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The Politics of International Trade in Late 18th Century France

In this seminar, we will consider how the expansion of consumption and international trade in the eighteenth century shaped French domestic politics and its foreign relations. Historians have generally contrasted early modern mercantilism (commerce as generative of war) with Enlightenment economic liberalism (commerce as productive of peace). They have seen liberal ‘political economy’ as fostering the idea of doux commerce, or “sweet commerce,” which saw trade as a means for expanding economies, civilizing societies and securing international peace. Why was this utopia not achieved? Were contemporaries truly inspired by this notion or was it exploited in the pursuit of more narrowly defined interests? What impact did efforts to liberalize trade (or not liberalize it) have on politics and diplomacy in an age of expanding trade, colonialism, and empire? Finally, can the outbreak of the French Revolution be attributed, in part, to the tensions generated by economic liberalization?

Session Leader


  1. How did rising consumption in the 18th century reshape international relations and the nature of European war?
  2. What impact did liberal principles of free trade have on both domestic politics and international relations?

  3. How did international and colonial trade – both legal and contraband – contribute to the outbreak of the French Revolution?

  4. How did international and colonial trade -- both legal and contraband -- contribute to the abolition of the slave trade?
  5. How far did progressive ideas about “doux commerce” go? Have historians gone too far in stressing their importance as an ideology?

Required Reading

  • Montesquieu, 'Of Laws in Relation to Commerce, Considered in its Nature and Distinctions', Spirit of the Laws, Book 20, at
  • Two letters by Adam Smith to William Eden, 1st baron Auckland, in Electronic Enlightenment.
    • Adam Smith to William Eden, 3 January 1780
    • Adam Smith to William Eden, 15 December 1783
  • Two essays from Suzanne Desan, Lynn Hunt, and William Max Nelson (eds.), The French Revolution in Global Perspective (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013):
    • Michael Kwass, 'The Global Underground: Smuggling, Rebellion, and the Origins of the French Revolution'
    • Charles Walton, 'The Fall from Eden: the Free-Trade Origins of the French Revolution'
  • Paul Cheney, 'A False Dawn for Enlightenment Cosmopolitanism? Franco-American Trade during the American War of Independence', The William and Mary Quarterly 63: 3 (2006), 463-488.
  • Pernille Røge, 'Why the Danes Got There First - a Trans-Imiperial Study of the Abolition of the Danish Slave Trade in 1792', Slavery and Abolition: A Journal of Salve and Post-Slave Studies DOI: 10.1080/0144039X.2013.852709 (published online in 2013 - use search function in online edition to find this article)

Further Reading

  • Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: The Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977). (An influential and ‘Montesquieuian’ interpretation of doux commerce and the Enlightenment).
  • Istvan Hont, Jealousy of Trade: International Competition and the Nation-State in Historical Perspective (Cambridge MA: Belknap Press, 2005).
  • Daniel Roche, A History of Everyday Things: The Birth of Consumption in France, 1600-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  • Colin Jones, “The Great Chain of Buying: Medical Advertisement, the Bourgeois Public Sphere, and the Origins of the French Revolution,” American Historical Review 101:1 (1996), 13-40. (How liberal advertisements generated critical and democratic impulses, via the ‘public sphere’.)
  • Robert Darnton, The Devil in the Holy Water, or the Art of Slander in the Eighteenth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009) (on the international market for libels)
  • Will Slauter, “A Trojan Horse in Parliament: International Publicity in the Age of the American Revolution,” in Charles Walton (ed.), Into Print: Limits and Legacies of the Enlightenment (State Park: Penn State University Press, 2011), 15-31. (On the diplomatic tensions generated by the international press.)
  • David A. Bell, The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), chap 2 on “Conscience, Commerce, and History”. (On doux commerce as an ideology pointed towards perpetual peace, a dangerous utopianism.)
  • Anoush Terjanian Fraser, Commerce and Its Discontents in Eighteenth-Century French Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
  • Paul Cheney, Revolutionary Commerce: Globalization and the French Monarchy (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010).
  • ‘Reciprocity – 1776-1830’ in Encyclopedia of the New American Nation at
  • Pernille Røge, ‘”La Clef de Commerce” – The changing role of Africa in France’s Atlantic Empire c. 1760-1797’, History of European Ideas, 32 (Dec. 2008).
  • Bertie Mandelblatt, ‘A Transatlantic Commodity: Irish Salt Beef in the French Atlantic World,” Historical Workshop Journal 63: 1 (2007), 18-47 (on why Irish salt beef, rather than French colonial salt cod, ended up being imported into French colonies in the Caribbean, and on slaves as consumers and producers fueling an Atlantic economy).
  • Michael Kwass, Contraband: Louis Mandrin and the Making of a Global Underground (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).
  • Lauren Clay, ‘The Bourgeoisie, Capitalism, and the Origins of the French Revolution’ in David Andress (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).