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1Today, Jean-François Melon’s Essai politique sur le commerce is rightly considered a major work in European Enlightenment political economy. [1] Kenneth Carpenter ranks it quite high in The Economic Bestsellers before 1850, [2] noting its twenty editions in over eight different languages (German, English, Danish, Spanish, French, Italian, Russian and Swedish). In 1771, Turgot, who could hardly be suspected of sympathy for an author with positions diametrically opposed to his own on such matters as luxury goods, indirect taxes, public credit and slavery, expressed high esteem for the work, which he had read attentively in his youth. Jean-François Melon, cofounder of the Academy of Sciences of Bordeaux, was secretary to John Law when Law was Controller General of France’s finances and to the regent Philippe d’Orléans after Law fell. Following Philippe’s death in 1724, Melon returned to private life, though the royal administration still regularly consulted him, particularly on monetary questions. Returning to his writing, he first produced an allegorical history of the regency entitled Mahmoud le Gasnevide (1730), written in the Orientalist fashion initiated by his friend Montesquieu in the Lettres persanes. But it was his Essai politique sur le commerce (first edition 1734) that won him an important place in Enlightenment historiography.

2The first edition of the Essay is somewhat dry and technical, as might be expected from a specialist of the economics and finance of his time. It was short (slightly over 250 pages) and comprised eighteen chapters ; the first nine discuss the real economy, the following nine the monetary economy. Two chapters are particularly remarkable : the introduction, judiciously entitled “Principles,” and the last chapter, “Of public credit,” which puts Law’s system, with which Melon was quite familiar, into theoretical and historical perspective.

3In the first chapter he develops an abstract model of international and political relations by way of the famous “island” parable. As a good Cartesian who will move from the simple to the complicated, he starts by assigning a single product to each island : corn for one, wool for another, and so forth. He then demonstrates that if the first island is self-sufficient it will be able to exchange products with the other islands while maintaining a surplus. In this way it will drain all the other islands’ resources, particularly human ones. In a few lines, Melon seems to have grasped the pre-eminence that commerce would begin to acquire in international power relations in the first half of the eighteenth century and its naturally political nature. In the remainder of the chapter he works to refine the model, for as he himself acknowledges, the material advantage of having a corn surplus is not necessary in a multi-state Europe ; all a country needs is a trade surplus. In the following chapters he further complexifies his analysis, taking into account the dynamic effects of technical progress (a factor seldom included at the time), luxury goods, colonies and population growth (these being more classic factors). Melon’s work is highly sophisticated and far ahead of the thinking of seventeenth-century English authors.

4Though his discussion of Law’s system is brief, it immediately elicited reaction from his contemporaries, particularly several other important actors in that system : Nicolas Dutot and the Pâris brothers. More generally, Melon’s discussion of the currency question, which takes up nearly half of the work, had considerable resonance in Enlightenment Europe. Galiani in Naples, David Hume in Scotland, administrators and writers in Spain, Sweden and France were indebted to Melon’s work either in that they borrowed his ideas–such as the positive role that currency devaluations can play–or because they opposed them ; Hume, for example, in his Political Essays, contested Melon’s Law-inspired advice to increase monetary mass.

5Two years after the Essai was published, Melon brought out a new, enlarged edition with seven new chapters and approximately a third more pages. This is the one that has been reproduced by the Presses Universitaires de Caen. While Melon’s additions do not radically revise his book, they do give it even greater scope and weight. [3] Melon devotes three new chapters (30 pages) to monetary analysis, responding to several well-meaning criticisms by Dutot, who had just published several articles in Mercure. [4] Moreover, perhaps made bold by the success of his book, Melon further developed his analysis of interactions between commerce and politics and the fundamental value for monarchies–especially the French monarchy–of developing commerce. These points make it clear how much of his thinking, if not opinions, he shared with Montesquieu.

6It is a remarkable book–a facsimile of the 1736 edition–that the Presses Universitaires de Caen has republished. For historians of demography and population sciences, the Essai occupies a firm position between the work of William Petty, whose political arithmetic Melon criticized, and Cantillon, who agreed with Melon on several points, including the idea that increasing a nation’s wealth will be an incentive to foreign populations to emigrate there. Melon details his critique of Petty’s political arithmetic in a long chapter (found only in the 1736 edition), citing Vauban and the famous Breslau population counts.

7In her introduction, the philosopher Francine Markovits retraces the author’s reasoning step by step, offering a skillful and pedagogically effective summary of the book’s 26 chapters and providing non-specialist readers with precious assistance in apprehending what is likely to seem a difficult text. For researchers, however, the utility of the introduction is more limited. First, there are no specifications about variants between the 1736 and 1734 texts. It would have been relatively easy here to draw on the remarkable work done for the Italian edition of Melon’s works, [5] but that edition seems to have escaped Markovits’ attention. And it is regrettable that, with the exception of a rather ancient German-language reference, no non-French secondary literature figures among the references cited. This undercuts the value of Markovits’ text for researchers, since most recent texts on Melon’s work or that take it into account were written by English-language and, to a lesser degree, Italian historians.


  • [1]
    See Jesús Astigarraga, “La dérangeante découverte de l’autre : traductions et adaptations espagnoles de l’Essai politique sur le commerce (1734) de Jean-François Melon,” [The disturbing discovery of the other : Spanish translations and adaptations of Jean-François Melon’s Essai politique sur le commerce], Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine 1/2010 (no. 57-1), pp. 91-118, a thorough, very useful account of recent studies of Melon ; and Istvan Hont, Jealousy of Trade : International Competition and the Nation-State in Historical Perspective, Cambridge, Ma., Harvard University Press, 2005.
  • [2]
    Kenneth E. Carpenter, The Economic Bestsellers before 1850, in Bulletin of the Kress Library of Business and Economics no. 11 (May 1975), Harvard Business School.
  • [3]
    There were some subtle but important changes from the earlier to the later edition, such as the shift in the introductory parable from four islands to three.
  • [4]
    On this point see Antoine E. Murphy’s excellent introduction to Histoire du système de John Law, 1716-1720, Paris, Institut National d’Etudes Démographiques (INED), Classiques de l’économie de la population, 2000, 406 p.
  • [5]
    Jean-François Melon, Opere, ed. Onofrio Nicastro and Severina Perona, Siena & Pisa, Università di Siena & Libreria Testi Universitari, 2 vols., 1977 and 1983.
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