Discourse on Davila

"Discourse on Davila—XV," 1776 (Contrast of natural equality and inequalities)

Auguste vérité!
C'est a toi de montrer aux yeux des nations
Les coupables effets de leurs divisions.

When one family is depressed, either in a monarchy or in any species of republic, another must arise. “While in the reign of Francis I. they thus humbled the branch of the Bourbons, there arose two other powerful families, who soon obtained the administration of affairs, -- the house of Montmorenci, and that of Guise; both, indeed, inferior to the blood royal, but both illustrious by the splendor of the most ancient nobility. That of Montmorenci produces titles which prove its descent, by an uninterrupted succession, from one of the principal grandees who accompanied Pharamond in his first expedition. It has the glory of having been the first French house which received baptism and the Christian faith. The memory of this distinction is preserved in the motto of their arms, -- God help the first Christian Baron; a splendid testimony both of the antiquity and religion of their ancestors. Anne of Montmorenci, who united a vast genius, directed by prudence, to a grave and imposing deportment; who combined a singular address to a patience never to be exhausted in the intrigues and affairs of the court, which change so often their aspect, sprung from this stock. His high qualities merited the confidence of Francis I. After having passed through all the military gradations of the state, he was at first elevated to the dignity of Grand Master of the King's Household, and, after the death of the Duke of Bourbon, to that of Constable; in one word, he concentred in his person the command of armies, and the principal administration of all the affairs, civil and political, of the kingdom.

“The House of Lorraine, of which that of Guise is a branch, derives its original from the highest antiquity. It reckons among its paternal ancestors Godfrey of Bouillon, the famous leader of the Crusades, who by his valor and piety conquered the kingdom of Jerusalem; and, by the female line, it traces its descent from a daughter of Charlemagne. Anthony of Lorraine, chief of this rich and powerful family, reigned over his people with an absolute authority. Claude, his younger brother, went into France, to take possession of the duchy of Guise, and there recommended himself by his valor. After the battle of Marignano, where he commanded the German troops, he was taken out from a heap of dead bodies, covered over with blood and wounds; his cure was thought to be a miracle, and he held afterwards the first rank among the greatest captains of France. The Houses of Guise and Montmorenci had rendered services of such importance to the state, that it was difficult to determine which of the two merited the preÎminence. In the splendor of their birth and the extent of their domains, the Guises had the advantage. In the favor of the King, the family of the Constable was most advanced, and saw itself at the head of affairs.”

Nature, which has established in the universe a chain of being and universal order, descending from archangels to microscopic animalcules,* has ordained that no two objects shall be perfectly alike, and no two creatures perfectly equal. Although, among men, all are subject by nature to equal laws of morality, and in society have a right to equal laws for their government, yet no two men are perfectly equal in person, property, understanding, activity, and virtue, or ever can be made so by any power less than that which created them; and whenever it becomes disputable, between two individuals or families, which is the superior, a fermentation commences, which disturbs the order of all things until it is settled, and each one knows his place in the opinion of the public. The question of superiority between the Guises and Montmorencis had the usual effects of such doubts.
* This is not a chain of being from God to nothing; ergo, not liable to Dr. Johnson's criticism, nor to the reviewer's.

“But as nothing is less stable than the fortune of courtiers, in ill-ordered governments, they both experienced reverses towards the end of the reign of Francis I.”

That jealousy which never has an end, because it is always well founded, which reigns in every government, where every passion and every interest has not its correspondent counterpoise, actuated the King. The two ministers, not being subject to any regular plan of responsibility, were become dangerous rivals of their master. Their enemies knew how to insinuate suspicions.

“The Constable fell into disgrace, for having persuaded the King to trust the promises of Charles V., and to grant him a free passage through France, as he went to chastise the rebellion of Ghent. The Emperor not keeping his engagements, the King and the court accused the Constable of having failed either in prudence or fidelity. He was obliged to leave the court, and return to private life, to conceal himself from the pursuits of his enemies. The Duke of Guise was also constrained to quit the court, and give way to the storm, for having incurred the displeasure of the King, by causing to be raised upon the frontiers, without his consent, certain troops, which he sent to the Duke of Lorraine, his brother, at that time at war with the Anabaptists.

“The Constable and the Duke of Guise, thus disgraced, were replaced by two ministers of consummate experience, indefatigable industry, and acknowledged abilities, -- the Admiral d'Annebaut and the Cardinal de Tournon. The mediocrity of their fortune and extraction excited little apprehension that they would ever arrive at that high power, of which the King had reason to be jealous, and which he dreaded in the hands of his subjects. This Prince, who understood mankind, and was become unquiet and suspicious since his disgraces, had long resolved to dismiss from his person the Constable and the Duke, notwithstanding the long confidence with which he had honored them; believing that he should not be able to govern according to his own mind, while he should have about him two persons whose credit and reputation were capable of balancing his will. He dreaded in the Constable that profound experience and that lively penetration, from which he could not conceal his most hidden secrets. Every thing was to him suspicious in the Guises. Their illustrious birth, their restless humor, their active genius, that ardent character to embrace every occasion to aggrandize themselves, and that ambition capable of forming projects the most vast and daring.”

As the judicial courts had no independence, and there was no regular judicature for impeachments, there could be no rational responsibility. The King could inflict none but arbitrary punishments; there was no tribunal but the States-General and their committees, and among these the ministers had as many friends as the king. The ministers, therefore, thought themselves, and, as the constitution then stood, they really were, so nearly equal to the King in power, that they might do as they pleased with impunity. They presumed too far, and the King was justly offended; but had no remedy except in the assassination or dismission of his ministers; he chose the latter; though, in the sequel we shall see many instances, in similar cases, of the former.

“In the last years of his life, this monarch, if we may call by that name a prince who was, in effect, nothing more than the first individual in a miserable oligarchy, secretly recommended to Prince Henry, his son, to distrust the excessive power of his subjects, and especially of the House of Guise, whose elevation would infallibly disturb the repose of the kingdom.”

Francis now saw and felt that the House of Guise was become, as the House of Bourbon had been before, a dangerous rival of the House of Valois. Ambition, disappointed and disgraced by a king, commonly becomes obsequious to the heir apparent, or ostensible successor.

“In 1547, Henry II., the successor of Francis I., disregarding the advice and example of his father, dismissed from his court and service the Admiral and the Cardinal, though possessed of his secrets of the state, and placed again at the head of affairs the Constable Anne of Montmorenci, and Francis of Lorraine, son of Claude, Duke of Guise, who soon engaged the confidence of the young King, and regulated every thing at his court. Their authority was equal.”

But, as has been once observed, nature has decreed that a perfect equality shall never long exist between any two mortals.

“The views, the conduct, and the characters of the two ministers were unlike in all things. The Constable, advanced in years, was naturally fond of peace. Formed by a long experience in the art of government, he enjoyed a high reputation for wisdom, and held the first place in the conduct of affairs of state. The Duke, in the flower of his age, captivated, by an elevated genius and sprightly wit united with a robust constitution and a noble figure, the affections of the King. Henry treated him almost as his equal; admitted him to his conversations, his pleasures, and those exercises of the body which were suitable to his age and inclination. His affection for the Constable was rather veneration. His attachment to the Duke was familiarity. The conduct of the two favorites was very different; the one, an enemy of all show, urged, with a certain severity, from which age is seldom exempted, the necessity of economy. He even opposed the profusion of the Prince. His austere virtue inspired a contempt for foreigners, and rendered him little solicitous for the affection of the French. The Duke of Guise, affable and popular, gained by his liberalities and politeness the hearts of the people and the soldiers. With a generous warmth he protected the unfortunate, and conciliated the esteem of strangers.

“Inclinations and conduct so opposite soon produced jealousies between the two ministers, equally beloved of the King. To insinuate themselves further into the royal graces, and make themselves masters of his favors, they exerted all their skill, address, and efforts. Their emulation and ambition were stimulated by their nearest relations and private friends. The Constable was irritated by his nephew, Gaspard de Coligni, Lord of Ch’tillon, who had succeeded to the Admiral d'Annebaut, and who was not less distinguished for his policy, than eminent for valor. The Duke of Guise was animated by the Cardinal Charles of Lorraine, his brother, who united the splendor of the Roman purple to a noble figure, profound erudition, and uncommon eloquence.

Hence forward, the demon of rivalry haunted the two Houses of Guise and Montmorenci; and fortune did not fail to open a vast career to the animated emulation of the two competitors.