Modern history


On the fourteenth of February 1787 Talleyrand was summoned to Versailles by the Controller-General, Calonne. By his own account he went with mixed feelings. On one hand he was flattered by the attention. Calonne had persuaded the King to convene an Assembly of Notables that was supposed to consider measures necessary to rescue French public finance from bankruptcy. Though the Assembly was intended to be strictly consultative, its opening (twice postponed but now set for February 22) was already hailed as the beginning of a new era in French history. In his letter to Talleyrand, Calonne asked him to help draft memoranda that would be set before the Notables as the basis for their deliberations. Aware that this might be a special opportunity to advance his reputation, Talleyrand could hardly decline a commission of such importance.

On the other hand he was not overeager to leave the creature comforts of Paris for the tedium of Versailles, especially in the dark rains of winter. Life had been good to the man his friends sardonically called “l’Abbé de Périgord.” At thirty-three, he had even created the sort of domestic nest he had never known as a child – though in a characteristically unorthodox version. His mistress, the Comtesse de Flahaut (herself the illegitimate daughter of a Farmer-General), had been married at eighteen to a fifty-four-year-old officer. Her brother-in-law, the Comte d’Angiviller, was superintendent of the King’s buildings (that is, the majordomo of official culture) and obligingly provided the young Countess with a private apartment at the Louvre. There she established a salon of tame artists and intellectuals, but also a happy ménage with Talleyrand, who, in 1785, became the father of a lively infant son. For all his reputation for aloofness, those select few admitted to this family circle describe an atmosphere of gentle intimacy quite at odds with the Abbé’s public persona. Gouverneur Morris, the American commercial agent, who was seriously enamored of Adelaide de Flahaut, upset himself further by witnessing their apparently unshakable contentment.

Talleyrand supped often with his mistress and son, but he breakfasted late with friends in his house on the rue de Bellechasse. With his usual perspicacity he had understood that Paris society was a galaxy comprising many little planetary constellations, all revolving in their own orbits, sometimes crossing the path of others and sometimes colliding. The essential thing was to be recognized as the center of one such constellation, and this he had achieved by the time he was thirty. The satellites who revolved around him were all conspicuously luminous: Choiseul Gouffier, whose travels in Greece had earned him the reputation of expertise and a seat in the Academy; the Comte de Narbonne (the brightest of Louis XV’s many bastards), articulate, amoral and well connected; the young physiocrat writer Du Pont de Nemours; the Duc de Lauzun, American hero-warrior whose banishment from the presence of the Queen had enhanced rather than sullied his reputation; the obligatory physician-scientist, Dr. Barthès of Montpellier, and the equally obligatory Swiss banker, Panchaud, a fierce enemy of Jacques Necker’s.

It was as though Talleyrand had constructed this company like a rich but well-balanced meal, the intellectual astringency of Panchaud and Du Pont de Nemours setting off the rich confectionery of Lauzun and Narbonne. They discussed serious matters but they did so without undue solemnity. And it was probably this manner of making light work of hard business that recommended Talleyrand in particular to Calonne, whose modus operandi was much the same. They were close neighbors and were each to be found at the other’s social occasions. But a graceful style would not, however, have been enough had not Calonne seen something else much more important in Talleyrand: an appreciation of the power of data. After his ordination in 1779, he had been given a benefice in Reims that was enough to support a comfortable life, but Talleyrand was much more ambitious. He directed himself to the only area of the ecclesiastical world he found supportable: business management. And in that area, as agent-general with an eye on the immense property of the episcopacies, he was in his element. Applied greed was a natural talent and he exercised it conscientiously in his own behalf as well as that of his order.

His other major talent was bureaucratic, and as agent-general he undertook a massive survey of all the economic concerns of the Church, ranging from the salaries of village curates to the hospitals and poorhouses maintained by the Church throughout the country. While on one tour of inspection he even found himself straying into affairs that were not part of any conventional brief but which his eye for public business saw required attention. In Brittany, for example, he was so struck by the numbers of women whose husbands had failed to return from the sea, but could not be officially declared dead, that he sought to allow them to remarry after a number of years had elapsed. At the General Assembly of the Clergy in 1785 the suggestion was thought deeply improper and rejected, but many more were impressed by Talleyrand’s grasp of an immense portfolio of numbers and information relating to the Church. His huge report, commented the Archbishop of Bordeaux, was “a monument of talent and zeal” and the Assembly duly recompensed his services with a special award of twenty-four thousand livres.

With this reputation for hard-headed business and political savoir faire, Talleyrand was employed by Calonne to serve as an unofficial agent and assistant. His most conspicuous and difficult recruit was Honoré-Gabriel Mirabeau, the impetuous son of a tyrannical father who had had him imprisoned many times for various acts of defiance. Though six years older than Talleyrand, Mirabeau began by throwing bouquets of gushing admiration at his feet. A mission at the court of Frederick the Great in Berlin was found, but its unofficial status irked Mirabeau and before very long he was turning on his mentor. “He would gladly sell his soul for money,” he complained of Talleyrand, “and he would be getting the better of the deal for it would be an exchange of shit for gold.” At the beginning of 1787, though, the two men shared a sense of the importance of the impending Assembly of Notables. Mirabeau wrote to Talleyrand that he saw “a new order of things which can regenerate the monarchy. I would think myself a thousand times honored to be the least secretary of that assembly, the idea of which [he took good care to add] it was my good fortune to have first…” And he begged Talleyrand to release him from his Prussian exile so that he could participate in this momentous rebirth.

It was with these kinds of fanfares blowing in his ears that Talleyrand responded to Calonne’s summons. Inflated expectations of a new epoch, of finances restored to health, public trust flowering with the snowdrops, made him distinctly uneasy. But he did certainly expect Calonne, whom he genuinely admired, to have a firm grasp on the matter at hand. He was to be abruptly disillusioned.

On entering Calonne’s private study, Talleyrand saw there an oddly assorted group. It included Pierre Gerbier, a senior magistrate in the Parlement of Paris, a famous orator and one of the few robins to have been forgiven for taking office with Maupeou’s court. Perhaps it was this past history that recommended him to Calonne as a useful pragmatist. With him was an immensely aged fossil from three reigns, the Marquis de La Galaizière, who had started out on his long career as an intendant under the Regency. Du Pont de Nemours was there from Talleyrand’s own set, together with two other of Calonne’s assistants who had been working on projects to be presented to the Notables. Once seated, each of the men was presented with great sheaves of documents tied up with ribbon, which Calonne announced were the raw materials from which they were supposed to construct a reform program that would be credible to the Assembly – or which at the very least would persuade it to forego obstruction. Talleyrand, who was given the project of restoring a free grain trade, was taken aback. Like everybody else, he knew that Calonne had been seriously ill (his friends said with bloody coughing fits; his enemies said with the punishment of debauchery), and that this had delayed both the preparation of the reform projects and the opening of the Assembly (originally announced for January 29). But he had not expected that he would have a mere week to get raw information into sufficiently persuasive shape to disarm the skepticism that everyone was expecting from the Notables.

He suddenly saw that the Controller-General, whom he had admired for years as a shrewd judge of public business, had made a colossal political blunder. For he had completely failed to grasp the open-ended consequences of his initiative. Only that could possibly explain the apparent casualness of his preparations. It was plain to Talleyrand that Calonne saw the Assembly as an obedient rubber stamp for the land tax that he was about to propose.

The sudden revelation of Calonne as an impulsive gambler was all the more alarming to Talleyrand because he had shared the general view of the Controller-General as a skilled manager of unforeseen contingencies. Calonne had been appointed to the office in 1783 in the wake of a panic brought on by his predecessor d’Ormesson’s attempts at financial reform. All that d’Ormesson had done was to revive Necker’s plans to hive off part of the General Farm to a state-run régie. And he had tried to give the Caisse d’Escompte – founded in 1776 as an undercapitalized imitation of the Bank of England – some effectiveness by requiring the circulation of its paper currency. It was not much, but in the jittery state of the Paris money market it was enough to start a run on the Farm’s own bills of exchange, which were widely used to make commercial payments. Calonne smoothed ruffled feathers by restoring the full terms of the General Farm contract for taxes and making it clear that he would work within rather than against the current financial conventions. Rather than bulldoze the paper of the Caisse, he preferred to raise confidence in the Bank by permitting the use of its money in settling taxes and by extending its franchise. Most important he believed its viability would be linked to demonstrated commercial success, so that from 1785 dividends were to be linked to actual profits of preceding terms (rather than short-term speculations).

Calonne has been much reproached (and was, at the time, by Necker in particular) for this supine capitulation to vested interests. He had, the critics said, traded short-term calm for long-term disaster. And since he then proceeded, over the next three years, to borrow over five hundred million more livres to keep the government afloat, it is hard to argue with this negative verdict on his stewardship.

But Calonne was not just an empty head presiding over an empty purse. His regime did follow a principled policy of sorts, even if in the end that turned out to be disastrously unsound. It was, in any case, dominated by one major consideration that Necker, Calonne’s most persistent critic, failed to take into account: the costs of peace were almost as heavy as the costs of war. Necker’s calculations turned on the assumption that following the end of the American war, the French government could adhere to a significantly more modest level of military spending. But Vergennes, who was still the dominant figure in the government until his death in February 1787, knew otherwise. To benefit from the opportunities opened up by the peace of 1783, he believed, it was essential that the equipment and readiness of the French navy and army remain at a high level. And in this view he was sustained by de Castries and Saint-Germain, respectively the ministers for the navy and the army and both aggressive, reforming, modern military managers. Following Suffren’s victories in the Indian Ocean there was even an opportunity to ally with the growing power of the Sultan of Mysore to restore French influence in the Carnatic region of the subcontinent. To neglect these matters, Vergennes argued, was to invite another drubbing on the order of the Seven Years’ War. It was this requirement, rather than any prodigal spending by the court, that governed Calonne’s unfortunate borrowing pattern. Even though it was probably imprudent for the Controller-General to buy the palaces of Rambouillet and Saint-Cloud for the crown, expenditure on all court items – including the households of the King’s extravagant brothers – never varied above forty million livres from a total budget of around six hundred million, or 6 to 7 percent. To put this in perspective, it was about half the proportion of the British budget spent on the monarchy.

Given this demand, what could Calonne do to make it supportable? He did not just stagger from contingency to contingency with wholly improvised expedients. On the contrary, if anything it was under his Contrôle that the government had the nearest thing to a concerted economic policy since Turgot. With little background in economics and finance himself, he depended on three resources for advice. The first was Isaac Panchaud, the Genevan whose work on public credit had appeared in 1781 and who had won a formidable reputation among all those who were put off by Necker’s self-righteousness. (Paris offered, as well as everything else, a choice of Swiss bankers.) Panchaud’s basic advice to Calonne was to avoid structural damage to the financial machinery in place and, rather, make its operation less disabling by creating new lines of credit at better terms. Specifically this meant avoiding direct attacks on the Farmers-General but allowing competition from banks in Amsterdam, where annuities could be floated at 5 percent. In the 1780s, Dutch loans as well as Swiss suddenly became important, giving the administration more flexibility in its schedules and terms of repayment.

The breathing space secured by this new credit was to be used not just for sitting still but for concerted efforts to improve French economic infrastructure and performance. And it was here that Calonne’s other two sets of advisers came into play: the second generation of physiocrats, and the ablest of the royal officials trained to oversee economic enterprises. Among Calonne’s stable of young bureaucrats were Mollien, Gaudin, the Abbé Louis, Maret – all of whom were to be at the center of the Napoleonic government and some of whom (like Louis) were to be almost permanent fixtures of early nineteenth-century French financial management. Only if one supposes that such an “old regime” was destined to disappear from the face of the earth should one be surprised to find these walking data-processors part of the future rather than the past. Together with physiocrats like Du Pont de Nemours they hammered out an economic policy that was a calculated compromise between free enterprise and state paternalism. A number of these measures were strikingly radical and they required careful preparation. The fact that they were presented as part of the tax package to the Notables should not, however, obscure their independent importance.

In the “Single Duty Project,” for example, the myriad internal customs barriers were to be done away with and a single tariff to be imposed instead. This was less a gesture of pure laissez-faire faith than of economic nationalism (again anticipating Napoleonic policy) since freedom of trade within France was to be complemented by imposing higher barriers on its frontiers. The same careful distinction was observed in restoring free circulation to the grain trade. For while the domestic trade was liberated, export outside the country (a source of bitter grievance in the past) was tied to the index of current prices. Should it rise above a certain platform, prohibitions on exports would be resumed. Above all, the economic relationship with Britain was governed by what might be called state opportunism. Engineers had been brought to northern France to install spinning jennies and Crompton’s mechanical mule, and at the end of 1786 hopes were raised of spiriting away the famous Matthew Boulton and James Watt from the British Midlands. They did indeed visit Paris but only for consultations over the steam engines to be used in new pumping machines at Marly.

While joint-stock companies did grow in this period, finance originating with the state became newly significant in funding concerns needing venture capital to innovate with new plants. Yet what Calonne’s government gave with one hand it seemed to take away with the other, since the capstone of the new policies was a trade agreement with Britain, signed in 1786, that opened both markets to each other’s goods. It need hardly be said that while French wine and silk prospered under this arrangement, other textiles and ironwares suffered an onslaught of cheap competition from the much more advanced British manufactures. But the view of Calonne and his advisers seems to have been that, in the long term, this was all healthy competition that would stimulate French producers to emulate their British counterparts.

A bald list of these economic initiatives, honorable though most were, misses the point. Calonne’s government all along assumed (like Turgot’s before him) that his plans were to be imposed on, rather than proposed to, France. That is probably why so many of his protégés made such good Napoleonic bureaucrats. He had been brought up in the absolutist tradition of crown service as an intendant, first of his native Flanders and then of Metz in the generality of the “Three Bishoprics.” Both were very important areas of economic enterprise, especially in textiles, and Calonne had a conscientious record in their encouragement. But he was the epitome of de Tocqueville’s centralizing official – handing out subsidies here and there, giving prizes for inspiring essays in mechanical wool-carding like a schoolmaster rewarding diligent pupils.

As Controller-General, he was no better at public relations. Calonne did show some interest in writers like Mirabeau and Brissot, but only as spies in the literary underground or serviceable hacks who could be hired to pump out propaganda pieces in the service of the official line. (Mirabeau turned out to be incapable of this kind of unflagging loyalism.) For the most part, though, he went along with Vergennes’ determination to muzzle the vituperation of the opposition press, block their smuggling routes and dry up the sources of hostile opinion. Those publishers like Panckoucke who would be prepared to settle for moderate opinion (in the relatively anodyne Mercure de France) might be domesticated through co-optation.

This policy of stifling the opposition was not without some success, especially in the early years of Calonne’s administration. At the height of his powers, in 1784 he sat for Mme Vigée-Lebrun wearing, to judge by the finished portrait, an expression of creamy self-satisfaction. But the painter took good care to give her subject an air of alert intelligence in his eyes and through the attributes of office scattered on the desk. Calonne’s portrait proclaims high status secured through conscientious duty. It would only be later that the unintended ironies of the representation would be painfully revealed. For while Calonne holds a letter conspicuously addressed to his only master, the King, the most prominent document on his desk is the charter for the Caisse d’Amortissement – the “Sinking Fund” supposed to husband resources that could be devoted to reducing the principal of the immense national debt. But it was Calonne, not the debt, that would be sunk by 1787.

And when Calonne’s reputation for prodigality and opulence became impossible to shake off, his portrait would read like a glorified tailor’s account. There are the lace cuffs à la valencienne and the Florentine taffeta coat, all from Vanzut and Dosogne, the sharpest and most expensive clothiers in Paris. There are the grandiose inkwells from the Queen’s jeweler, Granchez on the quai de Conti, where Calonne had bought a bamboo cane topped with an elaborate gold pommel that was the talk of the Palais-Royal. The painting almost smells of the lavender water that he was known to favor. The Controller-General made no attempt to disguise his taste for costly luxuries. He dressed his many servants in full livery and provided fur-lined seats not just for the interior of his coaches but to keep his coachmen warm in winter. Apart from the Contrôle itself, which he redecorated from top to bottom, he could choose to reside in one of two châteaux or in the house on the rue Saint-Dominique, where his spectacular collection of paintings – Watteau, Rembrandt, Titian, Giorgione, Boucher, Fragonard and Teniers – was housed.

His kitchen was equally famous or notorious, depending on whether one was on the regular guest list. The head chef, Olivier, presided like a baron over a huge équipe of sauciers, pâtissiers and other specialists of the table. There were three servants alone to look after the roasted meats, with their own assigned kitchen boy called Tintin. Calonne had a weakness for truffles, which he had sent in baskets from Périgord, for fresh crayfish, young partridge and, more surprisingly, “macarony de Naples” eaten with Parmesan or Gruyère, a dish which one would have thought incompatible with lace cuffs. When he went from his own unofficial palace to the official one at Versailles, Calonne was sure to reproduce its splendors on a suitably regal scale. Under his regime the last balls of Versailles were thrown with an elegant abandon that for generations of nostalgic admirers to come would create the vision of the old monarchy forever moving at the pace of a minuet, while marble fountains threw perfumed water into scalloped bowls.

This was all very well as long as loans continued to be funded and the economic climate remained fair. But the outlook in all these matters darkened considerably from 1785. In Amsterdam, the prospect of further loans at low rates of interest had been complicated by a political crisis that threatened to become a revolution. A bad drought that summer had produced the worst harvest for some time. That in turn seemed likely to deplete the purchasing power of French consumers and worsen a market which had already been seriously damaged by the inflow of British manufactures following the commercial treaty.

When all this bad news was coupled with the Diamond Necklace Affair, a punishingly critical gloss could be put on Calonne’s stewardship of the nation’s affairs. For all the strenuous efforts of the police to stanch the flow, the demand for scurrilous pamphlets and libels was too great and the supply too forthcoming to gag opposition. In their view, Calonne’s financial prodigality somehow became associated with the extravagances of the court, with conspiracy, mendacity and self-indulgence. It was at this time that the story of his delivering to Mme Vigée-Lebrun a box of pastilles, each wrapped in a three-hundred-livre note, first circulated. He was, in fact, rumored to be her lover, a story she later attributed to his actual mistress the Comtesse de Cerès borrowing her carriage for the theater and deliberately leaving it outside Calonne’s residence all night for the gossips to identify.

Many of Calonne’s most conspicuous initiatives could, with little effort, be made to look like conspiracies against the public interest. In 1785, on the advice of a broker, Modinier, he decided to remint the currency, adjusting its gold-silver ration in line with market rates. Anticipating some confusion, the Controller-General provided for a year of grace before the new coin definitively replaced the old. But to shopkeepers or country millers with boxes under the bedstead, the scheme was a thinly disguised act of extortion that would replace “good” money with “bad.” Similarly the new customs wall for the Farmers-General (since Paris was not to enjoy the freedom from internal duties allowed to the rest of the country) aroused deep suspicions. Commissioned by Lavoisier, the visionary neoclassical architect Ledoux had designed stunning propylaea with antique figures and motifs to adorn the several barrier-gateways, but this did nothing to disarm those suspicions (indeed the strangeness of the plan may even have reinforced them). The new wall, it was popularly said, would trap Parisians within an atmospherically foul prison by depriving them of the country air needed to ventilate their urban staleness, the source of contagions and epidemics. Someone even calculated the exact cubic amount of fresh air loss that would result from the new wall. No wonder, as the saying went, “le mur murant Paris rend Paris murmurant.”

There were other similar charges of self-interest. Pretending to be a statesman, Calonne, it was said, was nothing more than a jumped-up speculator. His new Company of the Indies (launched to try to capitalize on the new opportunities opening up in south India) was a spurious enterprise designed to extract capital from the gullible with no prospect of foreseeable returns. Other choice contracts and companies, like the syndicate established to steam-pump a fresh water supply for Paris, were rigged to give favorable advance terms to inside investors. Piece by piece, then, a portrait of Calonne was being put together that was much less flattering than Mme Vigée-Lebrun’s. He was the man who would gag the press, stifle the lungs, fleece the pockets, debase the currency, squander the national fortune and dance attendance on the court.

With his reputation in such difficulties, why would Calonne have embarked on so dangerous and radical a step as the Assembly of the Notables, where his entire authority was going to be opened to public scrutiny? The conventional answer is that he had no alternative, and that indeed is the view that he put to the King in August 1786 when he first broached the subject. The deficit on the current year he estimated at 80 million livres (and was subsequently discovered to be 112 million). It was thus consuming nearly 20 percent of current revenue. But a much larger proportion had to be assigned to interest payments on back loans. Worse still, the relatively rapid redemption schedule accepted by Necker during the American war meant that substantial payments fell due in the following year. Yet more loans were not inconceivable, but as Calonne had discovered in December 1785 when he had attempted to float the latest round, they could no longer be secured on advances from current or future revenues. That meant that he had to do what he had all along wished to avoid: impose new taxes, less for their actual value than for collateral in public credit.

The King’s response on being told of the plan to summon an Assembly of Notables that would legitimate the new tax was to retort, “Why, that is pure Necker that you are giving me.” And it was indeed the sense of Necker breathing down his neck that surely spurred Calonne to his dramatic proposal. In 1784 the old Director-General had published his Views on the Administration of the Finance of France and in the course of it had attacked Calonne’s stewardship, especially for his addiction to new loans in peacetime. In the following year, when the Diamond Necklace scandal was at its height, he returned from his Swiss exile to an enthusiastic welcome in Paris. Part of Calonne’s decision to make public the gruesome truth of the deficit, and to present it as a near bankruptcy, was to refute the optimism of the Compte Rendu of 1781 with its cheerful view of surpluses between “ordinary” income and expenditure. Specifically, he said that in place of Necker’s surplus he had actually found a deficit of some 40 million for that year.

Despite evidence of mounting public hostility, Calonne decided to play Necker’s own game of appealing for public support. It was not just a cynical gambit as Talleyrand suspected. Egged on by survivors of the Turgot regime like Du Pont de Nemours, the Controller-General was reaching back to the politics of a popular monarchy, outlined by d’Argenson in the 1740s, that would somehow vault over the heads of vested interests and Parlementaire obstruction to achieve a new freedom of action with the blessings of the people.

The Assembly of the Notables was thus designed as an exercise in what might be called popular absolutism. But, as Talleyrand saw, even before its first session had convened, it would, inevitably, become an apprenticeship in national representation.

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