Called to power by the young Louis XVI, Turgot was the face of a fresh start in a France left weary by the troublesome end of Louis XV’s reign. His goal was to ensure the State’s funding by replacing privileges and taxes with economic liberty, a source of wealth creation for the benefit of all. Some of his ideas influenced reforms carried out during the Revolution.
Turgot, the son of a merchants’ provost, was born in Paris in 1727. He became the prior of the Sorbonne in 1749 but two years later he decided against taking holy orders and joined the Parliament of Paris, where he held various positions until purchasing the office of maître des requêtes (a position at the council of State) in 1753. He worked with Vincent de Gournay, the intendant of commerce and a fierce advocate of economic freedom, accompanying him on his tours of the provinces. Turgot was close to the physiocrats, wrote articles for the encyclopaedia and in 1760 became friends with Voltaire. The next year he was appointed intendant (tax collector) of the Limoges district, giving him an opportunity to put his liberal ideas into practice: he established a land survey, abolished the corvée, fought against poverty, built roads and canals to improve the movement of grain, set up factories, etc. In 1774 Louis XVI, who had just ascended to the throne, appointed him controller-general of finance. On 24 August he wrote the famous letter where laying out his financial policy to fund the structural reforms the kingdom needed: “No bankruptcy, no tax increases, no borrowing.” Turgot’s policy of cutting expenses lowered the deficit and increased credit by 1775. Faithful to his liberal ideas, he abolished price controls on and established free trade in grain. But a poor harvest led to a rise in the price of bread; riots broke out in the provinces and around Paris. In 1776 Turgot met with stern opposition from the powerful craft guilds when he established freedom of enterprise and competition. He ran into further trouble by replacing the corvée en nature, by which peasants were required to turn part of the fruits of their labour over to the noblemen whose land they worked, with a tax on the landowners. The measures were unpopular with the people as well as the privileged classes, weakening his position. At the behest of the queen and the minister Maurepas, Turgot resigned on 12 May 1776 and devoted the rest of his life to works on economy, literature and physics. He died of gout in 1781 at the age of 54.