21st August 1759 - The French finance minister announces cuts to avert National bankruptcy.
With financial issues topical across Europe at the moment it is useful and interesting to note that this is nothing new. It is often assumed that we are the first to go through a situation or event. Students of history will know however that usually something similar has already occurred. In 1759 the French and British were at war – again! The 7 Years War, as it has become known, involved countries as far away as North America, Central America, India and the West African coast. In summary the English had attacked disputed French territory in North America and seized some French ships. Alliances across Europe were also shifting and changing which led to unease and eventually war.
A man called Étienne de Silhouette had been made the Controller General in France and responsible for the country’s finances. He had the ear of Madame Pompadour, the influential chief mistress of Louis XV. He decided that radical cuts needed to be made to ensure that France was able to continue fighting. It is said that within 24 hours of being appointed he had saved 72million Francs.
Silhouette had been educated in Limoges and was well read. He studied economics and finance and had spent a year in England where he was impressed with the banking system and the way the economy was run. On his return he had come to prominence by translating a number of books into French and gradually worked his way up to being in charge of treasury.
Silhouette revised state pensions, encouraged free trade and made large cuts to spending. Sound familiar? He also heavily taxed visible signs of wealth such as the size of houses, the number of windows and chimneys people had. He was also flabbergasted with the extravagance of the Court and the Grand Monarch. He melted down much of the gold and silver ornaments in the Royal household to make more money.
With all that he was doing he was heavily criticised by the nobility. The Prince de Conde was particularly vehement in his condemnation. His worst crime, as far as the Prince was concerned, was translating English books into French! When Silhouette then started setting about changing the banking system he came under such criticism that he stepped down after just eight months in the job.
During these eight months his tenure had become associated with extreme austerity. Cartoons and pictures were common showing him with cheap and inexpensive goods. This occurred to such an extent that any item that was cheap became known as a “Silhouette”.
The portrait industry was also struggling at the time as people were finding it difficult in the harsh economic climate to justify the expense of a full portrait. Instead of this the trend was to make a shadow profile picture on plain black paper. In time this became known as a Silhouette due to the cheapness of producing them. Thus this man from Limoges lives on in history. As we currently live in an age of austerity ourselves I wonder what will become known as an Osborne? Cheap ready meals? “What are we having for dinner tonight? “ “Oh, we’re having an Osborne!”