- Revolutionary Commerce: Globalization and the French Monarchy
The last decade has seen the emergence of a rich body of literature that reconciles the polarized scholarly traditions of social and political histories in the field of early modern and revolutionary France. The revisionist turn away from the Marxist paradigm in the 1970s replaced deterministic economic interpretations of historical change with analyses of political discourse. Post-revisionist historians have readdressed the "social" from a fresh angle, discovering how discussions about commerce and its effects inundated political thought. Michael Kwass's Privilege and the Politics of Taxation in Eighteenth-Century France, John Shovlin's The Political Economy of Virtue: Luxury, Patriotism and the Origins of the French Revolution, and Amalia Kessler's A Revolution in Commerce: The Parisian Merchant Court and the Rise of Commercial Society in Eighteenth-Century France, among others, demonstrate how the historiographical movement away from "the social" has opened the [End Page 205] door for a reconsideration of early modern social and economic practices, by way of intellectual and cultural history.1
Paul Cheney's Revolutionary Commerce: Globalization and the French Monarchy squarely fits into this wave of research on early modern economic thought. His study of the "science of commerce" in eighteenth-century France explores a spectrum of political actors, intellectuals, diplomats, economists, merchants, and colonists—some more famous than others—and their "systematic inquiry into the economic processes affecting individuals, communities and states" (p. 8). While belonging to different (often opposed) political camps and an array of economic environments in the French metropole and colonies, they shared, according to Cheney, a historically oriented lexicon that focused on the relationship between commercial development and its effects on statecraft, government, and culture in ancient and modern contexts. Their discussions were meant to allay anxieties concerning the new wealth that flowed into France from the colonies, to assess their potential risks to the traditional monarchical and aristocratic political order, and locate the roots of French economic woes while crafting strategies for moderate reform.
Beyond extending current literature on the relationship between the economic and political lives of Old Regime France, Cheney's study adds to our historical understanding of globalization and the early modern Atlantic world. He attacks a question asked by many historians before him, "what was the relation between the Commercial Revolution, which figured so prominently in the economic writing of the eighteenth century, and the Great Revolution of 1789?" (p. 3) with a nuanced and original examination of transnational economic concerns and discussions that brought the British, Spanish, Dutch, French, and their respective colonies into closer contact and frequent conflict. He reorients the historical examination of early modern economic processes, choosing to discuss the "science of commerce" rather than "political economy," a term that carries the baggage of teleological narratives [End Page 206] that have celebrated the emergence of laissez-faire economics. Instead of dwelling on oppositions between laissez-faire and mercantilist systems or production and trade, he centers his discussion on the discourses of commerce that sustained debates on colonial politics, international competition, and the social and political structures of imperial states.
Cheney begins by asserting that despite overall commercial expansion, eighteenth-century French observers obsessed about the shortcomings in overseas commerce. From the Wars of Spanish Succession and of Austrian Succession, they expressed concerns over the underlying defects that led to the purported malaise in French politics and commerce. In chapter 1, Cheney uses the writings of the abbé de Saint-Pierre, Pierre-Daniel Huet, and Jean-François Melon to show how each understood France's economic problems to be fundamentally connected to France's "constitution," a catch-all term that connoted "governmental form . . . social structure, institutions, and moeurs" (p. 51). Their musings led them to make comparisons between the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and various "modern" nations. This focus on the proper constitution for commercial and political stability, according to Cheney, was exemplified in Montesquieu's Considérations sur les Romains and L'esprit des lois, the subject of chapter 2: "[Montesquieu's] habit of viewing...