Introduction to the 1st volume of the Collected Works of Dupont (de Nemours)

Introduction to the 1st volume
of the Collected Works of Dupont (de Nemours)

by Benoît Malbranque


On introducing the first of multiple volumes offering the collected writings of the Physiocrat economist Pierre Samuel Du Pont (de Nemours) [1], lengthy pages could be devoted to his merits or the tremendous heritage that he left, both intellectually and practically, on each side of the Atlantic. Yet on the assumption that a reader opening such a large book must have been motivated by more than a sense of curiosity, and his justification been more substantial than a pick at random, I shall confine myself presently to the assertion that on the part of the Institut Coppet, and mine, it is our feeling that a duty has simply been performed, and justice rendered.

Nevertheless, the notoriety of Du Pont in the history of economic thought, the early American Republic, the French Revolution, as well as American business, does not explain the publication of his life’s work in the original French with introduction and notes in English. If the idea of compiling hundreds of articles, booklets and books in a tidy English translation was certainly beyond audacity, offering this edited sum entirely in French was a project which, daunting as it may be, was perfectly feasible. However, the continuous interest that the American public has shown over the past centuries—as evidenced by several studies and biographies—for a man who has been for the nation at large a sort of adopted son, requires a sense of responsibility on the part of his biological parents, so to speak. The ties that bend Pierre Samuel Du Pont to both the United States and France are indeed very close, and are testimony to the long-standing friendship between the two countries, to which he contributed. Admittedly, Du Pont did not instantly recognize the United States as a potential land of opportunity, or at least, at the outset, the opportunities offered were ones he was not ready to seize. In his early years, his proficiency in English was also rather limited: Turgot states in 1767 that his friend would necessarily found himself in need of an interpreter to decipher a letter written to him in that language. [2] Yet America is where he ultimately found refuge, and it is in Wilmington, Delaware, that came to end a life full of twists and turns, ups and downs, which started in Paris three-quarters of a century earlier.

From an early age, Du Pont appears to us as honest, hard-working and devoted to the success of his ideas, capturing in his peculiar character both the innocence and the strength of the whole century. At times he raised to prominence and a sort of head-spinning glory, which he was supposedly ill-prepared to jugulate in his own heart, but dominated rather well; in other historical circumstances he faced disrepute, was mocked and ridiculed, and even imprisoned. A prolific author, he had launched or directed many short-lived publications, ambitioning a drastic shift in policies for which he certainly bore responsibilities, even if eventually he rarely enjoyed the privilege to witness their effect in practical reality. He once recounted to Voltaire, arguably boasting and bragging, how he had warned his wife Marie (née Le Dée), that one should never expect to sleep with a man bold enough to write for the public good (j’ai toujours prévenu ma femme que lorsqu’on épousait un citoyen assez honnête et assez hardi pour écrire sur le bien public, il ne fallait jamais compter affirmativement coucher avec lui  [3]), and indeed in putting forward a rather revolutionary worldview he took a very uneasy position and suffered accordingly.

His early years, covered by the present volume, are portrayed in an important autobiographical document, the Mémoires de P. S. Du Pont de Nemours adressés à ses enfants (1792), and therefore his first stages of life—invariably crucial, as we know, even for someone governed by reason and who had the nerve to acknowledge misconduct and make amends—seem to come to light with a persuasive clarity. Yet the persistence of genuine myths, in their narrative, is definitively troublesome. Written by Du Pont for the purpose of glory and glorification, these Mémoires should never have been taken at face value. Although a conscientious historian, dealing recently with the years of the administration of contrôleur-général Clément Charles François de L’Averdy (1763-1768), may have expressed undue harshness when describing Du Pont’s Mémoires as “a monument of bad faith” (un monument de mauvaise foi [4]), its calling into question is only natural. Through the distorting prism of the author’s recollections for posterity, personal and official narrative do not necessarily correspond. Are in dispute, not only the role of Du Pont in certain events, but our whole understanding of them. What exactly, for instance, was Physiocracy in the 1760s, and how did it function as a school? On this and other issues, Du Pont’s recollections add to our knowledge; yet their perspective is fairly one-sided and, therefore, questionable. To see a secondary actor taking center stage of his own volition is not only improper in the world of theaters, but in historical accounts as well. Certainly, when compared with other documents available to us, Du Pont’s attempts to establish his own merits do not invariably fall short, but caution is always necessary on the part of his biographers, and on reading the text in this volume considerable attention should been given to verification and cross-referencing, in order to ensure a more nuanced report of his ideas and times.

What is more, the later disfigurement of the Mémoires by descendants of dubious intentions have further hindered its use for the improvement of knowledge. Mentions of the lowly status of numerous family members, which are the oldest known roots of the now successful American family, were almost invariably eliminated, along with some ironical or light comments made by the author, in his rather impetuous way of writing. One may wonder why the beauty and purity of the lotus, blossoming in mud, remains inacceptable for some. But more fundamentally, given the fact that this cleaned-up and rewritten version was actually printed in France in 1906, when the original manuscript remained in Delaware, along with the rest of the Du Pont papers, every historian who has had to work with this later version has failed to portray the man fairly, and was bound to fail.

What is pure and impure, graceful and disgraceful, is a matter to be left to the discretion of moral philosophers. The underlying issue is nonetheless one pertaining to the science of history. Following the wise rules set forth by ancient authors, such as Sallustius [5] or Tacitus [6], anyone who feels sympathy or enmity for a particular writer should refrain from writing his biography. Owing to the impact and significance of the historical narrative, impassioned historians must withdraw and sit on the sideline, for the very reasons that force a judge to recuse himself in any proceeding of a trial in which he has a direct interest.

The last decades have seen the publication of several quality studies about Pierre Samuel Du Pont (de Nemours), and I benefited from and drew on most of them. There are nonetheless several important reasons why these work of scholarship did not exhaust the necessary study that must be undertaken in order to understand this author correctly. Ambroise Saricks [7], for example, could not get his hands on some of the first printed texts of Du Pont, and he was unaware of the existence of important manuscripts shedding light in numerous ways on the ideas and actions of the author, such as those stored in Aix-en-Provence (Mirabeau Papers) and Laon (Archives départementales de l’Aisne). Furthermore, he discarded entirely—most likely under time pressure—the large correspondence received by Du Pont from the bride-to-be Marie Le Dée, a remarkable resource kept in Delaware and which remains basically untouched, even to this day. Mrs Fox-Genovese [8], whose later work on the young Du Pont is altogether more fruitful and more precise, has similarly overlooked these manuscripts and this correspondence, and she occasionally finds herself helplessly raising questions which have received a definitive answer in some document or other.

The numerous letters sent by Mlle Le Dée are, in particular, extremely valuable. Du Pont and her fiancée wrote to each other very frequently, having often no possibility to meet and see one another. In a letter from March 1764, she explains how she is grateful to him for his letters, still sent every single day, when she, on the contrary, did not write. [9] Du Pont was working under great time pressure, but invariably found some time to write some lines to her, sometimes more, and some letters were up to 10 pages. [10] Sadly, we do not possess the letters sent by Du Pont, probably because he destroyed them on purpose after her death, wanting to leave no trace which he could find embarrassing. Mlle Le Dée expresses in her letters her constant desire for information, on the part of Du Pont, about his ongoing projects. “Tell me everything”, she wrote to him one day, “for I cannot possibly know too much.” [11] She received his writings as soon as published [12], and even asked him several times to send her important letters that he got from Quesnay, Turgot or others, so that she could see them by herself and share their content around her. [13]

Mlle Le Dée’s lengthy and numerous letters contain many details about Du Pont’s character, helping us to understand who he was as a man. He was, at first, a man of honor, dignity and self-esteem, who did not satisfy himself with having a remarkable mind, as Mlle Le Dée notes one day, but who wanted people to truly notice it. [14] Over and above that, I cannot say what sort of service it will be to his biographers or to those who study his writings, to know that he enjoyed the company of women and easily caressed his fiancée, or that he went every Saturday to the the theatre, liked gold, played occasionally in the lottery, or did not find dancing amusing; because I have not left such distinction in the hands of moral philosophers to retrieve it back from their hands at the first possible occasion.

But the details these letters contain on his working environment and close relation with François Quesnay and the marquis de Mirabeau, will be forever fruitful. The statement made by Du Pont in his Mémoires, that he went to dine with him every day when he was in Paris [15], is confirmed by Mlle Dée, who writes on several of such occasions that “whenever your doctor is in Paris, he gets furious when he does not see you, and therefore I should not bother you” [16]. Month after month, she expresses how “your doctor” or “the man Quesnay” (le bonhomme Quesnay[17] is a great support for Du Pont’s burgeoning career and how his fiancé was well advised to work for him and under his constant scrutiny. “He is a real friend”, she once remarked, “and you are quite right to value, to love and to respect him… I would urge you (but you do not need it) to do everything you can for him, and he will be pleased, and so will you.” [18]

Du Pont’s relationship with the marquis de Mirabeau is slightly different. We know how they sharply disagreed on important topics such as religion, yet Mirabeau was impressed by this young man, and Du Pont himself found in him a mentor. In unpublished letters, he calls him “the sublime author of the Philosophie rurale, and a man deserving to serve as honorary president of every academy of agriculture” [19], and Mlle Le Dée confirms that his fiancé told her numerous times how he valued Mirabeau’s work. [20] In one of the notes that Du Pont added to the booklet edition of a letter on large-scale and small-scale cultivation, he went as far as to say that he is honored to study the Philosophie rurale every single day [21] ; although it might have been an overstatement.

The letters received from Mlle Le Dée also shed light on the writing, publishing and success of Du Pont’s first book, De l’Exportation et de l’importation des grains, centered on the issue of the free trade of grain. The difficulties encountered are discussed every day. Long after the publication, we are also told that its author was having regrets for not having it made lengthier and more detailed [22], a claim similarly expressed, at the same time, in a letter found in the Archives départementales de l’Aisne. [23]

The final manuscript was sent to the publisher around February 15th, and Du Pont spent most of the year 1764 working on other projects. Very few of them have materialized in some sort of publication or other, and without the help of his fiancée’s letters, along with the documents from the Archives départementales de l’Aisne, it would be forever impossible to know what exactly was occupying his time aside from a few articles given in the Gazette du commerce and later published as a booklet. Of the three books mentioned in the documents, respectively on taxation, luxury, and commerce, the first one was arguably the most important of all. Du Pont was to prepare a new and annotated edition of Mirabeau’s Théorie de l’impôt, which first appeared in 1760.

Du Pont was of course very eager to find a stable job, providing enough income for him to marry his sweetheart, and he considered various opportunities or openings. Once, a prince from Poland made inquiries but Mlle Le Dée proved reluctant to follow along. “It is very flattering for the king of Poland or this young prince that you have recently met, to have shown interest in you; but my dear, it seems that it would require us to live in some nasty country and it makes me afraid even thinking about it.” [24] Another time, we are told that Turgot, in Limousin, was considering having Du Pont serve as his first secretary, but similarly this did not take shape. [25]

During all that year, he worked a lot, although maybe not as fruitfully as he and his fiancée could have hoped. She was constantly asking him to be careful of his health and feared the effects of an excessive workload. “Rest well, dear, for the sake of your work, and for mine too, because I cannot help thinking that you are quite sensitive and that your book is killing you” [26] she wrote to him in January. “You work during the day and during the night and stay until 4 without eating. You really want to get ill, don’t you?” [27] she asked again in March.

Although his first writings were received well, his position was still unstable. “Be strong, dear, it seems to me that the most difficult part is behind you”, wrote Mlle Le Dée in March, “you are known, surely this will be enough for all those who want to be useful to you and who certainly need your talents.” [28] Yet this was not enough, nor for them, nor certainly for Mlle Le Dée’s father, who did not want to hear about her daughter having any sort of romance with a man still wandering around with no fortune of his own and no real job. In fact, he acted carefully, kept track of his daughter’s every move, and on discovering that she was still writing secretly to M. Dupont, he got mad, brought her to a house far from Paris and kept her under tight scrutiny. Mlle Le Dée was resourceful, her maid and a drunkard by the name of Berget, that she paid, took letters over to Du Pont whenever they could, and obtained his answers. Yet on New Year’s eve, she could only lament that “on the day of Christmas, 25 of this month, it has been four months since I last saw my darling here” [29]. Thus ended a very eventful year, full of ups and downs, which probably reinforced Du Pont’s willingness to succeed and make a name for himself, and quickly.


Benoît Malbranque



[1] The exact spelling of his name is an issue in itself, and it occupied my mind for quite some time. The debate centers on four alternatives.

1° Dupont, most common in France, was how Samuel, father of our author, spelled his name, and how many family members also chose to write it. To this I could add that his fiancée, Mlle Le Dée, usually wrote Dupont, but, as we shall see, she was in fact terrible at spelling, and therefore this will prove nothing.

Du Pont was adopted by the young author and maintained without great consistency throughout most of his career, with the prime intention, I believe, to differentiate himself from his father.

du Pont, a quite similar way of writing, does also appear from time to time, although altogether there are relatively few instances.

DuPont, while not making much sense in French, was of course later adopted by the American company. Our author himself made some use of this particular way of writing in his early letters.

(The addition “de Nemours” was only introduced in a much later period of his life and career, and cannot be considered presently.)

Du Pont, being the most common, and a useful middle ground between the various spellings found in manuscripts and printed texts from that time, is my preferred option and will be used here.

As for the first name, it is commonly rendered as Pierre-Samuel. This issue is of a much lesser importance, because in society he was never called anything else than Monsieur Dupont, but it may be worthy to note that his first name was just Pierre. It is confirmed by a letter sent by Mlle Le Dée on June 29th, 1764, on the day of the official celebration of Saint Pierre (Saint Peter). (See below, letter 55, W2-5812, page 342.)

[2] Letter from Turgot to Pierre Samuel Du Pont, 6 october 1767 ; Œuvres de Turgot et documents le concernant, ed. Institut Coppet, t. II, p. 592.

[3] Letter from Pierre Samuel Du Pont to Voltaire, 1stSeptember 1769; The complete works of  Voltaire, vol. 119, 1968, p. 202.

[4] Joël Félix, Finances et lumières au siècle des Lumières. Le ministère L’Averdy, 1763-1768, Comité pour l’histoire économique et financière de la France, 1999, p. 204.

[5] Sallust, Bellum Catilinae, LI, 1-2; Catiline’s Conspiracy (Batstone), Oxford, 2010, p. 35.

[6] Tacitus, Annales, I, 1, 3; The Annals (Yardley), Oxford, 2008, p. 3.

[7] Ambroise Saricks, Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours, University of Kansas Press, 1965.

[8] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese (ed.), The autobiography of Du Pont de Nemours (Wilmington, Del.), Scholarly Resources, 1984.

[9] Letter 143, [Hagley, W2-5900], Jeudi 29 novembre 1764, p. 471.

[10] Letter 18, W2-5778, Mardi 6 mars 1764, p. 316.

[11] Letter 32, W2-5790, Samedi 31 mars 1764, p. 325.

[12] Letter 112, W2-5865, Jeudi 20 septembre 1764, p. 413.

[13] Letter 73, W2-5828, Jeudi 2 août 1764, p. 363.

[14] Letter 30, W2-5788, Mercredi 28 mars 1764, p. 323.

[15] Mémoires de P.-S. Du Pont de Nemours adressés à ses enfants, p. 114.

[16] Letter 51, W2-5808, Vendredi 22 juin 1764, p. 339.

[17] Letter 117, W2-5871, Mercredi 26 septembre 1764, p. 418.

[18] Letter 122, W2-5877, Dimanche 7 octobre 1764, p. 433.

[19] Lettre à M. le président Labouret, 15 septembre 1764, p. 292.

[20] Letter 105, W2-5858, Lundi 10 septembre 1764, p. 397.

[21] Note added in the booklet edition of the Lettre sur la grande et la petite culture, note 1 p. 281.

[22] Letter 106, W2-5859, Mercredi 12 septembre 1764, p. 400.

[23] Lettre à M. le président Labouret, 15 septembre 1764, p. 292.

[24] Letter 143, W2-5900, Jeudi 29 novembre 1764, p. 470.

[25] Letter 150, W2-5907, Mercredi 19 décembre 1764, p. 479.

[26] Letter 7, W2-5766, Vendredi 27 janvier 1764, p. 306.

[27] Letter 18, W2-5778, Mardi 6 mars 1764, p. 315.

[28] Ibid., p. 314.

[29] Letter 155, W2-5912, Lundi 31 décembre 1764, p. 486.

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