The French financier and statesman Jacques Necker (1732-1804) served King Louis XVI as director general of finances. His efforts to reform French institutions prior to 1789 and to compromise with the Estates General after the start of the Revolution failed.
Jacques Necker was born in Geneva, Switzerland, where his father, of Prussian origin, taught at the university. At the age of 18 Necker moved to Paris to work in a bank. He rose rapidly in the world of finance and accumulated a considerable fortune, partly as the result of speculation in the French East India Company, of which he became a director, and in the grain trade.
In 1765 Necker founded his own bank. A year earlier he had married Suzanne Curchod, the gifted daughter of a Swiss pastor, whose salon was soon frequented by leading literary and diplomatic figures. As a result of his wife's influence, Necker abandoned his bank to his brother in 1772 and decided to embark upon a political career. In order to enhance his reputation as a financial expert, he wrote a number of works, the most important being Éloge de Colbert (1773) and Essai sur la législation et le commerce des grains (1775). In the latter he attacked A.R.J. Turgot's policy of free trade in grains. Necker also provided financial services for a number of writers and high nobles.
On June 29, 1777, Louis XVI named Necker director general of finances, and Necker soon became a virtual prime minister. Because he was a foreigner and a Protestant he could not receive the official title of controller general. Scholars differ about Necker's first ministry, some accusing him of excessive caution in introducing necessary reforms. Necker sought to reduce public expenditures by such measures as abolishing unnecessary positions and by demanding larger payments from the private companies that had purchased the right to collect indirect taxes. He also attempted to introduce some reforms in the inequitable system of taxation.
Because Necker financed French aid to the American colonies in their war of independence against England without raising taxes, he was regarded as a financial genius. As a result of Necker's loans, however, the public debt greatly increased. Necker anticipated one goal of the French Revolution by founding a number of provincial assemblies in which the three estates sat and voted together. These efforts aroused opposition from the privileged classes, who urged Louis XVI to dismiss his minister. In 1781 Necker published a response to his critics, his famous Compte rendu au roi, a report on the fiscal condition of France. However, he was dismissed from office on May 19, 1781. Necker retired to his Swiss estate, Coppet, where he wrote Traitéde l'administration des finances de la France in 1784.
Necker's second ministry began in August 1788, when Louis XVI recalled him to office after agreeing to convoke the Estates General to deal with France's fiscal crisis. On Necker's advice, Louis XVI agreed to the doubling of the number of delegates from the Third Estate, but after some hesitation he rejected the vote by head demanded by the Third Estate, and he also rejected Necker's suggestion for a compromise. Influenced by the most conservative nobles, the King, who now planned to use force against the Estates General, dismissed Necker on July 11, 1789, because he regarded him as too sympathetic to the Third Estate. Necker's departure from office contributed to the unrest in Paris that culminated in the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. A few days later popular pressure forced Louis XVI to recall Necker.
Necker, however, distrusted by the nobles and soon by the deputies to the legislature, could not cope with the fiscal crisis and the demands for radical reforms. In September 1790 he retired from public office for the last time and returned to Switzerland. There he lived with his famous daughter Madame Germaine de Staël and wrote a number of works defending his policies. Necker died on April 4, 1804.
The most scholarly biographies of Necker are in French. In English, Mark Gambier-Parry, Madame Necker, Her Family and Her Friends (1913), offers some information on Necker's administrations. Useful background works include Hippolyte A. Taine, The French Revolution (3 vols., 1878), and Alfred Cobban, A History of Modern France (1957).
Harris, Robert D., Necker and the revolution of 1789, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1986.