Charles Alexandre de Calonne
Realizing that the Parlement of Paris would never agree to reform, Calonne handpicked an Assembly of Notables in 1787 to approve new taxes. When they refused, Calonne's reputation plummeted and he was forced to leave the country.
Rise to prominence
Born in Douai of an upper-class family, he entered the legal profession and became a lawyer to the general council of Artois, procureur to the parlement of Douai, maître des requêtes, intendant of Metz (1768) and of Lille (1774). He seems to have been a man with notable business abilities and an entrepreneurial spirit, while generally unscrupulous in his political actions. In the terrible crisis preceding the French Revolution, when successive ministers tried in vain to replenish the exhausted royal treasury, Calonne was summoned as Controller-General of Finances, an office he assumed on 3 November 1783.
He owed the position to the Comte de Vergennes, who for over three years continued to support him. According to the Habsburg ambassador, his public image was extremely poor. Calonne immediately set about remedying the fiscal crisis, and he found in Louis XVI enough support to create a vast and ambitious plan of revenue-raising and administrative centralization. He presented the king with his plan on 20 August 1786. At its heart was a new land value tax, which would replace the old vingtieme taxes and finally sweep away the fiscal exemptions of the privileged orders. The new tax would be administered by a system of provincial assemblies elected by the local property owners at parish, district and provincial level. This central proposal was accompanied by a further package of rationalizing reform, including free trade in grain and abolition of France's myriad internal customs barriers. It was in effect one, if not the most, comprehensive attempt at enlightened reform during the reign of Louis XVI.
In taking office he found debts of 110 million livres, debts caused by France's involvement in the American Revolution among other reasons, and no means of paying them. At first he attempted to obtain credit, and to support the government by means of loans so as to maintain public confidence in its solvency. In October 1785 he reissued the gold coinage, and he developed the caisse d'escompte (dealing in cash discounts). Calonne's eventual reform package, which was introduced to the Assembly of Notables, consisted of 5 major points:
1) Cut Government Spending
2) Create a revival of free trade methods
3) Authorize the sale of Church property
4) Equalization of salt and tobacco taxes
All these measures failed because of the powerlessness of the crown to impose them. As a last resort, he proposed to the king the suppression of internal customs duties, and argued in favor of the taxation of the property of nobles and clergy. Anne Robert Jacques Turgot and Jacques Necker had attempted these reforms, and Calonne attributed their failure to the opposition of the parlements. Therefore, he called an Assemblée des 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.
Deposition and exile
This suppression of privileges was badly received. Calonne's spendthrift and authoritarian reputation was well-known to the parlements, earning him their enmity. Knowing this, he intentionally submitted his reform programme directly to the king and the hand-picked assembly of notables, not to the sovereign courts or parlements, first. Composed of the old regime's social and political elite, however, the assembly of notables balked at the deficit presented to them when they met at Versailles in February 1787, and despite Calonne's plan for reform and his backing from the king, they suspected that the controller-general was in some way responsible for the enormous financial strains. Calonne, angered, printed his reports and so alienated the court. Louis XVI dismissed him on 8 April 1787 and exiled him to Lorraine. The joy was general in Paris, where Calonne, accused of wishing to raise taxes, was known as Monsieur Déficit. Calonne soon afterwards left for Great Britain, and during his residence there kept up a polemical correspondence with Necker. After being dismissed, Calonne stated, "The King, who assured me a hundred times that he would support me with unshakable firmness, abandoned me, and I succumbed”.
In 1789, when the Estates-General were about to assemble, he crossed to Flanders in the hope of offering himself for election, but he was forbidden to enter France. In revenge he joined the émigré group at Coblenz, wrote in their favour, and spent nearly all the fortune brought him by his wife, a wealthy widow. He was present with the Count of Artois, the reactionary brother of Louis XVI, at Pillnitz in August 1791 at the time of the issuance of the Declaration of Pillnitz, an attempt to intimidate the revolutionary government of France that the Count of Artois pressed for. In 1802, having again settled in London, he received permission from Napoleon Bonaparte to return to France. He died about a month after his arrival in his native country.
Calonne's negative reputation and assumed responsibility for France's financial crisis in the years leading to the Revolution of 1789 have been judged unfair by historians such as Munro Price. During his position as controller-general, he had genuinely tried to make amends for his previous spendthrift policies. As a contemporary writer, Chamfort, remarked, Calonne was "applauded when he lit the fire, and condemned when he sounded the alarm." Economic historians such as Eugene White, have however stressed the negative role played by Calonne who continued the restoration of a venal system of financial administration. His fall had important significance to the fate of the monarchy in France before 1789. The financial strains made apparent through Calonne's attempts at reform revealed the instability of the monarchy as a whole, which up until then had been managed on the basis of traditional monarchical absolutism: secretly, hierarchically, without public scrutiny of accounts or consent to taxation. For centuries, the monarchy had controlled fiscal policy on its own terms, and when knowledge of an unmanageable and growing deficit became more widely known, the image was of a failed and, in many ways, corrupt institution. Louis XVI, who had backed Calonne's reform programme wholehearthedly, saw its refusal by the notables and the parlement as a personal failure. Conscientious in his attempts to alleviate the suffering of the French people, the king, it is clear, genuinely hoped to implement an enlightened policy with the help of Calonne. Crushed by this opposition to Calonne's project, the king withdrew to long hours of hunting and larger meals. Many historians see the ensuing months as the beginning of the king's bouts of depression.
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- Ford, F: "Europe 1780–1830", page 102. Longman, 2002
- Crook, M. (2002) Revolutionary France, Oxford: Oxford University Press
- France 1789, Victory Over History: The French Revolution (Sydney, 2016), http://victoryoverhistory.com/the-french-revolution/france-1789/
- Calonne's presence in the entourage of the Count of Artois at this time is confirmed in a journal that documents the events surrounding the coronation of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia in Prague in September 1791: the Krönungsjournal für Prag (Prague, 1791), 203.
- White, Eugene Nelson, (1989), “Was there a Solution to the Ancien Régime’s Financial Dilemma”, Journal of Economic History, 49, 3, pp. 545-568.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Calonne, Charles Alexandre de". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
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