Andrew HamiltonEssays

Population Growth in France Prior to the French Revolution

by Abbé Augustin Barruel (1798)

Introductory Note: The following extract from French ecclesiastic Augustin Barruel’s classic Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism (French edition 1797; English translation 1798) highlights a noteworthy postulate of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concerning the relationship between good governance and population growth without immigration, correlated with contemporary evidence of demographic change in France under the monarchy. The passage is from the unabridged one-volume reprint (the book originally appeared in four separate volumes) published by the late Father Stanley L. Jaki’s Real View Books (pbk. 1995; hdbk. 2002), doubtless the best one-volume edition, indeed the best edition, currently available. Barruel was famously hostile to the French Revolution and to philosophes such as Rousseau whose ideas were instrumental in bringing it about. Barruel’s epithet “Sophisters,” and the English translator’s “philosopher,” are both references to the philosophes.

The author’s quotations from Rousseau are taken from The Social Contract (1762), Book III, Chapter 9. Those attributed to Gudin are from Paul Philippe Gudin de la Brenellerie, Supplément au Contract social (Paris: Maradan et Perlet, 1791). The general correctness of Gudin’s demographic analysis as quoted by Barruel is confirmed by a crosscheck with the graph showing population changes in France between 400 B.C. and 1975 contained in Colin McEvedy and Richard Jones, Atlas of World Population History (Penguin Books, 1978).

However, though the overall picture is clear, there appears to be a specific discrepancy in the figures cited for overall population growth during the 59-year reign of Louis XV versus the number of annual births being reported immediately prior to the revolution. This might be due to an error in Gudin’s original (which I doubt), or to a transcription error by Barruel, his English translator, or one of the three publishers (Gudin’s, Barruel’s French publisher, or Barruel’s English publisher).

The spelling “Jean Jaques” follows Barruel, who was idiosyncratic on that point. Likewise, “Lewis” rather than Louis was used by his English translator.  — Andrew Hamilton

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LET US HEAR Jean Jaques Rousseau lay down the law, he who created systems [ideas, an ideology] to overthrow it; and let the candid reader judge how far the Sophisters are authorized to represent the French government as arbitrary, oppressive, and tyrannical. “What (says Jean Jaques) is the true end of a political association? Is it not the preservation and prosperity of its members? And what is the most certain sign that they are preserved, and that they prosper? Is it not the increasing population? We need seek no further for the sign in dispute; but pronounce that government to be infallibly the best (provided there is no particular circumstance to make it stand an exception to a general rule) under which, without the application of any improper means, without the naturalization of strangers, without receiving any new colonists, the citizens increase and multiply: and that to be the worst under which they lessen and decay. Calculators [statisticians], it is now your affair; count, measure, and compare them.”—The same author adds, “It is a long continuance in the same situation that makes prosperity or calamity real. When a whole nation lies crushed under the foot of despotism, it is then that the people perish; and it is then that their masters can hurl destruction among them with impunity, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant (and call peace, the silence of the desert they have created). . . . The prosperity of a nation and its population depends much more on liberty than on peace.”

Thus, without taking on himself the task of calculator, Jean Jaques confesses that the French people, even in the midst of civil broils, lived free and at ease. But let us attend to one of his most faithful disciples, who undertook to calculate, and that at a time when the Revolution had done away every idea of exaggerating the happiness of the French people under the government of their Kings. The revolutionist Gudin, in his annotations on the above text, and in his Supplement to the Social Contract, has examined and calculated, year by year, the state of the population, the deaths, births, and marriages of all the principal towns in the kingdom during the course of this century, and then proceeds: “The author of the Social Contract spoke a grand truth when he exclaimed: Calculators, it is now your affair; count, measure, and compare. His advice has been followed; we have calculated, measured, and compared, and the result of all these calculations has demonstrated that the population of France is really twenty-four millions, though it had always been supposed to be under twenty; that the annual births amount to one million; and that the population is daily increasing.”

“Hence we may conclude, after Rousseau, that the government was very good. It really was better than it ever had been at any period since the destruction of that which the Romans had established in Gaul.” Such are the words of the same author, and according to his calculations it was in the reign of Lewis XIV, whom the Sophisters represent as the haughtiest of despots, that the population of France began to increase regularly and universally throughout the whole kingdom, notwithstanding all his wars.

“The long reign of Lewis XV [r. 1715-1774] (another alleged despot, under whose reign the Antimonarchical Conspiracy was begun and indefatigably conducted) was not exposed to such calamities; and it is certain,” continues the revolutionist Gudin, “that during the whole monarchy there has existed no period when population increased in a more constant and uniform progression throughout the whole kingdom, than during that reign. It increased to that amazing height, that from twenty-four to twenty-five millions of souls were spread over a surface of twenty-five thousand square leagues, which makes about a million souls to a thousand square leagues, or a thousand inhabitants to every square league, a population so unparalleled in Europe, that it might be almost looked upon as a prodigy.”

Let us hear the same author on the state of France at the time when the Revolution broke out, which he is perpetually extolling; and let us remark, that the work whence we have extracted our documents [that is, Gudin’s 400-page book] was so acceptable to the Revolutionary Assembly, that by a particular decree of the 13th of November 1790, it accepted the homage of it: a stronger contrast cannot be sketched between that Revolution and its authors, whether distant or immediate, and the necessity of those plans by which they pretended to work the happiness of the Empire. The same author continues . . . :

“In this kingdom were annually born upwards of 928,000 children; in short, nearly a million. The town of Paris contained 666,000 inhabitants. Its riches were so great, that it paid annually one hundred millions into the King’s coffers, about one sixth of the whole taxation of France.

“But even this immense taxation did not overburthen Paris. Its inhabitants lived in affluence. . . .

“In short, calculators have estimated, that during the reign of Lewis XV the population of the country was increased by one ninth, that is to say, by two millions five or six hundred thousand souls.

“Such was the state of France and of Paris at the time the Revolution took place; and as no other state in Europe could exhibit such a population, nor boast of such revenues, it was not without reason that it passed for the first kingdom on the Continent.”

The revolutionist Gudin, to whom we are indebted for all these particulars, concludes by saying, “I thought it necessary to state in a precise and exact manner the population and riches of the kingdom at the period when so grand a revolution took place. I apprehended that this investigation would shew the future progress of the nation, and serve as a table by which we might calculate the advantages that will accrue from the constitution when brought to perfection.” Without doubt our author has by this time formed his opinion on the advantages of that constitution; but we can plainly see by his enthusiastic admiration of the revolution, and of the Philosophers to whom he attributes the honor of having effected it; that he was very far from wishing to exaggerate the liberty and happiness of France under the Monarchy. By the foregoing long extract we have no other object in view, than that of furnishing the historian with the proper materials (all extracted from the greatest admirers or chief authors of the French Revolution) to enable him to judge of those systems in which the Revolution originated, and to appreciate properly the wisdom or the imprudence of its authors.

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Source: Andrew Hamilton

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