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Cardinal Richelieu’s Political Testament

Updated on February 2, 2013

Cardinal Richelieu’s Political Testament

What does Richelieu mean by the phrase “reason of state”?

Cardinal Richelieu was a superb political strategist and statesman.

Europe, in the period 1618 to 1648, was racked by religious war. Catholics and Protestants battled each other for control of European states. In Germany, the Catholic Habsburgs under King Ferdinand waged war on German Protestants. The Habsburgs exerted influence outside Germany and their power was growing. The Habsburgs controlled Catholic Spain, Catholic Austria and the Holy Roman Empire. The northern part of France was also under Habsburg control. France, of course, was Catholic and Richelieu was a Catholic Cardinal. The Protestant states of Europe included Sweden, the Netherlands and Protestant controlled provinces in Germany. Protestantism also flourished among the Huguenots of France and had the potential to break away and form a Protestant state within France.

France, a sovereign Catholic state, therefore found itself in an awkward position of being surrounded by overzealous Habsburg controlled states, namely Germany, Spain and Austria. In addition, France had within its own borders a rebellious Protestant Huguenots state which, if allowed to grow, could lead to the break-up or fragmentation of France. Cardinal Richelieu, being a man steeped in the ways of the Church, understood the power of religion and recognized that France ran the risk of either being overrun by the Habsburgs or being taken over from within by the Protestant Huguenots.

Cardinal Richelieu understood that people, in this time, acted primarily on religious instinct. Richelieu understood the danger and as a master political strategist had the vision to see what needed to be done. To counteract a political environment where thinking and actions were driven solely by religious ideology, Cardinal Richelieu adopted the mantra “Reason of State”. Reason of state became a way for the French King, the French nobility, the common Frenchman and the French clergy to start thinking in terms of their country first, ahead of religion. In other words, Richelieu implemented a policy whereby political actions would be justified not on the basis of religion but on the basis of what was in the best interest of the physical country and in the best interest of French society as a whole. Reason of state meant that the welfare and well being of the state became paramount. Reason of state allowed Richelieu to form an alliance with the Protestant princes in Germany and to oppose the Catholic Habsburgs. At the same time as he was helping the Protestants in Germany, Richelieu was putting down the Protestant Huguenots in France. Reason of state allowed Richelieu to rationalize his actions in terms of what was in the best interest of France. By supporting the Protestants in Germany, he limited the influence of the Habsburgs and saved France from being overrun. He also reclaimed France’s northern borders with Germany. By persecuting the Protestants in France, he avoided the breaking up of France.

Reason of state allowed Richelieu to raise taxes, build a Navy, build a competitive economy and forge relationship with non-European states. Reason of state had other far reaching consequences. Reason of state meant that the church too would become subservient to the state. Richelieu initiated a type of social re-engineering that reverberates today. I believe the enactment of Reason of State marked a pivotal moment in the birth of separation of church and state. It also marked the start of the decline of the influence of the Pope in the affairs of state. The King of France and other state leaders were free to make decisions they considered to be in the best interest of their states even though those policies may have conflicted with the policies of the Pope in Rome.

Reason of state is very relevant today. In time, we will come to debate whether the invasion of Iraq a decision based on religion or based on the best interest of the people of the United States.

Reason of state became the foundation for modern, western governments where the state is supreme and religion is but one facet of the state.

How does Richelieu suggest that the king deal with the individual components of French society: the clergy, the nobility and the commoners?

Richelieu’s prime focus was to centralize power in the king. He wanted the king to be supreme in France and France to be supreme in Europe.

Richelieu was not happy with the power and independence that the nobility had. He felt that the nobility diffused power away from the king and as such was a direct threat to the absolute power that he felt the king should have. Richelieu put an end to the feudal system and broke the power of the nobility by destroying their castles. He stripped the dukes, the princes and lesser aristocrats of defences they would have used agaist he king’s armies. He abolished the position of Constable of France. Richelieu also divided France into thirty-two districts and installed in each district an “intendant”, a representative of the central government. Intendants were judges and administrators sent to the local districts to collect taxes and to monitor what the local nobility was doing. Intendants served a particular district only for a short period so that they did not come under the influence of the local nobility. Intendants served at the whim of the king and could be removed at any time. They were responsible for enforcing the will of the king. Richelieu also made sure that all military force was under the control of the king. Richelieu also banned dueling, a practice used by nobility to settle arguments.

Richelieu felt that the common people should not be mistreated as they sometimes were by the nobility. However he also felt that commoners should not be too well off. He argued that people who were too well off had a tendency to become independent and disloyal to central authority. He compares commoners to mules who he feels are happy when they are burdened but not overly burdened. He felt that commoners should pay taxes but he recognized the dangers of overtaxing them. Overtaxing could easily lead to revolt. He however does not rule out overtaxing them as the need arises. He does recommend to the king that he draws the bulk of his taxes from the rich through a system of tax “farms”. Tax farming led to unfair and uneven taxation and overburdened the commoners while benefiting the nobility. This policy of Richelieu’s failed. Another policy failure that affected the common people was his lack of support for education of the masses. He felt that commoners may be taught technical subjects but not be educated in the liberal arts. He correctly feared an educated mass would become intolerant of abuses and rise up against the king.

The arrival of Richelieu and his focus on centralizing power in the king spelled trouble for the clergy. For the first time, religion would take a back seat to politics. Richelieu recommended a series of policies which reduced the power and influence of the church in France. Richelieu promoted a policy that the king was supreme and so had the authority to make laws without prior approval from the Pope. This did not sit well with the clergy who preferred to see the king as subservient to the Pope. He recommended taxing the church and further aggravated the situation by forming alliances with Protestants and with the Turks. Richelieu was supportive of the church in other ways. He recommended people with strong religious backgrounds for high positions including the admiralty and the diplomatic service.

What does the king have to do to maintain his authority in France? What does he have to do to maintain his reputation as an international leader?

Prior to Richelieu, the system in France was a feudal one with power over the people split between the king, the nobility and the Catholic Church. To consolidate power in the king, Richelieu recommended a wide range of actions. The nobility was stripped of power. The Catholic Church was made subservient to the king and the Protestant Huguenots were humbled. In addition, the King of France became free to make laws without approval of the Pope in Rome.

The king became supreme. To maintain his authority in France Richelieu took a number of actions designed to quell the masses. He built up a strong military. A strong military kept the nobility in check, maintained the sovereignty of its borders and dissuaded foreign agents from invading France. Richelieu took action to improve economic prosperity. He built up the French Navy and in so doing created jobs in ship building in French Ports and expanded the ability of France to compete with Spain and Portugal in the fishery. Richelieu promoted trade.

To maintain the king’s grip on power, Richelieu discouraged dissent. He censored the press, established a large network of spies, a network of political appointees known as intendants to collect taxes and monitor what was happening in local provinces. He discouraged the discussion of political matters in forums such as the “parlements”. Parlements functioned as courts of justice where the king’s ordinances and edicts were debated. They provided an outlet for protest but not for redress.

Perhaps the most effective weapon the king had in maintaining power was Richelieu himself. Richelieu executed harsh justice on anyone who opposed him. Dissenters were either banished or killed. Richelieu understood the importance of fear and its use in maintaining good order. He believed that evil doers should be eliminated before they get started in order to protect the well being of the state. Richelieu was driven by a single focus on centralizing power in the King of France and making France supreme in Europe.

Richelieu recognized the importance of having a strong, functioning, competent and effective administration to serve the people. A properly functioning administration would serve the people well and ultimately project the king in a positive light. He recommended that administrators be hired based on their knowledge and competence as opposed to their lineage or connections. Richelieu abhorred favoritism, flattery, slander and scheming and worked to marginalize those who exhibited these traits. He put in place concrete administrative procedures so that the functions of government could be carried out long after the individuals who ran them either died or were replaced.

Richelieu felt that the role of the king was to protect the innocent, keep order in all classes of society, establish reason and justice, ensure the security of the state, foresee and prevent evils, maintain strong government, avoid abuse of power and work to win the hearts of his subjects. He believed that if these objectives were met the king reign would reign supremely.

On the international stage, Richelieu’s aim was to elevate the status of the king by making France the dominant power in Europe. To this end he set aside religious considerations and made alliances with any state that would further his interests. He used a combination of diplomacy, tact, patience and finances to win his battles in the Thirty-year war. In the war against Spain and Austria he allied Catholic France with Protestant Holland in 1624. France also played a central role in the formation of a coalition involving Protestant Denmark, Holland, England and Fredrick of the Palatinate to challenge the Holy Roman Emperor. In 1629 Richelieu allied with Sweden and worked to end the war between Poland and Sweden. This is remarkable since it was illegal in Sweden at that time to be Catholic. To buy time while the French army was built up, Richelieu financed the positioning of a Swedish army in Germany. Richelieu understood the power of foreign alliances and built a large coalition including the Electors of Bavaria, Trier and Cologne, Murad IV (Sultan of Turkey), and on occasion Pope Urban VIII. Richelieu would cut deals with anyone so long as it benefited the interest of France. By 1937 the French army was ready for battle and in 1938 Richelieu signed a treaty with Sweden where France would pay Sweden 1 million livres a year to fight against Germany. At the end of the Thirty-year war in 1648, France was easily the dominant state in Europe.

Not all of Richelieu attention was focused on war. To maintain the king’s reputation as an international leader Richelieu also established companies that would compete with the Dutch and the English in trade on the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. He also encouraged ventures into the Caribbean, establishing French colonies in Martinique and Guadeloupe. He established colonies in Canada and in Africa.

How does the relationship between government and society in Richelieu’s France differ from the same relationship in our country in recent years?

The relationship between the U.S. government and modern society differs in a number of significant ways from the relationship between the government and society in Richelieu’s time.

In the time of Richelieu, France did not have an instrument similar to the U.S. constitution. The U.S. constitution spells out the makeup of government and the role and function of each principal part namely the Executive Branch, the Congress and the Judiciary. The constitution provides for checks and balances on power. Congress for example makes the laws but the President is free to veto those laws. The President nominates candidates to the Supreme Court but Congress has the right to review and approve the nomination. The Supreme Court, in turn, can find a law unconstitutional. Each branch acts as a check and balance on the other thereby limiting the abuse of power and protecting society. In Richelieu’s time there were no checks and balances on his excesses.

The constitution also provides for a Bill of Rights. These rights confer onto society and onto individuals a number of rights including the right to free speech, the right of assembly, the right to associate, the right to privacy, the right to redress if injured by others, the right to protest, the right to vote, the right to personal freedom, the right to life, the right of movement and the right to not be discriminated against. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 section 201, states “All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages and accommodations of any public accommodations as defined in this section without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color religion or national origin”. In the time of Richelieu, there was clearly discrimination based on religion and based on nobility.

The U.S. constitution also provides for freedom of religion. An individual is free to choose and practice a religion of his or her choice. The constitution also limits the role of government in religion. The government may make no laws that favor any one religion over another and may not infringe on the practice of any one religion. The government should also not fund religion either directly or indirectly. The separation of church and state is a hotly debated issue in the U.S. but it is clear that the framers of the constitution and in particular Jefferson wanted to clear separation of church and state. Today, that separation is a little muddied with programs such as government funding going to Faith Based Initiatives and the reigniting of the abortion debate. In this regard, Richelieu was a visionary who foresaw the need to separate church and state and to take the church out of the business of running government. Many countries around the world benefit today from his foresight.

The U.S. today has a strong, independent Justice system. The system allows for an individual, a group, a corporation or the government to seek redress for loss or injury caused by another individual, group, corporation or government. No one, including the President, is above the law. In the days of Richelieu, “parlements” had the appearance of courts of justice but their operation was often frustrated by the king. A society that cannot get redress for a wrong eventually revolts against the government. This eventually precipitated the demise of the monarchy in France.

A modern government functions to serve its people. The people choose those who would run the government by voting. In the constitution, each person is entitled to a vote and the majority wins the right to manage the affairs of state for a specific, limited period of time. The implementation of elections and limits on terms serve to keep the administration in check and forces accountability. No such mechanism existed in Richelieu’s time.

A hallmark of a modern democracy is the presence of a strong, free press. The press provides an outlet for dissent as well as a means of ensuring accountability. By working to expose what goes on in society and in government, an informed society is better able to judge whether it is being well served. Warrant-less wiretaps by the government is a reminder of the need for accountability and vigilance on the part of the press. Certainly, in the time of Richelieu the press could not be described as free.

Richelieu worked to centralize power in the hands of the king. Virtually all decision making was centralized. The U.S. has a strong federal government but saw the wisdom of sharing power in certain matters with the state. States can make laws that they feel reflect their constituency. On the negative side, this has created a patchwork of laws where abortion or gay marriage, for example, is legal and recognized in one state but not legal in another.

There are many other governmental agencies and facilities that exist today to serve society. For example, today we have the central bank to monitor and control the cost of money and ensure stability in financial markets. A system of capitalism allows each member of society to earn as much capital as possible and to spend it in ways it sees fit. The flow of capital is not limited to the boundaries of the U.S. and investors are free to invest anywhere in the worlds. Similarly investors in other parts of the world are free to invest and own property in the U.S. without having to be U.S. citizens.

The modern U.S. economy provides education for the masses. One of Richelieu’s major failing was his inability or unwillingness to see the value of education for society, all of society not just the privileged.

Today the government has a wide array of administrative procedures in place so that its functioning does not depend on who is currently in charge. These procedures work for the people long after those who put the procedures in place have died.

Richelieu’s plan and the extremes he practiced worked for his time. It’s taken the U.S. more than 200 years to put in place an effective constitution and system of government. Indeed the system is continually evolving. Richelieu saw the evil of the feudal system and work hard and quickly to bring France out of the Medieval age and into the dawn of the modern world. For this, I believe History will regard him as a great hero.


1. The Political Testament of Cardinal Richelieu, University of Wisconsin Press


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      5 years ago

      this is a lot of information


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