VI. NECKER’S FIRST MINISTRY: 1776-81

Turgot was succeeded as controller of finances by Clugny de Nuis, who re-established the corvée and many guilds, and did not enforce the grain edicts. The Dutch bankers canceled their agreement to lend France sixty million livres at four per cent; and the new minister discovered no better way of luring money into the treasury than by establishing a national lottery (June 30, 1776). When Clugny died (October), the bankers of Paris persuaded the King to call to his service the man who had been the ablest critic of Turgot.

Jacques Necker was a Protestant, born at Geneva in 1732. His father, professor of law in the Geneva Academy, sent him to Paris to work as a clerk in the bank of Isaac Vernet. When Vernet retired he advanced some funds to Necker to start a bank of his own. Necker pooled his resources with another Swiss; they prospered through loans to the government and speculation in grains. At the age of thirty-two Necker was rich, dignified, and unmarried. His desire now was not for more wealth but for high place, a chance for distinguished service and national renown. For this he needed a wife and a home as a point d’appui, or base of operations. He courted the widowed Marquise de Vermenoux; she refused him, but brought from Geneva the pretty and talented, Suzanne Curchod, who had recently escaped marriage with Edward Gibbon. Necker fell in love with Suzanne, and married her in 1764. Their mutual devotion through an eventful life is one of the bright colors in the kaleidoscope of that troubled age. They made a home over his bank, and there she opened a salon (1765) to which she invited writers and men of affairs, hoping that these friendships would smooth and illuminate her husband’s way.

Necker himself itched to write. He began in 1773 with an Éloge de Colbert, which was crowned by the French Academy. Now he retired from business, and entered the political fray with that essay Sur la Législation des grains which countered Turgot’s policy oflaissez-faire. The little book won praise from Diderot, who may have relished a paragraph in which the banker (who had read Rousseau) spoke like a socialist. Necker assailed

the power of the owning class, in exchange for labor, to pay the lowest possible wage, that which merely suffices for strict necessaries. … Almost all civil institutions have been made by property owners. One might say that a small number of men, having divided the earth among themselves, made laws as a union and guarantee against the multitude. … The latter could say: “Of what import to us are your laws of property?—we have no property; or your laws of justice?—we have nothing to defend; or of liberty?—if we do not work tomorrow we shall die!”90

On October 22, 1776, on Maurepas’ recommendation, Louis XVI appointed Necker “director of the Royal Treasury.” It was an apologetic appellation. Some prelates protested against letting a Swiss Protestant rule the nation’s money; Maurepas replied, “If the clergy will pay the debts of the state they can share in choosing the ministers.”91 To cover the reality a French Catholic, Taboureau de Réau, was made controller general of finance as formally Necker’s superior. Clerical opposition subsided as Necker made his piety conspicuous. On June 29, 1777, Taboureau resigned, and Necker was named director general of finance. He refused any salary; on the contrary, he lent to the treasury two million livres of his own.92 He was still denied the title of minister, and was not admitted to the Royal Council.

He did well within the limits of his character and his power. He had been trained to deal with problems of banking rather than of state; he could multiply money more successfully than he could manage men. In the financial administration he established better order, accountability, and economy; he abolished over five hundred sinecures and superfluous posts. Having the confidence of the financial community, he was able to float loans that brought to the treasury 148,000,000 livres within a year. He promoted some minor reforms, reducing inequities in taxation, improving hospitals, and organizing pawnshops to lend money to the poor at low interest. He continued Turgot’s endeavors to check the expenditures of the court, the King’s household, and the Queen. The collection of indirect taxes was restored to the farmers general (1780), but Necker reduced their number, and subjected them to sharper scrutiny and control. He prevailed upon Louis XVI to allow the establishment of provincial assemblies in Berry, Grenoble, and Montauban, and he set an important precedent by arranging that in these gatherings the representatives of the Third Estate (the middle and lower classes) should equal those of the nobility and the clergy combined. The King, however, chose the members of these assemblies, and allowed them no legislative authority. Necker won a substantial victory by inducing the King to free all remaining serfs on the royal domain, and to invite all feudal lords to do likewise. When they refused, Necker advised Louis to abolish all serfdom in France, with indemnities to the masters, but the King, imprisoned in his traditions, replied that-property rights were too basic an institution to be annulled by a decree.93 In 1780, again on Necker’s prompting, he ordered an end to judicial torture, the disuse of subterranean prisons, and the separation of prisoners duly convicted of crimes from those not yet tried, and both of these groups from those arrested for debt. These and other achievements of Necker’s first ministry deserve more acknowledgment than they have generally received. If we ask why he did not cut deeper and faster, we should remember that Turgot had been censured for going too fast and making too many simultaneous enemies. Necker was criticized for floating loans instead of raising taxes, but he felt that the people had been taxed enough.

Mme. Campan, always close to the developing drama, summarized well the attitude of the King to his ministers: “Turgot, Malesherbes, and Necker judged that this prince, modest and simple in his habits, would willingly sacrifice the royal prerogative to the solid greatness of his people. His heart disposed him to reform, but his prejudices and fears, and the clamor of pious and privileged persons, intimidated him, and made him abandon plans which his love for the people had suggested.”94 Yet he dared to say, in a public proclamation (1780) probably prepared by Necker, that “the taxes of the poorest part of our subjects” had “increased in proportion much more than all the rest,” and he expressed his “hopes that rich people will not think themselves wronged when, put back to the general level [of taxation], they will have to meet the charges which long since they should have shared more equally with others.”95 He shuddered at the thought of Voltaire, but his liberal spirit, unwittingly, had been formed by the work that Voltaire, Rousseau, and the philosophes in general had done to expose old abuses and to stir to new life the humanitarian sentiments formerly associated with Christianity. In this first half of his reign Louis XVI began reforms which, if continued and gradually expanded, might have averted revolution. And it was under this weak king that France, despoiled and humiliated by England under his predecessors, struck boldly and with success at proud Britain, and, in the process, helped to free America.

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