1793: Francois de Laverdy, former Controller-General

Add comment November 24th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Clément Charles François de Laverdy, Marquis of Gambais and the ancien regime‘s former Controller-General of Finances, was guillotined in Paris.

“Un financier erudit,” Laverdy (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a member of the Paris Parlement and a scholar who at one point unearthed previously unknown manuscripts about the trial of Joan of Arc — but became a bit overmatched when political machinations situated him at Louis XV’s treasury.

A physiocrat, Laverdy made a go in the 1760s at liberalizing the grain trade by authorizing via a July 1764 edict the free export of grain, then reaped the whirlwind when grain prices spiked. In the 1760s, the whirlwind just meant losing his job: by the 1790s, the loss was very much more dear.

Laverdy labored in a pre-industrial kingdom, at a time when the field of economics still lay in its infancy. Nevertheless, he is a recognizably modern character, both in his principles and his disposition, as Steven L. Kaplan describes him in Bread, Politics and Political Economy in the Reign of Louis XV:

Laverdy correctly believed that traditional attitudes toward subsistence constituted the single greatest barrier to change. But, like many self-consciously enlightened ministers and reformers, he neither understood nor sympathized with it. Diffusing light, to be sure, was no easy matter; since all men were not equally equipped to seize the truth, often it was necessary to force them to accept it. To re-educate the public, Laverdy saw no alternative to brutal and relentless reconditioning.

Impetuously, the people believed that their right to subsist took precedence over all the rights prescribed by natural law as the basis of social organization. They assumed that it was the solemn duty of the state to intervene when necessary to guarantee their subsistence without regard for so-called natural rights. Such views, in Laverdy’s estimation, were erroneous and pernicious; they misconceived the role of the government and its relation to the citizenry and did violence to the soundest principles of political economy. In a word, they were irrational; the Controller-General refused a dialogue with unreason. “The people,” he lamented, “hardly used their reason in matters of subsistence.” …

To combat and discredit this mentality, Laverdy chose to belittle and insult it with all the sophistry of progressive thinking. It consisted of nothing more than a crazy quilt of “prejudices.” “Prejudice” was one of the harshest epithets in the political vocabulary of the Enlightenment; it acquired added force when accompanied by Laverdy’s favorite metaphors, light and sight. Their prejudices “blinded the people,” not only to the “veritable principles of things,” but also to “their true interests.” (A decade later, in similar fashion, Turgot explained popular resistance to his liberal program on the grounds that the people are “too little enlightened on their real interests.”) In letter after letter, the Controller-General railed against the “old prejudices which still subsist against liberty of the grain trade.” He hated “ignorance” and “prejudice” en philosophe for the “obstacles … always contrary to all sorts of good [which they] opposed to progress.” …

Only a tough, unbending stance would produce results. “By stiffening against the prejudices of the people,” he predicted, “they will gradually weaken and we will succeed in accustoming them to a bien,” though, he conceded, “they will continue to misjudge [it] for still some time to come.” Misjudging it, however, was one thing, and actively opposing it, quite another. The threat of bludgeoning them into submission was the only real incentive the Controller-General offered the people to embrace the liberal program.

The bread riots that afflicted the remainder of his term he could not but ascribe to this unreason; proceeding from the certainty that his policies were objectively correct, “Laverdy claimed that grain was abundant and prices moderate” and riots “could only have resulted from ‘the prejudice which exists against the liberty of the grain trade.'”

Or, as a liberal journal serenely put it, the riots “are not and cannot be the effect of real need” because in a regime of liberty, “the dearth that the enraged minds fear, or feign to fear, is manifestly impossible.” …

Two assumptions, in Laverdy’s view, seemed to have emboldened the people. First, that they could riot with “impunity,” an expectation encouraged by many police authorities — those at Rouen, for example — who fail to put down popular movements swiftly and mercilessly and who in some instances even seem to sympathize with the insurgents. Second, “the persuasion which the populace of the cities ordinarily shares that the fear of the riots which it might excite will force the King to modify the laws which established liberty.” Nothing was “more essential,” according to the Controller-General, than to “destroy” these aberrant opinions.

To dispel the idea that consumers could riot without risk, Laverdy instructed and exhorted the police after every episode to repress with dispatch and pitilessness. Repeatedly, he asked for “a few examples of severity,” which would serve not only to “contain the people,” but also to “destroy those prejudices” which motivated them, presumably by revealing the futility of following their lead. If the repression were to be delayed, the didactic advantages would be lost. “Nothing is more important,” Laverdy wrote Joly de Fleury in reference to a riot which took place in the fall of 1766, “than to accelerate the procedures instituted against the principal authors … examples in such circumstances are of the greatest necessity and when they are deferred, they do not produce nearly the same effect.” … Impatient with “the slowness of the official inquiries, the appeals, the forms to which the [ordinary] tribunals are subjected,” the Controller-General considered resuscitating a draconian repressive law which had been used before to bypass local jurisdictions …

Soft sentences annoyed Laverdy as much as dilatory ones. Even as he urged the police to show rigor in the streets and marketplaces, so he goaded prosecutors to demand heavy penalties and judges to pronounce them. He followed cases eagerly in all their details, made his expectations clearly known, and bristled with indignation when the results displeased him. In the wake of a massive riot at Troyes, for example, in which the police had failed to deal harshly with the insurgents, Laverdy pressed for a stern judicial reckoning. He was satisfied to learn that the royal procurator and the rapporteur would ask the death penalty for three of the putative leaders and stringent punishment for the others. In anticipation of such a verdict and a hostile popular reaction, extra brigades were sent to reinforce the constabulary. To virtually everyone’s surprise, the presidial rendered a stunningly mild provisional sentence which could lead to the release of all the prisoners in three months. The Controller-General angrily denounced the verdict and demanded an explanation; “the excesses to which the people have given themselves in this circumstance,” he wrote, “require a much more severe punishment.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Intellectuals,Politicians,Power,Public Executions

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