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A Revolution in Commerce

A Revolution in Commerce: The Parisian Merchant Court and the Rise of Commercial Society in Eighteenth-Century France

Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 408
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  • Book Info
    A Revolution in Commerce
    Book Description:

    This groundbreaking book provides the first comprehensive account of thejuridiction consulaire, or Merchant Court, of eighteenth-century Paris. Drawing on extensive archival research, Amalia D. Kessler reconstructs the workings of the court and the commercial law that it applied and uses these to shed new light on questions about the relationship between commerce and modernity that are of deep and abiding interest to lawyers, historians, and social scientists alike.

    Kessler shows how the merchants who were associated with the court-and not just elite thinkers and royal reformers-played a key role in reconceptualizing commerce as the credit-fueled private exchange necessary to sustain the social order. Deploying this modern conception of commerce in a variety of contexts, ranging from litigation over negotiable instruments to corporatist battles for status and jurisdiction, these merchants contributed (largely inadvertently and to their ultimate regret) to the demise of corporatism as both conceptual framework and institutional practice. In so doing, they helped bring about the social and political revolution of 1789.

    Highly readable and engaging,A Revolution in Commerceprovides important new insights into the rise of commercial modernity by demonstrating the remarkable role played by the law in ideological and institutional transformation.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15007-0
    Subjects: Economics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-15)

    In the spring and summer of 1790, the Constituent Assembly of revolutionary France set about the massive task of restructuring the judiciary—that set of institutions that for many revolutionaries most fully embodied the evils of the Old Regime. The end results of its endeavors are well known. After abolishing the organized bar, the Assembly made permanent the ouster of the dreadedparlementsand the lower royal courts (includingbailliages, sénéchaussées, andprésidiaux). In their place, it created an entirely new set of courts to be headed by salaried bureaucrats, rather than venal officeholders, whose powers were to be strictly...

  5. 1 Situating the Court: Institutional Structure, Jurisdictional Conflict, and the Rise of a New Conception of Commerce
    (pp. 16-56)

    In 1776, shortly after the issuance of Turgot’s ill-fated edict abolishing the guilds, the merchant court of Paris drafted a memorandum observing that its judge and consuls “were not able to learn of this … [abolition] with indifference,” as they were “themselves members of the principal guilds [corps] included in … [Turgot’s] proscription.”¹ The court thereby joined the mounting opposition to the edict and reaffirmed its longstanding support of the guild system. But while the merchant court and its judges, in their capacity as guild leaders, fought to preserve guild privileges well into the Revolution, they also played a central...

  6. 2 The Court’s Self-Conception as a Bastion of Virtue: Relational Contracting and a Community-Based Approach to Procedure
    (pp. 57-95)

    As important as they were, electoral disputes and jurisdictional conflict were not the only factors behind the Parisian Merchant Court’s reconceptualization of commerce. Over the course of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, commercial practices themselves developed in such a way that it became increasingly difficult to view commerce as an activity that could and should be restricted to those, like guild members, who possessed the legal status of merchants. But before considering these new commercial practices—including, notably, the rise of negotiable instruments—it is necessary to explore the traditional practices with which they came to coexist.

    Throughout the...

  7. 3 An Equity-Oriented View of Contract: The Court’s Resolution of Disputes Concerning Sales, Employment, and Marriage
    (pp. 96-140)

    Disputes concerning small-scale, highly relational contracts long were and remained the Parisian Merchant Court’s primary focus. Such disputes usually involved two litigants, tied together in a relatively long-term, contractual relationship, framed by repeated extensions of credit, rather than by formal written contract. The court’s self-conception as an institution designed to enforce virtue by restoring severed bonds of trust was based to a significant extent on the fact that it was primarily these kinds of relational contract disputes with which it was accustomed to dealing. Indeed, it was relational contracting that lay at the root of the court’s approach to procedure—...

  8. 4 Société and Sociability: The Changing Structure of Business Associations and the Problem of Merchant Relations
    (pp. 141-187)

    While Old Regime merchants insisted that all commercial endeavors were infused with a spirit of brotherly love, it was the business partnership, they claimed, that best epitomized merchant virtue. Such claims drew on the writings of highly influential natural-law theorists, who pointed to the partnership, orsociété, as evidence of an innate human sociability. Taking this line of reasoning one step further, merchants asserted that commercialsociétésevidenced a distinctive, merchant sociability and thus disproved the prevailing view that theirs was a profession of avarice and cunning.

    As commerce expanded over the course of the eighteenth century, merchants experimented with...

  9. 5 A Crisis in Virtue: The Challenges of Negotiability and the Rise of a New Commercial Culture
    (pp. 188-237)

    The use of negotiable instruments in eighteenth-century France posed a serious challenge to traditional commercial culture and its structuring norms of morality and community. Even apart from negotiable instruments, of course, these norms were, as described in previous chapters, sometimes belied by the harsh reality of self-interested conflict. Nonetheless, the Parisian Merchant Court sought to resolve most contract and partnership disputes by reinforcing what it understood to be an ethic of fraternal harmony. And whilesociétés en commanditeand proto-sociétés de capitauxstrained traditional conceptions of merchant sociability, they did not compel a serious rethinking of merchant relations. In the...

  10. 6 Launching a National Campaign: The Administrative Monarchy and the Demands of le Commerce
    (pp. 238-285)

    The Parisian Merchant Court and its members were not alone among Old Regime merchants in coming to view commerce as the credit-based exchange necessary to sustain the social order, rather than a status function associated with particular corporate entities. In the fall of 1788, merchant courts and chambers of commerce across France united to demand representation ofle commercein the newly called Estates General. Drawing on a conception of commerce as that set of exchange relationships enabling society to function and prosper, they argued that it was vital to national well-being that commercial expertise inform government policy. This, in...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 286-298)

    While 1791 is the endpoint of this book, it is not, of course, the end of the story. The rise of thetribunal de commercemarked the triumph of what I have called the modern conception of commerce, and with it, the demise of legally enshrined corporatism. But these developments did not lead, as scholars once believed, to the total suppression of institutions of civil society in nineteenth-century France. As a number of historians have recently shown, the nineteenth century witnessed something of a resurgence of the language of corporatism.¹ By appealing to this language, entities such as trade unions...

  12. Appendix
    (pp. 299-306)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 307-374)
  14. Index
    (pp. 375-391)