Modern history


War had always been the most expensive item in any European monarch’s pocket-book. The early seventeenth century had inaugurated an arms race amongst the main European powers which continued down to the late eighteenth century. France’s army grew from an earlier maximum of 50,000 men to a standing force of a quarter of a million towards the end of the seventeenth century, and around 400,000 during the War of Spanish Succession. Admission to the club of the great powers was thus very costly – especially if, as was the case with a would-be great nation such as France, one also wanted a powerful navy.

As with its civil administration, the state sought to reduce military overheads by alienating government functions to underlings. Thus, regimental commands in the army were – as with the judiciary or the financial bureaucracy – venal posts, which were purchased, bequeathed and sold among the nobility. This meant that anyone without an impressive noble pedigree found it difficult to get on in the army. In the last years of Louis XIV, around one officer in fourteen had been a commoner – yet for most of the eighteenth century the figure hovered around one in a hundred. The financial stakes were so high that even many country gentlemen of ancient noble stock felt themselves excluded. It was to palliate such individuals that Louis created the École militaire in Paris in 1751, in which 500 scholarships were designated for noblemen able to prove four degrees of noble status.

The crown expected the aristocratic officers not only to equip themselves but also to handle recruitment. Normally, proprietary colonels handed this responsibility over to semi-professional recruiting sergeants, who developed a range of recruiting techniques from bribery and corruption through to press-gang violence. Soldiers tended to be seen as desperadoes, butchers and villains, and this image was to a certain extent self-confirming: the army ended up as a refuge for social outcasts (including, interestingly, a disproportionate number of Protestants, for the army was one of the few careers in which they were not systematically disadvantaged), vagrants and the mentally unstable. Areas near to the northern and eastern land frontiers produced fair numbers of recruits, but the south and west were rather recalcitrant. Breton recruits were notorious for suffering from la nostalgie – a mortiferous form of homesickness. Where regimental recruiting-sergeants failed to produce the goods, foreigners filled the gap. At mid-century, around a quarter of the army was non-French, with the Swiss and the Germans producing the largest contingents, followed at some distance by Italians (including Corsicans), Irish, Hungarians and others. A final fall-back was the militia. Abolished in the aftermath of Utrecht, then re-established in 1726, the militia was not a frontline battlefield arm, though in time of war militia-men could be called up as ancillary forces. Men in each parish drew by lot for service – a few, bitterly resented, days of military training each year.

Despite the continued resort to the farming-out of many essential functions, the state was also taking a growing part in the arming, supply, training and sustenance of its armies. In 1717, the government decreed the use throughout the army of a single type of musket, and from 1727 took over from its colonels the task of supplying arms. Decent bread, meat, wine and clothing rations supplied from state-run storehouses now provided the soldier’s wherewithal. State welfare services too – military hospitals, regimental surgeons, and so on – were developed so as to conserve the state’s investment in human capital. The state also played a greater, and increasingly expensive, role in the training of its troops. The shift on Europe’s battlefields to linear battle formations in broadly disposed ranks three to four men deep required high levels of military discipline. Governments sought to inculcate it through the drillground and in military exercises: Frederick the Great of Prussia reckoned it took five years of such training before a soldier could be committed to the frontline without flinching. Frontal fire in these massive new armies was spectacularly deadly too, so that commanders were inclined to conduct ‘petticoat wars’ (la guerre en dentelle), preferring siege and manoeuvre, marches and counter-marches, to committing expensive troops to immolation in battle. Most generals took pains to evade face-to-face conflict if at all possible, and to campaign in ways which placed attritional strain on their opponent’s ability to pay for keeping troops mobilized. ‘The masterpiece of an able general’, Frederick the Great held, ‘is to make his enemy go hungry,’ while the marshal de Saxe was perhaps exaggerating but not entirely joking when he remarked that the sign of truly great generalship was to go through one’s entire career without having to fight a single pitched battle.19

No commander worth his salt allowed his men to forage for themselves. This would risk raising the already very high incidence of desertion to unacceptable levels, and, through gratuitous looting, damaging the tax-paying capability of the civilian population. Rather than living off the land at the population’s expense, armies were increasingly provisioned from state-run supply systems, and, in order to keep discipline intact, commanders endeavoured to keep their troops as insulated from the rest of the population as they could: there was a drive from 1719 onwards to house troops in barracks where they could be kept out of harm’s way and subjected to round-the-clock discipline. By 1742, some 300 localities had military barracks.

The relative cost of security was thus higher in the eighteenth century than before, partly because changes in the conduct of war and the composition of the army were making fighting soldiers a weightier investment than in the previous century. A further dimension to the problem was the extension of the European arms race to navies as well as armies. If France was serious about containing, let alone combating the commercial strength of England and the United Provinces and maintaining the status of the greatest of the great powers, it needed a strong navy. The French had made an enormous investment in naval forces in the seventeenth century, but there was no French ship-building worth speaking of over most of the War of Spanish Succession. The Regent, then Fleury, were not of a mind to commit scarce resources in this direction, so that France accepted the de facto superiority of the Royal Navy – which made the costs even higher once the government determined, in the 1740s, to reinvest in naval might.

The European arms race, military and naval, meant that it was very expensive for the French state merely to keep the sinews of war duly toned in conditions of general peace. The armed forces remained the major item on which the state spent its revenues. They towered over other items of state expenditure – including court festivities and pensions, which remained rather meagre in comparison, despite the switch from the stinginess of Fleury to the prodigality of Pompadour. In the late 1720s, with the John Law episode over, upkeep of the armed forces cost the state 65 million livres (the army took 57 million, the navy 8 million) – around one-third of a total spend of 182.3 million. Yet a further one-third (61 million) out of the latter sum represented debts contracted for the most part in Louis XIV’s wars. By 1751, following the War of Austrian Succession (which cost roughly 1,000 million livres), the figures for the armed forces were 105.7 million (army 76.9; navy 26.8) out of a total of 256.3 million – and debt service had risen to 71.8 million. Thus, between the advent of Fleury and the aftermath of the War of Austrian Succession, overall state peacetime expenditure increased by over one-third. The share of the armed forces (especially as a result of the naval build-up) in total government spend remained extremely high.

Analysis of state expenditure down to the early 1750s thus suggests not only a growth in war-driven expenditure, but also a tendency, detectable in the rising proportion of expenditure devoted to debt service, for regular state income not to cover expenses except by borrowing. The bulk of regular royal income derived from a bewildering array of taxes. Since 1439, French kings had had the right to impose direct taxes on their population. In 1726, such levies accounted for roughly half of state income (88.8 million livres out of 181.0 million), and in 1751, proportionately, slightly less (116.6 million from 258.5 million). The main royal tax was the taille, a tax on landed wealth, distributed among the généralités and assessed and levied in a variety of ways, and it was supplemented by a range of other direct taxes (taillon, supplément d’hiver, etc.) paid according to the same schedules. Most French provinces were administratively classified as pays d’élections, which meant that these direct taxes were collected through royal tax officials, theélus, under the supervision of the local Intendants. But the pays d’états had retained local assemblies, which negotiated with the crown a contract for the collection and payment of an agreed sum. This arrangement favoured the pays d’état, whose relative tax burden was rather low. The same was true of the other major grouping to negotiate its tax liability in this way, namely the clergy, whose don gratuit (‘free gift’) made to the royal treasury, in return for the legal fiction of tax immunity, was a pitifully small proportion of their total wealth.

The theoretically universal obligation to pay royal taxes was thus shot through with arbitrariness and variability. In the areas classified as pays de taille personnelle, assessment was on the appearances of personal wealth, as estimated by local collectors – but only commoners paid. In the areas of so-called taille réelle (in the south, in particular), privilege attached to property rather than persons: assessment was based on usually out-of-date land surveys, and property therein classified as ‘noble land’ was exempted from tax (even if owned by a commoner). If the nobles, the clergy and the pays d’état were the most fiscally protected social groupings, other corporative bodies also enjoyed tax immunities. Most major cities, for example, were exempted from paying the taille. In addition, powerful individuals were able to use their social influence and patronage links to reduce their tax liability. The capitation, or poll-tax, for example, which had started out in 1695 as a tax on revenue applicable to all classes, soon became merely an adjunct to thetaille, and was widely ignored, especially among the nobility. Tax-evasion was a quintessentially aristocratic point of honour – but one which all social groups aspired to emulate.

The ways in which direct taxes were assessed and levied made them notoriously inelastic. Though the clergy and provincial estates could be pressurized into paying more in time of war, it was always difficult to squeeze extra moneys swiftly out of the tailleandcapitation. From the War of Spanish Succession onwards, the crown was obliged periodically to resort to emergency taxes on income rather than property. From 1710 to 1716 this had been the dixième – a 10 per cent tax – but a ‘twentieth tax’, or vingtième, was levied on top of the customary taxes from 1733 to 1737 to finance the War of Polish Succession and between 1741 and 1749 to cover the cost of the War of Austrian Succession. These demands were extremely unpopular – though in fact the light-handed system of self-assessment still left the door open to massive under-estimations of tax liability.

Eighteenth-century monarchs were less heavily dependent on direct tax income than their predecessors, since they were able to rely on indirect taxes bringing in a solid, and growing, ancillary income. Indirect tax revenue grew from 88.6 to 116.6 million livres between 1726 and 1751 (while income from direct taxes progressed, roughly proportionately, from 79.9 to 109.0 million). There was as little uniformity in the enforcement of indirect as there was in direct taxes. Salt, for example, was a state monopoly, and the tax on it – the much-detested gabelle – was levied at six different levels in the various regions, producing a sense of social outrage and a propensity to smuggling and black-marketeering in equal measure. While certain small enclaves, usually close to the coast, were totally exempt from the tax, a number of provinces had redeemed part of their obligations in the past and paid at a lower rate than the so-called pays de grande gabelle, which covered most of northern France. There were equally flagrant anomalies and exemptions as regards the other main indirect taxes, the aides (covering drinks, meat, fish, metals, oils, soap, paper, etc.) and the traites (which covered taxes on internal circulation and movement of goods and operated largely through tolls). Since 1726, the collection ofgabelle, aides and traites, along with the tax on tobacco (which was a lucrative royal monopoly) and a number of other fiscal dues, was placed in the hands of the ‘General Farm’, or Ferme générale, a company of some forty wealthy private financiers. Every six years, the Farmers General negotiated the collection franchise with the crown, aiming to set the price at a level which guaranteed themselves a profit over and above the costs of collection and the annual payment to the royal treasury. It was widely believed that the first such contracts massively favoured the Farmers General. The latter’s often draconian efforts to compel payment from the population at large through an army of excise-men – they employed some 30,000 individuals overall – won thegabelous never-failing popular hatred, and smugglers never-ending support.

One of the most striking characteristics of the royal tax system, reaffirmed after the failure of John Law’s System, was the extent to which the crown was willing to outsource its putatively ‘absolute’ power in this domain to a range of privileged social groupings (rather than seek to rely on a single credit source as had been attempted so catastrophically under Law). While the private company of Farmers General looked after indirect taxes, direct taxes were alienated either to privileged corporative groupings such as the clergy and the pays d’état, or else placed in the hands of financial officials who had purchased their posts. Though the sale of venal offices in the state administration never reached the salad days of the early seventeenth century (when they had accounted for nearly half of state income) or the wars of Louis XIV, it comprised a solid alternative means of raising revenue when times were hard. There were 50,000 venal offices or more for most of the century, roughly 4,000 of which ennobled their owners.

Over the century, these administrative practices began to be vociferously criticized for administrative and financial inefficiency. Yet it was a system which had advantages for those skilled enough to understand its intricacies. A particular advantage was that it allowed the state to tap the income and the credit of the most wealthy groups within society – precisely those who were most effective in evading direct taxation. Corporative bodies like the General Farm as well as certain categories of venal office-holders – as well as the clergy, the pays d’état and major municipalities – could, for example, be inveigled into arranging loans for the crown. (The cost of the state borrowing in its own name might require double the interest rate involved.) Furthermore, tax farming, for example, kept administrative overheads remarkably low, and supplied the state with tax revenue even before the tax was collected. It was not only the sale of offices, but also the manipulation of the terms of office ownership which offered extractive possibilities. Thus at the heart of the financial maelstrom of 1714, the government had ordered all salaries to venal officers to be reduced from 5 to 4 per cent of their nominal value. Thus again, at the outbreak of the War of Polish Succession in 1733, Orry decreed the venality of municipal officials, and in 1743, as the costs of the War of Austrian Succession were rising, established the heredity of notaries, attorneys and court ushers – at a price. The government was not above using such veiled extortion either in discussions with the Farmers General at the moment of their six-year negotiation over the terms of the extension of their lease on indirect tax-farmers. As they bargained with the state over raising their annual contribution to the state treasury from 92 million livres (in the period from 1744 to 1750) to 101.1 million for the period down to 1756, the Farmers General proffered outright gifts of 2 million livres to the princesse de Conti, 2.4 million to Madame de Pompadour, and 0.3 million to Controller-General Machault. With venality, outright corruption was rarely far away.

That the arcane system could be made to work effectively was underlined by the achievement of Orry, Controller-General from 1730 to 1745, in balancing the accounts in 1739–40 – an event worthy of record in the annals of royal finance. Yet its intricacies made the task of financial management extremely fraught, even at the best of times. Orry’s successor, Machault d’Arnouville, in place from 1745 to 1754, was prudent, but his task was made very difficult by the heavy cost of the War of Austrian Succession, compounded with the general feeling of dissatisfaction which the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle had produced. A tough-minded administrator whom service as an Intendant had fashioned into an ultra-loyal crown servant, Machault determined to seize the opportunity for introducing more structural financial reform, namely, a new universal direct tax on income. In May 1749, he announced that from January 1750 the dixième (or two vingtièmes) put in place in 1741 for the duration of the war would be replaced by a less onerous single vingtième– effectively a 5 per cent rather than a 10 per cent levy on incomes – revenue for which would go into a special fund to help pay off the national debt. But there was little spirit of generosity implicit in this reduction: for the tax was given no terminal end-point, and it was declared that it would be levied throughout France not by the customary venal fiscal officers but by new tax officials responsible to the Intendants, who were empowered to ask for justification of individual tax declarations. It was thus hoped that the tax, even though levied at half the rate of the dixième, would actually produce more revenue for the royal exchequer.

The secrecy in which the royal finances were immired meant that the government was unable to demonstrate the fiscal prudence of this measure. In addition, the vingtième seemed constitutionally dubious. The medieval tradition of the king ‘living off his own’ survived only as a pious wish by the eighteenth century: the royal domain accounted for only a few per cent of the state’s regular income. Yet even so, there was a widespread feeling that extraordinary state demands were only justified by the extraordinary state of war. The attempt in 1725 by the duc de Bourbon to levy a cinquantième (a 2 per cent tax on incomes) in time of peace had created the political furore which led to his disgrace and dismissal. In 1749, Machault, dubbed Tête de fer (‘Iron-Head’), tried hard to live up to the sobriquet in facing down protests against the vingtième emanating from many provincial parlements as well as the Parisian body. Squeals of protest were also heard soon enough from two other groupings which enjoyed extensive financial privileges, namely, the clergy and the provincial estates. The Assembly of the Clergy in June 1750 set in motion an orchestrated campaign in defence of the church’s traditional immunity from tax obligations over and above the legal fiction of the don gratuit. The Assembly’s wish to make a constitutional issue as well as a moral dilemma out of the reform (one bishop even comparing the church’s situation to that of Thomas á Becket) was echoed when provincial estates in the pays d’état joined the fray, notably in Languedoc, where local bishops held the whip hand. Machault, however, combined the support of the king (who added the post of Keeper of the Seals to his Controller-General’s portfolio in December 1750) with support from the Pompadour lobby, which disliked the way in which the church’s case was winning favour with the dévot grouping clustering around the queen. The Controller-General sent the members of the Assembly of Clergy off packing to their dioceses, and dissolved the Languedoc Estates (who did not meet again down to 1752). Nor did he shirk from taking his case on to the field of public opinion which the privileged orders were seeking to agitate: he hired pamphleteers (including Voltaire) to mock the church’s arguments.

In the event, despite the running which Machault had made in both consolidating royal authority and in widening the state’s tax base, Louis XV would manage to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory. The strong government position which Machault had achieved was frittered away as a consequence of neither financial crisis nor court faction, but as a result of the resurgence of the Jansenism in the so-called billets de confession (confession certificates) affair. In December 1751, the king-against Machault’s better judgement – caved in to the Assembly of the Clergy’s plea to be exempt from the vingtième, so that the government and church were singing from the same hymnsheet as they girt their loins for a renewal of the the Jansenist struggle.20 The episode highlighted the fact that in the absolutist polity, a strong financial position was always hostage to the vagaries of the government’s political fortunes.

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