Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VIII: M. Necker's Retirement from Office in 1781. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER VIII: M. Necker’s Retirement from Office in 1781. - 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).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
M. Necker’s Retirement from Office in 1781.
M. Necker had no other object in his first ministry than to prevail on the King to adopt, of his own accord, the measures of public utility required by the nation, and for which it afterward demanded a representative body. This was the only method of preventing a revolution during the life of Louis XVI; and never have I known my father to deviate from the opinion that then, in 1781, he might have succeeded in that object. The most bitter reproach which he ever cast on himself was that of not supporting everything rather than give in his resignation. But he could not then foresee the extraordinary course of events; and, although a generous feeling attached him to his place, there exists in a lofty mind a delicate apprehension of not withdrawing easily from power when a feeling of independence suggests it.
The second class of courtiers declared itself averse to M. Necker. The higher nobility, being exempt from disquietude in regard to their situation and fortune, have, in general, more independence in their manner of viewing things, than that ignoble swarm which clings to court favor in the hope of obtaining fresh gifts on every new occasion. M. Necker had made retrenchments in the royal household, in the pension list, in the charges of the finance department, and in the emoluments arising to court dependents from these charges; a system far from agreeable to all who had been in the habit of receiving the pay of government, and of constantly soliciting favors and money for a livelihood. In vain had M. Necker, for the sake of giving additional weight to his measures of reform, with a personal disinterestedness till then unheard of, declined all the emoluments of his situation. What signified this disinterestedness to those who were far from imitating such an example? Such generous conduct did not disarm the anger of the courtiers of both sexes, who found in M. Necker an obstacle to abuses which had become so habitual that their suppression seemed to them an act of injustice.
Women of a certain rank used to interfere with everything before the revolution. Their husbands or their brothers were in the habit of employing them on all occasions as applicants to ministers; they could urge a point strongly with less apparent impropriety; could even outstep the proper limits, without affording an opening to complaint: and all the insinuations, which they knew how to employ, gave them considerable influence over men in office. M. Necker used to receive them with great politeness; but he had too much sagacity not to see through these verbal tricks which produce no effect on a frank and enlightened mind. These ladies used then to assume a lofty tone, to call to mind, with a careless air, the illustrious rank of their families and demand a pension with as much confidence as a marshal of France would complain of being superseded. M. Necker always made it a rule to adhere to strict justice and never to lavish the money obtained by the sacrifices of the people. “What are three thousand livres to the King?” said these ladies: “three thousand livres,” replied M. Necker, “is the taxation of a village.”
The value of these sentiments was felt only by the most respectable persons at court. M. Necker could also reckon on friends among the clergy, to whom he had always shown great respect; and among the nobility and great landholders, whom he was desirous of introducing, by the medium of provincial administrations, to the knowledge and management of public business. But the courtiers of the princes and the persons employed in the finance department exclaimed loudly against him. A memorial transmitted by him to the King, on the advantage of provincial assemblies, had been indiscreetly published; and the parliaments had read in it, that one of the arguments used by M. Necker for these new appointments was the support of public opinion which might subsequently be used against the parliaments themselves, if the latter should act the part of ambitious corporations instead of following the wish of the nation. This was enough to make the members of these bodies, jealous as they were of their contested political influence, boldly represent M. Necker as an innovator. But of all innovations, economy was the one most dreaded by the courtiers and persons in the finance departments. Such enemies, however, would not have accomplished the removal of a minister to whom the nation showed more attachment than to anyone since the administration of Sully and of Colbert, if the Count of Maurepas had not adroitly found out the means of displacing him.
He was dissatisfied with M. Necker for having obtained the appointment of the Marechal de Castries to the ministry of marine, without his participation. Yet no man was more generally respected than M. de Castries, or was better entitled to respect; but M. de Maurepas could not bear that M. Necker, or, in fact, anyone, should think of exercising a direct influence over the King. He was jealous even of the Queen; and the Queen was at that time very favorably disposed toward M. Necker. M. de Maurepas was always present at conferences between the King and his minister; but, during one of his attacks of gout, M. Necker, being alone with the King, obtained the removal of M. de Sartines and the appointment of M. de Castries to the ministry of marine.
M. de Sartines was a specimen of the selection made for public offices in those countries where neither the liberty of the press, nor the vigilance of a representative body, obliges the court to have recourse to men of ability. He had acquitted himself extremely well in the capacity of Lieutenant de Police, and had arrived, by some intrigue or other, at the ministry of marine. M. Necker called on him a few days after his appointment and found that he had got his room hung round with maps; and he said to M. Necker, while he walked up and down the room, “See what progress I have already made; I can put my hand on this map and point out to you, with my eyes shut, each of the four quarters of the world.” Such wonderful knowledge would not have been considered as a sufficient qualification in the First Lord of the Admiralty in England.
To his general ignorance M. de Sartines added an almost incredible degree of inefficiency in regard to the accounts and money transactions of his department; the finance minister could not remain a stranger to the disorders prevalent in this branch of public expenditure. But, weighty as were these reasons, M. de Maurepas could never forgive M. Necker for having spoken directly to the King; and he became, from that day forward, his mortal enemy. What a singular character is an old courtier when minister! The public benefit passed for nothing in the eyes of M. de Maurepas: he thought only of what he called the King’s service, and this service du Roi consisted in the favor to be gained or lost at court. As to business, even the most important points were all inferior to the grand object of managing the royal mind. He thought it necessary that a minister should possess a certain knowledge of his department, that he might not appear ignorant in his conversations with the King; also that he should possess the good opinion of the public, so far as to prevent an unusual share of criticism from reaching the King’s ears; but the spring and object of all was to please his royal master. M. de Maurepas labored accordingly to preserve his favor by a variety of minute attentions, that he might surround the sovereign as in a net, and succeed in keeping him a stranger to all information in which he might be likely to hear the voice of sincerity and truth. He did not venture to propose to the King the dismissal of so useful a minister as M. Necker; for, to say nothing of his ardor for the public welfare, the influx of money into the treasury by means of his personal credit was not to be despised. Yet the old minister was as imprudent in respect to the public interest, as cautious in what regarded himself; for he was much less alarmed at the apprehension of financial embarrassment than at M. Necker presuming to speak, without his intervention, to the King. He could not, however, go the length of saying to that King, “You should remove your minister, because he has taken on him to refer to you without consulting me.” It was necessary to await the support of other circumstances; and, however reserved M. Necker was, he had a certain pride of character and sensibility of offense; a degree of energy in his whole manner of feeling that could hardly fail, sooner or later, to lead him into faults at court.
In the household of one of the princes there was, in the capacity of intendant or steward, a M. de Sainte Foix, a man who made little noise, but who was persevering in his hatred of all elevated sentiments. This man, to his latest day, and when his gray hairs appeared to call for graver thoughts, was still in the habit of repairing to the ministers, even of the Revolution, in quest of a dinner, official secrets, and pecuniary benefits. M. de Maurepas employed him to circulate libels against M. Necker; and, as the liberty of the press did not then exist in France, there was something altogether new in pamphlets against a member of the cabinet, encouraged by the prime minister, and hence publicly distributed.
The proper way, as M. Necker repeatedly said afterward, would have been to treat with contempt these snares laid for his temper; but Madame Necker could not bear the chagrin excited by these calumnies circulated against her husband. She thought it a duty to withhold from him the first libel that came into her hands, that she might spare him a painful sensation; but she took the step of writing, without his knowledge, to M. de Maurepas, complaining of the offense and requesting him to take measures against these anonymous publications: this was appealing to the very person who secretly encouraged them. Although a woman of great talents, Madame Necker, educated among the mountains of Switzerland, had no idea of such a character as M. de Maurepas—of a man who, in the expression of sentiments, only sought an opportunity to discover the vulnerable side. No sooner did he become aware of M. Necker’s sensitive disposition by the mortification apparent in his wife’s complaint, than he secretly congratulated himself on the prospect of impelling him, by renewed irritation, to give in his resignation.
M. Necker, on learning the step taken by his wife, expressed displeasure at it, but was at the same time much concerned at its cause. Next to the duties enjoined by religion, the esteem of the public was his highest concern; he sacrificed to it fortune, honors, all that the ambitious desire; and the voice of the people, not yet perverted, was to him almost divine. The slightest taint on his reputation caused him greater suffering than anything else in this world could ever bring about. The motive of all his actions, as far as that motive was temporal, the breeze which propelled his bark, was the love of public esteem. Add to this, that a cabinet minister in France had not, like an English minister, a power independent of the court: he had no opportunity of giving, in the House of Commons, a public vindication of his motives and conduct; and there being no liberty of the press, clandestine libels were all the more dangerous.1
M. de Maurepas circulated underhandedly that attacks on the finance minister were by no means unpleasant to the King. Had M. Necker requested a private audience of the King and submitted to him what he knew in regard to his prime minister, he might perhaps have succeeded in getting him removed from office. But the advanced years of this man, frivolous as he was, had a claim to respect; and besides, M. Necker could not overcome a feeling of grateful recollection toward him who had placed him in the ministry. M. Necker determined therefore to content himself with requiring some mark of his sovereign’s confidence that would discourage the libelers: he desired that they might be removed from their employments in the household of the Count d’Artois, and claimed for himself a seat in the cabinet (conseil d’état) to which he had not as yet been admitted on account of being a Protestant. His attendance there was decidedly called for by the public interest; for a finance minister, charged with levying on the people the burdens of war, is certainly entitled to participate in deliberations relating to the question of peace.
M. Necker was impressed with the idea that unless the King gave a decided proof of his determination to defend him against his powerful enemies, he would no longer possess the weight necessary to conduct the finance department on the strict and severe plan that he had prescribed to himself. In this, however, he was mistaken: the public attachment to him was greater than he imagined, and had he waited until the death of the first minister, which took place six months later, he would have kept his place. The reign of Louis XVI might probably have been passed in peace, and the nation been prepared by good government for the emancipation to which it was entitled.
M. Necker made an offer of resigning unless the conditions that he required were complied with. M. de Maurepas, who had stimulated him to this step, knew perfectly well what would be the result; for the weaker kings are, the more attachment do they show to certain rules of firmness impressed on them from their earliest years, of which one of the first, no doubt, is that a king should never decline an offer of resignation or subscribe to the conditions affixed by a public functionary to the continuance of his services.
The day before M. Necker intended to propose to the King the alternative of resigning, if what he wished was not complied with, he went with his wife to the hospital at Paris which still bears their name.2 He often visited this respectable asylum to recover the firmness requisite to support the hard trials of his situation. Sœurs de la Charité, the most interesting of the religious communities, attended the sick of the hospital: these nuns take their vows only for a year, and the more beneficent their conduct, the less it is marked by intolerance. M. and Madame Necker, though both Protestants, were the objects of their affectionate regard. These holy sisters came to meet them with flowers and sung to them verses from the Psalms, the only poetry that they knew; they called them their benefactors, because they contributed to the relief of the poor. My father, as I still remember, was that day more affected than he had ever been by these testimonies of their gratitude: he no doubt regretted the power he was about to lose, that of doing good to France. Alas! who at that time would have thought it possible that such a man should be one day accused of being harsh, arrogant, and factious? Ah! never did a purer heart encounter the conflict of political storms: and his enemies, in calumniating him, commit an act of impiety; for the heart of a virtuous man is the sanctuary of the Divinity in this world.
Next day, M. Necker returned from Versailles, and was no longer a minister. He went to my mother’s apartment, and, after half an hour of conversation, both gave directions to the servants to have everything ready in the course of twenty-four hours for removing to St. Ouen, a country house belonging to my father, two leagues from Paris. My mother sustained herself by the very exaltation of her sentiments; my father continued silent, and as for me, at that early age, any change of place was a source of delight; but when, at dinner, I observed the secretaries and clerks of the finance department silent and dispirited, I began to dread that my gaiety was unfounded. This uneasy sensation was soon removed by the innumerable attentions received by my father at St. Ouen.
Everybody came to see him; noblemen, clergy, magistrates, merchants, men of letters, all flocked to St. Ouen. More than five hundred letters,* received from members of the provincial boards and corporations, expressed a degree of respect and affection which had, perhaps, never been shown to a public man in France. The Memoirs of the time, which have already been published, attest the truth of all that I have stated.† A good minister was, at that time, all that the French desired. They had become successively attached to M. Turgot, to M. de Malesherbes, and particularly to M. Necker, because he was much more of a practical man than the others. But when they saw that even under so virtuous a king as Louis XVI no minister of austerity and talent could remain in office, they felt that nothing short of settled institutions could preserve the state from the vicissitudes of courts.
Joseph II, Catherine II, and the Queen of Naples all wrote to M. Necker, offering him the management of their finances; but his heart was too truly French to accept such an indemnification, however honorable it might be. France and Europe were impressed with consternation at the resignation of M. Necker: his virtue and talents gave him a right to such an homage; but there was, moreover, in this universal sensation, a confused dread of the political crisis with which the public were threatened, and which a wise course, on the part of the French ministry, could alone retard or prevent.
The public under Louis XIV would certainly not have ventured to shower attention on a dismissed minister, and this new spirit of independence ought to have taught statesmen the growing strength of public opinion. Yet, so far from attending to it during the seven years that elapsed between the retirement of M. Necker and the promise of convoking the Estates General, given by the Archbishop of Sens, ministers committed all kinds of faults, and did not scruple to irritate the nation without having in their hands any real power to restrain it.
[1. ] The main author of the anonymous libels against Necker seems to have been Augeard, who served as financial adviser to Maurepas. The libels attacked Necker’s religion (he was a Protestant) and accused him of not being French (he was born in Switzerland).
[2. ] The hospital, which still carries Necker’s name, was built in 1778. Madame Necker played a key role in its construction.
[* ] These letters, which are a family treasure, are in my possession at our seat at Coppet.
[† ]Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique, adressé à un souverain d’Allemagne, par le baron de Grimm, et par M. Diderot. (Vol. v, p. 297, May 1781)
It was only on Sunday morning, the 20th of this month, that the people of Paris were apprised of M. Necker’s resignation, sent in the evening before; they had been long prepared for it by the rumor of the town and court, by the impunity of the most offensive libels, and by a kind of patronage extended by a powerful party, by every means open and secret, to those who were shameless enough to circulate them. Yet, to judge from the general surprise, one would have said that no intelligence had ever been so unexpected: consternation was stamped on every countenance; those who felt differently were few in number, and would have been ashamed to show it. The walks, the coffeehouses, and all the places of public resort were crowded with people, but there prevailed an extraordinary silence. They looked at each other and shook hands in despondence, I should say, as at the sight of a public calamity; if these first moments of distress might not rather be compared to the state of a disconsolate family which has just lost the object and support of its hopes.
It happened that they acted, on that evening, at the Theatre Français, the Partie de Chasse de Henri IV. I have often seen at the Paris theaters a surprising quickness in applying passages of a play to momentary circumstances, but I never saw it done with so lively and general an interest. The name of Sully was never introduced without bringing forth a shout of applause, marked each time by a particular character, by a shade belonging to the feeling with which the audience were penetrated, being actuated one moment by regret and grief, at another by gratitude and respect; all so true, so just, and so distinctly marked, that language itself could not have given these emotions a more lively or interesting expression. Nothing that could, without difficulty, be applied to the public feeling toward M. Necker was overlooked; often the rounds of applause burst forth in the midst of an actor’s speech, when the audience foresaw that the end of it would not admit of so clear, so natural, and flattering an application. In short, seldom has there been a more evident or delicate concurrence of feeling; or one, if I may so express myself, more spontaneously unanimous. The comedians thought it incumbent on them to apologize to the lieutenant de police for having been the cause of this touching scene, with which, however, they could not be reproached; they had no difficulty in exculpating themselves, as the piece had been in preparation for a week. The police thought proper to take no notice of it, and merely forbade the newspaper writers from mentioning, in future, M. Necker’s name with either praise or censure.
No minister ever carried a more spotless fame into retirement; none ever received more marks of the public confidence and admiration. For several days after his leaving Paris, the road to his country house at St. Ouen exhibited a continued procession of carriages. Men of all ranks and conditions hastened to show him marks of their sensibility and regret. In the number were to be seen the most respectable persons of the town and court; the prelates most distinguished by their birth and piety, the Archbishop of Paris at their head; the Birons, the Beauvaux, the Richelieus, the Choiseuls, the Noailles, the Luxembourgs; in short, the most respected names in France, not omitting even M. Necker’s official successor, who thought the best way of giving to the public confidence in his administration was to express the greatest admiration of that of M. Necker, and congratulate himself on having only to follow the path he found so happily traced.