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Eighteenth-Century Studies 39.4 (2006) 546-548
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The Banker Who Brought Down the Old Regime:
Rediscovering Jacques Necker
Despite the pivotal role he played in the last years of the Old Regime and early phase of the French Revolution, Jacques Necker has been relatively neglected by scholars. Perhaps it is due to what Marcel Gauchet calls Necker's "fatal handicap of moderation" (A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution , ed. Furet and Ozouf, 287). Simply put, Necker was neither revolutionary enough nor monarchist enough to elicit much scholarly interest. In his own period he was a kind of centrist, whose middle-of-the road ideas and solutions were soon overtaken by revolutionary events. As these three books show, however, to ignore Necker is a mistake, for not only was he an extraordinarily influential political actor at a critical time in French history, but he was also an author and a thinker whose writings shed fascinating light on the major intellectual transformations taking place around him.
The driving force behind the books is Léonard Burnand, a talented doctoral candidate at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. Burnand's short and insightful book, Necker et l'opinion publique, thoughtfully explores the relationship between Jacques Necker and public opinion—a relationship Burnand suggestively refers to as a lifelong "dialogue." In his The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), Jürgen Habermas famously argued that the term public opinion first arose around 1750 in France and then spread throughout Europe. Since its translation into French in 1978 and into English in 1989, Habermas' work has been immensely influential, triggering a large and still growing body of scholarship. Burnand uses this work to great effect, interweaving insights gleaned from renowned scholars such as Keith Baker, Mona Ozouf and others with his own original insights. Indeed, one of the benefits of Burnand's book is the survey and bibliography he provides [End Page 546] of recent works on public opinion. Burnand notes that this scholarship tends to be split into two camps. On one side public opinion is treated as an actual thing—a measurable, sociological reality—while on the other it is regarded as a concept and rhetorical device. By focusing on a person like Jacques Necker, and discussing both how Necker viewed public opinion and how public opinion viewed him, Burnand hopes to reconcile both approaches.
A first chapter recounts Necker's roller coaster career from the time of his appointment as Genevan resident minister in Paris in 1768 to his rise to director of finances for Louis XVI in 1776, and through the various bumps and turns in his career until his final fall from favor and definitive departure from Paris in 1790. Necker's meteoric rise to wealth, fame, and power from relatively humble origins in Geneva is a fascinating story in its own right. Whether it was through his own controversial writings, like the Eloge de Colbert (1773), or through his wife's well-attended salon in Paris, Necker assiduously courted public opinion, and did so with remarkable success for many years. Indeed, Burnand suggests that it was partly due to Necker's enormous popularity that Louis XVI hired him in 1776. We recall that it was rumours about Necker's dismissal in July of 1789 that snowballed into the taking of the Bastille. Things did not always go Necker's way; and, in the end, his fall from favor and loss of popularity were as spectacular as his rise. Necker's Compte rendu of 1781, in which he exposed the state of royal finances, made him enemies in high places, and his unwillingness to conform made matters worse. Among other things, he exposed the fact that the king was dispensing 8...