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The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language: An Outline History

  • Université Panthéon-Assas, Paris, France
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French
Language: An Outline History *
Gilbert Faccarello, Philippe Steiner
Ken Carpenter’s recent publications on the translation of An Inquiry into the Nature
and Causes of the Wealth of Nations into the French language during the period 1776 to
1843 have shed a great deal of light on Adam Smith’s translation history.1 If we add to
this record what we know of Theory of Moral Sentiments, we can summarise the
various translations into French as in Table I,2 supplemented by the listing given in
Table II of other writings by Smith.3
* Published in Keith Tribe (ed), A Critical Bibliography of Adam Smith, London: Pickering and
Chatto, 2002.
1 Kenneth E. Carpenter, The Dissemination of the Wealth of Nations in French and in France 1776-1843,
The Bibliographical Society of America, New York 2002; and his earlier essay, “Recherches sur la
nature et les causes de la richesse des nations d’Adam Smith et politique culturelle en France”,
Économies et Sociétés, no. 10 (1995) pp. 5-30.
2 Large caps indicate original translations, small caps reprints, the translation number serving also to
indicate the translator. The suffix (a) indicates an abbreviated edition, although the name of the
editor concerned is not given here for the sake of clarity; (e) indicates substantial extracts in a
periodical, encyclopedia or other serial publication. It is worthwhile distinguishing those extracts
published in the eighteenth century from abbreviated editions which, from the late nineteenth
century, were conceived for an entirely different purpose. In the former case (and leaving to one
side encyclopaedia entries), extracts were designed to make the work of an author better known,
preceding publication as a book and a complete reading. In the nineteenth century the publication
of “select extracts” related to works already considered to be classics of their kind, and intended as
a substitute to a complete reading. (i) indicates an incomplete translation; (m) indicates a
manuscript only.
3 For further details of these different editions see Richard Sher’s essay above; and also Carpenter,
Dissemination for Wealth of Nations to 1843.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
Table I — Translations of Smith in France and in French (1764-2002)
T1 Eidous
T2(m, i) La Rochefoucauld
T3 Blavet
W1 (m) Morellet
W2(e) Reverdil
W3 [Anonymous]
W4 Blavet
w4, w4
W5 (m) Nort
w6(e) & w4(e)
W6 Roucher
T4 Grouchy
W7 Garnier
w7(a) & w7(i)
W8 Taieb
T5 Bizioux et. al.
W9 ed. Jaudel
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
Table II— French Translations of Smith’s Philosophical Writings
A. M. H. Boulard
Pierre Prévost
Sophie de Grouchy
Jacques-Louis Manget
P.-L. Autin, I. Ellis, M.
Garandeau, P. Thierry
The following account is divided into three distinct periods:
1888 to the present
This periodisation arises from the “material” aspect of the Smith reception: the
translations themselves, whether complete or in part, made accessible to a francophone
public. Within each of these periods we have briefly examined this material dimension
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
of the reception, but also taken account of another history, that of the intellectual
translation of the work the province of the history of ideas, whose phasing does not
exactly correspond to that of the material publication history.
The First Period: 1764-1802
The translation history of Smith’s work, and importantly, that of its reception, is rich
and varied during this period. One has only to look at the figures – taking into account
of all translations, we are talking of not less than twelve translators working over a
period of forty years; and seven of these translators, over a period of twenty years,
directed their efforts to Wealth of Nations. By the end of the period canonical
translations had been made of Moral Sentiments and of Wealth of Nations, and all later
interpretations and editions would be based on these versions.
At the close of the ancien régime, this flurry of activity was first directed to Moral
Sentiments, two complete translations of this work appearing in succession that of
Marc-Antoine Eidous (1764) and the abbé Jean-Louis Blavet (1774-1775), the latter
being reprinted in 1782. Besides this, we know that Louis-Alexandre de La
Rochefoucauld prepared an incomplete manuscript translation in 1774. The Theory of
Moral Sentiments, originally published in 1759, reaching its sixth edition in 1790, was
also published in a completely new translation during the revolutionary period: Sophie
de Grouchy, Condorcet’s widow, published her own version in 1798, based on the
seventh English edition.
Besides translations of this major text, there are a number of other philosophical
writings that can be added, all of which appeared during the revolutionary period.
Smith’s “Considerations concerning the first formation of Languages, and the different
genius of original and compounded Languages”, published in the Philological
Miscellany of 1761 and then appended to the 1767 third edition of Moral Sentiments,
was translated twice. The first was by A. M. H. Boulard, who published the text under
a direct translation of the original title in 1796; the second was by Sophie de Grouchy,
who appended the text to her translation of Moral Sentiments, following exactly the
English edition upon which she based her translation.4
Finally, the writings that Joseph Black and James Hutton brought together in 1795
under the title Essays in Philosophical Subjects, together with Dugald Stewart’s
“Account” and Smith’s 1755 letter to the Edinburgh Review, were translated and
published by Pierre Prévost as Essais philosophiques in 1797. Prévost added ten notes
in the form of commentary directed to specific points, as well as a more general essay
“Réflexions sur les œuvres posthumes d’Adam Smith”.
4 In 1809 Jacques-Louis Manget published another new edition
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
But it was the Wealth of Nations that attracted most attention from translators,
reflecting in great part the intensity of intellectual activity prevailing in France during
the second half of the eighteenth century, turning on the philosophical, economic and
political questions raised by the Enlightenment. It also reflected a certain personal
rivalry between translators who were themselves reformers by persuasion; and these
conflicts have to be considered if we are to reach a more exact understanding of the
diffusion and reception of Smith in this period.
Up until 1789 there are no less than five separate translations:
1. two translations were never published: the almost complete translation of abbé
Morellet – the manuscript that has survived lacks the last two chapters of Book
V;5 and that of the comte du Nort, mentioned by Adam Smith in a letter of 1782
to Blavet,6 but for which no manuscript has ever been found;
2. a very partial translation by Élie Salomon François Reverdil was published in
1778 under the title Fragment sur les colonies en général, et sur celles des
anglais en particulier. This is a translation, with some modifications,7 of Book
IV Ch. VII “Of Colonies” from Wealth of Nations;
3. two complete translations were printed, the first from 1778-1779 being
anonymous, republished in 1789; and the second being by Jean-Louis Blavet
(1779-1780). This was first published as a serial in Journal d’agriculture, du
commerce, des arts et des finances, republished in book form in 1781, then
reprinted in 1786, 1788 and in 1800-1801 (in a revised and corrected edition).8
During the revolutionary period there were two new complete translations of Wealth of
Nations: the first in the early days of the Revolution being that of Jean-Antoine
Roucher (1790-1791, republished three times, in 1791-1792, in 1792, and in revised
form in 1794); and the other, published during Bonaparte’s Consulate in 1802, is that of
Germain Garnier.
In sum, twelve years after the death of Smith in 1790, the two key editions for the
diffusion of his work in the French language had been published: de Grouchy’s Moral
5 Carpenter, Dissemination p. 1. Morellet also prepared an extract intended for separate publication, but
had no more success than with the complete manuscript (see below).
6 E. C. Mossner, I. S. Ross (eds.) Correspondence of Adam Smith, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1987
Letter 218, pp. 259-60.
7 Carpenter, Dissemination p. 18.
8 It might be added here that in referring to a “complete edition” this does not imply what it would today.
Although a translation might present itself as “complete”, in practice there were often omissions
made on religious or political grounds, so that censorship of the entire work might be avoided. For
example, the anonymous version of Wealth of Nations lacks the section in Book V that deals with
expenditure on educational institutions. On the other hand, when passages that could possibly
attract the attention of the authorities were retained, as in the Blavet edition, some “explanatory”
was added, or a comment such as “il ne faut pas oublier que c’est un Anglais qui parle” (Carpenter,
Dissemination, pp. 22-5, 28-31).
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
Sentiments, and Garnier’s Wealth of Nations. In this way a line was drawn under three
decades of polemic over the existing translations.
The Second Period: 1802-88
This second period is characterised by a process of critical assimilation on the part of
economists working in the French language. There are two features of this phase of the
reception that need emphasis:
1. The Wealth of Nations was the almost exclusive object of critical attention,
Smith’s moral philosophy being almost entirely neglected; it was only
philosophers, notably Victor Cousin and Théodore Jouffroy, that paid any
attention to this part of Smith’s work. This is quite paradoxical, since French
economists had, since the time of the Physiocrats and the creation of the
Institute during the Revolution, considered political economy to be a part of the
“Moral and Political Sciences”.
2. Following Jean-Baptiste Say and Sismondi, French-language economists opted
for Smith against Quesnay. But in so doing they did not simply adopt Smith’s
ideas; the ideas underwent a profound modification. Say, for example, did not
accept Smith’s theory of value, complained of the gaps in the argument of
Wealth of Nations, and denounced its confused organisation. The interpretation
of Smith offered to the French public was one that had undergone a
reconstruction, incorporated into systematic “treatises”,9 where the approach
had mainly pedagogical concerns; this was also the case with Say, whose
scientific claims are well-known. Despite this, liberal French economists
during this second period assigned a central place to Smith’s work; it was
through this allegiance that they marked themselves off from adversaries,
whether theoretical (Ricardo and the Ricardians) or political (protectionists and
As regards translations of Wealth of Nations, this second period is characterised by the
supremacy of Germain Garnier’s translation over the three preceding translations
published. The new, revised edition presented by Adolphe-Jérôme Blanqui in 1843
consolidated the standing of this translation as the definitive French language version.
A rather similar course was followed by Sophie de Grouchy’s translations of Moral
Sentiments: it was republished in 1830, and then published in a new edition with an
introduction by Henri Baudrillart in 1860. During the period 1860-80 the work
emerged from the shadows to which liberal economists had hitherto consigned it. This
development is due to the contributions made by Baudrillart at the time that the
9 A form of which Say was a leading exponent – his Traité d’économie politique went through six
editions from 1803 to 1841.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
celebrated “Adam Smith Problem” began to dominate discussion; although Baudrillart
differed quite profoundly from the terms of that debate.
The Third Period: 1888-2002
The third phase reaches from the later nineteenth century to the present. Smith no
longer plays a role in theoretical debate and his writings become an object of
specialised interest. It is noteworthy that from 1888 to 1976 all accessible editions of
Wealth of Nations are either abbreviated versions that of Jean-Gustave Courcelle-
Seneuil in 1888, of Georges-Henri Bousquet in 1950, and of Gérard Mairet in 1976
or, if not condensed, then truncated, as with the Costes edition of 1950.10 Smith’s work
is not only re-worked in the style of an economic treatise, but with the development of
teaching in the history of economics this is associated with a professorial view that
reading the complete text of Wealth of Nations is unnecessary. Theory of Moral
Sentiments endures a lengthy eclipse in this period: it is not republished until 1981,
some one hundred and twenty years after the Baudrillart edition.
This third period ends with a re-evaluation of Smith’s work; following the publication
of the bicentennial Glasgow edition, the accessibility of Smith’s work in French is
dramatically improved:
1. Garnier’s classic translation of Wealth of Nations is made available once more
(in 1991) in its complete form as a handy paperback aimed at a potentially wide
market; while two new complete translations are put forward – one by Paulette
Taieb(1995)11 and another by a team of translators under the general direction
of Philippe Jaumel.12
2. The Grouchy translation of Moral Sentiments is republished in 1981, and then
in 1999 an entirely new edition appears translated by Michaël Biziou, Claude
Gauthier and Jean-François Pradeau.
Hence these new translations made available good quality French-language editions of
Smith’s work, besides the ready availability of the original texts in the bicentennial
Glasgow edition. But there is no doubt that today’s readership has changed; it is
unlikely that many students of economics in contemporary French universities would
10 The Garnier translation was, it is true, republished in 1966 in Germany, but this was not distributed to
the French public; it was part of a facsimile edition of French economists’ work published by
Guillaumin in the nineteenth century, mainly purchased by libraries.
11 Apart from the high quality of her translation, Paulette Taieb’s edition is noteworthy for its being
based on the first edition, with Smith’s later revisions being flagged and translated in notes and in
an appendix. The translator also contributes an entire volume composed of tables, glossary and
12 Publication of this latter edition is in progress at the time of writing.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
be inclined to read, in any depth, the work of Smith. The decline in the teaching of the
history of economics is as marked in France as elsewhere. Nor is it likely that readers
of Smith are academic economists, who are less and less inclined to cultivate a
curiosity in the history of their discipline. The work of Smith is instead today the
almost exclusive province of historians of ideas.
This essays falls into two broad sections. The first probes the later eighteenth century,
a period so important for translations. The second covers the period following the
appearance of canonical editions of Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations.
We seek to provide merely the principal outlines of this history.
“L’excellent ouvrage de M. Smith est devenu un livre classique”
We have already seen that the later eighteenth century is rich in translations of Adam
Smith’s writings; the final phases of the Ancien régime are quite exceptional and mark
the French case off from that of other countries. Why such a variety of translation?
Does it indicate the speedy adoption of the economic and philosophical ideas of this
Scottish writer? If so, what form might this take? Although we have no complete
answer to this question, we can sketch the scenery and identify some important and
useful details.
1. The Reception of Theory of Moral Sentiments in Translation
In France, as everywhere else, Smith was first known and appreciated as a philosopher.
Given the publication of Theory of Moral Sentiments it could not have been any
different. But the speed with which this reputation spread in the cosmopolitan
République des lettres is very striking. In October 1760 the Journal encyclopédique
published a laudatory review. Morellet’s retrospective judgement certainly reflects one
that was widely held at the time, and which would later open for Smith the doors of the
most prestigious Parisian salons:
…his Théorie des sentiments moraux had impressed me with his
wisdom and depth. And I still today regard him to be one of those
men whose analysis of all the questions with which he deals is the
most complete. M. Turgot, who was as fond of metaphysics as me, also
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
had a high regard for his talent.13
Nonetheless, favourable reception of the book was not a foregone conclusion; reflection
on morals had for a long time in France followed the rationalist track of Malebranche.
But things were beginning to change; in 1747 Louis Jean Lévesque de Pouilly
published his Théorie des sentiments agréables,14 a work of which Smith thought highly
it had been published in Britain in 1749 as The Theory of Agreeable Sensations, but
Smith read the work in the original French15 - and Diderot and d’Alembert’s
Encyclopédie had familiarised French readers to some extent with the ways of thought
prevailing in the British isles. Smith welcomed this shift: writing anonymously in 1755
to the first and short-lived Edinburgh Review he expressed his great pleasure that the
French seemed at last “to be pretty generally disengaged from the enchantment of that
illusive [Cartesian] philosophy.”16
The original and inventive genius of the English, has not only
discovered itself in natural philosophy, but in morals, metaphysics, and
part of the abstract sciences. This branch of the English Philosophy
… has of late been transported into France. I observe some traces of it,
not only in the Encyclopedia, but in the Theory of agreeable sentiments
by Mr. De Pouilly, a work that is in many respects original; and above
all in the late Discourse upon the origin and foundation of the inequality
amongst mankind, by M. Rousseau of Geneva.17
During this period, from mid-century to its close, we might also note that the work of
all Smith’s French translators met with criticism. In the eighteenth century translation
was not characterised by the rigour customary today. Fidelity to the original text was
not the prime concern; sometimes the translator thought more of being true to the
author by adapting his work than sticking to the letter of the text. However, things
seemed to have begun to change, above all since the authors themselves become
increasingly involved. For whatever reason, quality of translation became an important
13 André Morellet, Mémoires de l'abbé Morellet sur le dix-huitième siècle et sur la Révolution, revised
ed., 1822; Mercure de France, Paris 1988 p. 206.
14 Théorie des sentiments agréables, où, après avoir indiqué les règles que la nature suit dans la
distribution du plaisir, on établit les principes de la théologie naturelle et ceux de la philosophie
morale. According to D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie in their “Introduction” to the Glasgow
edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Oxford University Press, Oxford 1976 pp. 14-15) the
French title of Pouilly’s book prompted Smith’s own choice of title.
15 See Raphael, Macfie, “Introduction”, p. 14.
16 “A Letter to the Authors of the Edinburgh Review”, in Adam Smith, Essays on Philosophical Subjects
and Miscellaneous Pieces, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1980, p. 244.
17 Ibid. pp. 249-50.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
element in French debates. Moreover, Smith knew French,18 even if he spoke it
badly.19 Did he take account of the mediocre quality of the translations, or did he just
echo the opinions of those with whom he mixed and corresponded? The story begins
with the version of Moral Sentiments that Marc-Antoine Eidous published in 1764
under the title Métaphysique de l’âme.20
The circumstances of this translation were propitious, since it came from the circle
around Baron d’Holbach. Hume announced the news to Smith:
The Baron d’Holbac [sic], whom I saw at Paris, told me, that there was
one under his Eye that was translating your Theory of moral Sentiments;
and desird me to inform you of it: Mr. Fitzmaurice, your old Friend,
interests himself strongly in this Undertaking: Both of them wish to
know, if you propose to make any Alterations on the Work.21
Smith was obviously pleased by this, but suggested to Hume in reply that the
translation should be based on the second edition of 1761, even though he considered it
imperfect; he had given the matter serious consideration, but had not had sufficient
opportunity to revise it.22
When it appeared in 1764 Eidous’ translation was far from satisfactory. Grimm’s
Correspondance littéraire attributes the limited circulation the work had in France to
the poor quality translation. Smith also raised complaints, if one can believe a letter
later published by Blavet:
I was greatly mortified to see the manner in which my book, The Theory
of Moral Sentiments, has been translated into the language of a nation in
which I certainly aspire to be esteemed to no greater degree than I
18 “I have heard him say, that he employed himself frequently in the practise of translation, (particularly
from the French), with a view to the improvement of his own style… The knowledge he possessed
[of languages], both ancient and modern, was uncommonly extensive and accurate”. Dugald
Stewart, “Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith, LL.D.”, revised ed. in D. Stewart,
Biographical Memoirs of Adam Smith, William Robertson, and Thomas Reid, (1811); Smith,
Essays, pp. 271-2. We should not forget that Smith visited France and spent ten months in Paris.
19 According to the account of the Duchesse d’Enville, see the opinion reported to Smith by Adam
Ferguson, Correspondence, p. 173; and also Morellet’s own report in his Mémoires, p. 206.
20 Eidous is described in the Biographie universelle ancien et moderne Vol. 12, Paris 1855 p. 324 as
“a tireless translator, but often inexact and above all rather lacking in elegance.”
21 Hume to Smith, 28 October 1763, in Correspondence, pp. 97-8.
22 Smith to Hume, 12 December 1763, in Correspondence, pp. 413-4. See note 4 pp. 413-4 which
reviews doubts concerning the identity of this translator; we believe that the translator cannot be
anyone other than Eidous, there being quite plausible reasons for the date of official approval
preceding the date of Smith writing to Hume.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
The poor quality of this translation prompted thought on the need for another. This was
undertaken by a member of the circle around Madame de Boufflers, a correspondent of
Hume, an important figure among the anglophiles and the mistress of the Prince de
Conti. Jean-Louis Blavet was the Prince’s librarian, and he was given the task of
preparing a new translation from the third edition of 1767.24 In his letter of February
1772, Smith expressed his thanks to the countess:
Your generous kindness has rendered me the greatest assistance that one
could to a man of letters. I look forward to the pleasure of reading a
translation made because you desired that it be done.25
Blavet later confirmed that Madame de Boufflers had checked the translation.26 The
book was published in two volumes in 1774 and 1775, then again in 1782.
Parallel to the efforts of Blavet another translator set to work:27 Louis-Alexandre de la
Rochfoucauld, son of the Duchess d’Enville, both of them having made Smith’s
acquaintance in Geneva during 1765. But as soon as Blavet’s translation was published
he ceased work, as he told Smith in 1778.28 He did not give up on the project entirely,
however, for in 1779 he returned to it:
I receive with great pleasure the announcement of a new edition that you
are preparing …: and if the changes that you have made there render a
new French edition necessary, and M. l’Abbé Blavet does not provide
23 Smith to Madame de Boufflers, February 1772, in Correspondence, p. 161 [translated from the French,
K. T.]
24 The translation is dedicated to the prince. It also includes a lengthy systematic table of contents (Vol. I
pp. xiii-lvi.) Blavet declares, somewhat surprisingly, in his preface that he did not know that “there
already had been one of them” - J.-L. Blavet, “Préface” to A. Smith, Théorie des sentiments
moraux, Valade, Paris 1774 Vol. 1 p. xi.
25 Ibid. [translated from the French, K. T.]
26 “Madame de Boufflers, known to be a woman of spirit and of taste, who both understood and spoke
good English, compared this translation from beginning to end with the original.” J.-L. Blavet,
“Préface du traducteur”, in A. Smith’s Richesse des nations, Laran, Paris 1800, vol. 1, p. xxiv and
in Carpenter, Dissemination, p. 158.
27 Blavet also tells us that “Mr. Turgot had begun a translation of the same work”, ibid. p. xxiv. But it is
also true to say that Turgot “began” a great many things without getting beyond the first few pages,
or the draft of a project.
28 He wrote to Smith on 3 March 1778: “I have had perhaps the temerity to undertake a translation of
your Theory; but as I was finishing the first part I saw that M. l’Abbé Blavet’s translation had
appeared, and I was forced to abandon the pleasure I would have had of rendering into my language
one of the best works in yours.” Correspondence p. 233 [translated from the French, K. T.]
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
one, perhaps I might dare to take up my work once more, but your
consent would be necessary, as would an assurance that you would look
over the translation before it saw the light of day.”29
Would Blavet’s translation have been badly received? For the French text remained
faulty and was subsequently considered to be unsatisfactory. According to Dugald
Stewart, Smith himself blamed the poor circulation of his book on the translation.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments does not seem to have attracted so
much notice in France as might have been expected, till after the
publication of the Wealth of Nations. Mr. Smith used to ascribe this in
part to the Abbé Blavet’s translation, which he thought was but
indifferently executed.30
Happily for Smith, some of the lettered public of the time was able to read the work in
the original English. For it was only towards the end of the century that Sophie de
Grouchy’s version was published.
The approach to the text adopted by Sophie de Grouchy, together with the various
remarks devoted to Smith in the “Letters on Sympathy” that she appended to her
translation of Moral Sentiments, is quite typical of the French understanding of the text,
as well as highlighting the different perspectives on the nature of moral philosophy
existing either side of the Channel. This reception would be repeated during the
following century, both by French philosophers and economists. Commentators just
did not understand a key point of Scottish philosophy: the construction of a moral
theory that did not derive from reason. We have already seen that Smith complained of
the French rationalist tradition, although he could see that this was at last changing.
But he was mistaken about the extent of this change. Although Moral Sentiments was
admired in France, it was generally thought to be unfinished: according to the
commentators, Smithian sympathy could not in itself provide adequate foundation to
his argument, but had to be derived from something else from reason. This is why
the response of Sophie de Grouchy – and there are others, although we lack the space to
deal with them - is of interest. There are not many remarks in her “Letters on
Sympathy”, but they are quite plain.
Smith, recognising that reason is incontrovertibly the source of general
rules of morality, but finding it impossible to deduce from reason the
first ideas of justice and injustice, asserts that these initial impressions
29 La Rochefoucauld to Smith, 6 August 1779, Correspondence, p. 238.
30 Dugald Stewart, “Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith, LL.D.”, revised ed. in his
Biographical Memoirs of Adam Smith, William Robertson, and Thomas Reid, 1811; reprinted in
Adam Smith, Essays on Philosophical Subjects and Miscellaneous Pieces, Oxford University Press,
Oxford Press, 1980 p. 338 – note F added to the original 1794 version in 1811.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
are the object and the result of an immediate sentiment, and supposes
that our knowledge of justice and injustice, of virtue and of vice, partly
derives from their propriety, or impropriety, with a kind of intimate
sense, which is assumed but not defined. However, this kind of intimate
sense is not one of those primary causes that must be recognised, but
whose existence cannot be explained. We should, my dear
C[abanis], beware of this dangerous tendency to suppose the existence
of a intimate sense, a faculty, a principle, every time that we encounter a
fact whose explanation escapes us.31
Grouchy’s criticism culminates in the sixth letter, and is also expressed quite
unambiguously in the “Avertissement” to the works of Smith that was placed
probably by the publisher - at the front of her translation:
Some of Smith’s opinions are examined, revised, and even confronted.
The letters seemed an appropriate way of tracing the line separating the
Scottish from the French school of philosophy.32
A little later Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis returned briefly to the topic in his important
work Rapports du physique et du moral de l’homme of 1802. In the tenth part,
“Considérations touchant la vie animale, les premières déterminations de la sensibilité,
l’instinct, la sympathie, le sommeil et le délire”, he stated characteristically:
…sympathetic tendencies can easily mislead even the most attentive
observer The great difficulty in relating their effects to their true
cause can lead to the idea that unspecifiable faculties are needed to be
able to conceive of such phenomena. Such tendencies are what is meant
by moral sympathy, a well-known principle in the writings of Scottish
philosophers…, for which Smith has put forward an analysis of great
wisdom, but nonetheless incomplete, … and which Madame Condorcet,
through simple rational deliberation, was able to make much clearer than
Smith had achieved in Theory of Moral Sentiments.33
31 Marie-Louise Sophie de Grouchy, “Lettres à C*** [Cabanis] sur la Théorie des sentiments moraux,” in
Adam Smith, Théorie des sentiments moraux, Paris: Buisson, 1798, Vol. 2; published separately as
Lettres sur la sympathie, L’Étincelle, Montréal et Paris 1994 pp. 151-52.
32 Adam Smith, Théorie des sentiments moraux, Paris: Buisson, 1798, Vol. 1 p. viii.
33 Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis, Rapports du physique et du moral de l’homme, Crapart, Caille et Ravier,
Paris 1802; reprint of the 1844 edition, Slatkine, Geneva 1980 p. 549.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
2. The Reception of the Wealth of Nations in Translation
In 1776 the ground had been prepared for a very favourable reception of Wealth of
Nations. Smith was well known in intellectual circles and appreciated by reformers:
his work could be of use to the latter in the propagation of Enlightenment and in
support of their policies. The ground had also been prepared for a French translation of
the book. But while the reception of the work was on the whole favourable, successive
translations provoked serious disagreement and debate.
The Wealth of Nations at the end of the Ancien régime
The publication of Wealth of Nations in Britain was noticed immediately in France.
Smith probably had copies of his new book sent to friends and correspondents: Jean-
Louis Blavet and André Morellet, among others, were among these, if their reports are
to be believed. Reviews followed quickly. The first, in two parts, was published in the
Journal encylopédique of the 1st and 15th October 1776. Another followed a few
months later in the February 1777 issue of the Journal des savants.34
The first review is anonymous. It consists of a substantial but rather neutral résumé of
the book, embellished with some translated paragraphs, but also with some comments,
considered below. In many respects this review already lays down the main themes
that will be characteristic of the Wealth of Nations reception in eighteenth century
The second review has been attributed by Ken Carpenter to Blavet.35 By contrast with
the first, it amounts to an extended puff for the work. It reproduces the “Introduction
and Plan of the Work”, prefacing this extract with two general points. One relates to
the importance of a “great work” in which one can see “that superiority in genius and
talent to which we owe the Theory of Moral Sentiments”:
The most important economic questions are dealt with in all possible
nicety, order and profundity; and the author displays everywhere a
degree of discernment and wisdom that one cannot but admire, since it is
extremely rare.36
34 These reviews are reproduced, with many others, in Ken Carpenter’s book. Since access to the
original sources is so difficult for French readers as well as English, we cite from the new edition.
As everywhere else in this essay we have modernised the spelling.
35 Carpenter, Dissemination, p. 13.
36 J.-L. Blavet, Review of the first English ed. of the Wealth of Nations, Journal des savants, February
1777; in Carpenter (Dissemination, p. 14).
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
The other issue raised – and so soon after the book’s appearance in March – concerned
the material problems presented by a future French translation:
Some of our men of letters who have read the work have decided that
this is not a book to be translated into our language. They say, among
other things, that no individual would underwrite the cost of printing,
given the uncertainty of sales, and that booksellers would be even more
reluctant to do so.37
But as regards translations, things turned out well enough, at least with respect to the
quality and competence of the translator. André Morellet immediately set to work. A
friend of Turgot, close to the Physiocrats but also to Necker, having met Smith in
Paris,38 Morellet was closely acquainted with economic issues. He had already
published a great deal on the subject and so seemed made for the job.39 And so,
according to his account, he set to work in the autumn of 1776, when he was staying in
Champagne with the Archbishop of Sens, Étienne-Charles Loménie de Brienne; we can
disregard the date Morellet gave for its completion, since he possibly gave an earlier
date on polemical grounds.
There I worked very assiduously on a translation of Smith’s very
excellent work Wealth of Nations, which one might regard as a truly
classical work of its kind. … As soon as the work appeared he sent me
a copy through Lord Shelburne; I took it with me to Brienne and threw
myself into its translation.40
The translation went well, but remained a manuscript; Morellet found it impossible to
raise money for it and find a publisher, even when, much later, Loménie de Brienne
became principal minister”.41 The work was too lengthy, printing would have been
too costly, and its marketing too risky in the face of censorship.42 Moreover, potential
37 Ibid.
38 Morellet also kept in occasional contact with Smith, sending for example in 1774 a copy of his
refutation of Galiani’s Dialogues sur le commerce des grains see Lettres d’André Morellet, Vol.
1, The Voltaire Foundation, Oxford 1991 p. 227. For his part Smith valued his relationship with the
abbé – see for example in Smith’s Correspondence p. 295.
39 It is true that Morellet had ten years earlier sparked controversy with his translation of Cesare
Beccaria’s Dei Delitti e delle pene; he suggested that Beccaria expressed his views badly, and he
had sought to remedy this defect by altering the order of presentation of the book.
40 Mémoires, pp. 206-7.
41 “Much later, during his ministry, I requested 100 louis from the Archbishop de Sens [Loménie de
Brienne] so that I might chance publishing the work at my own cost; he refused me the money, as
had the booksellers” Mémoires, p. 207. Brienne was “principal minister” - and Controller-General
of Finance, but without the title – from August 1787 to August 1788.
42 Carpenter, “Recherches” p. 13; Dissemination, pp. xxx-xxxi.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
competitors quickly appeared in the market. Morellet’s translation did nevertheless
circulate as a manuscript.43
There is a curious incident here that has never fully been explained. As Carpenter
emphasises,44 Morellet’s correspondence shows that poor fortune also played a part, for
he was not able to publish as intended an extract from Smith relating to corporations
this was from Book I Ch. X, “Of Wages and Profit in the different Employments of
Labour and Stock”.45 It was impounded by the police. But if the dating of the
correspondence is right, then this occurred during February 1776 while Turgot was still
minister; hence this event took place before the publication of Wealth of Nations on 9
March 1776. This raises two issues: firstly, that the translation and publication of an
extract from Wealth of Nations would have been thought useful in the pursuit of
Turgot’s policies;46 and secondly, Turgot (or one of those close to him)47 already had a
copy of the work before its publication, most likely sent to him by Smith. The
correspondence shows that Turgot pressed Morellet for the translation “I have made
haste with everything that you wished to speed the printing of the extract from Smith”
wrote Morellet to Turgot on 22 February 1776;48 and Morellet expressed on the same
day, and then again on 30 March, the idea of translating the whole book, “which would
be good for our present times.”49 Meanwhile, the fall of Turgot probably delayed
matters. Morellet made a prophetic statement; writing to ask Turgot for two thousand
pounds to facilitate the preparation of a good translation, he added,
The work seems to me so useful that it merits such encouragement,
without which it will not be translated at all, or if so then by some poor
43 According to C. Salvat, “Histoire de la traduction inédite de la Richesse des nations par l’abbé
Morellet. Une traduction manuscrite toujours célébrée et toujours obstinément refusée au public”,
Storia del pensiero economico, no. 38 (1999) p. 125, Morellet later revised the manuscript to take
account of Smith’s changes to the second and third editions.
44Recherches” p. 12; see Morellet’s letters to Turgot between 22 February and 20 March 1776.
45 Carpenter, Dissemination, p. 1. This mishap is confirmed by the correspondence of Métra.
46 Salvat’s (“Histoire de la traduction inédite” p. 124) hypothesis is quite plausible. Turgot was planning
his edict abolishing jurandes together with other commercial and craft associations.
47 Most likely Turgot himself, since Morellet made clear that he received his copy of the book after its
publication through the offices of Lord Shelburne. And in any case he wrote to Shelburne on 12
April 1776 that “I have been lent a copy of the first volume of Mr. Smith’s new work” Lettres, p.
339. See also on this Richard van den Berg, Christophe Salvat, “Scottish Subtlety: André
Morellet’s Comments on the Wealth of Nations”, The European Journal of the History of Economic
Thought, Vol. 8 (2001) pp. 146-185. See Richard Sher’s discussion (p. 00 above) of the printing
history of Wealth of Nationspublication records for the first edition do not exist, but roughly
three months separated the printing and publication of the second edition, and one for the third.
48 Lettres, p. 309.
49 Lettres, p. 330.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
incompetent in Holland.50
The first French translation was in fact printed outside France, in The Hague, the
translator remaining anonymous – he is simply known as M***. It was published
quickly, the text appeared in 1778-79. It was poor quality work, but was nonetheless
reprinted ten years later, in 1789, on the eve or at the outbreak of the Revolution.
According to Carpenter,51 it is the most literal of all French translations, sold mainly
outside France, and thus not penetrating the French market. At the same time as this
first complete translation began to appear, the fragment on colonies was published in
Lausanne and Basel, translated by É. S. F. Reverdil.52
Here we meet up once more with the abbé Blavet. Having already made available a
French version of Moral Sentiments, he embarked upon a translation of Smith’s new
work. He lived in part from his work as an occasional translator, and he either was, or
had been, friendly with prominent Physiocrats such as the abbé Nicolas Badeau, and
François Quesnay himself.53 He had discovered that Hubert-Pascal Ameilhon’s
Journal de l’agriculture, du commerce, des arts et des finances was short of material
and that the serial publication of Smith’s work would allow him to alleviate this
shortage. His translation was therefore published serially from January 1779 to
December 1780. In the final instalment Blavet included a seemingly unassuming letter
to the editor in which he stated that he had only completed the translation “to teach
myself”, and that he wished
…to occasion the publication of a new version more faithful to the
original, or if a bookseller would undertake to reprint my own, that he
would ensure that someone more versed in economic matters and the art
of writing than myself would revise and correct the whole, for such a
person would not be hard to find.54
Subsequent events showed however that Blavet clung tooth and nail to his original
translation. This version of Wealth of Nations was reprinted several times as a
50 Lettres, p. 310.
51 Dissemination, p. 20, and pp. xxxv, 24.
52 Reverdil prefaced the work with an “Advertisement” that concisely conveyed a sense of the contents of
Wealth of Nations, and explained the separate publication of the chapter on colonies by pointing to
interest in recent events in America, and as a spur to a complete translation: “I hope above all that
this sample will render the entire work sufficiently desirable to French readers that a suitable patient
and capable translator will be engaged.” Carpenter, Dissemination, p. 20.
53 Together with the abbé Nolin he published in 1755 an Essai sur l’agriculture moderne, although the
title could not conceal that the work was really a “small essay on gardening”.
54 Letter to the Journal de l’agriculture, du commerce, des arts et des finances, December; in Carpenter,
Dissemination, pp. 25-26.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
complete work, at first in Switzerland and then in Paris55 - not always accurately, even
in relation to the rough original – or as extracts,56 until Blavet finally revised his
translation for the Paris 1800-1801 edition.
Despite republication, Blavet did not get off so lightly with Wealth of Nations as he had
with Moral Sentiments: his translation was generally thought to be faulty. Morellet
both judge and jury – was unforgiving:
The abbé Blavet, a poor translator of the Moral Sentiments, has snatched
up57 Smith’s new treatise, and every week sent to the Journal whatever
he had put together; which was good for the journal, for it filled its
pages, but poor Smith was more traduced than translated. Blavet’s
version, scattered through the journal, was soon reissued by a
bookseller, and this became a hindrance to the publication of my own
translation. Originally I had proposed to do the work for one hundred
louis, and then for nothing; but the competing edition prompted
Morellet underlined that in Blavet and Roucher (he is writing after the Revolution)
“everything that is a little abstract in Smith is unintelligible”, both of the them
disregarding the content, that is to say, knowing nothing of political economy.
Controversy surrounding Blavet’s translation did not remain confined to aspersions cast
in Parisian salons. It burst into the open at the time that it was republished in 1788.
Jacques Mallet du Pan, during a somewhat lively exchange in the pages of the Journal
de Paris with Constantin François de Volney concerning some points of interpretation
with respect to Wealth of Nations, stressed in the issue for 13 October 1788 that he had
called for a “decent translation” of Smith’s work. Volney, responding on 24 October,
seized on this:
I also would wish that we had a good translation of this admirable work;
55 It seems that Blavet only acknowledged the Journal version. The other editions – Yverdon 1781, Paris
1786, Paris 1788 – remained unacknowledged, presumably on account of their faults. The 1781
Paris version appeared in an extremely brief printing of 20 copies; it was in fact an offprint of the
text published in the Journal.
56 Extracts from the Blavet translation appeared, without naming either author or translator, in the four
volumes of Pancoucke’s Encyclopédie méthodique wherever it dealt with “political economy and
diplomacy” (see the list in Carpenter, Dissemination, pp. 42-53, where he notes (p. 41) that of the
total 1,097 pages of the first English edition of 1776, translations from 524 pages appear in Vols 2-
4 of Économie politique et diplomatique). Other extracts from this edition appeared in the
Bibliothèque de l’homme publique, t. 4 (1790).
57 Morellet here uses “emparé”, implying at once brutality, greed and the illegitimacy of the action.
58 Morellet, Mémoires, p. 207.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
the author of the existing translation not only has a poor understanding
of Smith’s ideas, very often he fails to understand them entirely.59
Volney then gave an example: the beginning of Book I Ch. V on the real and nominal
price of commodities, where he had no trouble in showing that the French text was
incomprehensible.60 He concedes that much of this is also probably the result of
numerous printing errors, but insists that the translation is itself at fault, ending with a
eulogy to Morellet’s manuscript version:
I read an excellent translation of this excellent work in manuscript; by
abbé M[orellet]. The task of translating M. Smith was entrusted to this
académicien, to our excellent Économistes.
This controversy in the columns of a well-known journal compelled Blavet to respond.
In the issue of 5 November he published a letter giving his version of the facts. Blavet
began by stating that Smith had been quite satisfied with the translation of Moral
Sentiments (although according to Dugald Stewart this was not entirely correct), had
sent him a copy of Wealth of Nations and asked him to act as translator; he also claimed
once more that Morellet, among others, had sought to dissuade him from taking the
task on:
Mr. Smith, satisfied with the new translation I made of his Theory of
Moral Sentiments, did me the honour of sending a copy of his work On
the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations and obligingly indicated
to me that he wished that I would also act as translator. The abbé
M[orellet] and others who move in the best circles with which I am little
acquainted told me that the work would not be readily taken up in
France, for it required too much effort and study; and so I restricted
myself to the project of translating the work, not for the public, but for
my own instruction.
He then maintained that he had consented to its publication to help Ameilhon and the
Journal de l’agriculture, that the following editions were printed without his
knowledge a statement that does not entirely match the known facts and added to
59 C. F. de Volney, Letter to the Journal de Paris, 24 October 1788, in Carpenter, Dissemination, p. 77.
60 “Ce qu’une chose vaut pour vous qu’il avez acquise, la peine et l’embarras qu’elle vous épargne et
qu’elle peut coûter à d’autres. (It is obvious that a verb has been forgotten here, and it should read
c’est la peine.) Le travail a été le premier prix de la monnaie originaire qu’on a payé partout. (It
cannot be understood how labour can be the first price of money. In the English it reads: Labour
was the first price, the original purchase-money that was paid for all things.) C’est au travail et non
pas à l’or et à l’argent que le monde est redevable de toutes les richesses, et sa valeur, pour celui qui
en est l’auteur et qui a besoin d’en échanger le produit, est précisément égale à la quantité de travail
qui le met en état d’acheter. (it is obvious that it should read qu’il le met en état d’acheter.)
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
the numerous faults of the original text. He then implied that Morellet had been
avaricious – that the 1788 edition would have been printed from Morellet’s translation,
except that the publisher and the author “could not come to an agreement on the price”.
In conclusion, he announced a corrected translation – in fact it did not appear until
twelve years later – which would also incorporate the revisions that Smith had made to
the text through its various editions.
Ashamed for my nation, which had nothing but an imperfect
translation of a masterpiece of political economy, I obtained permission
to provide a new edition of my own translation, revised, corrected and
augmented with the considerable amount of material that Mr. Smith had
added to the second edition of the original. I therefore corrected a
great number of errors … but I regarded my efforts merely to be a
stopgap, for among those far more skilful than myself I did not have the
good fortune to know of a single person prepared to take on the work
himself; it would be better, and I would like it one hundred times more if
the abbé M[orellet] gave us his version.61
But this letter to the Journal did not close the debate, which started up anew with the
publication of Roucher’s translation. We might note in conclusion that Blavet returned
to the issue once more in 1800, writing in his preface to the revised version of his
translation. Here he did something he had not done in 1788: he quoted at length from
two of Smith’s letters for which today an original no longer exists. The first, dating
probably from 1772, is to Madame de Boufflers concerning the poor quality of Eidous’
translation of Moral Sentiments (discussed above); the other is from 23 July 1782 to
Blavet himself and deals with his translations. Smith here thanks Blavet for his
“excellent translation” of Wealth of Nations:
I am extremely satisfied with your translation of my first work; but I am
all the more so with the manner in which you have rendered the second.
I can tell you, without flattery, that everywhere that I have cast my eyes
… I have found it in every respect equal to the original.62
From this same letter we know of the existence of another translation, that of the Comte
de Nort. But Smith was supposedly so satisfied with Blavet’s translation that he had
specifically discouraged Nort from publishing his own! “I wrote to him by the next
post that I was very satisfied with your own, and that I am so much obliged to you, that
I am not able to encourage or favour any other.”
61 Blavet, Letter to the Journal de Paris 5 November 1788, in Carpenter, Dissemination pp. 78-9.
62 Smith, Correspondence, p. 260. [Translated from the French, K. T.]
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
We lack reliable and incontrovertible evidence for Smith’s reactions and opinions
regarding these translations. It is however certain that he was always troubled about
the translation of his work. In 1784 he was under the impression that Morellet had
published his translation in Holland, and he immediately asked his publisher, Thomas
Cadell in London, to obtain a copy for him.63 Cadell did not respond to this request,
and Smith repeated the request on 10 August 1784.64 Having heard no more, he took
the issue up once more on 18 November “But you say nothing to me of the Abbé
Morellet’s translation of my Book, which I am extremely desirous of seeing. I am
sorry to give you so much trouble, but I beg you would endeavour to procure me a copy
of it for Love or Money”65 before realising in the spring of 1785 that he had been
misinformed in the first place.66
The Wealth of Nations during the Revolution
The Wealth of Nations was published in England at a time when in France, following
the fall of Turgot, many reformers had lost faith in their ability to influence, in
whatever way, the course of events: the reform of France’s political and economic
system seemed to be continually put off to the morrow, the urgency of problems
remained while a succession of Controllers General of finance pussy-footed around
with them. In political economy, innovation and publication marked time, and priority
was given to the political debate. This phase ended with the convocation of the Estates
General for 1 May 1789, and the publication of Sieyès’ celebrated pamphlet Qu’est-ce-
que le Tiers état? Several months later, when the Estates General transformed
themselves into the Constituent Assembly, and with the Revolution, matters appeared
in a different light. The radical change of political regime in France permitted in
principle every citizen to participate in power and influence decision-making. In this
context, each should seek to inform himself the better to perform this new role.67
The state of mind during this period is caught by a quotation taken from Rousseau’s
Social Contract, and used as an epigraph to the Bibliothèque de l’homme public:
“Whatever feeble influence my voice might have in public affairs, the right to vote is
sufficient to impose upon me the duty to instruct myself.” In the Introduction to the
first volume of the Bibliothèque we find that among the knowledge to be acquired by
63 Smith, 19 June 1784, Correspondence, pp. 276-7.
64 Ibid., p. 278.
65 Ibid., p. 279.
66 Letter of 21 April 1785, Correspondence, p. 281.
67 See for an account of the evolution of economic thinking during the French Revolution Gilbert
Faccarello, “L’évolution de l’économie politique pendant la Révolution: Alexandre Vandermonde
ou la croisée des chemins”, in Politische Ökonomie und Französische Revolution, Schriften aus
dem Karl-Marx-Haus, Trier 1989 pp. 75-121, and Faccarello and Steiner (eds.) , La pensée
économique pendant la Révolution française, Presses Universitaires de Grenoble, Grenoble 1990.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
the citizen the importance of economic matters is acknowledged: the study of political
economy “is becoming in France the concern of all the best minds” something that
the Physiocrats had dreamed of many years before. The writings of Smith, and
especially his Wealth of Nations, assumed a topicality they had not previously had.
And it all begins with a new translation…
As the Estates General were convened the two published editions the first
anonymous, the second by Blavet were republished, in 1789 and 1788 respectively.
In 1790 a third, competing, translation appeared by Jean-Antoine Roucher. The new
translation had some important advantages: it was well-advertised, it was well
presented, and it was given the imprimatur of Condorcet, who was to write a volume of
notes to follow Smith’s text.
Roucher was a renowned poet his long philosophical poem Les mois was especially
well-known – close to the reformers. He had known Turgot, who had helped him
financially by making him receiver of the salt-tax, and who had also introduced him to
the salon of Madame Helvétius; but he was above all close to Charles Dupaty, a
magistrate who continued Voltaire’s battles, a defender of the rights of man, and to
whom the translation of Wealth of Nations was dedicated. Besides this Dupaty was
Elder of the masonic lodge of the Nine Sisters, where many Parisian intellectuals met
and of which Roucher was the secretary. It was through Dupaty that Roucher came
into contact with Condorcet, and through whom in turn Condorcet met Sophie de
Grouchy.68 Roucher and Condorcet followed similar paths of political evolution, at
least up until the early years of the Revolution.69
From 1786-1787 Roucher contemplated a new translation of Wealth of Nations,
probably with the encouragement of reformers with whom he mixed, using as a base
for the translation the most recent edition that he could: the 4th of 1786. The
revolutionary events seems to have made up his mind for him. The first three volumes
were published in 1790, the final volume appearing the following year. This edition
was immediately pirated – editions appearing during 1791-92 in Avignon, and in
Neuchâtel in 1792. The translation was corrected by Roucher and then republished in
68 Sophie de Grouchy married Condorcet in 1786; Dupaty was her uncle.
69 They for example both became members of the Society of 1789, founded in 1790. Later, in 1791-92,
the paths diverged: Condorcet became more radical, while Roucher became more conservative. See
on Roucher, A. Guillois, Pendant la Terreur. Le poète Roucher (1745-1794), Calmann-Lévy, Paris
1890; and M. Bréguet, “Le poète Roucher et les Condorcet: rencontre et réseau d’amitié”, Lekton,
Vol. III, No. 1 (1993), pp. 243-257; “Un ‘météore éclatant’: le poète Roucher”, in J.-P. de Lagrave
(ed), Madame Helvétius et la Société d’Auteuil, The Voltaire Foundation, Oxford 1999 pp. 87-101.
Both Roucher and Condorcet fell victim to the Terror, dying in 1794. Roucher was executed two
days before the 9th Thermidor.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
Paris in 1794, after his death.70 A few significant details shed some useful light on the
history of this translation.
First of all, as the reviews of this new translation were appearing, Morellet’s
manuscript version became a talking point once more. On 24 August 1790 Le
Moniteur marvelled at the sad fate that had befallen a work of supposed quality: “A
man of letters, whose talent and knowledge made him the one person capable of
producing a suitable work, M. the abbé Morellet, took on the task, but –almost
unbelievably - he could find no publisher prepared to take the work up. Today there
would be no risk in such an undertaking.”71
It also has to be said that substantial extracts from Roucher’s translation also appeared
in 1790 in the Bibliothèque de l’homme public. This review, which had begun
publication at the beginning of that year from the same publisher – Buisson – as
Roucher’s new translation, was co-edited by Condorcet. His aim, at a time that every
citizen might be introduced into public decisions and encouraged to assume his
responsibilities, was to contribute to public instruction by publishing analyses of well-
known works, both ancient and modern. These “analyses” were presentations of classic
and modern texts followed with extracts linked by commentary. Wealth of Nations was
presented in this way in numbers 372 and 473 of 1790. The first extracts printed were
taken from Roucher’s translation, later extracts coming from Blavet’s version, as Ken
Carpenter notes.74
The volume of notes that Condorcet was meant to place after Roucher’s translation
never appeared – nor was any manuscript copy of such notes ever found – and the
republished edition of 1794 dropped all mention of them. It would have been
extremely interesting to have a detailed account from the pen of someone who had
known the main protagonists of the later eighteenth century and who had himself
participated in the debates. The volume was anticipated at the time: “The assent or
opposition of two writers whose thought is marked by such profundity are equally
instructive for the public” wrote the Mercure de France on 31 July 1790.75
The friend of Turgot, d’Alembert’s worthy equal, one of our greatest
70 There is also an 1806 edition, which is a reissue “with a new title page, of the sheets of 1794”
Carpenter, Dissemination, p. 219.
71 The passage is echoed in the Journal encyclopédique of the month of November.
72 Pp. 108-216; summary of and extracts from Books I, II, and III.
73 Pp. 3-115: summary of and extracts from Books IV and V.
74 This substitution was made in all likelihood because Roucher’s translation was not quite finished at the
time. In a letter of July 1790 the poet’s daughter, Eulalie Roucher, noted that her father was busy
once again with the translation - Guillois, Pendant la Terreur, p. 140.
75 Carpenter, Dissemination, p. 95.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
political writers, was perhaps the one person who could successfully
clarify or rebut the author of the Wealth of Nations.76
Condorcet’s commentaries were repeatedly advertised in the press. Taking Le
Moniteur as an example of a widely-circulated journal, it announced on 24 August
1790 the publication of the first two volumes of the Roucher translation and talked in
flattering terms of the volume of notes to come which it did again on 25 October on
the occasion of the publication of the third volume. In the number of 26 May 1791 it
announced the appearance of the fourth volume, adding:
One can only await the fifth volume with impatience, where we are
informed that notes are to appear by a writer who is a statesman, worthy
commentator to a text which he could have written himself.77
Everything points however to the fact that Condorcet lacked the time to write the notes,
busy as he was politically; and that his name was, at least in part, used as a means of
lending publicity to the launch of the new translation at a time that the market was
already burdened with the revised Blavet edition. “This advertisement only served to
support to the work.”78 Jérôme de Lalande, in the biographical notice that he published
shortly afterwards, also reveals that Condorcet “spent little time” on the notes for
Smith, and sanctioned the use by others of his name for commercial ends: “It was
thought that his name would lend more prestige to the enterprise.”79
A final point must be raised: the quality of Roucher’s translation. Did he escape the
criticism directed at those of his predecessors? The answer is yes, if the contemporary
press is to be believed. Reviews praised the accuracy and style of the poet, and
disparaged previous versions or rather, “the” previous version80 since the first
76 Chronique de Paris 9 April 1790 p. 393 (cited in Carpenter, Dissemination, p. 94). This periodical
took up the question again the following year, on 9 May 1791: “To name the author of these notes
is to inspire among wise men and good citizens fervent hope of seeing them published. It is known
that philosophy, healthy reason and consequently the Revolution are obliged to M. Condorcet, who
has spent his life fighting error, and preaching the truth.” P. 513 (Carpenter, Dissemination, p. 113).
77 Le Moniteur, Vol. 8, p. 490. References here to the Gazette Nationale, ou Le Moniteur Universel
(May 1789-November 1799) are to the edition later published by Plon, Paris 1847.
78 M. B. Desrenaudes, Review of Germain Garnier’s translation of the Wealth of Nations, La Décade
philosophique, littéraire et politique, 30 fructidor an X (17 September 1802); in Carpenter,
Dissemination, p. 213.
79 Jérôme de Lalande, “Notice historique sur la vie et les ouvrages de Condorcet”, Mercure français, 20
January 1796, p. 155. On these points, see G. Facarello, “Troisième partie: Économie.
Introduction”, in Pierre Crépel and Christian Gilain (eds), Condorcet: mathématicien, économiste,
philosophe, homme politique, Minerve, Paris 1989, pp. 121-149.
80 That of Blavet; in his preface to the revised translation of 1800-1801, he stated, inexactly, that: “I am
the author of the first to appear” (Blavet 1800, p. ix). This error is repeated in a review appearing in
La Décade philosophique, 31 December 1801.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
anonymous translation was ignored. Having been published in The Hague, it does not
seem to have been widely distributed in France, and the printing of the new 1789
edition, without naming the author and under a curiously revised title, was covert.81 On
30 March 1790 Le Spectateur national declared:
We already had a translation of Smith, but it was inexact, obscure and
incorrect. This one has the two prime merits of a work of this kind:
precision and clarity.82
The Chronique de Paris noted on 9 April 1790 that the previous translation is “ill-
formed, full of anglicisms and errors” while that of Roucher “leaves nothing to be
desired in respect of style”. The Journal de Paris of 4 June concurred, as did Le
Moniteur of 24 August.
Nonetheless, we should consider whether, here as elsewhere, reviewers had really
thought about the question seriously, or whether they simply echoed widespread, or
orchestrated, opinion. For a lengthy unsigned article that appeared in the Journal
encyclopédique for November 1790 complained exactly of this:
It seems to us that the original text has never been so completely
disfigured. Errors, numerous mistranslations … awkward sentences and
a whole crowd of obscure expressions in a highly-structured work
possessing a language of its own, all these faults place … this translation
is of a standard well below that of the first.83
This author cited many examples from Book I Chapters VIII and XI, and showed quite
easily that his claims were well-founded. The criticism is clearly quite blunt, even
raising an accusation of plagiarism at one point: “the new translator only makes himself
understood where he borrows expressions employed by his predecessor.” The Journal,
while publishing the article, partially disassociated itself from its reviewer’s opinions.84
This attack prompted Roucher, during his imprisonment, to attempt a revision of his
translation, resulting in a partially corrected new edition in 1794. But Desrenaudes still
81 “Whereas the La Haye edition of 1778-1779 identified Smith as the author, this reissue of those sheets
did not. Instead, the new title, Recherches très-utiles sur les affaires présentes, et les causes de la
richesse des nations, emphasises that this work is very useful in the present circumstances; and the
omission of Smith’s name might have enhanced the emphasis on current relevance by giving the
impression that the author was French.” Carpenter, Dissemination, p. 79.
82 Carpenter, Dissemination, p. 93.
83 Carpenter, Dissemination, p. 101.
84 “If anyone has cause to complain about this article, sent to us from Paris, such complaints should be
addressed to us and we will publish them as soon as is possible. We have neither the original, nor
any translation of the work of Smith”. (See Carpenter, Dissemination, p. 105)
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
talked in 1802 of “his very faulty translation”,85 and in his Mémoires Morellet placed
Roucher on the same level as Blavet.86 Blavet also intervened in the dispute. Writing
in the preface to his revised 1800-1801 edition, he made a scathing attack on Roucher,
suggesting that he was claiming to translate the work of an author whose language was
unfamiliar to him. Roucher was supposed to have plagiarised Blavet “It is no more
than a travesty of my own translation, which he had constantly in front of him,”87
although, Blavet went on, Roucher’s efforts at placing his own stamp on the work made
the text incomprehensible in places.
Blavet’s accusations were echoed in the press – in Le Publiciste of 15 December 1800,
and then later in La Décade philosophique of 31 December 1801 and this impelled
the publisher Buisson to react in honour of Roucher’s memory (in the issue of Le
Publiciste for 21 December 1800). The affair stopped there. A few months later the
publication of Germain Garnier’s new translation88 quickly eclipsed all predecessors, as
we shall shortly see.89
85 Desrenaudes, Review, p. 213.
86 Morellet, Mémoires, p. 207.
87 J.-L. Blavet, “Préface du traducteur”, in A. Smith’s Richesse des nations, Laran, Paris 1800 vol. 1, p.
xiii, and in Carpenter, Dissemination, pp. 153-159.
88 Garnier had at least one point in common with Roucher: the latter had, in the translator’s preface to his
1790 edition written provocatively: “…there has long been a demand for a French translation of
Mr. Smith’s work” an assertion for which he was criticised. Some years later, Garnier took up
this judgement in turn, discounting entirely preceding translations. In his preface to Abrégé
élémentaire des principes de l’économie politique (1796) he stated that the Wealth of Nations was
“a work which we still lack in our language” (p. v). A lawyer, Garnier was made reserve deputy for
Paris in the Estates General, but never sat. He was close to the monarchists. After the fall of the
monarchy in 1792 he was forced to take refuge in Switzerland and it was during this period of exile
that he began translating Wealth of Nations. “I wrote this preface and the subsequent translation in
1794. Proscribed and a fugitive of the times, I sought to console myself regarding the misfortunes
of my country” - “Préface du traducteur”, in A. Smith, Recherches sur la nature et les causes de la
richesse des nations, Agasse, Paris, an X [1802], vol. 1, p. lxxxvii. He did not return to France until
after Thermidor, in 1795. A supporter of Bonaparte, he became a prefect, a Count in the Empire
and President of the Senate from 1809 to 1811. After the restoration he was made [GarnierTitle]
89 Here we arrive at the point when the frenetic pace of translation slows. Unfortunately there is no space
here to compare different translations. But the interested reader who lacks access to the editions in
question can form a preliminary opinion by opening the website of the PHARE Research Centre - and visiting the general catalogue of the virtual library under the name
“Smith”. Paulette Taieb, herself a distinguished translator and designer of this website, has placed
there Book I Ch. II of Wealth of Nations in its different versions, including the manuscript version
of Morellet.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
3. The Theoretical Horizon
How was Wealth of Nations perceived in France at the end of the eighteenth century?
Some idea can be gained by considering in turn the reaction of authors who wrote in
periodicals or more specialist works; and that of journalists, literary figures and
politicians who followed debates at some distance without becoming really involved,
and whose opinions can be found in the more everyday press titles. The latter will be
dealt with first.
General Opinion
In the periodical literature of the time many articles appeared that were immediately
very favourable to Wealth of Nations, but it is striking that such authors were, in one
way or another, involved in the business of translation – which is at once an intellectual
and a commercial enterprise. Blavet’s short article in the Journal des savants of 1777
is an example of this: his opinion Smith “displays everywhere a degree of
discernment and wisdom that one cannot but admire, for it is extremely rare” was
everywhere repeated.90 Another case concerns Ameilhon who, in January 1779,
prefaced the first instalment of the translation in the Journal de l’agriculture with the
statement: “We do not believe that there is anything more solid and profound on this
matter.” But general articles are in fact relatively scarce at the beginning of the period
and views such as those expressed during 1776 in the Journal encyclopédique represent
the exception more than the rule.
Ten years later opinions remained divided. For example, following the new 1786
edition, the Journal historique et littéraire for 1 March 1787 considered the work “a
collection of political, economic and philosophical observations, many of which are
well-founded and perfectly reasonable, while others are the fruits of convoluted and
tiresome speculation, from which one can hardly hope for clear and certain results”.91
For its part the Mercure de France stated on 14 July 1787 that “…the best works of
economics, such as that of Adam Smith in England, and Forbonnais and Necker in
France, are more books for the use of their respective states than general treatises”.92
90 Blavet’s declaration was reproduced almost word for word in the February 1782 number of the
Tableau raisonné de l’histoire littéraire du dix-huitième siècle (see Carpenter, Dissemination, p.
39). It was cited once again in 1787, on 5 December in the Journal de Paris (Carpenter,
Dissemination, p. 62). Much later, in 1790, Roucher employed a related formulation in the preface
to his own translation Smith had rendered political economy “more profound and developed it
with exceptional wisdom”, a phrasing which can be found in the same Journal for 4 June 1790, the
new formulation also being repeated in the Feuille de correspondance du libraire during the spring
of 1791 (Carpenter, Dissemination, p. 116).
91 Carpenter, Dissemination, p. 56.
92 Carpenter, Dissemination, p. 76.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
However, with time opinion altered for the better. The Journal encyclopédique
returned to the question. A moderate review of the 1788 edition concluded that “There
are longueurs …; but there is order, precision and profundity.”93 Barely a week later
the Mercure de France had no hesitation in
…placing these Inquiries alongside those works that have done the
greatest honour to our century and to the human spirit, considering on
the one hand the vigour and extent of the genius they require; and on the
other, the extreme importance of truths generally ignored, upon which
the author has shed great light.94
An allusion is made to the English comparison of the standing of Smith with that of
Montesquieu. In conclusion, the article notes the contemporary relevance of the work.
“The current intellectual and political situation of this kingdom gives grounds to hope
that this important work will find among us readers capable of profiting from it.”95
Volney went even further in the Journal de Paris for 11 October 1788:
Great Britain, by bringing forth Smith, has equalled a France which has
given birth to Montesquieu. It is therefore desirable that Smith is much
read, much studied and that his work prompts reflection at this time
when all minds, occupied with objects of government, are there
generating more heat than light.96
One year later Pierre-Louis Rœderer, also wrote in his first work of “the excellent work
of M. Schmitt [sic.] on wealth, a work which is to the science of public economy that
which the Esprit des lois is to the science of political and civil government.”97 This
comparison with Montesquieu was repeated.98
93 15 March 1788, Carpenter, Dissemination, p. 69.
94 22 March 1788, ibid.
95 22 March 1788, ibid. p. 70.
96 C. F. de Volney, Letter to the Journal de Paris, 24 October 1788, in Carpenter, Dissemination, p. 74.
97 P.-L. Rœderer, Questions proposées par la commission intermédiaire de l’Assemblée provinciale de
Lorraine, concernant le reculement des barrières, et observations pour servir de réponse à ces
questions, s.l., 1787 p. 26.
98 At the beginning of this period Le Spectateur national wrote on 9 April 1790: “Smith’s work must be a
milestone in the history of political science, as was Esprit des lois. There is no need to seek in
Smith the brilliant imagination and the energetic style of Montesquieu. Smith is a wise and
profound calculator whose only ornament is utility. Do you wish great images for your
imagination, great thoughts, strong and ingenious expression that entirely sate your spirit? Close
the Treatise on the Wealth of Nations and open Esprit des lois. But if you are seeking the true
foundations of the prosperity of empires, if you require exact ideas on the relationship of agriculture
and commerce, wages and work, on industry, banks, money, credit and all the many complicated
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
During the Revolution Smith’s name recurred in political discourse and in the press
where the number of titles had meanwhile increased. It was the hour of reform. It was
time to dismantle the elaborate and increasingly overwrought centuries-old system of
ancien régime regulation, to read how things were done better abroad, and to seek help
in such reflection by dipping into encyclopedias or works of synthesis. Economic
debates in France had produced many new ideas, but no single work satisfactorily
covered the entire theoretical and practical range of these ideas. From this point of
view Smith’s ideas were “in the air” and Wealth of Nations could be presented as
required reading:99 “No book contains a more comprehensive system of social
economy, and as a consequence none can offer more in the way of instruction and
usefulness” stated Le Moniteur in its issue of Tuesday 24 August 1790. The book
would not be easy reading for everyone: “Smith is one of those books [sic.] in which
each page contains enough material for a whole book; it has to be read several times to
properly understand it, to grasp, with any exactness, the entirety of its system.”100 But
syntheses were rare.
At the beginning of the Revolution, therefore, Smith appeared to the public as an
authority, more, an authority hard to challenge. The Annales patriotiques et littéraires
talked of “the immortal Smith” (23 March 1790), the Chronique de Paris underlined
that “the reputation of Smith is beyond praise. Europe … has long ranked him first
among the philosophers who directed themselves to the great science of political
economy” (9 April 1790), and the Mercure de France noted on 31 July that “the
excellent work of M. Smith has become a classic”, a conclusion that Le Spectateur
national reiterated on 9 May 1791. Many more examples of this could be found. In
1801 much the same thing was said: “Smith’s work, so justly celebrated, has no need of
apology: it has become a fundamental book.”101
Alongside this barrage of praise some criticism did however emerge, from intellectuals
or politicians uncommitted to “freedom of trade” and the absence of state intervention.
Jacobins such as Saint-Just and Robespierre are two examples from the National
and various elements entering into the structure of the modern state, the Treatise on the Wealth of
Nations is what is needed.”
99 In 1793 the government bought copies of Roucher’s translation for the instruction of its provincial
envoys (Carpenter, Dissemination, p. 87). After Thermidor, with the institution of a course on
political economy at the École Normale in Paris, and later in the Écoles Centrales, professors such
as Alexander Vandermonde or Jacques Berriat Saint-Prix recommended the reading of Wealth of
Nations to their students (see Faccarello, “Du Conservatoire à l’École normale: quelques notes sur
A.T. Vandermonde (1735-1796)”, Les Cahiers du CNAM, no. 2 (1993) pp. 17-58). But they did not
recommend Wealth of Nations alone; both Vandermonde and Berriat Saint-Prix maintained that the
works of Steuart were equally important. The works of Arthur Young and Jean Herrenschwand are
also mentioned. The course of study that Vandermonde followed was more or less that of Steuart.
For more on Steuart, see below.
100 Le Spectateur national, 9 May 1791, in Carpenter, Dissemination, p. 114.
101 In Carpenter, Dissemination, p. 165.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
Assembly, especially in the context of the great debate on “susbsistence” that took
place at the end of 1792. In his speech of 16 November one deputy, Ferrand, cited
Turgot in connection with the “freedom of trade”, while on 20 November Roland,
Minister of the Interior, praised the “great insights of Turgot” and castigated “Necker’s
disastrous errors”. Saint-Just responded in 29 November and mentioned Smith:
One cannot hide the fact that our economy, affected as it is, needs
extraordinary remedies. Ferrand talked to you of Smith and
Montesquieu; but neither Smith nor Montesquieu had experience of
what is happening here today.102
Smith, Quesnay, Turgot… and others
The first reaction to Wealth of Nations by those versed in political economy was to
judge the work against the context of French political economy. Here there were some
major figures, such as Boisguilbert to whom Dugald Stewart did not forget to allude
in his biographical account of Smith. But two more recent names dominated: Quesnay
and Physiocratic doctrine on the one hand, and Turgot on the other.
For Quesnay’s liberal adversaries the publication of Smith’s book served as a lever
against Physiocracy. In the editorial preface to the 1781 Yverdon edition of Blavet’s
translation, F. B. De Felice’s words were far from gentle.103 From this point of view
the ideas of Smith and English writers in general were presented as a corrective to the
supposed errors of French authors. English authors “had got ahead of other nations.”
“They have spared nothing in reaching this goal. They seem to have calculated
everything, weighed everything, to have grasped all relationships, and considered all
sides.” Their views were “new”, their observations “exact”, their research
This assessment was made in 1781, at a time when the intellectual impact of
Physiocracy was still fresh. But even in 1800 Le publiciste was able to publish an
article in which the same argument was repeated and also amplified:
The work of Smith has effected a genuine revolution. Previously
102 All reported in Le Moniteur, Vol. 14 (1792) pp. 494, 517, 610.
103 “In France, where everything begins in a rush of enthusiasm and ends up in the ridiculous, it was
thought that this important subject could be rendered more profound by using abstract terms and an
enigmatic language – but it was only rendered more obscure. This is the work a species of political
sect, whose proselytes honoured the memory of their venerable master with an apotheosis.” .
“Préface de l’éditeur” in Smith’s Richesse des nations, De Felice, Yverdon 1781 Vol. 1, pp. i-ii;
and in Carpenter, Dissemination p. 37.
104 De Felice, ibid. p. iv.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
both authors and administrators followed with difficulty the tracks of
Quesnay and Forbonnais, and of the Ami des hommes; the language used
in their explanations was practically unknown to everyone else; it
resembled a sacred Egyptian language, understood only by priests and
seemingly empty of all sense. Adam Smith was the first to dissipate the
obscurity, whether natural or contrived, of economic science.105
Those disposed favourably to Physiocracy preferred to underline the positive
theoretical connections with the work of Quesnay and his disciples, presenting Smith as
a writer who was continuing their work, rather than opposing it. An example of this is
Volney who, in the course of his controversy with Mallet du Pan, wrote in the Journal
de Paris that “even if the Economists had a ridiculous side, they had nevertheless done
much to enlighten us. M. Smith, who quite often is of the same opinion, sometimes
criticises them, but without relinquishing his high regard for their work. He did not
dream of calling them the “scourge of Europe”, as M. Mallet du Pan has done.”106
That same year Nicolas Badeau sought to demonstrate in the Nouvelles Éphémérides
économiques that the differences between physiocratic theory and that of Smith were
more apparent than real.107 This idea was taken up some years later by Germain
Garnier and used as the principal axis of his argument.108
Roucher also paid homage to the physiocrats in the “Advertisement” to his edition of
Wealth of Nations:
France has produced … works which have shed some light on the
different aspects of political economy. It would be the greatest
ingratitude to forget those services rendered to the country by economic
writers. The days of ridicule and disparagement are over; they have
given way to those of justice: and whatever might be the exaggerations
and consequences dictated by the spirit of system forced upon an
association of honest men and philosophers, it is no less acknowledged
today that they have given the signal for the study of practical truths,
105 15 December 1800, in Carpenter, Dissemination pp. 160-61.
106 Volney, Letter of 24 October 1788, in Carpenter, Dissemination, p. 77.
107 Nicolas Baudeau, “Explication amiable entre M. Smith, célèbre écrivain anglais, et les auteurs
économiques en France”, Nouvelles Éphémérides économiques, February 1788 second part, pp. 26-
108 “Préface du traducteur”, in A. Smith, Recherches sur la nature et les causes de la richesse des
nations, Agasse, Paris an X (1802), Vol. 1, pp.i-cxii; “Notes du traducteur”, op. cit. Vol. 5, pp. 1-
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
upon which one might cultivate and found the wealth of Nations.109
In his well-know Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain
Condorcet puts matters in historical perspective: he writes that political economy
Made little progress until the Treaty of Utrecht promised Europe a
lasting peace. At this time one can see that there was an almost general
move to the study of this hitherto neglected area; this new science was
carried by Stewart [ie. James Steuart], by Smith, and above all by the
French economists, to a degree, at least as regards precision and purity
of principles, that one could not have hoped to achieve so quickly.110
The comparison with Turgot and his writings was generally clear and unambiguous.
Smith, who had met Turgot in Paris, and for whom there is every indication of
familiarity with Réflexions sur la formation et la distribution des richesses (1766), was
presented as a direct continuation, especially with respect to a central element of his
doctrine: the theory of capital and of competition between capitals. In his Mémoires
sur la vie et les ouvrages de M. Turgot (1782) Dupont emphasised the brevity and
density of Turgot’s writing, noting with respect to the Réflexions:
Everything that is true in the admirable, although difficult work, that Mr.
Smith has since published on the same subject in two large quarto
volumes, can be found here; and where Smith has added to it there is a
lack of exactness and even of argument.111
Several years later in his own Vie de M. Turgot (1786) – a work which went through a
number of editions, was quickly translated into English and was an important text for
reformers in the British Isles – Condorcet also touched in passing on this issue.
Praising the simplicity of Turgot’s principles and the range of the results that he could
draw from them, he suggested that
One can regard this Essay as the germ of the renowned Smith’s treatise
on the wealth of nations, a work unfortunately to little known in France
for the good of the people, an author whom one can only reproach for
having taken too little account, in some circumstances, of the irresistible
109 Jean-Antoine Roucher, “Avertissement du traducteur”, in Adam Smith, Recherches sur la nature et
les causes de la richesse des nations, Buisson, Paris 1790, Vol. 1, pp. vii-viii.
110 Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat de Condorcet, Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de
l’esprit humain, Vrin, Paris 1970 p. 154.
111 Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, Mémoires sur la vie et les ouvrages de M. Turgot, ministre d’État,
Philadelphia 1782; in Dupont de Nemours, Œuvres politiques et économiques, KTO Press, Nedeln
1979, Vol. 3 pp. 109-10.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
force of reason and truth.112
This opinion was shared by other French authors, who often linked the names of Turgot
and Smith. Roederer remarked, for example, that he had himself “only developed some
principles from the illustrious Smith, or more exactly Turgot, the true author of the
theory of capitals.”113 And importantly, the 1801 Basel edition of Wealth of Nations
contains an English translation of the 1766 Réflexions.114
In concluding this survey of the reception of Smith translation in later eighteenth
century France we should not stop simply at the registration of linkages that were made
between Wealth of Nations and French contemporary writers. Foreign writers were
also repeatedly mentioned, among James Steuart.
Even if he were not so famous in France as Smith, James Steuart had his own public in
the early years of the Revolution. His Inquiry into the Principles of Political Œconomy
was translated into French and published during 1789-90 by Didot in Paris under the
title Recherches des principles de l’économie politique, ou Essai sur la science de la
police intérieure des nations libres. Alexandre Vandermonde was behind this
initiative;115 he declared that the work
was translated at my request. The translation was completed by an
Irishman who knew no French [sic], but it was reviewed by a man of
high intellect.116
112 Condorcet, Vie de M. Turgot (1786), London 1787 Vol. I p. 54.
113 Pierre Louis Rœderer, Mémoires sur quelques points d’économie publique, lus au Lycée en 1800 et
1801, Firmin Didot, Paris 1840 p. 98. See also here p. 78: “Around 1766 he [Turgot] wrote a small
work … in which he established the same principles that I will present; I invite those who love
science to read this little-known treatise. They will have the satisfaction of discovering there
that one of the best chapters from Smith’s book, one of those which has contributed the most to his
success, is owed entirely to the work of Turgot, several copies of which were distributed in
manuscript shortly after its composition.”
114 Together with the explanation: “as they [the Reflections] are affirmed by the Marquis de Condorcet …
to be the germ from which Mr. Adam Smith formed his excellent treatise on the Wealth of Nations,
it is hoped the curious reader will not be displeased to find them here in English dress.” Carpenter,
Dissemination, p. 174.
115 On Vandermonde and the first public chair of political economy see Faccarello, “L’évolution de
l’économie politique”, pp. 75-121.
116 Alexandre Théophile Vandermonde, Économie politique, lectures published in Séances des Écoles
normale, Reynier, Paris 1795; new ed., Imprimerie du Cercle Social, Paris 1800-1801; in L’École
normale de l’An III. Leçons d’histoire, de géographie, d’économie politique, Dunod, Paris 1994, p.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
The latter was General Étienne de Sénovert, who in 1790 also published a collection of
John Law’s works with Buisson,117 prefaced by a “Discours préliminaire” dealing with
money and credit.118 How was Smith located in relation to these writers by the French
The five volumes of Steuart’s book were taken more as a complement to, rather than a
substitute for, the Wealth of Nations. It was even thought that Smith had drawn upon
Steuart for inspiration. In Le Moniteur for 24 August 1790 for example we find it
suggested that
Mr. Smith has drawn his principles largely from the work of Sir James
He also owes many ideas to the famous Law, so ill-judged in his
time and even today, whose operations, always thwarted by authority,
were so little in harmony with his true system, who perhaps deserves to
be better-known at this time, as he is to the English.119
These suggestions were probably prompted by Sénovert himself. In his translator’s
introduction to Steuart, he stated that
Mr. Smith in his justly famous work combined in the first three
books everything that our author has said on the same issues, but
without elaborating on it in any way, for this is only incidental to his
plan, and he presumes that these elaborations are known to his
As far as public debate over money, credit and public debt was concerned, these
editions of the writings of Law and of Steuart were timely, for their appearance
coincided with the creation of assignats to which Sénovert and Vandermonde were
very favourable – and the lengthy debates that ensued. This was echoed in the press.121
For some participants in the debate a way was thus found of countering some of the
117 It should be recalled that Steuart himself revived Law’s ideas.
118 Étienne-François de Sénovert, “Discours préliminaire”, in Œuvres de J. Law, Buisson, Paris 1790 pp.
119 Le Moniteur Vol. 5 p. 568.
120 Étienne-François de Sénovert, “Avertissement du traducteur”, in James Steuart, Recherche des
principes de l’économie politique, ou Essai sur la science de la police intérieure des nations libres,
Didot, Paris 1789 Vol. 1 p. vii.
121 “We doubt that it is possible to find elsewhere, and especially among French writers, any intelligible
explanation of Law’s famous system; the reader will see, and not without some surprise, that
neither writers, nor those orators of the day who have talked of it, have ever studied it, or what is
worse, have not understood it.” Le Moniteur 24 June 1790, Vol. 4 p. 699.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
prevailing liberal ideas, while also questioning some of the arguments advanced by the
Wealth of Nations.
In his introduction Sénovert betrayed the key to his preference for Steuart he
appreciated this author’s pragmatism, which is to say, his interventionist bent.122 He
appreciated the absence in Steuart of dogmatic and rigid maxims” which only had to
be stated and then applied, whatever the circumstances; this is recognisable as an old
criticism directed at the Physiocrats and at Turgot, those who supposed to favour an
immediate and uncompromising freedom of trade, imposing a simple system upon a
complex reality, without taking account of impediment and the risk of a brutal toppling
of social order. According to Sénovert, one of the main advantages of Steuart’s Inquiry
was that he
…convinced sound minds … of the difficulty of reducing political
economy to a system; they will see that administrative principles are
necessary, but nothing is more treacherous than maxims whose rigidity
never bends before the numerous inconsistencies which oppose their
application. These maxims have the inconvenience of favouring
ignorance and idleness in a subject which does not permit such
These comments were also aimed at Smith, since the opinion of the day considered that
criticism directed to the political economy of Physiocrats and Turgot were also directed
to the Wealth of Nations.
Today we know that this assimilation is an improper one, and that to some degree the
criticism is also mistaken with respect to Turgot.124 Nevertheless, from the perspective
of early Revolutionary politics, whether liberal or anti-liberal, we can note that even
Dugald Stewart in his “Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith” (translated
by Pierre Prévost and published in French in 1797) sought to purify Smith of any
suspicion of dogmatism in economic policy, emphasising prudence and gradualism.
Stewart here drew on Wealth of Nations, and also on those passages added by Smith to
the sixth edition of Moral Sentiments concerning the qualities necessary for a
122 This position was elaborated by Sénovert almost three decades later in a long commentary on Smith
which remained unpublished - “Introduction” to the manuscript “Notes sur les Recherches de la
nature et des causes de la richesse des nations d’Adam Smith”, in Carpenter, Dissemination, pp.
123 “Avertissement”, pp. ix-x.
124 See G. Faccarello, “Galiani, Necker and Turgot: a debate on economic reforms and policies in
eighteenth century France”, in G. Faccarello (ed), Studies in the History of French Political
Economy: From Bodin to Walras, Routledge, London 1998 pp. 120-195.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
statesman.125 And on the issue of this distinction between political economy and
economic policy he even linked Smith’s opinions to those of Necker – without however
naming the latter, referring simply to his Éloge de Colbert.126
4. The Nature of the Theoretical Reception: Some Examples
We can start by dealing with an issue that increases in importance during our first
period – that of Smith’s plan of work, or project. There are two aspects to this: firstly,
the question of the relationship between Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations; and
secondly, the structure of Wealth of Nations itself.
The first of these questions was not directly confronted during this period. Generally
speaking, reviewers of the various editions of Wealth of Nations in translation confined
themselves to the observation that Smith was also the author of the famous and
important work Theory of Moral Sentiments. There is only one exception to this; a rare
false note was sounded in the Mercure de France which, in 1800, published a rather
curious article at the time that the corrected edition of Blavet’s translation of Wealth of
Nations appeared.127 The article contends that Moral Sentiments is a minor work.
“The Wealth of Nations is one of the leading works of the genre. Theory of Moral
Sentiments, from the same writer, is a very inferior work. Everything is positive and
substantial in the first; everything is vague and subtle in the second, if you disregard
some chapters.”128 But at this stage of the reception no mention was made of the
relationship between Smith’s two books.
The second point was initially touched on but became increasingly important in
approaches to Wealth of Nations. As early as 1781 the publisher De Felice had
considered “English authors” to be, in spite of their qualities, sometimes lacking in
clarity and without the talent to outline their ideas:
Their pace is difficult and crabbed. They have insufficient method to
125 In Adam Smith, Essays on Philosophical Subjects and Miscellaneous Pieces, Oxford University
Press, Oxford 1980, pp. 317-8.
126 Stewart, op, cit. pp. 318-9.
127 As Ken Carpenter remarks, (Dissemination, pp. 138, 165-6) this article silently repeated the review by
Victorin Fabre that had appeared five years before in La Décade philosophique, littéraire et
politique on the occasion of the publication of the revised Roucher translation. Some new
paragraphs are however added, and it is these that are of interest here.
128 Mercure de France, 1st Brumaire Year IX, 23 October 1800, in Carpenter, Dissemination, p. 166. The
author of the article also goes so far as to claim that, for the most part, the substance of Smith’s
Moral Sentiments had already appeared in the well-known philosophical poem “The Seasons” by
Charles-François de Saint-Lambert – except that the poet is more precise, exact and striking
(Carpenter, Dissemination, p. 166, note). But the poem actually appeared in 1769, ten years after
Moral Sentiments.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
deal with many ideas and much knowledge. They show more acuity in
forming a plan, but they are not exact in following it.129
If a partial exception were made for Smith this was of course in the preface of the
Blavet translation and copies had to be sold there was nevertheless some room for
scepticism: “Insofar as Mr. Smith has filled his own work by reinforcing his material,
and if he has avoided many of these defects, are there yet no criticisms that can be
made of him? We cannot say so, but if an author, having struggled with all difficulties,
surmounts a great number of them, severity in his case becomes an injustice.”130 Other
authors also made comments concerning the structure of Wealth of Nations. But the
most direct attack came from Germain Garnier. He challenged the idea that one could
use the work as a treatise for instruction in the science of political economy, for the
treatment of different themes and the rendering of principles was confused.
Garnier formulated this argument in his Abrégé élémentaire des principes de
l’économie politique of 1796, a work intended to fill a large gap in teaching material.
Although Smith’s work was “the most perfect and complete” in political economy, it
lacked order and method. It cannot be given to beginners. The
author has marked out a plan too limited for the vast distance he has
to cover; and thus his genius, discontented with these narrow bounds,
makes an excursion at every step. Most of the interesting elements of
his work are thrown up as if by chance, and placed under titles that seem
alien to them.131
This reproach was repeated often enough afterwards, by Jean-Baptiste Say in particular.
But Garnier came back to it in the long preface which he placed at the beginning of his
translation: “One cannot hide that the defect identified in English writers, a want of
method and a neglect of those didactic forms which relieves the reader’s memory
and directs his acumen, can be sensed in the Wealth of Nations.132
Defects in exposition were held to be of three types. Firstly, Smith began his book by
placing before the reader “the complex machine for the multiplication of wealth” and
its main source the division of labour instead of outlining “preliminary notions”
such as the definition of values” and the “laws which govern them”. Secondly, “the
line of reasoning is often interrupted by long digression” through which the reader loses
129 De Felice, “Préface de l’éditeur”, p. iv.
130 Ibid. pp. iv-v.
131 Germain Garnier, Abrégé élémentaire des principes de l’économie politique, Agasse, Paris an IV
(1796) pp. v-vii.
132 Garnier, “Préface du traducteur”, in A. Smith, Recherches sur la nature et les causes de la richesse
des nations, Agasse, Paris an X, vol. 1, p. xxiv.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
track of the argument. Thirdly, “all of Smith’s doctrine was contained within the first
two books; … the three remaining books could be read separately, for while they
confirmed and developed his doctrine, they did not serve to complete it.” And so
Garnier inserted into his long preface a section entitled “Method for Facilitating the
Study of Smith’s Work”, as an aid to reading and studying the text.133
If we consider matters a little more closely we could say that the parts of Wealth of
Nations that struck contemporaries most strongly were placed towards the beginning
and the end of the work. Taking the latter first, Book IV, on systems of political
economy, had a natural interest, since it contained an analysis of the Physiocratic
system. But Book V also attracted attention because of its relevance to France’s
problems. The problems of taxation and public debt were at the centre of debate and a
moving force in the convocation of the Estates General. It is easy to see why in this
context that final chapters of Smith’s book aroused such interest.
Regarding Book IV, one can doubt whether it had much of an impact upon firmly-
established opinion regarding Quesnay’s theory. Partisans and adversaries had by this
time each selected an emblematic figure suited to their cause. Adversaries naturally
gravitated towards the bête noire of Boisguilbert and Quesnay Colbert. During the
second half of the eighteenth century the Academie française intervened in debate by
announcing prize competitions on Sully and Colbert. It was the poet Antoine-Léonard
Thomas, himself close to the Physiocrats, who carried off the first prize in 1763 with
his Éloge de Sully. Ten years later Jacques Necker, an enemy to the Physiocrats and to
Turgot, took the second of the prizes with his Éloge de Colbert.
The interest that Book IV attracted is therefore understandable. An anonymous review
published in the Journal encyclopédique of 1776 adopted a moderate tone. The
reviewer expressed the hope that, thanks to Smith, all would now consider the real
opposition to be between agriculture and commerce, and not agriculture and
manufacturing – although this seems to rest on a misinterpretation.
In his treatment of the agricultural system he concludes that one must
neglect neither the cultivation of land, nor commerce; a prudent passage
which might reconcile the partisans of Sully and those of Colbert,
especially when one reflects that Sully found a France in a state of
devastation, where it would have been folly to seek enrichment through
commerce, before securing the bread that was needed. Can one engage
in commerce before the objects of commerce exist? Under Colbert,
France already had such objects in abundance, and this minister would
not have been more prudent in working to increase the sum of these
133 Op. cit. pp. xxiii-xlix. Garnier added that he believed himself able “to indicate the order which
seemed to to conform most closely to the sequence of ideas, and for this reason most suited for
teaching” (p. xxvi).
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
objects, without considering their circulation and sale. It seems to us
that this is the nub of the difficulty that separates the Sullyists from the
Colbertists; a central issue that has not yet been grasped.134
On 20 March 1791 the Journal returned to this question in another anonymous review
of the third volume of Roucher’s translation, devoted to Book IV. “Which of the two
systems should one prefer? Smith dedicated the work translated here to the solution of
this problem.”135 Having summarised the chapters at issue, the reviewer summarily
dismissed both schools: “How is our author’s investigation concluded? He will tell us
himself.” There then follows a quotations from Smith concerning “the system of
natural liberty, so simple and so consistent, which will establish itself. Every man, so
long as he does not violate the laws of justice, must be perfectly free to follow his
interests as he sees fit.”136
For the partisans of Quesnay and Turgot the tone is obviously quite different.
Condorcet for instance, in his brief but laudatory assessment of Smith included in his
Vie de M. Turgot (1786), commented in a note that Smith’s arguments concerning the
agricultural system lacked “the exactness and the precision that one admires in the rest
of his work”. In particular, “the authors whom he calls French Economists and the
question of the imposition of a single tax” are dealt with superficially, involving some
error, and does them some injustice.”137 But he does not elaborate on these comments.
The single tax was of course a controversial idea, and the opponents of Physiocracy
could find in Smith several useful arguments against it. However, Book V was not so
greatly admired as the remainder of the work; perhaps Smith disappointed because he
furnished no immediate solution to the pressing problem of public debt. This was
emphaised by the reviewer in 1776:
The final chapter of this work, where one otherwise finds new
perspectives, is devoted to the topic of national debt, but bewilders one
with the banality of its views. There is no doubt that the most important
issue here is to find a way of discharging them, but Smith shows no such
way. It is not enough to have a ball of thread to get out of the
The first book of Wealth of Nations was no less read than the last. Commentators were
mainly struck by two themes. The first of these was dealt with only in passing, in
134 Carpenter, Dissemination p. 13.
135 Ibid. p. 106.
136 Ibid. p. 111.
137 Condorcet, Vie, Vol. I pp. 54-5.
138 Carpenter, Dissemination, p. 13.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
contrast to later discussion: this concerned the relation of value and price. Much ink
was however spilt over the second: this concerned the emphasis placed upon the
“annual labour of a nation” and the role of the division of labour in the production of
Generally, those reading Smith’s discussion of the relation of exchange among
commodities did not understand the conception of natural price which this involved
this was a constant factor in the French reception of the work, to the end of the
eighteenth century and beyond. The distinction of use value and exchange value
seemed to be a curio of little use, and commentators directed all their attention to the
nature of value and utility. This can broadly be attributed to the influence of sensualist
philosophy, defined by Turgot and circulated by Condorcet. The reaction of the
Journal encyclopédique in 1776 is quite characteristic in this rspect.
The word value has a dual meaning; it expresses both the quality of a
particular object, and the faculty that enables this object to be used as a
means for the purchase of others; a distinction which appears to us to
have greater subtlety than importance, for it is always utility, the real
merit or opinion which makes this object the price of another. The one,
the author suggests, can be called value in use, and the other value in
exchange; let us accept that one merges into the other; for there is no use
without exchange, nor exchange without use.139
Some commentators did touch on the question, such as Vandermonde in his course at
the École Normale, or Garnier in his Abrégé élementaire. But the first lacked
coherence and the second rigour, and it can be said that the issue aroused little interest
among readers at this time. Characteristic is the attitude of the author (or authors) of
the summary published in Bibliothèque de l’homme public, where the matter was
summarily dispatched. More interesting perhaps is the response of Morellet, which
remained unpublished.
Turning to Smith’s emphasis upon “the annual labour of a nation” and the means of
increasing its productivity, this was certainly the topic that struck most readers here
the impact was important and lasting. The topic recurs in all commentaries, especially
the example of the fabrication of pins. This is not surprising Turgot among others
had touched on the issue at the beginning of his Réflexions, and Smith had in any case
taken the example from the Encyclopédie. But the power of Smith’s exposition, and
the role played by the division of labour in his book, endured. In 1800 for instance the
Mercure de France, in an article from 23 October already discussed above, wrote that
…all enlightened readers concur … that the best volume of Smith is the
139 Ibid. p. 6.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
first. His theory of the division of labour is novel, illuminating, and
fruitful. It is true that to discover this theory Smith only had to cast his
eyes around him. A developed division of labour is in England the
source of universal opulence. Whoever has read Smith well, sees
England; and he who has seen England understands, without effort,
Smith’s entire system.140
Germain Garnier also referred quite unambiguously in 1802 to the “innumerable
marvels brought about by the division of labour” that constituted a “magnificent and
imposing scene”.141Of course, during all this period, some authors extended the field of
the principle of the division of labour, and others stressed the negative effects of this
division: but they cannot, unfortunately, be taken into account here.
“Maintenant je ne suis plus d’aucune école”
5. French Economic Liberals and Smith, 1802-1888
The developing history of French translations of Smith’s two books ends in 1802
following Sophie de Grouchy’s 1798 translation of Moral Sentiments at Garnier’s
translation of Wealth of Nations. This made two good quality texts available to French
readers for the first time, and these two versions were the basis for all subsequent
editions until the new translation of the late twentieth century. Nonetheless, there was a
long process of assimilation during the nineteenth century, a sifting process in which
some elements were to be retained, some allowed to become dormant, and others
There are three characteristics in this reception process: firstly, Garnier’s translation of
Wealth of Nations became the standard text in respect of its formulation of the
principles of political economy; secondly, during the debates prompted by the
Ricardian interpretation of Wealth of Nations the work returned to centre stage for
French economists, on account of its method, which could be used against Ricardo and
the Ricardians; thirdly, if French economic liberals were at first uninterested in Theory
of Moral Sentiments, this part of Smith’s work was finally taken up as to contest
socialist arguments, and as a consequence of this there were several revisions made in
the interpretation of Wealth of Nations.
140 Carpenter, Dissemination, p. 166.
141 Garnier, “Préface du traducteur”, p. xxiv.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
Smith praised, against the Physiocrats
There was no lack of praise for Garnier’s new translation, as for instance the review
published under the name of Roussel in Moniteur Universel. The first began by
declaring the work of Smith to be fundamental to the development of societies, and
their wealth; it was required reading for men of government, but up until now the work
had not been properly understood, because of faulty translation.
However, there are few who thoroughly know this wonderful work of
the genius Smith. It is not in a flawed translation, made with an
imperfect knowledge of the English language and a lack of acquaintance
with the matters discussed by Smith, that one can gain an exact idea of
the series of illuminating principles and well-made arguments through
which this writer leads his reader to important and useful truths. This is
not a matter of elegance, of force of expression, or a striking style …;
the translator, who has in this respect all the necessary advantages, states
himself that he has sometimes sacrificed the exact original for the sake
of clarity.142
Besides mastery of the English language, in the absence of which it was hard to see
how a translator could properly do his job, Roussel emphasised the need to understand
the text as a work of philosophy for it was not many years since the Economists had
been known as “economic philosophers”. Hence the quality of Garnier’s translation
was linked to the fact that he was himself an economic philosopher, that is, he was
closely acquainted with the subject matter so that, beyond the language of Smith, he
was in a position to reconstitute Smith’s arguments, which were themselves those of an
economic philosopher. What follows is quite explicit in this respect:
We do not hesitate to assert that this work of Smith, a monument to the
rarest wisdom and an exact and all-embracing spirit, will not have been
properly known to us as it merits before the date of this new translation,
which we owe to citizen Garnier, and which could only be properly
completed by a man of distinguished talent and the most varied
knowledge, joined with that which is special to Smith’s work, that is, a
knowledge of political economy.143
Garnier also had the merit of providing both a reading guide and a critical appreciation:
the first being needed because of the way that the detours in Wealth of Nations made it
seem hard to follow, the second relating Smith’s text to those of physiocratic economic
theory, which if not known at first hand by the contemporary intellectual elite, was
142 Moniteur universel floréal an X pp. 891 col. 3, p. 892 col. 1.
143 P. 892 col. 1.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
known through the impact that this theory had had during 1760 to 1774 and in the
political and economic debates of the revolutionary assemblies. This dimension was
not without its difficulties in the reception of Smith’s work. Roussel here put his finger
on a problem, even though he was not trying to make trouble for Garnier.
The advantage [knowledge of political economy] that we find in Smith’s
translator sometimes leads to the modification of this writer’s ideas,
lending them a veracity or clarity that they lack, correcting assertions
made on false information, and this is what citizen Garnier has done in
his instructive and interesting notes … they should be treated as the
necessary complement to Smith’s doctrine.144
Garnier’s preface was not presented only to French readers. During the nineteenth
century a translation of this preface appeared in a great number of English and
American editions of Wealth of Nations.145 The Preface is important in two respects:
firstly, its translation indicated that this form of approaching Smith’s work had found
an audience beyond its francophone readers; and secondly, its diffusion lent validated a
conciliatory interpretation which sought to demonstrate that, despite all appearance, the
Physiocrats and Smith were basically in agreement. What did Garnier do to bring this
Garnier treated the two doctrines as fundamentally identical this also went for their
errors, since Garnier rejected the distinction between types of labour, on the grounds
that it was not possible to tell whether the right or the left foot was more useful in
walking – apparent differences fading from view when one took account of the
methodological differences between Quesnay and Smith:
The science of political economy, considered from the point of view
adopted by the French Economists, belongs to the class of natural
sciences, which are purely speculative, and which are able only to
present a knowledge of the laws governing the object with which they
are concerned; whereas seen in the practical perspective from which
Smith presents this science, it rejoins the other moral sciences, which
tend to the improvement of their object, carrying it to the highest point
of perfection of which it is capable.146
144 Ibid.
145 All of which used the original translation that first appeared in the 3-volume 1805 Glasgow edition
(#87 in the main Bibliography below).
146 Garnier, “Préface du traducteur”, p. xix.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
The ultimate argument is that the two doctrines, far from being in opposition, are in fact
complementary, Smith having the advantage of being practical and useful where the
Economists remain abstract.147
Having noted these specific features of the translation, we can now examine the manner
in which they were taken up by economists working in the French language, in so
doing opening the way for a distinctive interpretation of Smith. Jean-Baptiste Say,
whose Traité de l’économie politique first appeared in 1803, is of central importance to
this on account of the four further editions following from 1814 to 1826, not counting
the sixth posthumous edition of 1841. But alongside Say there is also Sismondi; his
Richesse commerciale was likewise published in 1803, in Geneva.
Say had been to England several times, he read English, and had discovered Wealth of
Nations in the original through the Genevan banker Étienne Clavière when working in
his insurance company before the Revolution. Say had cited Smith from the English
version in his first work, Olbie.148 Nonetheless, the first edition of the Traité has two
features that are of interest here: firstly, as regards the principles of political economy,
Say chooses Smith against the Physiocrats, making a clear differentiation where
important theoretical issues are concerned; secondly, he immediately designates the
Garnier translation as the reference work. Let us first examine the second point.
The first edition of the Traité is very precise when it comes to the question of the
French translation of Smith’s economic work:149 a note in the Preliminary Discourse
gets to the point straight away:
Garnier’s translation of Smith is the only one worthy of the original. It
is unfortunate that the translator in his preface, his notes, and in the
147 The concluding part of note XXIX (“Sur le système des économistes”) is even more explicit, since
Garnier writes: “One could reject the theory of the Economists for being of little use, but not for
their error; and at every point where these two great systems of political economic coincide serves
to demonstration the truths which they teach, in the same way that the observations of two
astronomers placed at opposite sides of the globe mutually reinforce each other.” “Notes du
traducteur”, Vol. 5 p. 283.
148 Jean-Baptiste Say, Olbie ou essai sur les moyens de réformer les mœurs d’une nation, Déterville,
Paris 1800.
149 Theory of Moral Sentiments is not referred to by Say, even though he had a strong interest in moral
issues and their connection to economic activity. He never mentions the work, except for a brief
reference in a note to his “Histoire abrégée des progrès de l’économie politique” which concludes
his Cours complet of 1828-29; and this comment itself demonstrates his lack of familiarity with the
text, for he recalls that Smith had all his manuscripts destroyed after his death, including his first
lectures on political economy, adding “The Theory of Moral Sentiments which made up another
part of his teaching, and several lesser essays, were the only items to be preserved” (Say, Cours
complet d’économie politique pratique, 2nd ed., Vol. II Guillaumin, Paris 1852 p. 560. Doubtless
Say’s allegiance to Benthamite utilitarian philosophy distanced him from Smith’s Moral
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
Élements that he published a few years previously, has reproduced the
principal errors of the Economists; which is not to say that their work is
not to be most warmly recommended, and which I have myself never
consulted without great profit.150
In the main body of his work Say repeats his praise, and he does not fail to discuss
some of the interpretation put forward in Garnier’s preface, or in the copious notes
making up the fifth volume of the translation.151 Nonetheless, Say does not himself
make use of the translation, as an examination of his own quotes from Smith shows.
We do not know which translation of Smith that Sismondi used when he presented his
own economic work, like Say also in 1803; he never cites Smith directly. Nevertheless,
in his critical evaluation of the Economists he does refer to Garnier as “the translator of
Smith”,152 dissociating himself in this way since he also opts for Smith in presenting
the principles of political economy.
In subsequent editions of Say’s Traité he made no further admiring comments
concerning Garnier’s translation; although this did not prevent him from citing the
second 1822 edition of this translation in discussing the new notes that Garnier had
added.153 One could see in this the manner in which Garnier’s translation had by this
time established itself as the standard translation, without it being any longer necessary
to state this obvious fact. That being so, it is no less interesting to see the manner in
which this option for Smith is linked to criticisms of Garnier.
The Preliminary Discourse of the first edition of the Traité clearly demonstrates this.
When Say discusses the boundary between economics and politics154 he opts for Smith
as against the uncertainties of definitions proposed by Rousseau, the Economists and
Steuart. Secondly, the question of method – general and particular facts, the nature of
observations) gives Say the opportunity of demonstrating the force and originality of
Smith to those who ranged him alongside Steuart in a line of “previous authors”.155
And finally, Say decides to make his position clear:
I wanted to do justice to Smith, whom I have only see belittled by those
with no hope of understanding him; but I have not closed my eyes to
150 J.-B. Say, Traité d’économie politique, 1st ed., Vol. I Déterville, Paris 1803 p. xxiii.
151 Say, Traité, Vol. I pp. 365, 392; Vol. II pp. 458, 512.
152 Jean-Charles-Léonard Simonde de Sismondi, De la richesse commerciale ou Principes d’économie
politique appliqués à la législation du commerce, Vol. I Paschoud, Genève 1803 pp. 31, 268; Vol.
II p. 15.
153 J.-B. Say, Traité d’économie politique, 5th ed., Vol. II, Rapilly, Paris 1826 p. 206.
154 Say, Traité, Vol. I pp. i-iii.
155 Ibid., pp. iii-xxiii.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
thesoe areas in which he is found wanting.156
The unique position occupied by Say in French neo-Smithian political economy in the
early nineteenth century can thus be explained by the dual position that he maintains.
On the one hand, he makes a decisive choice for Smith:
When one reads this work [Wealth of Nations], one can only conclude
that political economy did not exist prior to Smith. I do not doubt that
the writings of the Economists were of substantial service to him, as
were no doubt the conversations with the most respected and
enlightened people in France that he had during his visits to Paris. But
there is the same gulf that separates his doctrine from that of the
Economists as separates Tycho Brahe from Newtonian physics. On
more than one occasion before Smith entirely accurate principles had
been advanced; he is however the first to have demonstrated the
connections existing between them, and how they follow necessarily
from the way things are. It is well known that a truth belongs to him
who first proves it, not to him who first states it. He did nore than
establish truths; he provided a genuine method for revealing error.157
But Say does not accept Smith completely. This is evident from the second and third
editions of the Traité. The Preliminary Discourse, as revised in 1814, contains an
impressive list of criticisms of Smith’s scientific shortcomings that is carried forward
into later editions. We cannot examine all of these, but two can be considered here: the
definition of labour, and the importance of machines in relation to the division of
Say’s annotations to his copy of Wealth of Nations provide some insight into the first.
He writes for example: “Labour is the sole basis for the value of things (I believe this is
incorrect)”.158 This sets the tone: Say was critical of the central aspects of Smith’s
theory of value and prices, and of his theory of distribution. We can conclude from the
dozen or so critical notes that Say made to Wealth of Nations Book I Chapters 5, 6, & 7
1. Say rejects the idea that labour is an invariant measure of value;
2. he fails to see how the quantity of labour commanded can be a measure of the
profit of capital;
3. he rejects the idea that market prices tend towards natural prices.
156 Ibid., p. xxiv.
157 Ibid., pp. xx-xxi.
158 H. Hashimoto, “Notes inédites de J.-B. Say qui couvrent les marges de la Richesse des nations et qui
la critiquent”, KSU Economic and Business Review, vol. 7 (1980) p. 67.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
These are not merely Say’s private annotations; the traces of these criticisms is already
evident in the first edition of the Traité. There he openly declares that the search for an
invariant measure of value is chimerical, and that Smith was in error if he thought that
labour could perform this function. This view leads him to a complete revision of the
Smith’s concept of labour. On the one hand, the linked sequence of labour costs,
production prices and market prices is replaced by a straightforward connection of
market price to utility.159 On the other, “work” is detached from human labour and
applied indifferently to nature, machinery or human effort. This homogenisation of
diverse productive inputs is in turn related to Say’s conception of the payment for
productive services, where market prices are determined solely by the prevailing
conditions of supply and demand. Finally, where he directly considers price
determination Say does away with the concept of natural price and substitutes for it
production costs: “The sum of production costs forms what Smith calls the natural price
of things.”160
Say explains that “production” means the production of utility, and utility is measured
by price.161 The production of utility can be considered as an exchange between man
and nature, where the sum of utility is increased by men who set productive processes
to work: the human labour of workers, the knowledge of scientists, the accumulated
capital of capitalists and the land of landowners. By setting these forces to work the
entrepreneur facilitates the creation of a greater amount of utility than enters into the
production process. Say therefore rejects the way that Smith treats labour as the sole
factor in the creation of wealth. He advances instead the argument that in conquering
the laws of nature man learns how to harness nature for productive ends. The
application of scientific knowledge by the entrepreneur, dependent for this in turn on
men of learning, is embodied by the central role that the machine plays in the
production process, a key phenomenon that Smith had overlooked. Say here clearly
marks himself off from Smith: while not ignoring the function of the division of labour,
which is discussed at length in the Traité,162 Say considers the prime characteristic of
industrial society to be the machine. This is not argued empirically, along the lines
“there are now more machines than in Smith’s time”; instead, Say makes a theoretical
argument, in which the machine is the embodiment of scientific knowledge that
facilitates the harnessing of nature to the work of production, creating greater amounts
of utility for those living in industrial societies. Here it becomes evident that this is not
merely a question of economic theory. We can see here the origins of an “industrialist”
line of thought than developed in France, a socio-political doctrine that placed
industrial factors, as defined by Say, at the core of modern society. And this
engendered the line of argument among French economic liberals that Wealth of
159 Say, Traité, (1803) Vol. I Ch. 6.
160 J.-B. Say, Traité d’économie politique, 3rd ed., Vol. 2 Déterville, Paris 1817, p. 8.
161 Say, Traité, (1803) Vol. I pp. 24-6.
162 Ibid. Ch. 1; Traité (1817) Vol. I Ch. 8.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
Nations was superseded as a means for the dissemination of a new body of knowledge,
and that it had to be replaced by a more systematic, rigorous and complete treatment,
and here Say had furnished the canonical example.163
We can see how this happens by comparing French translations of Smith with the work
of French economic liberals. The second edition of the Garnier translation sold for 25
francs, rather more than the cost of buying Say’s Traité, the three-volume fifth edition
of which only cost in 1826 18 francs; while the third 1826 edition of the Catéchisme
could be had for 3 francs. It was only with the six-volume Cours complet d’économie
politique of 1828-29 at 42 francs that the cost of Say’s treatment exceeded that of
Garnier’s translation. This is an elementary, but economically relevant, comparison
which helps us understand important aspects of the diffusion of political economy in
early nineteenth century France.164 And this situation is also made explicit in the
introductions to French translations of Wealth of Nations that followed in 1843, 1859
and 1888.
In 1843 Blanqui published an updated and corrected edition of the Garnier translation,
and in his own preface argued that Wealth of Nations was the decisive work in political
economy, to which one could add the work of Say, Malthus and Sismondi:
The great work of Adam Smith remains the classic book par excellence
of political economy. Study of the science must begin there, where it
perhaps is to be found complete, despite the numerous writings of
authors who boast that they have renewed the science from top to
Blanqui added to the revised translation notes of his own, and also notes based on the
commentaries to the text elaborated by Buchanan, McCulloch, Malthus, Ricardo,
Sismondi, Bentham and Say (the last being unpublished notes made available by his
163 See Steiner, “Introduction. L’économie politique comme science de la modernité”, in J.-B. Say, Cours
d’économie politique et autres essais, Flammarion, Paris 1996 pp. 9-46; and Sociologie de la
connaissance économique. Essais sur les rationalisations de la connaissance économique (1750-
1850), Presses universitaires de France, Paris 1998.
164 Lucette Le Van-Lemesle has made the following interesting estimate of the space devoted to Wealth
of Nations in the catalogue of Guillaumin, the publisher for French economic liberals: “The 1841
catalogue devotes 1/15 of its space to the Journal des économistes, as much as Smith’s Richesse des
nations, Blanqui’s Histoire de l’économie politique en Europe or Louis Reybaud’s Études sur les
réformateurs sociaux But J.-B. Say takes the lion’s share with 3/15 of the catalogue to himself,
with the emphasis on the Cours rather than the Traité. That is scientific truth.” “Guillaumin,
éditeur d’économie politique, 1801-1864”, Revue d’économie politique, 95 (2) (1985) pp. 134-149.
165 Adolphe-Jérôme Blanqui, “Introduction de cette nouvelle édition”, in A. Smith, Recherches sur la
nature et les causes de la richesse des nations, Guillaumin, Paris 1843 vol. 1, p. v.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
son Horace),166 in this way seeking to create a monument to Smith worthy of his
stature, and also place in the hands of those interested in social economy a book “the
reading of which had become indispensable.”167 But he also had a more directly
pedagogic concern he taught at the École Supérieure de Commerce and had
succeeded Say in the chair for economic policy at the Conservatoire des arts et metiers
for he was familiar with the difficulties “facing those beginning study of political
economy”168 and this edition, supplemented so extensively, could serve them as a
In 1859 Joseph Garnier went further in pedagogic preparation for a reading of Smith.
Rehearsing first of all the usual praise directed at the work of Smith, whose “logic and
argument had a contemporary freshness,”169 he tempered these remarks with the
observation that both the structure of the book and the method employed were
defective, for “it was not a methodological treatise”; “and so it was necessary that one
prepared for it by a preliminary reading of one of the didactic works in the science
today available.”170 This reflex forces us to consider the developing literature of
political economy if we are to properly understand the changing place of Smith within
this field.
Smith or Ricardo? Principles of Political Economy and the debate on Method
The publication of Ricardo’s Principles in 1817 challenged the interpretation of
Smith’s work established by Say and Sismondi. Say responded immediately with notes
which the publisher appended to the French translation of Ricardo’s Principles. There
followed a long discussion between Ricardo and Say, the public part of which made
evident some important differences among those economists who saw themselves as
Smithian. Two features characterise the relation of French economists to Smith. First
of all, Say drew attention to the distance between the letter of Wealth of Nations and the
issues which preoccupied neo-Smithians.
166 Jean-Baptiste Say annotated his own 1789 5th edition of Wealth of Nations, and they have since been
brought together by H. Hashimoto - “Notes inédites de J.-B. Say qui couvrent les marges de la
Richesse des nations et qui la critiquent”, KSU Economic and Business Review, vol. 7 (1980) pp.
53-81; “Notes inédites de J.-B. Say qui couvrent les marges de la Richesse des nations et qui la
résument”, KSU Economic and Business Review, vol. 9 (1982) pp. 31-133.
167 Blanqui, “Introduction”, p. vii.
168 Ibid. p. viii.
169 J. Garnier, “Préface de cette nouvelle édition”, in A. Smith, Recherches sur la nature et les causes de
la richesse des nations, Vol. I Guillaumin, Paris 1859 p. iii.
170 Ibid. Joseph Garnier was one of the main suppliers of this kind of work, publishing an Élements de
l’économie politique (3 editions between 1846 and 1856); an Abrégé des elements d’économie
politique (1858); and a Traité d’économie politique sociale ou industrielle, exposé didactique des
principes et des applications de cette science which went through 8 editions from 1846 to 1880.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
I revere Smith, he is my master. As I took my first steps in political
economy, and then, still faltering, poked on one side by the doctors of
the balance of trade, on the others the doctors of net produce, stumbling
at every step, he showed me the right path. Sustained by the Richesse
des nations, in which we also discover the wealth of his genius, I learned
to walk unaided. Today I am no more of any school, and I will not share
the ridicule of the Jesuit fathers who add to their commentary to
translations of Newton’s elements.171
Say then defended Smith’s method, dubbing in “experimental”, at once both abstract
and historical, as a way of rejecting the purely abstract theory of Ricardo in the name of
their common point of departure.172 Sismondi, who opposed Say on other points of
economic theory, followed him in this methodological criticism of Ricardo.173
It was in this context that the second edition of Garnier’s translation appeared, this time
with two volumes of notes added to the four volumes of the text proper; and this
provided an opportunity to review the interpretation of Smith that Garnier defended
against Ricardo or Malthus. The review of this edition in the Moniteur Universel that
was printed in December 1822 and January 1823 was duplicated by another from the
same author that appeared in the Revue encyclopédique for July 1823; and together for,
it seems, the first time in France, debate over political economy and ethics was joined.
The author signed himself “A.D.V.”174 and mentioned both the poor Blavet translation
and the fact that the Morellet translation was prevented from publication without in
either case going into more detail.175 He then proceeded to the lack of order and
method in Wealth of Nations and placed the work of Say and Garnier in this
Smith’s book, like nearly all works in English, even the very best, lacks
order and method. Instead of translating the work afresh, M. J.-B. Say
conceived and then carried out the project of abbreviating Smith’s ideas
while at the same time presenting them in clearer order and more
methodically. The success of his work confirms its merits. … In France,
the work of M. Say, by popularising Smith’s doctrine, created a desire
for a good translation of his book. This task could not have been done
171 J.-B. Say, Lettres à Malthus, (1820) in his Cours d’économie politique et autres essais (1996) p. 242.
172 J.-B. Say, Traité 5th edition 1826 Vol. I pp. xxxiii-xxxvi; Cours Vol. I, pp. 44-8; Vol. II pp. 560-62.
173 Sismondi, Nouveaux principes d’économie politique, 2nd ed. (1826), Calman-Lévy, Paris 1971 pp. 55-
8, 229.
174 Aubert de Vitry, who had published in 1815 Recherches sur les vraies causes de la misère et de la
félicité publique ou la population et des subsistences.
175 Le Moniteur Universel, December 1822 p. 1660.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
better than by M. Garnier, already known to be one of the most skilful
This is a strange reconstruction, for it is very hard to see how, in 1822-23, it was
possible to regard Say’s Traité as an abbreviation of Smith done instead of a new
translation of Wealth of Nations,176 or even harder to see how the first edition of the
Traité could have given rise to a need for a previous translation!
The writer characterises the older political economy as “the science studying means of
every nature which might render a society flourishing” and he emphasised that, up to
the mid-eighteenth century, “the moral part of this science was always the more
important element”.177 First Quesnay, then Smith, had favoured chrematistics – or
chrysology over social economy, and this was the source of recent error among the
Smith’s aim was not to establish principles of political economy, but to
dissipate or foil the dangerous errors that ignorance over the nature and
causes of the wealth of nations had introduced or occasioned. … It was
necessary to insist upon this Many errors have slipped in with the
application of chrematistics or chrysology to social economy, as with
many of the exact sciences, because one wants to be more Smithian than
Smith, and more Newtonian than Newton.178
This was aimed at Buchanan, Malthus, and above all Ricardo, for
All the reasonings of this new professor rest in effect upon calculation
and number. Moral elements do not enter at all into his patterns. He is
exclusively a chrysologist, and thinks the science of the mechanism of
wealth as the regulator of the world.179
176 There is nothing in Say’s Preliminary Discourse, in which he explains his motives and intentions, that
could prompt the idea that the Traité is a summary made instead of a new translation of the original.
On the contrary, it is precisely in this first edition that Say expresses his subservience to Smith,
implying that he would be happy to have made his work accessible to his readers, “even if I have
not advanced [the science] a single step.” Say, Traité (1803) Vol. I p. xxvi.Nonetheless, as we have
seen this diffidence on the part of Say with respect to Smith is abandoned from the second edition
and his debates with English writers.
177 Le Moniteur Universel, December 1822 p. 1659.
178 Ibid.
179 Ibid p. 1746; see also Revue encyclopédique, p. 49.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
This shows that the writer places himself in a diffuse dynamic of the period. One finds
in Sismondi’s Nouveaux principes d’économie politique of 1819180 an emphasis on a
moral dimension to political economy otherwise neglected, especially in the wake of
the Ricardian interpretation of the science; it can also be found in Henri Saint-Simon
insofar as he begins by criticising political economy for its blindness to moral
phenomena, without which one could not possibly conceive of a new social system.181
It is also worth noting that the writer refers explicitly to German writers – Garve,
Dörrien, Lueder and von Soden, and especially this last, from whom he had translated
some extracts of his text of 1815 – who are thought to be superior in this respect.
Apart from the fact that the writer adopts a sometimes conciliatory position between
Physiocracy and Smith, in the same way as Garnier, the originality of these two
reviews lies in the way that the writer emphasises the necessity of reuniting the moral
and the economic dimensions within what was called social economy, arguing that
Smith was in this respect wanting - even though this author, like Saint-Simon, Say and
Sismondi, do not mention the existence of Moral Sentiments.
Despite the eminent merit and undoubted utility of the book Richesse
des Nations, approached from this point of view [that of chrysology] it is
no less true that the moral part of political economy is not treated
completely in this great work, and where Smith does direct himself to
such matters, he lets fall many errors, examination of which will for the
third part of this article.182
The third part, which appeared in January 1823, underlined the relation of morals to
political economy, but also that of politics and religion. These were not only
indivisible, it was suggested, but the last could not lay claim to predominance, and it
was a mistake of economists, Smith included, to deprecate this dimension of their
Moral Theory and Political Economy
These two reviews of the second editions of Garnier’s translation show that
methodological debate in respect of Smith’s work introduced the question of the
relation of morals and political economy, arguing that Smith’s radical heirs, that is to
say, Ricardo and his disciples, though that they were able to leave this dimension of the
moral and political sciences to one side. But in this debate no-one called upon the
180 The reference to a science of number and calculation directly echoes passages in Sismondi, likewise
the emphasis by the writer on happiness and population.
181 Henri Saint-Simon, Auguste Comte, Du système industriel, (1821), in Œuvres de Henri de Saint-
Simon, Vol. 3, Anthropos, Paris 1966.
182 Le Moniteur Universel, December 1822 p. 1746, see also Revue encyclopédique, p. 54.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
support of Smith’s own moral theory. Does that mean that Theory of Moral Sentiments
was ignored? Certainly not. Nonetheless, closer examination shows that the reception
of Smith in the first half of the nineteenth century had its own dynamic.
Since the time of the Physiocrats political economy, along with morals and politics,
was included among the “moral and political sciences.” These separate domains were
not run together, and above all political economy was not to be judged from the
standpoint of morals. This last often derived from pure ignorance of political economy,
as André Cochut emphasised in his entry “Morals (harmony with economy, economic
morals)” for the Dictionnaire de l’économie politique:
Among the adversaries of political economy one can find men who
declare their interest to be exclusively religious, and complete novices in
religious matters; people seek to immobilise society under the pretext of
its preservation, and others who will not shrink from its overthrow,
under the pretext of its improvement. Extreme in doctrine,
irreconcilable by instinct, they are miraculously at one in denouncing as
deceptive, dangerous and immoral a science they have no more studied
than anyone else.183
How should the economist respond to this situation? According to Cochut, political
economy generated consequences “entirely in conformity with moral laws”, for false
doctrine is that which, pushed to its extreme, result in immorality.”184 Cochut refers
mainly to J.-B. Say for his economic theory and to Joseph Droz185 for the relation of
political economy to morals; Smith is only mentioned in passing, in a note:
It is perhaps not without utility to recall here that the chief founder of
economic science, Adam Smith, prepared for his work with profound
studies of the nature of the human spirit and of human obligation. His
Théorie des sentiments moraux is, in the opinion of philosophers, one of
the best treatises on morals ever produced.186
The reader learns no more of this last work. But it is easy to identify the philosophers
alluded to: Victor Cousin, the leading philosopher and, more generally, the dominant
force of the University under the July Monarchy; and Théodore Jouffroy, both of them
Professors of Philosophy at the Sorbonne, with reputation and influence. Cousin
published a detailed commentary on Smith’s moral theory in his course on moral
183 André Cochut, “MORALE (Accord de l’économie et de la)”, in C. Coquelin and G.-U. Guillaumin,
(eds.) Dictionnaire de l’économie politique, Vol. 2, Guillaumin, Paris 1852 p. 239.
184 Ibid. p. 242.
185 Author of Économie politique ou principes de la science des richesse, (1829) Renouard, Paris 1846.
186 Cochut, ibid. p. 239.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
philosophy delivered in 1819-20;187 and he was followed by Jouffroy in his course on
natural law in the early 1840s.188 The line of argument is very similar in each case; it is
probable that Jouffroy read Cousin account and was inspired by it.
In either case, Smith’s work is classified as representative of theories basing morals
upon sentiment – sympathy – and for this reason Smith is placed between moral theory
founded upon interest, and that founded upon reason. The account places emphasis on
the role of the impartial spectator, indicating that this moral theory does not solely rest
upon changing personal evaluations not comparable one with another, even if both
philosophers do criticise Smith on this count. This moral philosophy is praised for its
superiority over theories of morals founded upon interest, and on account of Smith
discrimination and clarity. The two central criticisms concern the relation between
sympathy and moral obligation, and between sympathy and reason.
Both Cousin and Jouffroy note that Smith barely uses the expression “moral
obligation”. They raise the problem of the well-intentioned man who incurs public
antipathy in acting according to obligation,189 and see here an important difficulty for
his system, for
…sympathy is not a rule to which one can conform; it can be reconciled
with the good, but it is not the good in itself; and however agreeable it
might be to be surrounded by hearts from which one receives sympathy,
that fact of this receipt cannot be the object of a wish, and never of an
Cousin and Jouffroy reproved Smith for making sympathy the real explanation of
morality, which they considered fallacious. To use Jouffroy’s phrase,191 they detected
humanity, God, or reason behind this form of sentiment. Cousin argued that the idea of
the impartial spectator was a contradiction in terms. He considered that impartiality
meant that one evinced no sentiment, positive or negative, with respect to the situation
in question. Sensibility is placed to one side: the impartial spectator cannot be
impartial if he permits sentiment to interfere, and there can be no question of founding
morality on the sentiment of sympathy.
187 Cours d’histoire de la philosophie morale au dix-huitième siècle, Vol. 2 Ladrange Paris 1840, pp. 99-
188 Cours de droit naturel, 3rd ed., Paris: Hachette, Paris 1858 Vol. 1 pp. 406-27; Vol. 2 pp. 1-55.
189 Cousin, Cours d’histoire Vol. 2 pp. 139-40; Jouffroy, Cours Vol. 1 pp. 426-7.
190 Cousin, Cours d’histoire Vol. 2 p. 140.
191 Cours Vol. 2 pp. 17-19.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
Is then Smith’s system so incoherent that there is no way out of this dilemma? No, but
a complete change in the line of argument is needed. Reason has to be restored to its
proper place:
Is it therefore necessary to condemn Smith’s idea out of hand? Is there
no way of making it intelligible? I can see only one such way, in a
supposition that the decisions made out of sympathy are controlled by a
higher faculty. If we introduce into the decisions made out of
sympathy a rational element that can make up for this deficiency, we
depart from the system of sympathy, it amounts to a confession that it
cannot support itself, and has to make resort to a principle not part if
itself. His hypothesis is subject to one of two inconveniences: it is
unintelligible, or it implies the intervention of reason in decisions made
on the basis of a sympathetic instinct. In either case Smith’s principles
are abandoned.192
Cousin’s third lecture on Smith touches on the Wealth of Nations. He praises this
foundational work, considering Smith’s principle of labour superior to the manner in
which J.-B. Say and Destutt de Tracy lay emphasis upon need when seeking to place a
value upon commodities. But he goes on the suggest a superior principle, that of
The freely acting ego is the power of which labour is the product, it is
the force manifested in labour, in a word it is the principle of principles
for Smith. Is this measure superior to that of Smith. Yes. Clearer
and more philosophical? Yes. We therefore adopt it; and if we should
wish to translate it into a mathematical formula, we would present it by
the number that expresses the intensity of productive force added to that
which expresses duration.193
Doubtless philosophical assurance of the superiority of this measure left economists
cold. All the same, there is no trace here of any perspective from which Smith’s two
works can be contrasted one against another. That is also true for Jouffroy, although
part of his project is to understand the way in which interested and disinterested action
combines. His teaching of moral theory does not assume that moral interest is the
original form of morality, permitting movement beyond the instinctive stage of human
conduct by bringing good and evil into relation with the selfishness of the actor.194
Selfish morality does not get very far: “To do so is thus to span an immense distance,
192 Cousin, Cours d’histoire Vol. 2 p. 143.
193 Ibid., pp. 176-7.
194 Cours Vol. 1 pp. 40-41.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
the abyss that separates selfish from disinterested morals.”195 And when he comes to
deal with Smith he underlines the extent to which sympathy placed disinterest at the
heart of his approach.196 But in stating this he does not consider there to be a
significant emergent problem in relating Smith the professor of morals and Smith the
economist. He mentions this second dimension of his work without examining it in any
detail, and he opines that the Scottish professor “only had a secondary interest in
The situation changed with the publication of Baudrillart’s work on the philosophy of
economics. At the start of his chapter devoted to the relation “la morale du sentiment et
l’économie politique”, that is, Smith’s moral philosophy as conceived by Cousin and
Jouffroy, he mentions what has since become known as “Das Adam Smith Problem”.
Adam Smith is accused of having, in his political economy, sacrificed
too completely that sentiment which he made the unique spirit of his
morals. However well-founded this criticism might be; Smith takes
little account of charity, but does one need to reproach the economist for
a failure to employ the same principle as the moralist? Was he wrong to
believe in the profoundly distinctive character of the two sciences? Far
from thinking of reproaching him, I would praise him highly, and I fear
no contradiction in stating that he would not be the immortal author of
Wealth of Nations if he were constrained to introduce into the world of
interests that principle of sympathy which suffuses Theory of Moral
Sentiments. It would only have set economic science on the road to a
Baudrillart suggests the Smith’s political economy is founded upon a principle of
affinity which arises from the idea of a social convention, of opinion:
…his directing principle in political economy is none other that the
principles of affinity. Doubtless affinity plays a role in the solution of
economic questions; but one cannot imagine that it is supreme. Smith
recognises for the remainder that it is right that labour be free; justice
has a place in his book, but very limited I think.198
195 Ibid. p. 41.
196 Ibid. pp. 406-9.
197 Ibid. p. 411.
198 H. Baudrillart, Philosophie de l’économie. Des rapports de l’économie politique et de la morale, 2nd
ed., Guillaumin, Paris 1883 pp. 97-8.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
Baudrillart did see some element of competition between the two books, but in
identifying universal harmony at the heart of morals and of political economy he was
able to deny the presence of any conflict between Smith’s two books.
At this time it was possible that Baudrillart was aware of German writings that had
contributed to the formation of an “Adam Smith Problem”.199 But he was not at all
certain that this diversion was a necessary one; after all he did not think that Smith
stood accused of shifting his conception of human nature in passing from moral theory
to political economy. In any case, it is not necessary to fllow this particular diversion
for in all likelihood Baudrillart was referring to French discussions, either with respect
to political matters (the rise of socialism), or social science (Saint-Simonism and
Comtean sociology).200
From the 1820s a cleavage developed between the industrialism of liberal economists
(Say, Charles Comte and above all Charles Dunoyer) and that of Saint-Simon and the
Saint-Simonians, a cleavage that today would be thought of as between those believing
in the spontaneous competitive order and inherent justice of the market, and those who
favoured conscious organisation of the social order and the establishment of a just
society based upon non-market criteria. This latter movement developed in the course
of the 1830s into a number of socialist trends that economic liberals, mediated by the
writings of Louis Reybaud,201 regarded with mixed feelings and some apprehension.
One central issue raised by socialist reformers related to the place of disinterested
behaviour in the industrial social order. Liberal economists hence reproved Smith on
two counts: not having developed a response couched in terms of justice; of having, in
Wealth of Nations, been vague concerning the remuneration of workers.
Following along the lines already developed by Cousin and Jouffroy, Baudrillart
expressed regret that Smith had not developed his reflections on morals to include
justice, which could be extended in the form of a natural law covering positive laws
that independently specified social and political conventions.202 The spontaneous
order, an expression of economic harmony, represented an order founded upon reason
and therefore was beyond Smith’s morals since this is understood to be a morality
founded upon sentiments and hence, ultimately, opinion. This interpretation did
however underpin the manner in which French liberal economists rejected the socialist
critique that reproached Smith for having sacrificed morals and justice on the alter of
199 See the discussion in the following essay.
200 It might be added here that these ideas are already sketched out in Baudrillart’s 1860 preface to
Théorie des sentiments moraux, predating Buckle’s elaboration of the contrast in 1861, and of
course well before German debate got going.
201 See for example his Études sur les réformateurs ou socialistes modernes (1840), 7th ed., Guillaumin,
Paris 1864.
202 Philosophie de l’économie, p. 17.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
…it is the philosopher of sympathy, the exclusive defender of
sentiments of benevolence and commiseration, that the opponents of
political economy have accused of selfishness and an implacable
hardness with respect to the suffering of his fellow men … at least they
might have taken account of the fact that their attacks were directed to
the philosopher who had made sympathy the unique motivation of our
actions and the dictate of our obligation.203
Taking account of the considerable menace that socialism represented in the eyes of
economic liberals, Smith’s work needed to be revised on those points that appeared to
provide support to socialist arguments – the sections on distribution were important
among these. Courcelle-Seneuil’s introduction to his abbreviated 1888 edition of
Wealth of Nations (reprinted in the Dictionnaire d’Économie politique in 1891)is a
clear example of this.
Like numerous other commentators on Smith, Courcelle-Seneuil outlined everything
that he found unsatisfactory in Wealth of Nations. He takes especial exception to the
determination of value by labour, since it simply gives ammunition to socialists in their
opposition to political economy:
Having said that everything exchanged among men is made up of
labour, without also having said that not all work is muscular work, is it
not true that to then say that the portion of the worker in the price of
products diminishes with the progress of industry amounts to fleecing
the workers? One knows the number of times, and in what violent
terms, that socialists, sustained by the account given by the author of the
Recherches, have for sixty years insisted that the worked had been
stripped of that which belonged to him.204
In closing this section on the second phase of the reception, it should be noted that
during this entire period it was Garnier’s translation of Wealth of Nations which was
the basis for all editions, revised by Eugène Buret and Blanqui in 1843, abbreviated by
Courcelle-Seneuil in 1881, all published by Guillaumin, the publisher of the French
economic lobby. Moral Sentiments emerged from initial obscurity at the beginning of
the century, and the republication of Sophie de Grouchy’s translation in 1830, and then
again in 1860, made it accessible to readers who were able to refer to it if they wished
to see for themselves how Smith developed a moral theory, and not simply take Cousin,
Jouffroy and Baudrillart at their word. All this would change in the following period.
203 M. Monjean, “SMITH (Adam)”, in Coquelin and Guillaumin, Dictionnaire Vol. 2, p. 624.
204 J.-G. Courcelle-Seneuil, “SMITH (Adam)”, in L. Say and J. Chailley (eds) Nouveau dictionnaire de
l’économie politique, Guillaumin., Paris 1892 Vol. 2, p. 813. See also “Notice sur la vie et l’œuvre
d’Adam Smith”, in A. Smith Richesse des nations, Paris: Guillaumin, Paris 1891 pp. xxi-xxiii.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
6. From Theory to History, 1888-2002
The third period of the Smith reception in France is characterised by the fact that,
besides republication in Guillaumin’s 1966 collection of their principal economists,
more than a century separates the last complete translations of Moral Sentiments and
Wealth of Nations and their reappearance in 1983 and 1991, flowed by new translations
in 1999 and 1995 respectively. We can take up the story with the 1876 centenary of the
publication of Wealth of Nations.
The Journal des économistes, house journal of French economic liberals, had never
published very much on Smith and his writing. This changed in 1876, and the shift was
signalled by Maurice Block, during a meeting of the Société d’économie politique on 6
March 1876:
Arising from studies upon which I have been engaged for some time, I
noticed that the celebrated work of Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations)
appeared in March 1776. I wish to call that date to mind in this meeting
and add a proposal.205
Block had already spoken for most of the meeting, so he limited himself to reporting
details concerning a pilgrimage made by a young economist, Arthur von Studnitz, to
Kirkcaldy; first published in German, the article appeared in French translation in the
May issue of the Journal.206 On 5 April 1876 Joseph Garnier, presiding over the
following meeting of the Society, read out a letter from the Belgian political economy
society proposing that a meeting be convened in September to celebrate the centenary,
to take account of the extent of the peaceful conquest effected through
the influence of Adam Smith’s doctrines, and at the same time to
examine whether it were true, as some … claimed, that these celebrated
doctrines needed to be revised or rejected on certain points.207
On 2 June the same year the London Political Economy Club held a centenary dinner to
celebrate the appearance of Wealth of Nations. Reporting on the event Léon Say,
Minister of Finance and grandson of Jean-Baptiste, replied to the criticism Robert
Lowe had made of commercial treaties as a means of furthering free trade.208 A month
later the Journal published extended extracts from the London meeting, notably the one
205 Journal des économistes, 3rd series, Vol. 41, (March 1876), p. 459.
206 A. von Studnitz, “Pélerinage sur la tombe de Adam Smith”, Journal des économistes, 3rd series, vol.
42 (May 1876) pp. 258-264
207 Journal des économistes, 3rd series, Vol. 42, (April 1876), p. 133
208 Journal des économistes, 3rd series, Vol. 42, (June 1876), pp. 463-4.
The Diffusion of the Work of Adam Smith in the French Language
that Say had made himself.209 General approval was expressed at the tenor of the
contributions, save that made by Émile de Laveleye who seemed to have offended the
editors with his treatment of the division between the Historical School and orthodoxy.
Finally, the celebration was raised again at a meeting of the Society on 5 December, in
which Joseph Garnier suggested that a medal be struck commemorating the centenary
of the Wealth of Nations, which could also mark the thirty-fifth anniversary of the
Society itself.210
In both France and in England the commemoration marked a shift that displaced
Smith’s work from the domain of economic theory to that of the history of theory. This
finds expression on Block’s own work, as well as the various abbreviated editions of
Wealth of Nations published from 1888 to 1973.
In 1888 J.-G. Courcelle-Seneuil was the first to present an abbreviated edition of
Wealth of Nation. Books IV and V were left out entirely, on the grounds that the ideas
they contained had been widely accepted. In Books I to III digressions were
eliminated, as well as the notes introduced by Blanqui in the 1843 and Garnier in the
1859 editions. Beyond this, Courcelle-Seneuil noted the change in the way Wealth of
Nations was treated. He considered that economists had directed too much attention to
this work:
The Wealth of Nations had been the object of this superstition [that
Smith was the father of political economy, as if there had been nothing
beforehand] for at least three quarters of a century, and had certainly
been harmful to the science. As commentators compounded their
reservations, restrictions, rectifications and observations of all kinds the
work became less clear; it was like a Koran, drowned out by the
commentary, a work of very unequally educated minds. Hence a work
of the highest value had obstructed for a long period the very science to
whose progress it had contributed.211
This argument was also advanced by Block at the beginning of his own book.212
Courcelle-Seneuil’s continued this historical contextualisation by arguing that scientific
interest in Wealth of Nations was no longer a major issue, while the pedagogical
interest of the work had always been problematic:
209 Journal des économistes, 3rd series, Vol. 43 (July 1876) pp. 110-12.
210 Journal des économistes, 3rd series, Vol. 44 (December 1876) p. 459.
211 Jean-Gustave Courcelle-Seneuil, “Notice sur la vie et l’œuvre d’Adam Smith”, in A. Smith Richesse
des nations, Guillaumin, Paris 1881 pp. vi-vii.
212 Maurice Block