"Memorandum on Local Government" (1775)


"Memorandum on Local Government" (1775)


In 1774, on the accession of Louis XVI, Anne–Robert Turgot was named controller general. In this position, he became responsible for royal finances, and hence for administrative policies relating to taxation, the economy, and local government. With his recent experience as an intendant in mind, Turgot directed his secretary (the economist, Pierre–Samuel Dupont de Nemours) to draft a long memorandum diagnosing the problems of provincial administration and outlining the plans for national regeneration that the controller general intended to submit to the King. Although this Mémoire sur les Municipalités was written in 1775, Turgot fell from power before it could be presented to Louis XVI. But its arguments exercised a powerful influence on administrative thinking in the remaining years of the old regime.


Gustave Schelle, ed., Oeuvres de Turgot, 4 vols. (Paris: F. Alcan, 1913–23), 4:568–628.









To discover whether it is expedient to establish municipalities in those cantons of France where they do not exist, whether it is necessary to improve or change those already in existence, and how to constitute those it is deemed necessary to create does not involve going back to the origin of municipal administrations, giving an historical account of the vicissitudes they have undergone, or even analyzing in great detail the diverse forms they exhibit today. In deciding what must be done in serious matters, it has been much too frequent a practice to revert to the examination and example of what our ancestors did in times of ignorance and barbarism. This method serves only to lead justice astray in the multiplicity of facts presented as precedents; and it tends to make princes disgusted with their most important functions, by persuading them that it is necessary to be prodigiously learned in order to discharge these functions with success and glory. However, it is really only necessary to understand thoroughly and to weigh carefully the rights and interests of men. These rights and interests are not very numerous, so that the science which comprises them, based upon the principles of justice that each of us bears in our heart, and on the intimate conviction of our own sensations has a very great degree of certainty and yet is not at all extensive. It does not require the effort of long study, nor is it beyond the capabilities of any man of good will. . . .

This nation is numerous. That it obey is not everything. It is necessary to make sure that it can be commanded effectively. In order to succeed in this, it would first seem necessary to know, in fairly great detail, the nation's situation, its needs, its capabilities. This knowledge would doubtless be more useful than historical accounts of past positions. . . .

The cause of the evil, Sire, stems from the fact that your nation has no constitution. It is a society composed of different orders badly united, and of a people among whose members there are but very few social ties. In consequence, each individual is occupied only with his own particular, exclusive interest; and almost no one bothers to fulfill his duties or to know his relationship to others. As a result, there is a perpetual war of claims and counterclaims which reason and mutual understanding have never regulated, in which Your Majesty is obliged to decide everything personally or through your agents. Everyone insists on your special orders to contribute to the public good, to respect the goods of others, sometimes even to make use of his own goods. You are forced to decree on everything, in most cases by particular acts of will, whereas you could govern like God by general laws if the various parts composing your realm had a regular organization and clearly established relationship.

Your realm is made up of provinces. These provinces are composed of cantons or districts which (depending on the province) are called bailliages, e'lections, vigueries, or some other such name. These districts are made up of a certain number of towns and villages, which are in turn inhabited by families. To them belong the lands which yield products, provide for the livelihood of the inhabitants, and furnish the revenues from which salaries are paid to those without land and taxes are levied to meet public expenditures. The families, finally, are composed of individuals, who have many duties to fulfill towards one another and towards society, duties justified in terms of the benefits they have received, and which they continue to receive daily.

But individuals are educated poorly regarding their duties within the family and not at all regarding those which link them to the state.

Families themselves scarcely know that they depend on this state, of which they form a part: they have no idea of the nature of their relationship to it. They consider the levying of the taxes required for the maintenance of public order as nothing but the law of the strongest; and they see no other reason to obey than their powerlessness to resist. As a result, everyone seeks to cheat the authorities and to pass social obligations on to his neighbors. Incomes are concealed and can only be discovered very imperfectly by a kind of inquisition which would lead one to say that Your Majesty is at war with your people. And in this type of war which, were it only apparent, would always be destructive and deadly, no one has an interest in taking the government's part, and anyone who did so would be regarded with hostility. There is no public spirit because there is no known and visible common interest. The villages and towns, whose members are thus disunited, have no more links between them in the districts to which they belong. They are unable to get together on any of the public works that might be necessary for them. The same applies to the various divisions of the provinces, and to the provinces themselves in relation to the realm as a whole.

Some of these provinces do, however, have a kind of constitution, assemblies, a sort of public will; they are called pays d'Etats. But since these Estates are composed of orders with very diverse claims, and with interests that are very separate one from another and from that of the nation, they are still far from producing all the good to be desired for the provinces in which they form part of the administration.

These local half-benefits are perhaps an evil; provinces enjoying them are less sensitive to the necessity for reform. But Your Majesty can bring them to recognize that necessity by giving the other provinces, which have no constitution at all, a constitution better organized than that which at present makes the pays d'Etats so full of pride. It is by means of example, Sire, that they can be brought to desire that your power authorize them to change what is defective in their present form.

In order to dissipate this spirit of disunity, which vastly increases the work of your servants and of Your Majesty, and which necessarily and prodigiously diminishes your power; in order to substitute instead a spirit of order and union which would mobilize the forces and means of your nation for the common good, gathering them together in your hand and making them easy to direct, it would be necessary to conceive of a plan that would link individuals to their families, families to the village or town to which they belong, towns and villages to the district of which they form part, districts to their province, and provinces finally to the state. This plan would involve instruction that would be compelling, a common interest, deliberating about it and acting according to it. . . .

The Means of Preparing Individuals and Families to Enter Effectively into a Well-Constituted Society

The first and perhaps the most important of all the institutions which I would believe necessary, Sire, that which would seem to me the most fitting to immortalize Your Majesty's reign and which would have the greatest influence on the kingdom as a whole, would be the formation of a council on national instruction responsible for the direction of the academies, universities, and secondary and elementary schools.

The first bond of nations is custom; the first foundation of custom is the instruction received from childhood regarding all the duties of man in society. It is astonishing that this science is so little advanced. There are methods and institutions for training grammarians, mathematicians, doctors, painters. There are none for training citizens. There would be, if national instruction were directed by one of Your Majesty's councils, in the public interest and according to uniform principles.

There would be no need for this council to be very large, because it would be necessary for it to be united in spirit. In accordance with this spirit, it would commission textbooks systematically planned and written in such a way that one would lead to another, and that the study of the duties of the citizen, as member of a family and of the state, would be the basis for all other studies, which would be organized in relation to their usefulness to society.

This council would supervise the entire organization of education and it could render literary bodies useful for that purpose. The present efforts of these bodies tend only to create savants, poets, men of wit and taste; those unable to aspire to this goal are neglected and count for nothing. A new system of education, which can only be established by Your Majesty's entire authority, seconded by a well-chosen council, would lead to the formation, among all classes of society, of virtuous and useful men, just souls, pure hearts, and zealous citizens. Those among them who then wished to devote themselves particularly to sciences and letters, and were capable of doing so, would be diverted from frivolous matters by the importance of the first principles which they had received, and would approach their work in a more vigorous and determined spirit. Taste itself would improve, as would the national tone: it would become more serious and more elevated, but, above all, more concerned with virtuous things. This would be the fruit of the uniformity of patriotic attitudes that the council on instruction would disseminate in all the teaching given to youth.

There is at present only one type of instruction that has any uniformity: religious instruction. Even here, this uniformity is not complete. Textbooks vary from one diocese to another; the Paris catechism is not the same as the Montpellier catechism, and neither is identical to that of Besancon. This diversity of textbooks is unavoidable in an educational system that has several independent heads. The instruction organized by your council on instruction would not have that drawback. It would be all the more necessary in that religious instruction is limited to heavenly things. The proof that this instruction is not sufficient for the morality to be observed between citizens, and especially between different groups of citizens, lies in the multitude of issues arising every day in which Your Majesty sees one part of your subjects seeking to vex another by exclusive privileges; with the result that your Council is forced to quash these requests and proscribe as unjust the pretexts they invoke.

Your kingdom, Sire, is of this world. It is over the earthly conduct of your subjects, towards one another and towards the state, that Your Majesty is obliged to watch for the sake of your conscience and the welfare of your crown. I do not wish to place any obstacle in the way of that instruction which has a higher object, and which already has its rules and ministers completely established. Quite the contrary. Nevertheless, I do not believe I can propose anything more advantageous for your people, more conducive to the maintenance of peace and good order and to the encouragement of all useful works, more fitting to make your authority cherished and your person daily more dear to the hearts of your subjects, than to provide them all with an education which clearly shows them their obligations towards society and towards your power which protects it, the duties which these obligations impose upon them, and the interest they have in fulfilling these duties for the public good, as for their own. This moral and social instruction demands textbooks written expressly for the purpose, in open competition and with great care, and a schoolmaster in each parish who will teach them to the children, together with reading, writing, arithmetic, measurement, and the principles of mechanics.

More learned instruction, progressively embracing the knowledge necessary for the citizens whose position requires more extensive enlightenment, would be taught in the secondary schools. But it would follow the same principles, more fully developed according to the functions which the rank of the students fits them to fill in society.

If Your Majesty approves this plan, Sire, I shall submit for your consideration a special memorandum containing the relevant details. But I dare to assert that ten years from now, your nation would be unrecognizable; and that, by virtue of its intelligence, its good customs, its enlightened zeal for your service and for that of the country, it would be infinitely superior to all other peoples past and present. Children who are now ten years old would then find themselves men of twenty, prepared for the state, attached to the country, submissive to authority not from fear, but by reason supportive of their fellow citizens, accustomed to knowing and respecting the justice which is the first foundation of societies.

Such men will act well within their families, and will doubtless raise families that will be easy to govern in the villages to which they belong.


“"Memorandum on Local Government" (1775),” LIBERTY, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY: EXPLORING THE FRENCH REVOUTION, accessed June 14, 2024, https://revolution.chnm.org/d/598.