Society itself rested on a rigid division of classes from one another, which refused to the people at large any equal rights of justice or of industry. We have already seen how alien such a conception of national life was from the ideas which the wide diffusion of intelligence during the eighteenth century was spreading throughout Europe; and in almost every country some enlightened rulers endeavoured by administrative reforms in some sort to satisfy the sense of wrong which was felt around them. The attempts of sovereigns like Frederick the Great in Prussia, and Joseph the Second in Austria and the Netherlands, were rivalled by the efforts of statesmen such as Turgot in France. It was in France indeed that the contrast between the actual state of society and the new ideas of public right was felt most keenly. Nowhere had the victory of the Crown been more complete. The aristocracy had been robbed of all share in public affairs; it enjoyed social privileges and exemption from any contribution to the public burdens, without that sense of public duty which a governing class to some degree always possesses.
Guilds and monopolies fettered the industry of the trader and the merchant, and cut them off from the working classes, as the value attached to noble blood cut off both from the aristocracy.
If its political position indeed were compared with that of most of the countries round it, France stood high. Its government was less oppressive, its general wealth was larger and more evenly diffused, there was a better administration of justice, and greater security for public order. Poor as its peasantry seemed to English eyes, they were far above the peasants of Germany or Spain. Its middle class was the quickest and most intelligent in Europe. Under Lewis the Fifteenth opinion was practically free; and a literary class had sprung up which devoted itself with wonderful brilliancy and activity to popularizing the ideas of social and political justice which it learned from English writers, and in the case of Montesquieu and Voltaire from personal contact with English life. The moral conceptions of the time, its love of mankind, its sense of human brotherhood, its hatred of oppression, its pity for the guilty and the poor, its longing after a higher and nobler standard of life and action, were expressed by a crowd of writers, and above all by Rousseau, with a fire and eloquence which carried them to the heart of the people. But this new force of intelligence only jostled roughly with the social forms with which it found itself in contact.
The philosopher denounced the tyranny of the priesthood. The peasant grumbled at the lord's right to judge him in his courts and to exact feudal services from him. The merchant was galled by the trading restrictions and the heavy taxation. The country gentry rebelled against their exclusion from public life and from the government of the country. Its powerlessness to bring about any change at home turned all this new energy into sympathy with a struggle against tyranny abroad. Public opinion forced France to ally itself with America in its contest for liberty, and French volunteers under the Marquis de Lafayette joined Washington's army. But while the American war spread more widely throughout the nation the craving for freedom, it brought on the Government financial embarrassment from which it could only free itself by an appeal to the country at large. Lewis the Sixteenth resolved to summon the States-General, which had not met since the time of Richelieu, and to appeal to the nobles to waive their immunity from taxation. His resolve at once stirred into vigorous life every impulse and desire which had been seething in the minds of the people; and the States-General no sooner met at Versailles in May 1789 than the fabric of depotism and privilege began to crumble.
A rising in Paris destroyed the Bastille, and the capture of this fortress was taken for the sign of a new aera of constitutional freedom in France and through Europe. Even in England men thrilled with a strange joy at the tidings of its fall. "How much is this the greatest event that ever happened in the world," Fox cried with a burst of enthusiasm, " and how much the best! "
Pitt regarded the approach of France to sentiments of liberty which had long been familiar to England with greater coolness, but with no distrust. For the moment indeed his attention was distracted by an attack of madness which visited the King in 1788, and by the claim of a right to the Regency which was at once advanced by the Prince of Wales. The Prince belonged to the Whig party; and Fox, who was travelling in Italy, hurried home to support his claim, in full belief that the Prince's Regency would be followed by his own return to power. Pitt successfully resisted it on the constitutional ground that in such a case the right to choose a temporary regent, under what limitations it would, lay with Parliament; and a bill which conferred the Regency on the Prince, in accordance with this view, was already passing the Houses when the recovery of the King put an end to the long dispute. Foreign difficulties, too, absorbed Pitt's attention. Russia had risen into greatness under Catharine the Second; and Catharine had resolved from the first on the annexation of Poland, the expulsion of the Turks from Europe, and the setting up of a Russian throne at Constantinople. In her first aim she was baffled for the moment by Frederick the Great. She had already made herself virtually mistress of the whole of Poland, her armies occupied the kingdom, and she had seated a nominee of her own on its throne, when Frederick in union with the Emperor Joseph the Second forced her to admit Germany to a share of the spoil.
If the Polish partition of 1773 brought the Russian frontier westward to the upper waters of the Dwina and the Dnieper, it gave Galicia to Maria Theresa, and West Prussia to Frederick himself. Foiled in her first aim, she waited for the realization of her second till the alliance between the two German powers was at an end through the resistance of Prussia to Joseph's schemes for the annexation of Bavaria, and till the death of Frederick removed her most watchful foe. Then in 1788 Joseph and the Empress joined hands for a partition of the Turkish Empire. But Prussia was still watchful, and England was no longer fettered as in 1773 by troubles with America. The friendship established by Chatham between the two countries, which had been suspended by Bute's treachery and all but destroyed during the Northern League of Neutral Powers, had been restored by Pitt through his co-operation with Frederick's successor in the restoration of the Dutch Statholderate. Its political weight was now seen in an alliance of England, Prussia, and Holland in 1789 for the preservation of the Turkish Empire. A great European struggle seemed at hand; and in such a struggle the sympathy and aid of France was of the highest importance. But with the treaty the danger passed away.