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A Popular History of France from the Earliest Time

Necker had a regard for public opinion


Necker had a regard for public opinion, indeed he attached great importance to it, but he took its influence to be more extensive and its authority to rest on a broader bottom than the court or the parliaments would allow. "The social spirit, the love of regard and of praise," said he, "have raised up in France a tribunal at which all men who draw its eyes upon them are obliged to appear: there public opinion, as from the height of a throne, decrees prizes and crowns, makes and unmakes reputations. A support is wanted against the vacillations of ministers, and this important support is only to be expected from progress in the enlightenment and resisting power of public opinion. Virtues are more than ever in want of a stage, and it becomes essential that public opinion should rouse the actors; it must be supported, then, this opinion, it must be enlightened, it must be summoned to the aid of ideas which concern the happiness of men."

M. Necker thought the moment had come for giving public opinion the summons of which he recognized the necessity he felt himself shaken at court, weakened in the regard of M. de Maurepas, who was still puissant in spite of his great age, and jealous of him as he had been of M. Turgot; he had made up his mind, he said, to let the nation know how its affairs had been managed, and in the early days of the year 1781 he published his _Compte rendu au roi_.

It was a bold innovation;

hitherto the administration of the finances had been carefully concealed from the eyes of the public as the greatest secret in the affairs of state; for the first time the nation was called upon to take cognizance of the position of the public estate, and, consequently, pass judgment upon its administration. "The principal cause of the financial prosperity of England, in the very midst of war, said the minister, "is to be found in the confidence with which the English regard their administration and the source of the government's credit." The annual publication of a financial report was, M. Necker thought, likely to inspire the same confidence in France. It was paying a great compliment to public opinion to attribute to it the power derived from free institutions and to expect from satisfied curiosity the serious results of a control as active as it was minute.

The Report to the king was, moreover, not of a nature to stand the investigation of a parliamentary committee. In publishing it M. Necker had a double end in view. He wanted, by an able exposition of the condition of the treasury, to steady the public credit which was beginning to totter, to bring in fresh subscribers for the loans which were so necessary to support the charges of the war; he wanted at the same time to call to mind the benefits and successes of his own administration, to restore the courage of his friends and reduce his enemies to silence. With this complication of intentions, he had drawn up a report on the ordinary state of expenditure and receipts, designedly omitting the immense sacrifices demanded by the land and sea armaments as well as the advances made to the United States. He thus arrived, by a process rather ingenious than honest, at the establishment of a budget showing a surplus of ten million livres. The maliciousness of M. de Maurepas found a field for its exercise in the calculations which he had officially overhauled in council. The Report was in a cover of blue marbled paper. Have you read the _Conte bleu_ (a lying story)?" he asked everybody who went to see him; and, when he was told of the great effect which M. Necker's work was producing on the public: "I know, I know," said the veteran minister, shrugging his shoulders, "we have fallen from Turgomancy into Necromancy."

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