At the General Farm, Lavoisier had
accumulated a wealth of information concerningdemography,
agricultural resources, the crafts industry, trade and financial
life inFrance.His functions at the Gunpowder Administration and
the DiscountBank had complemented his knowledge.Furthermore, the
goal of his activities as a landowner had still another objective
whichhe regarded"as just as important, that of providing the field
of economics with accurate results on the distribution of
territorial wealth."(Annales de
chimie , vol.xv, p.312.)
The association with intellectual circles close to the Encyclopédists, developed in Lavoisier a keen interest in analyzing the political and economic situation in France.Frequent contacts with the Controllers General of Finance - Terray, Turgot, Necker, Calonne (1734-1802), Loménie de Brienne (1727-1794)- led him to hope that he might participate in that profound liberal-inspired revitalization of the economy of which the enlightened bourgeosie was dreaming.
But the repeated failures of administrative, fiscal and banking reforms were, for him an indication that society was blocked.Soon he was seized by a passion for politics, and inopen-minded Parisiancircles such asthe Société des Trenteand the Société des Amis des Noirshe began toreflect on the great changes that everyone was expecting from the States General.
Between 1776 and 1781, he had assisted Necker in his program of philanthropic reform: modernization of hospitals, prisons and slaughterhouses, the transferral of the Hôtel Dieu, the setting up of orphanages, pension funds, health and old age insurances andcharity workshops for the unemployed were all projects for intervening in social matters and public health.But very few of these potentially beneficial ideas promoted by Necker were ever realized.Necker's successors, Calonne and Loménie de Brienne, had too many financial worries to pursue them.
The Committee on Agriculture
However, hoping to help stimulate the economy, that is, essentially agriculture, Lavoisier began in 1783 to take part in the work of the Paris branch of the Society of Agriculture, sharing with his colleagues the results os his agronomical research.The exceptionally dry spring of 1785 provided the opportunity for him to create aroundVergennes, a high official at the Ministry of Finance, a permanent working group which became known as the Committee on Agriculture.Joined by his friend Du Pont, he was able to give the Committee the importance of an actual ministry and to envisage a vast program of financial, fiscal and technical reforms."It is beginning," he wrote, "to hope that it can contribute to the national prosperity by acting on public opinion through publications and examples andby engaging large landowners, capitalistsand the affluent population to invest their surplus capital in the cultivation of land."(Lavoisier, Oeuvres, vol. II, p. 822.)Calonne's downfall in 1787 brought an end to the Committee's ambitions, which had upset the power structure because they were considered too bold.
The Provincial Assembly of Orleans
In September 1787, Brienne created the Provincial Assemblies, a belated attempt at decentralization.The French at last obtainedregional representation and couldparticipate in the administration of their provinces.Lavoisier, a property owner in the region ofBlois was one of the leaders at the Assembly held in Orléans.As a member of the Commission of Public Welfare and Agriculture, hepresented a series of proposals for economic and social reform.His papers, the most important of which dealt with taxes (Mémoire sur les impositions), were all published in Orléans, except for the one dealing with the abolishment of the corvée, which displeased the nobility.(Lavoisier, Mémoire sur les impositions, read at the ProvincialAssemby of Orléans, September 1, 1788, in 8°, 88 p., tableau. B.N., cote: Lk 15 47.)
In February 1789, as a candidate torepresent Bloisat the States General, he used the "Cahier des doléances" (Register of Grievances)to repeat his proposals regarding individual liberty, a fairer tax system, and reforms in judicial and regional administration.He summarized them in six points: "1) The salaries of country priests should be included in the clergy's general budget.2)A single standard forcoutumes (??), weights and measures shouldbe used throughout the kingdom.3) A plan for national education should be established for all classes of society.4)Titles of nobility should not be purchased , but accorded only as a recompense for services renderedto the King and State. 5) All domestic customs duties should be abolished.6) The harsh system of military punishments should be reformed, abolishing all those thatdegradethe subject in his own eyes and reflect badly on the character of the Nation."
Rejected by the Third Estate, since he was a Farmer General, he was able to obtain a position as an alternate deputy representing the nobility. The disappointments he experienced in his reforming efforts wereinstrumental in his determination to play a political role and his subsequent commitment to the revolutionary process.But here, too, his attempts at intervention failed.In Paris, he was chosen as one of eight membersof the nobility to represent the Hôtel de Ville section at the Assembly of Electors, but, in the end, he withdrew, for reasons not altogether clear.1789 was an extremely difficult year for him, including such sensitive tasks as transferring to the Bastille gunpowder stored at the Arsenal on the eve of July 14 and serving the new power.On August 6,he was accused of shipping gunpowder to counter-revolutionary armies and almost lost his ife in a popular riot.In September, he supervised the demolition of the Bastille.
The Discount Bank
He was after all better suited to the field of finances.He played a crucial role at the Discount Bank,a powerful private institution which habitually lent important sums to the Royal Treasury.President of its Board of Directors when Necker was recalled to power in 1788, Lavoisier advanced him considerable sums for replenishing the State's empty coffers.When the loans totaled150 millionlivres (the equivalent of more than 30 billion francsin 1995), thebank's directors grew nervous.Necker and Lavoisier then proposed to nationalize the Discount Bank and replace it by a Banque de France.The stockholderswould be reimbursed by the Caisse de l'Extraordinaire (Special Bank), which would have funds supplied by regional grants andthe issuing of assignats guaranteed byconfiscated Church property.The Constituent Assembly,opposed to having such a powerful institution in the hands of royal power, refused nationalization and moved towards the uncontrolled creation of assignats.
Reflections on Assignats
Within the Society of 1789andother circles composed of financiers and liberalaristocrats favoring a constitutional monarchy, Lavoisier attempted in 1790 to define a policy conforming more closely to monetary orthodoxy and the views of the Discount Bank: assignats should be used exclusively for reimbursingthe short-term debt; they should be guaranteed by national property and their total should not exceed 900 million livres. In spite of the support of Du Pont and Necker, he was not heeded.The Assemblyrecklesslyembarked on thecreation of unguaranteed paper money. Paradoxically, at the beginning of 1793, Lavoisier would devote three months of his activity at the Advisory Board for Arts and Trades toperfecting the fabrication of uncounterfeitableassignats.Drawing on hisbanking experience, he defined the principles: the assignats should be easily identifiable by everyone and rigorously identical.But the greatest possible number of unrelated techniques should be used in their fabrication.For each technique, the best and most difficult to copy craftsmen should be employed.
Seven paper manufacturers provided him with samples.He compared their quality, strength and cost, and then asked each of the seven to produce a specific paper to be used for a particular denomination of assignat.He envisaged using Berthollet's method for bleaching the paper-making pulp, and carefully chose the inks, investigated ways of coloring paper, and learned the techniques for engraving, typography and producing watermarks.He recommended printingby polytypage, which usedsteel platesand made it possible to produce rapidly up to 20,000 proofs at a time.
The National Treasury
After Necker's departure, the Constituent Assembly took over the control of public finances.In March 1791, it abolished the General Farm and replaced the Royal Treasury by a Public Treasury, which would thereafter manageall the revenues and expenses of the State. In April, it appointed six commissioners, of whom the two most important were Condorcet and Lavoisier.But Condorcet, who had been elected to the National Assembly, served only briefly.For ten months, Lavoisier assumedconsiderable responsibilities.He organized the administration and introduced modern management methods.He verified the receipts and expenses, centralized the bookkeeping, paid out pensions and the interest on the debt, oversaw the payments to the Special Bank, ensured the exchange of assignats,and bought currency from English, Belgian and Dutch banks.It was he who assessed the yield of the new fiscal policy based on a general direct tax, presented the first assessments of the national income and the first budget estimate.
The Territorial Wealth of the Kingdom of France
This document was Lavoisier's most important contribution as an economist. The first modern study of the demographic and economic resources of the nation, it was innovative in calling for the creation of two entirely new institutions for France: a National Bureau of Statistics and a center for centralized accounting.But his moderate opinionsas a constitutionalmonarchist were out of step with the political evolution.Both the radical Jean-Paul Marat (1743-1793) in l'Ami du Peupleand theroyalist newspapers Ultraspursued him with their condemnation and in February 1792 forced him to withdraw from both the Discount Bank and the Public Treasury.There remained only one possibilityopen to him: to place himself in public service and prove that scientists couldbe socially useful.