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Philanthropy, entropy and the don patriotique

22 August 2013

Don patriotiqueThe recent controversy over the terms of a will which bequeathed a sum to reduce the national debt has sparked an exchange of letters in the Financial Times. One correspondent pointed to the historical precedent going back to the patriotic gifts which had raised significant revenues during the Napoleonic wars; I pointed out in this morning’s edition that the don patriotique had originated in Revolutionary France, and that the fermiers généraux donated the enormous sum of 22,500,000 livres – only to find that the populace regarded this as evidence of the amounts they had stolen. A case of too much too late: they were rounded up and guillotined. I tell the story elsewhere of one that got away – Jean-Maurice Faventine de Fontenilles – but only by dying (probably by suicide) before the others, having left it too late to emigrate.

But there are other aspects this episode that I did not explore in my letter. France’s misfortunes towards the end of the ancien régime had been brought about by a massive fiscal deficit. The measures recommended by contrôleurs généraux des finances such as Turgot and Necker were either too cautious to be effective or too bold to be accepted, and by 1788, it was clear that the country’s bankruptcy could not be averted by conventional taxation. An extraordinary proposal of a “voluntary imposition” was made by the writer and feminist Olympe de Gouges in a Lettre au Peuple issued in 1788; a “tribut patriotique” had also been suggested in an anonymous publication, L’État libéré (1788).

The idea became fashionable. Up and down the country people of varying levels of personal wealth competed with one another to make these donations. The overall impact financially was negligible, but the cultural phenomenon was nevertheless remarkable.

Perhaps the most curious example was the initiative of eleven women, all artists or the wives of artists, who on 7 September 1789 arrived at the Assemblée nationale bearing a chest containing their jewellery. With a modern sense of PR they had the scene engraved (above). They were led by Flore Pajou, the daughter and wife of sculptors and the subject of this delightful pastel Labille Guiard Mme Clodionby Mme Labille-Guiard in the Louvre. It is difficult to view their donation without thinking of a favourite subject of contemporary artists (Noël Hallé, and, with rather more neo-classical severity, Jean-François-Pierre Peyron and Joseph-Benoît Suvée): Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, who when shown the collection of jewels by a visitor, pointed to her children, declaring, “These are my jewels.” The story derives from Valerius Maximus. The children of course are not depicted in the artists’ tribute, but in their place we are to understand France itself.

Alongside Flore Pajou was Mme Rigal, the wife of a prominent goldsmith. One wonders with what feelings she offered precious objects to be melted down and reduced to their “intrinsic value”.

A century before Louis XIV had required the nobility to donate their silver to fund the disastrous wars in the last decades of his reign. Versailles was not immune: 20 tonnes of magnificent silver furniture from the Grand Appartement, which had cost 10 million livres and included many masterpieces of an art of which little trace now survives, were sent to the furnace. He hoped to raise 6 million, but in fact realised only 2. The sun king noted only that “La guerre est un art qui détruit tous les autres.”

For people like me (and I expect a high proportion of those who read this blog), who spend our lives fighting to preserve information of all kinds, such a release of entropy must have been appalling. Perhaps we are suspected of thinking that the battle against entropy justifies the inequalities of wealth by which monarchs and tax farmers can afford the luxury items whose art and craftsmanship reach the pinnacle of human achievement: but entropy is a wild creature that can be hard to confine, and often bites savagely.

As my FT letter concludes, sometimes inequalities in wealth can go too far.

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