Born in Paris, he was the youngest son of Michel Etienne Turgot, "provost of the merchants" of Paris, and Madeleine Francoise Martineau, and came of an old Normand family. He was educated for the Church, and at the Sorbonne, to which he was admitted in 1749 (being then styled abbé de Brucourt). He delivered two remarkable Latin dissertations, On the Benefits which the Christian Religion has conferred on Mankind, and On the Historical Progress of the Human Mind. The first sign we have of his interest in economics is a letter (1749) on paper money, written to his fellow student the abbé de Cicé, refuting the abbé Terrasson's defence of John Law's system. He was fond of verse-making, and tried to introduce into French verse the rules of Latin prosody, his translation of the fourth book of the Aeneid into classical hexameters being greeted by Voltaire as "the only prose translation in which he had found any enthusiasm."
In 1750 he decided not to take holy orders, giving as his reason, according to Dupont de Nemours, "that he could not bear to wear a mask all his life." In 1752 he became substitut, and later conseiller in the parlement of Paris, and in 1753 maître des requêtes. In 1754 he was a member of the chambre royale which sat during an exile of the parlement; in 1755 and 1756 he accompanied Gournay, then intendant of commerce, in his tours of inspection in the provinces, and in 1760, while travelling in the east of France and Switzerland, visited Voltaire, who became one of his chief friends and supporters. In Paris he frequented the salons, especially those of Mme Graffigny--whose niece, Mlle. de Ligniville ("Minette"), afterwards Mme. Helvétius and his lifelong friend, he is supposed at one time to have wished to marry--Mme Geoffrin, Mme du Deffand, Mlle de Lespinasse and the duchesse d'Envilie. It was during this period that he met the leaders of the "physiocratic" school, Quesnay and Gournay, and with them Dupont de Nemours, the abbé Morellet and other economists. All this time he was studying various branches of science, and languages both ancient and modern. In 1753 he translated the Questions sur le commerce from the English of Josias Tucker, and wrote his Lettre sur la tolérance, and a pamphlet, Le Conciliateur, in support of religious tolerance. Between 1755 and 1756 he composed various articles for the Encyclopédie, and between 1757 and 1760 an article on Valeurs des monnaies, probably for the Dictionnaire du commerce of the abbe Morellet. In 1759 appeared his Eloge de Gournay.
In August 1761 Turgot was appointed intendant of the genéralite of Limoges, which included some of the poorest and most over-taxed parts of France; here he remained for 13 years. He was already deeply imbued with the theories of Quesnay and Gournay, and set to work to apply them as far as possible in his province. His first plan was to continue the work, already initiated by his predecessor Tourny, of making a fresh survey of the land (cadastre), in order to arrive at a juster assessment of the taille; he also obtained a large reduction in the contribution of the province. He published his Avis sur l’'assiette et la repartition de la taille (1762— 1770), and as president of the Société d'agriculture de Limoges offered prizes for essays on the principles of taxation. Quesnay and Mirabeau had advocated a proportional tax (impôt de quotite), but Turgot a distributive tax (impôt de repartition). Another reform was the substitution for the corvée of a tax in money levied on the whole province, the construction of roads being handed over to contractors, by which means Turgot was able to leave his province with a good system of roads, while distributing more justly the expense of their construction.
In 1769 he wrote his Mémoire sur les prêts a intérêt, on the occasion of a scandalous financial crisis at Angoulême, ,the peculiar interest of which is that in it the question of lending money at interest was for the first time treated scientifically, and not merely from the ecclesiastical point of view. Among other works written during Turgot's intendancy were the Mémoire sur les mines et carrières, and the Mémoire sur la marque des fers, in which he protested against state regulation and interference and advocated free competition. At the same time he did much to encourage agriculture and local industries, among others establishing the manufacture of porcelain. During the famine of 1770 — 1771 he enforced on landowners "the obligation of relieving the poor" and especially the métayers dependent upon them, and organized in every province ateliers and bureaux de charité for providing work for the able-bodied and relief for the infirm, while at the same time he condemned indiscriminate charity. It may be noted that Turgot always made the cures the agents of his charities and reforms when possible. It was in 1770 that he wrote his famous Lettres sur la liberté du commerce des grains, addressed to the controller-general, the abbé Terray. Three of these letters have disappeared, having been sent to Louis XVI by Turgot at a later date and never recovered, but those remaining demonstrate that free trade in corn is to the interest of landowner, farmer and consumer alike, and in too forcible terms demand the removal of all restrictions.
Turgot's best known work, Réflexions sur la formation et la distribution des richesses, was written early in the period of his intendancy for the benefit of two young Chinese students. Written in 1766, it appeared in 1769 — 1770 in Dupont's journal, the Ephémérides du citoyen, and was published separately in 1776. Dupont, however, made various alterations in the text, in order to bring it more into accordance with Quesnay's doctrines, which led to a coolness between him and Turgot.
After tracing the origin of commerce, Turgot develops Quesnay's theory that the land is the only source of wealth, and divides society into three classes, the productive or agricultural, the salaried (stipendiCe) or artisan class, and the land-owning class (classe disponible). After discussing the evolution of the different systems of cultivation, the nature of exchange and barter, money, and the functions of capital, he sets forth the theory of the impôt unique, i.e. that only the produit net of the land should be taxed. In addition he demanded the complete freedom of commerce and industry.
Turgot owed his appointment to the ministry to Maurepas, the "Mentor" of Louis XVI, to whom he was warmly recommended by the abbe Very, a mutual friend. His appointment as minister of the marine in July 1774 met with general approval, and was hailed with enthusiasm by the philosophes. A month later he was appointed comptroller-general (August 24). His first act was to submit to the king a statement of his guiding principles: " No bankruptcy, no increase of taxation, no borrowing." Turgot's policy, in face of the desperate financial position, was to enforce the most rigid economy in all departments. All departmental expenses were to be submitted for the approval of the comptroller-general, a number of sinecures were suppressed, the holders of them being compensated, and the abuse of the "acquits au comptarit" was attacked, while Turgot appealed personally to the king against the lavish giving of places and pensions. He also contemplated a thorough-going reform of the ferme generale, but contented himself, as a beginning, with imposing certain conditions on the leases as they were renewed—such as a more efficient personnel, and the abolition for the future of the abuse of the croupes (the name given to a class of pensions), a reform which Terray had shirked on finding how many persons in high places were interested in them, and annulling certain leases, such as those of the manufacture of gunpowder and the administration of the messageries, the former of which was handed over to a company with the scientist Lavoisier as one of its advisers, and the latter superseded by a quicker and more comfortable service of diligences which were nicknamed " turgo-tines." He also prepared a regular budget. Turgot's measures succeeded in considerably reducing the deficit, and raised the national credit to such an extent that in 1776, just before his fall, he was able to negotiate a loan with some Dutch bankers at 4%; but the deficit was still so large as to prevent him from attempting at once to realize his favourite scheme of substituting for indirect taxation a single tax on land. He suppressed, however, a number of octrois and minor duties, and opposed, on grounds of economy, the participation of France in the American Revolutionary War, though without success.
Turgot at once set to work to establish free trade in corn, but his edict, which was signed on September 13, 1774, met with strong opposition even in the conseil du roi. A striking feature was the preamble, setting forth the doctrines on which the edict was based, which won the praise of the philosophes and the ridicule of the wits; this Turgot rewrote three times, it is said, in order to make it "so clear that any village judge could explain it to the peasants." The opposition to the edict was strong. Turgot was hated by those who had been interested in the speculations in corn under the regime of the abbe Terray —among whom were included some of the princes of the blood. Moreover, the commerce des bles had been a favourite topic of the salons for some years past, and the witty Galiani, the opponent of the physiocrats, had a large following. The opposition was now continued by Linguet and Necker, who in 1775 published his Essai sur la législation et le commerce des grains. But Turgot's worst enemy was the poor harvest of 1774, which led to a slight rise in the price of bread in the winter and early spring of 1774 - 1775. In April disturbances arose at Dijon, and early in May took place those extraordinary bread-riots known as the guerre des farines, which may be looked upon as a first sample of the French Revolution, so carefully were they organized. Turgot showed great firmness and decision in repressing the riots, and was loyally supported by the king throughout. His position was strengthened by the entry of Malesherbes into the ministry (July 1775).
All this time Turgot had been preparing his famous Six Edicts, which were finally presented to the conseil du roi (January 1776). Of the six edicts four were of minor importance, and, "I flattered myself, even of his friendship and esteem, I never had that of his correspondence," but there is no doubt that Adam Smith met Turgot in Paris, and it is generally admitted that The Wealth of Nations owes a good deal to Turgot.
But the two which met with violent opposition were, firstly, the edict suppressing the corvées, and secondly, that suppressing the jurandes and maitrises, the privileged trade corporations. In the preamble to the former Turgot boldly announced as his object the abolition of privilege, and the subjection of all three orders to taxation; the clergy were afterwards excepted, at the request of Maurepas. In the preamble to the edict on the jurandes he laid down as a principle the right of every man to work without restriction. He obtained the registration of the edicts by the lit de justice of the 12th of March, but by that time he had nearly everybody against him. His attacks on privilege had won him the hatred of the nobles and the parlements, his attempted reforms in the royal household that of the court, his free trade legislation that of the financiers, his views on tolerance and his agitation for the suppression of the phrase offensive to Protestants in the king's coronation oath that of the clergy, and his edict on the jurandes that of the rich bourgeoisie of Paris and others, such as the prince de Conti, whose interests were involved. The queen disliked him for opposing the grant of favours to her proteges, and he had offended Mme. de Polignac in a similar manner.
All might yet have gone well if Turgot could have retained the confidence of the king, but the king could not fail to see that Turgot had not the support of the other ministers. Even his friend Malesherbes thought he was too rash, and was, moreover, himself discouraged and wished to resign. The alienation of Maurepas was also increasing. Whether through jealousy of the ascendancy which Turgot had acquired over the king, or through the natural incompatibility of their characters, he was already inclined to take sides against Turgot, and the reconciliation between him and the queen, which took place about this time, meant that he was henceforth the tool of the Polignac clique and the Choiseul party. About this time, too, appeared a pamphlet, ''Le Songe de M. Maurepas]], generally ascribed to the comte de Provence (Louis XVIII), containing a bitter caricature of Turgot.
Before relating the circumstances of Turgot's fall we may briefly resume his views on the administrative system. With the physiocrats, he believed in an enlightened political absolutism, and looked to the king to carry through all reforms. As to the parlements, he opposed all interference on their part in legislation, considering that they had no competency outside the sphere of justice. He recognized the danger of the recaP of the old parlement, but was unable effectively to oppose it since he had been associated with the dismissal of Maupeou and Terray, and seems to have underestimated its power. He was opposed to the summoning of the states-general advocated by Malesherbes (May 6, 1775), possibly on the ground that the two privileged orders would have too much power in them. His own plan is to be found in his Memoire sur les municipality, which was submitted informally to the king. In Turgot's proposed system landed proprietors alone were to form the electorate, no distinction being made between the three orders; the members of the town and country municipalites were to elect representatives for the district municipalites, which in turn would elect to the provincial municipalites, and the latter to a grande municipality, which should have no legislative powers, but should concern itself entirely with the administration of taxation. With this was to be combined a whole system of education, relief of the poor, &c. Louis XVI recoiled from this as being too great a leap in the dark, and such a fundamental difference of opinion between king and minister was bound to lead to a breach sooner or later. Turgot's only choice, however, was between "tinkering " at the existing system in detail and a complete revolution, and his attack on privilege, which might have been carried through by a popular minister and a strong king, was bound to form part of any effective scheme of reform.
The immediate cause of Turgot's fall is uncertain. Some speak of a plot, of forged letters containing attacks on the queen shown to the king as Turgot's, of a series of notes on Turgot's budget prepared, it is said, by Necker, and shown to the king to prove his incapacity. Others attribute it to the queen, and there is no doubt that she hated Turgot for supporting Vergennes in demanding the recall of the comte de Guines, the ambassador in London, whose cause she had ardently espoused at the prompting of the Choiseul clique. Others attribute it to an intrigue of Maurepas. On the resignation of Malesherbes (April 1776), whom Turgot wished to replace by the abbé Very, Maurepas proposed to the king as his successor a nonentity named Amelot. Turgot, on hearing of this, wrote an indignant letter to the king, in which he reproached him for refusing to see him, pointed out in strong terms the dangers of a weak ministry and a weak king, and complained bitterly of Maurepas's irresolution and subjection to court intrigues; this letter the king, though asked to treat it as confidential, is said to have shown to Maurepas, whose dislike for Turgot it still further embittered. With all these enemies, Turgot's fall was certain, but he wished to stay in office long enough to finish his project for the reform of the royal household before resigning. This, however, he was not allowed to do, but on May 12, was ordered to send in his resignation. He at once retired to la Roche-Guyon, the château of the duchesse d'Enville, returning shortly to Paris, where he spent the rest of his life in scientific and literary studies, being made vice-president of the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres in 1777. He died on the 18th of March 1781.
In character Turgot was simple, honourable and upright, with a passion for justice and truth. He was an idealist, his enemies would say a doctrinaire, and certainly the terms "natural rights," "natural law," frequently occur in his writings. His friends speak of his charm and gaiety in intimate intercourse, but among strangers he was silent and awkward, and produced the impression of being reserved and disdainful. On one point both friends and enemies agree, and that is his brusquerie and his want of tact in the management of men; Oncken points out with some reason the "schoolmasterish" tone of his letters, even to the king. As a statesman he has been very variously estimated, but it is generally agreed that a large number of the reforms and ideas of the Revolution were due to him; the ideas did not as a rule originate with him, but it was he who first gave them prominence. As to his position as an economist, opinion is also divided. Oncken, to take the extreme of condemnation, looks upon him as a bad physiocrat and a confused thinker, while Leon Say considers that he was the founder of modern political economy, and that "though he failed in the 18th century he triumphed in the 19th."