The Man of Forty Crowns - Voltaire - ebook

The causes of our poverty; a poverty which we hide under varnished ceilings, or with the help of our dealers in fashion. We are poor with taste. There are some officers of revenue, there are contractors or jobbers, there are merchants, very rich; their children, their sons-in-law, are also very rich, but the nation in general is unfortunately not so.

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The Man of Forty Crowns

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First published in 2016

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ISBN: 9781911495437






An old man, who is forever pitying the present times, and extolling the past, was saying to me: “Friend, France is not so rich as it was under Henry the IVth.”

“And why?”

“Because the lands are not so well cultivated; because hands are wanting for the cultivation; and because the day-laborer having raised the price of his work, many land owners let their inheritances he fallow.”

“Whence comes this scarcity of hands?”

“From this, that whoever finds in himself anything of a spirit of industry, takes up the trades of embroiderer, chaser, watchmaker, silk weaver, attorney, or divine. It is also because the revocation of the Edict of Nantes has left a great void in the kingdom; because nuns and beggars of all kinds have greatly multiplied; because the people in general avoid as much as possible the hard labor of cultivation, for which we are born by God’s destination, and which we have rendered ignominious by our own opinions; so very wise are we!

“Another cause of our poverty lies in our new wants. We pay our neighbors four millions of livres on one article, and five or six upon another, such, for example, as a stinking powder for stuffing up our noses brought from America. Our coffee, tea, chocolate, cochineal, indigo, spices, cost us above sixty millions a year. All these were unknown to us in the reign of Henry the IVth, except the spices, of which, however, the consumption was not so great as it is now. We burn a hundred times more wax-lights than were burnt then; and get more than the half of the wax from foreign countries, because we neglect our own hives. We see a hundred times more diamonds in the ears, round the necks, and on the hands of our city ladies of Paris, and other great towns, than were worn by all the ladies of Henry the IVth’s court, the Queen included. Almost all the superfluities are necessarily paid for with ready specie.

“Observe especially that we pay to foreigners above fifteen millions of annuities on the Hôtel-de-Ville; and that Henry the IVth, on his accession, having found two millions of debt in all on this imaginary Hôtel, very wisely paid off a part, to ease the state of this burden.

“Consider that our civil wars were the occasion of the treasures of Mexico being poured into the kingdom, when Don Philip el Discreto took it into his head to buy France, and that since that time, our foreign wars have eased us of a good half of our money.

“These are partly the causes of our poverty; a poverty which we hide under varnished ceilings, or with the help of our dealers in fashion. We are poor with taste. There are some officers of revenue, there are contractors or jobbers, there are merchants, very rich; their children, their sons-in-law, are also very rich, but the nation in general is unfortunately not so.”

This old man’s discourse, well or ill grounded, made a deep impression on me; for the curate of my parish, who had always had a friendship for me, had taught me a little of geometry and of history: and I begin to reflect a little, which is very rare in my province. I do not know whether he was right or not in every thing, but being very poor, I could very easily believe that I had a great many companions of my misery.



I very readily make known to the universe that I have a landed estate which would yield me forty crowns a year, were it not for the tax laid on it.

There came forth several edicts from certain persons, who, having nothing better to do, govern the state at their fire-side, the preamble of these edicts was, “that the legislative and executive was born, jure divino, the co-proprietor of my land;” and that I owe it at least the half of what I possess. The enormity of this legislative and executive power made me bless myself. What would it be if that power which presides over “the essential order of society,” were to take the whole of my little estate? The one is still more divine than the other.

The comptroller general knows that I used to pay, in all, but twelve livres; that even this was a heavy burden on me, and that I should have sunk under it, if God had not given me the talent of making wicker baskets, which helped to carry me through my trials. But how should I, on a sudden, be able to give the king twenty crowns?

The new ministers also said in their preamble, that it was not fit to tax anything but the land, because every thing arises from the land, even rain itself, and consequently that nothing was properly liable to taxation, but the fruits of the land.

During the last war, one of their collectors came to my house, and demanded of me, for my quota, three measures of corn, and a sack of beans, the whole worth twenty crowns, to maintain the war—of which I never knew the reason, having only heard it said, that there was nothing to be got by it for our country, and a great deal to lose. As I had not at that time either corn, or beans, or money, the legislative and executive power had me dragged to prison; and the war went on as well as it could.

On my release from the dungeon, being nothing but skin and bone, whom should I meet but a jolly fresh colored man in a coach and six? He had six footmen, to each of whom he gave for his wages more than the double of my revenue. His head-steward, who, by the way, looked in as good plight as himself, had of him a salary of two thousand livres, and robbed him every year of twenty thousand more. His mistress had in six months stood him in forty thousand crowns. I had formerly known him when he was less well to pass than myself. He owned, by way of comfort to me, that he enjoyed four hundred thousand livres a year.

“I suppose, then,” said I, “that you pay out of this income two hundred thousand to the state, to help to support that advantageous war we are carrying on; since I, who have but just a hundred and twenty livres a year, am obliged to pay half of them.”

“I,” said he, “I contribute to the wants of the state? You are surely jesting, my friend. I have inherited from an uncle his fortune of eight millions, which he got at Cadiz and at Surat; I have not a foot of land; my estate lies in government contracts, and in the funds. I owe the state nothing. It is for you to give half of your substance,—you who are a proprietor of land. Do you not see, that if the minister of the revenue were to require anything of me in aid of our country, he would be a blockhead, that could not calculate? for every thing is the produce of the land. Money and the paper currency are nothing but pledges of exchange. If, after having laid the sole tax, the tax that is to supply the place of all others, on those commodities, the government were to ask money of me; do you not see, that this would be a double load? that it would be asking the same thing twice over? My uncle sold at Cadiz to the amount of two millions of your corn, and of two millions of stuffs made of your wool; upon these two articles he gained cent. per cent. You must easily think that this profit came out of lands already taxed. What my uncle bought for tenpence of you, he sold again for above fifty livres at Mexico; and thus he made a shift to return to his own country with eight millions clear.

“You must be sensible, then, that it would be a horrid injustice to re-demand of him a few farthings on the tenpence he paid you. If twenty nephews like me, whose uncles had gained each eight millions at Buenos Ayres, at Lima, at Surat, or at Pondicherry, were, in the urgent necessities of the state, each to lend to it only two hundred thousand livres, that would produce four millions. But what horror would that be! Pay then thou, my friend, who enjoyest quietly the neat and clear revenue of forty crowns; serve thy country well, and come now and then to dine with my servants in livery.”

This plausible discourse made me reflect a good deal, but I cannot say it much comforted me.