Modern history


The Assembly of the Notables finally got under way in the Salle des Menus Plaisirs at Versailles on February 22, 1787. The many delays between the King’s official announcement on the last day of the old year and the eventual meeting had given Calonne’s many enemies an opportunity to mount a campaign of opposition. They were helped by the obvious fact that at its critical juncture, the government was falling apart, both physically and politically. Vergennes was gravely ill and died on February 13, leaving the Controller-General without his most powerful supporter. The Keeper of the Seals, Miromesnil, was angry at having been excluded from early discussions and openly critical. After being taken aback by Calonne’s unpredictable transformation from sunny optimist to seer of the apocalypse, Louis XVI had promised his full support. Having signed the decree authorizing the Assembly he wrote to Calonne: “I couldn’t sleep last night but it was only from pleasure.” His insomnia, though, gradually turned to the anxious variety. As the opening approached he became more, rather than less nervous about the experiment that lay ahead. And the loss of Vergennes, whom he had constantly looked to for fatherly advice, left him badly shaken. He was undoubtedly aware of the Comte de Ségur’s comment on hearing of the proclamation: “The King has just resigned.”

The response of public opinion to Calonne’s initiative – after initial enthusiasm – had become equally guarded. There were widespread suspicions that the Controller-General had enjoyed a three-year spree and was now about to send the people the bill. Grandiose rhetoric about the national crisis was, it was said in the pamphlets, a fancy way of covering his tracks. Worst of all, satire was aiming its weapons at the event. The most famous popular print had a monkey addressing a barnyard of poultry: “My dear creatures, I have assembled you here to deliberate on the sauce in which you will be served.” More significantly, there seem to have been many variations on the same theme appearing in a very brief span of time. Another group of animals was told that it was to beslaughtered without right of appeal but that it would have the luxury of deciding exactly how it might be cooked. On the doors of the Contrôle was discovered a parody playbill advertising a “new troop of comedians to perform at Versailles on the 29th,” opening their program with Les Fausses Confidences and Les Consentements Forcés.

Calonne had anticipated this opposition. Indeed it was to avoid the past fate of royal tax reforms – Parlementaire resistance – that he had decided on an Assembly of Notables, a consultative form last used in 1626. Incorporating a proposal on elected provincial assemblies into the plan, he hoped, would defuse the growing demand for an Estates-General. And such an assembly also offered the advantage of a strictly controlled membership that could lay no claims to representation. The social composition of its 144 members seemed to confirm Calonne’s caution. The seven princes of the blood – the King’s two brothers plus the ducs de Bourbon, Orléans, Condé, Penthièvre and Conti – were to preside over seven separate deliberative bureaux. Immediately below them were seven leading archbishops, including Champion de Cicé, the liberal and strongly Neckerite Archbishop of Bordeaux, as well as another foe of Calonne’s, Loménie de Brienne, the Archbishop of Toulouse. These were followed by seven hereditary dukes, eight marshals of France, six marquis, nine counts, a single baron, presidents of the Parlements and high officials including the prévôt de Paris and the prévôt des marchands. The most surprising inclusion of all was Lafayette, whose budding radicalism greatly displeased the King and Queen, but who was included at the behest of his kinsman Noailles.

On the face of it, this did not look like a club of revolutionaries. But as soon as the sessions opened, it was apparent that the intensely aristocratic character of the Assembly did not at all preclude political radicalism. Nor did it incline the members to be the obedient instrument of Calonne’s program. Insubordination started at the very top since, of all the princes of the blood, only Artois was prepared to offer wholehearted support to the government. His elder brother, “Monsieur,” was particularly scathing about the procedure and others, like Orléans and Conti, who were notoriously disaffected from the court, naturally followed in trenchant criticism.

Yet the Controller-General was by no means resigned to personal defeat. After the King’s formal opening remarks, in which he alluded not just to the need for revenues but to the principle of more equal distribution of the tax burden, Calonne took the floor with a long speech of great intellectual power and eloquence. His distinctive quality had always been an articulate tongue allied to the kind of applied classicism he had used in his administrative career. The King himself had had a sample of this the previous August when Calonne had produced his memorandum divided into the headings

1. the present situation

2. what to do about it?

3. how to do it?

This kind of starkly enumerated clarity was perfect for the locksmith monarch, but something more complex was needed for the captious Notables, and assisted by Du Pont de Nemours, Calonne gave it to them. His speech began badly, with an aggressive revision of Necker and an equally self-serving review of his administration. No less than 1,250 million livres had been borrowed since 1776, he said, much of it to fight the “national war” and create a powerful navy. But this way of proceeding had finally become self-defeating and mired in “abuses,” by which he meant the excessive confusion of private and public finance and unjustifiable exemptions in the name of privilege. The answer to this sorry situation was threefold. First came fiscal justice. Instead of a mess of complicated direct taxes, the new land tax would be imposed on all subjects and would take into account the conditions of the cultivator and even his fortunes from season to season. Second was political consultation: local assemblies – parish, district and provincial – would be elected to participate in the assessment, distribution and administration of the tax. Third and last was economic liberty. The corvée (public works conscription), which robbed the peasant of his labor just when it was most needed, would be replaced with a money tax. More important, the adoption of the single duty would end the dreadful smuggling wars and create a new era of commercial markets in the nation. Ex tenebris lux, from the very edge of disaster, the nation would recover its destiny. And he ended with a fine peroration:

Others may recall the maxim of our monarchy: “si veut le roi; si veut la loi” [as the King wishes it, so be the law]. The maxim of His Majesty [now] is “si veut le bonheur du peuple; si veut le roi” [as the happiness of the people commands, so the King desires].

Much of Calonne’s program was recycled Turgot. Indeed, the proposal on local assemblies drafted by Du Pont de Nemours was based on the earlier memorandum that he had written for Turgot over a decade earlier. (He was not pleased to discover that Mirabeau had pirated a version and circulated it under his own name.) But the fact of the reforms’ earlier history did not weaken their genuine radicalism. And on the precedent of Parlementaire confrontations, Calonne must have expected resistance as a result of the breaches of privilege contained in the lack of exemptions for nobility and clergy in the land tax. He was not altogether disappointed, for in some of the bureaux there were indeed murmurings that the proposals attacked privilege and questions as to the constitutionality of the local assemblies.

Yet what was truly astonishing about the debates of the Assembly is that they were marked by a conspicuous acceptance of principles like fiscal equality that even a few years before would have been unthinkable. Vivian Gruder has shown how the social personality of the Notables – as landowners and agrarian businessmen – gave them a strong sense of the redundancy of privilege. In this sense, like so much else, they were already part of a “new” rather than an “old regime” and had merely been waiting for an opportunity to institutionalize their characteristically new concerns. There was, for example, no opposition to eliminate exemption from tolls paid in transporting produce from estates to markets. Some bureaux proposed that all exemptions from the taille be eliminated, others that ennoblement be (what everyone knew it was) essentially a matter of status and no longer confer any kind of tax exemptions.

In other words, they matched Calonne’s radicalism, step for step, and in many cases even advanced well beyond him. He had assumed that the new tax paid in lieu of labor service corvée would only be paid by the previously corvéable. But three bureaux insisted it be a proper public works tax paid by all subjects. Others argued that the new property tax should not just be restricted to land but fall on other kinds of property such as urban real estate (in which les Grands had a special interest). Others again demanded that the tax be based on a comprehensive land register that would be periodically revised to ensure fair assessment. Further proposals concentrated on lowering taxes for those too poor to pay and especially all day laborers.

Where disagreement occurred, it was not because Calonne had shocked the Notables with his announcement of a new fiscal and political world; it was either because he had not gone far enough or because they disliked the operational methods built into the program. The debates over the land tax do not at all suggest a group of rich landowners (for that is indeed what they were) digging in their heels at the threatened onslaught on their privileges. They bore a much closer resemblance to the lengthy sessions of a provincial academy, convened to discuss the effects of alternative versions of fiscal equity on agrarian production. Du Pont de Nemours reported himself amazed by the familiarity with current theory shown in the discussions. When Calonne proposed that the tax be based on a percentage of gross product in any given year (the rate to vary slightly depending on the quality of the land), the Notables argued instead for a levy on the net product once costs of seed, labor and equipment were deducted. They also preferred a fixed sum to be partitioned down from the parish level rather than one which rose each year with levels of individual production. The latter, they claimed with the true voice of the new economics, would penalize productivity. Moreover, while Calonne thought the tax should be in kind, they believed that the difficulties of assessment dictated that it be in cash.

While historians have been inclined to write off the Notables as an ephemeral episode in the jockeying for power that preceded the onset of the Revolution, the merest glance at the debates confirms that something extremely serious was in the offing. (The land tax, as amended by the Notables, would be adopted by the Revolution and, little changed, would persist in France until the First World War.) Taxation was discussed in light of its relation to other economic activities and for the first time there was no disagreement that its acceptance was strictly conditional on some form of representation. Indeed, it was dissatisfaction with the limits of the intended provincial assemblies’ authority that was most vocally expressed. Lafayette, as might be expected, wanted to transfer virtually all the powers of the intendant – over all forms of taxation (not just the land tax): public works, administration of billeting and the like – to these local authorities. Many more Notables hewed to the Parlementaire line that the body to deliberate on any new form of imposition had to be the Estates-General. And while Calonne had played safe by stipulating a six-hundred-livre income as the qualification for voting in parish assemblies, the majority of the bureaux actually supported lowering this threshold. This was still a long way from democracy, but there was a genuine sense that elected bodies ought to be a broad representation of “interests” in the nation.

This scenario in which the elite of France competed with each other for prizes in public-spiritedness was clearly not what Calonne had anticipated. It was rather as if he had set out to drive an obstinate mule with a very heavy wagon, only to find that the mule was a racehorse and had galloped into the distance, leaving the rider in the ditch. Vivian Gruder stresses, quite reasonably, that it was the social identity of the group as landed proprietors that made them so apparently complaisant about ditching privileges and anachronisms to which their caste had long been attached. But while the economic modernization of the group undoubtedly played a part in the realism with which they approached the reforms, it was also their shared sense of the historical moment that prompted their display of patriotic altruism. Allotted the role of a dumb chorus, they suddenly found that, individually and collectively, they had a powerful voice – and that France was paying attention. This abrupt self-discovery of politics was intoxicating and there are signs that though they are usually dismissed as the tail end of the old regime, with respect to political self-consciousness the Notables were the first revolutionaries.

And so far from needing the Controller-General to complete the process of reform, they very rapidly made it plain that his removal was the condition of success. His reputation was by now too thoroughly mired in scandal and suspicions of double-dealing to sustain the Assembly’s credibility. In March, details of real-estate transactions in which Calonne had persuaded the King to part with some scattered properties in return for the less valuable county of Sancerre emerged in an unflattering light. Calonne and friends of his, it appeared, had been among the first and most advantaged buyers of the lots. On the Bourse, questions were asked about the Company of the Indies and about the floating of the syndicate contracted to provide Paris with its water supply. Mirabeau, who was still supposed to be at least a lukewarm supporter, dramatically altered course by publishing a dénonciation of these speculations in which Calonne was particularly compromised. And as a member of the most loyalist of the seven bureaux, that of Artois, Lafayette broke ranks with a public pronouncement attacking the “monster speculation.” A full criminal inquiry, he insisted, should be mounted to reveal those involved in enriching themselves at the expense of the “sweat, tears and even blood” of the people.

Harassed on all sides, the Controller-General struck back for the last time, using the same techniques of public polemic that had been leveled against him. It was a measure of how the language of debate had so significantly changed that his avertissement (notice) to the public had at its center the accusation that it was the privileged classes who were misrepresenting his plans the better to conspire against the people. Sounding like a revolutionary orator in 1789 or even a Jacobin denouncing the “rich egoists,” Calonne answered the question on everyone’s mind: “More will be paid? To be sure. But by whom? Only by those who have not paid enough. The privileged will be sacrificed, yes – when justice requires it and need demands it. Would it be better to tax yet again the unprivileged, the People?”

Appealing in so direct and candid a way to public opinion did not save Calonne. In fact, it may even have made his position worse. He had become so unpopular that this last sally was greeted as a disingenuous ploy to conceal his own culpability in private and public misdeeds. More seriously, he was rapidly losing favor at court. The King had been dismayed, even enraged, to discover the true extent of the deficit, 32 million in excess of Calonne’s estimate. The exact figure was, by this time, somewhat academic, but it was the trust that the King had placed in the Minister that was the main casualty. Not for the last time he began to repent of his political boldness and scrambled for the least painful exit. Not for the last time the Queen appeared to provide one. As Calonne’s star descended, so she began to list the occasions when he had declined to honor her wishes (which usually meant money and office for her favorites). She listened carefully, then, when Breteuil represented to her that Calonne’s departure was indispensable for the survival of the reform program. Increasingly vexed by the position Calonne had placed him in, Louis gave the Minister an earnest of his intentions by permitting the responses to his avertissement to be published.

Calonne attempted to extract what credit he could from an increasingly difficult situation. He offered to resign on condition that the program was assented to, but he was hardly bargaining from strength. Like Turgot and Necker before him, he was maneuvered into an ultimatum that would be impossible to meet, demanding the removal of his most powerful adversaries. It seemed, at first, that the King would meet him halfway by getting rid of Miromesnil, but this proved to be only the prelude to an act of Solomonic authority. Calonne was dismissed on April 8.

More than just a resignation was involved. The term given to his dismissal, like Turgot’s, was disgrâce. And in this case, the King took care to launder his own authority by fouling Calonne’s. “Everyone is happy,” reported one observer at court. The Queen was pleased to be rid of a bad apple and to have the chance of inserting a minister of her own choosing. All the princes of the blood were delighted to see the jumped-up intendant disappear back into obscurity. Public opinion roared its pleasure at the demise of the arch-speculator and burned Calonne in effigy on the Pont Neuf. Louis XVI himself lost no opportunity to express his own pleasure in acts of petty vindictiveness. The Minister was stripped of the blue riband of the Order of Saint-Esprit, which he had enjoyed showing off so conspicuously, and he was forced to surrender his estate at Hannonville as a kind of bail against further proceedings. On his way to exile, Calonne’s carriage was often surrounded by sullen or jeering crowds who stopped just short of actual violence against his person.

Calonne was the first in a long line of French politicians who were to be the casualties of their own adventurism. But it would be a crass mistake to dismiss him as merely a lightweight, recklessly exploiting the financial crisis for short-term advantage. He was, in fact, the first public man to understand its political consequences, and the picture he drew for the Notables of a great caesura in French history was, for all his disingenuousness, absolutely correct. The language he spoke and his vision of what lay ahead were, in other words, more important than the issue of his motives for the exposure. After Calonne, anything was possible.

Typically, he continued to hedge his bets. On the incorrect assumption that his exile would not be long-lived (in fact it was but the prelude to a further exile from France), Calonne made some provisions for a return to Paris society. On the very day of his disgrace he asked a monastery situated on the rue Saint-Dominique near his house if it would rent him enough space to keep a thousand bottles of wine. He would never get to sample its riches.

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