1780s: Pre-Revolutionary France

This section exhibits texts from Archives & Special Collections' rare book collection that highlight the efforts of King Louis XVI and his Finance Ministers to find a solution to an increasingly severe financial and social crisis in the late 1700s in order to avoid a public uprising. 

Financial Crisis of the 1780s

In the late 1700s, France was facing a severe financial crisis due to the immense debt accrued through the French involvement in the Seven Years War (1756–1763) and the American Revolution (1775-1783). Moreover, the corruption and indulgent lifestyle of the royal family and the French court at Versailles, did little to relieve the growing debt. Furthermore, the increasingly egregious abuses of power of the monarchy, French nobility and the clergy, combined with a blatantly unfair taxation arrangement did very little to endear the aristocracy to the common people in the face of increasing public dissent. 

Jacques Necker (1732-1804) 

During this time, Jacques Necker was appointed Director-General of Finances by King Louis XVI in October 1772. He gained popularity through a series of reforms to regulate France's finances. His greatest financial measures were his use of loans to help fund the French debt and high interest rates rather than raising taxes. He was also responsible for the abolishment of serfdom in France. Despite his efforts, Necker was forced to retire from office in 1781 after publishing his Compte Rendu au Roi, the first-ever public record of royal and governmental finances which made the people more proactive and engaged in public affairs (this text could also be credited as one of the causes of the French Revolution). 

In retirement he continued to write and comment on France's financial situation, and he produced his famous Traité de l'administration des finances de la France in 1784 (Call No. HJ1082.N3 1784). This work gives a historical account of taxation in France and is interspersed with observations on the grain-trade, provincial assemblies, luxury and the like. At the time, the Traité  was an extremely popular text and is said to have sold over 80, 000 copies, despite being in three volumes. As a result, the Traité strengthened Necker's popularity, and contributed to his return as directeur-général des finances in 1788, after his dismissal in 1781. It is a valuable book to anyone studying how the finances of France were managed in the last days of the old regime.

Necker also wrote several other volumes that are reflective of his experiences during his times in office and the events of the revolution, including: Sur l'administration de M. Necker in 1791 (Call No. HJ1082.N8 1791) and De la revolution francaise in 1797 (Call No. DC161.N36 1797).  

Title Page of "Response de M. De Calonne a l'ecrit de M. Necker, contenant l'examen du comptes de la situation des FInances" by M. de Calonne dated 1788 (Call No. HJ1082.N62C3 1788)

Title page of "Traité de l'administration des finances de la France" by Jaques Necker dated 1784 (Call No. HJ1082.N3 1784).

Charles Alexandre de Calonne (1734-1802)

It was later discovered that Necker "cooked the books" in order to hide the crippling interest payments that France had to make on its massive £112 million in loans as normal expenditure. Realizing that France was in serious financial trouble King Louis XVI appointed Charles de Calonne  as Controller-General of Finances in 1783 to evaluate the situation and propose a solution. Charged with auditing all of the royal accounts and records, Calonne found a financial system that was rife with corruption and composed of fraudulent officials. There was no easy way to raise money to alleviate the nation’s debt. The only system in place to raise money was taxation; however taxation only applied to peasants since the nobles were tax-exempt. 

In order to avoid raising taxes, Calonne made a failed attempt to obtain additional loans to maintain the government's solvency. Instead, he developed a reform package that recommended across-the-board taxation as the only way to salvage France’s dire financial situation. Therefore, he called an Assembly of Notables in February 1787, to which he presented the deficit in the treasury, and proposed the establishment of a subvention territoriale, which would be levied on all property without distinction—which meant that the nobles would lose their tax-exemption. Unsurprisingly, the notables rejected his plan and turned against Calonne, and he was dismissed shortly thereafter and exiled from France in 1788. 

Calonne took up residence in Great Britain, and maintained a polemical correspondence with Jacques Necker who had returned to office in 1788. For example, Calonne'Réponse de m. de Calonne à l'écrit de m. Necker from 1788 (Call No. HJ1082.N62C3 1788) is a text that outlines their differences regarding the State deficit, and also provides a comparison between Necker's Compte Rendu au Roi published in 1781 and the actual account records of that same year. In addition, it gives a detailed account of the French government's accounts. 

Also in the collection is Calonne's memoir: Memoire de m. de Calonne, ministre d'etat, contre le decret rendu le 14 fevrier 1791 (Call No. HJ1082.C3 1791). 

Estates-General (1789)

The suggestion to summon the Estates-General came from the Assembly of Notables held by the king on February 22, 1787.The Estates General was an ancient assembly of representatives of the French estates of the realm: the clergy (First Estate), the nobles (Second Estate), and the common people (Third Estate). It had not been held since 1614. 

The Résultat du Conseil d'État du Roi (Call No. JN2415 1788.A45) provides a report of the State Council meeting held at Versailles on December 27th, 1788 on the recommendation to convene the Estates-General. Written by the Director-General of Finances (Jacques Necker held this position once again), the report discusses four key suggestions for this assembly: 

 1. That the deputees of the next Estates-General number less than one thousand;

 2. That this number be formed, as much as possible, from the population and from each local district;

 3. That the number of deputees from the Third Estate are equal to the other two orders combined, & that this proportion is established in the letters of convocation; 

 4. That these prelimiary decisions will serve the basis for the necessary work of preparing the letters of convocation, as well as any other documents that must accompany them without delay. 

Title page of the "Résultat du Conseil d'État du Roi" dated December 27th 1788 (Call No. JN2415 1788.A45)

The Estates-General were summoned by a royal edict, dated January 24, 1789 which was comprised of two parts: a Lettre du Roi and a Règlement (Call No. DC163.7.C6 1788). These documents called the Estates General to assemble and provided election guidelines for each representative attending the Estates-General. In his letter, the apparent intent of the king was for the Estates-General to get directly to the matter of taxes in order to find a solution to the financial crisis:

Notre Amé et féal, Nous avons besoin du concours de nos fidèle Sujets, pour aider à surmonter toutes les difficultés où nous nous trouvons, relativement à l'état de nos finances... A ces causes, Nous vous avertissons & signisions que notre volonté est de commencer à tenir les États libres & généraux de notre Royaume, au lundi 27 Avril prochain, en notre ville de Versailles... ("Lettre du Roi" in Collection sur les Etats-generaux, 1788). 

Title page of the "Lettre du Roi" dated January 24, 1788 (Call No. DC163.7.C6 1788).

However, when the Estates-General convened on May 5th, 1789, the first item on the agenda was the verification of powers, rather than discussing a solution to the nation's finacial problems. Each of the three estates had different ideas regarding this issue and the organization of the legislature. Although Louis XVI granted the Third Estate greater numerical representation, the Parlement of Paris had stepped in and invoked an old rule mandating that each estate receive one vote, regardless of size—meaning that the Third Estate was not granted more power in the assembly. The Third Estate wanted to meet as a single body and for each delegate to have one vote, which was not something that appealed to the First and Second Estates since the Third Estate outnumbered them, and the talks eventually led to an impasse.

This impasse led to the Third Estate's resolution to to proceed with verification on its own, with or without members of the other two estates. Furthermore, on June 17, 1789, bolstered by communitywide support, the Third Estate officially broke away from the Estates-General and proclaimed itself the National Assembly. In so doing, it also granted itself control over taxation. Shortly thereafter, many members of the other estates joined the cause. This officially put an end to the Estates-General and also contributed to the beginning of the French Revolution later that year. 

Other important texts on the Estates-General in Archives & Special Collections' collection include:

Lettres du Comte de Mirabeau a ses commettans (Call No. DC140 .C59 1789). Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau (1749-1791) was a member of the nobility who was elected to represent the Third Estate at the Estates-General, and later, he was an important figure in the early days of the Revolution. These volumes offer a collection of his letters to various politicians and to the king.

La Galérie des États-generaux et des dames françoises (Call No. DC145 .G3 1789). This volume presents short biographies of important members of the Estates-General, and also includes a section of important women related to this assembly. 

Collection sur les Etats-generaux (Call No. DC163.7.C6 1788). This collection reproduces a number of important primary documents relating to the Estates-General, including the Lettre du Roi and the Reglement.