Front Page Titles (by Subject) Introduction to the Correspondence - The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 1: The Man and the Statesman: The Correspondence and Articles on Politics
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Introduction to the Correspondence - Frédéric Bastiat, The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 1: The Man and the Statesman: The Correspondence and Articles on Politics 
The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 1: The Man and the Statesman: The Correspondence and Articles on Politics, translated from the French by Jane and Michel Willems, with an introduction by Jacques de Guenin and Jean-Claude Paul-Dejean. Annotations and Glossaries by Jacques de Guenin, Jean-Claude Paul-Dejean, and David M. Hart. Translation editor Dennis O’Keeffe (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2011).
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Introduction to the Correspondence
The Man Who Emerges from the Correspondence
The Man and the Statesman, the first volume of Liberty Fund’s Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat, contains 208 letters Bastiat wrote during the period from September 1819 to just a few days before his untimely death, on Christmas Eve 1850, from a serious illness, most likely tuberculosis or throat cancer, or possibly a combination of both. The letters in this volume are taken primarily from volume 7 of the Guillaumin edition of his complete works, edited by Prosper Paillottet and published from 1854 to 1855.1 Additional letters were published in 1877 in a collection by Mme Cheuvreux, a close friend,2 or have been discovered in recent times by the Bastiat scholar Jean-Claude Paul-Dejean.
For those who are familiar only with Bastiat the author of provocative and thoughtful essays on economics and politics, such as the masterful “What Is Seen and What Is Unseen” or the incomplete treatise Economic Harmonies, the letters will reveal another Bastiat, unknown, more complex, and even conflicted. The Bastiat in these letters is the shy, unsophisticated, and somewhat gauche provincial magistrate who tries to make an impression in the metropole of Paris; the budding economic theorist who is welcomed into the ranks of the Société d’économie politique, attending their monthly dinners and writing articles for their main organ, Le Journal des économistes; the ardent supporter of peace and free trade who valiantly endeavors to mimic the political success of his hero and friend Richard Cobden; the courageous deputy who is involved in fighting on the barricades to defend the new republic during the revolution of February 1848 in Paris; the loyal friend of those he left behind in Mugron, the provincial town to which he longs to return in order to escape the noise, turmoil, and frustrations of Paris; the companion of a number of successful and sophisticated bourgeois families, the women especially, who provide him with a family life and a personal intimacy that his own family could not or did not supply; the humorous and witty observer of the foibles of the “cold economists” who took themselves very seriously; and the pitiful sufferer of a long, painful, and ultimately fatal disease, which hampered his efforts to complete his magnum opus, Economic Harmonies.
The letters also tell us much about the intellectual, political, and social life of France during the 1840s, a time when France was experiencing considerable economic and social change, the beginnings of industrialization, the rise of socialism, the collapse of the July Monarchy, the 1848 revolution and the creation of a new republic, and the rise of Louis-Napoléon, who would eventually install himself as emperor. When Bastiat is sent to represent his province in the Constituent Assembly, he becomes a minor player in the revolution, serving on a finance committee because of his economic expertise. In the background of his correspondence we see the shadows of major players like Cavaignac, Guizot, Lamartine, and even Louis-Napoléon, filtered through the eyes of someone very new to the capital and very critical of the ability of any political party, whether left or right, socialist or legitimist, to solve the underlying political and economic problems that France faced.
As a laissez-faire, classical liberal, Bastiat was practically alone in the Assembly in arguing that the state should introduce free trade along the lines of the United Kingdom, deregulate the economy, and massively retrench the size of the military and public sector, thus allowing equally massive cuts in taxation in order to benefit the working class. Of course, Bastiat was surrounded on all sides by political groups and vested interests, which opposed these policies. It is surprising how long Bastiat was able to remain optimistic in the face of this opposition before he realized that he could better serve the cause of liberty by returning to writing. Unfortunately a premature death cut him down before he could achieve this goal.
For contemporary classical liberals Bastiat’s letters provide a marvelous window into a long-forgotten world where opposition to war and colonialism went hand in hand with support for free trade and economic deregulation. Bastiat’s numerous letters to Richard Cobden, a successful English businessman, a member of Parliament, and the leader of the British Anti-Corn Law League, are full of insights into how Cobden was able to organize a mass movement that succeeded in abolishing the most important restrictions on the free importation of grain into Britain. The letters also reveal Bastiat’s repeated pleas that Cobden pressure the British government into reducing the size of its army and navy, a move that would encourage the French government to do likewise. Intertwined with these matters were discussions about the various international peace congresses held in 1848, 1849, and 1850, which Cobden and Bastiat either attended or wanted to attend.
In addition, Bastiat’s letters provide information about the activities of the radical liberal economists in Paris who were members of the Société d’économie politique. Bastiat had learned much of his economics from reading the works of Jean-Baptiste Say and Charles Comte, who were the towering figures of early-nineteenth-century French classical liberal economic thought. Although both had passed from the scene by the time Bastiat arrived in Paris (Say in 1832 and Comte in 1837), a second generation of economists was active in the 1840s: Charles Dunoyer (Comte’s long-time colleague), Horace Say (Say’s son), Adolphe Blanqui, Gilbert Guillaumin, Joseph Garnier, Gustave de Molinari, and many others. Bastiat wrote several important articles for Le Journal des économistes, which showed his considerable skill as a writer who could make complex ideas come to life for all levels of readers. Whenever he could, he attended the monthly dinners held by the Société, and his letters are often filled with amusing anecdotes of what transpired at these functions.
The Recipients of Bastiat’s Correspondence
A closer examination of the 208 letters we have by Bastiat shows some interesting patterns. We do not have access to the original letters that were published by Guillaumin/Paillottet in 1854 and Mme Cheuvreux in 1877. It is clear that Paillottet took liberties with the letters, cutting out sections that were “too personal” or including incomplete drafts of letters found among Bastiat’s effects. This was done both to enhance the reputation of a much-honored man and to protect the privacy of the recipients of his letters who were still alive. In spite of these handicaps, enough of the personal and private Bastiat comes through to be interesting to modern readers.
The letters were written to twenty-three individual recipients over a period of thirty years. Ten recipients received only one letter; another five recipients received only two or three letters each. The bulk of the letters was sent to seven recipients. It might be useful to divide Bastiat’s correspondence into four main groups: friends and colleagues from his provincial home; Richard Cobden and the free-trade group in England; his adopted families, the Cheuvreux family and the Schwabes; and the political economists in Paris.
The largest number of letters (fifty-one) was sent to Félix Coudroy, who trained as a lawyer and lived in the town of Mugron. He became a close friend of Bastiat’s, and Bastiat commented that they agreed on everything they ever discussed on the many long walks they took together through the countryside. Bastiat repeatedly pours out his soul to Coudroy about his homesickness for Mugron, his uncertainties about his career, and his move to Paris. Another Mugron inhabitant, the mayor, Bernard Domenger, also received a large number of letters from Bastiat (seventeen). He was both a friend and a colleague while Bastiat was a magistrate. Their correspondence involves mainly local affairs. Bastiat wrote letters (fourteen) to an old school friend, Victor Calmètes, who later became a judge in Montpellier. Calmètes is interesting because of his involvement in liberal circles independently of Bastiat. He joined the society “Aide toi, le ciel t’aidera” (help yourself, heaven will help you), which had been organized by Guizot and included prominent liberal members such as La Fayette and Benjamin Constant.
The second-largest number of letters (forty-four) was sent to Richard Cobden. Bastiat was inspired by the success of the Anti-Corn Law League in mobilizing a popular movement that succeeded in pressuring the British government into abolishing the Corn Laws in 1846, and he wanted to emulate its successes in France by starting his own free-trade movement. In his letters to Cobden, Bastiat asks for advice, provides his own observations on the balance of forces either supporting or opposing free trade in Britain and France, and, toward the end of his life, discusses their collaboration in the international peace movement. Bastiat traveled to Britain several times to meet with Cobden and other members of the free-trade and peace movements and seemed to very much enjoy the company of Cobden and his family.
The third-largest number of letters (forty) was sent to the Cheuvreux family, which consisted of Mme Cheuvreux (Hortense), M. Cheuvreux (Casimir), and their daughter Louise. Casimir was a successful businessman whose wealth enabled the family to spend much time attending spas and traveling about Europe. Bastiat frequently visited their home or met them on their travels. He wrote most of the letters (thirty-five) to Mme Cheuvreux, who seems to have adopted the lonely Bastiat as a member of the family. They gave each other advice about family matters, illnesses, places to visit, and the trivia of bourgeois life. There is not a great deal of intellectual content in these letters, but they do show the personal, familial side of Bastiat. There are no letters to members of Bastiat’s own family extant—a strange fact that suggests considerable alienation on his part and a strong psychological need to attach himself to a substitute family, such as the Cheuvreux. Another family of whom Bastiat was very fond was the Schwabes, who were English friends of the Cheuvreux family. He visited them when he went to England to see Cobden, and they visited him when they were traveling in Europe. He wrote eleven letters, mostly to Mrs. Schwabe, and they are similar in tone and content to the letters he wrote to Mme Cheuvreux.
Bastiat also wrote to a number of important liberal figures, such as Horace Say (seven); Charles Dunoyer, one of the leading liberal intellectuals of the first half of the nineteenth century (one); the poet and statesman Alphonse de Lamartine (one); the Italian economist Giovanni Arrivabene (two); and Prosper Paillottet, who was to be Bastiat’s legal executor and editor of his papers after his death (eleven).
Themes in Bastiat’s Correspondence
Although Bastiat’s letters are numerous and their recipients diverse, it is worth noting that several recurring themes appear throughout the letters, as well as some contradictions in his thought.
There are many references to the idea of justice, which might seem surprising for an economist, as we have come to expect modern economists to be “scientific” and dispassionate. Nineteenth-century political economists, however, were different. For example, Bastiat refers in his letters to issues of justice regarding ordinary working people, and there is a surprising recognition of the possibility that his own family fortune might have been based upon the unjust acquisition of church property during the Revolution. His strong sense of justice is also reflected in his acts of personal courage on the barricades in Paris during the 1848 revolution, suggesting an activist side to his political and economic philosophy. At times he even doubts the morality and efficacy of serving as a politician and expresses ambivalence about his choice of career versus that of working outside politics as a writer.
Bastiat’s enigmatic and conflicting relationships with, and views of, women can be detected in many of his letters. His sentiments range from the never-mentioned and absent “wife”3 to his close relationships with Mme Cheuvreux and Mrs. Schwabe and his considerable fondness for their children, despite having no children of his own. Further, in apparent contradiction to his distant and essentially nonexistent relationship with his wife, he did favor women’s rights in general and in particular acknowledged the considerable contribution of women to modern literature.
Bastiat was also conflicted over where he felt truly at home: the countryside of the Landes, his birthplace, or the metropolitan city of Paris. This sentiment is evident in the great delight he took in sending and receiving letters of all kinds and from all people. The letters of course were very useful in maintaining personal relationships, but he always seems to be wishing he were somewhere other than where he was at any given moment.
The issues of mortality and religion that appear in many of the letters offer yet another dimension to Bastiat’s complex personality. Given the fact that he lost both parents at an early age to tuberculosis, it is not surprising that Bastiat was aware of his own mortality. He was afraid of cholera and other diseases, he suffered a painful and debilitating illness, and he knew that this illness would likely end his life far too early. The letters in which these thoughts and feelings are apparent are very touching. Bastiat did not seem to take any solace from religion, however. His letters contain scattered remarks about religion, some fairly critical, especially of its formalism and emptiness. As someone from a small town who “made it big” in the metropolis of Paris, Bastiat, not unsurprisingly, occasionally reveals in the privacy of his letters his insecurity concerning his provincialism, clothes, and accent.
In spite of these curiosities and perhaps contradictions, Bastiat should also be remembered for his sense of humor and wit. A few examples should suffice. Although Bastiat never finished his magnum opus, Economic Harmonies, which took as its theme the central role played by the idea of “harmony” in his social theory, he was not above making puns on the word harmony at his own expense. To take another example, Bastiat was keen to mix in the circles inhabited by “Les Économistes” of Paris; at the same time he could see the humor in their preference for wearing somber black cloaks.4 Finally there is the gentle teasing that Bastiat gave his aunt’s chambermaid, who happened to be an ardent supporter of free trade—perhaps one of the very few in France—and Bastiat could definitely see the humor, perhaps somewhat black, in this situation.
It is hoped that these letters will provide the reader with a new perspective on the life of Bastiat and will fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge about his activities as an economist, writer, free-trade activist, politician, friend, and family man. The letters should also provide the personal and political background needed to help us better understand the essays and books that will be published in subsequent volumes of the Liberty Fund edition of the Collected Works.
David M. Hart
[1 ]Œuvres complètes de Frédéric Bastiat. See also the General Editor’s Note, note 1; and the bibliography.
[2 ]Lettres d’un habitant des Landes, Frédéric Bastiat.
[3 ]See also “General Introduction,” note 1.
[4 ]See Letter 148. In this letter, Bastiat makes fun of economists’ self-importance, recounting how, at a dinner party he was attending, “the hall embellished with a number of black, white, and pink cloaks showed that there were not only economists present.”