The indisputable highlight of July is one day of patriotic fireworks, parades, and red-white-and-blue flags waving in national fervor. I’m speaking, of course, of July 14—Bastille Day, the most important holiday in France. So crank “La Marseillaise” and allow quiz show champ Ken Jennings to help you out with his formidable! knowledge of all things French.
French Myth #4: King Louis XIV said, “L’État, c’est moi.”
Louis XIV ruled France for over 72 years, so long that he was succeeded on the throne not by his son or his grandson, but by his great-grandson. It was the longest reign in the history of any major European throne, and it took place at the height of belief in the “divine right of kings,” to rule as solely and autocratically as they chose. So it comes as no surprise that his famous historical catchphrase would be “L’État, c’est moi”—literally, “I am the State.”
The only problem is that there’s no evidence he ever said it. According to the most common story, young Louis was before Parliament in 1655, listening to its president lecture on affairs of state, and finally got fed up enough to interrupt the man with his famous comeback: “I am the State!” But the first mention of this exchange comes in Dulaure’s 1834 History of Paris, almost two centuries later. Contemporary manuscript journals reveal no such exchange, and at that time, historians agree that Louis was still a young and callow figure dominated by the powerful Cardinal Mazarin.
Louis XIV and a small circle of advisors did wield enormous power, including supreme legislative and judicial authority. But that power was also balanced somewhat by the ranks of French nobility, and legally, the difference between the monarch and his nation was well-established. In fact, on Louis’s own deathbed, some of his last words were, “Je m'en vais, mais l'État demeurera toujours”—“I am going away, but the State will always remain.” Unlike his earlier bon mot, this one was well-attested by witnesses.
Quick Quiz: What Beatles song on Abbey Road borrows its title from Louis XIV’s most common nickname?
Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.