Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER IX: The Circumstances That Led to the Assembling of the Estates General.—Ministry of M. de Calonne. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER IX: The Circumstances That Led to the Assembling of the Estates General.—Ministry of M. de Calonne. - 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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The Circumstances That Led to the Assembling of the Estates General.—Ministry of M. de Calonne.
M. Turgot and M. Necker owed their loss of place in a great degree to the influence of the parliaments, who were adverse both to the suppression of exemptions from taxes and to the establishment of provincial assemblies. This made the King think of choosing a finance minister from among the members of the parliament, as a method of disarming the opposition of that body when new taxes came under discussion. The consequence was the appointment, successively, of M. Joly de Fleury and M. d’Ormesson; but neither of these had the least idea of finance business, and their ministries may be considered, in this respect, as periods of anarchy. Yet the circumstances in which they were placed were much more favorable than those with which M. Necker had had to struggle. M. de Maurepas was no more, and the war had been brought to a close. What improvements would not M. Necker have made under such auspicious circumstances! But it was part of the character of these men, or rather of the body to which they belonged, to admit of no improvements of any kind.
Representatives of the people receive information every year, and particularly at each election, from the progress that knowledge makes in all directions; but the Parlement of Paris was, and would always have been, unacquainted with new ideas. The reason is perfectly plain; a privileged body derives its patent from history; it possesses strength today only because it has existed for ages. The consequence is, that it attaches itself to the past and is suspicious of innovation. The case is quite different with elected deputies, who participate in the revived and increasing spirit of the nation which they represent.
The choice of finance ministers from among the Parlement of Paris not having succeeded, the only remaining field for selection was from among the intendants, or provincial administrators appointed by the King. M. Senac de Meilhan, a superficial writer, whose only depth lay in his vanity, could not pardon M. Necker for having been appointed to his situation, for he considered the finance ministry as his right; but it was in vain that he cherished hatred or indulged in calumny; he did not succeed in drawing the public opinion to himself. Among the candidates, there was only one that had the reputation of great talent—M. de Calonne: the world gave him credit for great abilities, because he treated with levity things of the greatest importance, including virtue. The French are but too apt to fall into the great mistake of ascribing wonderful powers to immoral men. Faults caused by passion may often be taken as a sign of distinguished faculties; but a disposition to venality and intrigue belongs to a kind of mediocrity, the possessor of which can be useful in nothing but for his own good. We should be nearer the truth in setting down as incapable of public business any man who has devoted his life to an artful management of persons and circumstances. Such was M. de Calonne; and, even in this light, the frivolity of his character followed him, for when he meant to do mischief, he did not do it with ability.1
His reputation, founded on the report of the women in whose society he was in the habit of passing his time, pointed him out for the ministry. The King was long averse to an appointment at variance with his conscientious feelings; the Queen, although surrounded by persons of a very different way of thinking, partook of her husband’s repugnance; and one is almost tempted to say that both had a presentiment of the misfortunes into which such a character was likely to involve them. No single man, I repeat it, can be considered the author of the French Revolution; but if we want to attribute a certain worldly event to a particular individual, then the blame should rest with M. de Calonne’s actions. His object was to make himself acceptable at court by lavishing the public money; he encouraged the King, the Queen, and the princes to dismiss all restraint in regard to their favorite objects of expense, giving them the assurance that luxury was the source of national prosperity. Prodigality, according to him, was an enlarged economy. In short, his plan was to be easy and accommodating in everything, that he might form a complete contrast to the austerity of M. Necker. But if M. Necker was more virtuous, it is equally true that he also was superior in spirit. The paper controversy that took place some time after between them in regard to the deficit in the revenue showed that, even in point of wit, all the advantage was on M. Necker’s side.2
M. de Calonne’s levity was apparent rather in his principles than in his manners; he thought there was something brilliant in making light of difficulties, as in truth there would be if we overcame them; but when they prove too strong for him who pretends to control them, his negligent confidence tends merely to make him more ridiculous.
M. de Calonne continued during peace the system of loans, which, in M. Necker’s opinion, was suitable only to a state of war. The credit of the minister experiencing a visible decline, he was obliged to raise the rate of interest to get money, and thus disorder grew out of disorder. It was about this time that M. Necker published his Administration des Finances, which is now considered a standard book, and had from its first appearance a surprising effect; the sale extended to 80,000 copies. Never had a work on so serious a subject obtained such general success. The people of France already began to give much attention to public business, although not aware of the share that they might soon take in it.
This work contained all the plans of reform subsequently adopted by the Constituent Assembly in regard to taxes; and the favorable effect produced by these changes on the circumstances of the people has afforded ample evidence of the truth of M. Necker’s constant opinion advanced in his works of the extent of the natural resources of France.
M. de Calonne was popular only among the courtiers; and such was the financial distress caused by his prodigality and carelessness, that he was obliged to have recourse to a measure—the equalization of taxes among all classes, which originated with M. Turgot, a statesman as different from him as possible in every respect. But to what obstacles was not this new measure exposed, and how strange the situation of a minister, who, after dilapidating the treasury to make friends among the privileged orders, found himself obliged to displease that body at large by imposing a burden on the whole to meet the largesses made to individuals.
M. de Calonne was aware that the Parlement of Paris would not give its consent to new taxes, and likewise, that the King was averse to recurring to the expedient of a lit de justice—an expedient which showed the arbitrary power of the Crown in a glaring light, by annulling the only resistance provided by the constitution of the state. On the other hand, the weight of public opinion was daily on the increase, and a spirit of independence was manifesting itself among all classes. M. de Calonne flattered himself that he should find a support from this opinion against the parlement, whereas it was as much adverse to him as to that body. He proposed to the King to summon an Assembly of the Notables, a measure never adopted since the reign of Henri IV, a king who might run any risk in regard to authority, because assured of regaining everything by affection.3
These Assemblies of Notables had no power but that of giving the King their opinion on the questions which ministers thought proper to address to them. Nothing could be more ill-adapted to a time of public agitation than the assembling of bodies of men whose functions are confined to speaking: their opinions are carried to a higher state of excitement because they find no issue. The constitution placed the right of sanctioning taxes solely in the Estates General, the last convocation of which had taken place in 1614; but as taxes had been imposed unceasingly during an interval of 175 years, without a reference to this right, the nation had not the habit of remembering it, and at Paris they talked much more of the constitution of England than of that of France. The political principles laid down in English publications were much better known to Frenchmen than their ancient institutions, disused and forgotten for nearly two centuries.4
At the opening meeting of the Assembly of Notables in 1787, M. de Calonne confessed, in his statement of the finances, that the national expenditure exceeded the receipt by 56,000,000 livres a year;* but he alleged that this deficiency had commenced long before him, and that M. Necker had not adhered to truth when he asserted in 1781 that the receipt exceeded the expenditure by 10,000,000 livres.5 No sooner did this assertion reach the ears of M. Necker than he refuted it in a triumphant memorial, accompanied by official documents, of the correctness of which the Notables were capable of judging at the time. His two successors in the ministry of finance, M. Joly de Fleury and M. d’Ormesson, attested the truth of his assertions. He sent a copy of this memorial to the King, who seemed satisfied of its truth but required of him not to print it.
In an arbitrary government, kings, even the best, have difficulty in conceiving the importance which every man naturally attaches to the good opinion of the public. In their eyes the court is the center of everything, while they themselves are the center of the court. M. Necker felt himself under the necessity of disobeying the King’s injunction: to oblige a minister in retirement to keep silence, when accused by a minister in office of a falsehood in the face of the nation, was like forbidding a man to defend his honor. A sensibility to reputation less keen than that of M. Necker would have prompted a man to repel such an offense at all hazards. Ambition would, no doubt, have suggested a submission to the royal commands; but, as M. Necker’s ambition pointed to fame, he published his work, although assured by everybody that by so doing he exposed himself, at the least, to exclusion forever from the ministry.6
One evening in the winter of 1787, two days after the answer to M. de Calonne’s attack had appeared, a message was brought to my father, while in the drawing room along with his family and a few friends. He went out, and having first sent for my mother, and, some minutes afterward, for me, he told me that M. Le Noir, the Lieutenant de Police, had just brought him a lettre de cachet, by which he was exiled to the distance of forty leagues from Paris. I cannot describe the state into which I was thrown by this news; it seemed to me an act of despotism without example; it was inflicted on my father, of whose noble and pure sentiments I was fully aware. I had not yet an idea of what governments are, and the conduct of the French government appeared to me an act of the most revolting injustice. I have certainly not changed my opinion in regard to the punishment of exile without trial; I think, and shall endeavor to prove, that of all harsh punishments it is the one most liable to abuse. But at that time, lettres de cachet, like other irregularities, were considered as ordinary things; and the personal character of the King had the effect of softening the abuse of them as much as possible.
But M. Necker’s popularity had the effect of changing persecutions into triumph. All Paris came to see him during the twenty-four hours that he required to get ready for his journey. The Archbishop of Toulouse, patronized by the Queen, and on the eve of succeeding M. de Calonne, thought it incumbent on him, even on a calculation of ambition, to pay a visit to the exile. Offers of residences were made on all hands to M. Necker; all the castles at the distance of forty leagues from Paris were placed at his disposal. The evil of a banishment, known to be temporary, could not be very great, and the compensation for it was most flattering. But is it possible that a country can be governed in this manner? Nothing is so pleasant, for a certain time, as the decline of a government, for its weakness gives it an air of mildness; but the fall that ensues is dreadful.
The exile of M. Necker had by no means the effect of rendering the Notables favorable to M. de Calonne: they were irritated at it, and the assembly made more and more opposition to the plans of the minister. His proposed taxes were all founded on the abolition of pecuniary privileges; but, as they were alleged to be very ill planned, the Notables rejected them under this pretext. This body, composed almost entirely of nobility and clergy,7 was certainly not disposed (with some exceptions) to admit the principle of equalization of taxes; but it was cautious in expressing its secret wish in this respect; and, connecting itself with those whose views were entirely liberal, the result was its concurrence with the nation, which dreaded indiscriminately all new taxes of whatever nature.
The unpopularity of M. de Calonne was now so great, and the Assembly of the Notables afforded so imposing a medium for expressing this unpopularity, that the King felt himself obliged not only to remove M. de Calonne from office, but even to punish him. Now, whatever might be the faults of the minister, the King had declared to the Notables, two months before, that he approved his plans: there was consequently as great a loss of dignity in thus abandoning a bad minister as in previously removing a good one. But the great misfortune lay in the incredible choice of a successor; the Queen wished for the Archbishop of Toulouse; but the King was not disposed to appoint him. M. de Castries, who was then Minister of Marine, proposed M. Necker; but the Baron de Breteuil, who dreaded him, stimulated the King’s pride by pointing out to him that he could not choose as minister one whom he had so lately exiled. Those kings who possess the least firmness of character are of all others the most sensitive when their authority is in question; they seem to think that it can go on of its own accord, like a supernatural power, entirely independent of means and circumstances. The Baron de Breteuil succeeded in preventing the appointment of M. Necker; the Queen failed in regard to the Archbishop of Toulouse; and the parties united for an instant on ground certainly very neutral, or rather no ground at all, in the appointment of M. de Fourqueux.8
Never had the wig of a counselor of state covered a poorer head: the man seemed at first to form a very proper estimate of his abilities, and wanted to refuse the position he was incapable of filling. But so many entreaties were made for his acceptance of it, that, at the age of sixty,9 he began to conceive that his modesty had till then prevented him from being aware of his own talents, and that the court had at last discovered them. Thus did the well-wishers of M. Necker, and the Archbishop of Toulouse, fill the ministerial chair for an interval, as a box in a theater is kept by a servant till the arrival of his masters. Each party flattered itself with gaining time so as to secure the ministry for one of the two candidates, who alone had now a chance of it.
It was still perhaps not impossible to save the country from a revolution, or at least to preserve to government the control of public proceedings. No promise had as yet been given to convene the Estates General; the old methods of doing public business were not yet abandoned; perhaps the King, aided by the great popularity of M. Necker, might still have been enabled to accomplish the reforms necessary to straighten out the finances. Or, that department of government, bearing directly on public credit, and the influence of parlements, might with propriety be called the keystone of the arch. M. Necker, exiled at that time forty leagues from Paris, felt the importance of the crisis; and before the messenger who brought him the news of the appointment of the Archbishop of Toulouse had left the room, he expressed himself to me in these remarkable words: “God grant that the new minister may succeed in serving his king and country better than I should have been able to do; circumstances are already of a nature to make the task perilous; but they will soon be such as to surpass the powers of any man.”
[1. ] Calonne became controller general of finances in November 1783 and held this position until April 1787. For more information on Calonne, see Doyle, Origins of the French Revolution, 45–53.
[2. ] The paper controversy was originally triggered by Calonne’s critique of Necker’s ideas in On the Administration of the Finances of France (1784). Calonne gave a discourse in the Assembly of Notables on February 22, 1787, followed by Necker’s Response to the Discourse Pronounced by Mr. de Calonne (Paris, 1787).
[3. ] In fact, Assemblies of Notables had been convoked after the death of Henri IV and again in 1617, 1625, and 1626. Necker’s account of the Assembly of Notables of 1787 is in Necker, De la Révolution française, pt. I, 60–64. Also see Furet, Revolutionary France, 41–45; and Baker, ed., The Old Régime and the French Revolution, 124–35.
[4. ] For the image of England in France, see p. 42n35 of the present volume.
[* ] In English money 2,300,000l. sterling.
[5. ] The historians who questioned the accuracy of Necker’s account concluded that the ten-million-livre budget surplus Necker announced in his Compte rendu was an exaggerated figure. For more information, see Egret, Necker, ministre de Louis XVI, 201–15.
[6. ] In his book, Necker answered Calonne’s criticism and defended his policy. The King, who was displeased with Necker’s decision to publish the book, initially wanted to send Necker into exile, but at the intervention of the Queen ordered him to leave Paris and remain forty leagues from the capital. The Necker family eventually settled close to Fontainebleau.
[7. ] Of the 144 members of the Assembly of 1787, 106 notables represented the nobles and the clergy, and 38 represented the Third Estate.
[8. ] Bouvard de Fourqueux proved to be a competent public official, although perhaps not physically fit for the new office.
[9. ] Fourqueux was sixty-eight (b. 1719), not sixty, when he assumed this office.