Louis XV's Navy presents a sharply detailed picture of an institution caught between its Colbertian legacy and contemporary challenges arising from overseas development and imperial rivalry. James Pritchard analyses the changes that occurred in naval organization and administration in the years between the end of the War of Austrian Succession and the conclusion of the Seven Years War. During this time the French navy was reorganized, rebuilt, and fought a major war in which it was annihilated and its officer corps militarily humiliated. Yet this period also established the conditions that made it possible for the navy to become the major arm of French foreign policy for the only time in French history.
Pritchard's chief concern is to explain why Bourbon France, the richest and most powerful state in Europe in the middle of the eighteenth century, failed to exercise its power at sea. Through a close examination of naval organization -- the secretaries of state for the navy, central bureaus, officers of the sword and pen, seamen, arsenals, workers, problems of shipbuilding, ordnance production and material acquisition, and finances -- he shows the navy as both an institution embedded in society and an instrument of government. The tensions arising from the contradiction between an institution composed of individuals who sought to advance their own and group interests and an instrument that existed to fulfill government ends were aggravated by an administration of men rather than norms. Pritchard traces many of the shortcomings of naval administration to the intensely personal bonds and idiosyncratic behaviour of the individuals who ran it.
Many of Pritchards's conclusions run counter to the generally accepted accounts of problems in the French navy during this period and to the usual view of Choiseul as the saviour of French maritime power. The first complete study of this period of French naval administration, Pritchard's work parallels Baugh's on the British navy.