In 1767, did Sir James Steuart predict the political and financial crises that started the French Revolution? Étienne de Sénovert, the editor and translator of Steuart’s…
In 1767, did Sir James Steuart predict the political and financial crises that started the French Revolution? Étienne de Sénovert, the editor and translator of Steuart’s work, seems to argue to this effect in the introduction to the first French edition of An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy in 1789. The visionary “prediction” set forth by Steuart was the following: if the king of France had introduced public credit, this would have changed the political balance in French political society, making it very unstable. The English and the French governments used different ways of borrowing money in 1760: the French king contracted debts with a network of financiers close to the government, while the English government borrowed on the credit markets through the intermediary of the Bank of England. The second of these methods constitutes public credit and has proved its efficiency. According to Steuart, implementing the English public credit system in France could have dangerous consequences. Landed interests and moneyed interests would compete for the control of the State. The author realized that the French nobility, the landowners, as a social and economic group would have no chance in facing such a powerful rival (the public creditors). In this chapter, the author analyzes Steuart’s “prediction” as a coherent part of his systematic and original approach to political economy. Steuart’s theories about the role of political economy and the role of “interest” are connected to his understanding of institutions. Introducing such a complex support for the value as public credit might have different consequences in France and England. Steuart thinks each country’s economy should be analyzed according to its own institutional and social context.
Steuart’s work was still relevant in 1789 for two reasons. Firstly, the author’s prediction of political antagonism between capitalists and nobility anticipated the political conflict about debt expressed by pamphleteers such as Sieyès, Mirabeau, and Clavière between 1787 and 1789. This is the context of Étienne de Sénovert’s claim: the political narrative built by the revolutionaries of 1789 (rescuing the “sacred” public debt from royal despotism) fitted Steuart’s prediction. This may have been the incentive for the translation and publication of his work in 1789 and 1790. Secondly, Steuart’s financial and monetary theory was at the heart of the project of financial reform that would lead to the assignats. Steuart’s (1767) theory of public finance and state power in 1789 provides a key to the understanding the events of the time, and to how actors tried to make sense of them. Steuart made another crucial observation about the deep effect of what he called “the modern economy” upon the power of the governments of Europe: even an absolute monarch could not damage public credit without destroying his own sovereignty.