Les Idées de Necker
by Henri Grange
Librairie c. Klincksieck (Paris), 669 pp., F88
by Jean Egret
Librairie H. Champion (Paris), 478 pp., F70
Jacques Necker was born in Switzerland in 1732 of a Swiss mother but a Prussian father who had emigrated from Küstrin in the Mark of Brandenburg and established himself in Geneva as a professor of German public law. Though the family seems to have been in prosperous circumstances, and though the young Necker was a promising scholar, his school days were cut short, and at the age of fifteen he was apprenticed to a Swiss bank operating in France. There, during twenty years of frugal living and hard work, he accumulated a fortune and a desire to make a name for himself in French political life. In this ambition he was powerfully aided by his wife, an intellectually ambitious Swiss beauty whom Gibbon had hoped but been forbidden by his father to marry. Once Necker’s financial circumstances permitted it, she established a salon in Paris (where their daughter Germaine, later Mme de Staël, was born).
Necker first took office under the French crown in 1776 when he was made director of the treasury—a post upgraded the following year to that of director general of finance. At this time the French government was preparing to intervene in the American War of Independence, and Necker himself attributed his appointment to the belief that a successful businessman was better equipped than the officials normally in charge of financial affairs to revive the government’s credit, then at an extremely low ebb, and to raise the sums required to wage a major war.
From 1776 to 1790, as Jean Egret observes in his work here under review, Necker was the most important figure in French history. His first ministry lasted until 1781. Thereafter, on two subsequent occasions—in August 1788 when the government was bankrupt, and in July 1789 after the capture of the Bastille—he was again summoned by the king to save the state from the financial and political disasters which seemed on the point of engulfing it. An author as well as a successful businessman and a leading political figure, he wrote books which were widely read throughout Europe, and of which one—his Traité sur l’Administration des Finances de la France, first published in 1784—was, according to Henri Grange, the best seller of the century. His reputation as a financial genius, his personal honesty, his domestic virtues, his humane sentiments, and his championship of the oppressed, won him, for a large part of his public career, a wider and more vociferously expressed popularity than any other minister enjoyed in eighteenth-century France. And yet, until recently, the French have always treated him with a certain neglect and even contempt. Before Professor Egret’s work came out in 1975 he found no worthy biographer, and in the last forty years no biographer at all.
All his attempts at reform were, it is true, failures, but this cannot be held against him since in France in the second half of the eighteenth century the same fate overtook every other …