The Political Economy of Virtue: Luxury, Patriotism, and the Origins of the French Revolution
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Political economy, John Shovlin asserts, can illuminate the social and economic contexts out of which a revolutionary impulse developed in France. Beyond the role of political economy in political life, massive public engagement with problems of economic order mediated an enduring cultural transformation. Economic activity was reimagined as a patriotic pursuit, and economic agents―farmers, merchants, and manufacturers―came to be viewed as potential citizens.
Drawing on hundreds of political economic tracts published in France between the 1740s and the early nineteenth century, Shovlin shows how mid-level French elites (magistrates, clerics, lawyers, soldiers, landed gentlemen) sought to balance their interests and values with the need to regenerate a nation that had seemingly entered a period of decline. In their view, France's moral, political, and economic power depended not simply on expanding the national wealth but also on reviving civic spirit. The "political economy of virtue" held that luxury was the cause of the nation's economic and moral degeneration. When the monarchy failed to reform its political economic structures in the 1760s and 1770s, mid-level elites sought to eliminate the stranglehold of the plutocracy.
Shovlin argues that the Revolution grew out of a debate on how to establish a commercial society capable of fostering both wealth and virtue, and the revolutionaries sought to create such a society by destroying the institutions that channeled modern wealth into the hands of courtiers and financiers.
role in the Revolution as Girondin Minister of the Interior, J.-M. Roland de la Platière, deployed a familiar anti-luxury discourse, castigating proprietors for failing to live on their estates and exalting the moeurs of individuals who occupied themselves with agriculture. “Peace, gentle affections, all the sentiments dear to the heart of man, essential to his existence, are allied with the country life,” Roland argued; “Virtue seems to be strengthened there through the spectacle of nature that
on public affairs. Writers offered critiques of the monarchy’s economic policies, and appeals for new economic initiatives, governed by a rudimentary set of as13 Loïc Charles, “L’économie politique française et le politique dans la deuxième moitié du XVIIIe siècle,” in Histoire du libéralisme en Europe, ed. Philippe Nemo and Jean Petitot (Paris, 2002); Gilbert Faccarello, Aux origines de l’économie politique libérale: Pierre de Boisguilbert (Paris, 1986); Simone Meyssonnier, La balance et
the work—unless agriculture was placed on a sound footing.18 Close links tied several members of the Gournay circle to the agricultural improvers who sought to revivify French agriculture. Gournay performed agronomic experiments on his lands and was a correspondent of Duhamel du Monceau (Duhamel recommended the writings of Gournay, Clicquot, and Forbonnais to his readers).19 Forbonnais set up a model farm and was the author of the article “Culture des terres” in the Encyclopédie. His father,
438. 53 Patriotic Commerce and Aristocratic Luxury 133 than the nobility tout court. To some extent, indeed, this critique articulated the frustration and anger of provincial nobles. As Rafe Blaufarb has shown, middling nobles, and especially military nobles, spoke “a language of social resentment” in the ﬁnal decades of the old regime.55 This resentment was directed not just against the ennobled sons of ﬁnanciers whose wealth facilitated rapid promotion in the military, but against courtier
descended from an old Lorraine family, Saint-Lambert served in the royal army at the rank of colonel before turning to a career as a man of letters.62 Others in the philosophic party took a different view, placing the blame for a vicious luxury squarely on the nobility. According to Alexandre Deleyre, a collaborator of Raynal on his Histoire philosophique et politique des deux Indes, and later a regicide deputy to the revolutionary Convention, it was not the economically active who were corrupted