three years galleys. Second offense, death....

10. Buying smuggled salt, to resell it, the same punishments as for smuggling....

The Capitaineries were a dreadful scourge on all the occupiers of land. By this term is to be understood the paramountship of certain districts, granted by the king to princes of the blood, by which they were put in possession of the property of all game, even on lands not belonging to them. - . . In speaking of the preservation of the game in these capitaineries, it must be observed that by game must be understood whole droves of wild boars, and herds of deer not confined by any wall or pale, but wandering at pleasure over the whole country, to the destruction of crops; and to the peopling of the galleys by the wretched peasants, who presumed to kill them in order to save that food which was to support their helpless children.... Now an English reader will scarcely understand it without being told, that there were numerous edicts for preserving the game which prohibited weeding and hoeing, lest the young partridges should be disturbed; ... manuring with night soil, lest the flavour of the partridges should be injured by feeding on the corn so produced; ... and taking away the stubble, which would deprive the birds of shelter. The tyranny exercised in these capitaineries, which extended over 400 leagues of country, was so great that many cahiers demanded the utter suppression of them. Such were the exertions of arbitrary power which the lower orders felt directly from the royal authority; but, heavy as they were, it is a question whether the [abuses], suffered [indirectly] through the nobility and the clergy, were not yet more oppressive. Nothing can exceed the complaints made in the cahiers under this head. They speak of the dispensation of justice in the manorial courts, as comprising every species of despotism; the districts indeterminate--appeals endless--irreconcilable to liberty and prosperity--and irrevocably [condemned] in the opinion of the public--augmenting litigations--favouring every [form of trickery]-ruining the parties--not only by enormous expenses on the most petty objects, but by a dreadful loss of time. The judges, commonly ignorant pretenders, who hold their courts in cabarets [taverns] ... are absolutely dependent on the seigneurs. Nothing can exceed the force of expression used in painting the oppressions of the seigneurs, in consequence . of their feudal powers. . . . The countryman is tyrannically enslaved by it. . . . In passing through many of the French provinces, I was struck with the various and heavy complaints of the farmers and little proprietors of the feudal grievances, with the weight of which their industry was [burdened]; but I could not then conceive the multiplicity of the shackles which kept them poor and depressed. I understood it better afterwards.

From: Arthur Young, Travels During the Years 1787, 1788 and 1790 (London; Printed for W. Richardson, 1792) pp. 533-540. Reprinted in Marvin Peryy, Joseph R. Peden and Theodore H. Von Laue, eds., Sources of the Western Tradition, Vol. II: From the Renaissance to the Present, 2nd ed., (Boston; Houghton Mifflin, 1991) pp. 84-86


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