Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours (December 14, 1739 – August 7, 1817) was a French political economist, public administrator, and reformer. A great writer, as well as a talented theoretician, du Pont was also a skillful politician who survived the French Revolution and established himself and his family in the United States. He was the father of Eleuthère Irénée du Pont, the founder of E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company (also known as DuPont) and progenitor of one of America's richest business dynasties of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
A noted economist, du Pont expounded the economic doctrines of the physiocrats. His writings on the national economy drew the attention of intellectuals like Voltaire and Turgot, and his book Physiocracy, which advocated low tariffs and free trade among nations, deeply influenced Adam Smith and his classical economics developed in The Wealth of Nations.
Du Pont actually introduced the term "Physiocracy," which literally translates to "the rule of nature," as the program of the whole group. The Physiocrats believed that they understood the ordre naturel, or rule of nature, and that the policies they prescribed would bring it about in human society. While du Pont himself may not have made such a lasting name for himself in the field of economics, his works undeniably contributed to the development of the field in the works of those who, as he did, sought the betterment of human society.
Born in Paris on September 14, 1739, Pierre Samuel du Pont was the son of Samuel du Pont, a master watchmaker, and Anne Alexandrine de Montchanin. His father was a Huguenot, or French Protestant, and his mother was a member of an impoverished noble family from Burgundy.
After becoming a watchmaker while also being schooled in the humanities at the insistence of his mother, Pierre du Pont turned to letters as a means of attaining recognition. With a lively intelligence and high ambition, du Pont developed a wide range of acquaintances with access to the French court. Eventually, in 1763, he became the protege of François Quesnay, the personal physician of Louis XV's mistress, Madame de Pompadour. Quesnay was the leader of a faction known as the "économistes," a group of liberals at the court dedicated to economic and agricultural reforms.
He married Nicole Charlotte Marie Louise le Dée de Rencourt in 1766, also of a minor noble family. They had two children, including Eleuthère Irénée du Pont, who founded E.I. Du Pont de Nemours and Company (also known as DuPont) in the United States.
In 1774 du Pont was appointed inspector general of commerce under his close friend A. R. J. Turgot, whom he served primarily as private secretary.
Under the comte de Vergennes he was one of the diplomats in the long negotiations (1783) after the American Revolution, and he drew up a trade treaty (1786) with Great Britain that expressed his economic principles. In 1786 he was appointed Counseiller d'Etat by Louis XVI, and the next year he served as secretary of the first Assemblée des Notables convened at Versailles.
Du Pont was initially a supporter of the French Revolution and served as president of the National Constituent Assembly. At this time, he added the name of the Nemours district south of Paris to his name to distinguish himself from other du Ponts in the Assembly. He and his son Eleuthère Irénée du Pont were among those who physically defended Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette from a mob besieging the Tuileries Palace in Paris during the insurrection of August 10, 1792. He was condemned to the guillotine during the Reign of Terror, but his execution was still pending when Robespierre fell in the coup of 9 Thermidor and he was spared.
After his house was sacked by a mob in 1797 during the events of 18 Fructidor, Du Pont and his entire family left for the United States in 1799. They hoped (but failed) to found a model community of French exiles. However, his son E. I. du Pont set up a gunpowder mill on the Brandywine River near Wilmington, Delaware. Called E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company (also known as DuPont), it became one of the world's largest chemical companies.
In the United States, he developed strong ties with industry and government, in particular with Thomas Jefferson. Pierre du Pont engaged in informal diplomacy between the United States and France during the reign of Napoleon. He was the originator of an idea that eventually became the Louisiana Purchase as a way to avoid French troops landing in New Orleans, and possibly sparking armed conflict with U.S. forces. Eventually, he would settle in the U.S. permanently; he died there in 1817.
From the biographic sketches presented of Pierre du Pont De Nemours, it follows that his major accomplishments—French politics, Anglo-French-US politics, his editorial work for the major Physiocrats’ theoreticians, and later his own theoretical treatises—were, at many points, strongly intertwined and that he was carrying out all of them at a level that was highly skillful and most beneficial for humankind.
Du Pont was very active in practical politics. In July 1774, his family departed for Poland, where du Pont was to serve the Polish monarch in various capacities, including that of honorary councilor. He was soon recalled to France, however, and commissioned as Inspecteur Général du Commerce. There, he worked under his close friend, A. R. J. Turgot, whom he served primarily as private secretary and adviser, a position he held until its abolition in 1788.
During the late 1770s he was an economic advisor to Jacques Necker, and in the early 1780s he was involved in the negotiations that led to the Anglo-French Commercial Treaty of 1786. Eventually, he became the chief financial and economic adviser of his friend Turgot.
With the fall of Turgot in 1775, du Pont went into retirement at his estates near Nemours. There he finished drawing up Turgot's Memoir on Municipalities (1776), which in modified form served as the basis for some later reform proposals. There is no way to ascertain exactly how much of the Memoir was the work of du Pont, and so there may be justification to his claim that the bulk of later reform proposals were actually based on his ideas. It is known that his role in the commercial treaties of 1783 and 1786 was considerable.
During the Assembly of the Notables (1787), Du Pont served as second secretary of the meetings, a privilege he was granted because he had been ennobled in 1783 for his services to the Crown. With the failure of the Notables, he became active in the Revolutionary movement and in 1789 he served as a member of the Assemblée Nationale Constituante (1789–1791), where he allied himself with the moderate Girondist faction and was elected to represent the Third Estate from Nemours.
Du Pont was a moderate Revolutionary who believed reform should go no further than was absolutely necessary to ensure the realization of physiocratic principles. He advocated the separation of powers in government, a bicameral legislature, and a strong monarchy.
After Robespierre took power, du Pont was arrested in July 1794, but he escaped the guillotine upon Robespierre's fall at the end of the month. In 1795 he was chosen as a member of the Counseil des Anciens. Following the Coup d'état of September 4, 1795, he was again arrested and held for one night before being released.
He traveled to America in 1799 to introduce physiocratic ideas into the young republic. Disappointed with the course of events, he returned to Napoleonic France in 1802, and he held various government posts under Napoleon. In 1814 he became a member of the provisional government which deposed Napoleon and exiled him to Elba.
Upon Napoleon's return, du Pont de Nemours again fled to America, at which time Thomas Jefferson enlisted his aid in negotiations for the Louisiana Purchase. He frequently corresponded with Jefferson, and his economic theories had some influence on U.S. policy. Originally, du Pont and Turgot were severely critical of the constitution of the United States and the principle of American federalism. Turgot, for example, cautioned his American friends against federalism and the system of checks and balances, arguing that these institutional forms would make of America "a replica of our Europe, a mass of divided powers, disputing territories or profits of trade with themselves, and continually cementing the slavery of peoples with their own blood." (McLain 1977)
In a letter to Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours, Jefferson ascertained that it is justice and not majority rule that is the fundamental law of society. Moreover, he affirmed that property is based on nature:
[I believe] that a right to property is founded in our natural wants, in the means with which we are endowed to satisfy these wants, and the right to what we acquire by those means without violating the similar rights of other sensible beings; that no one has a right to obstruct another, exercising his faculties innocently for the relief of sensibilities made a part of his nature; that justice is the fundamental law of society; that the majority, oppressing an individual, is guilty of a crime, abuses its strength, and by acting on the law of the strongest breaks up the foundations of society; that action by the citizens in person, in affairs within their reach and competence, and in all others by representatives, chosen immediately, and removable by themselves, constitutes the essence of a republic. (Jefferson to Du Pont, 1802)
Early in his career du Pont de Nemours attracted the attention of François Quesnay. In 1765–1767, he was the editor of Journal d'agricultures, du commerce et des finances, which was the basic tribune of the Physiocrats. Du Pont became the eloquent popularizer of Physiocracy, editor of the Gazette du Commerce and, from 1769, the Ephémérides du Citoyen. His Physiocratie (Du Pont 1767) was perhaps the best statement of the Physiocratic doctrine ever published. The Physiocrats felt that they had worked out what the "ordre naturel" actually was, and they believed that the policies they prescribed would bring it about.
Du Pont took particular care in explaining the social welfare implications of their policy positions, although asserting (against Montesquieu) their universality of application.
He also edited some of Quesnay's writings under the title Physiocratie (1767) and later presented his own views of economy and political philosophy in his Tableau raisonné des principes de l'économie politique (1775) and other works.
In his early works, Of the Exportation and Importation of Grains (DuPont 1763), Physiocracy (DuPont 1767), and Of the Origin and the Progress of a New Science (DuPont 1767), du Pont stated the core ideas of his thinking. He believed in a presocial natural order in which man had rights and duties based on the physical necessities of life. Man had propertorial rights over his life and possessions; his duties were to supply his own and others' needs and to respect others' rights and property.
From these assumptions followed the belief that the natural source of wealth was land, and the labor and commerce associated with agriculture. All other forms of industry were secondary and related to luxury, which detracted from the expansion of agriculture and the accumulation of wealth. Du Pont believed that society should discourage nonproductive industries and free agriculture from all unnatural restraints.
Good government, therefore, should work to eliminate custom barriers and excessive and unproductive taxation, which inhibited the growth of agriculture and trade. He also held that only hereditary monarchy could ensure the proper use of natural resources.
One of du Pont’s ensuing economic claims was that there is a regular, unequal exchange between industry and agriculture which results in a net transfer of a share of landed revenue from the proprietors to the industrial capitalists through the price mechanism of the market. In other words, the economics of imperfect competition would overprice manufactured goods relative to agricultural goods.
In whatever way we look at du Pont's career, there are always two or three strands to cope with. On the one side we see a very skillful politician and, on the other side, a noted (maybe extremely good) theoretical economist and, certainly, a great and articulate writer. In one biography it is actually put like this:
Hence, the bare bones of the Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours was a cagey politician and publisher who got the Physiocrats lots of good ink. (Saricks 1965)
His participation on the diplomatic tripartite front: Great Britain, France, United States (not to mention Poland at the very beginning) and later in the French Revolution, supporting a losing faction, and yet managing to survive certainly shows a lot of political savvy.
In 1799 he left France for America where he befriended Thomas Jefferson, and reinforced Jefferson’s belief in Physiocratic ideas, not a small feat in itself. And, to show his complex, logician's mind, he established with his son, a chemist, the Du Pont firm in Delaware that became America’s most enduring family-business dynasty.
His economic prowess and legacy as a great theoretician—besides being the one who coined the label “Physiocrats” for that whole group of French economists—is not as straightforward.
There was the famous split between Physiocrats and Adam Smith in which du Pont de Nemours once went so far as to say that whatever was true in Smith was borrowed from Turgot, and whatever was not borrowed from Turgot was not true. He, however, afterwards retracted that absurdly sweeping allegation, and confessed that he had made it before he was able to read English.
Also, being a close friend and economic adviser to Turgot and collaborator and protégé of Quesnay, to whom Smith once intended to dedicate The Wealth of Nations—du Pont later described himself and Smith as being in those days "fellow disciples of M. Quesnay"—it is very difficult to judge or measure the part the theoretical input Du Pont's own expertise and knowledge played in these two leading French economists' scientific outputs.
One thing is clear though. Even if we discard all the political and business deals, his economic theoretical prowess must have been good enough for the two greatest stars of French economics, Quesnay and Turgot, both of whom produced their treatises with the, perhaps very substantial, help of P. S. du Pont de Nemours.
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