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Mike Duncan (00:00):

Hello, and welcome to Revolutions. Episode 3.5 – The Assembly of Notables Dating the beginning of the French Revolution has always been a bit tricky. The most common and most famous is the storming of the Bastille in July 1789. That was when the political and economic crisis that had been mostly confined to the upper classes spilled out into a mob attack on a major symbol of the tyranny of the Ancien regime. But you might prefer to mark it with the Tennis Court Oath of June 1789, or the actual convening of the Estates General in May 1789. Or maybe you’d like to go back even further to the Noble Revolt and the Day of the Tiles in the summer of 1788. After all, that too involved a nice dose of mob action. But it’s pretty clear that the push that set this unbroken chain of events in motion is what we’re going to talk about today. Controller General Cologne’s announcement to the King in August 1786 that the state’s financial apparatus was broken and needed to be completely reformed. To quote him directly, he wrote, “…under present circumstances, with all the ordinary measures inoperable, the only effective remedy, the only alternative remaining, the only way to bring real order into the finances is to revitalize the entire state by reforming all that is defective in its constitution. As we will see, this blunt assessment will pave the way for everything else that is to come, and probably marks the real beginning of the French Revolution.” While I’m on the subject of dating, I’ve taken a few emails about this and realized that I’ve never explicitly said just how far I’m taking this thing. If I were to follow the logic of an unbroken chain of events, the answer would have to be like the Congress of Vienna that closed the book on the Napoleonic Wars in 1815.


But though the Napoleonic era really is just an extension of the Revolutionary era, it has by then transformed into something very different, in the same sort of way that the Byzantines really are just the Romans by another name, and yet still something different. So though this will be a letdown for a few of you out there, we will not be plunging into the Napoleonic Wars. So that being the case, where do we draw a line between the Revolutionary era and the Napoleonic era? I think there are three good candidates. That’s 1804, when Napoleon crowned himself emperor, 1802, when Napoleon was made consul for life, and then the coup of 18 Brumaire in 1799 that brought him to power in the first place. I’ve seen histories of the Revolution end on all three. I’ve even seen them end as early as 1794 with the fall of Robespierre. But these days, I think a consensus has formed around the Brumaire coup of 1799. And that is where I am going to draw the line. Hopefully you’ve noticed by now that we’re going to be moving pretty slowly and methodically through every twist, turn, and beheading of the French Revolution. And so you won’t feel too cheated by the time we get to November 1799 and I say, okay, let’s get off the train.


So, with that said, let’s return to the present. That is, the summer of 1786.


As you will recall, Comptroller General Calonne had just spent the last few years engaging in a policy of useful splendor. I had bought him some time and some credit with the regime’s lenders. But with the most recent Vatiem set to expire at the end of the year, there could be no more papering over the regime’s financial troubles. With the bills now unavoidably coming due, Calonne and a small cadre of assistants set to work developing a reform package to revitalize the entire state. But Calonne made an early mistake by keeping the development of this reform package a secret. Only the king himself and a few select ministers knew what was going on.


Now, given that for the moment Calonne had the full support of Foreign Minister Vergennes, who had emerged as the king’s most trusted advisor, he calculated that it would be unnecessary at this early juncture to bring everyone into his confidence. But Vergennes is about to die. And when the other royal ministers finally find out what Calonne has been up to, they will be pretty ticked off about having been kept in the dark, and feel not the slightest compunction about letting the Comptroller General and his reforms twist in the wind. Many indeed saw actively undermining Calonne to be their best play politically.


Now, Calonne did not quite realize he would face resistance from inside the ministry. Probably in part because he was so focused on dealing with the inevitable resistance from outside the ministry. Specifically, resistance from the Paris parlement, where all of his reforms would eventually have to be registered. The parlement had laid low in the years after their battle with Lord Chancellor Mopu back in the early 1770s. But they had recently begun to make noises again. And as you’ll recall, they had tried to put their foot down after the king came looking for yet another loan at the end of 1785.


Calonne was well aware that it would be impossible to register the package he was drawing up without a fight. And further, that it might be a fight that the king could not win on his own. The monarchy standing with the public was hitting new lows, especially with scandals like the diamond necklace affair swirling around. So what Calonne needed was some political cover to take the wind out of the opposition before it could really get howling. And he believed he would find it in an archaic council that had not been called since 1626. The Assembly of Notables.


The Assembly of Notables was simply a gathering of the most elite nobles, clergymen, and civil administrators in the kingdom. Calonne figured that if he presented the reforms to the notables first and got them to approve it, which they surely would, that he would have a much bigger stick to fight with when he took it to the Paris parlour.


King Louis, as usual, went back and forth about what to do. But in December 1786 was finally convinced by Virgin to go ahead and call the Assembly of Notables. It was set to convene at the end of January 1787, but the date had to be pushed back to February the 22nd because both Calonne and Virgin were laid pretty low by severe sicknesses and as the two strongest advocates of reform, both were obviously vital to the coming proceedings.


But only Calonne would make it out of his sickness alive. Virgin, meanwhile, died on February the 13th, 1787. And going back for a second to the issue of how to date the beginning of the French Revolution, there is a little argument to be made that it all started with the death of Virgin because for the last 15 years he had been the one stable figure in the ministry, the only man who had provided anything resembling political continuity. When Virgin died, Louis lost his last political rock, and all the rival factions lurking around out there were each in turn able to exploit the king’s indecisiveness, resulting in destabilizing swings in policy that helped escalate the crisis every step of the way.


For the moment, though, the death of Virgin meant simply that Calonne lost his most important supporter, and he basically had to go face the Assembly of Notables on his own. And it was not going to go well.


So who are these notables? When you go through the list, it’s easy to see why Calonne thought he would be among friends. The 144 members of the Assembly included the Seven Princes of the Blood, 14 of the most influential Catholic bishops and archbishops, 36 great nobles, and then an array of hand-picked magistrates, deputies, and municipal leaders. This was a group built to defer to the king, support whatever he requested, and then go defend it publicly. Even the most radical among them, like our old friend Lafayette, who managed to finagle himself a spot, was expected to get in line after making a puffed-up speech or two.


But what Calonne was about to discover was that these guys were not going to get in line. Though they would agree in general on the need to reform, they would resist him in almost every particular detail. Sometimes this resistance was driven by an enlightened public spiritedness that simply wasn’t convinced Calonne’s plan was the best plan. Sometimes it was driven by little parochial cliques who were happy to support any reform that didn’t touch their own special interests. But mostly, it was driven by the sense that now that successive royal ministries had driven the monarchy into the ground, it was time to start sharing real power with the aristocracy again. And clearly, someone needed to start exercising some oversight.


Also working against Calonne was the fact that his own sickness had thrown the last few weeks leading up to the assembly into chaos. And it wasn’t until the last minute that the raw materials he and his assistants had been working from were finally cobbled together into something resembling a coherent plan. So though what he handed to the notables was pretty well thought out, it looked like a slapped together pile of half-baked improvisations that deserved and frankly demanded a thorough going over before it could be approved.


But Calonne was not prepared for this level of scrutiny at all, as can be deduced from the blunt and rather imperious tone of his opening remarks. After dropping the bombshell that the monarchy was more than a hundred million livre in the red, Calonne inexplicably refused to open the royal ledgers to scrutiny, telling the notables that he had shown the numbers to the king, the king had approved the numbers, and that should be good enough for them. This naturally raised suspicions that he was cooking the books for his own purposes. His further claim that the comprendeux had been a total fraud was also taken as a self-serving ploy to blame Neckerre for deficits probably run up by Calonne himself.


So clearly, these were not the actions of someone expecting the assembly’s deliberations to be anything more than a mere formality. I don’t think it even occurred to him that the notables wouldn’t approve the package, let alone that this would all lead to him getting kicked out of the ministry in disgrace.


Okay, so let’s get into the guts of the thing. What Calonne presented to the assembly was a reform package divided into four sections. The first dealt with two major initiatives that were the keystone of the whole project. One, a uniform land tax, applicable to everyone, no exemptions. Two, the establishment of a network of provincial assemblies who would be tasked with assessing and collecting the tax.


The second section covered an array of measures designed to stimulate the economy, because a healthier economy meant a healthier royal treasury. Advised by an old ally of Turgot’s, the second section was basically Calonne just adopting the physiocrat platform, so it was the abolition of internal customs barriers, setting up a single tariff on the frontiers, vastly reducing the burden of the hated salt tax, setting the grain trade free, etc. etc. etc. The third section covered the management of crown lands, which had been languishing badly from poor administration. And then finally the fourth section dealt with a grab bag of revenue and expenditure items that would demonstrate how the books would be eventually balanced.


After the opening speeches, the assembly was divided into seven committees, each chaired by a Prince of the Blood. The plan was for these more manageably sized groups to meet separately, and spend about a week going over the first section, then everyone would get back together, review each committee’s considered opinion, and approve the thing. Then they would do the same with section two, and so on. The whole process was supposed to take about a month, and with the princes guiding the discussion and various ministers of state acting as recording secretaries, this should all go pretty smoothly, right?


But as I mentioned, none of the ministers of state had any loyalty to Calonne, and only one of the princes, the Comte d’Artois, offered anything close to full support. Meanwhile, the Comte de Provence was actively, if secretly hostile, and the Duc d’Orléans was actively and quite openly hostile. This was not going to be as easy as Calonne thought.


But that said, when the committees took up the first section, the principle that a uniform land tax was necessary was surprisingly well received. These guys weren’t dumb, and they knew they were basically getting away with murder by not paying taxes on their land, and that sooner or later this exemption was going to have to end. But they weren’t too sure about the specifics of Calonne’s plan.


What the Controller General wanted to do was divide land up into four categories, depending on how productive it was, and then levy a proportional tax in kind. That is, you would pay in wheat rather than money. The really progressive thing, though, was that the tax would be assessed on actual production, not theoretical production. So if there was a terrible harvest and your crop was wiped out, you would pay nothing.


In theory, this was all well and good. Even if there was some quibbling over the details, might not the tax be assessed on net production rather than gross production? But then a much more substantive complaint emerged. And that was that Calonne was asking them to approve a new tax that was indefinite both in scale and time. Saying we need to raise X amount of money over Y amount of time was one thing, but saying we’re just going to collect an unknowable amount from you forever was quite different. And one notable went so far as to suggest that if that’s what you’re after, you’re going to have to call the Estates General to get it.


But no one else was ready to get on board with that program just yet. What they did do, however, was refuse to approve the tax in kind, demanding instead that it be a money tax for a specific amount assessed each year to cover the deficit and nothing more. The other big innovation in the first section was also well received in theory, and that was the creation of provincial assemblies to assess and collect the tax. These assemblies would be built from the bottom up, in a series of tiered elections of landowners, but critically, no notice would be taken of the three estates. All landowners would be thrown into a single bucket. The notables, even a screaming liberal like Lafayette, thought that this went way too far. Increasing the representation of the third estate was fine, but to actually toss out the estates completely, I mean, that’s a bit radical, don’t you think?


And this fit in with their further complaint, that far from being too strong, these assemblies looked like they were going to be too weak. Clearly, the notables were eyeing a new order where aristocratic-led provincial assemblies would start wielding real power, at the expense of what was obviously an incompetent central ministry. The last major complaint about the assemblies came from men representing the Pé-d’état Generalité. These guys already enjoyed the right to call their estates provincial, a right that allowed them to negotiate better deals with the crown than subjects living in the Pé-de-Léxion regions. Implementing this new system of provincial assemblies would level the playing field, and they weren’t much interested in that. So like I say, these complaints are kind of a mixture of enlightened self-interest and then just naked self-interest.


A further source of tension when discussing the land tax was what to do about church property. As you will recall, the Catholic Church owned about 10% of all the land in France. So is that going to be taxed, or what?


In short, the answer turned out to be that the Church would accept taxation on its land, as long as its right to collect tithes was not threatened. Unfortunately, they saw in Cologne’s further initiatives a complicated little wedge involving the liquidation of the Church’s debt that would do just that. Now I won’t bore you with those details, but I will use this as an opportunity to introduce one of the leading voices speaking for the clergy in the Assembly of Notables, and who also happens to have just been elected president of the Assembly of Notables, making him one of the leading voices speaking for everyone. Etienne Charles de Loménie de Brienne, Archbishop of Toulouse.


Brienne was born in Paris in 1727 into a family with fairly decent noble credentials. He turned out to be a brilliant and ambitious young man, and entered the clergy as the best way to get ahead in life, though it was long suspected and I believe later confirmed that he was in fact an atheist, or at the very least a very skeptical deist. He was friends with Voltaire and Turco, and was deeply engaged in most of the social and political debates of the last days of the Ancien Régime. In time, he would also become one of the few high-ranking clergymen to abandon the pope and take the civic oath required by the revolutionaries, but that is for a few more episodes down the road. For now, he was about to emerge as the principal critic of Cologne’s plan in the Assembly of Notables, and then, when Cologne falls, his replacement in the Royal Ministry.


Okay, so the debate over the first section had gone okay. The reforms were accepted in principle, but the details still needed to be worked out. But when the second section was taken up, everyone had a particular knit to pick, and almost all of these knits were about protecting some little exemption or privilege rather than broad-minded defenses of the public good.


The major reform on the table was the abolition of all internal customs barriers, and the establishment of a single unified frontier tariff on imports. The benefits of this were obvious. It would make internal trade far more efficient, eliminate a major source of complaints about abuse from the tax farmers, and create a single border tax to help regulate international trade, hopefully with an eye on stimulating French manufacturing. Resisting these completely reasonable reforms were, for example, representatives from Lorraine and Alsace, frontier provinces who couldn’t care less about trading with their quote-unquote countrymen, but who cared deeply about maintaining free trade with neighboring foreign powers. Then there were representatives from the various coastal provinces who traded freely with the colonies, but who would now face a customs duty just like the interior provinces.


Then there was the question of the salt tax. Obviously the tearing down of internal customs checkpoints would make different salt prices for different regions untenable, but that would leave 60 million livre annually to be made up, to say nothing of the fact that the tax farmers would not just sit quietly while the goose that laid their most golden egg was snatched away. So Cologne offered a fairly lame compromise that made everyone mad. Companies would collectively buy a set amount of salt at the required price, but everything after that would be purchased at market price.


But this ticked off those exempt from the salt tax to begin with, who would now have to pay more, to say nothing of the fact that no one believed that the ruthless farmers who controlled the salt would ever let competition come in and undercut them. So really, this was just going to extend the tax to everyone without any marked benefit. So the notables followed the lead of Brienne in going even further than Cologne was willing to go, supporting the complete abolition of the salt tax and replacing it with a community-assessed money tax to make up the lost revenue.


By now, it was the end of March, that is, when the assembly was supposed to have rubber stamped the last of the reforms. But they were only through two sections, and almost nothing had been unconditionally approved. Cologne was furious, and what he needed now was for the king to step in and appeal to that public spiritedness that did seem to exist at least some of the time. And tell the notables, I know every one of these reforms will hurt someone somewhere, but for the good of the kingdom, you need to get on board and stop the trivial complaining.


But Louis XVI was not that kind of guy, and in the face of opposition, he hesitated. So Cologne was left to try to force it through on his own will, and he just didn’t have the juice. By now, the notables were pretty well sick of Cologne’s attitude, and Cologne was pretty well sick of the notables’ quibbling.


In an ill-advised move, the controller general decided if he couldn’t get the king to pressure the assembly, he would get public opinion to do it. And he published a six-page defense of his program that accused the notables of dragging their feet just because they didn’t want to pay their fair share. Saying in an oft-quoted passage, People will pay more without doubt, but who will? Only those who have not paid enough in the past. They will pay what they owe, according to a just proportion, and no one will be overtaxed. Some privileges will be sacrificed, yes. Justice wills it, necessity demands it. Would it be better to overtax the nonprivileged, the common people? There will be great objections, that has been anticipated. Is it possible to work for the general good without offending some private interests? Is reform possible without complaints?


Well the answer was of course no. But this did not go over well in the assembly at all, and only increased the amount of complaining. By the first of April, any pretense of civility between the controller general and the notables was pretty well dropped.


As the third section was taken up, that is the one that dealt with administering the king’s domains, the notables seized on a recent shady land swap that greatly enriched some of Colon’s friends to push the idea that they completely agreed with the need for reform, but had now lost faith in the controller general personally. We just don’t trust him, and so it’s impossible to separate real reforms from the stuff just designed to line his own pockets. Brienne slipped a note to Marie Antoinette, summing up the general feeling that the sticking point was now Colon himself. If he goes, we can talk.


Now the queen liked Brienne, and pretty much hated Colon, and so was all too happy to pass this message along to the king. This of course just sent Louis into further agonies, because he did like Colon personally, and had repeatedly given his assurances that he would back his controller general. But by now, Colon had no other allies left, and as would become his new favorite pastime, the king caved in to the pressure. On Easter Sunday 1787, Colon suddenly found himself dismissed from office.


With Colon gone, calls went out almost immediately to bring back Jacques Neckerre, who had been so badly slandered by the unscrupulous Colon. Louis did not like Neckerre, but may have caved in right then to demands to bring back the Swiss Wonder Boy, but he had ordered Neckerre to keep silent while the assembly of notables were meeting to avoid stirring up trouble, and instead, Neckerre had just published a defense of his record two days after Colon was dismissed, making the king so mad, he exiled Neckerre from Paris. So instead, the king turned to a 68-year-old minister whose name I won’t even bother you with, because when the notables returned from the Easter break on April 16, they didn’t bother themselves much with him either.


So finally, the king came down in person on April 23 to go over the fourth and final section, the one that would detail how the deficits would finally be closed. It was here that he announced he was caving to their demands on the land tax. It would indeed be recast as the notables had outlined, as an annual expedient limited in both duration and amount. He also said that to close the gap immediately, more short-term loans would be required, and then, in what would become something of a hot button down the road, that he would need to broaden the stamp tax on paper.


But he also insisted that this was not a joke, and at Brienne’s suggestion, agreed to let the notables look through last year’s accounts to see for themselves the magnitude of the crisis, and imagine just how smoother this all would have gone had Calone simply done this in the first place. And speaking of Brienne, Louis then followed his wife’s advice, and agreed that the best way to repair the damage done by Calone was to elevate his most vocal opponent into the ministry and let the archbishop take the lead on pushing the reforms. After all, everyone agreed that Calone, not the reforms, had been the real problem. It was time to see if that was true.


In Brienne, the king would find a minister who was serious about pushing through the reform package, much of which was kept intact from Calone’s original plan. But unfortunately, Brienne would be no more successful than his own rival in achieving fiscal salvation, especially once he went to war with the parlour.


But we will leave that off for two episodes, because just as Brienne was coming into the ministry, a situation developed up in the Netherlands that seemed to demand a French military response, a response that Brienne was forced to conclude they could not actually afford, revealing for all of Europe to see just how weak the once mighty French had become.


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Episode Info

King Louis called the Assembly of Notables in early 1787 to approve a major fincancial reform package. But intead of rubber stamping the initiatives, the Notables scrutinized every detail. 

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