Turgot, Anne Robert Jacques

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Turgot, Anne Robert Jacques



Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, baron de l’Aulne, French economic thinker, was born in Paris in 1727 and died there in 1781. His father had been prévôt des marchands (something like head of the guilds), and this led Turgot to an early acquaintance with the bourgeois sector of society and to an intense preoccupation with and a liberal conception of contemporary economic problems. While still a student at the Sorbonne, he had expressed the conviction that reforms were needed to forestall revolution. Called to high office, he endeavored to modernize, and especially to liberalize, the French economy, but his work, which might well have prevented the cataclysm of 1789, was wrecked by vested interests.

From 1761 to 1774 Turgot was chief administrative officer (intendant) of the district of Limoges, where he could study the ancien régime at its worst. The main reforms which he tried to effect were abolition of collective responsibility for the prestation of the tax called taille; adjusting the tax burden to ability to pay; replacement of the forced road-building and road-repair service (corvée) by paid work financed by monetary contributions; and a parallel change in the ancient obligation to transport troops. During the hunger crisis of the years 1769 to 1771, Turgot tried to prevail on the landed proprietors and rich farmers to keep on their laborers and maintain them until the next harvest, and he set up the Bureaux de Charité, through which the workless could find employment.

When Louis xvi came to the throne in 1774, he called the energetic reformer into his ministry and soon gave him the key position of contrôleur général (minister of finance, trade, and public works). Turgot immediately freed the grain trade inside France from all interprovincial obstacles. Unfortunately, the harvest was exceptionally bad that year, and bread riots developed (known to history as the guerre des farines) that had to be put down by force. This was an inauspicious prelude to Turgot’s most daring move, the so-called six edicts of 1776. Two of these enactments were downright revolutionary: one not only commuted the road-building services throughout France but, unlike the earlier reform in the Limousin, put the financial burden on the hitherto tax-free nobility; the other dissolved the guilds (maîtrises and jurandes), thus destroying the old trade monopolies and introducing the principle of free enterprise. These bitterly resented and resisted attacks on privilege were combined with enforcement of the strictest economy in public expenditure, all of which alienated the court and ultimately even the king. On May 12, 1776, Turgot was dismissed, and within a few weeks his legislation was very largely revoked. Albert Sorel characterized Turgot’s short intervention as a demonstration both of the need for reforms and of the inability of the monarchy to carry them out (Sorel 1885, p. 213).

Turgot’s theoretical bent can be seen from the fact that his edicts were preceded by preambles outlining their theoretical justification. His basic attitude was formed by two influences, that of the reform mercantilist Vincent de Gournay and that of the physiocrat Quesnay. His most successful book, Reflections on the Formation and Distribution of Riches, which was published in 1769-1770, shows him as a physiocrat rather than as a reform mercantilist, but it is possible that the existing version was edited by the physiocrat Du Pont de Nemours. It was in any case characteristic of Turgot to speak of artisans and traders as a salaried, rather than a sterile, class.

In his analysis of distribution, rent is equated with the physiocratic produit net. Wages are said to tend toward the minimum of subsistence. In the discussion of profits, stress is laid on the volume of real savings as the primary determinant of the rate of interest and on the presence of a risk premium as an important secondary ingredient. There is an occasional indication (although not in the Reflections) that Turgot was aware of the interdependence of prices, incomes, and population figures, and of the economy’s inherent tendency toward equilibrium. In monetary theory Turgot was a defender of the metalist position. It proves his weakness as a thinker, however, that he could in one paragraph assert the impossibility of conventional money and in the next speak of using cowrie shells and apricot stones as the media of circulation.

Turgot acknowledged that labor, as well as land, is productive, and at times he presented rudiments of a labor theory of value. He may therefore be regarded as a link in the chain from Locke to Marx and, more particularly, as figuring in the transition from Petty, Hutcheson, and Hume to Adam Smith (whom, incidentally, he met in 1765).

In his more programmatic writings, notably “Mémoire sur les prêts d’argent” (1770a) and “Lettres sur la liberté du commerce des grains” (1770b), Turgot advocated laissez-faire as the panacea for all ills. When he spoke of freedom, he usually spoke in superlatives. It is surprising to find so extreme and doctrinaire an attitude in a man of Turgot’s wide practical experience, but it is a fact that he did not manage to combine his philosophical convictions with a sober sense of political possibilities and limitations. His failure was, in the last analysis, due to his belief that it would be possible to remove in a few days what had been growing for centuries.

Werner Stark

[For the historical context of Turgot’s work, see Economic thought, article on Physiocratic Thought; Laissez-Faire; and the biographies of Hume; Locke; Petty; Quesnay; for discussion of the subsequent development of Turgot’s ideas, see the biographies of Marx; Smith, Adam.]


(1769-1770) 1898 Reflections on the Formation and Distribution of Riches, 1770. New York: Macmillan. → First published as Réflexions sur la formation et la distribution des richesses.

(1770a) 1919 Mémoire sur les prets dêargent. Volume 3, pages 154-202 in Turgot, Oeuvres de Turgot et documents le concernant. Paris: Alcan.

(1770b) 1919 Lettres sur la liberté du commerce des grains. Volume 3, pages 386, 393-398 in Turgot, Oeuvres de Turgot et documents le concernant. Paris: Alcan.

The Life and Writings of Turgot, Comptroller-general of France, 1774-1776. Edited by W. Walker Stephens. London: Longmans, 1895.

Oeuvres de Mr. Turgot, ministre d’état, précédées et accompagnées de mémoires et de notes sur sa vie, son administration et ses ouvrages. Edited by P.-S. Du Pont de Nemours. 9 vols. Paris: Belin, 1808-1811.

Oeuvres de Turgot. 2 vols. Collection des principaux économistes, Nos. 3 and 4. Paris: Guillaumin, 1844.

Oeuvres de Turgot et documents le concernant, avec biographie et notes par G. Schelle. 5 vols. Paris: Alcan, 1913-1923.

Textes choisis. Edited by Pierre Vigreux. Paris: Dalloz, 1947.


Dakin, Douglas (1939) 1965 Turgot and the Ancien Régime in France. New York: Octagon.

Faure, Edgar 1961 La disgrâce de Turgot, 12 mai 1776. Paris: Gallimard.

Gignoux, Claude-Joseph 1945 Turgot. Paris: Fayard.

Sorel, Albert 1885 L’Europe et la Révolution française. Vol. 2. Paris: Plon.

Weddigen, Walter 1950 Anne Robert Jacques Turgot: Leben und Bedeutung des Finanzministers Ludwigs XVI; Unter Abdruck seiner noch heute wichtigen Schriften. Bamberg (Germany): Meisenbach.

Anne Robert Jacques Turgot

views updated May 11 2018

Anne Robert Jacques Turgot

The French economist Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Baron de I'Aulne (1721-1781), was controller general under Louis XVI. His efforts to reform the Old Regime were thwarted by the failure of the King to support him against the opposition of the privileged classes.

Originally A. R. J. Turgot planned to enter the Church but experienced doubts concerning his religious calling and turned to a public career. After holding a number of legal positions he purchased, as was the practice, the office of master of requests, a post that often led to appointment as intendant, the chief administrator of a district. However, Turgot's interests extended beyond the law and administration. He was a friend of the philosophes and frequented the intellectual salons of Paris; in 1760 he visited Voltaire, then in exile. He also contributed articles to the Encyclopédie, wrote an essay on toleration, and planned an ambitious history of the progress of man which he never completed.

Turgot was, however, particularly interested in economics and knew Adam Smith, the great English economist, and François Quesnay, founder of the Physiocratic school. He shared their distrust of government intervention in the economy and their belief in free trade but disagreed with the Physiocratic view that only agriculture was productive, while commerce and industry were unproductive.

In 1761 the King named Turgot intendant of the généralité (district) of Limoges, a poor and backward region. During the 13 years that he spent at Limoges, Turgot attempted, despite local opposition and halfhearted support from the central government, a widespread reform of his district. Historians disagree on how successful he was. He brought tax lists up to date and sought to introduce a more equitable method of collecting taxes. He abolished the corvée (forced labor on the roads by peasants) and substituted for it a tax. Consistent with his belief in free trade, he resisted pressure to repeal legislation permitting the free circulation of grain within France during a period of shortages and suppressed riots against the movement of grain. At the same time he opened workshops to provide work for the unemployed which he financed in part by funds that he forced landowners to contribute. He encouraged improvement of agriculture by such means as an agricultural society. While at Limoges, Turgot also continued to study economics and in 1766 published his most important theoretical work on the subject, Reflections on the Formation and Distribution of Wealth, a book whose ideas anticipated Adam Smith's classic study in 1776.

In July 1774 Turgot was named secretary of the navy and the following month controller general of finances (actually prime minister). Although he saw the need for fundamental reforms of the government and society, Turgot also recognized that he must advance cautiously; basic reforms would not only be costly but certain to arouse the opposition of the privileged classes. His first efforts, therefore, emphasized modest reforms and reducing government expenditures by such measures as eliminating useless positions and aid for courtiers. However, even such minor reforms aroused the opposition of the privileged and of financiers whose interests had also been adversely affected. Churchmen, moreover, were suspicious of this friend of the philosophes who "did not attend Mass" and was suspected of favoring tolerance for Protestants.

In January 1776 Turgot presented to the King his famous Six Edicts, which went beyond his previous minor reforms and economies. The two most contested edicts were one ending the monopoly of the guilds and another abolishing the corvée Turgot implied that a tax would be levied upon the "landowners for whom public roads are useful." The Six Edicts now became the target of all the opponents of Turgot; the clergy, the nobles, the queen, Marie Antoinette, all clamored and conspired for his dismissal. They even forged a correspondence in which Turgot made offensive remarks about Louis XVI. The latter, who had at first supported his minister, of whom he had said, "Only Monsieur Turgot and I really love the people, " was unable to resist the pressures upon him and in May 1776 requested Turgot's resignation. The dismissal of Turgot marked the failure of the last attempt to reform the monarchy from within. Turgot, who warned Louis XVI that Charles I of England had lost his head because of his weakness, spent his last years engaged in scholarly and literary work but still sought to influence the King.

Further Reading

The finest study of Turgot in English is Douglas Dakin, Turgot and the Ancient Regime in France (1939). □

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