Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXVIII.: FINANCE UNDER LOUIS XIV. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XII (Age of Louis XIV)
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CHAPTER XXVIII.: FINANCE UNDER LOUIS XIV. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XII (Age of Louis XIV) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. XII.
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FINANCE UNDER LOUIS XIV.
If we compare the administration of Colbert with all the preceding ones, posterity will be fond of this man, whose body the frantic populace after his death would have torn to pieces. The French certainly owe to him their industry and their commerce; and consequently that wealth, the sources of which are sometimes diminished in war, but are always opened again with an abundant flow in peace. Yet in 1702 people had still the ingratitude to throw the blame upon Colbert for the languor which began to be perceivable in the sinews of the state. A financier of Normandy published about that time an account of the revenues of France, in two small volumes, in which he pretended that everything was in a declining state from 1660. But so far from this being the case, it was quite the reverse. France had never been so flourishing as since the death of Cardinal Mazarin, down to the war of 1689; and even in that war, the body of the state, though beginning to be out of order, supported itself by means of the vigor which Colbert had diffused through all its members. The author of this detail pretended that, from 1660, the lands of the kingdom had diminished in value fifteen hundred millions. But nothing was more false, nor less probable. These captious arguments, however, persuaded such as would be persuaded to believe this ridiculous paradox.
It was easier in France than in any other country to decry the ministry of the finances in the minds of the people. This ministry is the most odious, because the imposts are always so; besides, there prevailed in general as much prejudice and ignorance in the finances, as there did in philosophy.
It was so long before people received better information, that even in our days we find in 1718, the parliament in a body telling the duke of Orleans that the intrinsic value of the silver mark is twenty-five livres; as if there was any other real intrinsic value than that of the weight and the fineness: and the duke of Orleans, with all his penetration in other respects, had not enough of it in this to remove that mistake of the parliament.
It is true, Colbert had not done all that he could, and still less than he would have done. Men were not then sufficiently enlightened; and in a great kingdom there are always great abuses. The arbitrary taille, the multiplicity of duties, the different customs of the provinces, which make one part of the inhabitants of France strangers and even enemies to the other; the little resemblance there is between the measures of one town and those of another; with twenty other maladies of the body politic, could not be remedied.
Colbert, in order to furnish at once the expense of the war, of buildings, and pleasures, was obliged to re-establish, in 1672, what at first he intended to have abolished forever; namely, imposts on places, rents, new offices, and the augmentation of salaries: in short, that which supports the state for some time but involves it in debt for many years.
He was carried beyond his intended measures; for by all the instructions remaining of his, we see he was persuaded that the riches of a country consist only in the number of its inhabitants, the cultivation of the lands, the industry of the people, and commerce. We see, that the king, possessing very few domains, and being only the administrator of the goods of his subjects, cannot indeed be rich but by imposts easy to bear and equally assessed.
He feared so much to give up the state to the farmers of the king’s revenue, that some time after the dissolution of the chamber of justice, which he had caused to be erected against them, he got an arret of council passed, which made it death for those who should advance money upon the new imposts. His meaning by this menacing arret, which was never printed, was to cure the avidity of undertakers. But soon after he was obliged to make use of them, without even revoking the arret: for the king was pressing, and it was necessary to find prompt means to satisfy him.
This invention, brought from Italy into France by Catherine de Medici, had so much corrupted the government, by the facility with which it procured supplies, that after having been suppressed in the glorious days of Henry IV., it appeared again throughout the reign of Louis XIII. and greatly infected the latter times of Louis XIV.
Six years after the death of Colbert, in 1689, France was precipitated into a war, which she was obliged to maintain against all Europe, without having any funds in reserve. The minister, Lepelletier, believed that it would be sufficient to diminish luxury. An ordinance was accordingly made, that all the movables of solid plate, which were to be seen at that time in considerable quantities in the houses of the great, and were a proof of opulence, should be carried to the mint. The king set the example: he parted with all those silver tables, branched chandeliers, grand canopy-couches of massive silver, and all the other movables, which were masterpieces, chased by the hand of Ballin, the greatest artist in his way, and all done from designs of Lebrun. They had cost ten millions, but produced only three. The wrought plate belonging to private persons yielded three millions more. The resource was inconsiderable.
In 1691 and 1692 the finances of the state appeared sensibly out of order. Those who attributed the diminution of the public revenue to the profusion of Louis XIV. on his buildings, the arts, and his pleasures were not aware that, on the contrary, the expenses which encourage industry, enrich a state. It is war that necessarily impoverishes the public treasury, unless the spoils of the vanquished can fill it again. Since the time of the ancient Romans, I know of no nation that has enriched itself by victories. Italy, in the sixteenth century, was rich only by commerce. Holland would not have existed long had she confined herself to the taking of the plate-fleet of the Spaniards, and were not the East Indies the support of her power. England has always impoverished herself by war, even in destroying the French fleets: and commerce alone has maintained her. The Algerines, who have hardly any more than what they gain by piracy, are most miserably poor.
Among the nations of Europe, war, at the end of some years, renders the conqueror nearly as unhappy as the conquered. It is a gulf in which all the streams of abundance are absorbed. Ready money, that principle of all good and of all evil, raised with such difficulty in the provinces, terminates in the coffers of a hundred stock-jobbers and farmers of the revenue, who advance the sums wanting by the state, and who buy, by virtue of these advances, the right of pillaging the nation in the name of the sovereign. The people, in consequence of this, looking on the government as their enemy, conceal their wealth; and the want of circulation brings a languor on the kingdom.
No sudden remedy can supply a fixed and permanent establishment of long standing, which provides at a distance against any unforeseen wants. The capitation1 was established in 1695. It was suppressed at the Peace of Ryswick, and re-established later. Comptroller-General de Pontchartrain sold patents of nobility for two thousand crowns, in 1696; five hundred persons bought them. But the resource was transitory, and the shame permanent. The nobles, both ancient and modern, were obliged to register their coats of arms, and to pay for the permission of sealing their letters with them. The farmers bargained for this tax, and advanced the money; so that the ministry had hardly ever recourse to any but petty resources, in a country which could have furnished much greater.
They dared not impose the tenth penny till 1710. But this tenth penny, raised after so many other burdensome taxes, appeared so hard, that they dared not exact it with rigor. The government did not draw from it twenty-five millions a year, at forty francs to the mark.
Colbert had made few attempts to change the nominal value of money. But it is better not to change it at all. Silver and gold, those standards of exchange, should be invariable. He raised the nominal value of the silver mark, which was twenty-six francs in his time, only to twenty-seven and twenty-eight; and after his death, in the last years of Louis XIV., this denomination was extended as far as forty imaginary livres: a fatal resource, by which the king was relieved for a moment, in order to be ruined afterward; for instead of a silver mark, he had only given him little more than the half of it. He who owed twenty-six livres in 1668, gave a mark; and he who owed forty livres, gave little more than this same mark in 1710. The diminutions which followed disconcerted the little commerce that remained, as much as raising it had done.
A real resource might have been found in paper credit; but this should be established in a time of prosperity, that it may maintain itself in times that are otherwise.
The minister, Chamillard, began in 1706 to pay in bank notes, notes of subsistence, and free quarters; but as this paper money was not received into the king’s coffers, it was destroyed almost as soon as it appeared. The government was reduced to the necessity of continuing to negotiate heavy loans, and use by anticipation four years of the revenues of the crown.
We are told, in the history written by La Hode, and put under the name of de la Martinière, that it cost seventy-two per cent. for exchange in the wars of Italy, which is an absurdity. The matter of fact is this, that M. Chamillard, in order to pay the armies, made use of the credit of the chevalier Bernard. This minister believed, through an old prejudice, that money must not go out of the kingdom, as if such money were given for nothing, and as if it were possible that one nation indebted to another, and which does not discharge itself by mercantile effects, should not pay in ready money. This minister gave the banker eight per cent. of the profits, upon condition that foreigners were paid without making the money go out of France. Besides this, he paid the exchange, which amounted to five or six per cent. loss; yet the banker, notwithstanding his promise, was obliged to pay his accounts with the foreigners in money; and this produced a considerable loss.
Comptroller-General Desmarets, nephew of the celebrated Colbert, having succeeded Chamillard in 1708, could not cure an evil which everything rendered incurable.
Nature conspired with fortune to distress the state. The severe winter of 1709 obliged the king to remit to the people nine millions of taxes at the time when he had not wherewithal to pay his soldiers. The scarcity of provisions was so excessive that it cost forty-five millions for provisions for the army; and the king’s ordinary revenue produced scarcely forty-nine. The expenses of 1709 amounted to two hundred and twenty-one millions. There was then a necessity for ruining the state, that the enemy might not make themselves masters of it. The disorder grew to such a head, and was so little repaired, that for a long time after the peace, at the beginning of 1715, the king was obliged to cause thirty-two millions of notes to be negotiated, in order to have eight millions in specie. In short, at his death, he left a debt of two thousand six hundred millions, reckoning twenty-eight livres to the mark, the rate to which the coin was then reduced; and this makes about four thousand five hundred millions of our current money in 1750.
It is astonishing, but true, that this immense debt would not have been a burden impossible to bear, had there been at that time a flourishing commerce in France, a paper credit established, and substantial companies, which would have answered this credit, as is the case in Sweden, England, Venice, and Holland: for when a powerful state is indebted only within itself, credit and circulation are sufficient to make payments. But a great deal was wanting for France to have at that time a sufficient number of springs to operate so vast and complicated a machine, the weight of which crushed it.
Louis XIV. in his reign expended eighteen thousand millions; which amounts, one year with another, to three hundred and thirty millions of the present currency, by compensating interchangeably with each other, the nominal raisings and lowerings of the coin.
Under the administration of the great Colbert, the ordinary revenues of the crown rose only to a hundred and seventeen millions, at twenty-seven livres, and afterward twenty-eight livres to the silver mark. Thus the whole surplus was always furnished by extraordinary methods. Colbert was obliged, for example, to raise four hundred millions in six years, in the war of 1672. The king had but very few ancient domains of the crown left. These were declared unalienable by all the parliaments of the kingdom; and yet almost all of them were alienated. The king’s revenue consisted of the wealth of his subjects, and was a perpetual circulation of debts and payments. His majesty owed the people more nominal millions a year, under the name of annuities of the town house, than any king ever drew from the domains of the crown.
In order to form an idea of this prodigious increase of taxes, debts, riches, circulation, and at the same time of the embarrassments and trouble which have been experienced in France and other countries, it is to be considered that, at the death of Francis I., the state owed about thirty millions of livres to the town house, and that at present it owes over forty-five millions a year.
Those who have compared the revenues of Louis XIV. with those of Louis XV. have found, by only keeping to the fixed and current revenue, that Louis XIV. was much richer in 1683, at the time of Colbert’s death, with a hundred and seventeen millions of revenue, than his successor was in 1730, with nearly two hundred millions: and this will appear, by considering only the fixed and ordinary revenues of the crown. For a hundred and seventeen nominal millions, with the mark at twenty-eight livres, is a much greater sum than two hundred millions at forty-nine livres, which was the amount of the king’s revenue in 1730; and moreover, we must reckon the charges increased by the loans of the crown. But the revenues of the king, that is, of the state, have since been accumulated; and the knowledge of the finances has been brought to such a state of perfection, that in the ruinous war of 1741, there was no stagnation of credit. We have begun to form funds of mortgages, as among the English: it was necessary to adopt a part of their system of finances, as we have done of their philosophy: and if in a state purely monarchial, these circulating notes could be introduced, which at least double the wealth of England, the administration of France would acquire its last degree of perfection.1
In 1683, there were about five hundred nominal millions of silver coin in the kingdom; and about twelve hundred of the present currency. But the denomination in our days is almost double what it was in Colbert’s time. It therefore appears, that France is only about one-sixth part richer in circulating specie, since the death of that minister. It is much more so in materials of silver and gold worked and used for service and luxury. In 1690 it had not four hundred millions of our perfect coin; and at this day we have as much as there is circulating specie. Nothing shows more plainly how commerce, the sources of which Colbert opened, has been increased, when a free course has been given to its channels, that were shut close by the wars. Industry has been brought to perfection, notwithstanding the emigration of so many artists, which the revoking of the Edict of Nantes has dispersed; and this industry still increases daily. The nation is capable of as great things, and even still greater, than it was under Louis XIV., because genius and commerce always gain new strength wherever they are encouraged.
To see the affluence of individuals, the number of agreeable houses built in Paris and in the provinces, the multitude of equipages, the conveniences and refinements of luxury, you would think that our opulence is twenty times greater than it was formerly. All this is the fruit of ingenious labor rather than of riches. At this day it costs but little more for an agreeable lodging than it did for a bad one in the reign of Henry IV. A beautiful sort of glass of our own manufacture adorns our houses, at much less expense than the little glasses which were brought from Venice; our fine and showy stuffs are cheaper than those which we brought from foreign countries, and which were not of equal value with them. In effect, it is not silver and gold that procure a commodious life, but genius. A people possessed only of these metals would be miserable; whereas, on the other hand, a people without these metals, but who can happily employ all the productions of the earth, would be the truly wealthy people. France has this advantage, with a great deal more specie than is necessary for circulation.
Industry being brought to perfection in the towns, grew up and increased in the country. There will always be complaints raised about the condition of the tillers of the soil; you hear them in all countries of the world; and such murmurings are generally produced from indolent people of fortune, who condemn the government more than they bemoan the people. It is true that in almost every country, if such as pass their days in rural labors had leisure to murmur, they would rise up against the exactions which take from them a part of their substance. They would detest the necessity of paying such taxes as they had not laid upon themselves, and of bearing the burden of the state without participating in the advantages enjoyed by other citizens. It does not belong to the province of history to examine how the people may be taxed without being oppressed, and to mark the precise point so difficult to be fixed between the execution of the laws and the abuse of them; between impost and rapine. But history should show that it is impossible for a town to be flourishing, unless the country round it enjoys plenty; for certainly the produce of its fields supports its inhabitants. We hear on particular days, in all the towns of France, the reproaches of those who by their profession are allowed to declaim in public against all the different branches of consumption to which the name of luxury is given. It is evident that the nourishment for this luxury is furnished only by the industrious labor of the tillers of the ground: a labor which is always dearly paid for.
More vineyards have been planted, and better cultivated. New wines have been made, that were not known before, like those of Champagne, the makers of which have been well acquainted with the methods of giving them the color, flavor, and strength of the Burgundy wines, and which they vend among foreigners to a great advantage. This increase of wines has produced that of brandies. The cultivation of gardens of pulse and fruit has received a prodigious improvement; and the commerce in provisions with the colonies of America has from this been augmented. The loud complaints which have been made in all times about the misery of the country have now ceased to have any foundation. Besides, in these vague complaints there is no distinction made between the planters, the farmers, and the mechanics. These last live only by the labor of their hands; and the case is alike in all the countries of the world, where the bulk of the people, or the greater number, should subsist by that means: but there is scarcely a kingdom in the universe in which the planter and the farmer are more at ease than in France; and England alone may dispute this advantage with it. The proportional land-tax, instead of that substituted at discretion, has still contributed for about thirty years past to render more stable the fortunes of such husbandmen as have ploughs, vineyards, and gardens. The craftsman, or workman, must be restricted to necessaries for labor: such is the nature of man. For though the greater part of mankind may be poor, there is no necessity for their being miserable.
The middling sort have enriched themselves by industry. The ministers and the courtiers are less wealthy, because money having been raised nominally about half its value, their appointments and pensions have continued the same; and the price of goods has risen more than half. This is what has happened in all the countries of Europe. The several dues and fees have everywhere remained on the ancient footing. An elector of the empire, who receives the investiture of his states, pays no more than what his predecessors paid in the time of the emperor Charles IV., in the fourteenth century: and in this ceremony there is only a crown due to the emperor’s secretary.
What is much stranger is, that though all things have been raised, the nominal value of coin, the quantity of materials in gold and silver, and the price of merchant goods, yet the pay of a soldier has continued at the same rate as it was two hundred years ago. A foot soldier has five nominal sous, the same as he had in the time of Henry IV. None among the great number of ignorant men who sell their lives at so cheap a rate know that since the over-rating of the specie, and the dearness of merchandise, he receives about two-thirds less than the soldiers of Henry IV. did. If he knew it, and demanded a pay two-thirds greater, it must have been granted him. Hence it must happen that as the powers of Europe would keep on foot two-thirds fewer troops, their forces would be balanced in the same proportion; the cultivation of the ground and the manufactures would profit by this measure.
We must further observe, that the profits of commerce, being augmented, and the appointments for all the great offices diminished in their real value, there is found to be less wealth among the great than formerly, and more among the middling rank of people: and this circumstance has put men more upon a level. In former days there was no resource for the little but to serve the great. At present, industry has opened a thousand ways, which were not known a hundred years ago. In short, in whatever manner the finances of the state may be administered, France possesses in the labor of twenty millions of inhabitants an inestimable treasure.
[1 ] In Vol. iv, p. 136, of Maintenon’s “Memoirs,” we find that the capitation “brought in beyond the hopes of the farmers.” But there has never been any farm of the capitation. It is said that “the lackeys of Paris went to the town house to beg that they might be put into the capitation.” This ridiculous story destroys itself, for masters always paid for their domestics.
[1 ] The abbot of St.-Pierre, in his “Journal Politique,” in the article “System,” says that in England and Holland there are no more notes than specie; but it is certain that the former greatly exceed the latter and do not subsist but by credit.