Turgot, Anne Robert Jacques

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Turgot, Anne Robert Jacques (1727-1781): French, Political Economist and Statesman.

Turgot played an important role in the formulation of modern economic science, which was first introduced to France in the second half of the eighteenth century by Quesnay, François. As intendant of the district of Limoges, and later as minister of finance, Turgot consistently applied many of his own theories in a comprehensive system of economic reform.

In 1727, Turgot was born into one of the oldest families in Normandy. His ancestors had long served the King of France as law officials and public administrators. His father, the benevolent and enlightened Michel Étienne Turgot (1690-1751), was the prévôt des marchands (director of guilds and executive mayor) of Paris between 1729 and 1740. As the third son in the family, Turgot was expected to pursue a career in the Church, and early on his education was oriented in this direction. A brilliant and precocious student, he attended the Collège Duplessis, and later the seminary of Saint-Sulpice, where he applied himself to the study of theology. In this critical period, his intellectual development was shaped by a number of outstanding intellectuals: Abbé Sigorgne, who introduced Newtonian physics at the University of Paris; Abbé Guérin, a liberal teacher of the humanities; and Abbé Bon, an authority on English literature. In 1749, he was admitted as fellow and resident at the Maison de Sorbonne, an annex of the theological faculty of the University of Paris. Soon thereafter, he was elected prieur de Sorbonne. As prior, his duties included presiding over the assemblies of theological students, gaving addresses in Latin on important occasions, delivering two major discourses at the opening and closing of the academic exercises known as the sorboniques, as well as signing official documents. Reflecting both his liberal beliefs and his eclectic interests, his numerous writings from these early years include a refutation of the defense of Law’s system in the form of a letter to the abbé de Cicé, a critique of Maupertuis, Pierre-Louis Moreau de' s reflections on the origin of languages, a refutation of Berkeley, George’ s philosophy, translations from the classics, as well as the text of his two principal discourses delivered at the Sorbonne. The second of these, Tableau philosophique des progrès de l’esprit humain (1750), proclaimed Turgot’s belief in progress and in the perfectibility of humankind. In this essay, the young abbé foretells the eventual secession of the English colonies in America and expresses his conviction that the only alternative to radical reform was revolution. After his father’s death, Turgot abandoned his ecclesiastical career in order to engage in the legal profession.

Turgot started out his apprenticeship in the magistrature as deputy to the procureur général (1751) and went on to become a councillor in the Parlement of Paris (1752). Named maître des requêtes (1753), he carried out both administrative and judicial duties in a manner that earned him the reputation of an impartial and scrupulous magistrate. During this period, he participated in the intellectual life of Paris, centered then in the literary salons frequented by writers, philosophers and administrators. Although he would later dissociate himself from the encyclopédistes, in 1756 and 1757 he contributed five articles to the Encyclopédie (Etymology, Existence, Expansibility, Fairs and Markets, and Foundations). It was also while maître des requêtes that he met Vincent de Gournay. From 1753 to 1756, Turgot accompanied Gournay as the latter carried out his duties as intendant of commerce through official inspections of trade and manufactures in the provinces. Turgot was profoundly influenced by Gournay’s economic thought, in particular by his views on free trade. Turgot also became part of Quesnay’s inner circle and shared most of the physiocratic beliefs of the économistes. Owing to the influence of Gournay and Quesnay, Turgot’s economic thought shows the substantial influence of both the English economists and French physiocrats. Turgot’s Réflexions sur la formation et la distribution des richesses, written around 1766, and published between 1769 and 1770 in Dupont’s journal Ephémérides du citoyen, is considered one of the most significant general treatises on political economy, anticipating as it does Smith, Adam’s Wealth of Nations. Turgot’s original contribution to the history of economic thought resides primarily in his theories of value, capital and interest, production and distribution.

In 1761 Turgot was appointed by Louis XV as intendant of the isolated and impoverished district of Limoges. For the thirteen years to follow, he used his intendancy as a laboratory for testing many of his economic theories. In an attempt to oppose tax abuse and injustice, he established a civil service to oversee matters relating to taxation, the first task being the revision of outdated records throughout the district. He subsequently enlisted the cooperation of the parish priests, who were to assume shortly numerous administrative duties. Turgot supported new agricultural methods, introduced new crops, sought to develop industry, and promoted as much free trade as it was possible. In order to improve communication within the district and with neighboring provinces, he built roads and improved navigation. At the local level, his reforms were welcomed by many with great relief and appreciation. Well aware of the burdens that fell entirely upon the peasantry, he abolished the compulsory military service known as the milice, and furthermore eliminated the corvées, which required peasants to perform mandatory labour such as road building and billeting troops stationed throughout the district. He also instituted a fund for public assistance to which various segments of the population contributed, established charitable committees and workshops, and did what he could to reduce the effects of the famine of 1770. However, in the face of strong local opposition from the privileged classes and the restrictions imposed by the ancien régime, his reforms could only be achieved on a modest scale, but he was nonetheless widely acclaimed for his efforts, especially by the philosophes.

As a result of Turgot’s growing reputation in the district of Limoges, he was appointed by Louis XVI to the naval administration in 1774, and two months later he was named contrôleur général (minister of finance) in Maurepas’s cabinet. Turgot immediately proceeded to introduce an extensive system of reform whose aim was to reduce government expenditures and augment public revenues without imposing new taxes. His motto was “No bankruptcy, no increase in taxes, no borrowing”. In 1774, his edict restoring the free circulation of grain within France antagonized the grain speculators. This edict was unfortunately followed by a disastrous crop failure, which resulted in bread riots that had to be repressed by force. In 1776, he introduced an ambitious program of reform, which later became known as the Six Edicts. Two of these edicts are worthy of special note. The one proclaimed the partial suppression of the guilds in an effort to destroy the old trade monopolies and to introduce the concept of free enterprise. The other sought the elimination of the corvée by proposing instead that all landowners be taxed. Turgot added to the edicts the enforcement of the strictest control in public spending, which was not well received by the court. In short order, he lost much of his popularity. The clergy, who had long opposed Turgot for his tolerant religious views, were joined by the nobles, and then by Marie Antoinette, angered by Turgot’s refusal to grant favours to her protégés. In May 1776, Turgot was forced to resign. He retired to a life of study and died of gout in 1781.

It is difficult to assess the validity of the belief held by some historians that the French Revolution might have been avoided if Turgot’s reforms had succeeded. His admirers praise his liberal thought and his attempts at reform. His critics, on the other hand, portray him as an intransigent doctrinarian, far too zealous in carrying out his reforms, or as an abstract thinker, far too removed from the reality of daily life and social strictures in France. Still, it is imperative to view Turgot’s administrative and political decision making within the context of the ancien régime. Although Turgot is now remembered as an important eighteenth-century economist and pre-revolutionary reformist minister of finance, his extensive writings reveal an extraordinary thinker whose wide interests ranged from natural sciences and poetry to language formation and social progress.

Further Reading:

Dakin, Douglas. Turgot and the Ancien Régime in France, 1939.

Say, Léon. Turgot, 1888.


Christina Ionescu

Mount Allison University, Canada.

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