Arthur Young's Travels in France During the Years 1787, 1788, 1789
IT may afford the reader some satisfaction to note a few circumstances of the state of France at the opening of 1792, which I draw from the correspondence of some friends, on whose accuracy I can rely.
Agriculture.—Small proprietors, who farm their own lands, are in a very improved and easy situation: renters are proportionally so, to the degree in which their landlords have not been able to acquire in new rents, the payments from which the land has been freed. Owners of meadows, woods, and a variety of articles for which no tythe was paid before, gain much less than others whose property used to be subject to that burthen. In regard to the payment of rent, there is a distinction between the north and south of the Loire; in the former, rents continue to be paid; but to the south, many landlords have been unable to receive a penny; and here a difference is observable; absentees, who were not beloved, or whose agents are disliked, are in an ill situation; but others, who reside, or who, though absent, are beloved, are paid proportionally to the ability of the métayer, which species of tenant is chiefly found south of the Loire. The last crop (of 1791), is said to have been short; in a good year, in Picardy, 40 sheaves gave a septier of wheat, of 240 lb.; but now it takes 50 to 60. This circumstance, however, cannot be general, as the price plainly proves; for January 7th 1792, price at Paris of wheat was 22 to 28 liv. with assignats at 36 per cent. discount, a remarkable proof, that the most depreciated paper currency will answer every purpose for objects of physical necessity, and daily consumption. The discount on this paper, is greater than ever was foretold by those who predicted an enormous rise of all the necessaries of life; a proof how new the science of politics is, and how little able the most ingenious men are to foretell the effects of any specified event. The sale of the national estates has been of late very slow, which is a strange circumstance, since the rapidity of their transfer ought to have been proportioned to the discount upon assignats, for an obvious reason; for, while land is to be acquired with money, the more depreciated paper is, the greater the benefit to the purchaser. While the sale of the estates lasted with any degree of briskness, the common price, of such as have come to my knowledge, was 20 to 30, and even more years purchase; at which rate the advantages attending investments may be great.
Commerce and Manufactures.—The result of the vast discount upon assignats has, in relation to the national industry, been almost contrary to what many persons, not ill informed, expected. Early in the confusion of the revolution, nothing suffered so severely as manufactures; but I am now (1792) informed, that there is much more motion and employment in them than some time past, when the general aspect of affairs was less alarming. The very circumstance which, according to common ideas, should have continued their depression, has most unaccountably revived them in some measure; I mean the depreciation of the assignats. Paper currency has been at so low a pitch, that every species of goods has been preferred in payments; master manufacturers paying their workmen, &c. in assignats, by which bread is purchased at a price proportioned to the crop, can sell the product of that labour to such an advantage, as to create demand enough to animate their business: a most curious political combination, which seems to shew, that in circumstances where evils are of the most alarming tendency, there is a re-action, an undercurrent, that works against the apparent tide, and brings relief, even from the very nature of the misfortune. Combine this with the point of depression of England, in all her wars, as explained with such talents by the ingenious Mr. Chalmers, and something of a similarity will strike the reflecting reader. The loss by the depression of assignats has not been by any interior transactions, but by those with foreign powers. In consequence of it, the course of exchange rose at last so high, that the loss to the kingdom has been great, but by no means so great as some have imagined, who supposed the intercourse to be moving in the same ratio as in preceding periods. But this is no light error: the evil of exchange, like all other political evils, corrects itself; when it is very much against a people, they necessarily lessen their consumption of foreign commodities; and on the contrary, foreign nations consume theirs very freely, because so easily paid for. Through the month of January 1792, the course of exchange between us and Paris, has been about 18 on an average; reckoning the par at 30 (which, however, is not exact), here is 40 per cent. against France; deduct 36 for the discount on assignats, and this apparent enormity of evil is reduced to 4 per cent. Through the month of January 1791, the course was 25½; this was 15 per cent. disadvantage and deducting 5 for the discount on assignats, the real disadvantage was 10. Thus the exchange in January, 1792 is 6 per cent. more favourable to France than in 1791; a remark, however, which must not be extended to any other case, and touches not on the internal mischiefs of a depreciated currency. It seems to shew, that the evils of their situation, so little understood by the generality of people here, are correcting themselves, relative to foreigners, through the operation of the causes I have mentioned. It is at the same time to be remarked, that while the price of corn, and other things, in which there is no competition by foreigners, rises merely on account of a scarcity, real or apprehensive; at the same time, every thing bought by foreigners, or which can be bought by them, has risen greatly; for instance, the cloth of Abbeville, a French commodity, has risen from 30 liv. to 42 liv. the aulne; and copper, a foreign commodity, has increased, it is asserted, in the petition of the Norman manufactures to the National Assembly, 70 per cent. Such a fabric may suffer; but if their pins fell proportionably with other things, the evil, it must be admitted, tends to correct itself.
Finances.—The prominent feature is the immensity of the debt which, increases every hour. That which bears interest, may be about 5,000,000,000 liv.; and assignats, or the debt not bearing interest, may be grossly estimated at 1,500,000,000 liv.; in all 6,500,000,000 liv. or 284,375,000l. sterling: a debt of such enormity, that nothing but the most regular, and well paid revenue, could enable the kingdom to support it. The annual deficit may be reckoned about 250,000,000 liv. at present, but improveable by a better collection of the revenue. The following is the account for the month of February 1792.
I am afraid that any attempt to support such infinite burthens, must continue to deluge the kingdom with paper, till, like Congress dollars in America, circulation ceases altogether. There seems to be no remedy but a bankruptcy, which is the best, easiest, and most beneficial measure to the nation, that can be embraced; it is also the most just and the most honourable; all shifting expedients are, in fact, more mischievous to the people, and yet leave government as deeply involved, as if no recourse had been made to them. If the milice bourgeoise of Paris is so interested in the funds, as to render this too dangerous, there does not appear to be any other rule of conduct, than one great and last appeal to the nation, declaring, that they must either DESTROY PUBLIC CREDIT, OR BE DESTROYED BY IT. If the National Assembly have not virtue and courage enough thus to extricate France, she must at all events, remain, however free, in a state of political debility.
The impossibility of levying the œconomistes, land-tax, is found in France to be as great in practice as the principles of it were absurd in theory. I am informed (February 1792), that the confusion arising from this cause, in almost every part of the kingdom, is great. The tax of 300 millions, laid on the rental of France, would not be more than 2s. 6d. in the pound; too great a burthen on just political principles, but not a very oppressive one had it been once fairly assessed, and never afterwards varied. But, by pursuing the jargon of the produit net, and making it variable, instead of fixed, every species of inconvenience and uncertainty has arisen. The assembly divided the total among the departments; the departments the quotas among the districts; the districts among the municipalities; and the municipalities assembled for the assessment of individuals: the same decree that fixed the tax at 300 millions, limited it also not to exceed one-fifth of the produit net; every man had therefore a power to reject any assessment that exceeded that proportion; the consequence was, the total assigned to the municipalities, was scarcely any where to be found, but upon large farms, let at a money-rent in the north of France; among the small proprietors of a few acres, which spread over so large a part of the kingdom, they all screened themselves under definitions, of what the produit net meant; and the result was, that the month of December, which ought to have produced 40 millions, really produced but 14. So practicable has this visionary nonsense of the produit net proved, under the dispensations of a mere democracy, though acting nominally*85 by representatives. The fact has been, that this ill-conceived and ill-laid land-tax, which, under a different management, and under the orderly government of the settled part of America, might have been effectively productive, has been so contrived, that it never will, and never can produce what it was estimated at in France. The people, without property, have a direct interest in seconding the refusals of others to pay, that are in the lowest classes of property, and who can really ill afford it; one great objection to all land-taxes, where possessions are much divided. With power in such hands, the refusal is effective, and the national treasury is empty. But supposing such enormous difficulties overcome, and these little properties valued and taxed on some practicable plan, from that moment there must be a new valuation every year; for, if one has wealth enough to improve beyond the capacity of the rest, they immediately shift a proportion of their tax on him; and this has accordingly happened, early as it is in the day, and indeed is inherent in the nature of the tax, as promulgated by the assembly.*86 Thus annual assessments, annual confusion, annual quarrels, and heart-burnings, and annual oppression, must be the consequence; and all this because a plain, simple, and practicable mode of assessment was not laid down by the legislature itself, instead of leaving it to be debated and fought through 500 legislatures, on the plan, purely ideal and theoretical, of the œconomistes!
Police of corn.—The National Assembly has been of late repeatedly employed in receiving complaints from various departments, relative to the scarcity and high price of corn, and debates on it arise, and votes pass, which are printed, to satisfy the people that all precautions are taken to prevent exportation. Such a conduct shews, that they tread in the steps of Mons. Necker, and that they consequently may expect, with a crop but slightly deficient, to see a famine. In the "Gazette Nationale," of March 6, 1792, I read, in the journal of the Assembly, Inquiétudes—précautions prises—commissaires envoyés—veiller à la subsistance du peuple—fonds pour acheter des grains chez l'étranger—dix millions—&c. Now this is precisely the blind and infatuated conduct of Mons. Necker. If these steps ere necessary to be taken (which is impossible), why talk of and print them? Why alarm the people, by shewing yourselves alarmed? Forty-five millions loss, in the hands of M. Necker, purchased not three days corn from France; ten millions will not purchase one day's consumption! but the report and parade of it will do more mischief than the loss of five times the quantity: without being in France, I am clear, and can rely enough upon principles to know, that these measures will RAISE, not sink the price. One of the many instances in legislation, that proves the immense difference (regarding the cases of France and the United States) between a representation of mere population, and one of property! M—pour prévenir les inquietudes qui pourraient arriver l'année prochaine et les suivantes, l'assemblée doit s'occuper dès ce moment d'un plan general sur les subsistances—There is but one plan, ABSOLUTE FREEDOM; and you will shew, by accepting or rejecting it, what class of the people it is that you represent. Proclaim a free trade, and from that moment ordain that an inkstand be crammed instantly into the throat of the first member that pronounces the word corn.
Prohibition of the Export of the raw Materials of Manufactures.—The last information I have had from France is a confirmation of the intelligence our newspapers gave, that the National Assembly had ordered a decree to be prepared for this prohibition. It seems that the master manufacturers of various towns, taking advantage of the great decline of the national fabrics, made heavy complaints to the National Assembly; and, among other means of redress, demanded a prohibition of the export of cotton, silk, wool, leather, and, in general, of all raw materials. It was strenuously opposed by a few men, better acquainted than the common mass with political principles, but in vain; and orders were given to prepare the decree, which I am assured will pass. As I have, in various papers in the "Annals of Agriculture," entered much at large into this question, I shall only mention a few circumstances here, to convince France, if possible, of the mischievous and most pernicious tendency of such a system, which will be attended with events little thought of at present in that kingdom. As it is idle to have recourse to reasoning, when facts are hand, it is only necessary to describe the effect of a similar prohibition in the case of wool in England:—1, The price is sunk by it 50 per cent. below that of all the countries around us, which, as is proved by documents unquestionable, amounts to a land-tax of between three and four millions sterling; being so much taken from land and given to manufactures. 2d, Not to make them flourish; for a second curious fact is, that of all the great fabrics of England that of wool is least prosperous, and has been regularly most complaining, of which the proofs are before the public; the policy therefore has failed; and because it fails in England, it is going to be adopted in France. The home monopoly of wool gives to the manufacturers so great a profit, that they are not solicitous about any extension of their trade beyond the home product; and to this it is owing that no foreign wool, Spanish alone excepted (which is not produced here), is imported into England. The same thing will happen in France; the home-price will fall; the landed interest will be robbed; and the manufacturer, tasting the sweets of monopoly, will no longer import as before: the fabric at large will receive no increase; and all the effect will be, to give the master manufacturer a great profit on a small trade: he will gain, but the nation will lose. 3d, The most flourishing manufacture of England is that of cotton, of which the manufacturer is so far from having a monopoly, the 18/20ths of the material are imported under a duty, and our own exportable duty free. The next (possibly the first) is that of hardware; English iron is exported duty free, and the import of foreign pays 2l. 16s. 2d. a ton; English coals exported in vast quantities. Glass exhibits the same spectacle; English kelp exportable duty free, and 16s. 6d. a ton on foreign; raw silk pays 3s. a lb. on import; export of British hemp and flax undressed is free, foreign pays a duty on import; British rags, for making paper, exportable duty free; unwrought tin, lead, and copper all exportable either free or under a slight duty. The immense progress made by these manufactures, particularly hardware, cotton, glass, flax, and earthern-ware, another in which no monopoly of material can exist, is known to all Europe; they are among the greatest fabrics in the world, and have risen rapidly; but note (for it merits the attention of France), that wool has experienced no such rise.*87 Our policy in wool stands on fact, therefore convicted of rottenness; and this is precisely the policy which the new government of France copies, and extends to every raw material! 4th, The free trade in raw materials is necessary, like the free trade in corn, not to send those materials abroad, but to secure their production at home; and lowering the price, by giving a monopoly to the buyer, is not the way to encourage farmers to produce. 5th, France imports silk and wool to the amount of 50 and 60 millions a year, and exports none, or next to none; why prohibit an export, which in settled times does not take place? At the present moment, the export either takes place, or it does not take place? if the latter, why prohibit a trade which has no existence? If it does take place, it proves that the manufacturers cannot buy it as heretofore: is that a reason why the farmers should not produce it? Your manufacturers cannot buy, and you will not let foreigners; what is that but telling your husbandmen that they shall not produce? Why then do the manufacturers ask this favour? They are cunning: they very well know why; they have the same view as their brethren in England—solely that of SINKING THE PRICE, and thereby putting money in their own pockets, at the expence of the landed interests. 6th, All the towns of France, contain but six millions of people; the manufacturing towns not two millions: why are twenty millions in the country to be cheated out of their property, in order to favour one-tenth of that number in towns? 7th, In various passages of these travels, I have shown the wretched state of French agriculture, for want of more sheep; the new system is a curious way to effect an increase —by lowering the profit of keeping them. 8th, The French manufacturers, under the old system of freedom, bought raw materials from other nations, to the amount of several millions, besides working up all the produce of France; if sinking the price be not their object, what is? Can they desire to do more than this? If under the new government their fabrics do not flourish as under the old one, is that a reason for prohibition and restriction, for robbery and plunder of the landed interest, to make good their own losses? And if such a demand is good logic in a manufacturer's counting-house, is that a reason for its being received in a NATIONAL ASSEMBLY!!
One of the most curious inquiries that can be made by a traveller, is to endeavour to ascertain how much per cent. a capital invested in land, and in farming-stock, will return for cultivation in different countries; no person, according to my knowledge, has attempted to explain this very important but difficult problem. The price of land, the interest of money, the wages of labour, the rates of all sorts of products, and the amount of taxes, must be calculated with some degree of precision, in order to analyze this combination. I have for many years attempted to gain information on this curious point, concerning various countries. If a man in England buys land rented at 12s. an acre, at thirty years purchase, and cultivates it himself, making five rents, he will make not more than from 4½ to 5 per cent, and at most 6, speaking of general culture, and not estimating singular spots or circumstances, and including the capital invested in both land and stock. I learn, from the correspondence of the best farmer, and the greatest character the new world has produced, certain circumstances, which enable me to assert, with confidence, that money invested on the same principles, in the middle states of North America, will yield considerably more than double the return in England, and in many instances the treble of it. To compare France with these two cases, is very difficult:—had the National Assembly done for the agriculture of the kingdom what France had a right to expect from FREEDOM, the account would have been advantageous. For buying at 30 years purchase, stocking the same as in England, and reckoning products 6 per cent. lower in price (about the fact), the total capital would have paid from 5½ to 6½ per cent.; land-tax reckoned at 3s. in the pound, which is the proportion of the total tax to the rental of the kingdom.*88 It is true, that the course of exchange would make an enormous difference, for when exchange is at 15, this ratio per cent. instead of 5½ becomes 11, if the capital is remitted from Britain: but as that immense loss (50 per cent.), on the exchange of France, arises from the political state of the kingdom, the same circumstances which cause it, would be estimated at so much hazard and danger. But bring to account the operations of the National Assembly, relating to the non-inclosure of commons: the land-tax, variable with improvements (an article sufficient to stifle the thoughts of such a thing); the export of corn at an end; the transport every where impeded; and your granaries burnt and plundered at the pleasure of the populace, if they do not like the price; and, above all, the prohibition of the export of all materials of manufactures, as wool, &c. and it is sufficiently clear, that America offers a vastly more eligible field for the investment of capital in land than France does; a proof that the measures of the National Assembly have been ill-judged, ill-advised, and unpolitical: I had serious thoughts of settling in that kingdom, in order to farm there; but the two measures adopted, of a variable land-tax, and a prohibition of the export of wool, damped my hopes, ardent as they were, that I might have breathed that fine climate, free from the extortions of a government, stupid in this respect as that of England. It is, however, plain enough, that America is the only country that affords an adequate profit, and in which a man, who calculates with intelligence and precision, can think of investing his capital. How different would this have been, had the National Assembly conducted themselves on principles directly contrary; had they avoided all land-taxes;*89 had they preserved the free corn-trade, a trade of import more than export; had they been silent upon inclosures; and done nothing in relation to raw materials, the profit of investments would have been higher in France than in America, or any country in the world, and immense capitals would have flowed into the kingdom from every part of Europe: scarcity and famine would not have been heard of, and the national wealth would have been equal to all the exigencies of the period.
April 26, 1792.
In the last moment which the preparation for publication allows me to use, the intelligence is arrived of a declaration of war on the part of France against the House of Austria;—the gentlemen in whose company I hear it, all announce destruction to France;—they will be beat;—they want discipline;—they have no subordination;—and this idea I find general. So cautiously as I have avoided prophetic presumption through the preceding pages, I shall scarcely assume it so late in my labours;—but thus much I may venture,—that the expectation of destruction to France has many difficulties to encounter. Give all you please to power of field evolution, depending on the utmost strictness of discipline—you must admit that it bears only on the question of battles. But guarded as France is, by the most important frontier fortresses the world knows, why hazard battles? Undisciplined troops behind walls and within works, are known on experience to be effective: and where are the resources to be found that shall attack those strong holds, 700 miles from home? I was at Lisle, Metz, and Strasbourg; and if the military intelligence I had was accurate, it would demand 100,000 men, completely provided with everything for a siege, three months to take either of those towns, supposing them well provided and well defended. We know, on positive experience, what the Austrians and Prussians led by some of the greatest men that have existed, were able to do in sieges, when undertaken at their own doors;—what will they effect against places ten times as strong and 700 miles from home? It is a matter of calculation—of pounds and shillings;—not of discipline and obedience.
But many depend on the deranged state of the French finances; that derangement flows absolutely from a vain attempt at preserving public credit:—the National Assembly will see its futility; misery; ruin; the NATION must be preserved—what on comparison is public credit?
The divisions, factions, and internal disturbances, offer to others the hope of a civil war. It ought to be a vain hope. During peace, such difficulties fill the papers, and are dwelt upon, till men are apt to think them terrible; in war they are TREASON, and the gallows sweeps from the world, and the columns of a gazette the actors and the recital.
Oil and vinegar—fire and water—Prussians and Austrians are united to carry war amongst 26 millions of men, arranged behind 100 of the strongest fortresses in the world.—If we are deceived, and Frenchmen are not fond of freedom, but will fight for despotism—something may be done; for then France falls by the power of France: but if united but tolerably, the attack will be full of difficulties in a country where every man, woman, and child is an enemy, that fights for freedom.
But, suppose this idea erroneous—suppose an impression made—and that the German banners were flying at Paris.—Where is the security of the rest of Europe? Is the division of Poland forgotten? Is an unforeseen union of two or three great powers to protrude through Europe a predominancy dangerous to all? Gentlemen, who indulge their wishes for a counter-revolution in France, do not, perhaps, wish to see the Prussian colours at the Tower, nor the Austrian at Amsterdam. Yet success to the cause might plant them there. Should real danger arise to France, which I hold to be problematical, it is the business, and direct interest of her neighbours, to support her.
The revolution, and anti-revolution parties of England, have exhausted themselves on the French question; but there can be none, if that people should be in danger:—WE hold at present the balance of the world; and have but to speak, and it is secure.
Notes for this chapter
Whether nominally, or really, is not of consequence, if effective qualifications of property be not, at every step, the guard, as in the American constitutions.
"Aussitot que les opérations preliminaires seront termineés les officiers municipaux et les commissaires adjoints feront, en leur âme et conscience l'evaluation du revenue net des differentes propriétes foncières de la communante section par section." "Journal des Etats Gen." tom. xvi. p. 510.
Exports 1757, 4,758,095l. In 1767, 4,277,462l. In 1777, 3,743,537l. In 1787, 3,687,795l. See this subject fully examined, "Annals of Agriculture," vol. x. p. 235.
But this land-tax is variable, and therefore impossible to estimate accurately; if you remain no better farmers than your French neighbours, it is so much; but if you improve, you are raised, and they are sunk; all that has, and can be said against tythes, bears with equal force against such a tax. And though this imposition cannot go by the present law beyond 4s. in the pound, it would be very easy to shew, by a plain calculation, that 4s. in the pound, rising with improvement, is a tax impossible to be borne by one who improves; and consequently, that it is a direct tax on improvement; and it is a tax in the very worst form, since the power to lay and inforce it, is not in the government of the kingdom, but in the municipal government of the parish. Your neighbour, with whom you may be on ill terms, has the power to tax you; no such private heart-burnings and tyranny are found in excises.
To have avoided land-taxes, might very easily have been made a most popular measure, in a kingdom so divided into little properties as France is. No tax is so heavy upon a small proprietor; and the œconomistes might have foreseen what has happened, that such little democratic owners would not pay the tax; but taxes on consumption, laid as in England, and not in the infamous methods of the old government of France, would have been paid by them in a light proportion, without knowing it; but the œconomistes, to be consistent with their old pernicious doctrines, took every step to make all, except land-taxes, unpopular; and the people were ignorant enough to be deceived into the opinion, that it was better to pay a tax on the bread put into their children's mouths—and, what is worse, on the land which ought, but does not produce that bread, than to pay an excise on tobacco and salt, better to pay a tax which is demanded equally, whether they have or have not the money to pay it, than a duty which, mingled with the price of a luxury, is paid in the easiest mode, and at the most convenient moment. In the writings of the œconomistes, you hear of a free corn trade, and free export of every thing being the recompence for a land-tax; but see their actions in power—they impose the burthen, and forget the recompence!
End of Notes
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