Calonne, "Programs of Reform," Address to Assembly of Notables (1787)

In 1783 Charles Alexandre de Calonne, a provincial noble, became royal finance minister. At first, he, like Vergennes, saw no need to rationalize the royal treasury or to appease the Parlements. By 1786, however, the deficit had become so huge—one–sixth of the total royal budget—that Calonne knew that reforms—meaning more taxes, or at least more loans—could no longer be put off. To obtain the support of regional nobles for such changes, the King called an Assembly of Notables. At the opening session, on 22 February 1787, Calonne addressed the assembly and proposed a uniform tax across the kingdom, to be administered by provincial assemblies of nobles and other elites. In other words, a royal minister was now suggesting that taxation privileges should be replaced by a fiscal policy that would apply to all equally.


Abuses

Abuses [in tax payment] . . . are defended by self-interest, influence, wealth and ancient prejudices which seem to be hallowed by time; but what are all these together compared with the common good and the necessity of the state?

These abuses oppress the wealth-producing, laboring class: the abuses of pecuniary privilege; exceptions to the general rule, and so many unjust; exemptions which only relieve one section of taxpayers by aggravating the condition of the others. . . .

The projects which the King intends to impart to you . . . . are neither doctrinaire nor novelties. They represent a summary of . . . the plans for the public good long contemplated by experienced statesmen and by the government itself. Some have been attempted in part and all seem to have the backing of the nation, but hitherto their complete implementation appeared impracticable because of the difficulty of reconciling a host of local customs, claims, privileges and conflicting interests.

To this end, His Majesty has first of all considered the various forms of administration which occur in those provinces without [local] Estates. In order that the distribution of taxation may cease to be unequal and arbitrary, He has decided to confide the task to the landowners and he has derived from the first principles of the monarchy the general plan of a graduated series of deliberative assemblies whereby the expression of the taxpayers' wishes and their observations on everything which concerns them will be transmitted from parish to district assemblies, thence to provincial assemblies and through them to the throne.

Next His Majesty brought all his personal attention to bear on establishing the same principle of uniformity . . . . in the distribution of the land tax. . . . He recognized that . . . the vingtièmes [one-twentieth], instead of being assessed as they should be on all the land in his kingdom in true proportion to the value of the crop, suffer an infinity of exceptions which are tolerated rather than regarded as legitimate. . . . The revenue of this general tax, instead of providing the government with vital information about the produce of the kingdom and the relative wealth of each province, serve only to demonstrate the offensive inequality between their various contributions. . . .

His Majesty has decided to remedy these defects by applying the rules of a strictly distributive justice, by restoring the original intention behind the tax, and by raising it to its true value without increasing anyone's contribution (indeed granting some relief to the people), and finally by making every kind of privilege incompatible. The vingtièmes will be replaced by a general land tax covering the whole area of the kingdom on a proportion of all produce, payable in kind where feasible, otherwise in money, and admitting of no exception, even the crown lands other than those resulting from the varying fertility of the soil and the varying harvests.

The lands of the [Roman Catholic] Church would necessarily be included in this general assessment which, to be fair, must include all land as does the protection for which it is the price. But in order that these lands should not be overburdened by continuing to pay the taxes collected to fund the debt of the clergy, the King, sovereign protector of the churches of his kingdom, has decided to provide for the repayment of this debt by granting the clergy the necessary authorization to make the repayment [by selling off feudal rights, etc.] . . . .

Complete freedom of the grain trade . . . with the one exception of deferring to the wishes of the provinces when any of them think it necessary temporarily to suspend export abroad. . . .

The King also proposes the abolition of the corvée [forced labor on public highways] and the conversion of this excessively harsh exaction to a monetary contribution distributed more justly and spent in such a way that it can never be diverted to other purposes.

Internal free trade, customs houses removed to the frontiers, the establishment of a uniform tariff taking the needs of commerce into consideration, the suppression of several taxes which are harmful to industry or lead too easily to harassment and the alleviation of the burden of the gabelle [the obligation to purchase salt from the state] (which I have never mentioned to His Majesty without his being deeply grieved that he cannot rid his subjects of it altogether). These, gentlemen, are so many salutary measures which enter into the plan upon which His Majesty will enlarge and which all conform to the principles of order and uniformity which are its basis.

Source: Jules Flammermont, Remonstrances du Parlement de Paris au XVIIIe siècle, vol. 1 (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1888–98), 189–98.