August 17, 1661 Party Like it’s 1661

Back when newspapers printed the news, Hearst columnist Ambrose Bierce (my favorite curmudgeon) was surely looking at New York corruption when he labeled politics “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage“.

Having once been rolled by two officers of the “law” in a certain neighbor to our south (it was a very polite mugging), government graft is near and dear to my heart. History is replete with official avarice on levels great and small, far more than a couple meagerly compensated cops, looking for a “gratuity”.

New York’s own Boss Tweed elevated graft to heights previously unknown in American politics, to where construction of a single courthouse cost taxpayers more than the entire Alaska purchase. Nearly twice as much.

Tammany Hall’s kickbacks were so lavish a single carpenter billed the city $360,751, for a month’s work. One plasterer billed $133,187 for two days’ work.

Back when newspapers printed the news, Hearst columnist Ambrose Bierce (my favorite curmudgeon) was surely looking at New York corruption when he labeled politics “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage“.

Rodrigo de Borja served as Pope Alexander VI, at a time when the job of Bishop of Rome was not always that of a pious man. Rodrigo bribed his way to the top and used the papacy to benefit family and friends making the name Borja synonymous, with licentiousness and greed. A man utterly devoid of morals the man sold his beautiful and fair-haired daughter Lucrezia no fewer than three times, to cement alliances. He openly fathered seven children by two married mistresses appointing one of their brothers Cardinal, who then went on to be known as “Cardinal of the Skirts”. Alexander’s October 30, 1501 “Banquet of Chestnuts” was an all-night feast and orgy featuring no fewer than fifty prostitutes Italian officialdom remains happy to sweep under the rug, to this day.

When the Florentine friar Girolamo Savonarola chided Alexander for his behavior the Pope is said to have laughed, out loud.

And yet, these are all as amateurs compared with French finance minister Nicolas Fouquet, a man who made King Louis XIV, the “Sun King” himself, blush.

Europe’s longest reigning monarch once commented “l’état, c’est moi”. I Am the state. Such arrogance is hard to understand for the political descendants of the generation, who threw King George’s tea over the side. It wasn’t at all difficult for the hoi polloi of Louis’ France who were expected to pay up, and shut up. Such was the world of Nicolas Fouquet, marquis de Belle-Île, vicomte de Melun et Vaux and Louis’ minister, of finance.

In 1651 Fouquet married his not inconsiderable wealth to that of Marie de Castille, herself the daughter of a wealthy Spanish family. The interminable wars of the age and the greed of courtiers frequently caused the new minister to borrow, against his own credit. Public and private accounts soon became so intertwined as to become indistinguishable from one another. Fouqet came to wield even greater wealth than his own chief benefactor Cardinal Mazarin, chief minister to Kings Louis XIII and XIV.

The minister completed construction in 1661 of the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, his own personal palace of Versailles before there was, a palace of Versailles. That’s him and his modest little three room bungalow, at the top of this page. The man even used three of the same artists for the Château’s lavish appointments, as Louis himself would later use for that most famous, of royal shanties.

Worried that he might have gone a little too far, Fouquet bought himself and fortified a place off the west coast of France, a modest little island some 5 by 15 miles across called Belle-Île-en-Mer. You know, just in case of…disgrace.

But none of it stopped the party of parties, a celebration for the ages held on August 17, 1661, at Fouquet’s petit Château .

There were 6,ooo guests including the Sun King himself. Gifts were given to party goers, a diamond brooch for the ladies and a thoroughbred horse, for the gents. A performance was presented specifically written for the occasion by none other than the playwright, Molière.

A spectacular fireworks display lit the skies above lavish gardens and splendid paths. Fouquet’s little soirée was supposed to impress the King but instead turned him into, a party pooper. Apparently, such “unashamed and audacious luxury,” is what it takes to embarrass, a Sun King. Louis ordered his finance minister, arrested.

The trial stretched on for three years. The judges found the defendant guilty and ordered banishment but, Louis would have none of that. For the first and last time in French history a King overruled the verdict and ordered, imprisonment for life. The Mrs. was exiled and Fouquet’s crib snatched up, by the state.

EVENING OF AUGUST 17, 1661, ARRIVAL OF LOUIS XIV ACCOMPANIED BY THE COURT, hat tip Daniel Druet, sculptor

Fouquet spent the rest of his life in prison and died in his cell at Pignerol on March 23, 1680. His remains weren’t removed for another year. Just in case…I guess.

In his 1964 State of the Union address, President Lyndon Johnson stated, “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.” Since that time the American taxpayer has plunked down $22 Trillion on Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Even with Social Security and Medicare excluded that’s still three times the cost of every military war from the Revolution to the unfolding collapse of Afghanistan, combined.

Rates of poverty as measured by the United States Census Bureau remain basically, unchanged.

So hey, never you mind a conga line of public “servants” leaving offices of trust wealthier, than when they went in. You don’t need to worry about who’s paying the kid $500,000 for those finger paintings either, or government debt your grandbabies’ grandbabies will never pay back. Just pull out the credit card & have a party. Like it’s 1661.

Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a husband, a father, a son and a grandfather. A history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I started "Today in History" back in 2013, thinking I’d learn a thing or two. I told myself I’d publish 365. The leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I‘m closing in on a thousand. I do it because I want to & I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong, as anybody else. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Thanks for coming along for the ride. Rick Long, the “Cape Cod Curmudgeon”

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