Anne Robert Jacques Turgot

The French economist Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Baron de I'Aulne (1721-1781), was controller general under Louis XVI. His efforts to reform the Old Regime were thwarted by the failure of the King to support him against the opposition of the privileged classes.

Originally A. R. J. Turgot planned to enter the Church but experienced doubts concerning his religious calling and turned to a public career. After holding a number of legal positions he purchased, as was the practice, the office of master of requests, a post that often led to appointment as intendant, the chief administrator of a district. However, Turgot's interests extended beyond the law and administration. He was a friend of the philosophes and frequented the intellectual salons of Paris; in 1760 he visited Voltaire, then in exile. He also contributed articles to the Encyclopédie, wrote an essay on toleration, and planned an ambitious history of the progress of man which he never completed.

Turgot was, however, particularly interested in economics and knew Adam Smith, the great English economist, and François Quesnay, founder of the Physiocratic school. He shared their distrust of government intervention in the economy and their belief in free trade but disagreed with the Physiocratic view that only agriculture was productive, while commerce and industry were unproductive.

In 1761 the King named Turgot intendant of the généralité (district) of Limoges, a poor and backward region. During the 13 years that he spent at Limoges, Turgot attempted, despite local opposition and halfhearted support from the central government, a widespread reform of his district. Historians disagree on how successful he was. He brought tax lists up to date and sought to introduce a more equitable method of collecting taxes. He abolished the corvée (forced labor on the roads by peasants) and substituted for it a tax. Consistent with his belief in free trade, he resisted pressure to repeal legislation permitting the free circulation of grain within France during a period of shortages and suppressed riots against the movement of grain. At the same time he opened workshops to provide work for the unemployed which he financed in part by funds that he forced landowners to contribute. He encouraged improvement of agriculture by such means as an agricultural society. While at Limoges, Turgot also continued to study economics and in 1766 published his most important theoretical work on the subject, Reflections on the Formation and Distribution of Wealth, a book whose ideas anticipated Adam Smith's classic study in 1776.

In July 1774 Turgot was named secretary of the navy and the following month controller general of finances (actually prime minister). Although he saw the need for fundamental reforms of the government and society, Turgot also recognized that he must advance cautiously; basic reforms would not only be costly but certain to arouse the opposition of the privileged classes. His first efforts, therefore, emphasized modest reforms and reducing government expenditures by such measures as eliminating useless positions and aid for courtiers. However, even such minor reforms aroused the opposition of the privileged and of financiers whose interests had also been adversely affected. Churchmen, moreover, were suspicious of this friend of the philosophes who "did not attend Mass" and was suspected of favoring tolerance for Protestants.

In January 1776 Turgot presented to the King his famous Six Edicts, which went beyond his previous minor reforms and economies. The two most contested edicts were one ending the monopoly of the guilds and another abolishing the corvée Turgot implied that a tax would be levied upon the "landowners for whom public roads are useful." The Six Edicts now became the target of all the opponents of Turgot; the clergy, the nobles, the queen, Marie Antoinette, all clamored and conspired for his dismissal. They even forged a correspondence in which Turgot made offensive remarks about Louis XVI. The latter, who had at first supported his minister, of whom he had said, "Only Monsieur Turgot and I really love the people, " was unable to resist the pressures upon him and in May 1776 requested Turgot's resignation. The dismissal of Turgot marked the failure of the last attempt to reform the monarchy from within. Turgot, who warned Louis XVI that Charles I of England had lost his head because of his weakness, spent his last years engaged in scholarly and literary work but still sought to influence the King.

Further Reading on Anne Robert Jacques Turgot

The finest study of Turgot in English is Douglas Dakin, Turgot and the Ancient Regime in France (1939).

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