Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi
Jean Charles de Sismondi
19 May 1773|
Geneva, Republic of Geneva
|Died||25 June 1842
Chêne-Bougeries, Canton of Geneva, Swiss Confederation
|Opposed||J. B. Say, David Ricardo|
|Influenced||Thomas Robert Malthus, Charles Dunoyer|
|Contributions||Theory of periodic crises|
Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi (19 May 1773 – 25 June 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.
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. His uncle by marriage was the prominent pastor Jacob Vernes, a friend of Voltaire and Rousseau.1 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 in 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 in Pescia near Lucca and Pistoia, and set to work to cultivate it themselves. Sismondi worked hard there, with both his hands and 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 until death.
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."2 He was not a socialist; but, in protesting against laissez faire and invoking the state "to regulate the progress of wealth," he was an interesting precursor of the German Historical school of economics.
His theory may more precisely be classed as one of periodic crises, rather than cycles per se. His theory was adapted by Charles Dunoyer, who introduces the notion of cycling between two phases, thus giving a modern form of economic cycle.3
Sismondi also contributed a great deal to economics with his thoughts on aggregate demand. Observing the capitalist industrial system in England, Sismondi saw that unchecked competition both resulted in producers all increasing individual production (because of lack of knowledge of other producers' production) this was then seen as forcing employers to cut prices, which they did by sacrificing workers' wages. This yielded overproduction and underconsumption; with most of England's workforce suffering from depressed wages, workers were then unable to afford the goods they had produced, and 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.
Meanwhile, he began to compile his great Histoire des républiques italiennes du Moyen Âge, and was introduced to Madame de Staël. He became very intimate with her, 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 to Italy, which resulted in Corinne itself during the years 1804–1805. Sismondi was not altogether at ease here, and he particularly disliked Schlegel who was also a participant. But during this journey he met the Countess of Albany, widow of Charles Edward, who all her life was gifted with a singular ability to attract the affection (Platonic or otherwise) of men of letters. She was now an old woman, and Sismondi's relationship with her was 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 about 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 a prominent man 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 where he delivered some interesting lectures about the literature of southern Europe, which were continued from time to time and finally published. He held an official position: secretary of the chamber of commerce for the then department of Leman.
In 1813, he visited Paris for the first time, lived there for some time, and mixed with many 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 Bonaparte's constitutional schemes or promises, and had an audience with the emperor himself, which is one of the main events of a not very eventful life. After the Restoration he left Paris.
On completing (1817) his great book about the Italian republics, he undertook (1818) a still greater work, Histoire des Français, which he planned on a long period, and of which during the remaining twenty-three years of his life he published twenty-nine volumes. His untiring industry enabled him to compile many other books, but it is on these two that his fame mainly rests. The former displays his qualities in the most favourable light, and has been least injuriously affected by subsequent writings and investigations. But the latter, as a careful and accurate sketch on a grand 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 a Welshwoman, Jessie Allen (1777–1853), whose sister, Catherine Allen, was the wife of Sir James Mackintosh and another sister, Elizabeth Allen, was the wife of Josiah Wedgwood II and mother of Emma Wedgwood. This marriage appears to have been a very happy one. His later years were mainly spent in Geneva; in the politics of that city he took a great—though as time and changes went on, waning—interest. Indeed, in his later days he became a kind of reactionary.
In 1826, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Besides the works mentioned above he did many others, never working less than eight hours a day for many years. The most important ones 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), and several others, mainly political pamphlets.
Sismondi's journals and his correspondence with Channing, with the countess of Albany and with others have been published mainly by Mlle Mongolfier (Paris, 1843) and M. de Saint-René Taillandier (Paris, 1863). The latter work serves as the main text of two admirable Lundis of Sainte-Beuve (September 1863), republished in the Nouveaux Lundis, vol. VI.
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 principes d'économie politique attacked wealth accumulation both as an end in itself, and for its detrimental effect on the poor. His critique was noticed by Malthus, David 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 Karl Marx, Vladimir 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 that his recommendations were reactionary, only wanting to restore the old means of production.
- Tableau de l'agriculture toscane (1801)
- De la richesse commerciale (1803)
- Histoire des républiques italiennes du Moyen Âge (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'intérêt de la France à l'égard de la traite des nègres (1814)
- Examen de la Constitution française (1815)
- Political Economy (1815)
- Nouveaux principes d'économie politique, ou de la richesse dans ses rapports avec la population (1819)
- Histoire des Français (1821–1844)
- Les colonies des anciens comparées à celles des modernes (1837)
- Études de sciences sociales (1837)
- Études sur l'économie politique (1837)
- Précis de l'histoire des Français (1839)
- Fragments de son journal et correspondance (1857)
- Charles Dardier (1876). Ésaĭe Gasc, citoyen de Genève: sa politique et sa théologie, Genève - Constance - Montauban 1748-1813. Sandoz et Fischbacher. p. 54.
- Simonde de Sismondi, New Principles of Political Economy, vol. 1 (1819), 20–21.
- Charles Dunoyer and the Emergence of the Idea of an Economic Cycle, Rabah Benkemoune, History of Political Economy 2009 41(2):271-295; doi:10.1215/00182702-2009-003
- Sismondi: A Neglected Pioneer, History of Political Economy 1972 4(1): 62–88; doi:10.1215/00182702-4-1-62
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Sismondi, Jean Charles Leonard de". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.