Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VI: M. Necker's Plans of Administration. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER VI: M. Necker’s Plans of Administration. - Germaine de Staël, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.) 
Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, newly revised translation of the 1818 English edition, edited, with an introduction and notes by Aurelian Craiutu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
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M. Necker’s Plans of Administration.
A finance minister, before the Revolution, was not confined to the charge of the public treasury; his duties were not restricted to a mere adjustment of receipt and expenditure; the whole administration of the kingdom was in his department; and in this relation the welfare of the country in general stood in a manner under the jurisdiction of the General Controller [of Finances].1 Several branches of administration were strangely neglected. The principle of absolute power was seen in conjunction with obstacles incessantly arising from the application of that power. There were everywhere historical traditions which the provinces attempted to erect into rights, and which the royal authority admitted only as customs. The management of the revenue was little else than a continued juggle, in which the officers of the Crown attempted to extort as much as possible from the people to enrich the King, as if the King and his people could be considered as adversaries.
The disbursements for the army and the Crown were regularly supplied; but in other respects the penury of the treasury was such that the most urgent claims of humanity were postponed or neglected, from mere inadequacy of means. It is impossible to form an idea of the state in which M. and Madame Necker found the prisons and hospitals in Paris. I mention Madame Necker because she devoted all her time, during her husband’s ministry, to the improvement of charitable establishments, and because the principal changes that took place in this respect were effected by her.
But M. Necker felt more than anyone how little the personal beneficence of a minister can effect in respect of so large and so ill-governed a country as France: this led him to desire the establishment of provincial assemblies, that is, of councils composed of the principal landholders, for the purpose of discussing the fair repartition of taxes and other matters of local interest.2 M. Turgot had conceived this plan, but no minister before M. Necker had had the courage to expose himself to the resistance to be expected to an institution of this kind, for it was clear that the parliaments and the courtiers, seldom in unison, would now unite to oppose it.
Those provinces, such as Languedoc, Burgundy, Brittany, &c. which had been the latest united to the Crown of France, were called pays d’états because they had stipulated a right to be governed by assemblies composed of the three orders of the province. The King fixed the total sum which he required in the shape of taxes, but he was obliged to leave its assessment to the provincial assembly. These assemblies persisted in their refusal of imposing certain duties, and asserted that they were exempt from them in virtue of treaties concluded with the Crown. Hence arose inequality in the plan of taxation; multiplied facilities for a contraband traffic between one province and another; and the establishment of custom-houses in the interior.
The pays d’états enjoyed great advantages. They not only paid less, but the sum required was allotted by a board of proprietors acquainted with local interests, and active in promoting them. The roads and public establishments were much better kept up in these provinces, and the collection of taxes managed with less severity. The King had never admitted that these assemblies possessed the right of refusing his taxes, but they acted as if in reality they had possessed it; not refusing the money required of them, but qualifying their contributions by calling them a free gift. In every respect, their plan of administration was better than that of the other provinces, which, however, were much more numerous and not less entitled to the attention of government.
Intendants were appointed by the King to govern the thirty-two généralités into which the kingdom was divided.3 The chief opposition experienced by intendants took place in the pays d’états, and sometimes in one or other of the twelve provincial parlements (the Parlement of Paris was the thirteenth);4 but in the greater part of the kingdom the intendant was the sole director of public business. He had at his command an army of fiscal retainers, all objects of detestation to the people, whom they were perpetually tormenting to pay taxes disproportioned to their means; and when complaints against the intendant or his subordinates were transmitted to the minister of finance in Paris, the practice was to return these complaints to the intendant, on the ground that the executive power knew no other medium for communicating with the provinces.
Foreigners, and the rising generation too young to have known their country before the Revolution, who form their estimate from the present condition of the people, enriched as they are by the division of the large estates and the suppression of the tithes and feudal burdens, can have no idea of the situation of the country when the nation bore all the burdens resulting from privilege and inequality. The advocates of colonial slavery have often asserted that a French peasant was more to be pitied than a negro—an argument for relieving the whites but not for hardening the heart against the blacks. A state of misery is productive of ignorance, and ignorance aggravates misery. If we are asked why the French people acted with such cruelty in the Revolution, the answer will at once be found in their unhappy state, and in that want of morality which is its result.
It has been in vain attempted, during the last twenty-five years, to produce scenes in Switzerland or Holland similar to those which have occurred in France; the good sense of these people, formed by the long enjoyment of liberty, prevented everything of the kind.
Another cause of the excesses of the Revolution is to be sought in the surprising influence of Paris over the rest of France. This would have naturally been lessened by the establishment of provincial assemblies, since the great landholders, engaged by the business in which they were occupied at home, would have had motives for quitting Paris and residing in the country. The grandees of Spain are not at liberty to withdraw from Madrid without the king’s leave: to convert nobles into courtiers is an effectual means of despotism, and consequently of degradation. Provincial assemblies would have given a political consistency to the higher nobility of France. And the contests which burst forth so suddenly between the nation and the privileged classes would perhaps never have had existence, had the three orders come in contact with each other by discussing their respective rights and interests in provincial assemblies.5
M. Necker composed the provincial administrations established under his ministry on the plan afterward adopted for the Estates General, viz. one-fourth of nobility, one-fourth of clergy, and half of Third Estate, dividing the latter into deputies of towns and deputies of the country. They proceeded to deliberate together, and such was their harmony at the outset that the two first orders spoke of making a voluntary renunciation of their privileges in regard to taxes; and the reports of their sittings were to be printed, that their labors might receive the support of public approbation.
The French nobility were very deficient in education because they had no motives to be otherwise. The graces of conversation, which rendered them acceptable at court, were the surest means of arriving at public honors. This superficial education proved one of the causes of the fall of the nobility: they were found unable to contend with the intelligence of the Third Estate; their object should have been to surpass them. Provincial assemblies would gradually have led them to take a lead by their ability in administration, as they formerly did by their sword; and public spirit in France would have preceded the establishment of free institutions.
The existence of provincial assemblies would have been no bar to the eventual convoking of the Estates General; and when a representative assembly came to be formed, the first and second classes, accustomed previously to discuss public affairs, would not have met each other with sentiments of decided opposition—the one full of horror at equality, the other all impatient for it.
The Archbishop of Bourges and the Bishop of Rhodez were chosen the respective presidents of the local assemblies established by M. Necker. That Protestant minister showed, on all occasions, a considerable deference for the clergy of France, because they consisted of very wise men in all matters that did not concern their privileges as a body. But since the Revolution, the rancor of party spirit and the nature of the government have necessarily kept the clergy out of public employment.
The parlements were dissatisfied at the appointment of provincial assemblies likely to give the King a force of opinion independent from theirs. M. Necker’s view was that the provinces should not be altogether dependent on the authorities habitually assembled at Paris; but, far from desiring to destroy what was truly useful in the political power of parlements, their power of opposing an extension of taxes, it was he who prevailed on the King to submit to them the increase of the taille, an arbitrary tax, of which the ministry alone fixed the amount. M. Necker was desirous of limiting the power of ministers, because he knew from experience that a person overloaded with business, and placed at such a distance from those upon whose interest he is called on to decide, acquires the habit of referring for information from one public officer to another, till at last the matter falls into the hands of subalterns, who are quite incapable of judging the motives that must influence such important decisions.
And here it may be alleged that M. Necker, temporarily filling the place of minister, was very willing to set limits to ministerial power; but that by such conduct he jeopardized the permanent authority of the King. I will not discuss here the great question, whether the king of England does not possess as much and more power than did a king of France. The former, provided he fulfill the indispensable condition of governing according to the public opinion, is sure of uniting the strength of the people to the power of the Crown; but an absolute prince, not knowing how to collect their opinion, which his ministers do not represent to him faithfully, meets at every step with unforeseen obstacles, of which he cannot calculate the dangers. But without anticipating a result which will, I trust, receive some light from the present work, I confine myself at present to the provincial administrations, and I ask whether those were the true servants of the King who sought to persuade him that these assemblies would operate in diminution of his authority?
Their powers did not go the length of deciding the amount of the sum to be levied on their particular province; their business was merely to make the assessment of the amount already decided upon. Was it then an advantage to the Crown that a tax imposed by an injudicious intendant was the cause of greater suffering and discontent to the people than a larger levy, when allotted with prudence and impartiality by the representatives of the province? Every public officer was in the habit of appealing to the King’s will, even in petty matters of detail. The French indeed are never satisfied except when they can, upon every occasion, support themselves by the royal wish. Habits of servility are inveterate among them; while in a free country ministers found their measures only on the public good. A long time must yet pass before the inhabitants of France, accustomed for centuries to arbitrary power, learn to reject this courtiers’ language, which ought never to be heard beyond the precincts of the palaces to which it owes its origin.
No controversy occurred between the King and the parlements during the ministry of M. Necker. That, some will say, is not to be wondered at, since the King, during that period, required no new taxes and abstained from all arbitrary acts. This was exactly what constituted the merit of the minister; since it would be imprudent for a king, even in a country in which the constitution does not limit his power, to make the experiment to what extent the people will bear with his faults. Power ought not to be stretched to the utmost under any circumstances, but particularly on so frail a foundation as that of arbitrary authority in an enlightened country.
M. Necker’s conduct during his first ministry was marked more by an adherence to public probity, if I may so express it, than by a predilection for liberty, because the nature of the existing government admitted the one more than the other; but he was at the same time desirous of institutions calculated to place the public welfare on a more stable foundation than the character of a king, or the still more precarious one of a minister. The two provincial administrations, which he had established in Berri and Rouergue, succeeded extremely well; others were in a course of preparation; and the impulse necessary to the public mind, in a great empire, was directed toward these partial improvements. There were at that time only two methods of satisfying the anxiety which was already much excited upon the state of affairs in general: the establishment of provincial assemblies and the publication of a fair statement of the finances. But why, it may be asked, should the public opinion be satisfied? I will not enter on the answers which the friends of liberty would make to this singular question; I will merely add that, even for the purpose of eluding the demand of a representative government, the wisest plan was to grant at once what would have been expected from that government, that is, order and stability in the administration. Finally, credit, or, in other words, a supply of money, was dependent on public opinion; and as money was indispensable, the wish of the nation ought at least to have been treated with consideration out of interest, if not from a sense of duty.
[1. ] In October 1776, Necker was appointed general director of the royal treasury. As a foreign citizen (he was both Swiss and Protestant), he could not be officially entrusted with the control of the kingdom’s finances. The official title of general controller of finances was reserved for Taboureaux des Réaux. Not surprisingly, Taboureaux des Réaux resigned a few months later and Necker was officially appointed general director of finances.
[2. ] Necker was instrumental in creating four such provincial assemblies from 1778 to 1780—in Dauphiné, Haute-Guyenne, Bourbonnais, and Berry.
[3. ] In 1789 there were thirty-two généralités in France.
[4. ] In 1789 there were thirteen parlements in France: in Paris, Toulouse, Grenoble, Bordeaux, Dijon, Rouen, Aix, Rennes, Pau, Metz, Besançon, Douai, and Nancy. Moreover, there were four other “sovereign councils” (similar to the parlements) in Perpignan, Arras, Colmar, and Ajaccio (in Corsica). For more information, see Hurt, Louis XIV and the Parlements. For a brief overview of the role of parlements, see Doyle, Origins of the French Revolution, 68–70.
[5. ] Note the similarity between Madame de Staël’s analysis and Tocqueville’s account of the internal crisis of the Old Regime.