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

Author(s):Shovlin, John
Reviewer(s):Liebowitz, Jonathan

Published by EH.NET (April 2007)

John Shovlin, The Political Economy of Virtue: Luxury, Patriotism, and the Origins of the French Revolution. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006. xi + 265 pp. $50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8014-4479-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jonathan Liebowitz, Department of History. University of Massachusetts – Lowell.

In his well-written, jargon-free book, John Shovlin, assistant professor of history at New York University, subtly analyzes the concepts listed in his title. He shows how French views of virtue, luxury and patriotism helped produce the Revolution. His concern is with how writers from the 1740s to the early 1800s conceived of political economy, defined as “the organization of agriculture, trade, finance, and manufacturing” (p. 1). Unlike some students of the history of economics, he does not try to translate their ideas into current economic theory. Economic and political history enter from secondary sources as factors that precipitated interest in economics.

Shovlin tells his story though chapters that run chronologically from the 1740s to the outbreak of the Revolution and even beyond, though the final chapter on the revolutionary period seems only distantly related to what has come before. Each chapter suggests a debate with each side’s position laid out in turn. Sometimes this organization seems mechanical, but it does give a flavor of the clash of ideas. The sources of the book are the writings of the many protagonists in the debate. Shovlin also includes a few well-chosen images to illustrate his themes ? for example, a print of the dauphin (future Louis XVI) plowing (p. 91) to demonstrate how concern for agriculture swept the nation in the 1760s. Happily the illustrations are placed within the chapters they serve. Cornell University Press is also to be commended for its careful editing and placing footnotes at the bottom of the page.

In the 1740s, Shovlin maintains, French political economists were troubled by luxury, whose pursuit was undermining virtue, as the pursuers turned away from the public interest. Often provincial or “middling” elites, the critics resented the wealthy court nobility and financiers. A major role of the latter was collecting taxes and financing government debt, which since John Law were often seen as dubious speculations. Louis XV’s mistress Mme Pompadour provided an ideal target because luxury was regarded as a feminine vice and she was connected through her family to the financial world.

But not all political economists disdained luxury. For some, following Louis XIV’s minister Colbert, production of luxury goods could increase trade and thus promote France’s international power. They distinguished between the harmful luxury of the aristocrats and financiers and that which benefited modest consumers. If pursuit of this luxury was open to all, merit would be rewarded.

The loss of the Seven Years’ War lent new importance to patriotism. French political economists would revive their nation through the restoration of virtue, which had been sapped by luxury. Many looked to agriculture for the response to these problems, thus the “agromania” (p. 51) that swept France in the 1750s and ’60s. They proposed to improve farming by learning from the English model and adopting free trade. The physiocrats agreed with the call for free trade in grain and also favored a shift to commercial farms. While their ideas found favor with the government in the late 1760s, that support did not last. They alienated many with their championing of commercial agriculture, which made them seem like defenders of the rich.

The place of nobles continued to be contentious. Some thought they should become merchants and thereby strengthen their country, but others believed that entering commerce would destroy their sense of honor. But what was honor ? the badge of the hereditary noble or a reward for useful activities? Many patriots would use honor, in the form of prizes from agricultural societies, to raise the status of farming.

According to Shovlin, the 1770s were not favorable for the agricultural improvers. Blame for the moral corruption associated with luxury was tied to political and social institutions and was increasingly anti-aristocratic. Nobles became associated with wealth and ostentatious luxury, instead of the honor that had marked them before. Merchants, regarded more favorably, had the qualities that earlier observers associated with the nobility. The quarrel between luxury and agriculture had a place in the conflict between Turgot and Necker over the kingdom’s finances. The former favored fundamental reforms including the strengthening of agriculture, while Necker proposed solving the financial crisis by manipulating credit and borrowing. Necker’s attempts to lessen the importance of the financiers, however, turned them against him and he was forced from office in 1781.

With the failure of efforts to reform government finances in the 1770s and 1780s, Shovlin reaches the climax of his argument. Critics now attacked the nobility in general, no longer distinguishing between the virtuous provincials and the corrupt court aristocracy. The hereditary basis of their existence, which earlier was considered a source of honor, now seemed a defect: If honor was not open to achievement, incentives for virtue would be lacking. With this argument about the origins of anti-aristocratic sentiment Shovlin adds a valuable building block to the discussion of the causes of the Revolution. Assuming that readers know their revolutionary history, he does not relate it, but implies that the attacks on the nobility that formed so much of the early Revolution proceeded from this sentiment.

In his concluding chapter, Shovlin shows how the ideas developed earlier persisted during the Revolution. Though luxury was no longer an issue, virtue was still important. Revolutionaries thought to preserve it by basing their currency (the assignat) on land, in a vain effort to avoid speculation. By the end of the 1790s the moderate revolutionaries returned to creating agricultural societies and, in the spirit of their patriot forebears, hoped to solidify the Republic by establishing its foundations in agriculture, commerce, and manufacturing. This economic activity would yield a form of passive citizenship for those who were again excluded from politics.

The contribution of The Political Economy of Virtue is to show how economic circumstances affect ideas and how ideas themselves shape history. Though not a book that economic historians would turn to unprompted, Shovlin’s elegant volume demonstrates that history as practiced by today’s historians cannot be ignored if our goal is full understanding of complex events.

Jonathan Liebowitz is Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts – Lowell. His most recent work has been papers on French farmers and the late nineteenth century crisis presented at the Economic History Association meetings in 1998 and to a seminar at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris in 2004.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century