Primary Source

Turgot, "Memorandum on Local Government" (1775)


In 1774, on the accession of Louis XVI, Anne–Robert–Jacques Turgot was named Controller–General of Finances. In this position, he also became responsible 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 Municipalitiés was written in 1775, Turgot fell from power before it could be presented to Louis XVI . However, its arguments exercised a powerful influence on administrative thinking in the remaining years of the old regime.


To know whether it is worthwhile creating municipalities in those cantons of France where they do not exist, whether those already in existence need to be improved or changed, and how to create them if deemed necessary, it is not necessary to look at the origin of municipal administrations, recount the historical vicissitudes they have undergone, or even enter into great detail on their various forms today. It has become much too common a practice when making serious decisions, to resort to examining past examples of what our ancestors did during their times of ignorance and barbarism. This methodology only serves to mislead justice by presenting a multiplicity of seemingly authoritative facts. It also has a tendency to result in the prince's disgust with his most important functions, because he is convinced that he needs to be prodigiously knowledgeable if he wants to be able to fruitfully and gloriously discharge his duties. However, it is really only a matter of thoroughly understanding and carefully weighing the rights and interests of men. Because in fact these rights are not very numerous, the science of their study is very narrow in scope and it does not require long hours to have become very knowledgeable. Nor is it beyond the capabilities of any able man. To understand these rights, one need merely apply the principles of justice that each of us bears in our heart, and the intimate conviction of our own feelings. . . .

This nation is large. Its obedience is not enough in itself . . . one must also be sure that it can be effectively led. In order to do so, it seems that it is necessary to know, in fairly great detail, the nation's situation, its needs, and its capabilities. This information would no doubt be more useful than any historical overview. . . .

Sire, the root of the problem is that your nation has no constitution. It is a society composed of diverse, poorly united orders, and of a people with very few social ties between them. Consequently, each individual is occupied only with his own individual interests, and almost no one can be bothered to fulfill his duties or to understand his relationship to others. The result is this continuous war of claims and ventures that reason and mutual understanding can never settle, obligating Your Majesty to decide everything, either personally or through your agents. Everyone awaits your specific orders before contributing to the public good, before respecting others' property, or sometimes even before making use of his own. You are forced to decree on everything, in most cases by specific acts, whereas if the integral parts of your kingdom had a regular organization and identified relationships, you would be able govern by issuing general laws, as God does.

Your kingdom is made up of provinces. These provinces are composed of cantons or districts (arrondissements) which, depending on the province, are called bailliages, élections, vigueries or some other name. These districts are formed by a certain number of towns and villages. These towns and villages are inhabited by families that own these lands that yield produce, provide for the livelihood of the inhabitants, furnish the revenues from which salaries are paid to those without land, and pay the taxes reserved for public expenditures. Finally, these families are made up of individuals who have many duties to fulfill towards one another and towards society . . . duties based on the benefits they have received and which they continue to receive daily.

But these individuals are rather poorly educated regarding their duties within the family, and not educated at all regarding those duties which connect them to the State.

Families themselves are barely aware that they depend on this State to which they belong . . . they have no idea of the nature of their relationship to it. They believe that when the authorities levy the taxes required to maintain public order, it is nothing more than the law of the strongest, and the only reason for them to obey is that they are powerless to resist. As a result, everyone seeks to cheat the authorities and to pass his welfare costs on to his neighbors. Income is hidden and can only be partially uncovered by means of a kind of inquisition that makes it appear that Your Majesty is at war with his people. And although it only seems like a war, it is still detrimental, with dire consequences, and with the result being that no one has an interest in supporting the government. And anyone who sides with the government is viewed with hostility. There is no public spirit because there is no visible or identifiable common interest, nor do these divided members of villages and towns have any greater ties to the districts where they live. They disagree on all of the public works that might be necessary.

The same divisions exist between the provinces themselves, and between the provinces and the realm as a whole.

However, some of these provinces do have a constitution of a sort, with assemblies and a kind of public will, known as the Pays d'Etats. But since these Estates are composed of orders which have very diverse claims and which have very different interests between themselves and between them and the nation, these Estates are still far from able to bring about all the improvements needed by the provinces in the administrative areas where they are located.

These local 'half-estates' are perhaps harmful in that the provinces that have them are less aware of the need to implement reform. But Your Majesty can lead them to recognize what is needed by giving those provinces without constitutions an even more organized constitution than those which currently take pride in their Pays d'Etats. Sire, by setting an example by means of your power and authorization you can entice them to want to change the defects of their present system.

This divisive mindset vastly increases the work of your servants and of Your Majesty, and necessarily and prodigiously diminishes your power. To dispel this attitude, it must be replaced with a spirit of order and union that would mobilize your nation's forces and means for the common good, placing them together under your direct control and making them easy to lead. A plan would be required that would tie individuals to their families, families to their village or town, towns and villages to their district, districts to their province, and finally provinces to the state. This plan would tie by the binds of mandatory education, by obvious common interests, by making everyone aware of those interests, and by discussing and complying with the plan. . . .

On How to Prepare Individuals and Families to Enter Effectively into a Well-Constituted Society

Sire, the first and perhaps most important of all the institutions which I believe necessary, 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 creation of a National Education Council. This council would be responsible for academies, universities, secondary schools, and elementary schools.

Mores are a nations most important bond, and they are primarily based on the education received, starting in childhood, which deals with all of a man's obligations to society. It is astonishing that this knowledge is so rudimentary. There are methods and institutions for training grammarians, surveyors, doctors, and painters, but there are none for training citizens. This would not be the case if national education was under the direction of one of Your Majesty's councils, if it aimed at serving the public interest, and if it followed your uniform principles.

This council would not need to be very large, because it too would need to be of one mind. Accordingly, standard textbooks would be commissioned in accordance with a master plan, written in such a way that one would lead logically to another. Also, the study of each citizen's duties, as a member of a family and the state, would serve as the basis for all other studies, which in turn would be prioritized according to their usefulness to society.

Literary bodies would serve this council by supervising all educational policy. Currently, these literary bodies tend only to create scholars, poets, and men of wit and taste. Those unable to aspire to these goals are abandoned and amount to nothing. A new system of education, which only Your Majesty's total authority could establish and which would be seconded by a very 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 could and would devote themselves particularly to the sciences and the fine arts would be diverted from frivolous matters by the importance of the basic principles which they had received, and would approach their work with a more vigorous and steady character. Both individual as well the national taste itself would improve . . . becoming more serious and more elevated but, above all, more concerned with honorable things. This would be the fruit of having uniform patriotic attitudes that the education council would disseminate through all the teaching given to the young.

At present there is but one type of instruction that has any uniformity: religious instruction. And even this is not completely uniform. 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 Besançon. This diversity of textbooks is unavoidable in an educational system that has several independent heads. The education organized by your council would not have that drawback, which would be all the more necessary in that religious instruction is limited to heavenly things. This education is not sufficient for citizens to demonstrate morality to one another, and especially between different groups of citizens. The proof of this lies in the multitude of issues arising every day in which Your Majesty sees one part of your subjects seeking to upset another through the use of exclusive privileges. The result is that your Council is forced to suppress these requests and proscribe the pretexts they invoke as unjust.

Sire, your kingdom is of this world. It is your subjects' conduct, towards one another and towards the state, which Your Majesty is obliged to watch over 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 cause, and which already has completely established rules and ministers . . . quite the contrary. However, 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 endear your authority and your person more every day to 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 their interest in fulfilling these duties both for the public good as well as their own. This moral and social instruction requires textbooks written expressly for the purpose, in cooperation with others, and with great care, and also requires a schoolmaster in each parish who will teach these texts to the children, along with reading, writing, arithmetic, measurement, and the principles of mechanics.

More learned instruction, progressively incorporating the knowledge necessary for those citizens whose position requires more extensive enlightenment, would be taught in the secondary schools. But always in accordance with the same principles, more fully developed according to the functions that each student's rank requires them to fill in society.

Sire, if Your Majesty approves this plan, I shall submit for your consideration a special memorandum containing the relevant details. But I dare to say that ten years from now your nation will be unrecognizable. That by virtue of its intelligence, its good customs, its enlightened zeal for your service and for that of the country, your nation would be infinitely superior to all other peoples past or present. Children who are now ten years old would then be men of twenty, prepared for the State, attached to their homeland, submissive to authority. This would not be from fear but by reason, they would be supportive of their fellow citizens and accustomed to knowing and respecting the justice that is the basic foundation of any society.

Such men will behave well within their families, and will doubtless raise families that will be easy to govern in their villages.


Gustave Schelle, ed., Oeuvres de Turgot, 4 vols. (Paris: F. Alcan, 1913Ð23), 4:568Ð628.

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"Turgot, "Memorandum on Local Government" (1775)," in World History Commons, [accessed June 13, 2024]