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Sweetness in difficult times

March 23, 2020
Sarah B Sussman

As we shelter in place, and think about the current political and economic consequences of the COVID-19 crisis, it is a good time to think about how past societies have responded to times of upheaval. Rachel Waxman, a doctoral candidate in History at Johns Hopkins University, recently spent 3 weeks in Stanford Libraries' Special Collections doing research in the Gustave Gimon Collection of French Political Economy on the sugar crisis during the French Revolution. She was the recipient of the libraries' annual Gimon Short-Term visiting fellowship that allows outside scholars to come to Stanford to use the collection. It was a pleasure to discuss her research with her, and to consider what we may think of as a basic necessity - sugar - in the larger context of 18th century ideas on free trade, scarcity, and property rights. Rachel wrote the following report about her research in the Gimon Collection and has graciously allowed me to share it:

The Gustave Gimon Fellowship supported three weeks of research for my dissertation-in-progress, entitled The Political Economy of Sugar in the Age of Revolution. My dissertation uses sugar to explore the economic impact of the Haitian Revolution on Revolutionary France and examines the political economic questions that arose in the wake of a “sugar crisis” that affected the metropole. In particular, I look at a series of sugar riots that occurred in Paris in 1792 and 1793 due to the high price of sugar. I argue that debates over sugar revealed deeper divisions about the perceived purposes of the French Revolution and were key in helping define economic rights during a politically unstable moment.

Economic thought during the French Revolution is a surprisingly little-studied topic. The Gustave Gimon collection provided important insights into the Revolutionary political economic context that underpins my dissertation and helps explain the decisions and claims that historical actors made. Two topics in particular guided my research within the Gimon collection: property rights and free trade. I spent the majority of my time examining published texts and manuscripts related to these two themes.

Ideas about property rights and their limits are an important focus of my dissertation. In the wake of the sugar crisis, merchants, consumers and political elites expressed different and often conflicting interpretations of the right to private property and just how far this right should extend. The Gustave Gimon collection contains numerous texts on the topic of property rights that have helped provide theoretical context for their claims. Germain Garnier’s De La Propriété Dans Ses Rapports Avec Le Droit Politique (1792) was particularly valuable for my research. This Revolutionary-era publication presents a theory of the relationship between property rights, society and political rights. Of particular interest is Garnier’s mention of the slave uprising in Saint Domingue—which he sees as an example of a violation of property—and its impact on the prices of goods in the international marketplace as well as on people who lived thousands of kilometers from the island.

Paul Boesnier de l’Orme’s Analyse de l'ouvrage qui a pour titre De l'esprit du gouvernement économique (1775) and Etienne Bonnot de Condillac’s Le commerce et le gouvernement, considérés relativement l'un à l'autre (1776) were useful in shedding light on physiocratic theories of property. These texts present property as sacred and argue that the protection of property is the central purpose of government. While these publications pre-dated the Revolution by over a decade, the ideas they expressed had a clear influence on debates regarding private property during the Revolution. Another interesting find on this topic was Simon-Nicolas-Henri Linguet’s Du Commerce Des Grains (1789), a tract on the grain trade. Linguet offers an opposing opinion to the physiocratic attitudes towards property and presents the idea of universal property, which superseded individual property rights.

Free trade has been another driving theme in my research within the Gimon collection. The freedom of trade was an important economic principle during the early Revolution, but crises like the sugar riots gave rise to debates over its details and limits. Louis-Paul Abeille’s Effets d'Un Privilege Exclusif En Matiere De Commerce Sur Les Droits De La Propriété (1765) makes an interesting connection between free trade and property that has helped shed light on how Revolutionaries may have understood the relationship between these two ideas. In his Revolutionary-era utopian publication, L'heureuse nation, ou, Relations du gouvernment des Féliciens, peuple souverainement libre sous l'empire absolu de ses loix (1792), Pierre-Paul Le Mercier de la Rivière describes the role of free commerce in an ideal society. Jean Herrenschwand’s De l'Économie Politique Moderne : Discours Fondamental Sur La Population (1794) helps illuminate Revolutionary conceptions of foreign trade with a discourse on the differences between domestic and foreign consumption. Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours’ Analyse Historique De La Législation Des Grains Depuis 1692 : A Laquelle on a Donné La Forme d'Un Rapport à l'Assemblée Nationale (1789) argues for a middle-ground approach to free trade when it comes to the all-important question of grain. A 1794 letter from Du Pont de Nemours to Boissy d’Anglas, a member of the National Convention (MISC 492) was particularly interesting for its treatment of the complexities of foreign trade and shows the impact of international commerce on internal politics.

Petit cusinier

In addition to the Gimon collection, I had the opportunity to examine a recently acquired Revolutionary cookbook.Le Petit Cuisinier Économe, ou L'art de Faire la Cuisine au Meilleur Marché (year 4) provided insight into culinary habits during the Revolution. I was surprised to discover several recipes for jams that required large amounts of sugar at a time when sugar was scarce and expensive. This book has raised a new set of questions that I hope to investigate further in my dissertation.

The Gimon fellowship allowed me access to texts integral for the further development of my dissertation and I am extremely thankful for this opportunity. As a Gimon fellow, I also had the pleasure of meeting Stanford Professors Dan Edelstein and Amalia Kessler, whose insight has helped me think through some of the challenges of my project. Finally, I would like to thank the Stanford University Special Collections staff and Sarah Sussman for their generosity and guidance during my visit.

-Rachel Waxman, Johns Hopkins University