Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi

Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi

Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi (May 19, 1773 - June 25, 1842), whose real name was Simonde, was a writer born at Geneva. He is best known for his works on French and Italian history, and his economic ideas.

Early life

His father and all his ancestors seem to have borne the name Simonde, at least from the time when they migrated from Dauphiné to Switzerland at the revocation of the edict of Nantes. It was not till after Sismondi had become an author that, observing the identity of his family arms with those of the once flourishing Pisan house of the Sismondi and finding that some members of that house had migrated to France, he assumed the connection without further proof and called himself Sismondi.

The Simondes, however, were themselves citizens of Geneva of the upper class, and possessed both rank and property, though the father was also a village pastor. The future historian was well educated, but his family wished him to devote himself to commerce rather than literature, and he became a banker's clerk at Lyon. Then the Revolution broke out, and as it affected Geneva, the Simonde family took refuge in England where they stayed for eighteen months (1793-1794). Disliking—it is said—the climate, they returned to Geneva, but found the state of affairs still unfavourable; there is even a legend that the head of the family was reduced to sell milk himself in the town. The greater part of the family property was sold, and with the proceeds they emigrated to Italy, bought a small farm at Pescia near Lucca and Pistoia, and set to work to cultivate it themselves. Sismondi worked hard there, both with his hands and his mind, and his experiences gave him the material of his first book, "Tableau de l'agriculture toscane", which, after returning to Geneva, he published there in 1801. In 1803, he published his "Traité de la richesse commerciale", his first work on the subject of political economy, which, with some differences of view, continued to interest him to the end of his life.

Main economic thoughts

As an economist, Sismondi represented a humanitarian protest against the dominant orthodoxy of his time. In his first book, he followed Adam Smith; but in his principal subsequent economic work, "Nouveaux Principes d'économie politique" (1819), he insisted on the fact that economic science studied the means of increasing wealth too much, and the use of wealth for producing happiness, too little. For the science of economics, his most important contribution was probably his discovery of economic cycles. In refutation of other thinkers at the time (notably J. B. Say and David Ricardo), Sismondi challenged the idea that economic equilibrium leading to full employment would be immediately and spontaneously achieved. He wrote, "Let us beware of this dangerous theory of equilibrium which is supposed to be automatically established. A certain kind of equilibrium, it is true, is reestablished in the long run, but it is after a frightful amount of suffering." [Simonde de Sismondi, New Principles of Political Economy, vol. 1 (1819), 20-21.] He was not a socialist; but, in protesting against "laisser faire" and invoking the intervention of government "to regulate the progress of wealth," he was an interesting precursor of the German "socialists of the chair."

Sismondi also contributed a great deal to economics with his thoughts on aggregate demand. In viewing the capitalist industrial system in England, Sismondi saw that unchecked competition forced employers to cut prices, which they did by sacrificing workers' wages. Such competition soon led to overproduction. With most of England's workforce suffering from depressed wages, underconsumption of goods then followed. Sismondi believed that by increasing the wages of laborers they would have more buying power, be able to buy the national output and thus increase demand.

Italian History

Meanwhile he began to compile his great "Histoire des Republiques Italiennes du moyen age", and was introduced to Madame de Staël. With her, he became very intimate, and after being regularly enrolled in the society of Coppet, he was invited or commanded—for Madame de Staël's invitations had something of command—to form one of the suite with which the future Corinne made the journey into Italy, which resulted in Corinne itself during the years 1804-1805. Sismondi was not altogether at his ease here, and he particularly disliked Schlegel, who was also of the company. But, during this journey, he made the acquaintance of the countess of Albany, Louisa of Stolberg, widow of Charles Edward, all her life long, she was gifted with a singular faculty of attracting the affection (Platonic and otherwise) of men of letters. She was now an old woman, and Sismondi's relations with her were of the strictly friendly character, but they were close and lasted long, and they produced much valuable and interesting correspondence.

In 1807, appeared the first volumes of the above mentioned book on the Italian republics, which, though his essay in political economy had brought him some reputation and the offer of a Russian professorship, first made Sismondi prominent among European men of letters. The completion of this book, which extended to sixteen volumes, occupied him, though by no means entirely, for the next eleven years. He lived at first in Geneva and delivered there some interesting lectures on the literature of the south of Europe, which were continued from time to time and finally published. He held an official post, that of secretary of the chamber of commerce for the then department of Leman.

French History

In 1813, he visited Paris for the first time, lived there for some time, and mixed with much in literary society. Although a Liberal and in his earlier days almost an Anglomaniac, he did not welcome the fall of the empire. During the Hundred Days, he defended Napoleon's constitutional schemes or promises, and had an interview with the emperor himself, which is one of the chief events of a not very eventful life. After the Restoration he left Paris.

On completing (1817) his great book on the Italian republics, he undertook (1818) a still greater work, the "Histoire des Français", which he planned on a vast scale, and of which during the remaining twenty-three years of his life be published twenty-nine volumes. His untiring industry enabled him to compile many other books, but it is on these two that his fame chiefly rests. The earlier displays his qualities in the most favourable light, and has been least injuriously affected by subsequent writings and investigations; but the "Histoire des Français", as a careful and accurate sketch on the great scale, has now been superseded. Sainte-Beuve has with benevolent sarcasm surnamed the author "the Rollin of French History," and the praise and the blame implied in the comparison are both perfectly well deserved. In April 1819, Sismondi married an English lady, Jessie Allen, whose sister, Catherine Allen, was the wife of Sir James Mackintosh and another sister, Elizabeth Allen, was the wife of Josiah Wedgwood II: the marriage appears to have been a very happy one. His later years were chiefly spent at Geneva; in the politics of that city he took a great—though as time and changes went on a more and more chagrined—interest. Indeed, in his later days he became a kind of reactionary.

Other works

Besides the works above mentioned he had executed many others; his custom for a long period of years being never to work less than eight hours a day. The chief of these are "Littérature du midi de l'Europe" (1813), a historical novel entitled "Julia Severa ou l'an 492" (1822), "Histoire de la Renaissance de la liberté en italie" (1832), "Histoire de la chute de l'Empire romain" (1835), "Précis de l'histoire des Français", an abridgment of his own book (1839), with several others, chiefly political pamphlets.

Sismondi's journals and his correspondence with Channing, with the countess of Albany and others have been published chiefly by Mlle. Mongolfier (Paris, 1843) and M. de Saint-René Taillandier (Paris, 1863). The latter work serves as the chief text of two admirable "Lundis" of Sainte-Beuve (September 1863), republished in the "Nouveaux Lundis", vol. vi.

Historiographical position and political stance

He was a historian whose economic ideas passed through different phases. The acceptance of free-trade principles in "De la richesse commerciale" was abandoned in favour of a critical posture towards free trade and industrialisation.

"Nouveaux principles ..." attacked wealth accumulation both as an end in itself, and for its detrimental effect on the poor. His critique was noticed by Malthus, Ricardo and J. S. Mill. He indicated contradictions of capitalism. He can be said to have criticized capitalism in a sentimental way, from the viewpoint of the petty bourgeois. Despite his favorable attitude towards the poor, he was himself attacked by Marx, Lenin, and other socialists for lacking positive aims. Marx, for example, said he "dissected with great acuteness the contradictions in the conditions of modern production" but his recommendations were reactionary, wanting only to restore the old means of production.

Main publications

* "Tableau de l'agriculture toscane" (1801)
* "De la richesse commerciale" (1803)
* "Histoire des republiques italiennes du moyen age" (1809-1818)
*"The History of the Italian Republics in the Middle Ages", Sismondi's most important historical work. The first volume appeared in 1807, the sixteenth and final volume in 1818. The focus on Italy's republican past proved an inspiration to nineteenth-century Italian nationalists.
*" De l'interet de la France a l'egard de la traite des negres" (1814)
* "Examen de la Constitution francoise" (1815)
* "Political Economy" (1815)
* "Nouveaux principes d'economie politique, ou de la Richesse dans ses rapports avec la population" (1819)
*"Histoire des francais" (1821-1844)
*"Les colonies des anciens comparees a celles des modernes" (1837)
*"Etudes de sciences sociale" (1837)
*"Etudes sur l'economie politique" (1837)
*"Précis de l'histoire des Francais" (1839)
*" _fr. Fragments de son journal et correspondance" (1857)



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