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The Wall of the Farmers General

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The Wall of the Farmers General was built in the 1780's to serve, not as fortification for Paris, but rather as a means of collecting internal revenue in the form of indirect taxation. It was commissioned by the Farmers General, a group of financiers appointed by the king. This caused a storm of criticism from the general public against the Farmers General as well as against the King.

The Wall itself circled the entire city of Paris and was interspersed with 47 gates, 16 of which had toll houses. These houses were built to oversee the taking in of duties and served as holding places for the funds gathered, as Paris at this time did not have a central bank. Despite their unfavorable function, the architect Claude-Nicholas Ledoux took great care in designing them, and they had much architectural merit. Ledoux was very fond of neoclassical architecture. He envisioned the gate houses as markers to the world of the glory of Paris, just as the gates of Rome had reflected the grandeur of Rome! Today only 4 of the original 16 monuments remain standing, the Rotonde de Monceau, the Rotonde de la Villette, and the Barriere d'Enfer and Barriere du Trone shown below.

Image from H. E. Rice's Thomas Jefferson in Paris

The wall was authorized in 1782 by the Farmers General and the Finance Minister, Charles Alexander de Calonne, to help pay back the debts they had helped create. The Farmers General was made up of 40 financiers to whom King Louis XVI entrusted the collection and the distribution of the cities funds. Many of these officials (and especially their subordinates) were corrupt and kept portions of these funds for themselves. This did nothing to help the worsening financial state of the France. Louis XVI had inherited much of his financial trouble from his predecessor, but the problems were increasing due to France's large foreign debts and their extravagant aid to the American colonies during the American Revolution.

The Taxes imposed on the gates brought a great deal of money to the crown, but most of this money came from the already heavily burdened lower classes. Taxes like the taille on peasant produce, the gabelle on salt, as well as other trade tariffs, little affected Paris' aristocracy. On July 12, 1789, a group of citizens decided they had had enough, breached the wall, burnt and sacked several of the toll houses and caused general mayhem. Two days later, the Paris Bastille was to fall to the mob as well.


Berthault, Burning of the Barriere de la Conference, 12 July 1789

A few years later, in May of 1791, the tolls were ended by decision of the National Assembly. The people reveled in the streets, rejoicing at the prospect of lower prices on food and other goods, especially wine. As quoted from the Chronicle of the French Revolution:

The toll barriers set up by the Farmers General are a thing of the past. To mark the happy occasion groups of women have been riding around on donkeys laden with barrels of wine, while men have been carrying casks on their shoulders. The deputy of Argenteuil and representative of French vine growers, Etienne Chevalier, finally convinced the Assembly. He had been complaining about the toll barriers that forced Parisians to buy cheap, adulterated wine that made them ill and gave them headaches.
(Chronicle of the French Revolution: , 210)

The people's merrymaking at the end of the tolls inspired this song:

The Senate's decree
I tell you with glee
That in the month of May,
In all France around
Victuals will abound,
All in the month of May.
Our Famed Assembly
Now grants passage free,
All in the month of May.
You guards at the barriers
Repair to the frontiers!
All in the month of May.
Tolls are now o'er;
You'll search us no more,
All in the month of May.
Your furlough elect:
Goods travel unchecked,
All in the month of May.
(Chronicle of the French Revolution, 210)

This is not to say that the Toll houses were abolished forever. In fact tolls were kept up until World War II. As the city expanded, new walls were built along with new toll houses to meet the needs of the population. The old walls (including the Farmers General Wall) were torn down and in their place were built some of the spacious boulevards for which Paris is known today.


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