1902 Encyclopedia > Anne Robert Jacques Turgot

Anne Robert Jacques Turgot
French economist and administrator

TURGOT. ANNE ROBERT JACQUES TURGOT, MARQUIS DE L'AULNE (1727-1781), French statesman and economist, was born at Paris, 10th May 1727. He was the third son of Michel Etienne Turgot and of Madeleine Françoise Martineau. His family, which was ancient and noble, is said to have been originally Scottish, but had long been settled in Normandy. His ancestors early abandoned the sword for the robe. Both his father and grandfather had been in the civil service of the state: his father was " prévôt des marchands " at Paris, and won a high reputa-tion as a magistrate and administrator. Turgot in his childhood was timid, and showed in company an absent and embarrassed air, from which he never afterwards entirely freed himself, and which in later life was some-times unjustly attributed to hauteur. His mother, through excessive or injudicious efforts to correct these faults, ap-pears to have aggravated them. He obtained his early education at the College Louis-le-Grand, and was after-wards a student of the College du Plessis. He then entered the seminary of St Sulpice, and thence passed to the Sor-bonne with the view of taking his licence in theology. But he decided finally in 1751 not to follow the ecclesi-astical profession. His opinions were inconsistent with that calling, and he said " he could not consent to wear a mask all his life." He showed at this time an enthusiastic love of literature and powers of memory which are de-scribed as " prodigious," as well as a penetrating intellect and a sound judgment. We have the testimony of the Abbé Morellet, who was then his intimate acquaintance and constant companion, to the singular purity, the simplicity, modesty, and frank gaiety which characterized him.

As prior of the Sorbonne (an honorary office conferred annually on some distinguished student) he wrote and delivered publicly in 1750 two remarkable pieces,—one On the Benefits which the Christian Religion has conferred on Mankind, the other On the Historical Progress of the Human Mind. Having chosen the law as his profession, he was appointed in 1752 "conseiller substitut du pro-cureur général," and afterwards " conseiller au parlement." The controversy arising from the refusal of the sacraments to the Jansenists by the archbishop of Paris being then agitated between the parlement and the clergy, Turgot wrote (1753) Letters to a Vicar-General on Toleration and a pamphlet entitled Le Conciliateur, in favour of religious liberty and against the interference of the temporal power in theological disputes. In 1753 he became "maître des requêtes." He discharged his professional duties with scrupulous purity and conscientious industry. He con-tinued at the same time his studies in ancient and modern literature (including English and German), mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, and natural history, and frequented the salons of Madame de Graffigny (authoress of Les Lettres Péruviennes), Madame Geoffrin, and Madame du Deffand. Whilst he enjoyed the acquaintance and society of D'Alem-bert, Baron d'Holbach, Baynal, Marmontel, Morellet, Galiani, Helvétius, and other notabilities of the time, he maintained his intellectual independence and refused to connect himself with any party or political group. About this time he also entered into relations with Quesnay and Gournay—the principal members of the physiocrats. He was attracted to them by the similarity of their sentiments on social questions and their opinions on economic policy to those which he himself entertained. Turgot accompanied Gournay in 1755 and 1756 in his official tours of inspec-tion as intendant of commerce, and on Gournay's death in 1759 he wrote his Éloge. He then made a short visit to eastern France and a part of Switzerland. When he arrived at Geneva he went to see Voltaire at Les Délices, and formed with him what proved to be a lasting friendship. He contributed about this period several articles to the Encyclopédie. In 1761 the controller-general Bertin ap-pointed him intendant of the généralité of Limoges. In that district the mass of the people were sunk in poverty and barbarism ; the corvées for the construction of roads and the transport of military equipages were oppressive ; the country was depopulated by the requisitions for the militia ; the taxation was excessive and unfairly distri-buted; the state of the roads was wretched; and the general condition of agriculture was deplorable. Turgot's administration of the district lasted for thirteen years, and was marked by a steady pursuit of the public good, and a firm resistance to inertia, prejudice, and corruption. In particular he strongly maintained the cause of the in-dustrious poor, and insisted on a more equitable assess-ment of the public charges which pressed unduly upon them. With nobly disinterested spirit he refused to be transferred to other généralités in which the salary was higher and the administration easier. Bising above the common prejudices of the philosophes, he sought the co-operation of the clergy, both to inform him of everything relating to the circumstances of the people which it was desirable for him to know, and to explain to their flocks the nature and objects of the measures he proposed to put in operation; and he acknowledges that he found in them earnest and active auxiliaries. But he was not seconded as he ought to have been by the central Government, and had often to remonstrate with the Abbé Terray, minister of finance. During the scarcity of 1770 and 1771, which was particularly severe in Limousin, he devoted himself with untiring assiduity to the relief of the distressed, and, when he had exhausted such public funds as were avail-able, incurred for the same object a personal debt of more than 20,000 livres. Shortly after the accession of Louis XVI. Turgot was appointed by Maurepas (19th July 1774) minister of marine, and in that capacity began at once to initiate important reforms and to conceive far-reaching projects. But he filled the post only for five weeks, being then (21st August) promoted to the ministry of finance. In his new office he addressed to the young king a declara-tion of the principles by which he intended to be guided : " No bankruptcy, no increase of taxation, and no borrow-ing." Economy and wise management were to be his only resources. Fearing the opposition he must encounter, he appealed to Louis to support him. By a decree of the 13th September 1774, he re-established free trade in grain within the kingdom, which had been suspended by Terray, and authorized the importation of supplies from abroad; the traffic in other alimentary substances was also relieved of many impediments, and various monopolies and exclu-sive privileges were abolished; the octroi taxation was reformed, public works promoted, and improvements in agriculture encouraged. Some of these measures were made the pretext for disturbances, known as la guerre des farines, which Turgot always suspected the Prince de Conti of having fomented. The riots had to be suppressed by armed force, and the energetic action of the minister against them was made a ground of attack by his enemies. The parlement had been weakly recalled by Louis from the exile to which in the preceding reign Maupeou had condemned it. It now constituted itself the organ of the resistance of menaced interests to the measures of Turgot, who would gladly have abolished it, providing in its place better political securities and courts of justice on a new plan. In January 1776 he presented to the king a memoir proposing, amongst other things, the abolition of the corvée, to be replaced by a territorial tax, from which the privileged classes were not to be exempt, and the suppression of the jurandes (exclusive trade corporations). The edicts for these purposes were submitted to Miromesnil, keeper of the seals, a secret enemy of Turgot, who, spurred on by Maurepas, wrote a memoir against them, and opposed them in the king's council. The courtiers, the nobility, the clergy, and the leading members of the industrial corpora-tions now combined against the minister, and were joined by a large part of the common people, who did not under-stand his policy. The Count de Provence, afterwards Louis XVIIL, wrote a pamphlet, entitled The Dream of M. de Maurepas, against Turgot. The parlement refused to register the decrees; but the king held a lit de justice, which Voltaire proposed to call a lit de bienfaisance, and compelled the registration. This forced submission only aggravated the rancour of Turgot's enemies, and the king had not the firmness to sustain his minister against the coalition. A vile conspiracy having poisoned Louis's mind against him, he addressed to the king an eloquent letter in which he pointed out the grave perils impending over the throne and the state, and warned Louis that princes who are tempted to give themselves up to the direction of courtiers should remember the fate of Charles I. The minister received his dismissal on the 12th of May 1776. He had been in office only twenty months, of which he had lost six in repressing sedition, and for seven more had been con-fined to his bed by the gout; but he had done during his tenure an extraordinary amount of work. Voltaire, how-ever, nobly avenged Turgot on his enemies in his MipUre d un Homme. The fallen minister devoted his remaining years to his favourite studies, especially to physical science and the ancient poets ; he enjoyed the society of Lavoisier, D'Alembert, Condorcet, Bossut, Bochon, and Bouelle, and attended the meetings of the Academy of Inscriptions, of which he was elected vice-director in 1777. He also cor-responded with Price and Franklin, and, if we may believe Condorcet, with Adam Smith, whose acquaintance he had made at Paris in 1766. Turgot died at Paris on 18th March 1781.

Turgot's official career is for ever memorable in the history of social politics. Never did a public man give himself to the service of the community with more earnest and unselfish devotion. He made it his object to convince before commanding, in order that his aims might be better understood and his directions more surely obeyed ; and, in issuing any instruction, making any decision, or advising any legislative act, he stated fully, by way of preamble, the grounds on which he proceeded. In the documents which he prepared on these occasions we have a body of valuable materials on administrative and economic questions ; some of them contain the substance of chapters in the Wlalth of Nations. When he became minister, the finances were in what seemed a desperate condition, and the general state of affairs justified the prediction of Louis XV.—"après moi le deluge." Turgot framed a vast plan of reform, at once administrative and economic, as the only hope for the salvation of the state. He speaks of his system of measures as intended for "the regulation of the kingdom," thus showing that he contemplated nothing less than a pacific revolution. But the first condition of success in such an effort was wanting, namely, the entire confidence and unfaltering support of the king, and the energetic exercise of the royal power in carrying out a policy of thorough reform against all adverse influences. Turgot's struggle, though it failed from causes independent of himself, cannot be regarded without profound sympathy and admiration. Nor was it without a large measure of immediate success. Whilst he scrupulously observed all the pecuniary obligations of the state, he greatly diminished the crushing deficit which he found on his accession to office, and re-established the public credit in such a degree that the Dutch bankers offered him a loan of sixty millions of livres at less than 5 per cent. His financial and other plans, of course, fell with him, and his most important measures were annulled; but his policy and his writings exercised a lasting influence, and many of his projects were realized by the Revolution. Turgot is altogether one of the most massive and imposing figures of the 18th century. His whole character and public action are marked by an air of austere grandeur. Single-mindedness and veracity were of the very essence of his nature. Absolutely unbiased by selfish ends, he lived only for France, for truth, and for his duty. Believing intensely in a definite system of social and economic princi-ples, which he had early formed by independent study and reflexion, he was prepared to carry them out with dauntless determination, and with a lofty contempt for the interested or prejudiced opposi-tion they were sure to encounter. He has been accused of a doc-trinaire rigidity, and it is possible that, as a practical man, he wanted flexibility ; yet he was often willing, not indeed to disguise his convictions, but to postpone the realization of his plans. In his public acts he always showed a lively concern for the poor and the suffering ; in private life he was humane and benevolent ; in his relations with his friends, amiable and affectionate. Malesherbes, the only other minister of his time who was worthy to be his col-league, said of him that "he had the head of Bacon and the heart of L'Hôpital, " and, on the moral side at least, this was no exagger-ated estimate.

Possessed of a many-sided culture, Turgot wrote on a great variety of subjects — philosophic, scientific, and literary — though political economy is the branch of knowdedge with which his name must always he most closely associated. Already in 1749, whilst a student at St Sulpice, he addressed to his friend, Abbé de Cicé, afterwards bishop of Auxerre, a Letter on Paper Money, in which he asserted, in opposition to the views of Law and his followers, doctrines similar to those now accepted by all competent authorities. In one of his discourses at the Sorbonne in 1750, moving into the higher regions of the philosophy of society, he makes a remarkable attempt to work out the pregnant conception, already enunciated by Pascal, of the continuity of the intellectual movement of our race, thus preparing the way for Condorcet's Esquisse, and ultimately for the sociology of Comte. In 1753 he translated under the title of Questions Importantes sur le Commerce, a tract of Dr Josiah Tucker on the expediency of naturalizing foreigners. He contributed to the Encyclopédie the articles Etymologie, Existence, Expansibilité, Fondations, and Foires et Marchés. The first of these contains much that is just as well as interesting, though in the time of Turgot the subject could not yet be treated on genuinely scientific bases. In the second he undertakes a refutation of the Berkeleian theory. The third contains some ingenious suggestions in practical physics. The article on foundations maintains the right of the Government to dispose of them for the public good, suppressing them if hurtful, and directing the funds to more useful objects ; the policy advocated in it was afterwards oarried into effect by the constituent assembly. In the paper on fairs and markets he argues that these are institutions adapted only for an immature state of commercial relations, and that more good would be done by liberating trade from the legislative fetters which every-where impeded it than by bestowing special privileges or other encouragements on particular localities as centres of exchange. In the Éloge of Gournay he combines with his tribute to the memory of his friend a vindication of the principle of industrial freedom, which that friend had condensed in the oft-repeated maxim, "Laissez faire, laissez passer." To the period of Turgot's intendance belong his unfinished Valeurs et Monnaies, intended to form an article in the Dictionnaire de Commerce of Morellet ; his Letters (to the Abbé Terray) on the Freedom of the Corn-Trade ; his memoir Sur les Prêts d'Argent, in which he insists on the necessity of leaving free the interest on loans ; and that on the principles which should direct legislation respecting mines and quarries, as well as the work on which his reputation as a systematic economist mainly rests, namely, his Réflexions sur la Formation et la Distribution des Richesses. This treatise was written for two Chinese youths who had been sent over by the Jesuit missionaries to study in France. The work was first published in 1766 in the Êphémérides du Citoyen, edited by Dupont de Nemours, and speedily passed through four editions. It gives in brief compass a luminous statement of some of the most important principles relating to the economic constitution of societies — the division of labour, the origin and use of money, the nature of capital and the different modes of its employment, the necessary rise of capitalist chiefs of industry, the legitimacy of interest on loans, and the impossibility of arbitrarily fixing the rate of that interest. It unfortunately contains, along with many truths, the erroneous doctrines of the physiocrats on the exclusive productiveness of agriculture and on the consequent pro-priety of imposing taxes only on the land of a country. This book was erroneously represented by Condorcet as "the germ of the Wealth of Nations," and has been spoken of by others as "anticipating some of the leading principles" of Smith. The truth is, most of what it contains had either been fully set forth by the earlier economists or was familiar to Quesnay and his group. It is, in fact, not a work of research but of exposition, and, regarded in this light, has real originality and may justly be pronounced a masterpiece.

Fuller information on the life, administrative labours, and writings of Turgot will be found in the following works:— Dupont de Nemours, Notes et Mémoires sur la Vie, l'Administration, et les Ouvrages de Turgot, 1782, and enlarged in his edition of Turgot's works mentioned below ; Condorcet, Vie de Turgot, 1786 ; A. Batbie, Turgot, Philosophe, Économiste, Administrateur, 1861 ; J. Tissot, Turgot, sa Vie, son Administration, ses Ouvrages (a mémoire couronné), 1862 ; A. Neymarek, Turgot et ses Doctrines, 18S5. The last-named contains the most complete treatment of the subject. See also an Éloge by Dupuy (1781) in the Mémoires de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, vol. xiv. ; L. de Lavergne, Les Économistes Français au Dix-Huitième Siècle, 1870, and Mr. John Morley's article in his Critical Miscellanies, 2d series, 1877. A collected edition of Turgot's writings was published for the first time by Dupont in 9 vols. (Paris 1808-11); the most complete and in every respect best edition is that contained in the Collection des Principales Economistes of Coquelin and Guillaumin, 2 vols., 1844, with a biographical notice by Eugene Daire. An English translation of The Formation and Distribution of Wealth was published in London in 1793, and was reprinted in 1859 in Lord Overstone's Select Collection of Scarce and Valuable Economical Tracts, edited by J. R. M'Culloch. (J. K. I.)


Dugald Stewart, however, cannot find any evidence of a correspondence between Turgot and Smith. It has also been said that during this period Turgot corresponded with Hume. But little more than three months intervened between his dismissal and the death of Hume (25th August 1776) and there appears to be no trace of letters having passed between them in this interval. They had corresponded, but at a much earlier date ; see Burton's Life of Hume, ii. 352, 381.

2 Some have thought that the cardinal error in Turgot's policy lay in his not having convoked the states-general; that would, however, have been simply to open the flood-gates.

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-17 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries