V. THE MINISTRY OF TURGOT: 1774-76

The first task of Louis XVI was to find capable and upright ministers who would repair the chaos in administration and finance. The people were clamoring for the recall of the banished parlements; he recalled them, and dismissed Maupeou, who had tried to replace ‘them. For his chief minister he brought back to Versailles Jean-Frédéric Phélypeaux, Comte de Maurepas, who had been minister of state from 1738 to 1749, had been deposed for lampooning Mme. de Pompadour, and now returned to power at the age of seventy-three. It was a benevolent but unfortunate choice, for Maurepas, living for a decade on his rural estate, had lost touch with the development of France in economy and thought, and had more wit than wisdom. For foreign affairs the twenty-year-old King chose Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes; for the war ministry Comte Claude-Louis de Saint-Germain; and for minister of marine Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Baron de l’Aulne.

We have in previous pages seen him as a seminarian, a lecturer on Christianity and progress, a friend of physiocrats and philosophes, an enterprising and beneficent intendant in Limoges. The dévots at the court warned Louis that Turgot was an unbeliever, who had contributed articles to the Encyclopédie;67 nevertheless, on August 24, 1774, the King advanced him to the most critical post in the government—controller general of finance. Turgot’s place at the navy was taken by Gabriel de Sartine, who spent prodigally in building the fleets that were to help free America, and who relied on Turgot to find the funds.

Turgot was such a Frenchman as Louis XIV had had in Colbert, dedicated to the service of his country, farseeing in his views, tireless, incorruptible. He was tall and handsome, but he lacked the graces of men polished in the salons—though he was welcomed ardently by Mlle, de Lespinasse. His health had been sacrificed to his work; much of the time when he was laboring to remake the French economy he was confined to his rooms with gout. He tried to compress a quarter century of reforms into one brief ministry because he felt that his tenure of office was precarious. He was forty-seven when he came to power, forty-nine when he lost it, fifty-four when he died.

He believed with the physiocrats that industry and trade should be left as free as possible from regulation by government or guilds; that land was the only source of wealth; that a single tax on land was the fairest and most practical way of raising revenue; and that all indirect taxes should be abolished. From the philosophes he took their religious skepticism and toleration, their trust in reason and progress, their hope for reform through an enlightened king. If the monarch was a man of intelligence and good will, and would accept philosophy as his guide, this would be a peaceful revolution, far better than a violent and chaotic uprising which might destroy not only old abuses but social order itself. Now this thèse royale of Voltaire was to be put to the test. So thephilosophesjoined with the physiocrats in rejoicing over Turgot’s rise to power.

At Compiègne on August 24, 1774, Turgot went to thank Louis XVI for appointment to the Ministry of Finance. “I give myself not to the king,” he said, “but to the honest man.” Louis, taking Turgot’s hands in his own, replied, “You shall not be deceived.”68That evening the minister sent to the King a letter stating the essentials of his program:

No bankruptcy, either avowed or disguised. . . .

No increase in taxes, the reason for this lying in the condition of your people. . . .

No loans, … because every loan necessitates, at the end of a given time, either bankruptcy or the increase of taxes. . . .

To meet these three points there is but one means. It is to reduce expenditure below revenue, and sufficiently below it to insure each year a saving of twenty millions, to be applied to the redemption of the old debts. Without that, the first gunshot will force the state into bankruptcy.69

(Necker later resorted to loans, and the war of 1778 led France to bankruptcy.)

After noting that the annual revenue of the government was 213,500,000 francs, and the annual expenditure 235,000,000 francs, Turgot ordered various economies, and issued instructions that no payment should be made from the treasury, for any purpose, without his knowledge and consent. He sought to stimulate the economy by establishing, step by step, freedom of enterprise, production, and trade. He began with an attempt to restore agriculture. Usually, to avoid discontent in the cities, the government had controlled the trade in grain, regulating its sale by the farmer to the wholesaler and by the wholesaler to the retailer, and limiting the price of bread. But low prices to the peasant discouraged him from growing more grain, and deterred others from farming; vast cultivable areas of France lay unsown, and the potential wealth of the nation was being checked at its source. The restoration of agriculture seemed to Turgot the first step in reviving France. Freedom of the farmer to sell his grain at whatever price he could get would raise his income, status, and purchasing power, and lift him out of the primitive and bestial life that La Bruyère had described in the heyday of Louis XIV.70

So, on September 13, 1774, Turgot issued through the Royal Council an edict freeing the grain trade everywhere except in Paris, where the urban reaction would be critical. Du Pont de Nemours had written for the edict a preamble explaining its purpose: “To animate and extend the cultivation of the land, whose produce is the most real and certain wealth of the state; to maintain abundance by granaries and the entry of foreign grain; … and to remove monopoly … in favor of full competition.” Such an explanatory preface was itself an innovation, reflecting the rise of public opinion as a political power. Voltaire hailed the edict as the beginning of a new economic era, and predicted that it would soon raise the nation’s prosperity.71 He sent a note to Turgot: “The old invalid of Ferney thanks nature for having made him live long enough to see the decree of September 13, 1774. He presents his respects to the author, and prays for his success.”72

There was an ominous exception to the applause. In the spring of 1775 Jacques Necker, a Swiss banker living in Paris, came to Turgot with a manuscript Sur la L ègislation et le commerce des grains, and asked if it might be published without detriment to the government. Necker’s pamphlet argued that some measure of governmental control over the economy was necessary if the superior cleverness of the few was not to concentrate wealth at one end and intensify poverty at the other. He proposed that if free trade should raise the price of bread beyond a stated figure the government should resume regulation. Turgot, confident in his theories, and favoring freedom of the press, told Necker to publish and let the people judge.73 Necker published.

The city populace did not read him, but it agreed with him. As the price of bread rose in the spring of 1775, riots broke out in several cities. In the districts around Paris, controlling the flow of grain into the capital, men went from town to town, rousing the people to revolt. Armed bands burned down the granges of farmers and merchants and threw the stored grain into the Seine; they tried to prevent imported grain from proceeding from Le Havre to Paris; and on May 2 they led a crowd to the gates of the palace at Versailles. Turgot believed that these bands were employed by the municipal or provincial officials who had lost their posts through the end of regulation, and who aimed to create in Paris a scarcity of grain that would raise the price of bread and compel a return to controlled trade.74 The King appeared on a balcony and tried to speak; the noise of the crowd drowned out his words. He forbade his troops to fire upon the people, and ordered a reduction in the price of bread.

Turgot protested that this interference with the laws of supply and demand would ruin the attempt to test them; he was confident that, if they were left free to operate, the competition among merchants and bakers would soon bring down the price of bread. The King rescinded his order for reducing the price. On May 3 angry crowds gathered in Paris and began to pillage the bakeries. Turgot ordered the Paris militia to protect the bakeries and granaries, and to fire upon any person who offered violence. Meanwhile he saw to it that foreign grain reached Paris and the markets. Monopolists who had held their grain in expectation of high prices were compelled, by this imported competition, to release their stores; the price of bread fell, and the rebellion subsided. Several of its leaders were arrested; two were hanged by order of the police. Turgot emerged victorious from this “Guerre des Farines,” but the King’s faith in laissez-faire had been shaken, and he mourned those two hangings in the Place de Grève.

He was pleased, however, with the reforms that Turgot was effecting in the finances of the government. Only a day after the grain edict the hurried minister began to issue ordinances for economy in state expenditures, for the more efficient collection of taxes, and stricter control of the farmers general; for transferring to the state the hitherto private monopolies in diligences, post carriages, and the manufacture of gunpowder. He proposed, but had no time to establish, a “Caisse d’Escompte,” a bank to discount commercialpaper, receive deposits, make loans, and issue notes payable on presentation; this bank served as a model for the Bank of France organized by Napoleon in 1800. By the end of 1775 Turgot had reduced expenses by 66,000,000 livres, and had lowered the interest on the national debt from 8,700,000 to 3,000,000 livres. The credit of the government was so restored that he was able to borrow 60,000,000 livres from Dutch financiers at four per cent, and so discharge debts on which the treasury had been paying from seven to twelve per cent. He came close to balancing the budget, and he did this not by raising taxes but by lessening corruption, extravagance, incompetence, and waste.

In these and other reforms he received little aid from Maurepas, but much from Chrétien de Malesherbes, whom we have met as protector of the Encyclopédie and Rousseau. Now president of the Cours des Aides (which dealt with indirect taxes), he sent to Louis XVI (May 6, 1775) a memoir—Remontrance— explaining the injustices involved in the collection of taxes by the farmers general, and warning the King of the hatred generated by their operation. He advised a simplification and clarification of the laws; “there are no good laws,” he said, “except simple laws.” The King grew fond of Malesherbes, and made him minister of the King’s Household (July, 1775). The aging liberal urged Louis to support Turgot, but advised Turgot not to attempt too many reforms at once, for each reform would arouse new foes. The Controller General answered, “What would you have me do? The needs of the people are enormous, and in my family we die of gout at fifty.”75

In January, 1776, Turgot startled France with six edicts issued in the name of the King. One extended to Paris the freedom of trade in grain, and ended a multitude of offices connected with that trade; the functionaries so dislodged joined his enemies. Two of the edicts canceled or modified the taxes on cattle and tallow; the peasants rejoiced. Another abolished the corv ée— the twelve or fifteen days of unpaid labor exacted from peasants yearly to maintain bridges, canals, and roads; henceforth this work was to be paid for by a tax upon all non-ecclesiastical property; the peasants rejoiced, the nobles complained. Turgot aroused further resentment by the preamble that he placed in the mouth of the King:

With the exception of a small number of provinces, … nearly all the roads of the kingdom have been built by the unpaid labor of the poorest part of our subjects. The whole burden has therefore fallen on those who have nothing but their hands and are interested only in a very secondary degree in the roads; those really interested are the landowners, almost all of them privileged persons, the value of whose property is increased by the roads. When the poor man alone is forced to maintain these roads, when he is forced to give his time and his work without pay, the only resource he has against misery and hunger is taken from him to make him work for the profit of the rich.76

When the Paris Parlement indicated that it would refuse to register this edict, Turgot almost proclaimed class war:

While as unfriendly .to despotism as ever, I shall say constantly to the King, to the Parlement, and, if necessary, to the whole nation, that this is one of those matters that must be decided by the absolute will of the King, and for this reason: at bottom this is a lawsuit between the rich and the poor. Now, of what is the Parlement made up? Of men wealthy as compared with the masses, and all noble, since their offices carry nobility. The court, whose clamor is so powerful—of what is it composed? Of great lords, the majority of whom own estates that will be subject to the tax. … Consequently neither the remonstrance of the Parlement … nor even the clamor of the court should in any wise prejudice the case.... So long as the people shall have no voice in the parlements the King, after hearing these, must judge for himself, and he must judge in favor of the people, for this class is the most unhappy.77

The last of the six edicts abolished the guilds. These had become an aristocracy of labor, for they controlled nearly all the crafts, they limited admission by requiring high entrance fees, and they still further restricted eligibility to mastership. They obstructed invention, and hampered trade by tolls or embargoes on competitive products entering their commune. The rising class of entrepreneurs—men who supplied initiative, capital, and organization, but demanded liberty to hire any worker, whether guildsman or not, and to sell their wares in any market they could reach—denounced the guilds as monopolies in restraint of trade; and Turgot, anxious to promote industrial development by freeing invention, enterprise, and commerce, felt that the national economy would benefit by the suppression of the guilds. The preamble of this edict read, in part:

In almost all towns the exercise of the different arts and trades was centered in the hands of a small number of masters united in guilds, who alone had the freedom to manufacture and sell the articles of the particular industry of which they had the exclusive privilege. He who devoted himself to any part or trade could not exercise it freely until after attaining the mastership, to which he could be admitted only by submitting to long, tedious, and superfluous tasks, and at the cost of multiplied exactions depriving him of a part of the capital requisite for establishing a business or for fitting up a workshop. Those who could not afford these expenses were reduced to a precarious existence under the sway of the masters, with no choice but to live in penury, … or to carry to some foreign land an industry that might have been useful to their country.78

So far as we know, these charges against the guilds were justified. But Turgot went on to prohibit all masters, journeymen, and apprentices from forming any union or association.79 He believed completely in freedom of enterprise and trade, and did not foresee that the right of organization might be the only means by which the workers could pool their individual weakness into a collective strength capable of bargaining with organized employers. He felt that in the long run all classes would benefit by the liberation of the businessman from feudal, guild, and governmental restraints on enterprise. All persons in France—even foreigners—were declared free to engage in any industry or trade.

On February 9, 1776, the six edicts were submitted to the Paris Parlement. It agreed to only one, which abolished certain minor offices; it refused to approve or register the rest, and it especially opposed, as an infringement of feudal rights,80 the ending of thecorvée. By this vote the Parlement, which had professed to protect the people against the king, declared itself the ally and voice of the nobility. Voltaire entered the lists with a pamphlet attacking the corvée and the Parlement and supporting Turgot; Parlement ordered the pamphlet suppressed. Some of the King’s ministers defended the Parlement; Louis, in a moment of fortitude, rebuked them, saying, “I see well that there is no one here but Monsieur Turgot and myself who love the people.”81 On March 12 he summoned the Parlement to a “bed of justice” at Versailles, and ordered it to register the edicts. Parades of workingmen celebrated Turgot’s victory.

Exhausted by repeated crises, the Controller General slowed his revolution. When he extended freedom of internal trade to the wine industry (April, 1776) only the monopolists complained. He urged the King to establish religious liberty. He instructed Du Pont de Nemours to draw up a plan for electoral assemblies in each parish, chosen by men who owned land to the value of six hundred livres or more; these local assemblies would elect representatives to a cantonal assembly, which would elect representatives to a provincial assembly, which would elect deputies to a national assembly. Believing that France was not ready for democracy, Turgot proposed to give these assemblies only advisory and administrative functions; legislative power would remain solely in the king; but through these assemblies the ruler would be informed of the condition and needs of the realm. Turgot also offered the King a sketch of universal education as the necessary prelude to an enlightened citizenship. “Sire,” he said, “I venture to assert that in two years your nation will no longer be recognizable, and through enlightenment and good morals … it will rise above all other states.”82 The minister had no time, the King had no money, to bring these ideas to fulfillment.

Turgot’s edicts—and their preambles—had inflamed all the influential classes against him except the merchants and manufacturers, who flourished in the new freedom. Actually he was attempting to bring about peaceably that emancipation of the businessman which was the basic economic result of the Revolution. Yet some merchants secretly opposed him because he had interfered with their monopolies. The nobility opposed him because he wished to put all taxes upon the land, and was setting the poor against the rich. The Parlement hated him for persuading the King to override its vetoes. The clergy distrusted him as an unbeliever who rarely went to Mass and was advocating religious liberty. The farmers general fought him because he wished to replace them with governmental agents in collecting indirect taxes. Financiers resented his getting loans from abroad at four per cent. Courtiers disliked him because he frowned upon their extravagance, their pensions, and their sinecures. Maurepas, his superior in the ministry, looked with no pleasure upon the growing power and independence of the Controller General of Finance. “Turgot,” wrote the Swedish ambassador, “finds himself the butt of a most formidable coalition.”83.

Marie Antoinette had at first favored Turgot, and had tried to adjust her expenditures to his economies. But soon she resumed (till 1777) her extravagances in gowns and gifts. Turgot did not conceal his dismay at her drafts upon the treasury. To please the Polignacs the Queen had secured the appointment of their friend the Comte de Guines to the French embassy in London; there he engaged in questionable financial dealings; Turgot joined Vergennes in advising the King to recall him; the Queen vowed revenge.

Louis XVI had his own reasons for losing confidence in his revolutionary minister. The King respected the Church, the nobility, even the parlements; these institutions had been mortised in tradition and sanctified by time; to disturb them was to loosen the foundations of the state; but Turgot had alienated them all. Could Turgot be right and all the others wrong? Louis secretly complained about his minister: “Only his friends have merit, and only his own ideas are good.”84 Almost daily the Queen or a courtier sought to influence him against the Controller. When Turgot appealed to him to resist these pressures and Louis made no answer, Turgot returned to his home and wrote to the King (April 30, 1776) a letter that sealed his own fate:

SIRE:

I will not conceal from you the fact that my heart is deeply wounded by your Majesty’s silence last Sunday.... So long as I could hope to retain your Majesty’s esteem by doing right, nothing was too hard for me. Today what is my recompense? Your Majesty sees how impossible it is for me to make head against those who injure me by the evil they do me, and by the good they keep me from doing by thwarting all my measures; yet your Majesty gives me neither aid nor consolation.... I venture to say, Sire, that I have not deserved this. . . .

Your Majesty … has pleaded the lack of experience. I know that at the age of twenty-two, and in your position, you have not the training in the judging of men which private individuals obtain from habitual association with equals; but will you have more experience in a week, in a month? And is your mind not to be made up until this slow experience has come? . . .

Sire, I owe to M. Maurepas the place your Majesty has given me; never shall I forget it, never shall I be wanting in due deference to him. … But, Sire, do you know how weak is the character of M. de Maurepas?—how much he is governed by the ideas of those around him? Everyone knows that Mme. de Maurepas, who has infinitely less mind but much more character, constantly inspires his will.... It is this weakness that moves him to fall in so readily with the clamor of the court against me, and that deprives me of almost all power in my department. . . .

Forget not, Sire, that it was weakness that brought to the block the head of Charles I, … that made Louis XIII a crowned slave, … and that brought about all the misfortunes of the last reign. Sire, you are deemed weak, and upon occasion I have feared lest your character had this defect; nevertheless I have seen you, upon other more difficult occasions, exhibit genuine courage. … Your Majesty cannot, without being untrue to yourself, yield out of complaisance for M. de Maurepas. . . ,85

To this letter the King made no reply. He felt that now he had to choose between Maurepas and Turgot, and that Turgot was asking almost complete submission of the government to his own will. On May 12, 1776, he sent Turgot an order to resign. On the same day, yielding to the Queen and the Polignacs, he made the Comte de Guines a duke. Malesherbes, hearing of Turgot’s removal, handed in his own resignation. “You are a fortunate man,” Louis told him; “would that I too could leave my post.”86 Soon most of Turgot’s appointees were discharged. Maria Theresa was shocked by these developments, and agreed with Frederick and Voltaire that the fall of Turgot presaged the collapse of France;87 she deplored the part that her daughter had played in the matter, and would not believe the Queen’s disclaimer of responsibility. Voltaire wrote to Laharpe: “Nothing is left for me but to die, now that M. Turgot has gone.”88

After his dismissal Turgot lived quietly in Paris, studying mathematics, physics, chemistry, and anatomy. He often saw Franklin, and wrote for him a Mémoire sur l’impôt. His gout became so severe that after 1778 he walked only with crutches. He died on March 18, 1781, after years of pain and disappointment. He could not foresee that the nineteenth century would accept and implement most of his ideas. Malesherbes summed him up lovingly: “He had the head of Francis Bacon and the heart of L’Hôpital.”89

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