The Ancient Regime

Author: Hippolyte Adolphe Taine


Destructive impulses. - The object of blind rage. - Distrust of natural leaders. - Suspicion of them changed into hatred. - Disposition of the people in 1789.

This owing to the absence of leaders and in the absence of organization, a mob is simply a herd. Its mistrust of its natural leaders, of the great, of the wealthy, of persons in office and clothed with authority, is inveterate and incurable. Vainly do these wish it well and do it good; it has no faith in their humanity or disinterestedness. It has been too down-trodden; it entertains prejudices against every measure proceeding from them, even the most liberal and the most beneficial. "At the mere mention of the new assemblies," says a provincial commission in 1787,[17] "we heard a workman exclaim, ’What, more new extortioners!’ " Superiors of every kind are suspected, and from suspicion to hostility the road is not long. In 1788[18] Mercier declares that "insubordination has been manifest for some years, especially among the trades. . . . Formerly, on entering a printing-office the men took off their hats. Now they content themselves with staring and leering at you; scarcely have you crossed threshold when you yourself more lightly spoken of than if you were one of them." The same attitude is taken by the peasants in the environment of Paris; Madame Vigée-Lebrun,[19] on going to Romainville to visit Marshal de Ségur, remarks: "Not only do they not remove their hats but they regard us insolently; some of them even threatened us with clubs." In March and April following this, her guests arrive at her concert in consternation. "In the morning, at the promenade of Longchamps, the populace, assembled at the barrier of l’Etoile, insulted the people passing by in carriages in the grossest manner; some of the wretches on the footsteps exclaiming: ’Next year you shall be behind the carriage and we inside.’ " At the close of the year 1788, the stream becomes a torrent and the torrent a cataract. An intendant[20] writes that, in his province, the government must decide, and in the popular sense, to separate from privileged classes, abandon old forms and give the Third-Estate a double vote. The clergy and the nobles are detested, and their supremacy is a yoke. "Last July," he says, "the old States-General would have been received with pleasure and there would have been few obstacles to its formation. During the past five months minds have become enlightened; respective interests have been discussed, and leagues formed. You have been kept in ignorance of the fermentation which is at its height among all classes of the Third-Estate, and a spark will kindle the conflagration. If the king’s decision should be favorable to the first two orders a general insurrection will occur throughout the provinces, 600,000 men in arms and the horrors of the Jacquerie." The word is spoken and the reality is coming. An insurrectionary multitude rejecting its natural leaders must elect or submit to others. It is like an army which, entering on a campaign, finding itself without officers; the vacancies are for the boldest, most violent, those most oppressed by the previous rule, and who, leading the advance, shouting "forward" and thus form the leading groups. In 1789, the bands are ready; for, below the suffering people there is yet another people which suffers yet more, whose insurrection is permanent, and which, repressed, persecuted, and obscure, only awaits an opportunity to come out of its hiding-place and openly give their passions free vent.


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Chicago: Hippolyte Adolphe Taine, "III.," The Ancient Regime, ed. Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853 and trans. Ingram, J. H. (James Henry) in The Ancient Regime (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1909), Original Sources, accessed March 20, 2019,

MLA: Taine, Hippolyte Adolphe. "III." The Ancient Regime, edited by Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853, and translated by Ingram, J. H. (James Henry), in The Ancient Regime, Vol. 36, New York, Doubleday, Page, 1909, Original Sources. 20 Mar. 2019.

Harvard: Taine, HA, 'III.' in The Ancient Regime, ed. and trans. . cited in 1909, The Ancient Regime, Doubleday, Page, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 20 March 2019, from