1902 Encyclopedia > Jacques Necker

Jacques Necker
French-Swiss financier

JACQUES NECKER (1732-1804), finance minister of Louis XVI., and convener of the stages-general of 1789, was born at Geneva in 1732. His father was a native of Cüstrin in Pomerania, and had, after the publication of some works on international law, been elected professor of public law of Geneva. Jacques Necker had been sent to Paris in 1747 to become a clerk in the bank of a friend of his father, M. Vernet.

He soon afterwards established, with anther Genevese, the famous bank of Thelusson & Necker. Thelusson superintended the bank in London (his grandson was made a peer as Lord Rendlesham), while Necker was managing partner in Paris. Between them the bank prospered, and both partners became very rich.

He chiefly occupied himself in his bank, but in 1763 fell in love with Madame de Verméneaux, the widow of a French officer. She could not make up her mind to marry any one who was not noble, and, while considering his offer, she went on a visit to Geneva, where she met Suzzanne Curchod, the daughter of a pastor near Lausanne, to whom Gibbon had been engaged, and took such a fancy to her that she brought her back as her companion to Paris in 1764. There Necker, transferring his love from the widow to the poor Swiss girl, married Suzanne before the end of the year.

She was extremely ambitious, and encouraged her husband to try and make himself a public position. He accordingly became a syndic or director of the French East India Company, and, after showing his financial ability in its management, defended it in an able memoir against the attacks of Morellet in 1769. He had also made interest with the French Government by lending it money, and was appointed resident at Paris by the republic of Geneva.

Madame Necker assisted his ambitious views by entertaining largely the chief leaders of the political, financial, and literary worlds of Paris, and her Fridays became as greatly frequented as the Mondays of Madame Geoffrin, or the Tuesdays of Madame Helvetius.

In 1773 Necker won the prize of the Académic Francaise for an éloge on Colbert, and in 1775 published his Essai sur la legislation et le commerce des grains, in which he attacked the free-trade policy of Turgot. His wife now believed he could get into office as a great financier, and made him give up his share in the bank, which he transferred to his brother Louis.

She was right, and in October 1776 Necker was made finance minister of France, though with the title only of direct or of the treasury, which, however, he changed in 1777 for that of director-general of the finances. He did great good in regulating the finances by attempting to divide the taille or poll tax more equally, by abolishing the "vingtième d’industrie," and establishing "monts du piété."

But his greatest financial measures were his attempt to fund the French debt and his establishment of annuities under the guarantee of the state. The operation of funding was too difficult in regard to the complicated French debt to be suddenly accomplished, and Necker rather pointed out the right line to be followed than completed the operation.

In all this he treated French finance rather as a banker than as profound political economist, and thus fell far short of Turgot, who was the very greatest economist of his day. Politically he did not do much to stave off the coming Revolution, and his establishment of provincial assemblies in the "pays d’élection" only tended to keep France disunited.

In 1781 he published his famous Compte Rendu, in which he drew the balance sheet of France, and was dismissed from his office. Yet his dismissal was not really due to his book, but to the influence of Marie Antoinette, whose schemes for benefiting the Duc de Guines he had thwarted. In retirement be occupied himself with literature, and with his daughter, Mdlle Necker, who was his only child, and would be a wealthy heiress. He first attempted to procure the young English statesman Mr Pitt for her husband, but eventually chose the Swedish Baron Erik Magnus von Staél-Holstein, on condition that his master made him Swedish Ambassador at Paris. Gustavus III. was quite willing, and in 1786 became Mdlle Necker became Madame de Staël. But neither Necker nor his wife cared to remain out of office, and in 1787 Necker was banished by "lettre de cachet" 40 leagues from Paris for attacking Calonne.

In 1788 the country, which had at the bidding of the literary guests of Madame Necker come to believe that Necker was the only minister who could "stop the deficit," as they said, demanded Necker’s recall, and in September 1788 he became once more director-general of the finances. He entered office at a critical moment: Dauphiné was in actual rebellion, and France was crying out for the summons of the states-general. Necker put a stop to the rebellion in Dauphiné by legalizing its assembly, and then set to work to arrange for the summons of the states-general.

Throughout the early months of 1789 Necker was regarded as the saviour of France, but his conduct at the metting of the states-general sufficiently proved that he was not a great statesman and showed that he regarded the states-general merely as an assembly which should grant money, not organize reforms. The same want of statesmanship appeared in his vacillating conduct with regard to the reunion of the three orders, when he allowed the king to be forced by the assembly instead of taking the lead in ordering the reunion.

He was nevertheless regarded as the cause of the Revolution by the court, and on July 11, while at dinner, received the abrupt order to leave France at once.

But Necker’s dismissal brought about the taking of the Bastille, which induced the king to recall his old minister. His return was an absolute ovation, and he was received with joy in every city he traversed. But at Paris he again proved to be no statesman. In his conceit he believed he could save France alone, and refused to act with Mirabeau or La Fayette. He caused the king’s acceptance of the suspensive veto, by which he sacrificed his chief prerogative in September, and destroyed all chance of a strong executive by contriving the decree of November 7, by which the ministry might not be chosen from the assembly. Financially he proved equally incapable for a time of crisis, and could not understand the need of such extreme measures as the established of assignats in order to keep the country quiet. His popularity vanished when his only idea was to ask the assembly for new loans, and in September 1790 he resigned his office, unregretted by a single Frenchman.

Not without difficulty he reached Coppet, near Geneva, and estate he had bought in 1784. Here be occupied himself with literature, but Madame Necker pined for her Paris salon, and died in 1794. He continued to live on at Coppet, under the care of his daughter, Madame de Staél, and his niece, Madame Necker de Saussure, but his time was past, and his books had no political influence. A momentary excitement was caused by the advance of the French armies in 1798, when he burnt most of his political papers. He died at Coppet in April 1804.

The chief authorities for Necker’s life are La Vie privée de M. Necker, by Madame de Staël-Holstein, and the Notice sur la vie de M. Necker, by Auguste de Staël-Holstein, his grandson, published in the collection of his works edited by the latter in 1833. The bibliography of his works is as follows: -- Réponse au Mémoire de M. l’Abbé Morellet, 1769: Eloge de J.B. Colbert, 1773; Esssai sur la legislation et le commerce des grains, 1775; Compte rendu au Roi, 1781; De l’administration des finances de la France, 3 vols., 1784; Mémoire en réponse au discourse pronounce par M. de Calonne, 1787; De l’importance des opinions religieuses, 1788; Sur l’administration de M. Necker, par lui-méme, 1791; Du pouroir executive dans les grands états, 2 vols., 1792; Réflexions sur le process de Louis XVI., 1792; De la Révolution Francaise, several editions, the last in 4 vols., 1797; Cours de la morale religieuse, 1800; Derniéres vues de politique et de finance, 1802; Suites funestes d’une scule faute, published after his death. Le salon de Madame Necker, by the Vicomte d’Haussonville, 2 vols., 1882, complied from the papers at Coppet, should also be consulted. (H. M. S)

The above article was written by: H. Morse Stephens.

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