Régie générale des accises de Prusse

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The Régie, as the Administration générale des accises et de péages was commonly known, was an administration run by French officials that was in charge of the excise tax in Prussia between 1766 and 1787. Although short-lived the Régie was associated with important developments in this period of Prussian history including European knowledge transfers, state-building in Prussia, and the rise of a critical enlightened public in Prussia. The following discussion focusses on these issues but is structured chronologically.

The creation of the Régie

The Seven Years’ War (1756-63) left the participating powers with depleted financial resources and with an urgent need to raise additional revenue. In France this ushered in the period of financial instability that led up to the revolution and British attempts to increase tax revenues in the North American colonies contributed to triggering the American Revolution. In Prussia Frederick the Great sought to raise additional revenue by increasing excise tariffs and colleting the tax more effectively. His plans were met with resistance from within the administration that refused to carry out the king’s orders because his demands were considered to be too onerous for the population that had already suffered as a result of the war. In order to break the resistance of the established administration he recruited French tax officials who were to create an entirely new excise administration, the Administration générale des accises et de péages. The French officials arrived in 1766 and were led by Marc Antoine de la Haye de Launay. De Launay had been a Sous-Fermier in Languedoc and had previously tried to establish himself as a wartime entrepreneur in other German states. Not much is known about the channels through which he and his colleagues were recruited but Mirabeau claims that Helvetius, himself a former tax farmer and visitor at Frederick’s court, played a central role. The exact number of the officials is equally unclear, a number of 350 seems a reasonable estimate. Only the higher ranks of the administration were filled with French officials.

With the recruitment of foreigners, the king mainly sought to create a fiscal administration that did not have the same bonds of loyalty that tied the established administration to local communities and tax payers. The choice of French administrators was driven by his Francophilia, the established reputation of the French Ferme Générale and the expectation that French officials would bring with them the capital to advance tax revenues to the crown in exchange for the right to collect them later, as was the practice of the French tax farming operations.

However, upon his arrival de Launay advised Frederick against a similar institutional structure because it gave tax farmers ‘intérêt au pressoir’ and led to abuses. As a result, the administration was established in the direct ‘régie’ of the crown instead of being a tax farming operation. This transfer of knowledge and experience prevented the introduction of one of the politically most contentious forms of fiscal administration of the time in Prussia thus removing an important factor that contributed substantially to escalating fiscal conflicts in France. This is the single most important instance of knowledge transfer in the context of the Régie but other important instances occurred when contributors to the controversial political debates about the Régie drew heavily on publications from other European countries. Together they are an example of the close integration of the intellectual worlds of the enlightenment period that transcended national boundaries. Paradoxically, these transnational exchanges played an important role even in shaping fiscal states in Europe that provided the emerging national states with their life blood and their hard edges.

Main characteristics of the Régie

The Régie was in charge of the excise, customs and certain monopolies. The excise was the most important of these. It was levied only in the towns; in the countryside a land-tax was the principal tax. In most instances, the excise was levied on goods sold in towns or that transited through them. It was akin to a sales tax or to a customs payment that was levied not at an international border but at the border between town and country. The main points of tax collection were therefore shops and town gates. Many towns were surrounded by excise walls and similar barriers to prevent smuggling.

The main task of the Régie was to make tax collection more effective. This was mainly achieved through a reduction of corruption and tighter controls. There was also a streamlining of administrative procedures and a homogenization of excise tariffs and regulations across the different Prussian provinces which were dispersed geographically, often isolated from each other and disparate politically, administratively and culturally.

Another important change implemented by the Régie were new excise tariffs. The focus here was on replacing different tariffs that had evolved historically with a single set of tariffs that were guided by specific aims. One aim was a shift of the fiscal burden from goods of mass consumption toward luxury goods. An example was a reduction of the taxation of grain to be compensated by an increase of taxes on beef but not on pork meat. Besides shifting the tax burden to wealthier consumers this was also intended to be an economic and moral steering tool. Luxury goods were often imported, and higher taxation was seen as a means to promote sales of domestically produced alternatives. Moral considerations also played a role: the consumption of luxuries was often seen as a source of moral corruption. It was based on this understanding that Frederick argued for example that traditional local beer was preferable as a breakfast beverage to imported exotic drinks such as coffee or tea, perhaps consumed from foreign made cups of china.

Financially, the efforts of the Régie were a major success. Compared with the year before the creation of the Régie (1766-7) excise revenues were 7-57% higher in the twenty years in which the administration was in place. The new administration also contributed substantially to process of state building in Prussia. As a result of the creation of the Régie nearly all territories ruled by the Hohenzollern dynasty were submitted to the same administrative treatment and a unified set of rules and tariffs. This was not common at the time and contributed to consolidating the territories of the House of Hohenzollern to a more homogeneous political entity that became increasingly known as Prussia in this period.

The Régie emerged also an important tool of economic development. It enforced tariffs and monopolies that were intended to steer consumers towards domestically produced goods. At the same time, it collected information about production, consumption and commercial flows. This statistical material was still rudimentary but it gave Frederick and his ministers a clearer pictures of the economic situation than at any time before. Finally, the additional revenue generated by the Régie also contributed to financing the military expenditure, as well as investment in infrastructure and other forms of government led economic development. This involvement of government contributed substantially to developing the manufacturing and commercial sectors in Prussia which was in many parts still lagging behind many of the commercially more advanced regions of Europe.

Resistance agains the Régie

The tighter controls that made possible the more effective tax collection of the Régie quickly began to provoke various forms of resistance from urban tax-payers. Fiscal checks took place not only at the town gates where commercial cargo and private individuals were searched but also in workshops and shops in the towns. Sometimes even private homes were searched when a violation of monopoly regulations was suspected. Coffee, for example, had to be bought ready roasted from a monopoly company. When Régie officials got a whiff of home roasting they could search the home, earning them their nickname of ‘coffee sniffers’. These intrusions into the private spaces of urban dwellers and spheres of commercial circulation caused indignation and resistance.

The earliest resistance came from the merchants in the small western territory of Kleve. Immediately after Régie had been established they offered to establish a tax farming operation: they would pay the crown a lump sum in exchange for the right to collect the tax themselves. In this case, Frederick gave-in quickly to local pressure: Kleve was a small and peripheral province and merchants were stronger in this commercially advanced territory than elsewhere in Prussia.

Resistance in other parts of Prussia initially took similar forms of locals and local administrators petitioning the king. As Frederick persevered, resistance started to take other forms. The excise and its agents were challenged directly through smuggling and violent attacks on Régie officials who confronted smugglers or their customers. From the state’s perspective smuggling was simply a criminal act but smugglers were not seen in this way by the broader public. Instead, they were seen as resisting an unnatural and vexing interference of government with the natural cause of free trade. Consumers rejected the notion that their decisions in the market place should be governed by anything but their choices and preferences. Government monopolies and tariff structures that were intended to develop domestic industry or protect people from the morally corrosive effects of luxury consumption were rejected as patronizing and guided by vested interests. Seen in this way, smugglers were much more than criminals and enjoyed considerable sympathies. The public’s view on Prussian smugglers caried echoes of the popular lore surrounding the French smuggler Louis Mandrin and the political significance that inhabitants of the British colonies in North Americans associated with resisting monopolies in the Boston Tea Party and on other occasions.

The conflict over the Régie was also one of the foci of the critical debates that developed in Prussia in the second half of the 18th century. The debates included some of the most prominent institutions and figures of the Prussian bourgeois public in this period. These debates engulfed salons and enlightened publications in Berlin such as Mittwochsgesellschaft and Berlinische Monatsschrift and drew commentary from luminaries of the Prussian Enlightenment period such as Johann George Hamann, Johann Gottfried Herder, Friedrich Hartknoch, Friedrich Nicolai, Friedrich Gedike, Johann Zimmer and others. Public officials including de Launay and the leading minister Ewald Friedrich von Hertzberg also contributed to the public debate. The debate also reached beyond the immediate Prussian context. One of the most vocal critics of the Régie was Mirabeau who stayed in Prussia in 1786/7 and commented extensively on the Régie in his four volume De la monarchie Prussienne and other writings. The Prussian debates were also linked to wider debates about commerce and fiscality. The works of Abbé de Raynal, Abbé Galiani, Necker’s Compte Rendu and others were all read and discussed by the participants of this debate.

The criticism in these debates focused on the vexatious and intrusive nature of the controls carried out by the Régie. They were seen as a violation of private spaces and as disruptive to commercial activity. The lengthiness and complication of administrative procedures necessary to bring goods in an out of towns was frequently cited. Equally denounced there the searches of carts and individuals that were lengthy and intrusive. Searches of private homes and workshops were also the target of criticism. Here arguments focused on the notion that the acts of consumption and production carried out in private homes and shops were out of the purview of governmental control. These criticisms were often also associated with arguments that depicted free trade as a more natural and efficient arrangement that should be disrupted as little as possible by fiscal controls.

In contrast, the fact that the Régie was led by French officials played a comparably smaller role in the debates. There were authors who associated negative aspects of the administration or the lack of acceptance of the institution by the larger public with the ‘foreignness’ of the administrators but this occurs rarely and is sometimes, as in the case of Johanna von Schopenhauer, associated with authors who write about the Régie after the Napoleonic wars. The lack of importance of nationalistic arguments in the earlier debates may be to do with the fact that the lower ranks of the Régie officers who had most interaction with tax-payers were usually Prussian. Moreover, in contemporary debates in Prussia the category of the nation remained fuzzy and the importance of nationalism as an ideology of limited importance, gaining prominence only in the 19th century.

The debates about the Régie show that fiscal and economic questions were an important part of the public debates of the enlightenment period in Prussia. It has been argued that the Prussian enlightenment was more focused on aesthetic, philosophical and religious questions than its counterparts in Western Europe but there is a clear economic dimension to the Prussian debates that is also directly interlinked with other national debates, in particular the French, through the exchange of personnel and ideas.

The link between fiscal problems and public debates in the case of Régie also sheds light on the link between socio-economic development and the rise of a critical public. The rise of a class of urban Prussians successfully engaged in commercial activity who resisted government interference in their activities of production and consumption was a necessary condition for the rise of critical debate culture that characterized the Enlightenment.

The end of the Régie

As a result of the public pressure the Régie was abolished in 1787 by Frederick William II. He ascended to the throne after the death of Frederick the Great in 1786 and immediately called set up a commission for the reform of the excise. The Régie was dissolved and the administration of the excise became part of the established administration once again. The edict of 1787 which orders the end of the Régie fully embraces the arguments and the language of the protesting public. Frederick William condemned the ‘incessant house searches’, ‘nasty formalities’ and ‘vexations’ caused by the Régie and accepted that smuggling was the result of the unjustified and invasive way in which the Régie carried out its business. The new monarch made his the demands of the urban bourgeoisie and promised to end these vexations and remove everything that ‘limits commerce and circulation’. Instead, the new tax regime was to ‘revive bourgeois business’ through the establishment of ‘legitimate freedom’. In line with this liberal spirit was also the abolition of monopolies on coffee and tobacco. Together with these changes came also a new more regressive tariff structure which shifted the tax burden back on products of mass consumption by taxing the milling of grain more heavily.

With this reform wealthy urban dwellers secured a number of advantages. Besides the economic liberalization and the reduced taxation on luxuries the dismissal of the French tax officials also led to a number of openings in the upper ranks of the administration and to an increase in power for the established administration.

The main advantage for the Prussian state was that it avoided the escalation of this conflict with the urban public. The historical context illuminates the dramatic consequences that could result from unresolved fiscal conflicts. The escalating fiscal crisis of the French state in the 1780s played a central role in the downfall of the Ancien Régime and already earlier the uncompromising fiscal stance of Britain had contributed crucially to the outbreak of the American Revolution.

That the Prussian crown gave-in to the public pressure where others did not is to do with its political weakness and structural differences in the public finances. The death of Frederick the Great meant that a younger, less experienced monarch took over who could not capitalize on a record as a successful military leader. One may question the validity of Federick’s military credentials but his successes clearly bolstered his authority also in domestic affairs. And while Frederick the Great may have found it much more difficult to end the experiment of the Régie without losing face, his nephew could give in to public pressure in this case without losing too much political capital.

Also, in a more narrowly financial sense the king of Prussia could afford a compromise in this fiscal conflict much more easily than other monarchs. Prussia had very low levels of debt. In preparation for conflicts to come Frederick and his predecessors had accumulated a substantial war chest from which much of the expense of the Seven Years War were met. This approach was not only due to superior foresight. Prussia simply lacked a stratum of private individuals and companies with sufficiently deep pockets to bankroll government expenditure with loans to any significant extent. The absence of a substantial public debt that needed to be serviced means that the Prussian crown had more financial flexibility and could afford to accept a reduction of tax revenue.

Even more importantly the revenue structure of Prussia was markedly different from other countries at this time. The excise had been the most rapidly growing stream of revenue for the Prussian state during the existence of the Régie but overall, it was only a small part of revenues. Urban taxation only provided approximately up to a third of revenue. The rest was made up of taxes levied on the countryside and revenues from government domains. The later alone represented upwards of 40% of revenues for most years. This was substantially higher than in France or Britain where most domains had already been sold at this stage. Politically this difference was crucial because the conflicts between the emerging bourgeoisie and the state were closely associated with the institutions of the emerging fiscal state. In contrast with taxation, revenue from domains did not require the government to develop an intrusive administration designed to control the professional and private life of citizens with the goal to confiscate a part of their revenue. The Prussian state was not only too weak to impose itself on its bourgeois public, but its fiscal situation also meant that it could afford to give in politically rather than risk further escalation.

[Marc Antoine De la Haye De Launay, Justification du système d’économie politique et financière de Frédéric II., roi de Prusse: pour servir de réfutation à tout ce que M. le Comte de Mirabeau a hazardé à ce sujet dans son ouvrage de la monarchie prussienne, 1789; Frederick William II, « Verordnung für sämmtliche Provinzen diesseits der Weser, wegen einer neuen Einrichtung des Accise- und Zoll-Wesens, De Dato Berlin, den 25sten Jan. 1787″’, Novum Corpus Constitutionum Prussico-Brandenburgensium Praecipue Marchicarum, 12 vols., Berlin, 1787, vol. 8, p. 256–8; Johann Georg Hamann, « Au Salomon de Prusse », in Josef Nadler (ed.), Sämtliche Werke/Johann Georg Hamann, 6 vols., Vienna, 1951, vol. 3, pp. 55–60 et p. 423–4; Honoré Gabriel Riqueti de Mirabeau, Lettre remise à Fréderic Guillaume II, roi régnant de Prusse, le jour de son avènement au trône,1787; Honoré Gabriel de Riqueti de Mirabeau, De la monarchie prussienne, sous Frédéric le Grand, avec un appendice contenant des recherches sur la situation actuelle des principales contrées de l’Allemagne, 1788; Ingrid Mittenzwei, Preußen nach dem Siebenjährigen Krieg: Auseinandersetzungen zwischen Bürgertum und Staat um die Wirtschaftspolitik, Akademie, 1979; Florian Schui, Rebellious Prussians: Urban political culture under Frederick the Great, Oxford University Press, 2013; Johanna Schopenhauer, Im Wechsel der Zeiten, im Gedränge der Welt, Winkler, 1986]

Artois

Les relations de cette province dotée d’Etats* assez puissants avec la Ferme générale furent globalement mauvaises : « L’Artois est un pays gouverné par les Etats où les loix des Fermes générales ont toujours été inconnues, où tout commerce est libre, où nulle imposition n’a lieu moyennant une somme fixe à laquelle le pays a toujours été pour ainsi dire abonné avec son souverain », lit-on encore dans un mémoire de 1740. Cependant, ces rapports évoluèrent et s’adoucir comme dans le Cambrésis* où l’assemblée des Etats devint « gardes-sel » du roi. La province, entrée dans la souveraineté du roi de France par les capitulations de 1660, demeura exemptée de gabelle et du monopole de vente du tabac. Furent donc définies dès 1664 trois lieues limitrophes* aux confins de la Picardie*, lieues dans lesquelles la consommation de sel fut scrupuleusement réglementée et contrôlée et la culture du tabac* prohibée.

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Dieppe

Dieppe, détruite par la flotte anglo-hollandaise en 1694, constitua au XVIIIe siècle une ville commerciale d’envergure régionale centrée sur la pêche. Le port était alors le premier fournisseur de Paris* en poisson frais, livré dans des bacs d’eau salée par Rouen* et la Seine*. Les habitants de Dieppe étaient affranchis des Gabelles depuis 1420. Ils avaient donc le droit de faire venir de Brouage* le sel nécessaire pour leur consommation et leurs activités halieutiques. En revanche, ils ne pouvaient en faire un commerce extérieur. L’adjudication du sel de franchise* pour les bourgeois de Dieppe se faisait à l’audience du grenier à sel* pour la quantité de 10 muids. Elle était annoncée par un cri public et affichée. Ce privilège, confirmé à plusieurs reprises, dut être encadré pour éviter le faux-saunage. Divers pratiques abusives des autorités, notamment des officiers du grenier, limitaient en effet la portée de l’ordonnance* des gabelles de 1680. Celle-ci indiquait que pour bénéficier du privilège du sel, il fallait avoir été résident pendant trois années au cours desquelles le prétendant à la bourgeoisie devait avoir pris son sel au grenier comme tout gabellant. Cependant, les officiers du grenier de Dieppe recevaient les bourgeois sans qu’ils eussent forcément acquis la résidence. En outre, le nombre de minots distribués n’était pas fixé comme ailleurs en Poitou*, Bretagne* ou Artois*, limitrophes aux pays de grandes gabelles*, et la distribution se faisait sans véritable contrôle de manière plutôt anarchique. De même, le grenier de Dieppe n’utilisait pas de trémie* homologuée…  Il fallut donc compléter la législation. La déclaration du mois d’août 1711 renforça les contraintes : les bourgeois devaient faire leur demande auprès du greffe de l’Hôtel-de-ville et s’inscrire sur un registre tenu par le commis de la Ferme générale à cet effet. La distribution fut proportionnée à l’importance de la famille dont la composition devait également être déclarée. De même, les maîtres de navires chargés de sel devaient doubler leur déclaration auprès du greffe du grenier d’une inscription auprès du commis de la Ferme générale, à l’instar des marchands propriétaires. La déclaration royale d’octobre 1712 engagea les marchands propriétaires de sel et les marchands saleurs à utiliser la trémie officielle. Le pouvoir du commis de la Ferme préposé au sel de franchise* fut encore renforcé en lui déléguant l’inspection des listes que les officiers du grenier à sel établissaient pour chaque corps de métier qui jouissait du sel de salaison*, mais aussi en l’autorisant à faire des visites chez les saleurs pour vérifier les déclarations du volume de harengs salés…

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La Ferme générale dans l’espace français et européen : un objet d’histoire totale

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