S.A. Bent, comp. Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men. 1887.
[King of France; grandson of Louis XV.; born at Versailles, Aug. 23, 1754; ascended the throne, 1774; endeavored with the aid of Turgot and Necker to repair the state of the finances; assisted the American Colonies, 1778; convoked the states-general, 1789; after the destruction of the Bastille in that year, became a hostage of the Revolution; attempted to escape, June, 1791; confined in the Temple, 1792; tried for treason by the Convention in September of that year; convicted and executed, Jan. 21, 1793.]
O God, guide us, protect us! we are too young to reign.
The words with which Louis and Marie Antoinette, falling upon their knees, received information of the death of Louis XV.
Alfred the Great, on his accession to the throne of England, at the age of twenty-three, A.D. 871, exclaimed, O Lord my God, thou hast made thy servant king: and I am but a little child; I know not how to go out nor to come in (1 Kings iii. 7).
We do not look to the reign of Louis XVI. for happy mots, more than to that of his predecessor. The popularity which earlier French kings had gained from their witticisms was denied to the silent, indolent, and timid Louis XV., and to his grandson, who possessed but little presence of mind, and what has been called the secret of the àpropos. The former disdained to attempt the exercise of a talent he did not possess; the latter, conscious of his inferiority, and of the importance of the qualities which were lacking in him, endeavored to supply their place by employing a maker of bons mots, a vicarious bel esprit, whose duty it was to guess what might be said to the king on any particular occasion, and improvise an answer. This officer, the Marquis de Pezay, gave the king lessons in the form of letters consisting of dialogues which contained the question and the reply in advance. Thus he wrote: Your Majesty will soon attend the races: you will observe a notary who will write down the wagers of the Comte dArtois and the Duc dOrleans. Say, when you see them, sire, Why this man? Why writing between gentlemen? Is not their word sufficient? The Prince de Ligne tells the story in his Memoirs: It happened exactly as suggested. I was there, and heard it. Everybody said, How just! What a fine mot! What a king we have!
When told, in 1776, that Parliament was preparing a remonstrance against taxes, corvées, etc., after the privileged classes had caused the fall of the one legislator who might have saved France, the king replied, Je vois bien quil ny a que M. Turgot et mot qui aime le peuple. Louis XV. said in March, 1766, in opposition to a decree of Parliament, I and my people are one. At a later period, when the States-General adopted a series of thirty-five articles upon the financial situation, Louis XVI. said, If they do not have the desired effect, I will save my people alone (seul je ferai le bien de mon peuple); meaning, according to Carlyle, to soon dismiss the deputies.
When Malesherbes resigned, on the ground that it was impossible to do any good, thwarted, as he continually had been, by the intrigues of the court, the king asked, Must I also resign? (Il faut donc que je quitte aussi ma place?) or, as it is sometimes given, I am more unfortunate than the ministers: I cannot resign. Nevertheless, amid all the changes of the cabinet, the king wished honestly, though weakly, to serve the people, at the expense sometimes of his personal dignity; saying on such occasions, Let my authority suffer, if my people are happy (Que mimporte que mon autorité souffre, pourvu que mon peuple soit heureux).
When the Duc de Luxembourg advised him to set the Third Estate (Tiers État), or popular branch of the States-General, in opposition to the other two orders, the nobility and clergy, Louis refused by saying, My mind is made up: I will not permit a single person to perish on my account. At this time no sacrifice was too great for him: he said with truth that never king did so much for his subjects as I have done for mine; but what other could so well deserve it as the people of France?
The king was once holding a candle for a page who was looking for a piece of gold which had fallen upon the floor, whereupon the Prince de Condé threw down a handful of pieces. You can do that, said Louis, but I live on my subjects. Even as late as 1792, when the king was a prisoner, he could say, How soon would all these chagrins be forgotten on the slightest return of their affection!
When the king was told of the attack upon the Bastille on the night of July 14, 1789, he exclaimed, Why, it is a revolt! (Mais, cest une révolte!) The Duc de Rochefoucauld-Liancourt more truly knew that peal too well; and for the first time the king heard the fatal word, revolution. Voltaire had already used it in correspondence. He wrote to M. de Chauvelin, April 2, 1764, twelve days before the death of Mme. de Pompadour: Everywhere are being sown the seeds of a revolution which will spring up without fail, but which I shall never behold. The light is spreading so universally, that it will on the slightest occasion burst forth into flame; and then we shall have a fine fuss. I envy the young: they will see something worth looking at.
However mild the king may have been by nature, and unsuited to vigorous action, he was not without a high degree of moral courage. He used no protection against the ruffians by whom he was often surrounded; and, when the queen advised him to wear a bullet-proof breastplate, he replied, They will not assassinate me, but put me to death as king, in open daylight. In the terrible insurrection of 1792, he appeared on the balcony of the palace, and, in obedience to the demand of the mob, put upon his head the cap of liberty. One of the guards told him not to fear. Fear! replied the king, feel whether this is the beating of a heart agitated by fear!
In the testament which he made, Dec. 25, 1792, he wrote, I recommend my son, if he has the misfortune to become king, to remember that he owes himself to the happiness of his people. His son had no opportunity of carrying out his fathers wishes, but one word casts a light through the gloom of the prison upon the dauphins character. When asked by Simon, his brutal keeper, what he would do with him if he came to the throne, he replied, I would pardon you.
The king made some resistance as his hands were being fastened behind his back, before his head was laid under the knife. He yielded, however, to the persuasions of his confessor, saying, Do what you will: it is the last sacrifice (Faites ce que vous voudrez: cest le dernier sacrifice). His last words were a prayer for his people: May my blood cement your happiness! (Puisse mon sang cimenter votre bonheur!)
As the knife fell, my grandfather could hear the voice of the priest pronouncing these words, Son of St. Louis, ascend to heaven (Fils de St. Louis, montez au ciel): thus writes Henri Sanson, in the biography of the five generations of that family, who were the executioners of Paris, himself being the last. He quotes on this subject a statement made by his grandfather, who, if later accounts be true, never heard the words, which were only invented after the execution. Charles His, editor of the Républicain Français, was supposed to have originated the mot on the evening of the kings death. Charles de Lacretelle, another journalist, claimed its authorship in an account which he wrote for almost the only newspaper where an interest in the august victim was manifested.Dix Années dÉpreuves, 1842, 134. This journal may have been the Républicain Français. The words soon spread through Paris, and were translated, in the accounts of the kings execution, into foreign languages. The Abbé Edgeworth, the kings confessor, was one of the last to learn what he had said on this historic occasion. Questioned in regard to it at a later period, he could neither affirm nor deny that he had used the expression now indissolubly connected with his name. It was possible, he said, that he might have done so, without remembering it; for he retained no recollection of any thing that happened to himself at that moment.LORD HOLLAND: Diplomatic Recollections, 1851. What he did remember was saying to the king as they were about to tie his hands, Sire, it is still another sacrifice you have to make to complete your resemblance to your divine Model. Mlle. Edgeworth, in a letter written to a friend, Feb. 10, 1793, which was afterwards published, makes no mention of the words in question: My friend, as she calls her brother, received his [the kings] last sighs, and neither died nor fainted with grief: he even had strength to fall upon his knees, and remain in that attitude until his clothes were stained with the blood of that sacred head, which was carried about on the scaffold, to the cry of Vive la nation!