On November 10, 1783, the King appointed Charles-Alexandre de Calonne controller general of finance. Calonne had served successfully as intendant at Metz and Lille and had earned repute for engaging manners, buoyant spirits, and monetary skill—though he himself, like the government that he was called to rescue, was hopelessly in debt.17 He found only 360,000 francs in the treasury, against a floating debt of 646,000,000, increasing by fifty million francs a year. Like Necker he decided against additional taxation, fearing that this would arouse revolt and depress the economy; instead he negotiated a lottery, which brought in a hundred million livres. He appealed to the clergy, and won from it a don gratuit of eighteen million livres on his promise to suppress Beaumarchais’ edition of Voltaire. He reminted the gold coins, making a profit of fifty million for the treasury. He borrowed 125,000,000 from the bankers. Hoping to stimulate business, he allotted great sums for city sanitation and the improvement of roads, canals, and harbors; Le Havre, Dunkirk, Dieppe, and La Rochelle benefited; the great docks at Cherbourg began. On the theory that a government must always put up a prosperous front, he allocated funds readily to courtiers, and asked no questions about the expenses of the King’s brothers and the Queen. The King himself, despite good intentions, allowed the outlay for his household to rise from 4,600,000 livres in 1775 to 6,200,000 in 1787.18
The more Calonne spent, the more he borrowed; the more he borrowed, the more interest had to be paid on the debt. In August, 1786, he confessed to the bewildered King that all expedients had been exhausted, that the national debt and the annual deficit were greater than ever, and that only the extension of taxation in the nobility and the clergy could save the government from financial disaster. Knowing that the Paris Parlement, now in undisguised alliance with the nobility of the sword, would resist this suggestion, he proposed that a group of distinguished men, to be chosen by him from all three classes throughout France, be summoned to Versailles to consult for the financial salvation of the state. The King agreed.
The Assembly of Notables convened on February 22, 1787: forty-six nobles, eleven ecclesiastics, twelve members of the Royal Council, thirty-eight magistrates, twelve deputies from the pays d’état (regions enjoying special privileges), and twenty-five municipal officials; 144 in all. Calonne addressed them with courageous candor about abuses which, however deeply rooted in time and prejudice, must be abolished because “they bear heavily upon the most productive and laborious class.” He condemned the general inequality of subsidies, and “the enormous disproportion in the contributions of different provinces and subjects of one same sovereign.”19 He expounded proposals more radical than Turgot’s, and presented them as having been approved by the King. Had they been adopted they might have averted the Revolution. Some of them, carried over from Turgot, were accepted by the Notables: a reduction in the salt tax, the removal of tolls on internal commerce, the restoration of free trade in grains, the establishment of provincial assemblies, and an end to the corvée. But his request for a new and universal tax on land was rejected. The noble and ecclesiastical members argued that this subvention territoriale would require a survey of all land, and a census of all landowners, in France; this would take a year, and could have no effect on the current crisis.
Calonne appealed to the people by publishing his speeches; neither the nobles nor the clergy relished this resort to public opinion. The Assembly retaliated by demanding from Calonne a full account of revenues and expenditures during his ministry. He refused to comply, knowing that a revelation of his methods and outlays would ruin him. The Assembly insisted that economy in expenditures was more needed than a revision of the tax structure; moreover, it questioned its authority to establish a new system of taxation; such authority belonged only to a States-General (États Généraux—i.e., a national conference of deputies chosen by the three états, or classes). No such meeting had been called since 1614.
Lafayette, one of the Notables, approved most of Calonne’s proposals, but distrusted the man. He accused Calonne of having sold some of the royal lands without the King’s knowledge; Calonne challenged him to prove the charge; Lafayette proved it.20 Louis XVI had resented Calonne’s appeal to the public over the heads of the government; he realized, from a succession of disclosures, that Calonne had deceived him about the condition of the treasury, and he saw that he could get no co-operation from the Notables as long as Calonne was controller. When Calonne asked for the dismissal of his critic the Baron de Breteuil, who was a personal friend of Marie Antoinette, she advised the King to dismiss Calonne instead. Wearied with the turmoil, he took her advice (April 8, 1787). Calonne, learning that the Parlement of Paris was planning to investigate his administration and his private affairs, decamped to England. On April 23 Louis sought to appease the Notables by promising governmental economies, and publicity of state finances. On May 1, again on the advice of the Queen, he appointed one of the Notables to be chief of the Council of Finance.