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“Richard Cantillon”, Journal of Libertarian Studies, vol. VII, No. 2, Fall 1985, pp. 217–247.
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Knowing so little of the circumstances of Cantillon's life is by no means our greatest difficulty in seeking to convey what kind of person he was. Far more annoying is the fact that a large part of the traditional information concerning him can be shown to be unfounded. Hence, almost every literary effort devoted to him has proved ill-fated. Even otherwise scrupulously meticulous writers, when they came to write about Cantillon, were led into error and mis-statement. There was scarcely any aspect left for which several mutually exclusive claims did not prevail.63
Higgs is the only really trustworthy source, and even the earlier accounts are dependable only so far as that they were endorsed by him. The fact that Cantillon's life, in spite of this, is still largely cloaked in darkness may be attributable partly to the not unusual propensity of people in his profession to shun the glare of publicity. Nevertheless, what we do know about Cantillon gives us a starting point, no matter how strange it is that Higgs, having searched through hundreds of contemporary memoirs and diaries, had to report that he could not find a single mention of Cantillon's name and that none of the writers who followed Higgs' lead in taking up the case of Cantillon succeeded in adding anything to our knowledge of his life.64 Indeed, P. Harsin, one of the finest experts on French financial history of that period, has only recently expressed his astonishment that the French sources have nothing further to contribute.65 It is scarcely necessary, therefore, to say that what follows is essentially a summary of already known facts.66
A detailed account of the milieu in which Cantillon lived would, unfortunately, be out of place in the present context. A number of references to particularly informative and little-known works on the subject are given in the accompanying note.67 The circumstances we have referred to serve also to justify the form which our account takes, for its purpose, in bringing together methodically the most important available information, is to offer a basis for further research.
Our earliest account of the book occurs in the well-known literary correspondence which Baron Friedrich Melchoir von Grimm, together with Diderot and others, conducted with princely houses in Germany and which was published a great many years later. Grimm wrote on July 1, 1755:
A month ago appeared a new work on Commerce entitled Essai sur la Nature du Commerce en général in a fairly large duodecimo volume. This book has not been translated from the English, as is stated with design upon the title page. It is a work originally composed in French by an Englishman, M. de Cantillon, a man of condition, who finished his days in Languedoc, where he had retired and had lived many years.68
Grimm then gives a detailed account of the contents, which in modern print, amounts to almost six pages. In his next letter, fourteen days later, Grimm augments his report as follows:
M. de Cantillon, of whom I had the honor to speak to you in my last letter, mentions several times in his work on the nature of commerce another work, which he regards as supplementing the former and which contains, in particular, various ingenious and interesting calculations. This latter work, one is assured, has been lost and all efforts to recover it have proved unsuccessful. The admiration, which the first volume deserves, can serve only to increase our regret at the loss of the second.
A further fourteen days later, on August 1, Grimm finds it necessary to correct his account of Cantillon's person:
I was ill-informed concerning the person of M. de Cantillon, when I had the honor to write to you of his excellent work on Commerce. Cantillon, an Englishman and a man of intellect, as, indeed, his book proves him to be, established a bank in the time of the Regency, in Paris, where he had immense credit. In the early days of the system, Law summoned him to his presence and said to him: “If we were in England, we would have to negotiate with one another and come to some arrangement; in France, however, as you know, I can say to you that you will spend the night in the Bastille if you don't give me your word that you will have left the Kingdom within twice twenty-four hours.” Cantillon thought for a moment and then replied: “Very well, I shall not go but shall help your system to success.” Accordingly, he took a large amount of the paper, which he immediately placed with all the exchange brokers, and thus floated the loan. A few days later he set off for Holland with several millions. Some people assert that he was in good standing with the Princesse d’Auvergne. It is commonly said that he perished in a fire in his house in London in 1733. The fact is that the fire was extinguished easily enough and that they found Cantillon stabbed. The fire appears to have been raised to conceal the crime, and this affair gave rise to many rumors at the time.
This can be supplemented by the second contemporary account of the publication of the book, which is contained in the 1755 volume of Fréron's Année litteraire.69 In the third letter, dated August 4, 1755, of Volume Five, the detailed account of the book begins, just as in Grimm's case, with the statement that the Essai was not really a translation:
It was written in French, and it is the English themselves who have translated it into their language from the original of M. de Cantillon. He was an Irishman who was for many years a Banker in Paris and died tragically in a fire here. A man of great intellect, he associated with people of the highest social standing and was a special friend of Lord Bolingbroke. It is not known through whom or how the manuscript came to be published or why its publication was delayed for twenty years. Neither is it known why the calculations, which several persons claim to have seen in manuscript form, were suppressed at the time of printing.
Fréron also had to correct his account of Cantillon. When the list of contents of the volume in question was being drawn up and the book of the late “fameux banquier” was being referred to, a note was appended to the effect that
it was incorrect to state that he died in a fire in Paris. He had returned to his native England in 1733 or 1734. Shortly afterwards he was robbed by a man-servant, who, to cover up his deed, set the house on fire. The latter was discovered, arrested and executed in London. M. Cantillon had married his daughter to my Lord Bulkeley, Lieutenant-General in the French Service, Chevalier des Ordres du Roi, brother of Madame la Marêchale de Berwick. Madame Bulkeley died at Paris six or seven years ago.
These partly contradictory statements, the corrected versions of which were themselves inaccurate, comprised practically our entire knowledge of Cantillon up to the time of Higgs's research. Even the two great French biographical dictionaries, the Biographie Universelle and the Nouvelle Biographie Generale simply reproduce these statements.70 A reader conversant with the gossip of the time might have recalled a passage in the letters of Horace Walpole in which, under the date April 25, 1743, we read:
Lord Stafford is come over to marry Miss Cantillon, a vast fortune, of his own religion. She is the daughter of Cantillon, who was robbed and murdered by his cook some years ago, on which occasion the latter burned the house down. She is as ugly as he; but when she comes to Paris and wears a great deal of rouge, and has a separate apartment, who knows but she may be a beauty.71
In a footnote the editor of the letters comments that Cantillon was a Parisian wine merchant and banker, who was involved in the Mississippi company with Law and who later brought his riches to England and settled down there. In May 1734 (on May 14, to be exact) a number of his servants, led by the cook, plotted to murder him, knowing that he had substantial sums of money in the house. Having killed him, they set the house on fire, but the flames were easily extinguished and the stabbed body found. The cook fled by sea, while three of his accomplices were charged with murder but later acquitted. This account was apparently taken from contemporary weekly newspapers, as Jevons, who later tracked them down, was able to confirm.72 The marriage mentioned by Walpole is recorded in the genealogical reference books, which tell us that on July 8 or 26, 1743, Henrietta, the daughter of Richard (or Philip) Cantillon, a Parisian banker, married William Mathias, Earl of Stafford, and, following his premature death seven years later, she married Robert (Maxwell), Baron (later Earl of) Farnham, on October 11, 1759, but died on August 30, 1761, at the age of 34 years.73
The third contemporary account of Cantillon consists in the already quoted remarks of the elder Mirabeau in his famous L’Ami des Hommes, published in 1757, two years after the Essai appeared, and—as it later turned out—far more closely related to the latter work than Mirabeau himself would have led one to believe. In the very preface, Mirabeau refers to Cantillon's Essai, without naming it explicitly. With a view to excusing the rather unsystematic construction of his book, Mirabeau mentions a change of plan which had become necessary in the course of the work:
I began it in the form of a free commentary on an outstanding work which I possessed in manuscript form and intended to publish. Publication took place, however, before I had commenced the third section; this made me decide to alter the form of my project and to publish under my own name the scattered and hitherto abandoned fragments which I had committed to paper.74
Subsequent remarks by Mirabeau in the course of his text indicate that it was Cantillon's Essai to which he had referred. Having quoted from Chapter XV of Part One of the Essai, he continues:
These words are taken from Cantillon's work, printed last year. He was uncontestedly the most competent man ever known in this field. His opus, which became submerged in the deluge of similar works brought on by present-day fashion, is but one-hundredth part of the entire work of that brilliant man which perished with him in a most extraordinary and tragic disaster. The opus is itself truncated, since the appendix, to which the author frequently referred and which contained all his calculations, is missing. He had translated the first part himself for the benefit of one of his friends, and on the basis of this manuscript it was printed more than twenty years after the death of the author.
He develops his basic principle in a series of chains of reasoning, so well interlocked as to prove inescapable. They should be looked at by those who dispute his principles. I would have had to repeat them in full or in part; but, on the one hand, I am not disposed to plagiarize, while, on the other, everything in the work is so interrelated, that no thought can be plucked out singly. At the same time, the apathy which led to such a peerless work being lost in the crowd may undoubtedly be attributed to its aridity as a piece of reading.75 76
Mirabeau's protest that he was not disposed to plagiarize Cantillon was, indeed, not unwarranted. It would undoubtedly appear that at least the legal owners of Cantillon's manuscript at the time had reason to fear that this was precisely his intention. As is clear from his letter to Rousseau, which we quoted, Mimbeau had the manuscript in his possession for no less than sixteen years. When Alfred Stern, in his Das Leben Mirabeaus, drew attention to this point, he prompted Stefan Bauer, in the first instance, to enquire about Mirabueau's manuscripts in the National Archives in Paris, where he found in due course what he believed to be a copy of the manuscript of the Essai.77 It was only when Henry Higgs carefully scrutinized the manuscripts ascribed to Cantillon that they proved to be not a true copy but rather an abbreviated version of the Essai.78 It contained several alterations, which were apparently calculated to hoodwink the reader as to the true authorship of the work, but it also carried a preface, from the title of which it appears to have been addressed to the Duke of Noailles and which, in Higgs's opinion, reflected all the characteristics of Mirabeau's style. From the complete version published by Higgs, we reproduce here the following passage in which Mirabeau presents what purports be his own work, in terms which bear a strong resemblance to those he used in respect of Cantillon in his Ami des Hommes and which we already quoted:
Kindly forgive the arid style of the Essai; convinced that, in treating of this subject, one can scarcely go far enough in suppressing one's imagination so as to proceed step by step, and at the same time lacking confidence in my ability to act accordingly, I went to the opposite extreme. May I add that this is but a short excerpt from a longer and complete treatise, but, having jettisoned the greater part in order to get finished, I have disrupted the continuity of the work. However, it had to be brief, and if there is any point, which you would wish to pursue in detail, you know the author.
In the text of the Essai that followed, the passages which were altered or dropped were predominantly those which would have betrayed an expert knowledge not to be expected from Mirabeau, while occasionally, as if to allay suspicion, some hint is given as to how the author acquired his information. The extent, if any, to which Mirabeau made use of this revised text is not known. That his motives, as Higgs suggests, were dishonorable can scarcely be doubted.
The second manuscript is perhaps more interesting. It is a closer copy of the first half of the Essai (extending to the beginning of Chapter VI in Part Two), which was written down apparently by one of Mirabeau's secretaries. A running commentary in the form of marginal notes, added by Mirabeau himself in the first part of this manuscript, evolved in time into the Ami des Hommes. After the appeal to Epicureans, which prefaces this work, and attached to which is the veiled reference to the manuscript of Cantillon's Essai, we now encounter some words in recognition and appreciation of the latter, in which, quite remarkably, the original reference to “M. Cantillon” is deleted and simply “cet homme" left standing. The following is a translation of part of this extensive passage, which Higgs printed in full:
It is now time to do justice to one who deserves it. Among the many works on industry and trade, which appeared in recent times, and many of which I have read with satisfaction, I sensed, though they contained many useful notions, a lack of precision of principle. At last there fell into my hands a rare manuscript, the only relic of the immense works of one of the ablest men Europe has ever produced. I should have named this man with pleasure [originally: ‘This man is M. Cantillon’] and my debt to him is such, that I feel obliged to render him the service of handing down to posterity his name and some account of his industrious life, such, at any rate, as would bestow upon his work the authenticity which a deserves. However, a reading of his work suffices for that purpose. To pursue the other points would, I am assured, annoy his family. Purely on the basis of this allegation, without investigating it and independently of its truth or otherwise, I shall desist. Even though I should think less of those who would take offense, for me the very possibility of offending someone was enough to restrain my pen, a sacred instrument in honest hands, but a poisoned dagger in the hands of one with deranged mind or corrupt heart.
Hence, I say simply that it is the work of one of the leading men of genius in trade in this century. Excessively active, his profound erudition embraced everything bearing on the subject. He foresaw the complete course of the fatuous system of Mr. Law, and, compelled by circumstances to take part in it, he quitted the theatre of this astonishing revolution, leaving his correspondent with orders in advance as to the different stages of the cycle which the catastrophe would run. This fact is not lightly stated. Its details have come out before one of the leading tribunals of Europe. Men like him knew how to keep clear of the crash of this colossal and frail edifice and to make good pickings from its ruins. It was easy for him to profit from the financial crisis which broke out almost simultaneously in nearly the whole of Europe, in Venice, Amsterdam and England. But, a genius at heart as well as in mind, he always looked upon gold as a slave and made wealth subservient to his tastes and curiosity, without thinking of acquiring it till there came to him some new fancy or some occasion to follow his leaning to generosity. Given over to occasional passions like all ardent souls, his chief were always independence and liberty. Cosmopolitan, or rather equally a citizen everywhere, he had houses in seven of the principal cities of Europe and the least knowledge to acquire or calculation to verify made him cross the Continent from one end to another. One of his friends told the that he found him one day at home in Paris in his dressing gown with Livy on his desk. “I am going”, he said, “to make a little trip. There has always been a blunder as to the value of the coins with which the Romans ransomed their city from the Gauls. No matter whether the opinion is true or false, the interpreters are asses, and I am going to get some definite views on the matter. One of these coins is in the collection of the Grand Duke and I am going to verify its weight and alloy”. At this moment the horses arrived and he took leave of my friend to get into the coach. In these voyages he made certain of everything, got out of the carriage to question a labourer in the field, judged the quality of the soil, tasted it, drew up his notes, and an accountant whom he always took with him put them in order when they stopped for the night. A mass of precious manuscripts perished with him by a remarkable and deplorable catastrophe. This surviving sketch can only serve to increase our regret about the rest. This fragment came into my hands by a kind of theft subsequently announced by the person for whom the translation was made.79
Mirabeau then goes on to say that he hesitated to publish the work because it lacked the supplement and, in addition, because “the author” (originally: “M. Cantillon") had first written it in his native language and then translated it, without exercising particular care, for the use of a friend, with the result that it was rather cumbersome in its phrasing. He had originally planned to revise the text but had to come to the conclusion that it is impossible “to lay a hand on the works of great men, when one is not at least on a par with them.” Rather than confine himself to commenting on the text, he had subsumed it into his own work and, in doing so, altered the title, since there was already a surfeit of “Essais sue la commerce.”
As the quotation from the preface to Ami des Hommes showed, Mirabeau's plan was frustrated, even before he had completed his task, by the prior publication of the Essai by others. Even so, when Ami des Hommes finally appeared, purporting to be a completely independent work, it bore many traces of Cantillon's influence and Higgs tells us that the unpublished manuscripts contain further evidence of this influence.80
Mirabeau was not the only person, however, who attempted to use the manuscript before the Essai was published. As Jevons pointed out, two English authors, M. Postlethwayt and the established monetary theorist J. Harris both unscrupulously plagiarized Cantillon following the appearance of the French edition.81 82 83 A few years later E. Cannan discovered that the same Postlethwayt had as early as 1751, that is four years before the publication of the Essai, transcribed long passages from it verbatim in the first volume of his Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce.84 85 In fact, a prospectus relating to the same Dictionary, which preceded it by two years, contains passages which are unequivocally taken from Cantillon's Essai.86 We cannot say with certainty whether Postlethwayt had in hand the French translation or indeed the original English manuscript, which contemporaries assumed had perished with Cantillon. It was probably the latter, because, in the first place, it is known that the French manuscript was for many years in Mirabeau's possession; secondly, certain errors in the French text do not occur here; and, finally, because the “papers of a most gifted, deceased gentleman,” from which Philip Cantillon's already mentioned “Analysis of Trade” was admittedly derived, can scarcely be anything else but the original English manuscript of the Essai, still in existence in 1759.87
In addition to those persons for whom firm evidence exists, there were probably many more who knew the manuscript of the Essai, of which presumably several copies were available. This is supported at least by the statement of Fréron concerning a number of persons who claimed to have seen the appendix. It is only on the basis of what little we know about the circle in which Cantillon moved, that we can hazard a wild guess as to what subsequently became of the manuscript.
In support of what has been said, reference shall be made here to a number of these unfounded statements in the later literature; the earlier sources will be dealt with in due course. The list commences with G. Kellner, who claims Zur Geschichte des Physiokratismus: Quesnay-Gournay-Turgot (Göttingen, 1847), p. 93, that it was Gournay who prompted Cantillon (died 1734!) to translate his Essai. Similarly, a recent author, J. W. Angell The Theory of International Prices (Cambridge, 1926), p. 213n. remarks rather patronizingly that it is improbable that Cantillon got his ideas from Hume's Essays, the date of whose publication he pushes back to 1741 in place of 1752. It was Grimm's account, which we shall come to, that prompted many French writers to give 1733 as the date of Cantillon's death, though this does not explain how R. Gonnard Histoire des doctrines de La Population, (Paris, 1923), p. 142 makes 1735 out of it. Other authors have taken upon themselves to alter the date of publication of the Essai, thus J. Bonar Philosophy and Political Economy (London, 1893), p. 106 writes 1752, while E. S. Furniss The Position of the labourer in a system of nationalism (New York, 1920), p. 162ff writes 1736. P. Harsin Les doctrines monétaires et financières en France du XVIe au XVIIIe Siecle (Paris 1928), finds a simple solution to the problem as to who finally published the Essai by attributing the deed to Eleazar Mauvillon, of whom we know only that he took the Essai, which was published in 1755, and reprinted it a year later together with his translation of Hume's Political Discourses; this action itself contradicts the assumption that he had brought out the first edition of the Essai a year earlier. No less unfounded is the statement of H. R. Sewall The Theory of Value Before Adam Smith (New York, 1901), p. 80 that Cantillon was of French origin or that of R. Legrand, in his frequently cited work, that Cantillon had personally visited all the countries which he mentions in his Essai.
See Higgs’ Preface to W. St. Jevons’ Posthumous Principles of Economics (London, 1905), pp. 10 and 13.
Les doctrines monétaires etc., p. 228n. Huart (op. cit., May 17, p.5) comments that it is quite remarkable that the “Procès-Verbaux du Conseil du Commerce et du bureau du Commerce 1700–1791,” published by Bonnjostieux and Lelong, contains nothing about Cantillon.
For the convenience of those who are familiar with the Cantillon literature, it may be pointed out that in what follows the available data concerning both the author and Essai are plagiarism by Postlethwayt, the plagiarism of Serionne (see footnotes 83 and 86) and the connection with Montesquieu (see footnote 93).
H. Thirrion, La vie privée des financièrs au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1895); Cornelis de Will, La Société francaise et la Société anglaise au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1864); J. H. Hesse, Memories of the Pretenders and Their Adherents (London, 1845).
See p. 43 ff. 52 and 71 of the third volume of the complete edition, undertaken by Maurice Tourneaux, of Correspondence littéraire, philosophique et critique par Grimm, Diderot, Raynal, Meister etc. (Paris, 1878).
L’annee Littéraire, Annee MDCCLV, by M. Freron (Amsterdam), vol. 5, p. 67.
Biographie Universelle Ancienne et Moderne... Nouvelle edition, publiée sous la direction de M. Michaud, vol. 6 (Paris, 1843), under the false name Philippe de Cantillon. The author of the article is said to be Weiss.
The Letters of Harace Walpole, Earl of Oxford, (London, 1840), vol. 1, pp. 274 and 295. See also The Works of Jonathon Swift, ed. Walter Scott (London, 1824), vol. 16, p. 262ff.
The Country Journal or The Craftsmen (18 May and 15 June 1734); Reads Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer, (1 June 1734); and Gentleman's Magazine (May and 7 December 1734).
See Complete Peerage of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom, extant, extinct or dormant, alphabetically arranged and edited by G. E. C., vol. 7 (London, 1896) p. 217 (Stafford), and vol. 3 (London, 1890), p. 319 (Farnham) as well as Higgs, Economic Journal, vol. 1, p. 288, who points out that the sole surviving child out of the second marriage of Cantillon's daughter, Lady Henrietta Farnham, did not die until 1852. She married the Right Hon. Dennis Daly and was mother of the first Lord Dunsandle, whose descendants are the direct representatives of Cantillon. I mention this here, because this clue could perhaps one day help to add to the little that we now know about Cantillon.
Mirabeau, L’Ami des Hommes, ou Traité de la Population, Premiére Partie (Avignon, 1756) recte 1757), p. 6. See also the footnote in chap. 2, p. 18.
Ibid. p. 85 ff. (beginning of chapter 7).
Alfred Stern, Das Leben Mirabeaus (Berlin, 1889), vol. 1, p. 26, who says that “a very considerable influence on the development of his ideas was exercised by Cantillon's “Essai sur la nature du commerce en général,” with which he was familiar in manuscript form for a long time before its publication.”
See Stefan Bauer, “Studies on the Origin of the French Economists,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 5:101 (1891)
See the frequently cited article in the Economic Journal, vol. 1, (1891), as well as the description of the manuscripts in G. Weulersse, Les Manuscripts Economiques de Francois Quesnay et du Marquis de Mirabeau aux Archives Nationales (Paris, 1910), p. 2 ff.
Economic Journal, vol. 1:267 ff.
In the light of these documents we can only be amused when L. Brocard in his book about Mirabeau's Ami des Hommes (Les doctrines économiques et sociales du Marquis de Mirabeau dans l'Ami des Hommes [Paris, 1902], p. 48), without knowing Higgs's study itself, turns indignantly on R. Legrand because the latter, claiming support from Higgs for what was an extremely cautious comment, had dared to say in his Richard Cantillon, Un mercantilliste precurseur des physiocrates (Paris, 1900), p. 8 that: “one may suspect that the Marquis Mirabeau had the intention of utilizing Cantillon's manuscript and, after touching it up, publishing it under his own name.”
“Great Britain's True System” (London, 1757).
An Essay upon Money and Coins (anonymous), in two parts, (London, 17857/58).
In France also there was at least one plagiariser at work quite soon after the appearance of the Essai. Accarias de Serionne in his Les Intérêts des Nations de l'Europe dévélopés relativement au Commerce (Leyden, 1766), 2nd. ed. (Paris, 1767) transcribed several passages from the Essai in his second volume (second edition) as follows: In a footnote on p. 127 a verbatim account of living conditions in China, P. 50 ff of the Essai; on p. 135 ff, the exposition on the different value retationships between gold and silver in various countries (p. 364–366 of the Essai); and on p. 148 the account of Newton's point of view at the time of the English coinage reform, not forgetting the erroneous date of 1728, p. 377 of the Essai.
See the editorial note in Economic Journal (1896), vol. 6:165.
The Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce, translated from the French of the Celebrated Monsieur Savary... with large additions and Improvements incorporated throughout the whole work which more particularly accommodate the same to the Trade and Navigations of the Kingdoms... by Malachy Postlethwayt (London, 1755), vol. 1, 1751, vol. 2, 1755. See especially the article on “Balance of Trade, Banks, Barter, Cash, Circulation, Coin, Exchange and Interest” in vol. 1 and the articles on “Labour and Money” in vol. 2. The article on “Labour” reproduces verbatim almost the entire contents of chapter 2 and chapters 7–11 of the first part of the Essai.
A dissertation on the “Plan, Use and Importance” of the Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce, translated from the French... Addressed to the Nobility, Gentry, Merchants and of Great Britain (London, 1749).
In the example in which the relative shares of labour and material in the value of a watch spring, which in the French text are obviously incorrectly given as “un a on” (p. 35) are correctly given in the above source as “one to a million.” The fact that Postlethwayt in his earlier mentioned work, “Great Britain's True Systems” (London, 1757), p. 154 gives the exact proportion of 1:1,538,460 prompted Cannan (84) to ask if Postlethwayt didn't in fact possess the lost appendix, a question that cannot be answered.