From Reform to Revolution
Charles-Alexandre de Calonne
by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun (1784)
The Assembly of Notables February 22, 1787
Jean-Michel Moreau (c. 1787)
"Thinking people were content to talk of abolishing all the
abuses. France, they said was about to be re-born. The
word 'revolution' was never uttered"
Madame de La Tour du Pin (May 1789)
As Jefferson and the chateau reformers in his new progressive circle deliberated over the form a new constitutional government should have and the procedures for implementing it, the financial dam was preparing to burst at the royal treasury. The situation was being monitored with alarm by Charles Alexandre, vicomte de Calonne. Comte Vergennes had called Calonne to replace Jacques Necker as the king’s chief financial officer when he discovered that Necker’s cheerful report on the government’s financial condition (Compte rendu au Roi, January 1781) was a cleverly designed ruse.
In fact the French government was running huge annual deficits. Necker had funded them with money borrowed from wealthy Frenchmen and foreign bankers. Calonne intended to reduce these unsupportable deficits by creating new lines of credit with lower interest rates. This, he told the king, would create “breathing room” while his other corrective measures put France's economy on a path to recovery. Calonne's program of economic reform closely resembled the one Turgot had proposed at the outset of his ill-fated administration.
Calonne's plan was workable as long as lenders thought it was. If their view changed, then the French government would be unable to borrow funds on the favorable terms Calonne anticipated. Unfortunately, as had been the case for Turgot, events also turned against Calonne. A rebellion in Holland restricted Dutch lending and the French harvest in 1785 was poor, which meant that money in France would also be tight through the coming year. In December of 1785, Calonne was mortified to discover that he could no longer borrow against the government’s existing revenue. To secure new loans, he had now to collateralize them with new revenue. Calonne and his advisors deliberated on this as Jefferson and his fellow chateau reformers continued their private discussion on reconstituting the French government.
In August of 1786, Calonne went to the king. The current year’s revenue, he told Monsieur, would be approximately 400 million livres. The cost of running the government and funding its debt would be approximately 480 million livres—80 million more than anticipated revenue. Of the 480 million in expenditures, a large percentage (nearly 40%) was needed to pay interest on the government’s existing debts, which totaled more than 525 million livres. In addition to this, Calonne explained, a significant amount of the debt Necker
incurred funding the revolution in America was due to be liquidated in the new year. Since it was not possible to collateralize new loans with existing revenue, new revenue had to be arranged. The only alternative to bankruptcy, Calonne concluded, was to levy new taxes. The king was appalled. This is not what Calonne had led him expect! What could be done? The best approach, Calonne surmised, would be to summon an Assembly of Notables. These were privileged individuals and had a vested interest in preserving their privileges. Calonne therefore expected they would consent to new levies—even though they would have to share in their payment. This approach entailed a risk, however, as the ministry would be obliged to demonstrate the “gruesome truth” about the country’s financial situation. In view of the corruption that plagued the system—and the profligacy of the queen—this could become unpleasant.
The king summoned 144 Notables in late December 1786. The death of Comte de Vergennes on 13 February 1787 and other factors delayed the opening of this assembly until 22 February. Thomas Jefferson looked on as three of his most intimate friends— Rochefoucauld, Chastellux, and the Marquis de Lafayette—were sworn in.
How much did Jefferson know about France’s precarious financial situation? Prior to the convening of the Assembly of Notables, he understood it only in general terms. He learned more as an observer at the first sessions of the assembly and from conversations with Lafayette. He had to wait for more detailed information until the middle of June because on 28 February he left Paris for a three and a half month mind-clearing trip to southern France and northern Italy. He returned to Paris on 10 June.
When Jefferson met again with his friends, he was delighted to hear that the Notables had rejected Calonne's plan and that after this failure Calonne had been dismissed in “disgrace”. Jefferson shared the views of his friends that these events were important strides forward. They confirmed that absolutism was ending and that the age of representation and consent
A contemporary cartoon depicting the Assembly of Notables as a gathering of barnyard birds negotiating with Calonne:
Calonne: My dear delegates, I have gathered you to know with what sauce you would
like to be eaten.
Notables: But we don't want to be eaten at all !
Calonne: You are evading the question . . .
was dawning. Flushed with satisfaction from this unexpected victory, France’s leading chateau reformers shrugged off three sobering realities: 1) the French government remained on the verge of collapse; 2) the people of France were not capable of operating the enlightened representative government the progressives were contemplating; and 3) France’s backward, over-regulated economy provided virtually no opportunity for the downtrodden, with or without equal rights. To rectify this last problem would take immense new investment, which not even Jefferson's progressive friends were proposing.
The progressive commitment to constitutional government had become so firm, that nothing else mattered. Jefferson confirmed the unreality of their view in the letter he wrote to Abigail Adams on the day the Assembly of Notables opened: “The people at large view every object as it may furnish puns and bon mots, and I pronounce that a good punster would disarm the whole nation were they ever so seriously disposed to revolt.”
The Hotel de Langeac is on the left in the engraving of gate to Paris at
the western end of the Champs Elysees by François Nicolas Martinet
that month. Although he was in Virginia at the time, he chose not to be present at the British surrender at Yorktown and played no active role in building his country after the war.
Folklore aside, Jefferson was a draftsman who read a lot, not a philosopher. He was an observer of men, not a leader of them. He had no special knowledge in respect to economics, finance, politics, or what motivated the man on the street. As events showed, he had no penetrating insights into scientific government or political revolution. As an adviser to the progressive idealists who propelled France toward a constitutional system he was more cheerleader than instructor. Following their lead, he attached himself to an enlightened theory in which the common good depended entirely on the exercise of political rights. Neither he nor his fellow cosmopolitans knew that this was true. Still, they persuaded each other to believe it and assisted each other in promulgating the notion.
Jefferson may have been joking when the suggested to Abigail Adams that the French were engaged in a march of human folly. Perhaps he was repeating comments he had heard from the high-placed progressives whose company he was keeping. Whatever of his intention, his comment shows how far he was from appreciating the staggering depths of France's social and economic problems. That he could believe the best way to deal with these problems was to give political rights to France's ignorant masses is astonishing. It shows that living the high life in Paris and communing with France's most cultured progressives had destroyed Jefferson's ability to see things as they really were. By the beginning of 1787 he had entered what amounted to a progressive fantasyland.
Jefferson had moved from Hotel Landron on the north edge of the city to the elegant Hotel de Langeac at the western end of the Champs Elysees in October 1785. By the beginning of 1787, his friends recognized him as the man Marie Kimball later described—“a man who had successfully steered his country through the perils and intricacies of a revolution.” Few descriptions of Jefferson are less accurate than this one. Jefferson had declared the war, but that was about it.
That Jefferson would speak with the aplomb of a man who had carried his country through the perils of war reflects the high esteem in which his progressive French friends held him. Although these were dedicated, occasionally brilliant men, they knew nothing in particular about revolutions and little more than that about what Jefferson had contributed to the American Revolution. Jefferson had written a few famous revolutionary texts, but he had not borne arms during the war, nor ever been a member of the military. He was not part of the national government after September 1776. He did not leave Virginia again during the war after returning home later
During France's ensuing descent through political conflict and revolution into anarchy Jefferson measured each event in terms of its contribution to the establishment of constitutional government. He never seemed to grasp what was actually happening or why it did. The good intentions of the progressives who had promoted constitutional government was ever afterwards the standard of measure in Thomas Jefferson's enlightened view of politics.
Neither side in the contest that commenced on 22 February 1787 grasped the reality of the situation. Calonne’s replacement, Loménie de Brienne, Archbishop of Toulouse, refused to believe that opponents of absolutism would force the kingdom’s collapse to advance their reformist agenda. The lions of reform, expecting that constitutional government would solve all of the nation's problems, dismissed Calonne and Brienne’s dire warnings. Events would show the fault in this logic. In fact, the grievances of the people far exceeded their immediate desire for political rights. The citizens committees meeting in the city’s cafes and political clubs understood this. The manipulation of public rage—not the exercise of public right—would be the instrument of the social revolution they were contemplating. It was human nature! This was something Jefferson and his progressive friends did not officially understand.
Death of the Princess de Lamballe by Léon-Maxime Faivre (1908)