Thursday, December 28, 2017


"Man was made for action" — David Hume

Agustín Mackinlay | @agumack

— James A. Harris. Hume. An Intellectual Biography. Cambridge University Press, 2015 [review] [VIDEO].

— Ryan Patrick Hanley (ed.). Adam Smith. His Life, Thought, and Legacy. Princeton University Press, 2016.

— Dennis C. Rasmussen. The Infidel and the Professor. David Hume, Adam Smith and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought. Princeton University Press, 2017.

                                                                   * * *

"The Scottish Enlightenment is now widely regarded as an intellectual golden age, the rival of Periclean Athens, Augustan Rome, and Renaissance Italy". So writes Dennis Rasmussen in the introduction of his book on the friendship between two intellectual giants: David Hume (1711-1776) and Adam Smit1727-1790). Horace Walpole declared that Scoltand was "the most accomplished nation in Europe"—and that was in 1758, before the publication of Smith's books and of Hume's final volumes of the History of Great Britain. The three books surveyed here allow us to understand the enormous impact of these two great Scottish thinkers. And although they have very different formats and a different target audience, they complement each other well.

Adam Smith: His Life, Thought, and Legacy
The most striking fact about the volume edited by Ryan Patrick Hanley is its innovative format. Instead of a dozen or so articles on different aspects of Smith's writings, the book contains no less than thirty-two short contributions that span a surprisingly wide range of topics like finance, politics, history, behavioral economics, economic development, freedom, justice, rhetoric, enlightenment studiesand even feminist ethics and corporate governance. Each article includes its own bibliographical essay, which I found especially useful. Rather than a detailed review of each section, I will concentrate on some of the aspects that I found most striking and interesting. Most of my comments are based on my reading of the Wealth of Nations, as I have read only parts of TMS, RJ and LBLR.

First, I am delighted to note the emphasis on security as a pillar of Smith's thought. Does that reflect the impact of my blog posts on the matter? (1, 2, 3). I don't rule that out, as I remember an earlier email discussion on this very topic with Nicholas Phillipson, who pens the piece on "Smith and the Scottish Enlightenment" (pp. 105-119). There are some very good quotes on the importance of security throughout the book: "Security is the first and the principal object of prudence" (TMS, p. 143). Writing on WN, Jerry Evensky concludes: "Thus in Smith's analysis security is the sine qua non of the dynamic of accumulation, investment, and growth" (p. 74). In a little known work on The History of Astronomy discussed by Craig Smith, Adam Smith states that only when "order and security" have been established can scientific endeavour flourish (p. 95).

Maria-Pia Paganelli, whom I had the pleasure to meet at the Colloque International Économie et Politique chez Ferdinando Galiani (Lyon 2015) [see], writes on "Adam Smith and the History of Economic Thought: the Case of Banking" (pp. 247-261). She does not deal with Smith's (difficult) pages on the Amsterdamse Wisselbank, the 'mother' of central banks. In the midst of the Eurozone crisis, back in 2011, I suggested that Smith's views on the Bank of England were particularly useful, as he takes note (in WN) of the contrast with France, a country without the equivalent of that money-printing institution, a central bank all but in name [see]. There is no shortage of analysis on the broad topic of Adam Smith and justice. In that regard, I particularly liked the pieces by Nicholas Wolterstorff, Chad Flanders and Lisa Hill. But what is the foundation of security and justice? I will never tire of quoting Smith's remarquable passages on what we nowadays call 'judicial independence' in LBLR [see] and WN [see].

There is no mention of these passages in the book. Yet I think they provide the key to Smith's système as a whole. Consider Lisa Hill's quote about the beneficial impact, in social terms, of high wages ("Adam Smith and Political Theory", p. 334). In Book I of WN, Smith makes it clear that high wages are a function of the low cost of capital—which depends on the security of possessions, which in turn depends on ... judicial independence! While it would be unfair not to mention other articles, I must say that I particularly liked the contributions of Michaël Biziou's on "Adam Smith and the History of Philosophy" (pp. 423-442) and of Frederik Albritton Jonsson on "Adam Smith and Enlightenment Studies" (pp. 443-458). And, as a lecturer on Finance, I was pleasantly surprised to find John Bogle —the innovator who launched the 'passive asset management' revolution— as the author of a piece on Smith and shareolder capitalism (pp. 525-541).

Hume: an Intellectual Biography
This is the most difficult, and the most rewarding, of the three books presented here. James A. Harris is Reader in the History of Philosophy at the University of St. Andrews. His book is an intellectual biography of David Hume—as such, it contains little information on Hume's life itself, unless a particular biographical episode helps to explain an idea. The book is an amazing tour de force. Skilfully guiding the reader through the chronology of Hume's publications, Mr. Harris manages to cover all aspects of Hume's thought: the theory of knowledge, history, economics, politics and religion. I can say little on the theory of knowledge. However, I will venture this: Hume may be a very relevant author for those who seek to know more about the meaning of Big Data, algorithms and Artificial Intelligence. What is Big Data if not the numerical expression of 'experience and observation' as defined by Hume? Mabye I'll come back to that point later on in the blog (I need to do more reading!).

But let me mention the parts of the book that deal with politics and history. The key elements are to be found between pages 331 to 340 and 385 to 433. Hume updates Polybius's anacyclosis —the theory that explains how mixed regimes can temporarily avoid decline— by incorporating two modern elements: on the one hand, commerce and the increasing importance of property rights (here Harrington is a key source); on the other hand, the balance of power at the international level. These pages are absolutely fascinating. Following Polybius, Hume decries the lack of authority as the key threat to stability, and as the leading cause of tyranny. However, an excess of authority is bound to suppress freedom, causing as much damage. Mr. Harris quotes Hume himself: "In all government, there is a perpetual intestine struggle, open or secret, between AUTHORITY and LIBERTY; and neither of them can ever absolutely prevail in the contest".

For Hume, defined by Mr. Harris as "the scientist of politics", two apparently contradictory ideas —absolutism and 'libertarianism'— need to be combined in order to achieve stability and prosperity. The chapters of the History dealing with the revolutions of the XVIIth century provide a brilliant illustration of this idea. In fact, I would argue that Hume's debt to Polybius is enormous, a point that requires more research. As Mr. Harris indicates several times, Hume went back periodically to his Latin and Greek sources, and Polybius features repeatedly in his essays. Hume's tremendous success as an author was due to the fact that he avoided being pinned down either as a tory or a whig historian. His deep knowledge of classical authors served him well in that regard. (Time permitting, I will write a longer review of Hume: An Intellectual Biography in coming weeks).

The Infidel and the Professor
Unlike the previous two books, The Infidel and the Professor is about a story. And that story is the friendship between David Hume (the Infidel) and Adam Smith (the Professor). Dennis C. Rasmussen, an associate professor of political science at Tufts University, takes us through the subtle points of disagreement between Hume and Smith: the advantages of the commercial society (with DH more sanguine on this point), religion, happiness and work, the drawbacks of inequality, etc. There is more material on the importance of security, especially on pages 162 and 163. (Again: did my own blog posts launch that discussion?). Yet, Smith's passage on judicial independence as the foundation of security remains unquoted. The parts on Hume's theory of knowledge and on the ill-fated encounter between Hume and Rousseau are very good.

Mr. Rasmussen devotes a great deal of attention to the brouhaha surrounding Hume's death. Again, the story is very well told—and the annex of the book is very helpful in that regard. Books like this are especially useful because most readers are naturally attracted to stories. And if the story is compelling enough —as is the case here— the reader is likely to come back for more: perhaps an intellectual biography first, and then the writings of Hume and Smith themselves. So we've come full circle. One point that I found wanting in the books reviewed here (especially the first and the third) is more analysis of the relationship between DH/AS and French philosophes (excepting poor Jean-Jacques). Both DH and AS were admirers of Montesquieu, and both nurtured deep friendships with the likes of d'Alembert, Turgot, Helvétius and d'Holbach, to name but a few. Smith himself made the journey to Geneva to meet Voltaire. Yet there is no mention of the impact of Raynal's Histoire des deux Indes on WN; and Mr. Harris appears to describe Condorcet's Esquisse as a contemporary work (it was published in 1794).

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


AM | @HDI1780

"Interest is raised by defective enforcement of contracts" — Adam Smith

Rejoice, Adam Smith fans! In a working paper just released by NBER, economist Douglas A. Irwin rightly emphasizes the key role played in the Wealth of Nations by the security of property rights [1]. That security, in turn, depends on the organization of the judiciary and on the degree to which judges are independent from the executive power. For a number of years now, I have been promoting this interpretation of Adam Smith's thought in my blogs: 1, 2, 3, 4. This is the reason why I bought this piece from NBER as soon as news of its release hit my Twitter list.

The most important contribution of the paper, at least from my perspective, is that it brings together most of Smith's statements on the importance of "a tolerable administration of justice". This is an invaluable service to those who lack access to a good academic library (and such is my condition at the present time). Thus, Mr. Irwin quotes not only from WN, but also from the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Lectures on Jurisprudence and Letters on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. Great stuff indeed!

                                                                          * * *

For all my enthusiasm about Mr. Irwin's paper, I cannot help to conlcude that a major point about the link between the administration of justice and the wealth of nations has been left out of the piece. I am referring to what I have dubbed the "institutional theory of credit markets". As readers of Histoire des deux Indes know, Smith saw a causal relationship between the quality of governance —as epitomized by a sound judiciary— and the supply of credit. I will not say more since I will be making a presentation on this very topic at the Colloque Économie et Politique chez Ferdinando Galiani, Institut des Sciences de l'Homme, Lyon (France), January 29, 2015 [2].

However, this brings up my second major problem with the paper as it stands. There is not a single reference to Smith's french sources. How is that possible? This omission is all the more glaring since his views on the importance of judicial independence are derived precisely from ... Montesquieu. In WN.i.9 Smith acknowledges Montesquieu's views on the link between usury and the lack of personal security. A short sentence on top of that key paragraph neatly summarizes Smith's institutional theory of credit markets:  

Interest is raised by defective enforcement of contracts.

As I have demostrated in my book on Histoire des deux Indes, Smith is even more indebted to Raynal and Diderot, although he isn't quite as sincere on this point [3]. Indeed, Smith's important remark about justice and high interest rates in Bengal comes straight from the first edition of HDI, which he bought in London in 1773. All in all, Mr. Irwin's paper is an extremely useful addition to the study of the Adam Smith's economic and political ideas. Mais il faut savoir parler français!

[1] Douglas A. Irwin: "Adam Smith's 'Tolerable Administration of Justice' and the Wealth of Nations", Working Paper 20636, National Bureau of Economic Research, October 2014.

[2] Agustin Mackinlay: "Ferdinando Galiani and the 'Institutional Theory of Credit Markets'", Colloque Économie et Politique chez Ferdinando Galiani, forthcoming.

[3] Agustin Mackinlay. La Historia de las dos Indias. El 'best seller' que cambió el mundo. Barcelona, 2013.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


« sécurité de ses droits...» — Diderot

AM | @HDI178

Avons-nous oublié que la sécurité personnelle était le principal souci des philosophes dans les années 1770s? J'ai déjà fait référence à Raynal [voir] et à Smith [voir]. Voici quelques phrases de Diderot à ce sujet.

* * *

. « La première condition d'une société n'est pas d'être riche, mais c'est d'être en sûreté. » Apologie de Galiani, p. 135 (*).

.  « Quel singulier effet de la liberté et de la sécurité ! » Mélanges pour Catherine II, p. 348.

. « Un bonheur constant qui tient à la liberté, à la sûreté des propriétés...» Mélanges pour Catherine II, p. 349.

. «...mes amis, qui ne voyaient plus de sûreté à Paris pour moi. » Mélanges pour Catherine II, p. 349.

. « Il faut remplacer ces moyens [la honte et la crainte du blâme] par la liberté et la sûreté des personnes et des propriétés, par le bonheur...» Nakaz 36, p. 528.

. « Heureux le moment où les souverains sentiront que le bonheur de leurs sujets et leur sécurité, c'est une même chose. » Nakaz 44, p. 530.

. « Pourquoi le législateur a-t-il prescrit cet enchaînement d'actes successifs (la procédure)? Pour la sûreté et la liberté du citoyen. » Nakaz 46 p. 532

. « enfin il faut que le prêteur ait ses sûretés, et que l'intérêt de la somme prêtée soit d'autant plus grand que les sûretés sont moindres. » Nakaz 67, p. 541.

. « Il faut d'abord que la société soit heureuse ; et elle le sera si la liberté et la propriété sont assurées » ... Nakaz 73, p. 544.

. « ...pour faire des avances en sûreté...» Nakaz 73, p. 544.

. « ...s'il a quelque propriété, jusqu'à quel point en est-il assuré? » HDI.1780, xvii.1.

. de puissance, de force, de sûreté, de bonheur...» HDI.1780, xiii.1 [voir].

. « ...l'objet important est de réunir la sûreté & les richesses. » HDI.1780, vi.1 [voir].

. « ... le pouvoir arbitraire est incompatible avec la confiance, parce qu'il détruit toute sûreté. » HDI.1780, v.4 [voir].

. « La sécurité avec laquelle on est toujours assez riche ; la sécurité sans laquelle on ne l'est jamais assez ». HDI.1780, xii.14 [voir].

. « ...vous ne laissez pas à votre esclave celle de sa personne ; ceux qui détruisent la sûreté ... » HDI.1780, xi.24 [voir].

 . « ...l'invention des  arts qui fait la douceur de la vie, l'institution des loix qui en fait la sécurité. », JAPONOIS (Philosophie des) [voir].

. « Lorsqu'on fait une condition publique et avouée de la délation, où est le maître en sûreté contre son esclave, le grand en sûreté contre son souverain ? » Essai sur les règnes de Claude et de Néron [voir].

. « la vie des personnes n'est plus en sûreté, et il n'y a plus de fortune qu'on ne puisse envahir. » Essai sur les règnes de Claude et de Néron [voir].

. « Faites ce que je vous dis, parce qu'il y va de votre sûreté,de votre liberté et de votre bonheur. Essai sur les règnes de Claude et de Néron [voir].

(*) Les citations de l'Apologie, Mémoires pour Catherine II et Observations sur le Nakaz proviennent de Laurent Versini (ed.) Œuvres, Tome III, Politique. Paris: Robert Laffont, 1995. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


"...sûrs de vos possessions... — D'Holbach

AM | @HDI1780

Le temps presse et je n'ai guère que quelques minutes pour écrire ce billet. Je suis en plein débat avec des collègues argentins au sujet du ... libéralisme. La version du libéralisme qui s'est généralement imposée —notamment dans les manuels d'économie— est celle du XIXe siècle anglais. Mais il y a un problème: cette version sous-entend une parfaite sécurité personnelle. Ce n'est évidemment pas le cas aujourd'hui en Argentine, au Venezuela, au Cambodge, etc. Et ce n'était pas non plus le cas au XVIIIe siècle, en particulier hors de l'Angleterre.

                                                 * * *

Voilà pourquoi les économistes qui soutiennent la "théorie institutionnelle du crédit" ne sont pas anglais: Montesquieu, Galiani, Raynal-Diderot, Smith, Necker. Ils le savent très bien—point de liberté sans sécurité. Voici en deux mots l'idée de ce billet: Adam Smith et Wilhelm von Humboldt (entre autres) on tous les deux puisé leurs idées sur l'importance de la sécurité personnelle dans les pages du baron d'Holbach—en particulier dans La politique naturelle, ou discours sur les vrais principes du gouvernement. Londres: 1773 (1, 2). Je pense revenir à ce sujet avec plus de détails. En attendant, voici un échantillon.

- Smith: "... when they are secure of enjoying the fruits of their industry, [individuals] naturally exert it to better their condition" (WN, iii.3). D'Holbach: "...c'est par son industrie, et surtout par la culture ... Mais ce n'est que dans une nation libre que se trouvent la sécurité, le courage, l'aisance, l'activité qui les font naître" (Pol. nat., vi.23).

- Humboldt. Ideen zu einem Versuch, die Grenzen der Wirksamkeit des Staats zu bestimmen (1792) [voir]; "...ob der Staat allein Sicherheit oder überhaupt das ganze physische und moralische Wohl der Nation beabsichten müsse". D'Holbach: "Après avoir montré les limites naturelles de l'autorité des souverains... Elle lui doit la sûreté... (Pol.nat., i.4; iv.1) (*).

(*) Voir au sujet de Wilhelm von Humboldt et d'Holbach: "Wilhelm von Humboldt in Paris, 1799", Mai 2013.

Monday, October 6, 2014


AM | @HDI1780

"... conserver l'harmonie dans un état." — Élie Luzac

Élie Lucac (1723-1796) was a tremendously prolific writer and editor. As a young editor, he courted controversy by publishing La Mettrie's L'homme machine in 1748. The scandal was such that the author was forced to flee Holland. According to Ann Thomson, Luzac later claimed that he saved the Frenchman's life by escorting him safely out of the country: "Sans moi il eut monté sur l'Echafaut comme un miserable bandit" [see]. But that wasn't the end of Luzac's travails. Jonathan Israel explains:

Luzac opposed La Mettrie's materialist views but believed that is was right to publish and refute them. The Walloon Church Consistory at Leiden disagreed and instigated vigorous moves against him. Luzac published his L'Homme plus que machine (1748), to defend himself against charges that he was propagating materialism, and also quarreled with La Mettrie over a money matter ... he found it prudent to move to Germany for two years until the affair blew over [1].

As the century progressed, Luzac became increasingly wary of philosophes and their calls for broad-based political reform and even revolution. He was a staunch Orangist; not surprisingly, he rejected Raynal's many-folded criticism of the Stadhouder. In his Lettres sur les dangers de changer la constitution primitive d'un gouvernement public (1792), Luzac warns against the self-serving tempation, common to all revolutionaries, to denigrate the previous regime as the epitome of barbarism: "Il n'y a que peu d'années, que votre abbé Raynal parla de votre République [les Provinces Unies] à peu près comme M. MILLOT parle d'Athènes. A l'en croire, on diroit, que du tems de PHILIPPE II Roi d'Espagne, vos Ancêtres étoient à peu près sauvages" [see]. There is continuity in history!

* * *

In his excellent essay on Luzac, E. H. Kossmann describes the Dutchman's favorable view of the mixed constitution: "Natuurlijk heeft Luzac als goede conservatief grote waardering voor de zogenaamde gemengde staatsvorm waarin monarchie, aristocratie en democratie elk een plaatsje vinden" [2]. But what looks strikingly modern in Luzac's thought, says Mr. Kossmann, is his description of the mixed consitution as the only regime that creates ... harmony. A mixed constitution may be needed as a checks-and-balances mechanism that minimizes the damage created by diverging passions and interests, but it should be more than that: "Nous devons regarder comme le premier de nos devoirs de conserver l'harmonie dans un état".

Perhaps Luzac feared the increasing popularity, especially among young people, of rousseauist thought and its wildly seductive views about bonté naturelle de l'homme—which seemingly destroyed the case for political checks and balances. (Jovellanos would face the same problem in Spain in 1808-1811, and John Adams was about to go through a similar ordeal in the United States). This is why he yearned for an optimistic explanation of mixed government. Appropiately enough, E. H. Kossmann closes his essay by praising Élie Luzac's "verlichte conservatisme" and his "optimistische visie op de wereld".

[1] Jonathan Israel. The Dutch Republic. Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477-1806. Oxford University Press, 195, p. 1063.

[2] E. H. Kossmann: "Verlicht conservatisme: over Elie Luzac", in Geschiedenis is als een olifant. Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 2005, pp. 191-205.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014


AM | @HDI1780

"... percect security to the inhabitants ..." — Adam Smith

Most people think of Adam Smith as "the archetypal free-marketeer". As The Economist recently pointed out, this is one of the most persistent clichés in the history of economic thought. In fact, Smith is more concerned about the need for personal security than about the preeminence of free markets per se. In his world, the key to prosperity is "to make every individual feel himself perfectly secure in the possession of every right that belongs to him" (WN, v.1). This is why the words secure and security pop up so many times in the Wealth of Nations—a trait that was shared with Histoire des deux Indes [see].

* * *

In the "Digression on the corn trade" (WN, iv.5), Smith praises "That security which the laws in Great Britain give to every man that he shall enjoy the fruits of his own labour [...] and this security was perfected by the [1688] revolution [...] with freedom and security [...] In Britain industry is perfectly secure". Other countries only compound their problems when their bad economic policies are not "counter-balanced by the general liberty and security of the people [...] Industry is there neither free nor secure".

In his comparison of land property regimes across Europe, Smith again praises "the security of the farmer" and "the security of the tenant", which is second to none in England (Scotland is not mentioned). In other parts of Europe, "the term of their security" is limited and "the farmer is less secure" (WN, iii.2). His conclusion leaves no doubt about the primacy of security concerns over the advantages of free markets: "Those laws and customs so favourable to the yeomanry, have perhaps contributed more to the present grandeur of England, than all their boasted regulations of commerce taken together". Thus industry and security go hand in hand: "... when they are secure of enjoying the fruits of their industry, [individuals] naturally exert it to better their condition" (WN, iii.3).

According to Smith, the better condition of North American colonists, compared to those of French, Spanish and Portuguese colonies, is the natural result of "the perfect security" that the English government gave to "the inhabitants of so very distant a province" (WN, iv.7). But what are the factors that determine that perfect security? Smith deals with this issue towards the end of Wealth of Nations. His answer is disarmingly simple: judicial independence is the key to good government and security. Here's what I deem the most important passage of the entire book:

When the judicial is united to the executive power, it is scarce possible that justice should not frequently be sacrified to, what is vulgarly called, politics. The persons entrusted with the great interests of the state may, even without any corrupt views, sometimes imagine it necessary to sacrifice to those interests the rights of a private man. But upon the impartial administration of justice depends the liberty of every individual, the sense which he has of his own security. In order to make every individual feel himself perfectly secure in the possession of every right which belongs to him, it is not only necessary that the judicial should be separated from the executive power, but that it should be rendered as much as possible independent from that power (v.1).

Unsurprisingly, an independent judiciary leads to an increasing supply of credit. In Britain, government bonds are highly valued: "The security which [the government] grants to to the original creditor, is made transferable to any other creditor, and from the universal confidence in the justice of the state, generally sells in the market for more than was originally paid for" (WN, v.3) [1]. Thus, "more regular returns might be expected" in countries with sound judiciaries (WN, i.9). Smith is anticipating a now widely accepted view in finance: secure cash-flows command lower discount rates.

Brilliant stuff indeed.

[1] This idea comes straight from the first edition of Histoire des deux Indes, a book that Smith bought in London in 1773: "Les citoyens accoutumés à regarder la nation comme un corps permanent & indépendant, l'acceptent [le papier-monnaie] d'autant plus volontiers pour caution, qu'ils ont rarement une connoissance exacte de ses facultés, & qu'ils ont de sa justice une idée favorable, fondée ordinairement sur l'expérience. Avec ce préjugé, le crédit y est souvent porté au-delà des ressources & des sûretés. L'Angleterre en est la preuve, Il n'en est pas ainsi dans les monarchies absolues, dans celles surtout qui ont souvent violé leurs engagements" (HDI 1773, iv, p. 76) [see].

Sunday, September 21, 2014


AM | @HDI1780

"Le grand moment de l'idée" — Marcel Gauchet

I am an avowed fan of political checks and balances and the related notions of mixed government, balanced government and the separation of powers. In 1787, just as the political temperature was rising to dangerous levels in North America, the Netherlands and France, John Adams famously described the English constitution as...

...the most stupendious fabric of human invention. And that the Americans ought to be applauded instead of censured, for imitating it as far as they have done. Not the formation of languages, not the whole art of navigation and ship-building does more honour to the human understanding than this system of government [1].

In La Révolution des pouvoirs, Marcel Gauchet devotes an entire chapter to the stunning comeback of the idea of political équilibre after Thermidor [2]. But students of the period are handicapped by the lack of digitized material. For example, Google Books does not have a digitized version of the book published in the spring of 1795 by Pierre-Bernard Lamare (or La Mare) under the imposing title L'Équipondérateur, ou une seule manière d'organiser un gouvernement libre (Paris: An III). I can't find it in Gallica either. Until we get that version, many of us will have to rely on Mr. Gauchet's extremely useful remarks and quotes.

* * *

There is some debate about the role of Lamare as the translator of Adams's Defence, published by Buisson in 1792 in two volumes as Défense des constitutions américaines ou De la nécessité d'une balance dans les pouvoirs d'un gouvernement libre (1, 2). According to Dictionnaire historique, critique et bibliographique (1810), L'Équipondérateur "fut envoyé dans tous les départements par ordre du gouvernement" [see]. The book contains a sharp critique of the French constitutions of 1791 and 1793:

Aucun de ces plans ne représente une sage combinaison des principaux pouvoirs de gouvernement ; je n'y vois aucune de ces balances, limitations ou oppositions connues et admirées dans d'autres constitutions et dont l'effet est de préserver une nation de toutes dispositions arbitraires de la part de ceux qui la gouvernent, de toute violation de ses droits tant individuels que politiques et de lui assurer, quoi qu'il puisse arriver, qu'il ne sera fait pour elle que des lois justes et que ces lois seront exécutées impartialement. En un mot, aucune de ces constitutions n'est équilibrée, et voilà pourquoi je les blâme toutes.

In his discussion of the relevance or irrelevance of mixed government in the age of revolutions, Mr. Gauchet quotes Gordon Wood's critique of John Adams. That critique was effectively answered by C. Bradley Thompson in his book John Adams & the Spirit of Liberty (University Press of Kansas, 1998). But here's the point I want to make about L'Équipondérateur. Lamare understood the importance of a single executive (l'unité du magistrat); but because public opinion was so strongly opposed to this idea, he settled for an executive made up of two consuls, "titre éclatant, imposant et républicain."

Even writers who were courageous enough to defend the notion of political balance, like Pierre-Bernard Lamare, bumped against the wall of a strong and unified executive power. That would prove to be the fatal weakness of the Constitution of 1795. Two conclusions come to mind. On the one hand, we need to know more about Lamare and his fellow supporters of équilibre, a group that has been excluded from the canons of historical scholarship. On the other hand, we would do well to reconsider the meaning of Raynal's intervention at Assemblée Nationale in May 1791; far from representing a despicable surrender of the principles defended by philosophes (the consensus view), it was a noble and courageous affirmation of ... good government.

[1] John Adams. A Defence of the Constitutions of the United States, Vol. 1, letter xx: "England".

[2] Marcel Gauchet. La Révolution des pouvoirs. La souveraineté, le peuple et la représentation 1789-1799. Paris: Gallimard, 1995.

Monday, September 15, 2014


AM | @HDI1780

"Il eut de bonne heure le goût de la lecture" — Saint-Lambert

J'ai déjà eu l'occasion de montrer l'influence de Claude-Adrien Helvétius sur la composition de l'Histoire des deux Indes (1, 2, 3, 4) et sur les écrits de Mariano Moreno au Río de la Plata. Je suis persuadé que Moreno lit l'édition publiée chez Servière à Paris en 1795, édition "Corrigée & augmentée sur les Manuscrits de l'Auteur, avec sa Vie & son Portrait". À chaque recherche sur la Gazeta de Buenos-Ayres, GoogleBooks me renvoie à cette édition-là. (J'en possède moi-même un exemplaire, acheté, soit-dit en passant, à Buenos Aires). 

* * *

La date est importante: depuis la fin de l'année 1792 jusqu'à la mort de Robespierre, Helvétius est considéré persona non grata à Paris. Le 5 décembre 1792, au Club des Jacobins, "les bustes de Mirabeau et d'Helvétius [sont] jetés bas de leurs socles et brisés". Le premier volume contient les 114 pages d'un "Essai sur la vie et les ouvrages d'Helvétius" rédigé par Saint-Lambert, même si celui-ci n'est pas nommé. Saint-Lambert, d'ailleurs, ne fait mention que des trois principaux écrits d'Helvétius: De l'esprit, De l'homme et le Poème du Bonheur.

À remarquer l'intense concurrence entre les éditeurs: Didot publie, en même temps, les Œuvres complètes d'Helvétius en 6 tomes, avec le même "Essai" de Saint-Lambert en guise d'introduction générale. Décidemment, on peut respirer plus librement en 1795! Voici les cinq volumes de l'édition de Servière:

  • Œuvres complettes d’Helvétius, Tome 1. Paris: Servière, 1795 [voir]. Contient un "Essai sur la vie et les ouvrages d'Helvétius" et les Discours I et II de De l'esprit


  • Œuvres complettes d’Helvétius, Tome 2. Paris: Servière, 1795 [voir]. Contient les Discours III et IV de De l'esprit.


  • Œuvres complettes d’Helvétius, Tome 3. Paris: Servière, 1795 [voir]. Contient les Sections I à V de De l'homme.


  • Œuvres complettes d’Helvétius, Tome 4. Paris: Servière, 1795 [voir]. Contient les Sections VI à X de De l'homme, ainsi que la "Récapitulation" et la "Conclusion générale" de l'ouvrage.


  • Œuvres complettes d’Helvétius, Tome 5. Paris: Servière, 1795 [voir]. Contient "Le Bonheur, poëme allégorique", ainsi que des lettres à Voltaire et Montesquieu. Autres textes: "Examen de critiques du livre intitulé De l'esprit", "Les progrès de la raison dans la recherche du vrai".


Saturday, September 13, 2014


AM | @HDI1780

"...both more and less radical..." — Eric Nelson

I vividly remember a conversation, in a Parisian café in the autumn of 2009, about the reception of Tom Paine's Common Sense in Río de la Plata circa 1810. "I am convinced", I told Gabriel Entín, now at Colegio de México, "that Mariano Moreno introduced Paine to porteño readers". But now I can prove it! Moreno translated word by word a large chunk of the French version of Common Sense published by Guillaume-Thomas Raynal in Histoire des deux Indes, xviii.44 (1780). Before I present that translation of a translation, I would like to mention a recent study about Paine, according to which the English-American political activist introduced "a seventeenth-century Hebraizing tradition of republican political theory, one grounded in the conviction that it is idolatrous to assign any human being the title and dignity of a king" (*).

This is interesting, because Moreno was himself a doctor in canon law, a fact that sheds some light into his translation of "Apostrophe aux Hottentots" (HDI 1780, ii.18), a text that relies heavily on Diderot's reading of 1 Samuel 8 [see]. In my reconstruction of Moreno's Cuaderno de Lecturas, I have found proof that the leader of the Río de la Plata revolution also knew Condorcet's « Réponse de Th. Paine à quatre questions, sur les pouvoirs législatif et exécutif, traduit sur le manuscrit » (La Chronique du mois ou les Cahiers patriotiques, July 1792, pp. 15-16) and Paine's Remarques sur les erreurs de l’histoire philosophique de Mr Guillaume Thomas Raynal, par rapport aux affaires de l’Amérique septentrionale, &c.

                                                                  * * *

Finally, let us remember that David Curtis DeForest, the Connecticut merchant who was expelled from Buenos Aires just before de May 1810 revolution, warmly praised Moreno's Representación de los hacendados (1809) as "the Common Sense" of Río de la Plata.

Here's the translation and the text from HDI:

- Mariano Moreno: “Carta escrita de Potosí á el Presidente de la Junta” (Aristogiton), Gazeta de Buenos-Ayres No. 14, 6 September 1810, p. 220 (358) (see).

Pocas naciones han tomado la oportunidad favorable de formar un gobierno. Si esta se escapa no vuelve jamas, y el castigo es durante muchos siglos, la anarquia, ó la esclavitud. Amparaos del caso único que se os presenta. Está en vuestro poder el hacer la mas bella constitucion que haya en el mundo. Vais á decidir en este momento, no de la suerte de una ciudad, ó de una Provincia, sino de un continente inmenso. Lo presente resolverá el problema de lo futuro, y transcursando muchos centenares de años el sol que alumbra el universo alumbrará vuestra gloria, ó vuestro oprobio. ¿O esperareris que en medio de estas convulsiones seamos la presa de un conquistador, y que la esperanza de la mayor parte del globo se destruya? Imaginaos por un momento que todas las generaciones venideras tienen en este momento puestos los ojos, y que os piden su salud. En este crítico período vais á fixar su destino. Si las engañais, algun dia ellas se pasearán con sus cadenas sobre vuestros sepulcros, y os cargarán de imprecaciones.

- Guillaume-Thomas Raynal. Histoire philosophique et politique des Établissemens et du Commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes, xviii.44. Genève: Pellet, 1780, p. 265 (see).

Peu de nations ont saisi le moment favorable pour se faire un gouvernement : une fois échappé, ce moment ne revient plus; & l’on en est puni pendant des siècles par l’anarchie ou l’esclavage. Emparons-nous d’un moment unique pour nous. Il est en notre pouvoir de former la plus belle constitution qu’il y ait jamais eue parmi les hommes. Nous allons, dans ce moment, décider du sort d’une race d’hommes plus nombreuse peut-être que tous les peuples de l’Europe ensemble. [Le présent va décider d’un long avenir; & plusieurs centaines d’années après que nous ne serons plus, le soleil, en éclairant cet hémisphère, éclairera ou notre honte ou notre gloire.] Attendrons-nous que nous soyons la proie d’un conquérant, & que l’espérance de l’univers soit détruite? Imaginons-nous que toutes les générations du monde à venir ont dans ce moment les yeux fixés sur nous, & nous demandent la liberté. Nous allons fixer leur destin. Si nous les trahissons, un jour elles se promeneront avec leurs fers sur nos tombeaux & les chargeront peut-être d’imprécations.

(*) Eric Nelson: "Hebraism and the Republican Turn of 1776: A Contemporary Account of the Debate over Common Sense", William & Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 70, no. 4 October 2013.

Thursday, September 11, 2014


AM | @HDI1780

"...a dark page in our records" — Winston S. Churchill

Three hundred years ago today, the city of Barcelona surrendered to the Spanish forces under the command of the Duke of Berwick. Following the Treaty of Utrecht and its clause forbidding the union of the crowns of France and Spain (1713), Catalonia had lost any strategic relevance in the eyes of the Anglo-Dutch. Peace negotiations between France and England had started, albeit secretely, in 1711. Queen Anne was keen to insist that any agreement should preserve to the Catalans "the full Enjoyment of their just and ancient Liberties". But King Philip V of Spain sternly opposed any concessions on that front. Finally, Secretary of State Bolingbroke, eager for peace at any cost, surrendered to the pretensions of the Bourbons:

Bolingbroke accepted the formula suggested to him by the plenipotentiary Marquess of Monteleón, which is contained in Article XIII of the Peace and Friendship Treaty between Spain and Great Britain (27 March 1713). The text states, cynically, that the Catalans were granted “all the privileges which the inhabitants of both Castiles [...] have and enjoy,” which was tantamount to saying that it suppressed the freedom of Catalonia. The Count of La Corzana, representing the emperor Charles VI, denounced the abandonment of the Catalans in exchange for the “Opium from Peru and Potosí that has currently put the English ministry to sleep”.

It was of little use that the Catalan ambassador Pau Ignaci de Dalmases, accompanied by the Earl of Peterboroug, was received by Queen Anne on June 1713, and sought her support, reminding her that the Catalans had become involved in the war at the request of the British and that “because this country is so free and loves freedom it should protect another country that in view of its prerogatives could be called free [because] the laws, privileges and freedoms are in all things similar and almost equal to those enjoyed in England” [1].

* * *

In his monumental biography of the Duke of Marlborough, Winston S. Churchill praises "Bolingbroke's statecraft" and his determination to put an end to the war. A few paragraphs later, however, he describes the apalling scenes that followed the capitulation of Barcelona, and the enduring shame that fell upon the British:

...the Catalans, who had been called into the field by the Allies, and particularly by England, and who had adhered with admirable tenacity to Charles III, were delivered over under polite diplomatic phrases to the vengeance of the victorious party in Spain [...] The fate of the Catalans, abandoned, slaughtered, and oppressed, made a dark page in our records, and even to-day plays its part in the internal affairs of Spain [2].

Among the many pamphlets published in England during these troubled years, Catalans are particularly fond of a 98 page-long anonymous text published in 1714 under the title The Deplorable HISTORY of the Catalans, from their first engaging in the WAR, to the Time of their REDUCTION. With the Motives, Declarations, and Engagements, on which they first took Arms. This is the account of September 11, 1714:

The Storm was undertaken the 11th of September, N. S., and was very Bloody and Obstinate. The Besieged disputed every Inch of Ground [...] The Negotiation was terminated the 12th in the Evening upon the following Conditions: That they should be assured of their Lives; that the City should not be plundered; that they should be left to the Discretion of the King of Spain, which they consented to with great Reluctance [...] How well they have kept the Faith of this Treaty, many of these miserable People have dearly experienced already; they were immediately stript and disarmed, forced to redeem themselves from Plunder by large Sums, the Laws of Castile publickly declared, and many of the Chielf of them distributed into several Goals (sic).

[1] Joaquin Albareda: "Catalonia background information", Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia, October 2013.

[2]  Winston S. Churchill. Marlborough. His Life and Times, Book two [1936]. University of Chicago Press, 2002, pp. 992-996.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


AM | @HDI1780

- David Bromwich. The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke. From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence. Harvard University Press, 2014. [HUP]

This is the first volume of a new biography of Edmund Burke (1, 2). I saw it a Alibri (@LibreriaAlibri) in Barcelona. It looks interesting, not least because the author appears to focus more on the progressive than on the conservative side of Burke's thought. (Which reminds me of Rudolf Boon's sympathetic portrait Een progressieve conservatief. Edmund Burke als tijgenoot. Aspect, 2004). Says Bromwich: "I like to think of Burke as a conservationist of morals, rather than a conservative". From the editors:

This intellectual biography examines the first three decades of Burke’s professional life. His protest against the cruelties of English society and his criticism of all unchecked power laid the groundwork for his later attacks on abuses of government in India, Ireland, and France. Bromwich allows us to see the youthful skeptic, wary of a social contract based on “nature”; the theorist of love and fear in relation to “the sublime and beautiful”; the advocate of civil liberty, even in the face of civil disorder; the architect of economic reform; and the agitator for peace with America.

- Leo Damrosch. Jonathan Swift. His Life and His World. Yale University Press, 2013 [YUP]. Laura Collins-Hughes: "Jonathan Swift by Leo Damrosh", Boston Globe, January 18, 2014. [VIDEO].

In 1724, in the fourth letter of "M. B. Drapier" against plans to introduce a new currency managed from London, Jonathan Swift, Anglican dean of St. Patricks' Cathedral in Dublin, writes: "For, in reason, all government without the consent of the governed, is the very definition of slavery [...] The king is limited by law" (*). Leo Damrosch, Ernest Bernbaum Research Professor of Literature at Harvard University, is out with a new biography of Swift. From the editors:

In this deeply researched biography, Leo Damrosch draws on discoveries made over the past thirty years to tell the story of Swift’s life anew. Probing holes in the existing evidence, he takes seriously some daring speculations about Swift’s parentage, love life, and various personal relationships and shows how Swift’s public version of his life—the one accepted until recently—was deliberately misleading.

(*) The Works of Jonathan Swift, with Notes by Walter Scott, Vol. VII. Edimburgh, 1814.

- Vincent Azoulay. Les Tyrannicides d'Athènes. Vie et mort de deux statues. Seuil, 2014 [ver].

Es la historia de Harmodius y Aristogiton (Ἁρμόδιος/ Ἀριστογείτων), asesinos del tirano ateniense Hipparchus. Es una historia interesante, con política, celos y sexo (eran homosexuales). Pude comprobar, este año, que el "Antonio Aristhogiton" de la Gazeta de Buenos-Ayres de agosto de 1810 es en realidad Mariano Moreno [ver]. Según Azoulay, fue a partir del siglo XVIII, con la Histoire Universelle de Charles Rollin y con los Viajes del joven Anarcharsis de Jean-Jacques Barthélémy, que la historia de Harmodius y Aristogiton renace en Occidente. Justamente, se trata de autores leídos de cerca por Moreno.


Tuesday, September 2, 2014


AM | @HDI1780

"Un despote ne doit pas obtenir du crédit" — Diderot

In an influential paper, François Velde and David Weir painstakingly calculated the internal rate of return on several French government (or quasi-government) bonds between 1746 and 1793 (*). They took securities prices mostly from Gazette de France. As a benchmark for a "safe asset" that would serve as a proxy for French sovereign risk, they chose the yield on billet d'emprunt d'octobre, also known as billet d'emprunt or Emprunt d'octobre.

* * *

Here are the results, with annual yields expressed as the are average monthly estimates of the internal rate of return:

1746 - 6.54%; 1747 - 6.10%; 1748 - 5.89%; 1749 - 5.42%; 1750 - 4.82%; 1751 - 4.79%; 1752 - 4.59%; 1753 - 4.57%; 1754 - 4.18%; 1755 - 4.70%; 1756 - 5.04%; 1757 - 5.10%; 1758 - 5.19%; 1759 - 5.42%; 1760 - 6.78%; 1761 - 6.87; 1762 - 6.93%; 1763 - 5.95%; 1764 - 5.67%; 1765 - 5.93%; 1766 - 6.30%; 1767 - 6.75%; 1767 - 6.36%; 1768 - 7.11%; 1769 - 7.11%; 1770 - 9.52%; 1771 - 10.12%; 1772 - 9.08%; 1773 - 7.59%; 1774 - 6.75%; 1775 - 5.69%; 1776 - 5.68%; 1777 - 5.86%; 1778 - 6.15%; 1779 - 6.15%; 1780 - 5.94%; 1781 - 5.97%; 1782 - 5.90%; 1783 - 5.82%; 1784 - 5.82%; 1785 - 5.54%; 1786 - 5.50%; 1787 - 5.70%; 1788 - 6.02%; 1789 - 6.47%; 1790 - 6.34%; 1791 - 5.14%; 1792 - 5.44%; 1793 - 5.77%.

There is a sizeable downshift in yields between 1763 and 1765, no doubt reflecting the end of the Seven Years' War. But then look at the years 1770-1772, which Ferdinando Galiani saw as "un moment critique pour la France." The increase in yields shows the market reaction to the stern measures taken by Contrôleur des Finances Joseph-Marie Terray, including the forceful conversion of tontines into life annuities and the unilateral reduction of cash-flows on several types of securities. As Velde and Weir note, rates of return never went back to the 5% levels of the early 1750s—although they declined as soon as Terray and Maupeou were out of office. They rightly conclude: "Terray's partial defaults in 1770 launched rates upward". Brilliant stuff indeed!

But I also think that chancellier René-Charles de Maupeou deserves part of the blame—much more on that ... in early 2015!

(*) François R. Velde and David R. Weir: "The Financial Market and Government Debt Policy in France, 1746–1793", The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 52, No. 1, March 1992, pp. 227-255.

Sunday, January 12, 2014


AM | @HDI1780

"...interest is the barometer of the state..." — David Hume

David Hume's letter No. 65 to "Président de Montesquieu" (10 April 1749) is a particularly interesting document. It is written in French. It seems unlikely, at least to me, that Hume wrote in such perfect French — the letter must have been revised by a secretary. I'll briefly deal with some of the topics covered by the two men in that correspondance: interest rates, trade, Polybius, the notion of mixed government, judicial independence and others.

Let us deal first with interest rates:

Page 116, chapitre XVII. L'énumeration que vous faites des inconvénients des dettes publiques est fort juste. Mais n'ont-elles aucun avantage? Les marchands qui ont des capitaux dans les fonds publics ne gardent que peu d'argent dans leurs coffres pour les besoins de leur commerce; ils peuvent disposer quand il leur plaît de ces capitaux pour répondre à quelque demande que ce soit. Par conséquent, ces capitaux servent à deux fins: premièrement, à leur produire un revenu fixe : secondement, à faire aller leur commerce ; par conséquent le marchand peut soutenir le commerce avec des moindres profits sur les marchandises, ce qui est avantageux pour le commerce. En parlant de ceci à un homme qui a beaucoup de connoissances, Milord Lonsdale, il me fit remarquer un autre avantage, qui cependant me paroît plus douteux : les capitaux, dit-il, que l'on a dans les fonds publics sont dans une circulation continuelle et forment une espèce d'argent; l'abondance de l'argent diminue l'intérêt et favorise le commerce.

* * *

From a purely theoretical point of view, Hume is squarely on the side of a "real" (as opposed to a "monetary") explanation of interest rates. Yet he is aware of the fact that money also plays a role, although he confides his doubts about the precise nature of that role. This is Hume at his best: when it comes to solving complex problems, both reason and experience are to be called upon ("experience", in this case, refers to the practical knowledge provided by Lord Lonsdale). Here's F. Faure-Soulet on how Hume solved this riddle in his 1752 essays ("Of interest" and "Of public credit"):

Hume reconnaît une action à court terme de la quantité de monnaie sur le taux d'intérêt ; et c'est par l'intermédiaire d'un afflux de monnaie dû à une grande activité industrielle que le taux d'intérêt diminue. Un commerce étendu, en produisant de grands capitaux, diminue à la fois l'intérêt et le bénéfice, écrit Hume qui évite de confondre les deux termes. L'auteur montre simplement que l'abondance des profits entre les mains des gros industriels permet des prêts plus nombreux. (*)

Mr. Faure-Soulet, who reckons that "Ni les économistes des « Lumières », ni même Hume n'adoptent une conception purement réelle de l'intérêt", does not mention Hume's letter to Montesquieu. Yet it provides some valuabe insights into how his brilliant mind worked.

(*) F. Faure-Soulet. Économie politique et progrès au  « Siècle des Lumières ». Paris: Gauthier-Villars, 1964.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


AM | @HDI1780

"...pour en estre plus ferme & durable" — De la Roche Flavin

While re-reading my (not entirely satisfactory) post on contre-poids, I stumbled upon this fine book on Montesquieu. Pages 25-26 contain a very interesting quote from Bernard de la Roche Flavin, président of the Toulouse Parlement in the 1610s (*). So I went to Google Books to see if there was a digitized edition. And the answer is: yes! Ladies and gentlemen: Google Books is a revolutionary tool for historians! De la Roche Flavin's definition of mixed government in the context of the French monarchy (1621) proves that the notion of checks and balances is not necessarily a '100% anglo-saxon idea':

Mais le Royaume & Monarchie de France est reglee & policee, & est composee & mixtionnee de trois sortes de Gouvernemens ensemble; Sçauoir de la Monarchie, Aristocratie & Republique afin que l'vn servist de frain & contrepoids à l'autre [...] Laquelle authorité du Senat est appelee par Plato, vn contrepoids a la puissance Royale, salutaire au corps vniuersel de la chose publique.

(*) Bernard de la Roche Flavin. Treize luires des Parlemens de France, esqvuels est amplement traicté de levr origine et institution. Genève: Matthieu Berjon, 1621 [see].



AM | @HDI1780

"Checks and Ballances are our only Salvation" — John Adams

One of the key legacies of the Enlightenment is, without a doubt, the notion of political checks and balances. David Wootton has written a remarkable piece on the origins and evolution of that incredibly influential idea (*). Time permitting, I will devote more posts to authors who wrote about "checks and controuls", "contre-forces", "contrepoids" and similar expressions. Diderot's article CONTRE-POIDS in Volume 4 of Encyclopédie only deals with the mechanical acception of the term, completely omitting any reference to politics.

Here's the general definition: "CONTRE-POIDS, s. m. se dit en général de toute force qui sert à diminuer l’effort d’une force contraire. Le contre-poids a lieu dans une infinité de machines différentes ; tantôt il est égal au moment qui lui est opposé, tantôt il est plus grand ou plus petit." Thus we have short entries on Contre-poids (les) du métier des Rubanniers, Contre-poids (le), chez l’Epinglier, Contre-poids (le) des métiers des étoffes de soie; Contre-poids (le) des Balanciers est Contre-poids; Contre-poids (le) des danseurs de corde; Contre-poids (le) des machines d’opéra, and Contre-poids, (Manege.)

* * *

When did French authors (apart from Montesquieu) start to systematically apply that notion to the realm of internal politics? There is no easy answer to that question. I suspect that Maupeou's reforms in 1770-1771, which so deeply affected Diderot, played an important role in that regard. But Mably had already sparred in 1768 with Mercier de la Rivière about the importance of "contre-forces" in a fascinating duel, to which I shall come back. Raynal took note of the debates and incorporated the expression in the 1780 edition of Histoire des deux Indes. On the other side of the pond, James Madison would soon pay a lot of attention to these writers [see].

In the meantime, the Correspondance littéraire made an effort to sort out more precisely the meaning of "contre-poids" (1775):

Dans un état purement despotique, l'autorité souveraine n'a point d'autre contre-poids que la force. Dans un état républicain, elle le trouve dans les lois mêmes dont elle tient sa puissance. Dans une monarchie comme la France, ce contre-poids n'existe réellement que dans l'opinion et dans la confiance particulière que peuvent mériter les tribunaux qui en ont été quelque fois les interprètes.

This reference to "les tribunaux" seems to place a heavy burden on the judiciary as the key contre-poids, a point that Diderot made in his fantastic letter to Princess Dashkoff [see]. Be that as it may, it is interesting to note that in the first volume of Économie politique et diplomatique, edited by Démeunier for the Encyclopédie Méthodique (1784), the notion of contrepoids is explicitely applied to politics (pp. 649-651). The article, penned by Guillaume Grivel, is thouroughly disappointing. Only the general definition has withstood the test of time:

CONTREPOIDS. Dans le langage de la philosophie moderne, qui a voulu raisonner le gouvernement, on a appelé contrepoids politiques les diverses barrières que les circonstances & la nécessité posèrent en un certain temps & en certains lieux contre le pouvoir arbitraire [see].

(*) David Wootton: "Liberty, Metaphor, and Mechanism: “Checks and Balances” and the Origins of Modern Constitutionalism", in David Womersely (ed.) Liberty and American Experience in the Eighteenth Century. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006. See also Gary Wills. Explaining America: The Federalist. London: The Athlone Press, 1981, especially Part III.

Monday, January 6, 2014


AM | @HDI1780

"Before being free, it is necessary to be just" — Alexander von  Humboldt

The Humboldt-Jefferson relationship can be studied from many different angles: the value of Humboldt's information about Mexico (including his much sought-after maps), the interpretation of the revolutions in South America, the degeneracy controversy (which involved Raynal), and so on (*). A minor, but interesting, aspect of that story is the eagerness with which Humboldt tried to obtain a copy of Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia. (That eagerness was shared by at least two contemporaries: Volney and Mariano Moreno — more on that in coming weeks.)

* * *

In September 1810, Humboldt —deeming himself short-changed by the Americans in terms of the exchange of information that took place in the spring of 1804— begged the retired U.S. president to send him a copy of the Notes: "Je reïtere ma priere, de recevoir, en cadeau, de Votre main, Votre ouvrage sur la Virginie. Je le possède depuis 15 ans, mais je voudrois pouvoir montrer à mes amis un exemplaire dans lequel Vous aviez écrit que Vous me le donnez. C’est a quoi aspire ma vanité et je ne m’en defends pas" [see].

But what did he really mean by "Je le possède depuis 15 ans"? In the third volume of his Essai politique sur la Nouvelle-Espagne, the Prussian scientist mentions Jefferson in the context of the degeneracy controversy: "Cette réfutation se trouve dans l'excellent ouvrage de M. Jefferson sur la Virginie, p.109-166" [see]. Mystery solved! Pages 109-166 correspond not to the original version of the Notes, but to André Morellet's translation, published in early 1787 and recently digitized by Google Books [see]:




PAR M. J***



Chez BARROIS, l'aîné, Libraire, rue du

Hurepoix, près le pont Saint-Michel


What Humboldt so eagerly desired was the original, English version of the Notes, autographed by its author. In the end, Jefferson relented; in yet another memorable document (TJ's April 1811 letter on South American revolutions), he writes: "In sending you a copy of my Notes on Virginia, I do but obey the desire you have expressed. They must appear chetif enough to the author of the great work on South America. But from the widow her mite was welcome, and you will add to this indulgence the acceptance of my sincere assurances of constant friendship and respect."

It was only in December of that year that Humboldt could aknowledge the arrival of the much coveted book:


J’arrive hier de Vienne où mon frere est Ministre du Roi de Prusse et ou j’ai passé un mois pour voir mes parents. J’ai eté bien heureux de retrouver à mon retour l’interessante lettre que Vous avez daigné m’écrire, Monsieur, et que Vous avez accompagné d’un cadeau auquel je mets le plus grand prix. Les notes sur la Virginie seront placeés dans la bibliotheque que nous avons formé mon frere et moi. c’est un titre de gloire pour moi que d’avoir joui de la bienveillance, j’ose dire de l’amitié d’un homme qui a etonne ce siecle par ses vertus et sa moderation.

Affaire à suivre !

(*) The starting point here is the masterful piece by H. R. Friis: "Alexander von Humboldts Besuch in den Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika. Vom 20. Mai bis zum 20. Juni 1804", in Joachim H. Schultze (ed.) Alexander von Humboldt. Studien zu seiner universalem Geisthaltung. Berlin: Verlag Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1959, pp. 142-195.

Saturday, January 4, 2014


AM | @HDI1780

"He is a very fine genius" — David Hume

In letter No. 165 (to Adam Smith, 12 April 1759), David Hume mentions Helvétius's De l'Esprit: "It is worth your reading, not for its philosophy, which I do not highly value, but for its agreeable composition." (*) (In the previous letter, to William Roberston, he had called Helvétius "a very fine genius"). Then, as he changes the subject of the letter —to the reception of the Theory of Moral Sentiments— he warns Smith: "...and Phocion, you know, always suspected himself of some blunder, when he was attended with the applause of the populace."

* * *

As it turns out, Hume wasn't loosely quoting from Plutarch, but from ... Helvétius! Here's De l'esprit (II.10): "Il en a tant de fois éprouvé la faiblesse [de l'esprit humain]; au milieu des applaudissemens d'un aréopage, il a tant de fois été tenté, comme Phocion, de se retourner vers son ami pour lui demander s'il n'a pas dit une grande sottise". Thus, when Hume praised the Frenchman's "agreeable composition", he was fully deserving the 'bon mot':

Il ne croyait pas si bien dire! 

In a footnote, the editor of the Letters quotes Helvétius's first missive to Hume (1 April 1759): "Votre nom honore mon livre, et je l'aurois cité plus souvent, si la sévérité du censeur me l'eût permis." (This is the line I had in mind when I wrote about Gibbon & d'Alembert.) In the end, this bagatelle is, I think, quite revealing. It tells us something about censorship and 'auto-censorship', about the importance of éloquence, about how these authors read and quoted each other's works, and even about their attitude towards what we would nowadays call ... populism.

(*) J. Y. Creig. The Letters of David Hume, Vol. 1, 1727-1765 (OUP: 2011).

Friday, January 3, 2014


AM | @HDI1780

"Il danaro depositato vi si conserva religiosamente" — Ferdinando Galiani

Dans son Traité des richesses, Achille-Nicolas Isnard s'en prend à Raynal, et même à Montesquieu, en leur reprochant leur position ambigüe au sujet de la primauté absolue du droit de propriété (*). Il s'agit d'une version extrême de la théorie institutionnelle du crédit : « Les dépenses excessives de Louis XIV, ses guerres ruineuses, la mauvaise administration et les dévastations du regne de Louis XV, la violation de la foi publique, des engagemens du souverain, & des droits de propriété, sous ces deux regnes, ont souvent ébranlé le crédit ».

* * *

Un peu plus tard, Isnard reprend une remarque de Galiani, alors même qu'il reproche à Montesquieu (encore une fois) l'idée selon laquelle les banques ne conviennent point dans les pays gouvernés par un seul : « ...mais les loix & le respect pour les droits de propriété peuvent avoir autant de vigueur dans une monarchie que dans une république, & le crédit peut chanceler dans une république autant que dans une monarchie » (pp. 319-320).

Voici Galiani :

Questo mirabile innesto de' frutti della libertà col governo assoluto è la maggior gloria del nostro; e quantunque abbia pochi e rarissimi esempi, non dovea però quell'autore [Montesquieu] dall'avvenimento tragico della Banca Generale di Francia tirar conseguenze universali, e dichiarar natura del governo monarchico ciò ch'è difetto in lui. Il che s'egli avesse sempre fatto, non avrebbe composto un libro pieno di massime che sembreranno vere solo a chi è nato in Parigi, e vi è nato nel secolo decimottavo dell'umana redenzione [voir].

(*) Achille-Nicolas Isnard. Traité des Richesses, Tome I. Lausanne : François Grasset, 1781.

Thursday, January 2, 2014


AM | @HDI1780

"... Helvétius plaide contre les financiers" — Ferdinando Galiani

- Luigia Parlati annonce le colloque Economie et politique chez Ferdinando Galiani Economia e politica in Ferdinando Galiani à Lyon, le 29 et 20 janvier 2015 [voir] (*) :

Ferdinando Galiani n’a pas bénéficié de colloque totalement consacré à ses écrits économiques et politiques. Ses écrits littéraires et sa correspondance, ont été à plusieurs reprises, examinés, largement traités et publiés. Ce colloque a en en vue de mobiliser des compétences différentes, soit économiques, soit historiques, dans la perspective d'une collaboration interdisciplinaire. Il s’agit d'un côté de tenter une reconstruction aussi complète que possible de l’analyse économique de Ferdinando Galiani, à travers ses deux ouvrages principaux : Della Moneta et Dialogues sur le commerce des blés

J'ai écrit un billet au sujet de la « théorie institutionnelle du crédit » dans Della Moneta [voir]. Ce ne sera sûrement pas le dernier. Galiani, comme le fera Smith un quart de siècle plus tard, met en avant la question du système légal et de la stabilité des possessions, plutôt que la liberté commerciale en soi : « Questa giustizia e libertà compensa da per tutto ogni bellezza di clima e di paese; e si vede che le rupi degli Svizzeri, e le paludose Polesine di Rovigo con queste arti hanno spopolata la fertile Lombardia. »

(*) J'en ai pris connaissance grâce à @FolieXVIIIeme

& & &

- Touvailles @GoogleBooks (*)

. Jacques Barinton. Traduction d'une lettre Angloise, ecrite de la Haye le 4. novembre 1718. Middleburg, 1718 [voir].

. Giuseppe Marco Antonio Baretti. Discours sur Shakespeare et sur Monsieur de Voltaire. Paris : Durand neveu, 1777 [voir].

Etrennes de la Vertu, pour l'Année 1785, Contenant les Actions de Bienfaisance, de Courage, d'Humanité, &c. qui se sont faites dans le courant de l'année 1784 ; auxquelles on a joint quelques Anecdotes intéressantes. Paris : Savoye, 1785 [voir].

(*) Mes recherches sur les sources de Mariano Moreno m'ont mené à découvrir l'incroyable univers de Google Books.

& & &

 - Moreno & Marmontel

No deja de sorprenderme Mariano Moreno. En la Gazeta Extraordinaria de Buenos-Ayres del martes 7 de agosto de 1810, publica la carta de un tal ‘Antonio Aristhogiton’ [ver]. Es fácil comprobar que se trata del propio Moreno (Aristogiton es el asesino de Hipparchus, Hist. Guerra Pelop. 1.20.2). En la carta, Moreno utiliza los Elémens de littérature, de Jean-François Marmontel, publicados en Œuvres complètes de M. Marmontel (Paris: Née de la Rochelle, 1787, Tomo 6, p. 369 [ver]):

Moreno. Porque ¿qué otra remuneracion se puede dar (decia otro) á unos hombres que inmolan su vida por la patria como Decio, su honor (expuesto á los tiros de la calumnia) como Fabio; su resentimiento, como Camilo; sus hijos como Bruto y Manlio?

. Marmontel. Qu’offrir à celui qui immole sa vie, comme Decius; son honneur, comme Fabius; son ressentiment, comme Camille; ses enfans, comme Brutus & Manlius?

¡Más información pronto!