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In "The French Revolution, A History" Chapter 1.1.II, Thomas Carlyle reports that Louis XIV once proclaimed:

"L'État, c'est moi" - The State? I am the State (Carlyle's rendering into English)

Carlyle cites no source for this seemingly incredible statement. In Wiki we find: Louis is claimed to have said "L'État, c'est moi" ("I am the state"), though no proof exists that he said this, but I tend to be skeptical of Wiki's claim: Carlyle engaged in years of research in preparation for writing his History, and read numerous primary sources. It is unlikely that he committed to "the record" a statement from Louis XIV without a source. (But perhaps he did not consider his source sufficiently reliable to cite it formally - it was some sort of "oral tradition" - and so Wiki would be correct in claiming there is no written proof.)

Regardless, the story was "out there" or Carlyle wouldn't have mentioned it at all. Perhaps there is another source, one that Carlyle didn't know about at the time? (In all probability, Carlye's source was Dulaure’s 1834 History of Paris, and because it appears only so much later in the record than the actual event, he chose not to cite it.)

Is it confirmed from any reliable contemporary sources that Louis XIV actually said such a thing?

More importantly, whether or not we have another source (perhaps we'll consider Carlyle a source), is such a statement sustainable? Could Louis have said such a thing and remained within the bounds of the laws of his time? Did the French King represent an embodiment of the State itself? Is it part of the doctrine of the Divine right of kings, or at least implicit therein? Could Louis perhaps have been speaking metaphorically - i.e., as an absolute monarch, his dictates of necessity represented the position of the State on all matters?

If Louis XIV did indeed say such a thing, what can we make of it? From Carlyle's context it appears that it was not simply haughty bellicosity on the part of Louis XIV. Nor was Louis XIV some sort of eccentric, crazy "one off" sort of monarch: He sat on the French throne for over 72 years, brought France to perhaps its pinnacle of power, and is widely considered one of the great monarchs of History. If he said such a thing, IMO it deserves attention.

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Carlyle often sourced his claims. He does not source this claim. I personally don't see why you would claim it is unlikely for Carlyle to commit to record this statement without him first verifying it. I rather think it's much more unlikely that he would verify it and then not give the source in the book, given that he tends to source his claims. –  Lennart Regebro Sep 4 '13 at 11:05
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I'm not a French expert, but isn't that more literally something like, "The State, that is I"? –  T.E.D. Sep 4 '13 at 14:18
    
@LennartRegebro - OK. But all that means is that Carlyle had no reliable source he could cite. But obviously the story was "out there" or he wouldn't have mentioned it. Perhaps there is another source that Carlyle didn't know about at the time. See edit that reflects your concern. –  Vector Sep 4 '13 at 16:17
    
Not sure why the {tag:divine-right-of-kings} was removed; it is valid for this question. –  Mark C. Wallace Sep 4 '13 at 17:18
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@T.E.D. I hope you were not serious about offering a so-called literal (word-for-word) translation as something deserving even a moment's consideration. –  Eugene Seidel Sep 5 '13 at 5:36

3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I am not well enough read in French history and governance to offer a good answer, so I shall offer a poor answer.

My understanding of the comment is that all the governance of France originated in and was legitimized by Louis. What we now call the legislative, executive and judicial functions of the government were vested in Louis' person. Any of these powers that were exercised in his absence (for example a judge ruling in a province) were offered in his name, and he could overrule/overturn them and dismiss them. Furthermore the legitimacy of these functions originated in the person of Louis. The consent of the governed was not required, or expected. Each French monarch had to resolve what modern economics calls the principal-agent problem

My understanding is that the actual limits on the power of the monarch were threefold - first the ability of the monarch to command. Louis was obviously very effective for 72 years. Second the monarch had to play the nobility off one against the other. There was no legal reason that the French Nobles were militarily much more powerful, but in truth the monarch could not field an army of his own. The third counterpoise to the power of the monarch - the truly effective counterweight - was tradition. The fiscal shenanigans that led to the downfall of the ancien regime resulted from the inability of any effective governance that could counterbalance the nearly supreme power of tradition.

If that is correct, then Louis statement takes on a fascinating irony. While the monarch of France was the state, Louis after 72 years (or whatever portion of that time had passed when he uttered the statement) was the state in a unique way - he was singularly effective in navigating the triple constraints (Nobility, Tradition, Personal Credibility). He was the state and the next monarch would have to form a new state based on a new set of compromises.

If so, perhaps of all the French Kings, such a remark would be most suited to Louis XIV, and it's quite conceivable that Carlyle's account, although un-sourced, is indeed quite accurate, as it is described in Dulaure’s 1834 History of Paris.

Alas, it has been several years since I read French history, and I never liked it when I did read it, so I can't offer any particularly good sources.

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Indeed, the question really requires a very good grasp of what the nature of the French Monarchy was, and how their whole system of government was structured. It seems to be a very difficult topic because from what I culled from my reading (principally Carlyle - all 800+ pages of him..) there was no system laid out in a formal constitution until the revolutionary period. Previously it was somewhat "ad hoc", and revolved around the continually changing dynamic between the three estates. –  Vector Sep 4 '13 at 19:34
    
I accept this answer for the focal point of the question: Louis XIV was perhaps unique in his ability to make such a statement and so we can bring support to Carlyle's claim, and with good reason. "He was the state and the next monarch would have to form a new state based on a new set of compromises." I like this observation very much. It goes a long way towards deepening our understanding of monarchy-it was not a "slam dunk" that you just inherited the crown and took over where you predecessor left off: You could inherit the title of King, but to govern as king required far more. –  Vector Sep 4 '13 at 20:10
    
I'm hesitant to give an upvote because while this a substantially better analysis of the history surrounding Louis XIV than the other answers, it fails to address the title question. I realize, Mark, that it was not your intent to answer in full, but I don't think Vector should have accepted the answer since it doesn't address the titular question. –  called2voyage Sep 4 '13 at 20:11
    
@Vector Per my above comment, I recommend retitling the question. –  called2voyage Sep 4 '13 at 20:13
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@MarkC.Wallace - I added line to your answer in response to called2voyage. I hope it meets with your approval. –  Vector Sep 4 '13 at 22:09

If you'll take Ken Jennings as a source (as he does seem to know his literature), he not only agrees that there is no evidence that Louis XIV said this, but goes a step further and says that Louis XIV probably wouldn't have said it. He claims not only that it wasn't true that the French monarch was equivalent to the state, but that Louis XIV probably didn't believe this to be true. From Jennings, a more reliably attested statement of Louis XIV (on his deathbed) is:

“Je m'en vais, mais l'État demeurera toujours”—“I am going away, but the State will always remain.”

Here's what Jennings had to say about the actual authority of the French monarch:

Louis XIV and a small circle of advisors did wield enormous power, including supreme legislative and judicial authority. But that power was also balanced somewhat by the ranks of French nobility, and legally, the difference between the monarch and his nation was well-established.

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I saw that citation: "“I am going away, but the State will always remain.” but I don't think it's relevant: As King he was "The State". When he dies he's no longer King, and the New King assumes that role. –  Vector Sep 4 '13 at 16:04
    
@Vector Possibly, but remember, this is Jenning's rationale. –  called2voyage Sep 4 '13 at 16:05
    
I understand it's his rationale - and I disagree with it, as far as the deathbed statement is concerned - it has no bearing on the question. –  Vector Sep 4 '13 at 16:07
    
Interesting. So if I get this right, Jennings' main complaint about that attitude (which Jennings is arguing he wouldn't have had) was that it did not take into account the rights and priveleges of the rest of the French aristocracy, not that it was a bad description of things from a commoner's point of view? –  T.E.D. Sep 4 '13 at 16:12
    
@T.E.D. Also, he says "legally" there was a difference established. I'm not sure what he means by that. –  called2voyage Sep 4 '13 at 16:14

If Louis XIV did indeed say such a thing, what can we make of it?

Actually, I could see where his statement makes a bit of sense. Under modern political theory there are multiple roles in government: Head of State, Head of Government, Commander in Chief, etc.

Under a parlimentarty system, typically these may all be different people. However, for a true Presidential system like the USA enjoys, these roles are all filled by the same person.

The Head of State's role is essentially to embody the state itself. Practically, this means a lot of receptions, parties, funerals, etc. Now in a monarchy (eg: the modern UK) this role is performed by the monarch. In an absolute monarchy, such as Loius XIV enjoyed, the Head of Government role is also held by the monarch (and the Commander in Cheif role was at least a position that reported to him, if not himself).

So given that it was his role and duty to both emobdy the state of France, and to run its government, and given the lassisitudes of translation and his own position of privelege, one can see where the statement "I am the state" was from a political perspective quite accurate and reasonable. If he didn't have this attitude, he wouldn't be doing his job as Head of State properly.

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First, I believe the question is whether the quotation is supported by evidence; you haven't addressed that. Second, I believe there are multiple roles within the executive function of government. I believe that Louis' point was that he also embodied the legislative and judicial functions; he was the state; all organs of the state were merely extensions of his will. –  Mark C. Wallace Sep 4 '13 at 14:43
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@MarkC.Wallace "If Louis XIV did indeed say such a thing, what can we make of it?" - That's the only part of the question this answer of mine is addressing. I'll try to make that clearer in the answer. –  T.E.D. Sep 4 '13 at 15:41
    
@MarkC.Wallace - Your second point I'm not sure I entirely disagree with, but so what? He presided over an absolute monarchy, that's meerly a description of how such a system operates. In our modern Lochian conception of things, if the people don't like that system, its their job to remove their consent (which they didn't bother to do for another century). –  T.E.D. Sep 4 '13 at 15:51
    
@MarkC.Wallace: I edited the question a bit. I'm really more interested in second part. And IMO your assertion "Louis' point was that he also embodied..." is correct. So I don't think the analogy to a President is really appropriate. –  Vector Sep 4 '13 at 16:01
    
@T.E.D. - I think we need to distinguish between a representative of the State, such as POTUS, and an embodiment of the State, which is what Louis's alleged statement implies. –  Vector Sep 4 '13 at 18:15

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