Modern history


The old regime may have been more efficient at supplying itself with revenue, and even at managing it, than is usually acknowledged. But for the peasant on the run from the parish tax collector this hardly mattered. In fact if there is one aspect of the traditional picture of the monarchy that remains emphatically unrevised by recent research, it is the eloquent hatred among nearly all sections of society (but becoming more savagely desperate at the bottom) of the tax-collecting apparatus of state and seigneur alike. As the petitions of grievance (cahiers de doléances) that accompanied elections to the Estates-General testified, those who taxed in the King’s name were the enemies of the people. At the simplest level of society, this execration fell on the head of the unfortunate individual who had been saddled with the job of parish collector of the taille. Should he fail to produce the portion allotted to his assessment by the bureau of the intendant, his own property and even his freedom might stand brutal forfeit. But if he was too efficient at his work, an even worse fate might befall him, meted out by his fellow villagers in the dead of night.

At the summit of society, a similar kind of hostility was aimed at the plutocratic money merchants, the gens de finance. In Darigrand’s polemic LAnti-Financier, published in 1763, the engraved frontispiece showed France on her knees before Louis XV, who was being thanked (somewhat prematurely) for instituting a single property tax and so robbing the finance contractors of their raison d’être. Justice with her sword aloft obliges the financier to disgorge his ill-gotten gains at the feet of the poor cultivator. In the same tract, the financiers were characterized as “blood-suckers [sang-sues] fattening themselves off the substance of the people.” A play by the satirist Lesage created the grotesque character Turcaret: low-born; crude, grasping and vindictive; a petty baron of the world of money whose infamy was only made bearable by his comic vulgarity. Many of the themes of what might be called Romantic patriotism crystallized in hostility towards the financiers: the town devouring the substance of the innocent countryside; luxury sustaining itself by perpetuating poverty; corruption and brutality in league against rustic simplicity. And it was in the guise, above all, of patriotic citizens that polemicists like Darigrand attacked the gens de finance for their selfishness, rehearsing precisely what the revolutionary Jacobins would mean when they stigmatized capitalists as riches égoïstes.

While any of the conspicuous creditors of the crown came in for this kind of treatment, much of the harshest invective was reserved for the Farmers-General. Their power, after all, lay at the heart of the system, and they were responsible for perhaps as much as one third of all revenues in France. Every six years, the crown contracted with a syndicate of these men for a bail, or lease, by which they agreed to advance a specific sum to the Treasury in return for the right to “farm” certain indirect taxes. These were, principally, and most notoriously, the salt and tobacco taxes (gabelle, tabac), as well as a number of other minor duties on commodities like leather, ironware and soap, known collectively as the aides. (Other indirect taxes were taken in the form of customs – theoctrois – imposed most significantly on wine as it moved from one customs zone to another, or in and out of cities.)

The Farmers attracted a disproportionate share of detestation not because they were the most reactionary element in the fiscal machine of the state but because they were the most brutally efficient. It was in the tax farms that the gap between what people paid and what the royal Treasury received was said to be most glaring. The fact that their profit – or the difference between what they collected and what they paid to the crown – remained a commercial secret did not help soften this stereotype of a gang of rapacious, royally licensed brigands. If there was one symbol of the callous unaccountability of the old regime to the basic wants of the people, the Farmers-General embodied it in their collective and individual persons.

Not surprisingly they would be singled out for attention by the Revolution. In 1782, the popular writer and journalist Louis-Sébastien Mercier wrote that he could never walk past the Hôtel des Fermes on the rue Grenelle-Saint-Honoré without being consumed by the desire “to reverse this immense and infernal machine which seizes each citizen by the throat and pumps out his blood.” One of the earliest and most spectacular acts of the great uprising in Paris in July 1789 would be to tear down the Farmers’ customs wall erected to thwart smugglers. In person they would fare even worse than their property. Pursued by their reputation as economic vampires, they were also widely rumored to have secreted away three to four hundred million livres of their booty. “Tremble, you who have sucked the blood of poor unhappy wretches,” warned Marat, and in November 1793 Léonard Bourdon demanded that “these publicbloodsuckers” (by now an instantly recognizable synonym for the Farmers) either give an account of their larceny and restore to the Nation what they had stolen or else “be delivered to the blade of the law.” In May 1794, amidst one of the more spectacular mass executions, a group of them including the great chemist Lavoisier was guillotined.

The Farmers-General were not, however, just speculators in crown debt and gougers of the people. They were a state within a state. Half a business and finance corporation, half a government, with personnel that ran to at least thirty thousand, they were the largest employer in France after the King’s army and navy. Of that number, twenty-one thousand made up a paramilitary force, uniformed and armed not only with weapons, but with the right to enter, search and seize any property or household they deemed suspicious. For fiscal purposes they commanded their own map of France, divided into multiple and separate jurisdictions (la grande gabelle, pays de quart bouillon, etc.) for each of the commodities they farmed. Nor were they merely tax collectors and exciseenforcers. In the major commodities with which they were concerned – especially salt and tobacco – they were producers, manufacturers, refiners, warehouse keepers, wholesalers, price regulators and monopoly retailers as well.

To appreciate how the business of the Farmers-General insinuated itself into the daily life of every French household one need do no more than follow the tortuous progress of a sack of salt from the marshes of Brittany to the kitchen. At every stage it was watched over, checked, registered, guarded, rechecked, reregistered and, above all, taxed before it got into the hands of the consumer. From the beginning to the end of the process the commodity was a captive of the Farmers’ right to exercise iron-clad regulation. Everything hinged on their control over pricing. In 1760, for example, the producers of salt from the marshes west of Nantes were required to sell their product to the Farmers at prices fixed after one-sided negotiation. From there the salt was shipped to coastal depots at the mouths of rivers, and packed into registered and sealed sacks. Each of these depots had been allotted the task of supplying a batch of further depots in the interior, to which they shipped the salt by barge. This second group of depots was located at the navigable limits of the rivers, and from there to yet another set of warehouses the salt went by wagon, inspected at each stage of the journey. Finally it ended up at the major greniers à sel – the central warehouses rented by the Farmers. These were large buildings staffed by a considerable number of clerks and guards with a chief who was responsible for selling salt, duly taxed of course, to the consumer. Every sale had to be accompanied by an invoice and receipt made out in duplicate. For those who were too far from thegrenier to buy, there were small village concessions licensed to sell to the local population but at a slightly higher price than the Farmers’ official tariff.

Even had the Farmers not had the right to set the price of salt, the sheer bureaucratic weight of its official distribution would have enormously increased its price. Few households could have conceived of doing without this most basic commodity, but they were not even given the possibility of forgoing it, since they were legally required to buy a minimum annual amount, determined by individual assessment. Captive to this astonishing system of control and taxation, the hard-pressed consumer had one way out, albeit an illegal one: smuggling. And here the sheer elaborateness of the Farmers’ fiscal map worked against their own security. Since salt could be had across the border of the pays de grande gabelle at almost ten times less than the Farmers’ price, smuggling naturally thrived along the straggling customs frontiers. This applied with even greater force to the tobacco regimes, close to the Spanish border in the west and Savoy in the east. But salt smuggling achieved the almost epic status of an all-out war between the army of the Farmers-General and gangs of smugglers especially concentrated in the west. In an effort to deter smugglers the state had provided draconian sentences: whipping, branding, the galleys or (in the case of assaulting the guards) death by breaking on the wheel. Yet hundreds and perhaps even thousands of people – men, women, children and even trained dogs – collaborated in the dangerous but lucrative trade throughout western France. Necker – who was in the habit of giving suspiciously round numbers to everything – estimated that as many as 60,000 people were involved in salt smuggling. This was certainly an exaggeration, but between 1780 and 1783 some 2,342 men, 896 women and 201 children were convicted in the one region of Angers along the border with Brittany. And for every conviction there may have been five arrests with too little evidence to proceed.

To their own, the Farmers were much kinder. While guards and clerks were badly paid, their jobs were fairly secure and supplemented by improbable fringe benefits. In 1768, the Farm seems to have invented the first contributory pension plan made up by wage deductions to which the company added its own matching sum. (By 1774 this pension fund was already worth some 260,000 livres.) After twenty years of employment a guard could retire on a life pension the amount of which was based on his rank and seniority.

The Farm was a compressed version of old-regime government, rich in both its virtues and its vices. At the local level it provided an extraordinary mixture of corporate paternalism and no-holds-barred commercialism, regulation and enterprise, efficient administration and ponderous bureaucracy, elaborate procedure and haphazard military brutality. At the center of its affairs in Paris, it presented quite another face: polished, urbane, technocratic and, above all, overpoweringly rich. However much public abuse they were subjected to on the stage and in pamphlets, the Farmers knew that they were the cynosure of all eyes. Their houses were the most splendid, their salons packed with stunning art, much of it the result of an adventurous taste for Dutch cabinet paintings as well as French genre and still life. Their daughters, coveted as prize catches, often married into the cream of the old nobility, especially the legal aristocracy, whose orators were denouncing the Farm even as they calculated the size of the prospective brides’ dowries.

The Farmers were far from being the knuckle-cracking, clodhopping, parvenu philistines that the stage caricature of Turcaret suggested. Helvétius, the philosophe, was not atypical in combining intellectual speculation of a daring kind with financial speculation of a prudent kind. When he died in 1771, he left a vast fortune to his widow, the Comtesse de Ligniville d’Autricourt, who ran the most brilliant salon in Paris, surrounded by a vast troop of Angora cats, each answering to a different name and dressed in silk ribbon. Equally remarkable was the Laborde dynasty, in origin West Indian sugar merchants from Bordeaux. Jean-Benjamin, the third Farmer-General in the line, apart from sustaining the family acumen for finance and commerce, was a prolific composer, scientist and writer on medical, geological and archaeological topics of enormous diversity. But much the most extraordinary of all these men was Antoine Lavoisier, widely celebrated as France’s greatest chemist.

Lavoisier was a phenomenon, but the fact that he could apply his scientific inventiveness to something so apparently archaic and repressive as the great customs barrier the Farmers were building around Paris says much about the contradictions of Louis XVI’s France. Like so many in the culture of that time, Lavoisier was at once pioneering and arcane, intellectually free and institutionally captive, public-spirited but employed by the most notoriously self-interested private corporation. Yet there is no doubt that Lavoisier believed his science to be compatible with (indeed crucial to) his profession and that by administering the Farm to the best of his abilities he was serving France in the true spirit of patriotic citizenship.

Certainly his work routine was hardly that of the stereotypically languid old-regime aristocrat living for pleasure and attended by swarms of obsequious servants. Rising at dawn he worked either on Farm papers or in his private laboratory from six to nine. Until late afternoon, at his office in the Hôtel des Fermes, he attended one or more of the five committees to which he was assigned (including the administration of the royal saltpeter and gunpowder works). After dining rather frugally he returned to his laboratory, where he worked again from seven to ten in the evening. Twice a week he gathered friends and colleagues in the sciences and philosophy to hear papers read and informally discuss current projects. And his family life was no less outgoing and productive. His wife was a fine artist in her own right, and Jacques-Louis David’s brilliant and animated double portrait shows husband and wife very much as professional partners as well as conjugal friends.

Like other senior officials of the Farm, Lavoisier was not satisfied with supervising its work from afar. Periodically he went on a tournée of inspection to the provincial bureaux and warehouses. Although he traveled in some style, with a retinue of eighteen (including uniformed armed guards) and a battery of clerks and accountants, these journeys were long and grueling, sometimes lasting several months. We know that on a similar tournée in 1745– 46, a Farmer named M. Caze visited no fewer than thirty-two salt warehouses, thirty-five custom houses, twenty-two tobacco stores; settled disputes among local officials of the Farm; and saw as many posts of the military guards as he could manage. Lavoisier was unlikely to have been less thorough.

Although the quality and breadth of Lavoisier’s virtuosity mark him out as something of a prodigy, it was not all that unusual in the France of Louis XVI for public men to be simultaneously intellectuals, administrators and businessmen. In all three roles, such men ran certain risks. As a scientist Lavoisier could rise and fall with the fickle ebb and flow of scientific fashion, which in the 1780s was much the most important feature of cultural life in France. His financial security was not immune from unpredictable changes in government policy. For although the financiers were polemically depicted as risk-free speculators, they were vulnerable as bond holders to sudden and unforeseen partial repudiations of the kind that had been used in the 1720s and in 1770 to bring the scale of the deficit under control. There were at least as many bankrupt financiers as there were millionaires.

Lavoisier was typical of the majority of Farmers in that he had not financed from his own funds the very large deposit needed to install himself but had borrowed as well as having taken on sleeping partners (the so-called croupiers, from the word croupe, meaning the exposed rump of the horse available for an additional rider). They supplied a share of his working capital and he repaid them with a share of his salary and business proceeds. This meant, in effect, that he was trading on the margin and that under unpredictably adverse conditions was not entirely master of his own destiny. If the government decided to alter or abrogate the terms of a contract, there would immediately be a run on the billets de ferme – the negotiable notes that the Farmers were allowed to issue on their own personal security. This actually happened in 1783 when Controller-General d’Ormesson attempted to abrogate the “Lease Salzard” (each lease being titled after its principal contractor). But the Farmers refused to honor their paper, arguing that the government had incurred the responsibility by interfering with the lease. Faced with the popular fury, the government retreated and reinstated the old lease.

This crisis was symptomatic of the deterioration of the mutual interest which had bound the monarchy and the Farmers-General together. On the one hand, the crown needed, more desperately than ever, the kind of up-front revenue that the Farmers so obligingly provided, and it had little inclination to take on the huge enterprise of collecting indirect taxes itself. On the other hand, the more courageous souls in the administration were coming to realize that the price for repeated transfusions of short-term funds was increasing dependence on whatever asking price the Farmers – and other creditors, some of them Dutch or Genevan – demanded. For the Farmers, that price was jacked-up profit levels with no questions asked; for the creditors, it was jacked-up interest rates, running at levels so high that by 1788 debt service was consuming almost 50 percent of all current revenues. And it was at that stage that the government, as we shall see, had no alternative but to abandon fiscal fine-tuning, and turn instead to drastic political solutions for its problems. Those solutions turned out to be revolutionary.

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