One of the most unpopular ministers of the ancien regime, Terray was born of humble origins near Lyons. In 1753 he inherited his uncle's fortune, and soon thereafter ingratiated himself with Madame de Pompadour, mistress to Louis XV. Her influence was instrumental in securing for him the position of abbé, and later of rapporteur to the court of Versailles.
In 1769, he was appointed Contrôleur Général des Finances, in which position he aggressively set about to reduce the staggering national debt. He simultaneously served as Directeur des bâtiments (Minister of Fine Arts). Despite control over these spheres of influence, his policies, corrupt practices, and lack of tact alienated him from the populace and the Duc de Choiseul, Louis' prime minister. In 1774 he was dismissed, an announcement that was met with public celebration, which included his effigy being hung, burned, and finally dragged through the streets of Paris.