Episode 9: Legitimism
This is The Siècle, Episode 9: Legitimism.
After a generation of new ideas transformed post-Revolutionary France, the Bourbon Restoration saw the return to power of the old order. Today we’re going to explore that old order in more detail — what kind of people comprised it, and most especially, what kinds of beliefs motivated its members?
These beliefs would help shape France for the entire century of The Siècle, but can sometimes be hard to understand from our modern perspective, because of the radically different assumptions underpinning them than are shared by people across the 21st Century political spectrum. But the right wing of the Restoration were not simply relics. They had a sophisticated and nuanced belief system that directly engaged the intellectual challenges thrown up by the Enlightenment and liberalism.
The general term for this system of beliefs is “legitimism,” with its followers dubbed “legitimists.”
Of course, the term “legitimism” is a little premature in our narrative. In 1816, and throughout the Bourbon Restoration, the preferred terminology was “Ultra-royalist,” or “Ultra.” This term was originally coined by the enemies of the ultra-royalists, to attack them, but the ultras embraced the label.1 Before too long, however, the term “legitimist” will come to the fore, and remain so for the majority of The Siècle’s timeframe. So I will use this term somewhat anachronistically right now.
What exactly was a legitimist? Literally, it refers to someone who embraces the right of the House of Bourbon to rule France, as the country’s legitimate monarchs by right of succession. Implied in that is a rejection of revolution and republicanism, especially the former. Decades later, when France is governed by a republic, one radical republican will challenge the far right of that era, saying: “You say you accept the Republic, that is nothing! Do you accept the Revolution?” The answer, historian Robert Tombs notes, was “of course” no.2 For the far right of French politics, the French Revolution was and would remain the country’s original sin.
Throne and altar
I use that religious terminology deliberately. The legitimists were not merely royalist, but Catholic royalists. If any one phrase is commonly used to describe the beliefs of France’s legitimists, it is “the alliance of throne and altar” — king and Catholic Church, protecting and supporting each other and together guiding society. There is more to legitimism than this, but the role of Catholicism in legitimism cannot be easily dismissed.
It can be difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of early 19th Century Europeans with respect to religion, where sectarian divisions were much more important than they are today. Most countries still had an established state church, as indeed France did during the Restoration. The rights of religious minorities were often in question — even Britain, the most liberal of the major European powers, kept laws on the book limiting the rights of non-Anglicans through 1828.3 The Catholic Church, with a tradition of vast landholdings, an array of spiritual and lay orders, and the central role for the Pope, could be a particularly thorny issue.
As one legitimist of the period wrote:
The Catholic religion ought to be considered true and the others false. It ought to be a part of the country’s constitution and thence spread to political and civil institutions. Otherwise, the state professes indifference toward religion, it exiles God by its laws, it is atheistic.4
So French legitimists championed both the spiritual interests of the Catholic Church as well as its material interests. I already talked last episode about some flash points, such as state-owned land that had been seized from the Catholic Church during the Revolution, which legitimists wanted to return to the Church instead of selling to pay France’s vast debts. Ultra-royalists also promoted the church’s interest in other ways, including raising priests’ salaries, funding scholarships for seminary students, and making it easier for religious organizations to receive donations.5
But they also sought to promote Church doctrine as state policy, such as a controversial blasphemy law a few years down the road that included the death penalty for profaning the “consecrated host” — the sacred bread used in the Eucharist that Catholics hold to be transubstantiated into the body of Christ. The Vicomte de Bonald, one of the leading theorists of legitimism, summed up the guiding principle: “The Revolution which began by a declaration of the rights of man will end with a declaration of the rights of God.”6
Louis Gabriel Ambroise, Vicomte de Bonald, by Julien Léopold Boilly. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
But while Catholicism was integral to legitimism, it would be a mistake to view it as theology. Legitimism was a political philosophy, rooted in beliefs about human nature and the proper structure of society and government.
As with any political philosophy, categorizing it is an exercise in generalization and trends. Not every legitimist believed all the ideas I’ll discuss here, and not everyone who believed some of these ideas was a legitimist. But political historians, researching what far-right French politicians of the 19th Century wrote, said, and did, have identified several trends that can, generally speaking, characterize a coherent ideology — a “common fund of postulates, convictions and truths out of which the Ultras drew the substructure for their thinking and which constantly fed their political activity,” as historian René Rémond writes.7 I’ll be relying here primarily, though not exclusively, on Rémond, author of the book The Right Wing in France from 1815 to de Gaulle, which was a taxonomy of several different right-wing post-revolutionary ideologies.
What Rémond calls the “keystone” of legitimism is the the idea of “natural order” — and both words there are important. Legitimists definitely believed in an ordered society, in which everyone was in their proper place and everyone worked for the common good instead of individual self-interest. But this order was explicitly defined in naturalistic, organic terms, not in terms of reason and science. The idea, drawing on the theories of English philosopher Edmund Burke, was that the best and proper way to organize society was that emerging from “a slow and gradual evolution developing spontaneously and in conformity with the laws of nature.” 8
That can be a little abstract, but in essence, it’s a belief that the way things have always been works for a region, and that trying to overthrow traditions is not just dangerous but deeply unnatural. Countries should be guided by customs, legitimists argued, not constitutions, and indeed they considered constitutions loathsome, up to and including Louis XVIII’s Charter, which as I discussed in Episode 7 Louis had accepted as “the spirit of the age.” A written constitution was an attempt to impose a rational structure on an organic society. One legitimist pamphlet in response to the Charter urged Louis to “reject all pedantic contrivances which want to draw their geometric lines between the submission of children and paternal authority.” 9
Authority and liberty
Authority, as that pamphlet mentioned, was another important part of legitimist thought. In keeping with their organic view of society, legitimists saw the country as just a much larger family. Just as, in their view, the father was the head of the family, owed respect and obedience by his wife and children, the king was the father of the country. They believed in “a paternal and patriarchal monarchy whose sovereign was more the father than head,” and furthermore that “the feelings of his subjects for him were those of sons for their father, where affection tempered respect and obedience shaded into deference.”10 Louis, who did not share the intensity of most legitimists but who certainly shared their traditionalism, often referred to himself not as the “king” of France but as the “father” of France.11
But it’s not necessarily fair to brand the legitimists as authoritarian. Paradoxically to their opponents, they talked a great deal about liberty. They didn’t mean liberty the same way that liberals did, as an Enlightenment idea based on reason and the rights of man — a concept legitimists scorned as “formal liberty.” Instead, they saw true liberty deriving from ancient, organic traditions. Napoleon, to legitimists, was a “despot” and a “tyrant.” But they were confident that Louis, bound by custom, would be a bulwark for French liberty even without the despised Charter to restrain his power. Legitimists opposed military conscription, and — tellingly — fought fiercely against the state-run university that Napoleon had founded. Liberals saw state-run education as a foundation of liberty, emancipating individuals by giving them knowledge. Legitimists saw it as a tool of centralized state power and propaganda.12
Below: King Louis IX of France, close-up from “Blanche of Castile Instructing King Louis IX of France; Author Dictating to a Scribe,” author unknown. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
“Centralized” is a key word there. When legitimists were nostalgic for the ancien régime, it was often not the regime of Louis XVI for which they longed. Indeed, the greatest of French monarchs, Louis XIV, was often scorned for his absolutism and for his decadence. The legitimists idolized the medieval French monarchy, such as Louis IX, the 13th Century king, crusader and Catholic saint, or Henri IV, the first Bourbon monarch, ruling around the turn of the 17th Century. The absolute monarchy of Louis XIV was scarcely more tolerable than the despotism of Napoleon.13 Instead, at every opportunity, legitimists argued for decentralizing power to local regions, for restoring “local liberties.”14
Of course, championing local liberties was conveniently in the legitimists’ best interests, too. The political base of legitimism was not in the great nobles, the princes and dukes, but rather in the lesser nobility whose estates and chateaux dotted the countryside. In the Chambre introuvable, the Ultra-dominated parliament I discussed in Episode 8, most of the right-wing legislators were from the “small and medium provincial nobility,” a class that was “hereditarily jealous of the upper nobility, which it accused of leading the monarchy to its downfall.”15 Only 57 percent of the Ultra deputies paid more than 1,500 francs per year in taxes — slightly lower than the share of the ultra-rich among the Chambre’s left-wing minority!16 This minor nobility saw the ultra-rich, and the power and wealth of Paris, as a threat. Back home in the provinces, where they were the richest people around, they had more power to influence events — and thus, for selfish as well as ideological reasons, legitimists consistently championed transferring power from Paris to the provinces.
No men are created equal
But if legitimists were on board, at least to some extent, with the idea of liberty, they wholeheartedly rejected that second revolutionary principle: equality. This grew out of their view of the “natural order.” Nature seemed to teach that all living things had their own different roles to play, and they believed human societies should follow that same principle. Before the Revolution, France had been a “society of orders” — a complex, interwoven system of rights, privileges and duties, dispersed to social classes and corporate bodies rather than vested in individuals. It was this system that legitimists thought should be restored. Simply restoring the monarchy was not enough — legitimists wanted a social Restoration as well as a political one.17
What exactly did this commitment to inequality and a “society of orders” mean? In strictly political terms, many legitimists were nostalgic for the Estates General — the medieval proto-parliament that Louis XVI had summoned at the beginning of the French Revolution. Before this was transformed into a National Assembly, the Estates General operated along medieval lines, with separate chambers for the clergy (the First Estate), the nobility (the Second Estate) and everyone else (the Third Estate). For many legitimists, this was a time-tested way to divide and run society, and should be restored, though this dream never came close to fruition and legitimist leaders didn’t waste time trying to bring it about.18 On a social level, however, legitimists often wanted to abolish the revolutionary principles of equality before the law, to restore the various privileges and duties that different social groups had possessed — nobility exempt from taxation but providing leadership and protection to their common people and receiving feudal dues in return.
Like local control, but even more obviously, this had material and cultural benefits for legitimist nobles. The loss of these feudal dues and privileges in the Revolution had been a severe financial blow to the French nobility. For example, with their exemptions from various taxes, nobles faced an typical tax rate of around 5 percent before 1789; afterwards, the new uniform tax rates continued by Napoleon and the Restoration averaged more like 16 percent. They also lost a whole host of fees they’d been able to charge their peasants, such as the tasque, the one-eighth share of harvested grain and olive oil that peasants in some regions had to turn over.19 In some areas the new, capitalist rents that landlords could charge their tenants made up for the losses, but in others they did not.
Less concretely, but by no means less significant in the minds of those affected, was the loss of social privileges. Pre-Revolutionary nobles had the right, for example, to serve as a judge in disputes between their peasants. That now was handled by state officials.20 High-ranking positions in the army and government were now open to all, not just nobles. Even the dress code had changed. Now men, even at court, tended to wear suits or uniforms, rather than the byzantine ancien régime system by which one’s precise social rank — noblesse présentée, noblesse non-présentée, noblesse de robe, etc. — was indicated by one’s clothes.21
Legitimism was not purely about recovering lost rights. Legitimist rhetoric also talked about restoring old duties, too. Rémond writes of “a hereditary tradition of service and the feel of a special mission” common among “nobles brought up in a worship of the past. The privileges they demanded as their right has as a counterpart a duty to society. The king had no better servants than the nobility.”
Legitimists didn’t necessarily try to reverse all of these specific changes — and a surprising number of deputies in the Chambre introuvable were too young to remember the ancien régime well.22 But they certainly regretted these lost privileges and duties, and would try to restore them where they could, through force of law or social pressure, and would fume when their fellow monarchists didn’t share this same desire.
But there’s an interesting twist in this picture of legitimists as believers in inequality and rights and privileges of the nobility. During the Bourbon Restoration, it was the legitimists, the believers in absolute monarchy and hereditary privilege, and not the liberal champions of new ideas and constitutions, who were the more more democratic faction.
Recall from Episode 7 how the Charter of 1814 let only the richest 1 percent or so of French men, those paying 300 francs per year in direct taxes, vote for the Chamber of Deputies. As I mentioned in that episode, this provision was surprisingly uncontroversial at first. Even French liberals tended to believe that only letting the wealthy vote made for a better society, they just wanted to extend that a little to allow the upper-middle-class into the political arena, too, instead of just the super-wealthy. The Ultras were more clever and flexible than you might expect, and proposed an election law that would let anyone paying 50 francs per year in direct taxes — or even as low as 25 — cast a vote in the first round of parliamentary elections.23 I’ve been unable to find a figure for exactly how many people that change would have included, but it would have been a drastic expansion of the franchise into the ranks of not just middling but poorer Frenchmen.
Why would such devotees of noble privilege endorse such a democratic measure? I’ll let Joseph de Villèle, one of the most important legitimist leaders, explain it:
The middle class, envied by the lower and enemy of the upper, composes the revolutionary party in all states. If you want the upper to come to your assemblies, have it elected by the auxiliaries that it has in the lower class, go down as far as you can and thereby cancel out the middle class which is the only one you have to fear.24
Right: François Séraphin Delpech, after Jean Sebastien Rouillard, “Jean-Baptiste Guillaume Joseph, comte de Villèle.” Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Below: Lithograph of painting by Achille Devéria of Victor Hugo in 1828. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Villèle was certainly correct in seeing the middle class as largely an enemy of legitimism, though at least in the early days, the ultras drew a surprising number of writers and poets from the burgeoning Romantic movement to their numbers. Victor Hugo, for example, later known for his liberal and republican views, in his early years in the 1820s wrote odes to Christianity and the Bourbons. Both Romanticism and legitimism were revolts against the Enlightenment, whose liberal heirs in the 1820s accused Romantics of “outraging good taste, of insulting reason, of descending to the most disgusting trivialities, or of losing themselves in the limitless regions of the absurd.” But this flirtation would not last, with many of the brightest lights of Romanticism migrating firmly to the left by the 1830s.25
It’s a more interesting question whether the lower classes supported the legitimists, as the legitimists clearly believed. Peasants generally had a pretty complex relationship with their local lords, who were often simultaneously their landlords and their champion against far-off Parisian bureaucrats. But case studies of various regions, and data from elections in later decades, suggest that there was indeed a certain amount of popular support for legitimism, especially in alliance with Catholicism, the dominant religion in the country with legitimist-friendly priests preaching in many parishes.26 As it happened, the intriguing legitimist proposal to expand the franchise was defeated in 1816, and when legitimists later regained power, they abandoned this democratic gesture.27
A legitimist house divided
All these generalities I’ve uttered about the legitimists should not blind us to the fact that they had their own internal divisions, as all movements do. The simplest was one of temperament, between the “realists” and “idealists.” All agreed on certain policy goals, but some legitimists saw compromise as unacceptable. As Rémond summarized their view:
To ask such men to approve the spirit and letter of a compromise between the Old Regime and the Revolution was to invite them to remain neutral between good and evil… Did one come to terms with evil? One either gave it all its share or one fought it without mercy.28
Against them were legitimists who were prepared to accept what they could get rather than hold out for total victory. Villèle, who became the legitimist leader in the Chamber of Deputies, was one of these, constantly struggling to balance what he wanted with what seemed possible. For his efforts, the man who had been the face of the far-right Chambre introuvable now found himself having to deal with a group of Ultra rebels to his right.29
Below: Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson, “Chateaubriand Meditating on the Ruins of Rome.” Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Another division involved the question of liberty that we discussed earlier. All legitimists cared about liberty to some extent, but some cared more than others. Exemplary of this latter group was the writer and statesman Chateaubriand, who championed civil liberties from the right, and eventually shut down his newspaper rather than submit to censorship imposed by a legitimist government.30
Finally, the question of Catholicism provided another split. Not to get too into the theological weeds, but French Catholicism had long been split between two wings: “ultramontanism,” which prioritized the power of the pope, and “Gallicanism,” which prioritized the power of the king. By the time of the Restoration, ultramontane Catholicism was ascendant in France, but conservatives of a Gallican stripe remained, and were often suspicious of the role of Catholic priests and religious orders that ultramontane legitimists sought to promote in French society. 31
But these divisions, while an important explanation for why legitimists were often unable to enact their more ambitious goals during the times they did hold power, often paled in comparison to the single most important unifying factor for the legitimist movement: their support for the Bourbon dynasty as France’s monarchs.
This is not to say that only legitimists supposed the Bourbons, who had reasonably broad support during much of the Restoration. But — spoiler alert — the Bourbons won’t rule France forever. And as the French get more and more choices for who should run their country, and how, only the true believers will stick with the Bourbons through and through.
That dynastic support grows out of many of the legitimist tenets I discussed earlier. If you believe that France is governed best when it sticks to its age-old traditions, well, one of those traditions is that leadership of the country should pass through inheritance32, and that other methods — especially popular revolution — aren’t valid ways of determining leadership.
In this sense, it’s a happy coincidence for the legitimists that generally speaking, the Bourbons turned out to have similar beliefs as the conservative traditionalists who championed their right to rule France in the face of competing claims. There’s no reason that a Bourbon couldn’t have been a liberal, and indeed we’ve seen the consternation with which many legitimists treated Louis XVIII merely for being less vehement in his methods — as they said, “Long live the king, despite everything.”33
But even Louis was no liberal, and of all his family members he was the most heterodox. In general the Bourbons tended to see eye-to-eye with their die-hard supporters on most issues. In return, decades after the last Bourbon sits on the French throne, they will continue to have a powerful constituency rejecting alternative monarchs and republics alike in favor of the only true rightful rulers of France: the House of Bourbon.
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I hope you’ve enjoyed this slightly delayed episode. After several episodes discussing high politics, we’re finally going to be setting that aside to delve into the lives of ordinary French men and women, beginning with the most numerous but often least visible demographic group: the peasants. Join me next time for Episode 10 of The Siècle: People of the Land.
René Rémond, The Right Wing in France: From 1815 to de Gaulle. 2nd American ed., translated by James M. Laux (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969), 37. ↩
Robert Tombs, France 1814-1914 (Harlow: Addison Wesley Longman, 1996), 113-4. ↩
By the early 19th Century these laws were rarely enforced. ↩
Guillaume de Bertier de Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, translated by Lynn M. Case (Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1966), 375. ↩
Rémond, The Right Wing in France, 56. ↩
De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 375-7. ↩
Rémond, The Right Wing in France, 45. ↩
Rémond, The Right Wing in France, 47. ↩
Rémond, The Right Wing in France, 47. ↩
Rémond, The Right Wing in France, 55. ↩
Philip Mansel, Louis XVIII, Rev. ed. (Phoenix Mill: Sutton, 1999), 184. Louis was also fond of describing himself as a doctor to the French people, so disturbed by a generation of revolution. “You can always rely on my care,” Louis said in one typical remark. ↩
Rémond, The Right Wing in France, 53. ↩
Rémond, The Right Wing in France, 49-50. ↩
Rémond, The Right Wing in France, 53. ↩
Rémond, The Right Wing in France, 39-40. ↩
Thomas D. Beck, French Legislators 1800-1834: A Study in Quantitative History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 168. ↩
Rémond, The Right Wing in France, 54. ↩
Munro Price, The Perilous Crown: France between Revolutions (London: Macmillan, 2007), 56-7. ↩
Peter McPhee, A Social History of France: 1789-1914. 2nd ed. (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 103. ↩
McPhee, A Social History of France, 99. ↩
Mansel, Louis XVIII, 173. Roughly speaking, the noblesse présentée were those who had been formally presented at court, a major social event for nobles. The noblesse de robe were nobles whose rank came from having held public office, as opposed to the noblesse d’épée or nobles of the sword, whose nobility was based on feudal knighthood. ↩
Beck, French Legislators, 46-7. In the Chambre there were more men under 40 than over 60, and a full third of deputies had been no older than 20 at the outbreak of the Revolution. ↩
De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 136. ↩
Rémond, The Right Wing in France, 59. ↩
De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 355-6. ↩
See Rémond, The Right Wing in France, 59-63; McPhee, A Social History of France, 155-6. ↩
De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 136. ↩
Rémond, The Right Wing in France, 40. ↩
Rémond, The Right Wing in France, 70-1. ↩
Rémond, The Right Wing in France, 71-3. ↩
Rémond, The Right Wing in France, 74-7. ↩
Specifically, France had traditionally followed male-only primogeniture, in which the oldest male son, or most senior male heir, became king. Not only could women not inherit the throne, but unlike many other European countries (such as Great Britain) men could not inherit claims through their mothers. Only inheritance through the male line was valid. ↩
Mansel, Louis XVIII, 326-8. ↩