Two letters from Frédéric Bastiat to A. de Lamartine (1847)


Two letters from Frédéric Bastiat to A. de Lamartine

3 August and 8 September 1847


Translated by Benoît Malbranque


[Archives du château de Saint-Point.]



Mr. Alphonse de Lamartine

Member of Parliament

Saint-Point, near Mâcon

Lyon, 3 August 1847.

Sir, will you forgive me for having tried to fight you on two occasions? [1] Your words are so impactful, and your noble feelings find their way with such easiness to the hearts of everybody, that any mistake contained in your writings is all the more dangerous. One cannot indicate them without thereby paying homage to your power.

Anyway, if I was wrong, I will make amends. Your genius has placed you in the highest position in the intellectual world. Your sincerity has no less elevated you in the confidence of the country. You still have to conquer a similar position in the world of facts, that is in active politics. [2] Please examine if what I have yet to tell you does not provide you with an opportunity to do so.

I came here for the sake of our cause: Trade Reform. In a public gathering I will try to explain our program. But I would prefer a thousand times if it were proclaimed by you. Coming from my mouth, it will go no further than my voice can reach. Proclaimed by you, it will be repeated by the thousand voices of the press and it will become the program of France. And who knows? After having made it accepted by public opinion, perhaps you will be charged to carry it out in our laws—and without being untrue to your former self, like Sir Robert Peel [3].

Sir, we need a program for the country, a clear, simple, precise program, based on a serious, profound, fruitful, executable reform, going to the bottom of things, conferring a genuine betterment for the people. This program, do you want to make it be heard in Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes, Le Havre? If you accept, I can predict you will have two imperishable glories: one, that of the poet, which your genius has already acquired [4] ; but would it not be beautiful if France had the greatest of her benefactors in the first of her poets?

Why would I hide this observation from you? The more France admires your imagination, the more she distrusts it. Poetry and business are believed to be mutually exclusive; one finds in your speeches noble thoughts, generous intentions, an inimitable eloquence, but one cannot find a program, namely what there is to do now. Tell us, tell us then: If I were a minister, these are the reforms I would make and the order in which I would make them! — And if that is clear, striking, practical, be sure that France will take you to the ministry.

You ask me what this program is. It would require further discussions with you. But I do not hesitate to give you here the skeleton, and you will make a statue of it.

The starting point is trade reform.

The men who made a system of the protectionist laws, Mr. Ferrier and Mr. Saint-Cricq [5], agree that this regime, aimed at eliminating collection opportunities, flourishes at the expense of the tax authorities. Therefore, by abolishing it, you make the treasury richer and you can alleviate the effects of the postal reform and the reduction in the salt tax. There you have three reforms in one; and is it not a wonderful thing to fill up two deficits, not by increasing, but by reducing taxes?

Secondly, commercial freedom ensures peace, and a peace that maintains itself. You can therefore reduce our army and navy, saving thereby an enormous amount of tax money, with which you can abolish the octroi, and rebuild the ever-oppressive legislation of indirect taxes. In addition, you facilitate the recruiting and ease all those maritime ordinances which are causing our navy so much difficulties.

That is enough for a four or five-year ministry. Do you want us to discuss this program in depth? I am ready to go to you in this end, if, in the event that you would adopt it, you could promise me to come and promote it, because, above all, it must be accepted by the public. [6]

You might criticize these ideas for being too narrowly financial. But if you go to the bottom of it you will see that, under these questions of finance, there are questions of morality, justice, democracy, progress in all directions, non-armed intervention, equitable distribution of charges, and conciliation between the people and the bourgeoisie. Besides, this is precisely what I would like to discuss with you, and I cannot do it in a letter, the length of which I must on the contrary beg you to excuse.

It is my honor, Sir, to be truly yours.

Frédéric Bastiat

(At Mr. Arlès-Dufour’s, in Lyon)


[LETTER FROM FRÉDÉRIC BASTIAT TO A. DE LAMARTINE, 8 SEPTEMBER 1847. Extracts.] [Bastiat thanks Lamartine for his] magnificent speech […] for me and for our cause, because I understood that you tried to raise the man up to popularize the idea. [7] Only great and generous men like you can show such a generosity. With one word you can create fame, and that word you offer it occasionally. It is a noble feature and I can clearly sense what greatness of soul there is in this patronage.

[Bastiat would like Lamartine to make an energetic campaign, but he has three months of work in front of him to finish writing the history of the Constituent Assembly [8].] Posterity will gain a fine book there. But do you not believe that the present times will lose something? Let me tell you this: if you were our leader, we would move the political parties, we would conquer free trade, universal peace, association applied to the pursuit of reforms, and all the immensity that these three things contain. Nonetheless, three months pass quickly. I will gladly devote this time to expanding your audience. Despite your kind words, I do not feel I have the strength to be a first, but as a second, under a leader like you, I can conscientiously fulfill my role…[9] (Correspondance d’Alphonse de Lamartine (1830-1867), éditions Honoré Champion, vol. V, p. 163.)


[1] See his articles in the Journal des économistes (February 1845 and October 1846).

[2] Lamartine had such an ambition and Bastiat was clever enough to mention it.

[3] Robert Peel (1788-1850), who introduced free trade in Great Britain after having fought against it along with his party.

[4] Due to numerous collections of poems published to great acclaim, such as Méditations poétiques (1820) and Harmonies poétiques et religieuses (1830).

[5] Two members of Parliament promoters of protectionism in France.

[6] Bastiat was convinced of such a requirement and mentioned it frequently in his writings. See his Œuvres complètes, t. II, p. 72, 91; t. III, p. 221-222; t. VII, p. 37.

[7] In his speech in favor of free trade, delivered in Marseille on August 24th, 1847, Lamartine had praised Bastiat in front of the audience, with witty choice of words, one could have only expected of him.

[8] Histoire des Girondins, by Alphonse de Lamartine (1847).

[9] In February 1848 a revolution broke out and Lamartine was propelled to a leading role. A few days earlier he had written to Bastiat: “if ever the storm carries me to power, you will help me to achieve the triumph of our ideas” (Œuvres complètes de Frédéric Bastiat, t. VII, p. 257). Yet Bastiat did nothing of that sort. Lamartine later failed miserably in his quest for the presidency, which fell into the hands of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte. I personally doubt very much that even in much peaceful circumstances Lamartine would have maintained very long his affiliation with the free trade movement.

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