Charles Alexandre de Calonne: A Fortunate Failure in the French Revolution
Part 1: Description of Calonne’s Plan for Reform
Charles Alexandre de Calonne was born on January 20, 1734 to an upper class family in Douai, France. Today, Calonne is best known for his direct influence on the course of the French Revolution and, ultimately, modern society. His impact on the French Revolution started on November 3, 1783 when he assumed the position of Controller-General of Finances under King Louis XVI. Upon entering his new, prestigious role in the French government, Calonne faced a substantial challenge: repaying the 112 million livre debt that France owed (Louis XVI 8). Calonne soon put his mind to work and devised a three-part plan to generate revenue by cutting spending and increasing major taxes. As it turns out, Calonne’s plan was primarily built to achieve long-term financial stability, and in order to execute it additional short-term loans were needed. Given France’s enormously high debt, Louis XVI feared the political repercussions of assuming additional debt in the short-term. Calonne knew he would need the persuasive strength of the most powerful men in France to get his plan approved—so he called together “The Council of French Notables”. This council would ultimately not only decide the fate of Calonne, but also of the entire French Revolution. Throughout this paper I will discuss Calonne’s attempted reformation of France’s policy and the impact the “Council of French Notables” had on France and the French Revolution. When Calonne took office as France’s Comptroller of Finances in 1783, the country was in severe trouble. In Calonne’s own words, “The coffers were empty, public securities devalued, circulation at a standstill; alarm was wide-spread and confidence had been destroyed” (Manceron, 41). One of the main sources of France’s massive debt was its involvement in other wars in various parts of the world. King Louis XVI knew that a radical change had to be put in place—and Calonne was willing and able to construct such a plan. Calonne soon drafted a three-part plan that he thought to be a perfect remedy for France’s financial crisis. The only hitch was that he needed the King’s approval. In the fall of 1786, King Louis XVI did approve his reform plan which consisted of the following three parts. First, Calonne looked to fix the structural problems hampering royal French finances by reforming fiscal and administrative policy. For this to be accomplished, Calonne proposed a reorganization of the tax system. In his system, Calonne eliminated the flat 5% vintièmes income tax. In its place, Calonne proposed a permanent land tax which allowed no compounding. To reduce opposition from the landowners who would pay most of the tax, Calonne made them part of the tax’s main administration. Assemblies would be elected by landowners on the parish, district, and provincial level to negotiate and assess the distribution of the land tax and the administration of public works. According to Calonne’s calculations, this one aspect of his reformation would increase annual revenue from taxes by 35 million livres. This projection would increase substantially with Calonne’s additional plan to place a tax on stamp duties and the redemption of debt. Second, Calonne thought that he would increase the aforementioned tax revenue by initiating two key economic stimulus programs. The first program was to eliminate the internal customs barriers that essentially prohibited free trade inside France. Essentially, these were originally established because they were the most simple and direct form of taxation (Bosher 1). These customs soon became confusing, corrupted, and economically detrimental to France (Bosher 5). He also wanted to exhaust the forced labor for road construction, or corvèe, and place an additional tax in its place. Thirdly, Calonne asked that the French Government relax their controls on the grain...
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