The Political Economy of Virtue

The Political Economy of Virtue: Luxury, Patriotism, and the Origins of the French Revolution

John Shovlin
Copyright Date: 2006
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 280
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Political Economy of Virtue
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6347-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction: Political Economy and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century France
    (pp. 1-12)

    The image reproduced on the frontispiece, painted in 1766 by Jean-Baptiste Perronneau, is titled, simply, Portrait of a Gentleman. An anonymous subject gazes from the canvas with an expression of startling forcefulness. The sitter’s dress is rich but sober; he wears a velvet frock coat; his wig is fastened at the nape of the neck with a black silk ribbon. He is unadorned, except for some indications of wealth and ease: the gold buttons of a waist coat, an elaborate cravat, and a pair of prominent lace cuffs. Clasped in his right hand is a memorandum, handwritten in French, its...

  6. CHAPTER 1 Commerce, Finance, and the Luxury Debate
    (pp. 13-48)

    In a chapter of De l’esprit (1758) illustrating the kinds of fruitless debates that occur when disputants do not first agree upon the meaning of words, Claude-Adrien Helvétius contrasted two competing views of luxury. According to its defenders, he noted, luxury augments the power of states by putting financial resources at their disposal to buy stores, fill magazines, and subsidize foreign armies. In the domestic sphere, luxury improves moral habits, moderates brutal dispositions, and generates happiness by disseminating ease, comfort, and diversion. It provides employment for artisans, accelerates the circulation of goods and money, and stimulates industry. The critics of...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Constructing a Patriot Political Economy
    (pp. 49-79)

    On November 5, 1757, the forces of Frederick the Great inflicted a decisive defeat on the French army at Rosbach. As the Seven Years’ War unfolded, that early reverse proved an omen of future calamity. On land, French forces failed to achieve victory over Prussia, a state that France dwarfed in population and wealth. In the colonial sphere, Britain was triumphant everywhere, defeating the French in India, North America, and the Caribbean. As early as 1759, it was clear that only a humiliating peace would extricate France from the conflict. The war stirred the loyalties and national sentiments of French...

  8. CHAPTER 3 Regenerating the Patrie: Agronomists, Tax Reformers, and Physiocrats
    (pp. 80-117)

    From the late 1750s, some of the most powerful figures at the French court began to sponsor initiatives for agricultural reform. Madame de Pompadour became a patron both of Physiocracy and agronomy: the agronomist Patullo was one of her protégés, as was the chief ministerial sponsor of agricultural improvement, and free trade in grain, Henri Bertin.¹ François Quesnay was her personal physician and lived in quarters adjoining hers at Versailles, though he also had ties with the opposing dévot faction at court.² We ought to see such patronage in the context of other initiatives undertaken by the marquise and her...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Patriotic Commerce and Aristocratic Luxury
    (pp. 118-150)

    The 1770s was a decade of defeat, decline, and retrenchment for those who sought to regenerate France by reinvigorating agriculture. Partisans of an agriculture-centered program of reform moved into a weaker position in the 1770s because they lost the cooperative links with the royal government that had developed in the previous decade. In December 1770 the king dismissed the duc de Choiseul. The measures that followed Choiseul’s disgrace were thoroughly reactionary from the point of view of those who saw agriculture as the well-spring of national renewal. The abbé Terray, controller general since December 1769, reestablished the regulation of the...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Political Economy and the Prerevolutionary Crisis
    (pp. 151-181)

    One of the objectives of this book is to shed new light on the origins of the French Revolution by considering the ways in which widely held political economic perspectives and ideas shaped elite attitudes toward aristocracy and absolutism. The point is not to offer a comprehensive new interpretation of why a revolution occurred in France, but rather to elucidate and clarify the relationship between two influential approaches to understanding revolutionary origins that have developed on largely separate lines. One of these approaches traces the origins of the Revolution to the development of a new political culture in the final...

  11. CHAPTER 6 The Agrarian Law and the Republican Farmer
    (pp. 182-212)

    The preoccupation with luxury that animated debates in political economy during the forty years before the Revolution declined sharply during the 1790s. In part, this development was a consequence of revolutionary reforms that destroyed the political and institutional order which old regime critics had identified as the principal source of luxury. Revolutionary legislatures abolished tax farming, monopoly companies, courtly pensions, the whole institutional complex linking polity and economy that critics had identified as a source of luxury in the ancien régime. The power of the court aristocracy and the financiers was broken. Early in 1791, most of the indirect taxes...

  12. Conclusion: The Political Economy of the Notables
    (pp. 213-220)

    By the beginning of the nineteenth century, economic discourse had become an everyday and indispensable part of the language of public life. Fifty years of vigorous public discussion of the nature of the material order had transformed the cultural status of economic activity, and made the pursuits of profit-seekers appear central to the life of the nation in a way they had not a century earlier. This change occurred not as a direct response to the expansion of the commercial economy, but as French elites considered the structures that imposed tangible limits on the success of the political community with...

  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 221-256)
  14. Index
    (pp. 257-266)