The “éloge de Gournay” was written in 1759. Jean-François Marmontel (1723–1799), French writer and contributor to the Encyclopédie, prepared the official eulogy of Gournay by having extracts of Turgot’s eulogy printed in Le Mercure, no. 8 (August, 1759). English edition published in David Gordon’s Turgot Collection.
LETTER FROM TURGOT TO MARMONTEL
Paris, 22 July 1759
I have certainly not forgotten, sir, the note on the late M. de Gournay, which I promised you. I even counted on giving it to you last Monday, at Mme. Geoffrin’s, but, not having found you there, and believing you to be in no great hurry, moreover, I took it back home, with the idea that perhaps I would have the time to complete the draft of the eulogy which I would like to make of this excellent citizen.
Since you can wait no longer, I am sending you an outline of it, sketched in great haste, which may yet be able to help you write it, and which you will undoubtedly use in a manner which does much greater justice to his glory than my efforts.
You are aware of my affection.
In Praise of Gournay
Jean Claude Marie Vincent, Seigneur de Gournay, honorary councilor of the Grand Council, and honorary Intendant of Commerce, died at Paris, June 27 (1759) at the age of forty-seven. (1)
He was born in St. Malo in May 1712. His father was Claude Vincent, one of the most important merchants of that town, and Secretary Royal.
His parents destined him for a commercial life, and sent him to Cadiz in 1729, when he was only just seventeen.
Left to his own devices at this early age, he was yet able to avoid the perils and frivolity which are but too common at that age, and, during his entire stay in Cadiz, his life was divided between study, the work of his business, and the numerous connections which his business required and which his personal merit soon procured him.
Through diligence and alertness he found time to enrich his mind with a mass of useful knowledge, without yet neglecting that higher literature, but it was, above all, to the science of commerce that he felt himself drawn and to which he directed his mind in all its vigor. To compare the products of nature and those of the arts in man in different climes, to arrive at the value of these different products, or, in other words, their relationship with the needs and wealth of people at home and abroad, the costs of transport which vary according to the nature of the commodities and the diversity of the routes, the many duties to which they are subject, etc., etc.; in short, to comprehend in its full scope, and to follow in its continual upheavals, the condition of natural production, of industry, of population, of wealth, of finance, of the needs and even the vagaries of fashion in all the nations that are united by commerce, in order to theorize profitably on the basis of a thorough study of all these details—this is to be concerned with the science of trade, as a merchant and constitutes only a part of the science of commerce. But to discover the causes and effects of that multitude of upheavals in all their diversity, to search out the elemental forces whose action, always in combination with, and sometimes disguised by, local circumstances, directs all the transactions of commerce; to recognize those special and basic laws, founded in Nature itself, by which all the values existent in commerce are balanced against each other and settle at a certain value, just as bodies left to themselves take their place, unaided, according to their specific gravity; to discern those complicated relations which link commerce with all the branches of political economy; to perceive the interdependence of commerce and agriculture, the influence of the one and the other on the wealth, the population, and the strength of states, their intimate connection with the laws and customs, and with all the processes of the government, especially with the distribution of its finances; to weigh the assistance which commerce receives from the Navy and that which it renders to it in return, the changes it produces in the respective interests of States, and the weight it places in the political balance of nations; in fine, to select, from among chance events and principles of administration adopted by the different nations of Europe, the true causes of their progress or of their decline in commerce—this is to approach the subject as a philosopher and a statesman.
If his position in life caused M. Vincent to concern himself with the science of commerce as under the first of these two points of view, his vast and penetrating intellect did not allow him to confine himself to this.
To the enlightenment which he drew from his own experience and his reflections, he added a reading of the best works on this subject produced by the different nations of Europe, and particularly by the English nation—the richest of all in such works, and with whose language he familiarized himself for this reason. The works which he read with most pleasure, and whose doctrine he most appreciated, were the Treatises of the famous Josiah Child (2) (which he afterward translated into French) and the Memoirs of the Grand Pensionary, Johan de Witt (3) We know that these two great men are considered (the one in England, the other in Holland) as the legislators of commerce; that their principles have become national principles, and that the observance of these principles is regarded as one of the sources of the vast superiority in commerce which these two nations have acquired over all the other powers. M. Vincent constantly found verification of these simple and enlightened principles in the practice of an extensive business. He made them his own, without foreseeing that he was destined one day to spread their light through France, and to merit from his own country the same tribute of gratitude which England and Holland pay to those two benefactors of their nation and humanity. His talents and knowledge, together with the most perfect integrity, assured M. Vincent the admiration and the confidence of that multitude of merchants that commerce brings together at Cadiz from all parts of Europe, while at the same time his charming manners procured him their friendship. He soon enjoyed there an esteem unusual for his age, and which the natives of the country, his own compatriots, and the foreigners there, were equally eager to bestow upon him.
During his stay in Cadiz he had paid several visits to the Court of Spain, and to the various provinces of that kingdom.
In 1744, some commercial enterprises which had to be arranged with the Government brought him to France, and in contact with the Comte de Maurepas, then Minister of Navy, who soon discovered M. Vincent’s worth.
After leaving Spain, M. Vincent resolved to spend some years traveling through the different parts of Europe in order to increase his knowledge, as well as to extend his correspondences and to form connections favorable to the business he intended to pursue. He visited Hamburg and traveled through Holland and England. Everywhere he made observations and collected notes on the state of commerce and shipping, and on the principles of administration adopted by the different nations in respect to those great objects. During his travels, he maintained an uninterrupted correspondence with M. de Maurepas, whom he acquainted with the knowledge which he was gathering. Everywhere, he made a favorable impression, and attracted the goodwill of the most considerable merchants, of men of great distinction in all walks of life, and of the ministers of foreign powers who were resident in the places through which he traveled. The Court of Vienna, as well as that of Berlin sought to procure his services, and made him very enticing proposals, but he rejected them. He had no other intention than to continue in business and to return to Spain, after having again seen Germany and Italy, when an unforeseen event interrupted his projects and brought him back to his own country.
M. Jametz de Villebarre, his business partner and friend, died in 1746, and being without children, made M. Vincent his sole heir. The latter was in England when he received this news; he returned to France. The amount of his fortune was sufficient for his modest needs; he felt he should settle in his own country and he gave up commerce in 1748. He then took his name from his estate of Gournay, which was included in the legacy he received from M. de Villebarre. The minister was aware how useful his knowledge of commerce might prove to the administration of that important sector. The court had planned to send him to the general peace discussions being held at Breda (4), not unlike M. Ménager, who in 1711, had been sent to the conferences which preceded the Treaty of Utrecht, in order to discuss the commercial aspects of our interests. The changes which occurred in the conferences did not permit this wise project to be executed, but M. de Maurepas adhered to his original desire to make the talents of M. de Gournay useful to the government; he advised him to consider the prospects of a position as Intendant of Commerce, and to enter, in the meantime, one of the higher Courts. Consequently, in 1749, M. de Gournay purchased the office of councillor in the Grand Council. When an Intendancy of Commerce fell vacant in 1751, M. de Machault, who was also most familiar with the merits of M. de Gournay, had that office conferred on him. From this time onwards, his life was devoted to public affairs: his entry into the Ministry of Commerce appears to have marked the beginning of a period of profound change. During twenty years of experience in a wide and varied trade, in his frequent visits to the most competent merchants of Holland and England, in the reading of the most highly esteemed authors of these two nations, in his careful observation of the causes of their prosperity, M. de Gournay had formulated principles which appeared to be new to some of the magistrates of whom the Ministry of Commerce was composed —M. de Gournay was of the opinion that every man who works deserves the gratitude of the public. He was astonished to find that a citizen could neither manufacture nor sell anything without having bought the right to do so by entering a corporation or guild at great expense, and that, after having bought this right, it was still sometimes necessary to have a law suit, to determine whether by entering this or that corporation he had acquired the right to manufacture precisely this or that article. He thought that a workman who had manufactured a piece of cloth had made a real addition to the stock of wealth in the State; that if this cloth happened to be inferior to others, there might yet be found among his customers somebody to whom this inferiority would be more suitable than a more expensive perfection. He could not see why this piece of cloth, for failing to conform to certain regulations, should be cut up into fragments of three ells in length, and why the unfortunate man who had made it should be ordered to pay a penalty, enough to reduce him and his family to poverty. He could not conceive why a workman, when making a piece of cloth, should be exposed to risks and expenses from which an idle man was exempt. He could not see of what use it might be that a manufactured piece of cloth should involve legal procedures and tedious discussions in order to establish whether it conformed to an extensive system of regulation, often difficult to understand, nor did he think that such discussions ought to be held between a manufacturer who cannot read and an inspector who cannot manufacture, nor that that inspector should yet be the final judge of the fortune of the unlucky man, etc.
M. de Gournay found it equally strange that, in a kingdom in which the order of succession was determined simply by custom, and in which the question of applying the death sentence to certain crimes was still left to the discretion of the courts, the government should have deigned to regulate by special legislation the length and breadth of each piece of cloth, the number of threads it was to contain, and to hallow with the seal of the legislature four volumes in quarto filled with these important details, and in addition innumerable statutes, dictated by the spirit of monopoly, the whole purpose of which were to discourage industry, to concentrate trade within the hands of a few people by multiplying formalities and charges, by subjecting industry to apprenticeships and journeymanships (compagnonnages) often years in some trades which can be learned in ten days, by excluding those who were not sons of masters, or those born outside a certain class, and by prohibiting the employment of women in the manufacture of cloth, etc., etc.
He had not imagined that in a kingdom subject to the same prince, all towns looked on each other as enemies, that they would assume the right to prohibit work within their precincts to other Frenchmen, classifying them as foreigners, to oppose the sale or the free transit of commodities of a neighboring province—and thereby for the sake of some fleeting interest, to contend against the general interest of the State, etc., etc.
He was no less astonished to see the government concern itself in regulating the circulation of each commodity, in prescribing one kind of industry in order to encourage another, in subjecting to special constraints the sale of the provisions most necessary to life, in forbidding the setting up of stores of a product whose crop varies from year to year and whose consumption is nearly always the same, in forbidding the exportation of an article subject to depreciation, and to see the government expect to secure the abundance of corn by making the condition of the farm laborer more uncertain and more unhappy than that of all other men, etc.
M. de Gournay was well aware that several of the abuses to which he was opposed had existed in former times in a large part of Europe, and that vestiges of them still remained even in England; but he also knew that the English government had abolished part of them; that, if some still remained, far from adopting them as useful institutions, that government tried to restrict them, and to prevent them from spreading, and continued to tolerate them only because the republican constitution sometimes places obstacles in the path of reform of certain abuses when these abuses can be corrected only by an authority which is always mistrusted by the people, even if it is used to their own advantage. Finally, he knew that for more than a century, all enlightened minds, whether in Holland or in England, had regarded these abuses as remnants of mediaeval barbarism and of the weakness of all the governments which had known neither the importance of public liberty, nor how to protect it against the invasions of the spirit of monopoly and of particular interests.
For twenty years, M. de Gournay had himself carried out, and had seen carried out, the greatest commerce on earth without having had occasion to learn, other than from books, of the existence of all those laws to which he saw so much importance attached, and therefore he did not believe that he would be taken for an innovator and a man of systems, when all he did was to develop those principles which experience had taught him, and which he saw unanimously recognized by the most enlightened merchants with whom he was associated.
These principles, which others styled as a new system, to him appeared to be no more than the maxims of the plainest common sense. This whole so-called system was founded on this maxim, that in general every man knows his own interest better than another to whom it is of no concern.
Hence he concluded that when the interest of individuals is precisely the same as the general interest, every man ought best to be left at liberty to do what he likes. Now, in the case of unrestrained commerce, M. de Gournay thought it impossible for the individual interest not to concur with the general interest.
Commerce can be connected with the general interest, or, what is the same thing, the State can interest itself in commerce, in two respects only. As protector of the individuals who compose it, it is in its interest that no one should be able to inflict any great injustice on another, against which the latter has no protection. Next in its capacity as a political unit forced to defend itself against foreign invasions, it is in the interest of the State that the stock of its wealth and the annual product of the soil and of industry should be as great as possible. In both respects, the State has a special interest in protecting the value of the necessities of life from those sudden shocks which, by plunging the people into the horrors of famine, may endanger public tranquility and the safety of citizens and magistrates. Now, it is clear that the interest of all the individuals, kept free from restraint of any kind, necessarily fulfils all these conditions of general usefulness.
As for the first object, that in trade no one should injure another, it is evidently sufficient that the government should always protect the natural liberty of the buyer to buy, and of the seller to sell. For if the buyer is always the one who decides whether to buy or not, it is certain that he will select among all the sellers the man who will give him at the best price the merchandise that suits him best. It is no less certain that every seller, it being his chief interest to gain preference over his competitors, will sell in general the best merchandise at the lowest possible price, in order to attract customers. It is not true therefore that a merchant may be interested in deception—unless he has some exclusive privilege.
But if the government limits the number of sellers by exclusive privileges or otherwise, it is certain that the consumer will be wronged and that the seller, certain of selling, will compel him to buy bad articles at a high price.
If, on the contrary, it is the number of buyers which is diminished, by the exclusion of foreigners or of certain other persons, then the seller is wronged, and, if the injury is carried to the point where the price does not compensate him, with profit, for the costs and risk, he will cease to produce the commodity in such abundance, and scarcity will result.
The general freedom of buying and selling is therefore the only means of assuring, on the one hand, the seller of a price sufficient to encourage production, and on the other hand, the consumer, of the best merchandise at the lowest price. This is not to say that in particular instances we may not find a cheating merchant and a duped consumer; but the cheated consumer will learn by experience and will cease to frequent the cheating merchant, who will fall into discredit and thus will be punished for his fraudulence; and this will never happen very often, because generally men will be enlightened upon their evident self-interest.
To expect the government to prevent such fraud from ever occurring would be like wanting it to provide cushions for all the children who might fall. To assume it to be possible to prevent successfully, by regulation, all possible malpractices of this kind, is to sacrifice to a chimerical perfection the whole progress of industry; it is to restrict the imagination of artificers to the narrow limits of the familiar; it is to forbid them all new experiments; to renounce even the hope of competing with the foreigners in the making of the new products which they invent daily, since, as they do not conform to our regulations, our workmen cannot imitate these articles without first having obtained permission from the government, that is to say, often after the foreign factories, having profited by the first eagerness of the consumer for this novelty, have already replaced it with something else. It means forgetting that the execution of these regulations is always entrusted to men who may have all the more interest in fraud or in conniving at fraud since the fraud which they might commit would be covered in some way by the seal of public authority and by the confidence which this seal inspires, in the consumers. It is also to forget that these regulations, these inspectors, these offices for inspection and marking, always involve expenses, and that these expenses are always a tax on the merchandise, and as a result overcharge the domestic consumer and discourage the foreign buyer. Thus, with obvious injustice, commerce, and consequently the nation, are charged with a heavy burden to save a few idle people the trouble of instructing themselves or of making enquiries to avoid being cheated. To suppose all consumers to be dupes, and all merchants and manufacturers to be cheats, has the effect of authorizing them to be so, and of degrading all the working members of the community.
As for the second object for the Government in this connection, which is to procure for the nation the greatest possible stock of wealth, is it not evident that since the only real wealth of the State is the annual output of its land and of the industry of its inhabitants, its wealth will be at its greatest when the produce of each acre of land, and of the industry of each individual is carried to the highest possible level? And is it not evident that each proprietor has more interest than any other person in drawing from his land the greatest possible return? That every individual has the same interest in gaining by his work as much money as possible? It is equally obvious that the employment of the soil or of industry which yields the greatest revenue to each proprietor or to each inhabitant will always be the one that is of the greatest advantage to the State, because the sum which the State can use annually for its needs is always an aliquot part of the total revenue which is annually produced in the State, and because the sum of these revenues is composed of the net revenue of each estate and of the product of the industry of each individual—if then, instead of leaving all this to private interests, the government takes it upon itself to prescribe to each what he must do, clearly all the benefits individuals lose because of the constraints imposed upon them, will represent an equal deduction from the total net revenue produced in the State each year.
To imagine that the State should encourage the earth to bring forth one kind of produce rather than another, that it ought to establish certain types of manufactures rather than some others; that consequently it ought to prohibit the production of some goods and order that of others; to forbid certain kinds of industry for fear of injuring other kinds; to claim to sustain manufacturing, when it is at the expense of agriculture by forcibly maintaining the price of provisions below their natural level; to establish certain manufactures at the expense of the Treasury; to heap privileges on them, favors, exclusions of all manufactures of the same kind for the purpose of procuring for the manufacturers a profit which it is assumed they could not obtain by the natural sale of their products: all this is to misunderstand greatly the true advantages of commerce; it is to forget that no commercial transaction can be anything other than reciprocal, and that, therefore, the desire to sell everything to the foreigners and to buy nothing from them, is absurd.
There is no need to prove that each individual is the only competent judge of this most advantageous use of his lands and of his labor. He alone has the particular knowledge without which the most enlightened man could only argue blindly. He alone has an experience which is all the more reliable since it is limited to a single object. He learns by repeated trials, by his successes, by his losses, and he acquires a feeling for it which is much more ingenious than the theoretical knowledge of the indifferent observer because it is stimulated by want.
If the objection is raised that apart from exchange value, the State may also be interested in being as little dependent as possible on other states for the commodities of prime necessity; firstly, all that this proves is that, although both freedom of industry and freedom of trade in the produce of the soil, are very precious, freedom of trade in the produce of the soil is yet the more essential; secondly, it will always be true that greater wealth and a larger population will give the State in question the means of ensuring its independence in a much more reliable manner. Besides, that suggestion is purely speculative; a large State always produces everything and with regard to a smaller one, a bad harvest would soon wreck this fine scheme of independence.
As for the third object, which may interest the State in two respects, both as protector of the individuals whom it must put in the way of earning a comfortable living by their own labor, and as a political body interested in preventing the domestic troubles which a famine could cause, this matter has been developed so clearly in the work of M. Herbert (5), and in the article “Corn” by M. Quesnay (6), that I refrain from discussing it here, since M. Marmontel knows these two works thoroughly.
It follows from this discussion that, in all respects in which commerce may interest the State, unrestrained individual interest will always produce the public welfare more surely than the operations of government, which are always faulty and of necessity directed by a hazy and dubious theory.
M. de Gournay concluded that the only aim the administration should set for itself was: firstly, to restore to all branches of commerce that precious liberty they had lost through the prejudices of ages of ignorance, through the ease with which the Government fell in with particular interests, and the desire for a misplaced perfection; secondly to grant the right to work to all members of the State, for the purpose of exciting the greatest competition in the market, which will infallibly produce the greatest perfection in manufacture, and the most advantageous price to the buyers; thirdly, to give at the same time as many competitors as possible to the buyer by opening for the seller all the outlets for his commodity, which is the only means of assuring labor its reward, and of perpetuating production, which has this reward as its sole object.
Besides this, the government should plan to remove those obstacles which retard the progress of industry by diminishing the extent and the certainty of its profits. M. de Gournay considered the chief of these obstacles to be the high interest of money, which, by offering to all owners of capital the means of spending their lives without working, encourages luxury and idleness and withdraws from commerce the riches and industry of a multitude of citizens, rendering them unproductive to the State; which excludes the nation from all branches of commerce not yielding one or 2 per cent more than the current rate of interest; which consequently gives foreigners the exclusive privilege of all these branches of commerce, and enables them to gain preference over us in almost all other countries by lowering the price more than we would afford to do; which gives the inhabitants of our colonies a powerful reason to engage in smuggling, and in this way weakens the natural affection they ought to have for the mother country; which alone would secure for the Dutch and the Hanse towns the carrying trade of all of Europe including even France itself; which, every year, makes us tributaries to the foreigners by the high rates we pay on their loans to us; which, finally, withdraws from cultivation all those lands which would not yield more than 5 per cent, since it is possible, to obtain the same return with the same capital, without working. But similarly, he believed that the dealings in capital itself, which have this rate of interest as their price, can be made to regulate this price equitably and with all necessary economy only, as in the case of all commerce, by competition and by mutual liberty, and that the government could best bring this about by, on the one hand abstaining from making laws whenever agreements can serve this purpose, and on the other hand, by not swelling the number of debtors and consumers of capital whether by borrowing or by not repaying punctually.
Another kind of obstacle to the progress of industry which M. de Gournay considered could not be cleared away too soon was that multiplicity of taxes which, owing to the necessity of meeting the requirements of the State, had been imposed upon labor of every kind, entailing vexatious modes of collection which were often more onerous than the taxes themselves; the arbitrary nature of the taille, the multiplicity of dues on every sort of merchandise, the complexity of tariffs, the inequality of these dues in the different provinces, the innumerable customs houses at the frontier of these provinces, the frequency of inspections and the importunity of enquiries necessary to provide against fraud, the necessity of relying on the solitary testimony of mercenary men of low character for proof of these frauds; the interminable disputes, so fatal to commerce that almost any merchant would prefer, in this respect, a disadvantageous arrangement to a law suit, no matter how obvious the justice of his case. Finally, he condemned the impenetrable obscurity and mystery resulting from this complexity of local dues and regulations published at different dates, an obscurity which is always interpreted in favor of revenue and against commerce. He condemned the excessive duties, the evils of smuggling, the loss of a multitude of citizens which this entails, etc., etc., etc.
Public finance is necessary, since the State needs revenue; but agriculture and commerce, or rather agriculture animated by commerce, is the ultimate source of these revenues. Thus public finance should not be prejudicial to commerce, since it would at the same time harm itself. These two interests are of necessity united, and if a conflict of interests seems to exist, it is perhaps because we have confused the interests of finance as related to the State and the monarchy, which are eternal, with the interests of the financiers, who, being charged with the collection of the revenues for a certain period only, prefer to increase present revenue rather than to conserve the source which produces this revenue. Add to this the dubious and fortuitous way in which this hydra of all types of duties has taken shape, i.e., by the successive gathering together of a multitude of fiefs and sovereignties, and the conservation of the taxes which each individual sovereign used to enjoy, while the urgency of the kingdom’s needs has never left time to reform this chaos by establishing a uniform system of duties. Finally, there are the facilities which public finance has had at all times of making its voice heard, to the prejudice of commerce.
The fiscal authority consists of a body of accredited men, whose prestige varies with the urgency of the needs of the State. They are always occupied with a single object, never distracted nor negligent, resident in the capital and in constant touch with the government. The merchants, on the other hand, occupied each with his individual objective, dispersed in the provinces, without fame or protection, without a central meeting place, are only able to raise a feeble and solitary voice in any given case, a voice that is inevitably stifled both by the number and the prestige of their adversaries, and by the opportunities the latter have of engaging skilled writers in the defense of their interests. If the merchant agrees to abandon the care of his affairs in order to hold a litigation rather than to surrender his rights, the odds are high against him, and even if he wins, he still remains at the mercy of a powerful body which has, through the rigor of the laws which it has suggested to the ministry, an easy means of crushing the merchant; for (and this is not one of the least abuses), there exist several laws of this type which are impossible to execute and which the tax farmers only use to ensure the submission of individuals, by threatening a rigorous application of them.
M. de Gournay thought that the Board of Trade would be of much greater use if, rather than managing commerce, which ought to go its own way, it protected commerce against the activities of the public revenue. He would have liked the needs of the State to be such that they would allow commerce to be delivered from all kinds of duties. He believed that a nation fortunate enough to have reached this point would necessarily draw to itself the greater part of the commerce of Europe. He believed that all taxes, of whatever kind they may be, are, in the final analysis, paid by the landowner, who sells by so much the less the produce of his land, and that if all the taxes were assessed on landed property, the proprietors and the kingdom would thereby gain all that was now absorbed in the cost of administration, the unproductive employment of men now wasted in tax collection, in smuggling, or in preventing it, without even counting the immense gain from the increase in riches and value that would result from the increase in commerce.
There exist also some obstacles to the progress of industry that arise from our customs, from our prejudices, from some of our civil laws, but the two which are most disastrous I have already discussed, and the others would entail too much detail. Besides, M. de Gournay did not pretend to limit the duties of the government toward commerce strictly to that of maintaining its free course and removing the obstacles that oppose the improvement of industry. He was also quite convinced of the usefulness of the encouragements that could be given to industry either by recompensing the authors of useful inventions, or by encouraging, by prizes or gratuities, a competition among artisans to attain perfection. He knew that even when industry enjoyed the most complete freedom, these measures are often useful in hastening its natural progress, and that they are essential above all when the fear of constraints has not been completely dispelled and still slows down its development. But he could not give his approval when these encouragements could conceivably stand in the way of new progress through prohibitions and exclusive advantages. It was only with great reservations that he supported loans by the government, and he preferred other encouragements: rewards in proportion to production, and prizes designed to attain perfection in work, in short, marks of distinction and all measures which encourage competition among a greater number of men.
This, more or less, expresses M. de Gournay’s attitude toward the administration of commerce; these are the principles which he constantly applied to all the matters discussed at the Board of Trade from the moment he entered it. As he had no idea of creating a new system, he was satisfied to develop only what was necessary to support his opinions in regard to each particular affair; but it was not long before the consistency and fruitfulness of his principles were recognized, and soon he had to countenance a mass of challenges.
He gave himself with pleasure to these discussions which could only elucidate the subject and in one way or another produce a knowledge of the truth. Free from all selfish interest, from all personal ambition, he lacked even that slavery to his opinions which self-love might have induced. All he lived for, and aspired to, was the public welfare; thus his opinions were expressed with as much modesty as courage. Equally incapable of taking an overbearing tone, and of speaking against his opinion, he delivered his sentiments in a straightforward manner which derived all its power from the strength of his reasoning. He skillfully put his ideas within the grasp of all minds, stating his principles with a kind of luminous precision, and emphasizing them by a sensible use of some well chosen examples. When he was contradicted, he listened with patience; however sharp the attack might be, he never discarded his customary politeness and gentleness, nor did he lose anything of the presence of mind and composure necessary to fathom completely the artful reasoning advanced against him.
His simple eloquence, animated by that engaging earnestness which pervades the discourse of a virtuous man who is deeply persuaded that he is upholding the cause of the public welfare, never detracted from the soundness of the discussion; sometimes it was seasoned with a harmless jest which was all the more pleasant since it was never pointless.
His zeal was gentle because it was purged of all self-esteem; but it was not therefore any the less earnest, for love of the public welfare gripped him.
He was convincing without being excessively attached to his opinions; his mind, always without bias, was constantly ready to receive fresh enlightenment; sometimes he did change his mind on important matters, and there was nothing to suggest that his previous opinion had in the least delayed that sudden impression which the proffered truth makes on one as fair-minded as he.
He had the good fortune to find in M. Trudaine, who was even then at the head of the administration of commerce, the same love of truth and of the public welfare that motivated himself. Since at that stage he had developed his ideas only as occasion arose during business discussion or in conversation, M. Trudaine urged him to give as it were an outline of his doctrine. It was with this in mind that he translated in 1752 the treatises on trade and the interest of money by Sir Josiah Child and Sir Thomas Culpeper. He added a great many interesting remarks in which he thoroughly examined and discussed the principles of the text, and clarified them by applying them to the most important questions of commerce. These remarks formed a work as considerable as that of the English authors, and M. de Gournay counted on having them printed together. He printed only the text however, in 1754: reasons, which no longer exist, then prevented the printing of the commentary.
His reputation became well established, and his zeal communicated itself to others. It is to the ardor with which he sought to direct all men of talent with whom he was acquainted to the study of commerce and political economy, and to the ease with which he communicated all the knowledge he acquired, that we owe that propitious fermentation of thought on these important questions that has taken place these last few years, and which sprang up two or three years after M. de Gournay had been Intendant of Commerce. Since then, it has already presented us with several works filled with laborious research and profound views, works that have cleared our nation of the charge of frivolity which it had not failed to incur by its indifference to those studies which are the most truly useful.
In spite of the opposition which he had to endure, M. de Gournay often tasted the satisfaction of succeeding in eradicating part of the abuses which he was attacking, and above all, of weakening the authority of those archaic principles which even then had to be relaxed as to the rigor and the extent of their application in order to withstand his attacks. However difficult people may have found it to embrace his principles to their full extent, his insight, his experience, the general esteem of the merchants for him personally, the unimpeachable purity of his views, these things inevitably earned him the confidence of the minister and the respect even of those who yet fought against his ideas.
His zeal induced him to make plans to tour the kingdom in order to see for himself the state of commerce and of manufactures, and to discover the reason for the rise or decay of each branch of trade, the abuses, the needs, the resources of each type. He started the execution of his plan in 1753 and departed in July. From that time up to December he traversed Bourgogne, Lyonnais, Dauphiné, Provence, upper and lower Languedoc, and returned finally by way of Lyon.
In 1754, he was unable to travel because of a tumor situated on his back, which he had cut out twice, and which had to be burned out the third time with the help of caustics, at the beginning of 1755. He resumed his travels in 1755 and made a tour of inspection of La Rochelle, Bordeaux, Montauban, the remainder of Guyenne and Bayonne. In 1756 he followed the course of the Loire from Orléans to Nantes, traveled through Maine, Anjou, the coast of Bretagne from Nantes to Saint-Malo, and returned to Rennes for the sitting of the States in 1756. The deterioration of his health did not permit him to make any further journeys.
At each step he found further reasons to confirm him in his principles, and new arguments against the restriction of commerce against which he was fighting. He took up the complaints of the friendless, poor manufacturer who, unable to write and to present his claims in plausible arguments, and having no representative at the Court, has always been the victim of a government misguided by interested men to whom he was forced to appeal. M. de Gournay applied himself to uncovering the hidden interests which had called for those allegedly useful rules whose sole object it was to put the poor more and more at the mercy of the rich. The fruits of his travels were the reform of an infinite number of abuses of this kind; a knowledge of the true state of the provinces giving more certainty and better direction to the operations of the Ministry; a more exact appreciation of complaints and requests; the facility which was afforded to the people and to the simple artisans of making known their own complaints; finally, a fresh spirit of emulation in all branches of commerce which M. de Gournay was able to spread by his persuasive eloquence, by the exactness with which he stated his ideas and by the happy contagion of his patriotic zeal.
He sought to inspire in the magistrates and notable persons in the places he visited a zeal for the prosperity of their town or their district; he interviewed men of letters, suggested subjects for treatment, and urged them to direct their studies toward questions of commerce, agriculture and all economic matters.
It is partly to his suggestions and to the zeal which he had inspired at the sittings of the States of Bretagne during his stay at Rennes in 1756 that the society (7) for the Perfection of agriculture, commerce and industry, established in Bretagne under the protection of the States and the auspices of the Duke d’Auguillon, owes its existence. This society was the first of its kind to be formed in France. Its program, which is connected with the municipal administration of the province, was drawn up by M. de Montaudouin, a merchant from Nantes.
M. de Gournay knew how to adapt himself to the degree of intelligence of his audience, and he answered the absurd objections—dictated by ignorance—with the same suavity and exactness with which he answered the bitter opposition, dictated by quite different principles, in Paris.
Full of respect for all those persons charged with the administration of the provinces which he visited, he gave them no occasion to think that his mission could cast the least shadow on their authority. Always forgetting himself, sacrificing himself without effort for the benefit of the objective, it was as far as possible through them and with them that he acted; he seemed only to supplement their zeal, and he often credited them in the presence of the minister with his own ideas. By this conduct, if he did not always succeed in convincing them of his principles, he at least always won their friendship.
The life of M. de Gournay does not offer any other outstanding event during the time that he continued as Intendant of Commerce. Ever occupied with the functions of his office, never missing any opportunity to put forward some useful ideas, or to spread light among the public, there is hardly an important question on commerce or political economy on which he has not written several notes or reasoned letters. He devoted himself to this sort of work with a type of prodigality, producing nearly always, on every occasion, new papers, without referring his audience to the earlier ones he had written. He did not try to evade the trouble of rediscovering ideas which he had already expressed, or the unpleasantness of repeating himself. The reason for this manner of working was the small value which he attached to what he had composed, and his total unawareness of any literary repute. Overflowing with his salutary and fruitful principles, he applied them to every question with the greatest ease. Completely preoccupied with propagating some useful idea, he did not think of himself as a writer. Free from personal attachment to what he had written, he gave it over, without reservations, to all those who wished to instruct themselves, or to write, on these matters, and more often than not he did not even keep copies of what he had written. These fragments, jotted down in haste and forgotten by him, are nevertheless precious, even if regarded purely from the point of view of composition: his writings, like his conversation, was characterized by a natural eloquence, a lucid precision when expounding his principles, a remarkable art of presenting them from all types of viewpoints, of adapting them for all minds and of having them appreciated by examples which were always just right, and whose very rightness was often striking; a politeness which never failed, and a shrewd logic in the discussion of objections; finally, a patriotic and humane tone, which was unintentional and therefore all the more genuine.
M. de Gournay did not content himself with advocating his ideas through writing or speech: to command respect for the ideas he thought useful he applied the same activity, the same warmth and the same perseverance which an ambitious man puts into the pursuit of his own interests. Incapable of losing heart when the cause was a worthy one, he did not hesitate to push his efforts to the point of obtrusiveness. No proprietor of our isles has clamored with as much zeal for the freedom of trade for neutral vessels in our colonies during the war (8). His solicitations were all the more animated and pressing because he demanded nothing for himself, even to the extent that he died without receiving any favor from the court.
Meanwhile, as he occupied himself solely with public work, his own fortune, as well as his health, had wasted away. He had sustained losses on the funds which he had left in Spain, and the state of his affairs forced him to leave his position as Intendant of Commerce in 1758. Some important people who knew how useful he was suggested that he ask the Court for some favors for himself which would compensate him for the losses he had sustained. He replied, “that he did not esteem himself sufficiently to believe that the State had to buy his services, that he had always looked upon similar favors as a dangerous practice, especially in the circumstances in which the State was situated, and that he did not desire to be reproached for being a party to exceptions to his own principles in his own interest.” He added, “that he did not believe himself to be excused by his retirement from occupying himself with objectives useful for the well-being of trade.” For this reason, he requested to keep his seat at the Board of Trade, with the title honorary, which was accorded to him.
Some time previously, he had similarly sold his Office of Councillor at the Grand Council, but had kept the title of honorary councillor.
Retirement did not deprive M. de Gournay of his importance. His zeal was not lessened because of it, his insight could still be as useful as ever. M. de Silhouette, whose regard for M. de Gournay speaks in praise of both of them, resolved, as soon as he had become Contrôleur-Général, to remove from retirement a man whose talents and zeal were so fitted to furthering his own designs. He began by inviting him to be present at the conference which the Intendants of Commerce held every week with the Contrôleur-Général, and at which M. de Gournay had ceased to be present. He also intended him to take up one of the positions of Royal Commissioner to the General-Farm (9). In this office, M. de Gournay would have been in a position to appraise the reciprocal complaints of commerce and finance, and to search for a means of reconciling these two interests of the State as far as possible, but he was not able to profit from this token of esteem of M. de Silhouette. When this proposition was put to him he had already been stricken by the illness of which he died.
His health had been deteriorating for a long time. After spending carnival time at his estate of Gournay, he returned with a pain in the hip he at first took for sciatica. For a time the pain gradually grew worse, and at the end of two months a tumor was discovered which appeared to be the source of the trouble, but several different attempted cures could not dissipate it. Weakness and emaciation increased. The waters had been suggested, but he was not strong enough to undertake the journey; a slow fever was consuming him. A last effort was made with the use of a resolvent which was regarded as more potent, but no sooner was it applied, than M. de Gournay lapsed into a violent fever accompanied by delirium. This state of affairs lasted for three days; at the end of this time, he regained consciousness, of which he made use to make his will and to receive the last rites of the church. He died that same evening.
In the year … (10) he married Clothilde Verduc, and he lived in great harmony with her. No children resulted from this marriage.
M. de Gournay would merit the gratitude of the nation even if it would have been obliged to him only for having contributed more than any other person to the directing of minds toward economic knowledge. This glory would be secured for him even if his principles were still liable to opposition; and truth would always have profited from the discussion of matters to which he had given occasion for debate. Posterity will decide between him and his adversaries. But until the nation delivers its judgment, the honor of being the first to diffuse the principles of Child and of Johan de Witt may be confidently claimed in his memory. And, if one day these principles are adopted for commerce by our administration, if they will ever be for France what they have been for Holland and England, that is, a source of abundance and prosperity, our descendants will know that gratitude for it is due to M. de Gournay.
The opposition which his principles encountered has led some people to portray M. de Gournay as a fanatic and a man of systems. This phrase, a man of systems, has become a type of weapon in use by all those who are biased or interested in maintaining some abuse, and directed against all those who propose changes in the status quo.
The philosophers of recent times have indeed, with as much strength as reason, striven against the spirit of systems. They understood by this term those arbitrary suppositions with the help of which it is attempted to explain all phenomena and which actually explain them all equally, because they do not explain any; that lack of observation, that overhasty reliance on obscure analogies by which a particular fact is rashly transformed into a general principle, and the whole is judged by a superficial glance at a part; that blind presumption which relates all it does not know to the little it knows; which, dazzled by an idea or a principle, sees it everywhere, like the eye, fatigued by an intense look at the sun, casts its image on all the objects to which it directs itself; which wants to know all, explain all, arrange all, and which, ignorant of the inexhaustible variety of nature, claims to subjugate it to its arbitrary and limited methods, and tries to circumscribe the infinite in order to embrace it.
But when men of the world in their turn condemn systems, it is not in the philosophic sense. These men, accustomed to receive all opinions, one after the other, like a mirror reflects all images without retaining them, accustomed to find everything probable without ever being convinced, to ignore the intimate connection of effects with their causes, to contradict themselves constantly without being aware of it or placing any importance on it, these men cannot help but be astonished when they meet with a man who is inwardly convinced of a truth, and deduces consequences from it with the rigor of exact logic. Today they will listen to him, tomorrow they will listen to entirely contrary propositions, and they will be surprised not to see in him the same flexibility. They do not hesitate to call him a fanatic and a man of systems. Thus, although in their language the word system applies to an opinion adopted after mature consideration, supported by proofs and consistent in its consequences, they none the less take it amiss because the little attention of which they are capable does not enable them to judge the reasons, and does not offer them any opinion to which they can refer constantly or which is clearly related to a particular principle.
Yet it is true that all thinkers have a system, that a man who has no system or logical connection between his ideas must either be an imbecile or a madman (11). Never mind. The two senses of the word system are confused, and he who has a system in the sense of the men of the world, that is, a settled opinion resulting from a chain of observations, will incur the reproaches made by the philosophers to the spirit of systems taken in quite a different sense, that of an opinion not founded on sufficient observation.
Taking the word system in the popular sense, M. de Gournay, undoubtedly, was a man of systems, since he had a viewpoint to which he was strongly attached. His adversaries were all men of systems, as much as he was, since they held an opinion contrary to his.
But if the word system is taken in the philosophical sense, which I first developed, nobody was further removed from that than he. On the contrary, he would rather have had the right to lay this reproach at the door of the principles against which he fought, since his whole doctrine was founded on the complete impossibility of directing, by invariant rules and by continuous inspection a multitude of transactions which by their immensity alone could not be fully known, and which, moreover, are continually dependent on a multitude of ever changing circumstances which cannot be managed or even foreseen; and since he therefore wanted the administration not to attempt to lead everybody by the hand, and not to claim the ability to do so, but rather to let them go their way and rely more on the natural motive of self-interest, than on the external and artificial restraints of regulations which were always arbitrary in spirit and often so in application. If arbitrariness and a mania for fitting facts to ideas rather than ideas to the facts are the distinguishing marks of the spirit of systems, then assuredly M. de Gournay was not a man of systems.
He was even less so as far as an obstinate attachment to his ideas was concerned. The humility with which he held them proved strongly that he was not conceited about them and that he upheld them only as a citizen. It can be said that few men have been as perfectly free as he was from that type of vanity which shuts the door on new ideas. He searched for new information as if he knew nothing, and was ready to examine every assertion as if he had never held any opinion to the contrary.
It must also be said that this so-called system of M. de Gournay had this peculiarity that its general principles have been adopted by nearly the whole world; that at all times the desire of commerce among all the nations has been expressed by those two words: freedom and protection, but above all freedom. M. le Gendre’s phrase to M. Golbert is well known: laissez-nous faire. Often M. de Gournay differed from the men who treated him as a man of systems only in this: that he objected with the strictness of a just and righteous heart, to the exceptions which they allowed in favor of their own interests.
For example, the world is full of people who condemn exclusive privileges, but who believe that there are certain commodities for which they are necessary. This exception is generally based on their personal interest, or on that of individuals with whom these people are connected. Thus the majority of people is by nature well disposed toward the sweet principles of commercial freedom. But nearly all, either through interest, or through habit, or through subordination, insert some small modifications or exceptions.
M. de Gournay, in objecting to any exception in particular, had the majority with him, but by objecting to all exceptions at the same time, he ranged against him all the people who each wanted one exception, even though they were not united on the type of exception they desired. The result of this was a misleading unanimity of feeling against his principles, and an almost universal imputation of the title of man of systems against him personally.
This imputation was seized upon as a rallying cry by those who were turned into his adversaries because of envy or an excessive zeal for their own opinion, and gave them the excuse to oppose him as a solid body, instead of the empty shadow they really were, of which any man less zealous for the public welfare and less indifferent to his own interests, would have been terrified.
Opposition only served to stimulate his courage. He knew that by declaring the universality of his principles less candidly, and by failing to acknowledge all the remote consequences which derived therefrom, by being a party to some slight modifications, he would have evaded this dreaded title of a man of systems and would have escaped the bias which people endeavored to propagate against him. But he believed in the usefulness of developing principles to their fullest extent, and he wanted the nation to instruct herself; and only the clearest exposition of the truth could instruct her. He thought that such circumspection would be useful only to himself, and he held himself of no account.
It is not true that he believed, as several people alleged he did, that there was no need for any moderation in the reform of abuses; he knew how necessary it was to prepare all improvements, how dangerous too sudden shocks are; but he thought that the necessary moderation should be in the action and not in the thought. He did not desire to have the whole old edifice knocked down before the foundations of the new one had been molded, but he wanted an extensive plan to be drawn up before this task was started, to avoid acting blindly either in destroying, or conserving, or in reconstructing.
Finally, to M. de Gournay’s very personal glory, there was his virtue, which was so well known that in spite of all the opposition which he had to endure, not the least shadow of suspicion ever tarnished the brightness of his reputation even for a moment. This virtue did not falter all through his life. Based on a deep feeling of justice and philanthropy, it made him a kindly and modest man, forbearing in society, irreproachable and even austere in his conduct and principles, but austere only for himself; even tempered at home, busy in his family circle to make all those around him happy, always ready to sacrifice, obligingly, all that he did not regard as duty. In public life he showed himself free from all self-interest, ambition, and almost entirely free from love of glory, and yet, none the less active for it, nor less indefatigable, nor less ingenious in the pursuit of the fulfillment of his designs, whose sole objective was the general welfare. He was a citizen completely occupied with the prosperity and glory of his country and the happiness of mankind. Humanity was one of the motives which tied him most to what was called his system. He most vigorously reproached his opponents for the principle of always favoring the rich and idle part of society at the expense of the poor and industrious part.
It is unfortunate in a way that men commendable for the most deserving virtues, and who are most truly useful to the world, are most unfavorably endowed in the distribution of fame. Posterity considers almost exclusively those actions which take place in public and which are dazzling, and it is perhaps more sensitive to their brilliance than to their usefulness. But, even if we assume its judgment to be always equitable in this respect, the motives and the spirit which produce these actions and which alone can lend them the mark of virtue, are ignored. The finer details are lost in the narrative of history, like the glow of a complexion and the delicacy of features vanish under the painter’s colors. Only lifeless brush strokes remain, and actions whose character is misjudged. Sometimes spite and sometimes flattery interpret them at their pleasure, and only too often succeed in making posterity’s verdict fluctuate between the purest virtue, and clever vice masked as virtue.
This misjudgment never occurs while these people are still living, and there is an interval of time when spite in vain attempts to tarnish a well-known virtue and when flattery that would offer undeserved honors can be repelled. This moment passes with the life of the person. Therefore the only means of ensuring, for that small number of men whose virtue is generally recognized, the continuation of the general esteem which they deserve, and of catching the fragrance of virtue which surrounds them, is to call forth the testimony of the present generation, and to call recent events to bear witness. In rendering this deserved public homage to the virtue of M. de Gournay, we feel sure that no voice will be lifted against us.
(2) Sir Josiah Child (1630–1699), English merchant and economist. The treatise to which Turgot refers is his Discourse Upon Trade (1690) which Gournay had translated into French.
(3) Johan de Witt (1623–1672), prominent Dutch statesman. The treatise to which Turgot refers is the Political Maxims of the State of Holland, by John de Witt, pensionary of Holland (1662).
(4) In 1748, at the end of the War of Austrian Succession. The peace treaty itself was signed at Aix-la-Chapelle in the same year.
(5) Claude-Jacques Herbert, Essai sur la police des grains, sur leur prix, et sur les effets de l’agriculture, Londres, 1753.
(6) Francois Quesnay, “Grains,” first published in the Encyclopédie in 1757.
(7) Société (Agriculture de Bretagne.
(8) I.e., the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) in which France supported Austria against Prussia and England.
(9) I.e., the agency for collecting indirect taxation on behalf of the crown on a commission basis.
(10) This is left blank in the French text. The date of marriage between Gournay and Clothilde Verduc was apparently not known to Turgot. In fact, Gournay was married in 1748, on his retirement from trade.
(11) This sentence was changed by du Pont in his edition of Turgot’s works. It should apparently read as follows: “In this last sense, it is however true that everybody who thinks has a system and that a system cannot be a matter for reproach, seeing that a system can only be confounded by an opposite system.” (Note by Gustave Schelle.)