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A Popular History of France from the Earliest Time

De Calonne a packet of shares in the Water Company


Born in 1734 at Douai, Charles Alexander de Calonne belonged to a family of magistrates of repute and influence in their province; he commenced his hereditary career by the perfidious manoeuvres which contributed to the ruin of M. de la Chalotais. Discredited from the very first by a dishonorable action, he had invariably managed to get his vices forgotten, thanks to the charms of a brilliant and fertile wit. Prodigal and irregular as superintendent of Lille, he imported into the comptroller-generalship habits and ideas opposed to all the principles of Louis XVI. "The peace would have given hope a new run," says M. Necker in his Memoires, "if the king had not confided the important functions of administering the finances to a man more worthy of being the hero of courtiers than the minister of a king. The reputation of M. de Calonne was a contrast to the morality of Louis XVI., and I know not by what argumentation, by what ascendency such a prince was induced to give a place in his council to a magistrate who was certainly found agreeable in the most elegant society of Paris, but whose levity and principles were dreaded by the whole of France. Money was lavished, largesses were multiplied, there was no declining to be good-natured or complaisant, economy was made the object of ridicule, it was daringly asserted that immensity of expenditure, animating circulation, was the true principle of credit."

M. de Calonne had just been sworn in at the Court of Aids, pompously attended by a great number of magistrates and financiers; he was for the first time transacting business with the king. "Sir," said he, "the comptrollers-general have many means of paying their debts: I have at this moment two hundred and twenty thousand livres' worth payable on demand; I thought it right to tell your Majesty, and leave everything to your goodness." Louis XVI., astounded at such language, stared a moment at his minister, and then, without any answer, walked up to a desk. "There are your two hundred and twenty thousand livres," he said at last, handing M. de Calonne a packet of shares in the Water Company. The comptroller-general pocketed the shares, and found elsewhere the resources necessary for paying his debts. "If my own affairs had not been in such a bad state, I should not have undertaken those of France," said Calonne gayly to M. de Machault, at that time advanced in age and still the centre of public esteem. The king, it was said, had but lately thought of sending for him as minister in the room of M. de Maurepas, he had been dissuaded by the advice of his aunts; the late comptroller-general listened gravely to his frivolous successor; the latter told the story of his conversation with the king. "I had certainly done nothing to deserve a confidence so extraordinary," said M. de Machault to his friends. He set out again for his estate at Arnonville, more anxious than ever about the future.

If the first steps of M. de Calonne dismayed men of foresight and of experience in affairs, the public was charmed with them, no less than the courtiers. The _bail des fermes_ was re-established, the _Caisse d'escompte_ had resumed payment, the stockholders (_rentiers_) received their quarters' arrears, the loan whereby the comptroller-general met all expenses had reached eleven per cent. "A man who wants to borrow," M. de Calonne would say, "must appear rich, and to appear rich he must dazzle by his expenditure. Act we thus in the public administration. Economy is good for nothing, it warns those who have money, not to lend it to an indebted treasury, and it causes decay among the arts which prodigality vivifies." New works, on a gigantic scale, were undertaken everywhere. "Money abounds in the kingdom," the comptroller-general would remark to the king; "the people never had more openings for work; lavishness rejoices their eyes, because it sets their hands going. Continue these splendid undertakings, which are an ornament to Paris, Bordeaux, Lyons, Nantes, Marseilles, and Nimes, and which are almost entirely paid for by those flourishing cities. Look to your ports, fortify Havre, and create a Cherbourg, braving the jealousy of the English. None of those measures which reveal and do not relieve the straits of the treasury! The people, whom declaiming jurisconsults so vehemently but vainly incite to speak evil of lavishness, would be grieved if they saw any interruption in the expenditure which a silly parsimony calls superfluous."


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