Episode 5: Calonne and the Assembly of Rebels


Episode 5, ‘Calonne and the Assembly of Rebels’, explores Charles Alexandre de Calonne’s time in office as the Controller-General of Finances. Initially failing to reform the state’s finances, Calonne realizes in 1786 that the French nation will go bankrupt without radical changes to the taxation system.  In an effort to avoid the Parlements and an Estates-General, Calonne convenes an Assembly of Notables to try to legitimize some radical reforms in order to save the state’s finances. Unfortunately for Calonne, the Assembly of Notables fast evolves into an Assembly of Rebels.

The Taxation System of the Old Regime

To claim that the taxes of the Old Regime could be grouped into four broad categories implies that the Old Regime had a taxation system to begin with. In reality, it is perhaps more accurate to suggest that the Old Regime had a series of taxation policies that were created at various points in time and that there nothing much systematic about those policies when viewed as a portfolio. For simplicity purposes, however, the taxes of the Old Regime can be grouped as follows: farmed taxes, direct taxes, religious taxes, and feudal dues.

Farmed Taxes

Much like some tax collectors in Ancient Rome, the Farmer Generals were a group of contractors who bid for the right to collect a number of indirect taxes (farmed taxes) every six years. Having won the contract, they paid the Monarchy a fixed sum, and they got to keep the difference between what they actually raised and what they had to pay to the King. Unsurprisingly, these individuals were very rich, were very hated, and were very dead by the time the Revolution turns sour. At least 25,000 individuals worked for the Farmer Generals, meaning they were the largest employer in the nation after the Army, Navy, and Church. The majority of those individuals made up what was essentially a paramilitary force that, armed with both weapons and the authority of the king, enabled the Farmers to force regular Frenchman to pay whatever they deemed reasonable. With the power of King (and weapons) behind them, the Farmer Generals weren’t exactly held back by moral dilemmas and ethical questions as they collected by any means necessary somewhere between a third and a half of state revenue.

In September 1750, four decades before the revolution, the Marquis of Argenson wrote in his journal about the opportunistic search for new revenue undertaken by the Farmers.

“An officer of the  election has come into the village where my country-house is, and has said that the taille of the parish would be much raised this year; he had noticed that the peasants looked fatter than elsewhere, had seen hens’ feathers lying about the doors, that people were living well and were comfortable, that I spent a great deal of money in the village for my household expenses, etc. This is what discourages the peasants. This is what causes the misfortunes of the kingdom. This is what Henry IV. would weep over were he living now.”

Historian Annie Besant adds to this image of ruthlessness on the part of the collectors.

“[They] were the scourge of France. They were authorised to employ arms to enforce the payment of taxes ; they sent their unfortunate debtors to the prison, to the galleys, to the hangman’s cord. They would seize, first, the linen drying on the hedgerows ; then the furniture of the defaulter. This not sufficing, they would take the doors of the cottages off their hinges, the tiles from the roof, and would even pull down the house, in order to carry off the heavy beams and the planks. “I have known poor people sell their beds and lie upon straw; sell their pots, kettles, and all their necessary household goods, to content the unmerciful collectors of the King’s taxes.””

This ruthless form of tax collection was enforced by the farmer generals for various indirect taxes on goods like salt, tobacco, soap, wine, playing cards. You name it, there was probably a tax on it, and this excessive taxation was actually quite problematic. This farmed taxation system significantly hampered trade within the Kingdom, so much so that it was easier to trade with Prussia than Paris for some French provinces in eastern France. Furthermore, little provincial trade occurred within France. Of the 75,000 tons of goods exported from Paris and its surrounds, none went to southern France. A boatload of wine traveling from Provence in the south-east to Paris would be required to pay a toll roughly 40 times during the journey. These policies smothered economic growth and encouraged smuggling as well. The gabelle, or the salt tax, was one of the most hated of the indirect taxes, particularly because it was on a basic commodity. Various areas of France paid widely different amounts, which, unsurprisingly, fuelled smuggling. In 1783, more than 11,000 people were arrested for infraction of the gabelle laws, which explains why tens of thousands of officials were needed to police to the tax.

All of this taxation and smuggling only served to reinforce distrust of the bureaucracy and officials of the Old Regime, leading to unintended consequences. Jacques Necker lamented, “I remember a singular feature of this subject. I think it was twenty years ago that an intendant, with the laudable intention of encouraging the manufacture of honey and the cultivation of bees, began by asking for statistics as to the number of hives kept in the province. The people did not understand his intentions, they were, perhaps, suspicious of them, and in a few days almost all the hives were destroyed.”

The Old Regime’s taxation “system” was robbing itself of sweet revenue.

Direct Taxes

Some direct taxes were also levied on elements of the Third Estate. These taxes, such as the capitation, were predominately borne by the wealthier peasants and members of the bourgeoisie.

Religious Taxes

The Catholic Church was allowed to levy the tithe, which would take from the average peasant around 10% of their produce. This right was of course in addition to the significant prerogative of taxation exemption enjoyed by the Church, meaning that a more substantial tax burden was borne by commoners.

Feudal Dues

Finally, there were the feudal dues. After Necker’s resignation in 1781, feudal dues had been more rigorously enforced by the nobility and some members of the bourgeoisie who could enforce them (they might have acquired feudal dues through the purchase of property). Feudal dues could include the right to tax marriages or property transfers, the right to tax goods moving along particular waterways or roads, and the right to confiscate a portion of the peasant’s harvest. Throughout the Kingdom, there were various kinds of unique feudal dues and prerogatives granted to the land-owning elites, some bizarre, others outrageous. Unsurprisingly, like the Farmer Generals, those individuals who rigorously enforced these dues would also feel the wrath of the masses in the coming Revolution.

Charles Alexandre de Calonne

Jacques Necker borrowed significant sums of money to fund French participation in the American Revolutionary War, and as a result, France was saddled with a tremendous amount of debt after the conflict. Significant structural reforms were required by Necker’s successors to ensure France avoided bankruptcy, particularly in the area of taxation. Yet on 3 November 1783, Charles Alexandre de Calonne became the Controller-General of Finances, a man totally unsuitable for such a monumental task. Calonne, unlike Necker or Turgot, was not prepared to make significant reforms in an effort to tackle the growing government debt, nor was he prepared to curtail the reckless spending of the court. Instead, Calonne focussed on his popularity, his social standing, and his ‘duty’ to meet the desires of the Royal Family.

“From 1783 to 1787 the finances were in the hands of Calonne, whose management proved decisive and fatal. His dominant idea was that of a courtier, always to honour any demand made on the treasury by the King or Queen. To do less would be unworthy of a gentilhomme and a devoted servant of their Majesties. So Calonne, bowing gracefully, smiling reassuringly, embarked on a fatal course, borrowing where he could, anticipating in one direction, defaulting in another, but always, and somehow, producing the louis [coins] necessary to the enjoyment of the present moment.” – Historian Robert Johnson

The Assembly of Notables

Towards the end of 1786, Calonne had no choice but to confront the truth about the nation’s debt. France was facing an impending financial crisis. There were two obvious ways he could tackle the issue. Firstly, Calonne could have tried to get reforms through the Parlements which would have expanded the tax base and more broadly redesigned the taxation system. Calonne believed this path was not viable, however, as he felt that the Parlements would never consent to the infringement of noble privileges required to balance the books. The other obvious option for Calonne was the summoning of the Estates General. The Estates General was the closest thing France had to a Parliament. The three Estates elected representatives for their own Estate, and then the Estates voted separately on every issue. With each Estate having one vote, the First and Second Estates would generally vote together, outvoting the Third Estate 2 to 1 on any controversial measure. Importantly though, the Estates General hadn’t met since 1614, and thus Calonne was hesitant to bring it back now. Louis XIV and Louis XV had not allowed the rabble to intervene with their notions of divine right and absolute monarchy, so it would have been all tall ask of Louis XVI to permit the summoning of the Estates. Calonne, therefore, came up with a third option in which to tackle the government’s financial crisis. A tad unconventional but not without precedent, Calonne summoned an Assembly of Notables.

On February 22 1787, 144 notables gathered at Versailles to deliberate on Calonne’s reforms package. Only 10 non-nobles joined the 7 princes of the blood, 7 prominent archbishops, 7 hereditary dukes, six marquis, one baron, nine counts, eight marshals and other distinguished members including the key leaders of the Parlements. The notables were broken up into 7 bureaus, each chaired by a prince of the blood, and they quickly started to analyze Calonne’s reform package. Calonne was proposing to replace the capitation and twentieths taxes with a new land tax that would apply to all landowners, privileged or not. Internally, he proposed to stimulate the economy by removing customs barriers and liberating the grain trade. He would also eliminate some direct taxes, and introduce elected assemblies to help the central government collect and appropriate revenue. Interestingly, unlike the Estates-General, these provincial assemblies would not distinguish between Estates, meaning the two privileged orders could not simply outvote the Third. The package also included reforms to the gabelle and the corvée, two of France’s most hated taxes, but the privileged orders, though subject to the new land tax, would still be exempt from the taille and the new corvée (which would be paid in money instead of labour).

Calonne argued that these policies in conjunction with the rest of his proposals would save the French nation from chaos and disaster. His only problem was that the Assembly of Notables weren’t inclined to agree.

The first problem Calonne ran into was the fact that not every Notable actually believed something needed to be done. This wasn’t helped by the fact that Calonne wouldn’t open the books to let them inspect the nation’s fiscal health. However, the chief reason the Notables couldn’t believe Calonne, despite receiving the King’s backing, was because of Necker. Necker, after all, released the Compte Rendu in 1781 which had shown a budget surplus of some 10 million livres. The fact that this surplus was fictitious was not comprehensible to the Notables. Instead, many suspected Calonne to be the fraud as he attacked Necker for reckless mismanagement. As the Notables became less cordial towards the Controller General, Calonne warned them of the consequences of inaction. Less than two weeks into the conference, the Controller General, seeking to reclaim the initiative, proclaimed on March 2:

“The chief thing is not to delay the resolution which must bring an end to the disproportion between the receipts of the State and its needful expenditure. To delay this resolution is to risk losing everything, to endanger the safety of the State.”

In what can only be considered ironic and completely incorrect, Brienne, the Archbishop of Toulouse, the upcoming defacto leader of the opposition amongst the Notables (and eventually Calonne’s replacement) responded, “O, come, the danger is not so great!” Brienne couldn’t have been more wrong.

As the days continued, the complaints of the Notables piled up. One by one, the Notables become more obstructionist, more vocal, more dangerous to a monarchy that had invited the public to watch a body which, instead of submitting to the will of the King, had been openly questioning it. On the 16th of March, nearly four weeks since commencing deliberations, the Third Bureau, chaired by the Duke of Orleans, submitted this formal protest:

“The bureau, presided over by His Grace, the Duke of Orleans . . . considered that it owed the King and the nation an accounting of its true feelings, and considered that it needed to explain the disparity between the principles on which its judgments were based and those embodied in the memoranda it received. The bureau acknowledges that its principles are contrary to those in the memorandum on the establishment of provincial assemblies, which it considers unconstitutional and lacking in the powers necessary to render them useful. They also disagreed about the tax in kind known as the “land tax,” which it considers to be vague, disproportionate, and extravagant, as well as on the reimbursement of the clergy’s debts, which it considers to be contrary to the principles of property. The bureau believes itself obliged to also state that it did not deliberate on any monetary tax, either already collected or to be collected, either already established or to be established, and either under the name of vingtièmes [twentieths] or any other name. Prior to any deliberation on these subjects, the bureau first desired to have access to the revenue and expenditure accounts, the plans and projects announced by the controller general, and the means of saving that His Majesty proposes to relieve the burden on his People.”

Why the Assembly of Notables rebelled 

Most historians agree that the Assembly of Notables became anything but the rubber stamp Calonne intended it to be. Why the Assembly became vocally obstructionist is, however, a matter for debate. Historian Simon Schama argues that the Notables were not obstructing Calonne’s plans in order to protect their privileges, but rather because they simply disagreed that the plans were the best way to achieve their intended consequences. Schama points out that many policies were not rejected outright but critiqued by the Notables. Some bureaus suggested the land tax should be extended to forms of property not originally proposed, while others called for the lowering taxes on the most downtrodden. Diving into detail, some Notables suggested that taxing gross produce was ill-advised and that the net produce of land should be evaluated instead. To Shama, this is all proof that the Notables were not protecting their privileges and prerogatives as much as they were genuinely trying to ensure good government policy was installed after years of mismanagement.

“Where disagreement occurred, it was not because Calonne had shocked the Notables with his announcement of a new fiscal and political world; it was either because he had not gone far enough or because they disliked the operational methods built into the program. The debates over the land tax do not at all suggest a group of rich landowners (for that is indeed what they were) digging in their heels at the threatened onslaught of their privileges.” – Historian Simon Schama

This opinion is, however, contested by other Historians. Some believe that the Assembly was rebelling against its creator for reasons of self-interest.

“The notables, chosen by the government from the higher classes, formed a ministerial assembly, which had neither a proper existence nor a commission. It was, indeed, to avoid parliaments and states-general, that Calonne addressed himself to a more subordinate assembly, hoping to find it more docile. But, composed of privileged persons, it was little disposed to make sacrifices.” – Historian Francois Mignet

“The Notables opposed Calonne for reasons differing from those that prompted the bourgeoisie to protest. The bourgeoisie wanted an end to privilege and financial chaos, and saw in Calonne a representative of the old regime; the Notables resisted him because his reforms threatened their own privileges.” – Historian Gaetano Salvemini

Downfall of Calonne

As the weeks dragged on, it became clear the Assembly would not deliver Calonne the mandate which he sought. Having summoned the Notables to avoid both the Parlements and an Estates-General, Calonne’s creation was beginning to devour its master. The Archbishop of Narbonne, for example, proclaimed, “Calonne wishes to bleed France to death. He is merely asking us whether to make the incision on the feet, the arms or the jugular vein.”

Instead of legitimizing Calonne’s reforms, the Assembly legitimized the call for the Estates-General. Calls for an Estates-General had already been circulating in the press as the bourgeoisie sought to partake in political discourse, but with the failure of the Assembly of Notables, many members of the Nobility began to call for the Estates-General as well. Some conservative nobles sought the Estates-General as they believed the body would protect the privileges Calonne sought to remove, while other liberally-minded nobles sought the body for ideological reasons, believing that any serious reforms should be legitimized by a truly representative body (if giving 2 of 3 votes to Estates representing less than 2% of the nation can be considered truly representative).

“The majority were against the reforms proposed, while the few who approved them were determined that they should be made by an assembly representative of the nation.” – Historian Bertha Gardiner

Finding opposition and hostility everywhere he looked, Calonne resigned on the 8th of April, 1787. Despite being supported by the monarch, King Louis XVI had failed to protect Calonne from his growing list of enemies. To some historians, the failure of the King to ensure his minister and his minister’s policies were introduced reflects poorly on Louis himself. The failure of the Assembly of Notables was further proof that France had an autocratic system of government that was missing an autocratic monarch. As a result, Calonne and his reforms were always going to be in a precarious position once opposition to them became widespread.

“Totally incapable of standing by himself, he leant successively, or simultaneously, on his aunt, his wife, his ministers, his courtiers, as ready to change his policy as his adviser.” – Historian Edward Lowell

It will turn out that Louis is totally incapable of standing against a revolution as well.


Grey History