Monsieur Moneybags: Jacques Necker
Jacques Necker was born September 30, 1732 in Geneva, which was at that time an independent republic just across France's eastern border. Genevans were French-speaking, but the Republic was Protestant, whereas France was officially Catholic.
Necker came to Paris in 1747 as an apprentice clerk to a private banker who was a friend of his father's. He proved to be a brilliant banker and was later appointed Geneva's representative in France. He also became one of the directors of the French East India Company, which ran many of France's overseas colonies and much of its trade.
In 1776, after the failure of Turgot's reforming attempts to liberalize the French economy, the young Louis XVI appointed Necker to succeed him — despite the fact that he was both a foreigner and a Protestant. As a Protestant, Necker could not hold the title of Finance Minister, so he took the job as Director of the Royal Treasury.
Eventually he was named Controller-General of France, but no matter what his title, from 1776 to 1781 he was the person in charge of France's economy and financial affairs — the same years in which the King was running up the national debt with his support of the American Revolution and the Queen was being criticized for her spendthrift ways.
Despite his successful efforts to bring credit to the monarchy and set its financial affairs on sound footing by taking out loans rather than raising taxes, Necker fell from power in 1781 when he published a full accounting of French finances.
He was replaced by Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, who was associated with Marie Antoinette's faction at court. In 1788, when Calonne's policies and those of his successor, Loménie de Brienne, had failed, and Louis XVI was forced to take the extraordinary step of calling the Estates General, Necker was recalled to royal service. It was hoped that his reputation for honesty and integrity, his independence from court factions, and his respect from international lenders would save the monarchy from financial ruin.
It was Necker's reputation with the French public for independence and integrity that made rumors of his imminent dismissal on July 11, 1789 one of the sparks of the French Revolution. Necker's dismissal, it was said, was necessary to clear the way for a royal coup that would bring the the new National Assembly, less than a month old, to its knees.
Two days later, when word began to spread that royal troops were being sent from Versailles to surround the capital, ordinary Parisians began gathering up arms to defend the city, eventually storming the Bastille on July 14 to seize arms being stored there. Bastille Day is now celebrated throughout France every July 14 to commemorate the French Revolution, the equivalent of the 4th of July holiday that commemorates American independence.
Having weathered this crisis, Necker continued to serve the monarchy until September 1790, when he resigned his position and retired to a château in Switzerland. He died there on April 9, 1804.