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INTENDANTS. The term intendant usually refers to provincial administrators in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France. The term also had other meanings: there were between one and ten intendants des finances financial administrators who worked at the highest level with the controller-general, or superintendent of finances; There were also administrators often qualified as "intendants" in the French naval, military and colonial administrations, but the latter were not normally concerned with the fiscal matters that so preoccupied the provincial intendants.


In the sixteenth and the early seventeenth centuries, junior members of the king's royal council, known as masters of requests (maîtres des requêtes), were commonly sent to deal with specific problems of justice or administration in the provinces. However, with the fiscal crisis caused by France's warlike foreign policy in the 1630s and the consequent increases in direct taxes (the taille and associated levies), these officials became resident commissioners in most provinces, usually under the name of "intendants of justice, police, and finances." Traditionally, in each province, local venal officeholders (élus and trésoriers) had been responsible for dividing the total amount of direct tax to be assessed among subregions and parishes, and for hearing complaints about assessments. They often used their powers to favor their clients and tenants; this impeded the war effort. Intendants now worked side-by-side with the local financial officials, and their royal commissions gave them power to impose their will. Unlike the officeholders, they were the king's creatures; they held a revocable royal commission; their careers depended on success and loyalty to the ruler and his ministers. Suits against them were directed to the king's council, thereby bypassing local courts and the parlements, where local influence might have blunted their effectiveness. Although their concerns were principally fiscal, intendants had extensive police and extraordinary judicial powers.

The civil war known as the Fronde (16481652) was fueled in part by officeholder resentment against the intendants and the higher taxes; the grievances drawn up by the Paris "sovereign courts" in the spring of 1648 forcefully echoed these complaints. Cardinal Jules Mazarin (16021661) and the regent, Anne of Austria (16011666), gave way and abolished the intendants, but subsequently brought them back, at first surreptitiously, then openly when the Fronde was over.


The end of the long conflict with Spain in 1659, the death of Mazarin, and Louis XIV's (ruled 16431715) assumption of personal power in 1661 did not bring the use of intendants to an end. Jean-Baptiste Colbert (16191683), who became Louis's chief financial adviser, had made up his mind that the intendants would be essential to carrying out any program of reform. Before 1661, the chancellor, the chief law officer of the crown, gave most orders to the intendants; after that date, Colbert and his successors in the post of controller general became their effective superior, and although the intendants continued to have some judicial functions, they became primarily fiscal and administrative agents. They were used, particularly in the eighteenth century, to implement schemes for economic development and social reform and control: welfare, hospitals, road building, industrial development, poor relief, managing the food supply, and mobilizing the peasantry through the royal corvée to build a national road network.

One of Louis XIV's main declared aims was to reform justice. This meant drawing up new law codes and streamlining the courts, but it also implied a quantum leap in the statistical information and intelligence of all kinds to be supplied to government at the local and national levels. Among other projects, Colbert wanted to improve the tax yield by imposing lower but fairer levies, reducing the number of privileged persons exempt from tax, and rooting out corrupt officials. In the 1660s and 1670s, the intendants usually played the major role in the numerous purges of recent or fake nobles, putting themback on the assessment rolls, thereby gaining a powerful hold over local notables in the process. When large-scale war became quasi-permanent after 1672, their original function as fiscal supervisors made them even more necessary, particularly when the direct tax base was widened by wartime emergency taxes (capitation, 1695; dixième, 1710) to take in nobles and privileged people of all kinds.

Colbert's measures to control spending by town and parish governments culminated in the edict of April 1683, which made all changes in town and village government spending subordinate to the intendant's approval. A regular police presence was also needed to keep down resistance to wartime taxation and to the policy of religious uniformity that culminated with Louis's revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685). All this required the continued presence of the intendants and longer stays in their provinces. Under Cardinal Richelieu (Armand-Jean du Plessis; 15851642) and Mazarin they had only remained three years on the average; between 1666 and 1716 the average stay was five years; in the eighteenth century it was seven.

With the increased activity (under Louis XIV and later) came the strengthening of the intendants' local control and accountability to their superiors. The practice grew up whereby intendants informally co-opted local officials, called "subdelegates" (subdélégués), usually from among the lesser local officeholders. Colbert did not like this, but the logic of the system he was building required it. The numbers of permanent subdelegates increased impressively: by 1700 there were probably between four and five hundred subdelegates; by the 1780s, there were about seven hundred. In larger intendancies, the intendants often appointed subdélégués généraux as executive assistants who could replace them during absences and built up a little staff of secretaries and domestics. The growth and development of the intendancy as a regular institution, and the intendant as a bureaucratic functionary, is evident when we compare the sporadic, often frantic or desperate correspondence of the intendants of Richelieu and those of Louis XIV. The latter reveal a central administration with an agenda, enforcing frequent correspondence with the offices of the controller general, demanding replies to uniform and regularly recurring questionnaires, and a yearly work cycle built around annual reports on the economic state of the intendancy and the routine administration of direct tax collection. The degree of control was always weaker in the pays d'États like Brittany, Languedoc, and so forth, where local institutions still assumed some of these tasks and the intendant's role was often more political than administrative.


Intendants were usually chosen among the seventy or eighty-odd masters of requests in the royal council. In the eighteenth century, these recruits were supposed to be thirty years of age, to have a law degree or equivalent legal experience, and to serve six years as a junior member (conseiller) of a parlement or other high court; the length of this study and service was often reduced by dispensation. Throughout the period, 40 to 50 percent of masters of requests had sat previously as junior members in the Parlement of Paris, around a third (until 1774) came from the Grand Conseil, a specialized high court. At the time, critics of the intendants, such as financier and statesman Jacques Necker (17321804), said that they were too young to bear such responsibilities. But the average age of a beginning master of requests under Louis XV (ruled 17151774) was twenty-nine, not inordinately young (though it appeared to be falling somewhat toward the end of the Old Regime). In any event, throughout the entire period from Richelieu onward, the overwhelming majority did not get their first posting as intendants until their mid-thirties or later. Intendancies were often a springboard to higher functions as royal councillors (conseillersd'état), or even as secretaries of state and ministers. The Royal Council was a good training ground. It had a certain collective mentality: councillors worked harder than the members of the parlement; they were self-effacing, career-oriented, consensus-minded. Working there gave future intendants wide experience in preparing and judging disputed issues in taxation, administrative law, jurisdictional disputes, and the likethe sort of administrative and political problems that they would later face in the provinces.

The nineteenth-century historian and writer Alexis de Tocqueville (18051859), misled perhaps by the diatribes of Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon (17601825), said that Louis XIV's intendants were bourgeois, whereas those of Louis XVI (ruled 17741792) were nobles. This was wrong. Even in the days of Richelieu and Mazarin, all the intendants claimed noble status. At that time, the families of about a third of them had acquired transmissible nobility by the purchase of the offices of secrétaire du roi, one-third by hereditary office, and the rest by letters of nobility, and so forth, and all of them held personal nobility by virtue of their offices of masters of requests. This pattern continued. The true quality of nobility, however, was measured by the number of generations it had been in a family. Paradoxically, at the end of the eighteenth century more intendants were sons and grandsons of "new nobles" than at the end of the seventeenth, so in a sense the institution had become more open. But the truly significant social ties of the intendants and masters of requests were to the Parisian and financier milieu. Fully two-thirds of the councillors of state and masters of requests under Louis XIV were born in Paris, and this trend continued; they generally came from wealthy families and tended either to intermarry or to find wives in the milieu of royal financiers. They were thus true representatives of the Old Regime state elite; the families that waxed wealthy and powerful and gained prestige from the king's service, and their loyalty to the Colbertian model and service ethic was never in question.

At the end of Louis XIV's reign, criticism of the intendants' powers resumed. Their jurisdiction was the target of increasingly bold attacks from provincial parlements and estates from the 1750s onward. From the days of François de Salignac de La Mothe-Fénelon (16511715) and his coterie at the end of Louis XIV's reign through Victor Riqueti, marquis de Mirabeau (17151789) and René Louis de Voyer de Paulmy, marquis d'Argenson (16941757) at mid-century to Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (17271781) and Jacques Necker in the 1770s, there were projects to create or restore provincial estates or assemblies, which would have reduced or eliminated the role of intendants. A couple of provincial assemblies were created by Necker as pilot projects in the 1780s. Étienne-Charles de Loménie de Brienne (17271794), in the monarchy's last desperate reforms of 1787, actually set up advisory boards filled by prominent landowners in each intendancy to work with the intendant. When the Constituent Assembly reorganized France in 1789, it assumed from the outset that the intendants had to go. The division of France into eighty-three self-administering departments on 15 February 1790 left no place for them; but Napoleon's prefects, created by the law of 28 Pluviôse Year VIII (17 February 1800) regained most of the intendants' powers within the framework of an authoritarian regime sanctioned by popular sovereignty, and many of them still survive today.

See also Absolutism ; Colbert, Jean-Baptiste ; France ; Fronde ; Louis XIV (France) ; Louis XV (France) ; Louis XVI (France) ; Mazarin, Jules ; Parlements ; Provincial Government ; Richelieu, Armand-Jean Du Plessis, cardinal ; State and Bureaucracy ; Taxation .


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