Below are the articles on French classical liberals which I wrote for the Cato Institute's Encyclopedia of Libertarianism (2008). They are also available online along with the entire Encylopedia at <https://www.libertarianism.org/encyclopedia>. They re also available in PDF here.
The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. Editor-in-Chief Ronald Hamowy. Assistant Editors Jason Kuznicki and Aaron Steelman. Consulting Editor Deirdre McCloskey. Founding and Consulting Editor Jeffrey D. Schultz. (Los Angeles: Sage, 2008. A Project of the Cato Institute).
François-Louis-Charles Comte was born in Sainte-Enimie in Lozère on August 25, 1782, and he died in Paris on April 13, 1837. He was a journalist; an academic (a professor of natural law); the author of works on law, political economy, and history; a member of the French Parliament; and a key participant in the classical liberal movement in France in the first half of the 19th century.
Comte met the man with whom his name is commonly linked, Charles Dunoyer, in Paris around 1807 when they were both studying law. They later coedited the influential liberal periodical, Le Censeur (1814–1815), and its successor, Le Censeur européen (1817–1819), which irritated both Napoleon and the restored Bourbon King Louis XVIII by criticizing the authoritarian nature of their regimes. Issues of the journal were seized by the police, and Comte was sentenced to a heavy fine and 2 months' imprisonment. He sought refuge in Switzerland, where he secured an academic post in Lausanne (1820–1823) and then in England (1823–1826). It was while in England that he met Jeremy Bentham. Comte eventually returned to Paris to turn his Swiss lectures on law and economics into the prize-winning book Traité de législation (1827), which was to have a profound impact on an entire generation of French liberals, including Frédéric Bastiat.
Comte, with Dunoyer, had discovered liberal political economy as a result of the closure of their journal in 1815. Temporarily without a job, Comte was able to spend his time reading voraciously, and he eventually came across a new edition of Jean-Baptiste Say's classic Treatise on Political Economy. As a result of this encounter with Say, Comte not only expanded his primarily political notion of liberty into one that included an economic and sociological dimension, but also ended up marrying Say's daughter. The new kind of classical liberalism jointly developed by Comte and Dunoyer informs Comte's Traité de legislation (1827), where he explores, among other things, the class structure of slave societies and the nature of exploitation.
In the later 1820s, Comte became involved in a number of public debates, among them opposing government schemes to heavily subsidize public works to catch up with more economically developed countries such as Britain and defending the National Guard in the face of government efforts to dissolve the citizen militia.
After the July Revolution of 1830, Comte briefly served as the political representative of the Sarthe in the Chamber of Deputies. He resigned his political post to pursue an academic career in the reconstituted Academy of Moral and Political Sciences. Comte edited collections of the works of his father-in-law Say and Thomas Malthus for the liberal publishing firm of Guillaumin. His last substantial work before his death was a lengthy defense of property rights and a history of the evolution of property in Traité de la propriété (1834).
Comte, Charles. Traité de législation, ou exposition des lois générales suivant lesquelles les peuples prospèrent, dépérissent ou restent stationnaire [Treatise on Legislation, Or, Exposition ofthe General Laws According to Which Peoples Prosper, Perish, orRemain Stationary]. 4 vols. Paris: A. Sautelet et Cie, 1827.
———. Traité de la propriété. 2 vols. Paris: Chamerot, Ducollet, 1834.
Hart, David M. Class Analysis, Slavery and the Industrialist Theory of History in French Liberal Thought, 1814–1830: The Radical Liberalism of Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer. Unpublisheddoctoral dissertation, King's College, Cambridge, 1994.
Liggio, Leonard P. "Charles Dunoyer and French Classical Liberalism." Journal of Libertarian Studies 1 no. 3 (1977): 153–178.
Weinburg, Mark. "The Social Analysis of Three Early 19th Century French Liberals: Say, Comte, and Dunoyer." Journal of Libertarian Studies 2 no. 1 (1978): 45–63.
Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, was born in Ribemont, Picardy, in September 1743, and died in Bourg-la-Reine before reaching the age of 52. He was a mathematician, a philosophe, a friend of d'Alembert, Voltaire, and Turgot, a permanent secretary of the French Academy of Sciences from 1776, and a politician during the French revolutionary period. He was elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1791 and later appointed its president; he then became a member of the Convention in 1792. Condorcet was active in a number of committees that drew up legislation during the Revolution, especially laws relating to public education and constitutional reform. Alas, he became a victim of Jacobin repression when the liberal Girondin group was expelled from the Convention. After a period of hiding in late 1793, during which he wrote his most famous work, Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, he was arrested and died under suspicious circumstances. It is possible that he committed suicide or was murdered by the Jacobins.
Condorcet was educated at a Jesuit school in Rheims and received a rigorous scientific education at the College of Navarre of the University of Paris. His initial researches were in the areas of calculus and probability theory, and he later attempted to apply mathematics to the study of human behavior and to the structure of political organizations to create a "social arithmetic of man." His "Essai sur l'application de l'analyse de la probabilité des decisions rendues, la pluralité des voix" ["Essay on the Application of Probability Analysis to Decisions Made by Majority Vote"], published in 1785, was an attempt to show how probability theory could be used to make political decision making more rational and, hence, more enlightened. Condorcet wrote articles on this subject for a Supplement to Diderot's Encyclopedia several years later.
Condorcet lent his wholehearted support to the attempts by the new controller-general, Turgot, in 1774–1776 to free up the grain trade and deregulate the French economy. Turgot appointed him to the post of inspecteur des monnaies in 1774, and he wrote numerous pamphlets defending laissez-faire reforms, such as the abolition of forced labor (the corvée) and seigneurial dues. His "Vie de M. Turgot" (1786) is a spirited defense of Turgot and of the continuing need for free market policies despite Turgot's failure to overcome the entrenched vested interests that opposed reforms in the French economy.
Condorcet also advocated other enlightened reforms, such as a restructuring of the criminal justice system, the granting of civic rights to Protestants, and the abolition of slavery. With his wife, Sophie de Grouchy, whom he had married in 1786, Condorcet's home proved an important salon for the liberal elite of Paris where contemporary issues were discussed, as well as the progress of the new American republic and the future role of provincial assemblies in a politically reformed France.
During the early phases of the French Revolution, Condorcet joined other moderate liberal reformers in the Society of Thirty, for whom he helped draw up cahiers or demands for liberal reform that were presented to the Estates General. He also was active in the Society of 1789, whose members included the marquis de Lafayette and Dupont de Nemours. Condorcet edited this group's journal, and it was here that he published his important essay On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship in 1790. Condorcet was elected to represent Paris in the Legislative Assembly in 1791, but broke with the moderate liberals over the issue of curtailing the power of the monarchy. He joined the moderate republicans Brissot and Thomas Paine in calling for the end of the monarchy and the introduction of a republican constitution. He served on the Legislative Assembly's Committee on Public Instruction and wrote their report in April 1792, a report that was not adopted until 1795, after Condorcet's death.
Condorcet's membership in the Convention, where he represented the Aisne, coincided with the trial and execution of the King. Condorcet, while supporting the abolition of the monarchy, opposed the King's execution. In February 1793, Condorcet presented a constitutional plan to the Convention's Constitutional Committee based on his idea of using mathematics to create a rational and representative elected body that would serve the interests of all the people and prevent a small group from seizing control. His constitutional plan fell victim to the power struggle going on in the Convention between the liberal Girondins and the radical Jacobins. When leading Girondins were expelled from the Convention, Condorcet protested and was forced into hiding to avoid arrest. Over the next few months, he wrote his best known work, Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain [Sketch for a Historical Portrait of the Progress of the Human Mind] (published posthumously in 1795), which demonstrated how human beings had been able to improve their situation over the centuries through the use of reason, technology, and liberty, and how in the near future a veritable liberal utopia might be created. He left his hiding place in March 1794 and was soon arrested, dying in prison after 2 days in captivity under suspicious circumstances.
Badinter, Elisabeth, and Robert Badinter. Condorcet (1743–1794): Un intellectuel en politique. Paris: Fayard, 1988.
Baker, Keith Michael. Condorcet: From Natural Philosophy to Social Mathematics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1975.
Condorcet. Oeuvres. Stuttgart, Germany: Friedrich Fromman, 1968.
———. Selected Writings. Keith Michael Baker, ed. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1976.
Henri-Benjamin Constant de Rebecque was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, and died in Paris. He was a novelist, political theorist, journalist, and politician who, through his education and personal inclination, brought English and Scottish notions of liberal constitutional monarchy to France. It was unusual for members of his generation to study in Germany (Erlangen) and Scotland (Edinburgh), but his experience enriched classical liberalism by combining the theoretical French passion for liberty with an appreciation of English constitutional monarchism and the evolutionary and historical approach of the Scottish school of liberal thought.
In the late 1780s, Constant showed great promise as an original political thinker. However, he wasted a good deal of his time in a series of failed love affairs, excessive gambling, and duels. Fortunately, his family connections gained him a position as a chamberlain to the Duke of Brunswick in Paris, where he was a witness to the beginning of the French Revolution. The crucial turning point in his life occurred on his return from Switzerland in 1794, when he met with Germaine de Staël, the daughter of the one-time director of finance under Louis XVI and a political hostess of immense authority whose salon dominated Parisian social life. He became her lover and, under her guidance, began his career as a political pamphleteer and commentator. At her salon, Constant met many constitutional monarchists and aristocratic liberals. The two returned to Paris in 1795 after the fall of the Jacobins, and Constant supported the Directory (the successor government to the Convention) by writing pamphlets defending the coup that brought it to power, an act he was later to regret.
Constant began his political career in 1799, when he was elected a member of the Tribunate under Napoleon's Consulate. He served there until 1802. His criticisms of Napoleon's attempts to dismantle the representative system and to remove any checks on his power got him dismissed from the Tribunate and forced him into exile. He and de Staël spent their time traveling in Germany or at her estate at Coppet in Switzerland, where they produced a steady stream of pamphlets critical of Napoleon's regime. It was here that Constant wrote his famous romantic novel, Adolphe (1807, published 1816), and his scathing attack on Napoleon's militarism and political tyranny, "The Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation and Their Relation to European Civilization" (1814). In that essay, Constant made two important distinctions, one between ancient and modern notions of liberty and the other between ancient military society and modern commercial society. With regard to liberty, Constant argued that in ancient societies liberty was largely seen as political participation, whereas in modern societies liberty was seen as a private sphere protected from intrusion by the state. Constant argued that ancient societies acquired wealth primarily through conquest and exploitation, whereas modern commercial societies acquired wealth primarily through peaceful exchange and industry. With the defeat of Napoleon, Constant predicted that European society was on the eve of a new era of peace, industry, and prosperity—a view of history developed at much greater length by the economists Charles Comte, Charles Dunoyer, and Gustave de Molinari.
Surprisingly, Constant was invited back to Paris by Napoleon after his escape from Elba in 1814 to draw up a new constitution, the Acte additionnel aux constitutions de l'empire, or the "Benjamine" as it was known. Although it was never implemented, it proved an interesting design for a constitutional monarchy with a property-based but still quite extensive franchise. While advising Napoleon on constitutional reform, Constant published his first extensive Politics Applicable to all Representative Governments" (1815), in which he argues that "constitutional monarchy offers us … that neutral power so indispensable for all regular liberty." When Napoleon fell from power again, Constant was once again forced into exile for his recent collaboration with the restored Napoleonic government—this time by the restored Bourbon monarchy.
After spending some time in England, Constant returned to France to resume his political career. He was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1819, where he served until his death in 1830, first representing Sarthe and then Paris. He also served as president of the Council of State. Constant combined his political duties with an active career in journalism and political pamphleteering. The main issues of the 1820s revolved around the constitutional limits to the King's power and the King's attempts to break free of them. Constant was a member of a group of liberals who wished to protect the constitution and to prevent the King from undermining it. Constant wrote pamphlets defending freedom of speech, ministerial responsibility, and religious toleration and supporting a number of oppressed groups, among them peasants against their aristocratic landlords, slaves in the French colonies, and the Greeks in their struggle against the Turkish Empire. His work was often censored by the regime, but he attempted to frustrate the censors by writing pamphlets more than 30 pages in length (shorter pamphlets were subject to prepublication censorship) and by putting his most critical comments in the footnotes, which he was confident the censors would never read.
While he was a member of the Chamber of Deputies, Constant continued to write more substantial theoretical works. He further developed his ideas on liberal constitutionalism in Course on Constitutional Politics (1818–1820). In his Commentary on the Works of Filangieri (1822), he advocated laissez-faire economic policies and the "night watchman state," and in his last major work, On Religion Considered in its Source, Forms, and Developments (1824–1831), he explored the relationship among religion, despotism, and liberty. He researched and wrote a substantial part of his monograph on religion when he was forced to temporarily retire from politics in 1822 after his arrest for engaging in a plot to overthrow the government. He was acquitted of this charge and returned to the Chamber of Deputies to represent Paris in 1824. At that point, the government tried to have this trenchant critic of its policies barred from the Chamber on the grounds that he was not a French citizen inasmuch as he was born in Switzerland. The government was not successful, and Constant resumed his seat to continue his struggle to defend liberty—opposing an Indemnity Bill to reimburse emigré aristocrats for property lost during the Revolution, opposing the Church's efforts to censor religious publications and to exclude Protestants from teaching positions in schools and universities, and opposing a more restrictive press law. In the Chamber, Constant was a charismatic speaker and a somewhat eccentric figure. When he spoke on constitutional matters, he was authoritative and persuasive. He occasionally reverted to the excesses of his youth, however, such as when he fought a duel with an aristocrat from an armchair to which he was confined as a result of a knee injury.
In the late 19th and 20th centuries, Constant's reputation in France rested primarily on his authorship of the romantic novel, Adolphe, and of his diaries. His reputation as a political theorist has fared better in the English-speaking world, where his contribution to the theory of liberal constitutionalism has been long recognized, especially in the last three decades, where his political writings have undergone an intellectual renaissance among Anglo-American scholars.
Constant, Benjamin. Oeuvres complètes. Tübingen, Germany: M. Niemeyer, 1995.
Dodge, Guy Howard. Benjamin Constant's Philosophy of Liberalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.
Fontana, Biancamaria. Benjamin Constant and the Post-Revolutionary Mind. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991.
Holmes, Stephen. Benjamin Constant and the Making of Modern Liberalism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984.
Kelley, George Armstrong. The Humane Comedy: Constant, Tocqueville, and French Liberalism. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 1992.
Wood, Dennis. Benjamin Constant: A Biography. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Barthélemy-Charles-Pierre-Joseph Dunoyer—journalist, academic, and noted economist—was born in Carennac in Lot and died in Paris at age 76. Dunoyer, a professor of political economy, authored numerous works on politics, political economy, and history, and he was a founding member of the Society of Political Economy in 1842. He occupies a crucial role in the history of the French classical liberal movement of the first half of the 19th century, along with Jean-Baptiste Say, Benjamin Constant, Charles Comte, Augustin Thierry, and Alexis de Tocqueville.
Dunoyer studied law in Paris, where he met Charles Comte, with whom he was to edit the liberal periodical Le Censeur (1814–1815), and its successor, Le Censeur européen (1817–1819). He became politically active during the last years of Napoleon's Empire and the early years of the Bourbon Restoration, when he strenuously opposed authoritarian rule, whether Napoleonic or monarchical. He was especially active in his opposition to censorship, militarism, the slave trade, and the extensive restrictions placed on trade and industry.
Dunoyer and Comte discovered the liberal political economy of Jean-Baptiste Say in 1815 after their journal had been closed down by the censors. This event was seminal in Dunoyer's intellectual development because it proved the catalyst for his fusion of three different strands of thought into a new and powerful theory of individual liberty. Dunoyer and Comte combined the political liberalism of Constant, whose main pillars were constitutional limits on the power of the state and representative government, the economic liberalism of Say (i.e., laissez-faire and free trade), and the sociological approach to history of Thierry, Constant, and Say, which was grounded in class analysis and a theory of the historical evolution of society through stages, culminating in the laissez-faire market society of industry.
Those views were further developed in numerous articles in Le Censeur européen and in two books that Dunoyer published during the 1820s. These monographs were based on his lectures at the Athénée Saint-Germain in Paris: L'Industrie et la morale considérées dans leurs rapports avec la liberté (1825) and Nouveau traité d'économie sociale (1830). He continued to expand and refine his ideas on the evolution of a free society in his three-volume magnum opus, De la Liberté du travail (1845).
After the Revolution of 1830 brought a more liberal-minded constitutional monarchy to power, Dunoyer was appointed a member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences and worked as a government official—he served as Prefect of L'Allier and La Somme. Dunoyer became a member of the Council of State in 1838; however, he resigned his government posts in protest against the coup d'état of Louis Napoléon in 1851. He died while writing a critique of the authoritarian Second Empire. The work was completed and published by his son, Anatole, in 1864.
Dunoyer, Charles. De la liberté du travail, ou simple exposé des conditions dans lesquelles les force humaines s'exercent avec le plus de puissance. Paris: Guillaumin, 1845.
———. Nouveau traité d'économie sociale, ou simple exposition des causes sous l'influence desquelles les hommes parviennent à user de leurs forces avec le plus de LIBERTE, c'est-à-dire avec le plus FACILITE et de PUISSANCE. 2 vols. Paris: Sautelet et Mesnier, 1830.
Hart, David M. Class Analysis, Slavery and the Industrialist Theory of History in French Liberal Thought, 1814–1830: The Radical Liberalism of Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, King's College, Cambridge, UK, 1994.
Liggio, Leonard P. "Charles Dunoyer and French Classical Liberalism." Journal of Libertarian Studies 1 no. 3 (1977): 153–178.
Weinburg, Mark. "The Social Analysis of Three Early 19th Century French Liberals: Say, Comte, and Dunoyer." Journal of Libertarian Studies 2 no. 1 (1978): 45–63.
The French Revolution, which usually dates from the meeting of the Estates-General in 1789 to the end of the Directory in 1799, or sometimes to 1815, was part of a more general movement for liberal reform that transformed Western Europe and North America in the late 18th century. This movement for liberal reform, whose aims included deregulation of the economy, constitutional limits on the power of the monarch, equality before the law, freedom of speech and of the press, and religious tolerance can be seen as originating in the American Revolution, continuing in several parts of Europe during the 1780s with the reforms of the "enlightened despots," among them Joseph II of Austria, and intensifying with the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. The historian R. R. Palmer has shown how reform ideas, money, and people flowed back and forth between America and Europe during those decades as the aptly named "trans- Atlantic" revolution swept away the old regime and created the foundations for the modern liberal, constitutional, and democratic societies that were to emerge in the 19th century.
The French Revolution not only transformed France by sweeping away the legal and political privileges of the ruling elites, but also triggered independent revolutions in other states, such as the French colony of Haiti, where ex-slaves created an independent state. More important, it carried the reformist ideals of democracy and republicanism via the French Civil Code to the neighboring European states as Republican and then later Napoleonic armies conquered much of Europe. One of the many paradoxes created by the French Revolution is the idea that all the people of Europe could be liberated from feudal oppression at the point of a French gun. Another paradox, which was hotly debated by liberal historians in the 19th century, was how to explain a movement whose original intentions were to increase individual liberty, deregulate the economy, and limit state power that yet produced the Jacobin Terror and the military dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte. It might well be that every revolution for liberty sows the seeds of an inevitable period of counterrevolution before more stable and workable political and economic institutions emerge in which liberty can flourish.
It is useful to view an event as complex as the French Revolution as a series of sometimes overlapping stages in which rival groups contended for control of the state, with various political groups having the upper hand at different times. Classical liberals were active at some of these stages and were able to implement many of their reforms, but at other times they were forced into exile, as was Benjamin Constant. Still others went into political retirement or even were arrested and killed.
The first of these stages was essentially prerevolutionary and took place between 1787 and 1789, when the fiscal crisis of the Old Regime forced Louis XVI to call a meeting of the Estates-General, the first since 1614, to enact new tax measures to stave off bankruptcy.
This meeting was followed by a stage marked by liberal reforms passed by the National Assembly, the parliamentary body created when the Third Estate (i.e., those who represented neither the nobility nor the clergy) declared itself, in June 1789, to be the National Assembly of France and invited the other estates to join it. The Assembly immediately proceeded to enact reforms that effectively ended the Old Regime. On the night of August 4, 1789, in one of the most dramatic moments of the Revolutionary period, one member of the nobility after another stood in the Assembly and renounced all feudal obligations owed them. Several weeks later, the Assembly proclaimed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. In the form of a new National Constituent Assembly, it was the Third Estate that undertook the more difficult tasks of drawing up a new constitution, reforming the administration of the country, and reforming the judiciary. The result was the Constitution of 1791, which, for the first time in France, created a liberal constitutional monarchy.
The third stage saw a militarization and expansion of the Revolution. It began on September 20, 1792, with the declaration that France was a republic, and continued through the fall of Robespierre on 9 Thermidor Year II (July 27, 1794). It and the subsequent stages of the Revolution were generally marked by centralization, war, and expansion, until the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815. This constant warfare was partly a reflection of the pressing need for France to defend itself against a coalition of monarchical powers opposed to the Revolution, a coalition that was led and financed by Great Britain and that sought to restore the monarchy and the privileges of the clergy and nobility. It also was partly the result of the desire to liberate the rest of Europe from the burden of feudalism by force of arms if necessary.
Internally, the Revolution became more radical with the trial and execution of the King in January 1793. From then onward, the radical, antimarket Jacobins gained in political power, purged their enemies, and initiated the Terror, which was to characterize the remainder of the Revolution's third stage. During the Terror, the Jacobins suspended the rule of law in order to eradicate their enemies. For example, the "Law of Suspects" facilitated the arrest of anyone suspected of opposing the regime. During this period, any power previously in the hands of liberals was removed. Liberal policy, which since 1789 was aimed at creating a free society in France, was replaced by an economic dictatorship whose primary goal was to fund the state and the army. Perhaps the most famous decree falling under this rubric was the Law of the Maximum, which introduced stringent price controls. In addition, the "Ventôse Decrees" allowed the state to confiscate the property of "enemies of the state." It is estimated that 17,000 people were officially executed during the Terror—many by the newly invented humane killing machine known after its inventor as the guillotine. Afurther 10,000 to 12,000 people were summarily killed without trial. That illiberal madness only ended when Maximilien Robespierre, the leader of the Jacobins, was arrested on the ninth of Thermidor (July 27, 1794) as a result of internecine struggles among the ruling elite. He was guillotined the following day.
The fourth stage reflects a period of relatively more moderate, liberal republicanism under a government known as the Directory (1794–1799). Under the Directory, the inflationary paper money, assignats, originally issued in 1790, was replaced by a more stable metallic currency, and the policy of massive economic interventionism came to an end. The wars of expansion, however, continued, especially in northern Italy, where a young general, Napoleon Bonaparte, was in the process of creating the foundations for a future political career as someone who could solve the problem of continuing political chaos with strong leadership. The hopes of many liberals for the Directory were dashed by persistent corruption, the threats of political coups from both the "left" (radical Jacobins) and "right" (royalists), the annulment of elections when royalists did better than expected, and an ongoing policy of anticlericalism.
The fifth and final stage of the Revolution began with the coup d'état on 18 Brumaire (November 10, 1799), which bought General Bonaparte to power, first as Consul and then as self-proclaimed Emperor. The Empire is marked by a curious amalgam of legislation that entrenched many aspects of the Revolution in French society—under the Civil or "Napoleonic" Code of 1804—and resurgent militarism and statism that were antithetical to the liberal ideals of 1789. When Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo in 1815, the French Bourbon monarchy was restored inname, but was forced to coexist with a new legal code and a constitution—the "Charter" of 1814—that realized many of the ideals of the liberal, constitutional monarchists who had begun the Revolution.
The role played by classical liberals in the French Revolution was significant, although they had to compete (not always successfully) with radical democratic Jacobins, militaristic Napoleonic imperialists, and unrepentant monarchists. During the last decades of the Old Regime, many prominent Enlightenment figures had argued for religious toleration (Voltaire), economic liberalization (Turgot), the abolition of slavery and the slave trade (the abbés Raynal and Grégoire), and other liberal reforms. They helped create a climate of opinion on the eve of the Revolution that was reflected in the Cahiers desdoléances—the books of complaint drawn up in each region for the Estates-General in 1789. These documents reflected the almost universal opposition to the unequal and heavy tax burden placed on ordinary citizens. Thus, like the American Revolution, the early phase of the Revolution can be understood, at least in part, as a tax revolt against the Old Regime. There were numerous classical liberals among the clergy and the nobility who were members of the Estates-General and who defected from their Estates to join the Third Estate in the National Assembly. There they introduced the reform legislation of the period 1789 to 1791, during which the liberalization of French society was most advanced. The classical liberals active at this stage of the Revolution tended to be supporters of the free market, among them Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, and of constitutional monarchism—such as the members of the "Society of 1789," which included Lafayette, Sieyès, and Mirabeau. Their agenda was to abolish the legal privileges enjoyed by some groups, to free the economy, and to place constitutional limits on the powers of the King.
At a time when formal political parties did not exist, like-minded individuals formed loose and informal groupings or clubs to pursue a common political agenda. Prior to the Terror, the most liberal of the groups was the Girondins, so called because its most influential members represented the Gironde region around Bordeaux. The Girondins were active in the Legislative Assembly (1791–1792) and in the early National Convention (1792–1793), where they continued their liberal reforms. However, their position as defenders of individual liberty was severely weakened by their support for the war on those nations that supported theFrench monarchy. Their primary motive in doing so was to rally popular support for the Revolutionary regime, but it required spending vast resources on the army, resources that were not available to the government, but that were procured by inflating the newly issued currency, paper assignats supposedly backed by the expected future sale of land confiscated from the church and the nobility. The hyperinflation that followed did much to alienate the poorer classes from the liberal revolution and to radicalize the urban poor, thus paving the way for the political victory of extremist Jacobins. The war was used as justification for massive interventions in the economy, notably the Law of the Maximum, which imposed price controls on staple goods. The Girondins were further weakened by a split in their ranks over the trial and execution of the King. Some of them were radical republicans who voted for the execution and for the formation of a republic in order to protect the Revolution from aristocratic counterrevolution. Others were moderate republicans, such as the American Thomas Paine, who in the Convention opposed the execution and favored exiling the former Louis XVI to America. Still others were constitutional monarchists, who wanted only to chastise the King and to tighten the constitutional limits on his power. Thus, weakened by internal disputes, the economic crisis brought on by hyperinflation, and military reversals, the Girondins were driven from power by the Jacobins in June 1793. The Jacobins forced many Girondins to flee, arresting some, including Paine, and executing others. The Jacobins reversed many of the liberal reforms that had been introduced since the Estates-General was first convened. The rule of law was suspended so that "enemies" of the revolution could be more easily arrested, tried, and executed; the currency was further devalued to finance the revolutionary armies; and extensive price controls and other government interventions in the economy were introduced to supply the urban crowds with cheap bread and the armies with materials.
Not all the liberals involved in shaping the Revolution were Girondins. The so-called Idéologues were influential during the period of the Directory and the early years of Napoleon's rule. The Directory reintroduced free markets and limited government and was thus naturally attractive to liberals recovering from the Terror. One notable liberal, Antoine-Claude-Laurent Destutt de Tracy, found a home in the newly created National Institute's Class of Moral and Political Sciences, where he pursued his study of human behavior and the nature of free institutions, a study he called "idéologie." Other classical liberals were active as journalists or in politics, among them Benjamin Constant and Jean-Baptiste Say. With Napoleon's rise to power, liberal criticism was less and less tolerated, and many Idéologues fell silent, retired, or were forced into exile. This state of affairs continued until 1814, when Napoleon belatedly rediscovered the virtues of liberal constitutionalism on his return from Elba.
It remains to evaluate the impact of the French Revolution on European society, especially its contribution to creating a free society, both in France and elsewhere in Europe. This assessment poses a difficulty for the classical liberal, in that some stages of the Revolution were marked by considerable liberal reforms, whereas others witnessed the reversal of those reforms and the reemergence of political and economic oppression in a variety of forms. The classical liberals of the early and mid-19th century generally held, given the refusal of the Old Regime to reform itself, that the Revolution was inevitable and was the only means whereby the old ruling elites could be dispossessed of their privileges. Despite its ups and downs, on balance it made a major contribution to individual liberty by creating the foundation for the free societies that were to emerge in the 19th century. As the liberal historian and politician François Guizot noted with some wisdom and insight in 1820:
I will still say that the Revolution, brought on by the necessary development of a society in progress, founded on moral principles, undertaken with the design of the general good, was the terrible but legitimate battle of right against privilege, of legal liberty against despotism, and that to the Revolution alone belongs the task of regulating itself, or purging itself, of founding the constitutional monarchy to consummate the good that it has begun and to repair the evil it has done.
When trying to draw up a "balance sheet," one needs to take into account the complexity and long duration of the Revolution and the short- and long-term changes brought about in European society. Many of the beneficent reforms took some years to emerge, which suggests that Edmund Burke's vigorous criticism of the Revolution in 1790 was somewhat premature. Some of the gains were short-lived and were overturned by later regimes, thus making an overall assessment of its achievements difficult. The positive achievements of the Revolution include the following: the abolition of the legal privileges of the ruling elites of the old order; the sale or privatization of church and émigré land that created a new, more diversified property-owning class; the abolition of slavery and the granting of many civic rights to women, such as divorce; the creation of the Civil Code— begun before Napoleon but completed under his rule—that provided legal guarantees for the protection of life, liberty, and property, but that unfortunately severely reduced the rights of married women; the spread of the idea that a constitution should spell out the rights and duties of citizens and limit the power of the monarch; and the spread of the ideas of individual rights, democracy, and republicanism.
The negative consequences of the Revolution also were quite numerous. They included the virulent anticlericalism of some of the radicals, which alienated potential supporters of the Revolution, such as the liberal-minded clergy and pious peasants; the hyperinflation of the assignat paper money that produced economic chaos, corrupted the state, and imposed a severe economic burden on the poor and thus radicalized and militarized the main constituency that helped bring the Jacobins to power; the Terror and economic dictatorship of the Jacobins whose violation of individual liberty on a massive scale brought the nation near to economic and social collapse; the conquest and annexation of neighboring countries in the name of liberating them from feudalism, which alienated potential supporters of the Revolution and stimulated the rise of nationalism, especially in Spain and the German states; the administrative and tax reforms of the Revolution that continued the centuries-old practice of centralizing state power in Paris at the expense of federalism and the autonomy of the regions; the demands of war, combined with unstable and corrupt governments that resulted in the rise to power of a military dictator who eventually proclaimed himself Emperor; and the more conservative and reactionary regimes that followed the radical phase of the Revolution, which led to the loss of freedoms that had been won earlier (especially for slaves and women).
In many respects, the most positive achievement of the Revolution was the creation of a new language of politics, natural rights, constitutionalism, democracy, and republicanism—which can be summarized in the revolutionary slogan of "liberty, equality, fraternity"—along with the expectation that the institutions of a free society would be built during the coming century on top of the precedents established during the liberal stages of the Revolution. But, like a two-edged sword, the Revolution did much the same thing for the enemies of individual liberty. For example, Marx and other socialists looked to the political violence and massive government intervention in the economy of the Jacobin Terror as a model for the future socialist revolution. Today, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the discrediting of Marxism, it seems likely that the liberal aspects of the French Revolution will be its most enduring legacy.
Acton, John Emerich Edward (Lord Acton). Lectures on the French Revolution. London: Macmillan, 1910.
Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Conor Cruise O'Brien, ed. New York: Penguin, 1983.
Hobsbawm, E. J. Echoes of the Marseillaise: Two Centuries Look Back on the French Revolution. London: Verso, 1990.
Lucas, Colin, ed. The French Revolution and the Making of Modern Political Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Molinari, Gustave de. L'Evolution politique et le Révolution. Paris: C. Reinwald, 1884.
Paine, Thomas. Rights of Man (1791–1792). Henry Collins, ed. New York: Penguin, 1976.
Palmer, R. R. The Age of Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760–1800: Vol. 1. The Challenge. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959.
———. The Age of Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760–1800: Vol. 2. The Struggle. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. The Old Regime and the Revolution. Alan S. Kahan, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Van Kley, Dale, ed. The French Idea of Freedom: The Old Regime and the Declaration of Rights of 1789. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.
Gustave de Molinari, the leading representative of the laissez-faire school of classical liberalism in France in the second half of the 19th century, continued to campaign against protectionism, statism, militarism, colonialism, and socialism into his 90s on the eve of the First World War. As he said shortly before his death, his classical liberal views had remained the same throughout his long life, but the world around him had managed to turn full circle in the meanwhile.
Molinari became active in liberal circles when he moved to Paris from his native Belgium in the 1840s to pursue a career as a journalist and political economist. He quickly became active in promoting free trade, peace, and the abolition of slavery. His liberalism was based on a theory of natural rights, especially the right to property and individual liberty, and he advocated a completely laissez-faire economic policy and an ultraminimal state. During the 1840s, he joined the Society for Political Economy and was active in the Association for Free Trade, which was inspired by Richard Cobden and supported by Frédéric Bastiat. During the 1848 revolution, he vigorously opposed the rise of socialism and shortly thereafter published two rigorous defenses of individual liberty, in which he pushed to its ultimate limits his opposition to all state intervention in the economy, including the state's monopoly of security. He published a small book called Les Soirées de la rue Saint-Lazare in 1849, in which he defended the free market and private property through a dialogue among a free-market political economist, a conservative, and a socialist. He extended his radical anti-statist ideas, which he had first presented in his "Eleventh Soirée," in an even more controversial article "De la Production de la Sécurité" in the Journal des Économistes in October 1849, where he argued that private companies, such as insurance companies, could provide police and even national security services more cheaply, more efficiently, and more in keeping with acceptable morality than could the state.
During the 1850s, he contributed a number of significant articles on free trade, peace, colonization, and slavery to the Dictionnaire de l'économie politique (1852–1853) before going into exile in his native Belgium to escape the authoritarian regime of Napoleon III. He became a professor of political economy at the Musée royale de l'industrie belge and published a significant treatise on political economy, the Cours d'économie politique (2nd ed., 1863). He also wrote a number of articles opposing state education at this time. In the 1860s, Molinari returned to Paris to work on the Journal des Débats, becoming editor from 1871 to 1876. Between 1878 and 1883, Molinari published two of his most significant historical works in the Journal des Économistes in serial and then in book form. L'Évolution économique du dix-neuvième siècle: Théorie du progrès (1880) and L'Évolution politique et la révolution (1884) were works of historical synthesis that attempted to show how modern free-market industrial societies emerged from societies in which class exploitation and economic privilege predominated and what role the French Revolution had played in this process.
Toward the end of his long life, Molinari was appointed editor of the leading journal of political economy in France, the Journal des Économistes (1881–1909). Here he continued his crusade against all forms of economic interventionism, publishing numerous articles on natural law, moral theory, religion, and current economic policy. At the end of the century, he wrote a prognosis of the direction in which society was heading. In The Society of the Future (1899), he still defended the free market in all its forms, conceding only that the private protection companies he had advocated 50 years earlier might not prove viable. Nevertheless, he continued to maintain that privatized, local geographic monopolies might still be preferable to nation-wide, state-run monopolies. Perhaps it was fortunate that he died just before the First World War broke out, and thus he was spared from seeing just how destructive such national monopolies of coercion could be.
In the 20 or so years before his death, between 1893 and 1912, Molinari published numerous works attacking the resurgence of protectionism, imperialism, militarism, and socialism, which he believed would hamper economic development, severely restrict individual liberty, and ultimately lead to war and revolution. The key works from this period of his life are Grandeur et décadence de la guerre (1898), Ésquisse de l'organisation politique et économique de la Société future (1899), Les Problèmes du XXe siècle (1901), Théorie de l'évolution: Économie de l'histoire (1908), and his aptly titled last work Ultima Verba: Mon dernier ouvrage(1911), which appeared when he was 92 years of age.
Molinari's death in 1912 severely weakened the classical liberal movement in France, and only a few members of the "old school" remained to teach and write—including the economist Yves Guyot and the antiwar campaigner Frédéric Passy, who both survived into the 1920s. By the time of Molinari's death, the academic posts and editorships of the major journals had fallen into the hands of the "new liberals," socialists who spurned the laissez-faire liberalism of the 19th century.
Hart, David M. "Gustave de Molinari and the Anti-statist Liberal Tradition." Journal of Libertarian Studies 5 no. 3 (Summer 1981): 263–290; 5 no. 4 (Fall 1981): 399–434; 6 no. 1 (Winter 1982): 83–104.
Molinari, Gustave de. Cours d'économie politique. 2nd rev. ed. Paris: Guillaumin, 1863. 
———. "De la production de la sécurité." Journal des Économistes 21 (1849): 277; "The Production of Security." Occasional Paper Series no. 2. J. Huston McCulloch, trans. New York: Center for Libertarian Studies, 1977.
———. Les Soirées de la rue Saint-Lazare; entretiens sur les lois économiques et défense de la propriété. Paris: Guillaumin, 1849.
Jean-Baptiste Say was the leading French political economist in the first third of the 19th century. Before becoming an academic economist quite late in life, Say had worked at a broad range of occupations, including, following in the family tradition, an apprenticeship in a commercial office. He later was employed by a life insurance company and then took on a series of disparate occupations: journalist, soldier, politician, cotton manufacturer, and writer. His constantly changing careers were in large part due to the political and economic upheavals that his generation had to endure: the French Revolution, the Revolutionary Wars, the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, economic warfare with Britain, and eventually the fall of the Empire and the Restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. Only after a quarter century of turmoil could Say occupy his first position teaching political economy in Paris in 1815, an activity he was to continue in until his death in 1832.
Say made his name with the publication of the Traité d'économie politique (1803), which went through many editions and revisions during his lifetime. The ideas that are most closely associated with his name include "Say's law" of markets—crudely formulated sometimes as "supply creates its own demand" or more broadly understood as the idea that nations and individuals benefit from each other's rising level of wealth as it provides increased opportunities for mutually beneficial trade. In addition, Say emphasized the vital role played by the entrepreneur in economic activity and the contribution of "nonmaterial" goods, such as services, human capital, and institutions, to the creation of wealth. He also provided an early formulation of the theory of rent seeking.
Say was a keen popularizer of economic ideas, writing several works in dialogue form in order to reach a broader audience with his liberal views at a time when economic nationalism and socialism were becoming increasingly popular. One of his last major works, the Cours complet d'économie politique pratique (1828–1829), attempted to broaden the scope of political economy, away from its earlier preoccupation with the production of wealth, by examining the moral, political, and sociological requirements of a free society and how they are interrelated with the study of political economy. In other words, he wished to return political economy to its Smithian roots.
Say's family originated in Nîmes, but they were forced to flee to Geneva in the late 17th century when the state ended its policy of toleration toward Protestants. They returned to Lyon in the mid-18th century, where Say's father became a merchant. The family intended Say and his brother Horace to continue in the family business, and, to this end, the two brothers were sent to London to learn about modern commerce. There they became proficient in English; when Say came across a copy of Smith's Wealth of Nations, which had not yet been translated into French, he was able to absorb its contents.
When the French Revolution broke out, Say was swept up in events. He stopped working for the Comte de Mirabeau's journal, the Courrier de Provence, to volunteer to fight and saw service in Champagne in 1792–1793. He got married only to find his family's moderate wealth had made him a target of the terror before hyperinflation wiped out most of what they had saved. Finally, he was appointed editor of the journal of the liberal-minded "Idéologues," La Décade philosophique, littéraire, et politique, for which he wrote articles on political economy from 1794 to 1799. Say's practical business experience and his knowledge of current economic policy led to his appointment in 1799 to the Tribunat, where he served on the finance committee. It was in this context that the idea of a Treatise on Political Economy was hatched, and the first of six editions appeared in 1803. Say's Treatise even came to the attention of the First Consul, Napoleon, who, over dinner with Say, suggested that a new edition should be published that would more explicitly support the government's unpopular fiscal policies. Say's blunt refusal to serve the interests of Napoleon and his constant opposition to the profligate spending of the government in the finance committee led to his dismissal from the Tribunat.
The next stage of Say's career was a return to the commercial world after a stint as an editor and a politician. Say relocated his family to Auchy in Pas-de-Calais, where he set up a cotton-spinning plant using the latest machinery from England. After 8 successful years as a businessman, in which he employed between 400 and 500 people in his factory, Say sold the enterprise and returned to Paris in 1813. He was convinced that French economic policy would result in economic collapse. The continental system, which placed an embargo on British goods trying to enter the Continent, the proliferation of government licenses needed to enter business, the increasing tariffs on imported cotton, in addition to the difficulties of trading in wartime, were stifling French industry.
The publication of the second edition of the Treatise on Political Economy in 1814 once again brought Say to the attention of the government. At this point, he was employed to travel to England on a fact-finding mission for the purpose of discovering the secret of English economic growth and to examine the impact of the revolutionary wars on the British economy. Say also took advantage of his visit to England to make contact with British philosophical radicals and political economists such as James Mill, Jeremy Bentham, and David Ricardo. Part of his report was published in the pamphlet De l'Angleterre et des Anglais (1814), which contains a devastating critique of the economic impact of war on ordinary British working people, including the inflationary policies employed to finance the conflict.
Only after the defeat of Napoleon and the Restoration of the Bourbon monarchy was Say, then the preeminent French political economist of his day, able to obtain a position teaching economics in Paris, first at the Athénée and then at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers. The expression "political economy" was still regarded as somewhat radical and subversive; however, he was finally offered the first chair in political economy at the Collège de France. Although he was a notoriously bad lecturer, reading directly from his manuscripts, he published a considerable amount in his remaining 17 years. Numerous popular works on political economy appeared, along with several revised editions of the Treatise on Political Economy, a series of polemical letters written to Thomas Malthus, and a lengthy and unjustly neglected Cours complet d'économie politique pratique in 1828–1829.
Forget, Evelyn. "Jean-Baptiste Say and Adam Smith: An Essay in the Transmission of Ideas." Canadian Journal of Economics 26 no. 1 (1993): 121–133.
Hart, David M. Class Analysis, Slavery and the Industrialist Theory of History in French Liberal Thought, 1814–1830: The Radical Liberalism of Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, King's College, Cambridge, 1994.
Say, Jean-Baptise. Cours complet d'économie politique pratique; ouvrage destiné à mettre sous les yeux des hommes d'état, des propriétaires fonciers et les capitalistes, des savans, des agriculteurs, des manufacturiers, des négocians, et en général de tous les citoyens, l'économie des sociétés. 6 vols. Paris: Rapilly, 1828–1829.
———. Oeuvres diverses contenant: Catéchisme d'économie politique, fragments et opuscules inédits, correspondance générale, Olbie, Petit Volume, Mélanges de morale et de litérature' précédées d'une Notice historique sur la vie et les travaux de l'auteur, Avec des notes par Ch. Comte, E. Daire et Horace Say. Paris: Guillaumin, 1848.
———. Traité d'économie politique, ou simple exposition de la manière dont se forment, se distribuent et se consomment les richesses. Paris: Deterville, 1803.
———. A Treatise on Political Economy; or the Production, Distribution, and Consumption of Wealth. C. R. Princep, trans. Philadelphia: Grigg and Elliott, 1832.
Sowell, Thomas. Say's Law: An Historical Introduction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972.
Weinburg, Mark. "The Social Analysis of Three Early 19th Century French Liberals: Say, Comte, and Dunoyer." Journal of Libertarian Studies 2 no. 1 (1978): 45–63.
Antoine-Louis-Claude Destutt de Tracy was an economist and a political theorist. Destutt de Tracy was a philosophe and one of the founders in the 1790s of the classical liberal republican group known as the Idéologues, which included Condorcet, Constant, Say, and Madame de Staël. He was active in politics under several regimes spanning the Revolution and the Restoration, and he was an influential author during his lifetime. When the Estates-General were called to meet in 1789, although a member of an aristocratic family that had been ennobled twice (hence his name), he joined the Third Estate and renounced his title. He was later elected to the Constituent Assembly and served in the army under the Marquis de Lafayette in 1792. During the Terror, he was imprisoned and escaped execution only because Maximilien Robespierre beat him to the scaffold. It was during his period of imprisonment that he read the works of Etienne Condillac and John Locke and began working on his theory of idéologie. During the Directory, Tracy was active in educational reform, especially in creating a national system of education. His membership in the Senate during the Consulate and Empire gave him many opportunities to express his ideological opposition to Napoleon's illiberal regime, which culminated in 1814 with Tracy's call for the removal of the Emperor. He was rewarded later that year with the restoration of his noble title by Louis XVIII. Nevertheless, he continued to support the liberal opposition during the restoration of Louis XVIII and Charles X. Although Tracy was active in bringing to power a more liberal, constitutional monarchy during the July Revolution of 1830, he quickly became disillusioned with the results.
Tracy coined the term ideology shortly after his appointment to the Institut National in 1796 to refer to his "science of ideas," which attempted to create a secure foundation for all the moral and political sciences by closely examining our sensations and ideas as these interacted with our physical environment. His deductive methodology for the social sciences was to have much in common with that of the Austrian School of Economics, which emerged after 1870. For Tracy, ideology referred to a liberal social and economic philosophy that provided the basis for a strong defense of private property, individual liberty, the free market, and constitutional limits to the power of the state, preferably a republic modeled on that of the United States. For Napoleon, ideology was a term of abuse that he directed against his liberal opponents in the Institut National. It was this negative sense of the term that Marx had in mind in his writings on ideology. (He called Tracy a fischblütige Bourgeoisdoktrinär—a fish-blooded bourgeois doctrinaire.)
The impact of Tracy's political and economic ideas was considerable. His Commentary and Review of Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws (1811) was much admired by Thomas Jefferson, who translated it and had it published in America at a time when a French edition was impossible due to Napoleon's censorship. In the Commentary, Tracy criticized Montesquieu's defense of monarchy and supported an American-style republic that operated in the context of an economic order based on free markets. Tracy's multivolume work, Elements of Ideology (1801–1815), is his magnum opus, the fourth volume of which appeared in 1815 and dealt with political economy. This volume also was translated and published by Jefferson in 1817. The whole work was quickly translated into the major European languages and influenced a new generation of Italian, Spanish, and Russian liberals who were involved in revolutionary activity in the early 1820s—the Carbonari in France and Italy and the Decembrists in Russia. One of Tracy's most significant economic insights was that "society is purely and solely a continual series of exchanges," and his broader social theory is based on working out the implications of this notion of free exchange. Within France, Tracy's work influenced the thinking of the novelist Stendhal, the historian Augustin Thierry, and the political economists and lawyers Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer.
Destutt de Tracy, Antoine-Louis-Claude. A Commentary and Review of Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws. Thomas Jefferson, trans. New York: Burt Franklin, 1969 .
———. A Treatise on Political Economy. Thomas Jefferson, trans. Georgetown: Joseph Milligan, 1817. New York: A. M. Kelley, 1970.
Head, Brian. Ideology and Social Science: Destutt de Tracy and French Liberalism. Dordrecht: M. Nijhoff. Boston: Hingham, 1985.
Kennedy, Emmet. "'Ideology' from Destutt de Tracy to Marx." Journal of the History of Ideas 40 no. 3 (1979): 353–368.
———. A Philosophe in the Age of Revolution: Destutt de Tracy and the Origins of "Ideology." Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1978.
Klein, Daniel, "Deductive Economic Methodology in the French Enlightenment: Condillac and Destutt de Tracy." History of Political Economy 17 no. 1 (1985): 51–71.
Welch, Cheryl B. Liberty and Utility: The French Idéologues and the Transformation of Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.
Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot was an economist and a statesman. Turgot was associated with the Physiocratic school of economics and was a strong supporter of reforms during his political career. He came from an old Norman family, but seldom used his title, Baron d'Aulne. His family wanted him to become a priest, so he was educated at the college of Louisle-Grand before taking a degree in theology at the seminary of St. Sulpice and at the Sorbonne. It was while studying theology that Turgot discovered political economy and wrote his first essays on economics and history, most notably, "A Philosophical Review of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind" (1750), in which he made the first of several contributions to the development of the "four stages theory," also called the stadial theory, of economic and social development from hunter gatherers, to pastoral society and herding, to settled agriculture, and to the peace and prosperity made possible by commercial society. In 1751, he decided not to enter the priesthood, preferring instead a career in royal administration. In December 1752, he was appointed a councilor to the Paris parlement, where he served from 1753 to 1761; in 1753, he purchased the office of maître des requêtes (or legal advisor).
Turgot's early writings included a defense of religious toleration (in Lettres sur la tolérance, 1753) and several articles written for Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie in 1755 (including "Fairs and Markets" and "Foundations"). Although Turgot was forced to withdraw from any further formal association with the Encyclopedists because of his official position, he was able to maintain contact with enlightened circles through the salon of Madame Geoffrin. It was during the mid-1750s that Turgot came into contact with members of the French free-market school of economics known as the Physiocrats. He met Dr. François Quesnay and Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours and traveled extensively with Jacques-Claude-Marie Vincent de Gournay (who was then the Intendant for Commerce) on his tours of inspection around the country during 1753–1756. Gournay is reputed to have coined the expression "laissez faire, laissez passer" when asked what government economic policy should be. When Gournay died in 1759, Turgot wrote a lengthy "Eloge de Gournay" in which he defended Gournay's laissez-faire economic policies with an eloquence often lacking in other members of the Physiocratic school.
Turgot had two opportunities to put free-market reforms into practice: on a local scale when he was appointed Intendant of Limoges in 1761–1774 and on a national level when the new King Louis XVI made him Minister of Finances. During the first period, Turgot combined economic and legal reform with a concerted propaganda effort to defend his reforms in a series of memoirs, memos, and formal opinions that were disseminated both within the government and publicly. Turgot's attempted reforms were extensive and comprise a veritable "revolution in government." Had they succeeded, the French Old Regime might well have opened up its economy, overcome its internal economic problems, and thus averted the Revolution that was to break out in 1789. Turgot aimed to make taxation more equitable, spend tax revenue on roads and other infrastructure, replace forced labor obligations (such as the corvée) with paid labor, end military requisitioning of goods and transport, and make service in the local militia voluntary. Those reforms were accompanied by the publication of his most important economic works, the Mémoire sur les prêts d'argent (Memoir on Lending Money) (1770); and the Lettres sur la liberté du commerce des grains (Letters on Free Trade in Grain) (1770), which were addressed to the Abbot Terray in an effort to prevent the free trade regulations that had been promulgated in 1764 from being revoked. His major work, Réflexions sur la formation et la distribution des richesses (1766), offers one of the clearest statements of the Physiocratic position. What emerges from those works is a clearly articulated and impassioned defense of individual and economic liberty. One distinguishing feature of Turgot's approach is that he did not share his fellow Physiocrats' faith in enlightened despotism, preferring more extensive political liberty (such as constitutional limits on royal power and strong regional government), more in keeping with Montesquieu's ideas. When the American Revolution broke out, he followed events there with a keen interest.
The death of King Louis XV in May 1774 gave Turgot his second opportunity to introduce free-market reforms to France. Louis XVI appointed Turgot first as minister of the navy and then as finance minster in 1774–1776. As finance minister, Turgot attempted to reproduce on a larger scale the reforms he had pioneered at Limoges. In his Six Edicts of 1776, Turgot tried to bring an end to official corruption and military requisitioning, abolish many local monopolies, introduce reforms in banking and taxation, and return to internal free trade in grain. Unfortunately, his efforts failed due to the political inexperience of the new king, the ability of the vested interests who were being harmed by reform to organize against it, and the food riots that broke out as a consequence of a food shortage and rising prices (the famous "guerre des farines"). Turgot was forced to resign in May 1776, and France's experiment in free-market reform came to an abrupt end.
Dakin, Douglas. Turgot and the Ancien Régime in France. London: Methuen, 1939.
Faure, Edgar. La Disgrâce de Turgot. Paris: Gallimard, 1961.
Kaplan, Steven L. Bread, Politics and Political Economy in the Reign of Louis XV. 2 vols. The Hague, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1976.
Turgot, A. R. J. The Economics of R. J. Turgot. P. D. Groenewegen, trans. The Hague, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1977.
———. Ecrits économiques. Bernard Cazes, ed. Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1970.
———. Eloge de Vincent de Gournay. Henry Clark, ed. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2003 .
———. "Lettres sur la liberté du commerce des grains." Oeuvres de Turgot. 2 vols. Nouv, ed. Paris: Guillaumin, Collection des principaux economists, 1844.
———. Réflexions sur la formation et la distribution des richesses. New York: A. M. Kelley, 1979.
———. Turgot on Progress, Sociology and Economics. R. L. Meek, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.
Weulersse, Georges. La Physiocratie sous les ministères de Turgot et de Necker, 1774–1781. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1950.