Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Régime and the French Revolution has long been the starting point for students of this era. Tocqueville argued that a centuries-old process of royal centralization stripped the nobles of any role in the government. Nobles no longer levied taxes, published edicts, or called out the militia to uphold the law. France thus differed from Austria and Prussia, where the coercive aspects of feudalism continued to bind the peasantry to the manor. France also differed from England, where the great landowners administered the country and settled disputes as justices of the peace. In France, the nobles’ defining attributes were ranks, titles, and privileges, which did not create common interests with other royal subjects. Their lack of power made it impossible for them to do anything constructive on behalf of their compatriots, shape public opinion, or lead the rest of society....
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