Wednesday 29 June 2022

The last Farmers-General

I have had a reasonably long, and very successful career, and I believe that I shall be remembered with regret, even accorded some glory. What more could I want? The events in which I find myself embroiled have probably saved me from the inconveniences of old age.  I shall die in perfect health...
It seems that the exercise of social virtue, service to the nation, a career dedicated to the progress of the arts and sciences, are not enough to save a man from condemnation and death.
Letter of Antoine Lavoisier, written from the Conciergerie shortly before the trial of the Farmers-General (Quoted Grimaux, p.915).

The end of the General Farm

By the end of the Ancien regime, the General-Farm was the most hated institution in the country. It was inconceivable that it could survive the advent of the Revolution, which was accompanied by paroxysm of popular anger and insurrection against indirect taxation. Customs houses were destroyed and greniers à sel burned down, the Farm's employees forced to seek refuge with the army.  On the night of 12th-13th July the hated Wall of the Farmers-General was subject to sustained attack. As collection ground to a halt in the provinces, the Assembly moved to liquidate the Farm.  In August 1789 the Company was ordered to close its books and to continue only on the account of the King.  The gabelles were completely abrogated on 14th March 1790,  the traites  converted in a uniform tariff in October 1790. By early March 1791, the entrées  and aides had been abolished. On 20th March 1791 the tobacco monopoly was cancelled and, on the same day, the Lease Mager of 1786 was declared null and void - the General Farm had officially ceased to exist. (Taylor, p.278-9).

Satire of 1791 The Doyen of the Farmers General, borne aloft by his clerks, makes a final journey to oblivion.   Musée Carnavalet.  Le Doyen des Fermiers Generaux [...] | Paris Musées

Whilst the legislation aroused little enthusiasm within the Assembly. popular passions in Paris continued to run high. Former employees of the Farm accused the Farmers General of having cheated them of wages and pensions.  (Grimaux, p.888).  A succession of  attacks punctuated the radical press. Hébert in the Père Duchesne wished he could be at the headquarters of the General Farm "to contemplate the fat mugs of all those financiers sitting around their green baize....What grimaces all those jackasses will make on realising that they will be forced to part with their beautiful palaces, their handsome country houses, and fine furnishings....(Le Véritable Père Duchesne,  no.33, p.5-6. Quoted Poirier, p.272). 

Friday 24 June 2022

Lavoisier and the General Farm

In his career as Farmer-General, the great chemist Lavoisier, exemplified the professionalism and dedication to public service shared by so many of the Farm's senior administrators in the last years of the Ancien régime.  Far from regarding his involvement with the Farm as merely a source of income,  Lavoisier brought his huge energy and intellect to bear on its problems with every bit as much seriousness and zeal as he showed in his scientific work.  

Lavoisier enters the Farm

 Portrait of Lavoisier by Jean-Baptiste Greuze
Private collection,
see Beretta, Imaging a career in science (2001), p.3-4
At the age of twenty-four, Lavoisier had inherited a personal fortune from his mother,  but was still in need of  income to secure his long term financial independence and meet the considerable expenses of his scientific research.  Shortly after his election to the Academy of Science in March 1768,  a relative of his father's, Antoine Chaumont de La Galazière, the former Chancellor of Lorraine, advised him that one of the Farmers General, the seventy-four year old  François Baudon, wanted to sell his share in the Company.  Lavoisier bought into the Farm, first as adjunct to Baudon, and eventually, on Baudon's death in 1779, as a full Farmer-General. 

Anecdotal evidence suggests that Lavoisier's scientific colleagues were worried that his new responsibilities would prove too great a distraction,  though the geometer Fontaine quipped: "So much the better, the dinners which he gives us will be much improved" (quoted Grimaux, p.32) 

Nor were the benefits of being a Farmer-General merely financial;  Lavoisier was now marked out for a high-ranking government post - though, in the event, this ambition was never realised:

His administrative career began in 1769; M. de la Galazière succeeded in getting him entry, despite all the objections raised against admitting a young scholar, who had only a year previously been admitted as Adjunct member of the Academy of Sciences. la Galaizière insisted to the abbé Terry that Lavoisier could render service to the State by simplifying parts of the Farm's administration.  Several years later the abbé Terray and the duc d'Aiguillon, who had replaced the duc de Choiseul, congratulated themselves of the administrative services rendered by Lavoisier.  They told M de la Galaizière that they intended to give his young relative the post of  maîtres des requêtes, so that he could become an intendant of finance, with a view to entering the Ministry.  This project was never realised;  Louis XV died and the abbé Terray was replaced by Turgot.
 E. Chevreux, Journal des Savants, November 1859, p.711.

Monday 20 June 2022

Helvétius, philosopher tax-farmer

Portrait of Helvétius from  Ickworth (N.T.)
 studio copy of the full length portrait by
Van Loo exhibited in the salon of 1755.
Claude-Adrien Helvétius (1715–1771) | Art UK


Until relatively recently not much was known about Helvétius's career as a Farmer-General, beyond a few lines in contemporary notices and eulogies. However, in modern times two manuscript reports have come to light from Helvétius's tours of inspection as a Farmer,  in the Ardennes and Franche-Comté. The new finds show the seriousness of his commitment to the Farm. According to the editors, Helvétius comes across as a conscientious and able financier, "a commis, serving the interests of his Company"[Desné, 1971] and "an inquiring mind, keen to improve the operation of the Farm, and eager to propose reforms" [Inguenaud, 1986].

This is another reminder, if one is needed, of the complex symbiosis which existed between the philosophers of the Enlightenment and the ruling élite of the Ancien Régime.

Helvétius becomes a Farmer-General

Helvétius came from a distinguished medical family: his father was chief physician to Marie Leckzinska. and was credited with having saving the life of the seven-year old Louis XV in 1717. However, Helvétius's  precocious scholastic achievement suggested a different direction: "His father, whose fortune was mediocre...destined him to finance, as an state which could enrich him and leave him the time to make use of his talents (Saint-Lambert, p.6)  His father was not mistaken  - Helvétius was to become almost obscenely rich; according to Bachaumont, on his death his estate was worth four million livres (Mémoires, 4th October 1772).

The young man was initially sent to work with his maternal uncle,  M. d'Armancourt,  directeur des fermes in Caen.  The historical record from this time preserves only his literary pursuits; he wrote verses, even a tragedy, and, with the support of the Jesuit Yves-Marie André,  gained admittance to the Academy in Caen. (Keim,   p.15-17)

Tuesday 14 June 2022

Tax farmers and Philosophers

There are two conditions of person that have greater weight  in society than in former times, particularly in fashionable social circles.  They are the men of letters and men of fortune....
Not long ago financiers saw men of good birth as their protectors but today they rival them.

Charles Duclos,  Considérations sur les mœurs de ce siècle (1751).  Chapter X, sur les gens de finance.

The gross and ridiculous longer exists in Paris.  This portrait might have been realistic fifty years ago, when Le Sage wrote his comedy "Turcaret";  today our financiers are very refined and likeable, have fine and agreeable houses and no longer resemble the financiers of old. 
Grimm, Correspondance littéraire, 15 June 1753

If the financiers of bygone days merited the scorn and criticism of honest men, those of today merit their esteem and praise, through the integrity of their conduct, their noble sentiments and good manners.
Fréron, Lettres sur quelques écrits de ce temps (1761)

The spirit [of the Farmers General], less absorbed by petty calculations, devoted itself with passion to the cult of the beaux-arts and literature.  They exercised the happiest influence, whether by  encouraging men of letters with pensions or artists by their generous purchases....But, when the Revolutionary torment came, no account was taken of their services to arts and letters.
Alix de Choiseul-Gouffier, vicomtesse de Janzé, Les Financiers d'autrefois (1886), p.24-5

The ambiguities of the relationship between Enlightenment writers and the representatives of state power is well illustrated by the example of the Farmers-General.  By the end of the Ancien régime the Farm and its officials were routinely execrated in a multitude of reforming publications.  Yet as individuals the philosophes often had close ties to the monied élite, and owed debts of gratitude and friendship to members of the Farm.

Sunday 12 June 2022

The Encyclopédie on tobacco

 The account of tobacco manufacture in the Encyclopédie, is based on practice at the tobacco works in Paris, which was adjacent to  the Hôtel de Longueville.  The article was published under the name of the Chevalier de Jaucourt, but was no doubt based on copy supplied an official of the Ferme de tabac.

Jaucourt's informant notes that the manufacture of tobacco products demanded neither complicated machinery nor highly skilled workers; however simple operations require care and attention throughout the process, from the choice of materials to the finished product.

The magasins or warehouses for storage of raw tobacco were designed to offer protection from sunlight and humidity.  They were very large, since newer leaves had to be constantly moved and piled up to avoid uncontrolled fermentation.   

Tobacco was processed into a number of different finished products, each with a particular name and usage. The two most common in Paris were rolls for the pipe and  tabacs "en carotte", that is compressed tobacco for grating.   The article illustrates the steps in manufacture:

1. L' Époulardage 

Two workers sort imported tobacco leaves

The tobacco is transported to the manufacture in wooden barrels called "bocaux".  It arrives as bundles  ("manoques"), ie. handfuls of leaves bound together and tied using a corded leaf at the top.  These have to be separated out and the leaves rubbed clean and graded.  "Époulardage" is jargon de l'atelier for shaking off the dust -  the bundles resembled chickens with flapping wings (see the clip below, from Morlaix in 1986).

Saturday 4 June 2022

Tobacco Manufactories

This post is based on a lecture given in 2011 by Paul Smith, a specialist in industrial archaeology with the Direction générale des patrimoines (see references blow).

Paul Smith explains how the organisation of the tobacco trade into a royal monopoly dictated the structure of the tobacco processing industry and its associated buildings:  

Unusually for this period, the workforce employed by the Tobacco Farm was concentrated in large-scale factories, an organisational preference dictated both by operational convenience and by the need for tight security. The state tobacco monopoly of the 19th century was also to be characterised by large factories, whereas small scale operations were the rule for the period of deregulation during the Revolution.

The manufactures, which were built and maintained directly by the Crown, functioned as symbols of royal authority.  Situated in major ports or urban centres, they represented prestigious architectural projects. Their innovative design anticipated the model factories of Eugène Rolland in the nineteenth century.

Manufacture de tabac Architectes: Jacques Martinet et Jacques V. Gabriel, Le Havre 1728.

Paul Smith begins his discussion  with this view of the interior of one of the earliest of the factories, the manufacture du tabac in Le Havre.  The illustration is is a small vignette from an engraving of 1728 in the Bibliothèque Nationale.  At the tables to the right tobacco leaves are being "spun" or twisted into ropes or "rôlles" -  the basic form in which tobacco was sold in the Ancien Régime.

Already, at this early date, the enduring characteristics of the tobacco industry are apparent - firstly, the large scale concentration of workers and, secondly, the use of child labour: children can be seen under the tables passing up the leaves of tobacco to the ouvriers fileurs.  

Thursday 2 June 2022

The Tobacco Farm

The Ferme du tabac and the organisation of the Tobacco industry

By the  mid century tobacco duties were worth more than 30 million livres a year to the French Crown - some 7% of fixed income -  second in value only to the hated gabelle.  Like the trade in salt, the tobacco trade was administered as a royal monopoly. In 1730, after a period of control by the Compagnie des Indes, Ferme du tabac was incorporated into the "General-Farm".   It was a huge undertaking. To maintain the tobacco monopoly effectively, every aspect of the importation, processing and sale of tobacco had to be overseen.  

This map, which was prepared by Lavoisier in the 1780s,  shows the Tobacco Farm's complex and highly regulated pattern of import and distribution. This level of control was made possible by the centralised organisation of the General-Farm with its specialised committees, directors and inspectors. From 1749 onwards the  Comité du tabac occupied the magnificent 17th-century Hôtel de Longueville, situated in the centre of  Paris between the Louvre and the Tuileries.  From here the authority of the Farm extended directly through much of the Kingdom, with "sous-fermes" in the Lyonnais, Dauphiné, Provence, Languedoc, Roussillon and Lorraine. 

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