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.
de Calonne by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1784
In a nutshell, Calonne's struggle to lower the country's debts was flawed by
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
Estates General, and soon after the King was nodding his head
for the final time.
In 1778, Calonne became
the généralité of Lille.
(Intendant at Metz and Lille: Not 1768 / 1774 / 1788.
See Biographie du Parlement de Metz by Emmanuel Michel,
on earth is an intendant?
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.
intendants were also
called Intendants of Justice, Police, and
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:
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
Necker in 1777, this post was
directeur général des finances, because Necker was a
In August 1774, Louis repealed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
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
A.R.J. Turgot, Baron de l'Aulne
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
Maurepas schemed again and
Turgot was fired.
The cause of all mistakes in our
administration is that your nation
has no constitution.
Mémoire de M. Turgot
Étienne Bernard, Baron de Clugny de
Clugny was comptroller
general of finance from May 1776 until his death in
He brought back Turgot's
corvée and the guilds. Clugny's solution for the
empty royal accounts was the creation of the royal lottery.
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
And this brigade dissolved as
Turgot died on March 18, 1781,
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)
(from April to November 1783)
comptroller-generals were axed because their
respective steps to increase revenue met
with too much opposition.
increased taxes and was forced to accept
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
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.
Calonne's plan was to increase spending, by means of constructions and renovations
in order to raise general confidence and thus to raise the State's credibility. France (Calonne) needed to borrow more
The motto of the day was:
Dépenser pour rétablir la
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
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
which would be substituted by a fixed tax, and the abolition
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
"A Curious Piece
On August 20, 1786, Calonne
approached the King with his request to summon the Assembly of
"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
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
"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
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
that was now Brienne's problem.
In 1802, under the
Consulate, Calonne returned to France.
Calonne died on October 2, 1802,
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
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
But he wanted
the probity and stern severity of
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
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.
Contrôleur Général des Finances