|The Story of Mankind|
|by Hendrik Willem Van Loon|
|Relates the story of western civilization from earliest times through the beginning of the twentieth century, with special emphasis on the people and events that changed the course of history. Portrays in vivid prose the achievements of mankind in the areas of art and discovery, as well as the political forces leading to the modern nation-states. Richly illustrated with drawings by the author. Winner of the first Newbery Award in 1922, The Story of Mankind has introduced generations of children to the pageant of world history. Ages 10-14 |
THE BALANCE OF POWER
IN FRANCE ON THE OTHER HAND THE "DIVINE RIGHT OF KINGS" CONTINUED WITH GREATER POMP AND SPLENDOUR THAN EVER BEFORE AND THE AMBITION OF THE RULER WAS ONLY TEMPERED BY THE NEWLY INVENTED LAW OF THE "BALANCE OF POWER"
 AS a contrast to the previous chapter, let me tell you what
happened in France during the years when the English people
were fighting for their liberty. The happy combination
of the right man in the right country at the right moment is very
rare in History. Louis XIV was a realisation of this ideal, as
far as France was concerned, but the rest of Europe would
have been happier without him.
The country over which the young king was called to rule
was the most populous and the most brilliant nation of that
day. Louis came to the throne when Mazarin and Richelieu,
the two great Cardinals, had just hammered the ancient French
Kingdom into the most strongly centralised state of the seventeenth
century. He was himself a man of extraordinary ability.
We, the people of the twentieth century, are still
surrounded by the memories of the glorious age of the Sun King.
Our social life is based upon the perfection of manners and the
elegance of expression attained at the court of Louis. In
international and diplomatic relations, French is still the official
 language of diplomacy and international gatherings because
two centuries ago it reached a polished elegance and a purity
of expression which no other tongue had as yet been able to
equal. The theatre of King Louis still teaches us lessons
which we are only too slow in learning. During his reign the
French Academy (an invention of Richelieu) came to occupy
a position in the world of letters which other countries have
flattered by their imitation. We might continue this list for
many pages. It is no matter of mere chance that our modern
bill-of-fare is printed in French. The very difficult art of
decent cooking, one of the highest expressions of civilisation,
was first practiced for the benefit of the great Monarch. The
age of Louis XIV was a time of splendour and grace which can
still teach us a lot.
Unfortunately this brilliant picture has another side which
was far less encouraging. Glory abroad too often means
misery at home, and France was no exception to this rule.
Louis XIV succeeded his father in the year 1643. He died in
the year 1715. That means that the government of France
was in the hands of one single man for seventy-two years,
almost two whole generations.
It will be well to get a firm grasp of this idea, "one single
man." Louis was the first of a long list of monarchs who in
many countries established that particular form of highly efficient
autocracy which we call "enlightened despotism." He
did not like kings who merely played at being rulers and
turned official affairs into a pleasant picnic. The Kings of
that enlightened age worked harder than any of their subjects.
They got up earlier and went to bed later than anybody else,
and felt their "divine responsibility" quite as strongly as their
"divine right" which allowed them to rule without consulting
Of course, the king could not attend to everything in person.
He was obliged to surround himself with a few helpers
and councillors. One or two generals, some experts upon foreign
politics, a few clever financiers and economists would do
for this purpose. But these dignitaries could act only through
 their Sovereign. They had no individual existence. To the
mass of the people, the Sovereign actually represented in his
own sacred person the government of their country. The
glory of the common fatherland became the glory of a single
dynasty. It meant the exact opposite of our own American
ideal. France was ruled of and by and for the House of Bourbon.
The disadvantages of such a system are clear. The King
grew to be everything. Everybody else grew to be nothing at
all. The old and useful nobility was gradually forced to give
up its former shares in the government of the provinces. A little
Royal bureaucrat, his fingers splashed with ink, sitting behind
the greenish windows of a government building in faraway
Paris, now performed the task which a hundred years
before had been the duty of the feudal Lord. The feudal Lord,
deprived of all work, moved to Paris to amuse himself as best
he could at the court. Soon his estates began to suffer from
that very dangerous economic sickness, known as "Absentee
Landlordism." Within a single generation, the industrious
and useful feudal administrators had become the well-mannered
but quite useless loafers of the court of Versailles.
Louis was ten years old when the peace of Westphalia was
concluded and the House of Habsburg, as a result of the
Thirty Years War, lost its predominant position in Europe.
It was inevitable that a man with his ambition should use so
favourable a moment to gain for his own dynasty the honours
which had formerly been held by the Habsburgs. In the year
1660 Louis had married Maria Theresa, daughter of the King
of Spain. Soon afterward, his father-in-law, Philip IV, one
of the half-witted Spanish Habsburgs, died. At once Louis
claimed the Spanish Netherlands (Belgium) as part of his
wife's dowry. Such an acquisition would have been disastrous
to the peace of Europe, and would have threatened the safety
of the Protestant states. Under the leadership of Jan de Witt,
Raadpensionaris or Foreign Minister of the United Seven
Netherlands, the first great international alliance, the Triple
Alliance of Sweden, England and Holland, of the year 1664,
 was concluded. It did not last long. With money and fair
promises Louis bought up both King Charles and the Swedish
Estates. Holland was betrayed by her allies and was left to
her own fate. In the year 1672 the French invaded the low
countries. They marched to the heart of the country. For a
second time the dikes were opened and the Royal Sun of
France set amidst the mud of the Dutch marshes. The peace
of Nimwegen which was concluded in 1678 settled nothing but
merely anticipated another war.
THE BALANCE OF POWER
A second war of aggression from 1689 to 1697, ending with
the Peace of Ryswick, also failed to give Louis that position in
the affairs of Europe to which he aspired. His old enemy,
Jan de Witt, had been murdered by the Dutch rabble, but his
successor, William III (whom you met in the last chapter),
had checkmated all efforts of Louis to make France the ruler of
The great war for the Spanish succession, begun in the
 year 1701, immediately after the death of Charles II, the last
of the Spanish Habsburgs, and ended in 1713 by the Peace
of Utrecht, remained equally undecided, but it had ruined the
treasury of Louis. On land the French king had been victorious,
but the navies of England and Holland had spoiled all
hope for an ultimate French victory; besides the long struggle
had given birth to a new and fundamental principle of international
politics, which thereafter made it impossible for one
single nation to rule the whole of Europe or the whole of the
world for any length of time.
That was the so-called "balance of power." It was not a
written law but for three centuries it has been obeyed as closely
as are the laws of nature. The people who originated the idea
maintained that Europe, in its nationalistic stage of development,
could only survive when there should be an absolute balance
of the many conflicting interests of the entire continent.
No single power or single dynasty must ever be allowed to
dominate the others. During the Thirty Years War, the
Habsburgs had been the victims of the application of this law.
They, however, had been unconscious victims. The issues during
that struggle were so clouded in a haze of religious strife
that we do not get a very clear view of the main tendencies
of that great conflict. But from that time on, we begin to see
how cold, economic considerations and calculations prevail in
all matters of international importance. We discover the
development of a new type of statesman, the statesman with the
personal feelings of the slide-rule and the cash-register. Jan
de Witt was the first successful exponent of this new school
of politics. William III was the first great pupil. And Louis
XIV with all his fame and glory, was the first conscious victim.
There have been many others since.
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics