Charles-Alexandre de Calonne 1734-1802
Charles-Alexandre de Calonne 1734-1802

Paving the Way to the French Revolution

National Debt

Assembly of Notables

Estates General

 National Assembly

These are the French mile markers of the three years (August 1786 to June 1789) prior to the Revolution.

And Calonne was much involved in getting this chain of events underway.


Image Above
Charles-Alexandre de Calonne by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1784

Royal Collection London

In a nutshell, Calonne's struggle to lower the country's debts was flawed by insufficient counteractions.

By the time Calonne was fired, he had already pushed the Jeannie out of the bottle by bringing the country's important men together (1787, see Assembly of Notables) and telling them that the King, although broke for years, was still living in style and spunky enough to impose new taxes.

The Notables referred the issue to the Estates General, and soon after the King was nodding his head for the final time.

And so, unintentionally, Calonne was paving the way for the French Revolution.

Calonne paving away


Charles-Alexandre Calonne's Life and Career

Calonne was born on January 20, 1734 at Douai, located three car hours north of Paris, France.

At the time of Calonne's birth, Louis XV ruled France, and the War of the Polish Succession raged. France cared, because Louis was married to Maria Karolina, the daughter of the Polish king.

Back to Calonne's career.

In 1766, he became intendant* of the généralité of Metz.

In 1774, King Louis XV died and his grandson became King Louis XVI.

In 1778, Calonne became intendant* of the généralité of Lille.

(Intendant at Metz and Lille: Not 1768 / 1774 / 1788.
See Biographie du Parlement de Metz by Emmanuel Michel, 1855.)

Calonne resume


* What on earth is an intendant?

In France under the ancien régime, a royal official with great powers. Intendants were planted sparingly across the country acting respectively as the King's eye, index or middle finger — a system lovingly embraced by any tyrant.

These intendants were also called Intendants of Justice, Police, and Finance.

Here is a map:

Map of the Généralités or Intendancies, France in 1789
Map of the Généralités or Intendancies, France in 1789
Click to enlarge.


Chief of Finances

Louis XVI appointed Calonne contrôleur général des finances or controller general of finances on November 3, 1783.

The pressing issue of the State's empty pockets was now Calonne's problem.

Incidentally, on the same day, at New York:

Disbanding the Continental Army at New Windsor, New York, November 3, 1783
Disbanding the Continental Army at New Windsor, New York, November 3, 1783
Library of Congress

The American Revolution had ended on September 3, 1783.

One month after the conclusion of this war, and after a successful French participation, it was up to the French administration, up to Calonne, to balance the check books.


The History of Calonne's Office as Finance Minister

In France, since 1665, the contrôleur général des finances was the head of the financial administration of the kingdom. With the appointment of Necker in 1777, this post was temporarily renamed directeur général des finances, because Necker was a Protestant.

And Calonne inherited quite the knapsack:

Louis XVI
Louis XVI 1754-1793

Louis XVI became king on May 10, 1774.

In August 1774, Louis repealed the judicial reforms that Chancellor Maupeou had put in place back in 1771. Louis restored the parlements' power to obstruct any possible royal reforms, thus shooting himself in the foot nicely.

J.F. Phélypeaux, Comte de Maurepas

Maurepas was the King's chief counselor, who had already whispered into the royal ear of Louis XV before enjoying the tranquility of exile from 1749 until 1774. Scheming was one of his many qualities.

Maurepas advised Louis XVI for seven long years that neither economic nor administrative reforms were necessary.

Jean-Frédéric Phélypeaux, count de Maurepas 1701-1781
A.R.J. Turgot, Baron de l'Aulne

Maurepas recommended Turgot for comptroller general of finance, in which capacity Turgot served from 1774 until 1776. And he had potential.

On March 12, 1776, Turgot's Six Edicts, abolishing the guilds at Paris and the corvée, became law.

Maurepas schemed again and Turgot was fired.

Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, baron de l'Aulne 1727-1781
The cause of all mistakes in our administration is that your nation has no constitution.
Mémoire de M. Turgot
Jean Étienne Bernard, Baron de Clugny de Nuits
Jean-Etienne Bernard de Clugny de Nuits 1729-1776

Clugny was comptroller general of finance from May 1776 until his death in October 1776.

He brought back Turgot's abolished corvée and the guilds. Clugny's solution for the empty royal accounts was the creation of the royal lottery.

Jacques Necker
Jacques Necker 1732-1804

On October 22, 1776, Necker became director of the royal treasury, assisting temp finance minister Louis Gabriel Taboureau des Réaux, and on June 29, 1777, Necker was director general of the finances.

In 1778, France joined the American War of Independence. Necker failed to take proper care of the war expenses. His idea was to increase loans instead of having to increase taxes. In 1783, at the end of this war, the French treasury was drained.


Necker made a smooth implementation of reforms for future finance ministers impossible by publishing his Comte Rendu au roi in 1781, which misled into believing that the royal finances were doing just fine.

Why pay more taxes if the accounts were just fine? Saying that they actually weren't would discredit the King as well as yourself.



And this brigade dissolved as follows:

Turgot died on March 18, 1781, at Paris.

Finance minister Necker resigned on May 19, 1781, and retired to his little château at Saint-Ouen, just outside Paris.

Eighty year old Maurepas died on September 21, 1781, at Versailles.

After these prominent men, two more controllers of finance preceded Calonne:

J.F. Joly de Fleury (from May 1781 to March 1783)


Lefèvre d'Ormesson d'Amboile (from April to November 1783)

Both comptroller-generals were axed because their respective steps to increase revenue met with too much opposition.

Fleury increased taxes and was forced to accept unfavorable loans.

D'Ormesson borrowed secretly from the caisse d'escompte, which resulted in a panic that the government would nationalize private funds and everybody withdrew their money from the banks. D'Ormesson then tried to get more money from the  Ferme Générale, who in turn threatened to stop payments altogether.


In search of a competent new comptroller-general, the King was not too thrilled about Calonne's application. But having friends who are friends with the Queen helped, and thus Calonne got the job.

For a complete list of all comptrollers-general
see French finance ministers under the ancien regime


Calonne's Way Out

Calonne's plan was to increase spending, by means of constructions and renovations for example, in order to raise general confidence and thus to raise the State's credibility. France (Calonne) needed to borrow more money badly.

The motto of the day was:

Dépenser pour rétablir la confiance.

Spend to restore confidence.


So, to stimulate the economy, Calonne launched huge building projects, e.g. the construction of the canal at Bourgogne, and the renovation of the ports at Bordeaux, Le Havre, Marseille, and Cherbourg.

But this strategy backfired and, instead of helping, it increased the amount of debt.


Then, of course, there were the royal spending sprees. So what if the King fancied buying the chateau at Rambouillet from his cousin and wished to redecorate it. And why not buy the chateau at Saint Cloud for his wife, who will also want to make it look a wee bit nice.

To raise the royal credit, Calonne made it a priority to pay back all loans plus interest on the very day they were due. To do this, he had accepted new loans that came with worse interest rates. Therefore, the deficit increased each year.

During all this time the royal household, which included the extended royal family, their friends, lovers, parties, dogs, and hunting gear, swallowed an enormous amount of money.

By the end of 1786, Calonne was in a real pickle.


Calonne's Plan B

Now not being able to borrow any more, and looking national bankruptcy straight in the eye, Calonne resumed the strategy of previous finance ministers Turgot and Necker — attempting to abolish the nobility's tax privileges. In particular, Calonne wanted to impose a new land tax, the subvention territoriale.

As a bait, he suggested to set up provincial assemblies who would collect this tax but who would also participate in official politics.

Calonne realized that it had become necessary to implement financial reforms and administrative reforms simultaneously.

And to create general support for his entire reform package, Calonne promised the abolition of internal customs, the easing of the tax burden of the lower classes (the taille), the abolition of the forced labor (the corvée), which would be substituted by a fixed tax, and the abolition of the gabelle, the salt tax.

In order to get all these new measures on their way as quickly as possible and with as little fuss as possible, Calonne — himself the son of a magistrate — tried to bypass the opposition of the parlement by introducing his reforms at an assembly of notables.


"A Curious Piece of Juggling"

On August 20, 1786, Calonne approached the King with his request to summon the Assembly of Notables.

Writes he,

"A kingdom in which the provinces are unknown to one another [...] where privileges upset all equilibrium, where it is not possible to have either steadfast rule or consensus, is obviously a very imperfect kingdom."

This was Calonne's diplomatic way of saying that the French administration was not working very well, and hence, this was no foundation upon which one could hope to solve the problem of the nation's drained treasury.


Writes the British ambassador at Paris to Nathaniel William Wraxall,

"L'assemblee des notables, is to be held at Versailles, the 29th of this month. It is a curious piece of juggling of the comptroller-general.

"However, I wish him success, as he is really a fine open-hearted fellow, and wishes to cultivate friendship and amity with England."

Letter from John Frederick Sackville, Duke of Dorset and ambassador to Paris, written at Paris on January 4, 1787.


Calonne presented his strategy at the Assembly of Notables which commenced, with delay, on February 22, 1787. The Notables refused and Calonne was lucky to get his hide out of the room in one piece.

Trying to rally public opinion, Calonne published his Collection of memoranda, spiked with a ballsy preface, the Avertissement. But it alienated Notables and the general public alike.


Louis fired Calonne on April 8, 1787, and made Étienne-Charles de Loménie de Brienne his new finance minister.

The Notables demanded an assembly of the Three Estates, aka the Estates-General, but that was now Brienne's problem.

Check these events in the
Timeline of the French Revolution.


In August 1787, probably between August 10 and 14, Calonne arrived at London, England, from where he published his Requète au roi, or Request to the King.


After the outbreak of the  French Revolution on July 14, 1789, Calonne worked as counter-revolutionary from abroad.


France 1789
1789 France


In 1802, under the Consulate, Calonne returned to France.


Calonne died on October 2, 1802, at Paris.


Calonne's Appearance and Character

Nathaniel William Wraxall writes in his Posthumous Memoirs of His Own Time:

I have been much in Calonne's society during the period of time which he passed here in England, between 1787 and his decease in 1802.

In his person he exceeded the common height, thin, active, and always in motion. His physiognomy was very expressive; gay, full of intelligence, never clouded, perpetually animated by hope and cheerfulness.

The calamities of the house of Bourbon and of France were not to be traced in his features, nor recognized in his conversation. Buoyant from natural disposition, fertile in expedients and resources, ever looking forward with confidence, he could not be subdued by adverse fortune. Nor was he deficient in the attainments, information, and knowledge of a financier.

But he wanted the probity and stern severity of Sully; while he equally wanted the sound judgment, the application to business, the spirit of order, the enlightened economy, and the elevated principles of moral and political action, all which met in Colbert.

However, Calonne's critics claim that he used his intelligence by oppressing his conscience, that he himself lived in unnecessary luxury, and that he blamed his own mistakes on his predecessors.


Charles Alexandre de Calonne (1734-1802), Contrôleur Général des Finances
Charles Alexandre Babyface de Calonne (1734-1802),
Contrôleur Général des Finances

© Musée du Louvre



And here is more on Calonne's portrait by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun:
(stay with it, it starts at 0:14)



See also Taxation in Pre-Revolutionary France.




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