See study by V. Gruder (1968).
Their missions were always temporary (the better to reduce their attachment to regions) and was focused on royal inspection. Article 54 of the Code Michau described their functions as, "to learn about all crimes, misdemeanors and financial misdealings committed by our officials and of other things concerning our service and the tranquility of our people" ("informer de tous crimes, abus et malversations commises par nos officiers et autres choses concernant notre service et le soulagement de notre peuple").
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Intendants were chosen from the "noblesse de robe" (or administrative nobility) or the upper-bourgeoisie. Generally, they were maîtres des requêtes in the Conseil des parties. They were chosen by the contrôleur général des finances who asked the advice of the Secretary of State for War for those who were to be sent in border provinces. They were often young: Charles Alexandre de Calonne became Intendant at the age of 32, Anne Robert Jacques Turgot and Louis Bénigne François Berthier de Sauvigny at the age of 34, and Louis-Urbain-Aubert de Tourny at the age of 40.
A symbol of royal centralization and absolutism, the Intendant had numerous adversaries. Those nostalgic of an administration based on noble lineage (such as Saint-Simon) saw the Intendants as parvenu and usurping of noble power. Partisans of a less absolute monarchy, such as Fénelon) called for their suppression. Jacques Necker, the only Ministre of finances since 1720 who had not himself been an Intendant, accused them of incompetence because of their youth and social aspirations. The "cahiers de doléances" of 1789 depicted them as over zealous agents of a fiscal policies which weighed heavily on the people.
The term "Intendant" was also used for certain positions close to the Controller-General of Finances (see this term for more information):
In the same way, the term "Intendant Général" was used for certain commissioned positions close to the Secretaries of State of war and of the navy.
When Henry IV came to the throne in 1589, one of his prime focuses was to reduce the privileges of the provincial governors (who, in theory, represented "the presence of the king in his province" but had, during the civil wars of the early modern period, proven themselves to be highly intractable; these positions had long been held by only the highest ranked noble families in the realm). The Intendants to the provinces -- the term "Intendant" appears around 1620 during the reign of Louis XIII -- became an effective tool of regional control.
Under Louis XIII's minister Cardinal Richelieu, with France's entry into the Thirty Years' War in 1635, the Intendants became a permanent institution in France. Instead of simply "inspectors", their role became one of government "administrators". During the Fronde in 1648, the members of parlement of the "Chambre Saint-Louis" demanded the suppression of the Intendants; Mazarin and Anne of Austria gave in to these demands (except in the case of border provinces threatened by Spanish or Imperial attack). At the end of the Fronde, the Intendants were reinstated.
When Louis XIV (1643-1715) was in power, the Marquis of Louvois, war minister between 1677 and 1691, further expanded the power of the provincial intendants. They monitored Louvois's refinements of the French military, including the institution of a merit promotion system and the creation of enlistment that lasted for only four years and was restricted to single men. After 1680, Intendants in France have a permanent position in a set region (or "généralité"); their official title is "intendant de justice, police et finances, commissaire départi dans les généralités du royaume pour l'exécution des ordres du roi".
The position of Intendant remained in existence until the French Revolution.
As intendant de justice, he was required to supervise regional courts (except the Parlements with which he was often in violent conflict). He verified that judicial officers were neither slow, nor negligent, nor biased toward the nobility, nor avaricious. The Intendant had the right to transfer court cases to different jurisdictions if he felt that justice would be better served. The Intendant could also himself serve as judge (with the assistance of royal judges). This extensive jurisdiction lead many local judges and courts to decry the Intendants and ask for their suppression or a reduction in their powers.
As intendant de police, he oversaw the "maréchaussée" (the highway police in charge of protecting the countryside from mendicants and bandits) and monitored public opinion and educational institutions. He was in charge of furnishing the royal army, recruiting soldiers and providing for other military spending. He oversaw the provincial milicias. He also could intervene in religious affairs and control of the Protestants (in many provinces, the Intendants carried out the anti-Protestant policies of Louis XIV).
As intendant de finances, he oversaw partitioning of the royal taxes in the "pays d'élection" (see taille) and collecting the king's seigneurial rights (the "centième denier", the "petit scel", the "franc-fief", etc.) on crown lands, supervised the work of financial officers, and provided financial oversight to various religious and scholarly communities.
In addition to these functions, the Intendant also concerned himself with improving agriculture, by introducing new plant species and new growing and husbandry techniques (Turgot in Limousin). He created royal manufacturing. He was responsible for gunpowder and saltpeter, the road network and the postal service. He renovated certain cities (Tourny in Bordeaux). He was appealed to on matters concerning financial transactions and letters of change. The Intendant also had a social role: he opened charity centers for the unemployed and centers for mendicants, and was held to help the population in times of famine by buying, storing and reselling grain. For more on the administrative structures of ancien régime France, see: Early Modern France.
The first intendencias were established in Spain after 1711, during the War of the Spanish Succession on the advice of Jean Orry, who had been sent by Louis XIV of France to help his young grandson Philip V set up his new government. The first intendants (superintendentes generales del ejército) oversaw the finances of the army and of the territories conquered by the Bourbons, and after the war, they were made permanent (intendentes de ejército y provincia). (After 1724, most intendancies lost their military character except in areas with a captaincy general and in Navarre.) In 1749 an intendancy was established in every province, with the intendant also holding the office of corregidor of the capital city. (The offices were separated again in 1766). District alcaldes mayores or coregidores were subordinated to the provincial intendente-corregidor and assisted him in managing the province and implementing reforms.
As a result of the Seven Years' War an intendancy was set up in Cuba in 1764. The Cuban intendant had oversight of the army's and the royal treasury's finances. (Two new intendancies with oversight only over the treasury were established in 1786 in Camagüey and Santiago de Cuba.) After a two years of experimentation with the new office, an intendancy was introduced in Louisiana (1764). That same year Visitador General José de Gálvez created a plan to set up intendancies in New Spain. The first one was set up in Sonora and Sinaloa four years later. In 1776 Gálvez, now Minister of the Indies, established an intendancy (superintendencia) for all of Venezuela in 1776, and several in the Río de la Plata in 1783. Most of the overseas intendants were assisted by officials (subdelegados) who replaced the old corregidores or alcaldes mayores. Initially intendancies were held by a separate person from the viceroy or the governor, but eventually in many places the offices were granted to one person due to conflicts that emerged between these two.
More intendancies were established in Quito, Peru, Philippines, Puerto Rico (1784), Guatemala, more areas of New Spain, Chile (1786) and Cuenca (1786). The Revolt of the Comuneros prevented their installation in New Granada.
Until 1996, the government of the city of Buenos Aires was presided by an intendente who was directly appointed and removed by the President of Argentina. With the 1994 constitutional reform, which enshrined the autonomy of Buenos Aires and the subsequent passing of the City Statute (local constitution), the office of Intendent of Buenos Aires has been replaced by the new office of Jefe de Gobierno de la Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires (Chief of Government of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires), who is elected by the local citizenry to serve four-year terms.