The Life and Death of Louis XVI

By Saul K. Padover | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XIII
"The unfortunate reality of the deficit"

IF IT HAD not been for the pressure of money, or rather the lack of it, things might have gone on drifting indefinitely, possibly until Louis XVI had reached old age. But the deficit grew, from a hundred to a hundred and twenty million livres annually, and the national debt assumed Alpine proportions. During the five years of his ministry, Calonne was said to have piled up a debt of nine hundred million livres, much of it devoured by the court. In 1786 the national debt stood at the colossal figure of from four to five billion livres --which, at a rough estimate, may be compared to some forty or fifty billion dollars in modern purchasing value. France, to be sure, was the richest country, in resources and industry, on the Continent, but no nation could forever live under such a load, particularly since the people got no compensations for the burden they bore.

Possibly the situation was not so alarming as these figures indicate, but Comptroller-General Calonne did not know how to manage without new loans and additional taxes. Calonne was a man of no principles but of great charm. He was witty, graceful, a splendid talker and keen debater, possessing a dangerous facility for words and an equally dangerous ignorance of the state of public opinion. His eloquence, according to Mercy, was "all-bewitching," but there was a limit to the dialectical susceptibility of hard-headed

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