Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States
FARMERS GENERAL. Fermiers généraux was the name given in France under the old monarchy to a company which farmed certain branches of the public revenue, that is to say, contracted with the government to pay into the treasury a fixed yearly sum, taking upon itself the collection of certain taxes as an equivalent. The system of farming the taxes was an old custom of the French monarchy. Under Francis I. the revenue arising from the sale of salt was farmed by private individuals in each town. This was, and is still in France and other countries of Europe, a monopoly of the government. The government reserves to itself the power of providing the people with salt, which it collects in its stores, and sells to the retailers at its own price. This monopoly was first assumed by Philippe de Valois in 1350. Other sources of revenue were likewise farmed by several individuals, most of whom were favorites of the court or of the minister of the day. Sully, the able minister of Henry IV., seeing the dilapidation of the public revenue occasioned by this system, by which, out of one hundred and fifty millions paid by the people, only thirty millions reached the treasury, opened the contracts for farming the taxes to public auction, given them to the highest bidder, according to the ancient Roman practice. By this means he greatly increased the revenue of the state. But the practice of private contracts through favor or bribing was renewed under the following reigns. Colbert, the minister of Louis XIV, called the farmers of the revenue to a severe account, and by an act of power deprived them of their enormous gains. In 1728, under the regency, the various individual leases were united into a ferme générale, which was let to a company, the members of which were henceforth called fermiers généraux. In 1759, Silhouette, minister of Louis XV., quashed the contracts of the farmers general, and levied the taxes by his own agents. But the system of contracts revived: for the court, the ministers and favorites were all well disposed to them, as private bargains were made with the farmers general, by which they paid large sums as douceurs. In the time of Necker, the company consisted of forty-four members, who paid a rent of one hundred and eighty-six millions of livres, and Necker calculated their profit at about two millions yearly—no very extraordinary sum, if correct. But independent of this profit there were the expenses of collection, and a host of subalterns to support: the company had its officers and accountants, receivers, collectors, etc., who, having the public force at their disposal, committed numerous acts of injustice toward the people, especially the poorer class, by distraining their goods, selling their chattels, etc. The "gabelle" or sale of salt, among others, was a fruitful source of oppression. Not satisfied with obliging the people to pay for the salt at the price fixed upon it in the name of the king, they actually obliged every individual above eight years of age to buy a certain quantity of salt whether wanted or not. But the rule was not alike all over France; in some provinces, which enjoyed certain privileges, salt was nine livres the one hundred weight, while in others it cost sixteen, and in some sixty-two livres. In some provinces the quantity required to be purchased per head was twenty-five pounds weight, in others it was nine pounds. And yet the provinces, nay the individual families of each province, were prohibited under the severest penalties from accommodating each other's wants, and buying the superfluous salt of their neighbors, but whoever wanted more salt than his obligatory allowance was obliged to resort to the government stores. Besides, every article of provisions that was exported from one province to another was subject to duties called traites. Every apprentice on being bound to a master was bound to pay to the king a certain sum according to the nature of the trade, and afterward a much larger sum on his admission to practice his trade as a master. These few instances may serve to convey an idea of taxation in France previous to the revolution. A lively but faithful picture of the whole system is given in Breton's Histoire Financiere de la France, 2 vols., 8vo, Paris, 1829. The farmers general, as the agents of that system, coming into immediate contact with the people, drew upon themselves a proportionate share of popular hatred. But the revolution swept away the farmers general, and put an end to the system of farming the revenues; it equalized the duties and taxes all over France; but the monopoly of the salt and tobacco has remained, as well as the duties on provisions, cattle and wine brought into Paris and other large towns, called the octroi, and the right of searching by the octroi officers, if they think fit, all carriages and individuals entering the barriers or gates of the same.
—The Roman system of levying taxes, at least after the republic had begun to acquire territory out of Italy, was by farming them out. In the later period of the republic the farmers were from the body of the equestrian order. Individuals used to form companies or associations for farming the taxes of a particular district: the taxes were let by the censors for a period of five years. They were probably let to those who bid highest. These farmers were called publicani, and by the Greek writers telonae , which is rendered by publicans in the English version of the New Testament, where they are appropriately classed with sinners, for they were accused of being often guilty of great extortion. These tax collectors in the province were, however, only the agents. The principals generally resided at Rome, where the affairs of each association (societas) were managed by a director called a magister. The individual members held shares (partes) in the undertaking. There was also a chief manager in the province or district of which the company farmed the tax, who was called promagister.
—There are no means of knowing what proportions of the taxes collected reached the Roman treasury (ærarium). Numerous complaints of the rapacity of the publicani or their agents occur in the classical writers. These publicani were the moneyed men of the late republic and the early empire, and their aid was often required by the state for advances of money when the treasury was empty. Part of the mal-administration probably came from the publicani sub-letting the taxes, which seems to have been done, sometimes at least.
Return to top