Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak. — John Adams

Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber




Turgot's Ministry

The minister Turgot had governed one French province well for many years, and had prevented the people there from suffering from hunger like the rest of the nation, by planting potatoes. Until then, root crops (turnips, beets, carrots, and potatoes) had been neglected in France, so at first people distrusted the new food, believing it would produce terrible diseases. But when they saw that Turgot himself ate potatoes, and when the king wore potato blossoms in his buttonhole, popular opinion began to change.

There is, besides, another famous story of how people were induced to raise potatoes. It is said that Turgot or another man had a sandy stretch planted with them, and carefully guarded the growing crop, but artfully let it become noised abroad that it was precious beyond price! Of course, such secrecy and care aroused popular curiosity, and it was generally believed that if potatoes had to be guarded so closely, they must be extra good. Very soon, therefore, a few were stolen and stealthily planted, and before long the new food became popular everywhere.

When Turgot took charge of the affairs of France, he found them in a desperate condition. The debt was larger than ever before, the revenues were in confusion, and expenses were greater than income. Still, Turgot was hopeful of bringing order out of chaos in time, if the king would only uphold him. This Louis XVI. faithfully promised to do, knowing that Turgot was capable and had good intentions, for he often said, "There is no one save Turgot and me who love the people!"

As Turgot was honest, he did not declare the state bankrupt; on the contrary, he proposed to cut down expenses, and to ease the burdens of taxation. His policy was, "No bankruptcy, no increase of taxes, no loans." He also encouraged his master in effecting such reforms as restoring the Parliament of Paris, and freeing those who had been unjustly imprisoned. The result was that the people were soon really better off than they had been for more than a hundred years past; but unfortunately they had suffered so much that their patience was almost exhausted, and gradual improvement failed to satisfy men who wanted everything at once.

Turgot kept on working hard to improve conditions for two years, but as the king was always interfering, by yielding first to this adviser and then to that, the minister finally gave up all hope of doing much good. On leaving, he said, "All I desire, Sire, is that you may always be able to believe that I was shortsighted and that I pointed out to you fanciful dangers!" Later on he also wrote to the master whose downfall he was not to live long enough to witness, "Do not forget, Sire, that it was weakness which put the head of Charles I. of England on the block; that it was weakness which produced the League under Henry III. and which made slaves of Louis XIII. and of the present King of Portugal; it was weakness also which caused all the misfortunes of the late reign."

In spite of these solemn warnings, Louis continued weak; he could not help it. As we shall see, it was his weakness and his pernicious habit of putting things off which caused the outbreak of the terrible French Revolution.

Louis's other great minister, Malesherbe, like Turgot, also found difficulties too great to contend with, and when he handed in his resignation, his master exclaimed with an envious sigh, "You are very lucky, for you can give up your job!" This feeling became more intense as time went on, for when another minister (Vergennes) died in 1787, the king said, gazing down into his tomb, "Oh, how happy I should be if I were only lying beside you in that grave!"