What is it like when, after being cooped up for a long time, one becomes able to travel and cross borders again? In most ways living through the Age of Revolutions was much worse than experiencing our pandemic times. Death and impoverishment were more widespread, more sudden, and more often deliberately inflicted by fellow human beings. Yet as with every catastrophic disruption there are also uncanny resemblances. Not least of these, in Europe, was the collapse of international travel, especially between Britain and the Continent. While Britons had been able to travel freely across France during the frequent Anglo-French wars of the eighteenth century, a new total conception of warfare led the Revolutionary and Napoleonic regimes to implement harsh restrictions. These culminated with Napoleon’s Continental Blockade. The 1806 Berlin Decree made clear that the Blockade was designed to ban human as well as commercial exchange: “letters or packages directed to England or to an Englishman or written in the English language … shall be seized” (article 2); and “Every individual who is an English subject, of whatever state or condition they may be … discovered in any country occupied by our troops or by those of our allies, shall be made a prisoner of war” (article 3). Such provisions were no doubt frequently evaded. Nevertheless, they reduced Anglo-European and especially Anglo-French direct interactions to a trickle for several years.
Hence the exhilaration of the French economist Jean-Baptiste Say when he embarked upon a three-month tour of England and Scotland on 22 September 1814, five months after Napoleon’s first abdication. The tour was commissioned by that great survivor of French politics, by then minister of foreign affairs, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord. Talleyrand had himself fallen victim to new restrictions on international mobility, when after finding refuge from the Reign of Terror in London, in January 1794 he was served under the 1793 Aliens Act with a deportation order back to France if he did not leave Britain within five days; wisely, he opted for exile in Philadelphia, before returning to Europe and French high politics in 1797. Say’s commission was to investigate the economic progress made by Britain in the war years. It resulted in a pamphlet, On England and the English People (1815), which stressed the economic causes of France’s defeat in the recent conflict, but also underlined the weaknesses of the British “economic system”: a heavy tax burden to service an “enormous” and “fearsome” public debt, widespread poverty and economically-induced criminality among the poor, and even a deterioration in the “taste” of British products, which Say attributed to “the long separation of the English nation from the classic lands of Europe.”
Historical scholarship has pointed to the critical tone of the pamphlet as evidence that Say’s thought was subtler than the canonical liberal economic discourse with which his name is often associated. Say’s law on the natural equilibrium between supply and demand has often been ridiculed, and his other contributions to economic theory in the Treatise of Political Economy (1803), such as his rebuttal of Adam Smith’s claim that immaterial services were a sterile activity, are still neglected. This reappraisal has also drawn attention to the enduringly republican nature of Say’s political economy, including his conviction that economic organization should promote the virtue as well as the wealth of citizens. Hence the denunciation of the aristocratic, monopolistic and colonialist aspects of the British system in On England, although it was tempered by his admiration for the energy, or industrie (in the sense of industriousness), of British entrepreneurs and workers. It was this second facet of economic change in Britain which led Adolphe Blanqui, Say’s closest disciple, to coin the phrase “industrial revolution” two decades later.
A new edition of On England (in Catéchisme d’économie politique et opuscule divers, eds. Philippe Steiner and André Tiran. Paris: Economica, June 2020) offers another insight into Say’s encounter with industrial Britain and the emergence of a novel liberal economic discourse in post-Napoleonic Europe, by including the journal he kept during his tour of Britain. The journal’s entries do not directly contradict the critical assessment of Britain’s economic system made in the pamphlet. But they convey much greater awe for British achievements, and Say’s remarks on the practicalities of his tour give the modern reader – especially a reader experiencing lockdown during the Covid pandemic – a sense of what it is like to rediscover international travelling after what Say deplored, in the opening sentence of On England, as “a long interruption of communications.”
For Say, the tour was also a rediscovery of Britain, since between 1785 and 1787 he had lived in Croydon and worked as an apprentice in two British merchant houses specialized in the West and East Indian trades. Little is known about Say’s life in those years, but passages in the journal suggest that he tried to pick up some of the threads of his previous stay. It was almost certainly in 1780s London that Say became sensitive to the abolitionist cause, and on 21 October 1814 he visited the African Institution, dedicated to the creation of a refuge for freed slaves in Sierra Leone; he left there “a book by Mr [left blank]” and “the letter for Pétion”, probably Alexandre Pétion, the first president of the Haitian Republic between 1807 and 1818. Communications with a country France treated as a rebel colony until the grudging recognition of 1825 remained difficult, and regaining access to Britain also meant, for Say, improved communications with many other parts of the world.
Much of the journal is a lot more mundane. Crossing the Channel from Dieppe, Say landed at Newhaven and spent a night at Brighton before arriving in London on 23 September. He had taken with him his daughter Adrienne (or Andrienne) – soon to marry Charles Comte, a liberal critique of the Bourbon Restoration, who subsequently sought refuge in England between 1820 and 1825 in order to escape a two-year jail sentence for his inflammatory writings – and together they visited the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Kensington Gardens and several museums, including the collection of curiosities from the South Seas gathered by William Bullock in the newly built Egyptian Hall near Piccadilly. They attended a performance of Othello at the Drury Lane theatre. But Say also took his daughter to admire new and awe-inspiring commercial sights, such as the enlarged West and East India Docks, and the new Paddington and Grand Junction Canals. They also went to see the new Highgate Archway, and “a street lighted by inflammable gas” near the Houses of Parliament; Say even made quick sketches of the new bridge and the streetlamp’s mechanism (see illustrations 3 and 4; these and other sketches below were redrawn by Claude Mouchot, based on Say’s in the original manuscripts kept at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France). They frequently went shopping (“emplettes”), although Say only recorded twice what they bought: some “books” and a “shall” (shawl; now spelt châle in French) for a friend. Under Covid lockdowns it is easier to appreciate how much Say and his daughter must have enjoyed such banal pleasures.
After entrusting Adrienne to a Genevan doctor who chaperoned her back to France, Say embarked on a tour of Britain’s booming industrial provinces. Leaving London on 22 October and going through Doncaster (“charming, clean and newly built”), he reached York the following day, before visiting Newcastle (25 October), Edinburgh (27 October), Glasgow (5 November), Penrith (12 November), Lancaster (13 November), Liverpool (14 November), Manchester (16 November) and Birmingham (20 November). After a week in Birmingham, he stayed for a night at Woodstock to see Blenheim palace – “the most beautiful English gardens I have ever seen”, although the palace itself disappointed him: “Lots of stones piled up, big columns without grandeur, ornaments without grace” – and another night in Oxford – buildings “mostly old”, but “beautiful promenades” – before returning to London on 30 November.
This northern tour constitutes the lengthiest section of Say’s diary, in which he took detailed notes about dozens of English and Scottish industrial establishments, including coal pits, a flint-glass factory, a silk shawl factory, two calico factories, two cotton spinning factories, a cardboard factory, and a steel-plating factory. In each case Say gave lucid descriptions of the technological processes in use, illustrated by sketches of the most interesting machines. The scion of a silk merchant family and the former owner-manager of a cotton spinning factory in the Pas-de-Calais, it is not surprising that he produced able descriptions of textile machinery. But his interests encompassed other aspects of industrialization, ranging from the chilling description of a “vacherie” (a stable turned into a milk factory) near Glasgow – “the cows never leave the stable: otherwise they would never re-enter it” – to a detailed explanation of the mechanisms of “la thrashing machine” of Mr Buchanan for the processing of grain near Penrith (illustration 5) and an outline of the complex system of shuttles and looms used in a Birmingham whip factory (illustration 6). Say did not indicate what purposes the mass-produced whips served: the disciplining of animals, prisoners, slaves, or children?
No doubt Say mainly took such detailed notes in order to fulfil his mission for the French government, which connects his tour to a long history of cross-Channel industrial espionage. Say kept his official employment concealed from his interlocutors, but the ease with which a Frenchman could visit so many model industrial establishments, only a few months after twenty years of furious Anglo-French warfare, is astonishing. Shorter, more personal entries, however, convey a sense of what travelling in Britain in the autumn felt like: “endless rain” on 25 October, “awful weather” on 4 November, a night of “nearly constant stormy rain” on 11-12 November, and a wearier, more laconic “rain” on 16 November. There were also enjoyable moments. Upon arriving in Manchester and before visiting factories, Say attended a show by “Indian Jugglers”, the South Asian street entertainers who were probably the most direct form of contact ordinary nineteenth-century Britons had with their new Indian empire. These personal entries also reveal Say’s excitement about the extent of British technological innovation: “A Steam boat departing and another arriving [on the Clyde in Glasgow]: new and interesting sight.” In Scotland, he met with scores of fellow intellectuals, and at the University of Glasgow, James Mylne, professor of moral philosophy, showed him “the room where Adam Smith used to teach.” This was probably the highlight of Say’s intellectual tourism, and he recorded in his diary: “Je m’assois dans son fauteuil” (I sit in [Adam Smith’s] chair).
Say’s economic reflections were not confined to British mechanical prowess. He was also dazzled by the extent of Britain’s commerce, jotting down about the harbour of Liverpool: “I notice the beauty and the prodigious number of warehouses. These are wealth Storehouses (Réservoirs de richesse). Riches are accumulated there from the four parts of the world and distributed in the four parts of the world but their real value increases as they arrive and depart.” In Manchester, Say dined at the house of a Genevan merchant and approvingly recorded about his activities: “He is a commissioner for the products made in this town and sends them to merchant houses in Belgium, which then smuggle the merchandise into France”, using in the original French the now defunct verb smuggler. Say also gleaned concrete examples, designed to popularize sound principles of political economy, of the sort he liked to use in his writings – such as the global interconnectedness of markets; when a Birmingham commissioner specialized in exports to southern Europe told him that “he realizes that the harvest is bad in Sicily because demand for products of Birmingham decreases”, Say commented: “Bon à citer.”
Say’s journal is therefore a wonderful example of the debt of abstract economic ideas to immediate experience and economic life. For the intellectual historian, it is simultaneously tantalizing and frustrating, as when Say recorded, in only a few lines, his week of interactions with the luminaries of utilitarian political economy after he returned to London. On 11 December, he enjoyed a “pleasant reception by Mr [David] Ricardo” in the latter’s mansion at Gatcombe Park, west of London. In the next few days the two economists visited two nearby woollen factories, before setting out on a short trip to Bath and Bristol, and returning to London via Ford Abbey, Jeremy Bentham’s abode, where they were “very well received” and stayed for two days. What the founders of classical political economy discussed during those few days is not recorded. But we know that in Bath, Ricardo and Say attended together a performance (in French) of Adolphe et Clara, an operetta first staged in Paris in 1799, about a quarrelling couple who become reconciled after the wife’s benevolent uncle, a minister of state, organises their pseudo-imprisonment in the same mock jail, where they fall in love with each other again. The original play probably alluded to the end of revolutionary strife within France. Perhaps the Bath performance was seeking to transpose the metaphor to the Anglo-French couple, also in need of reconciliation.
Say left London to return to France on 31 December 1814. Apart from the brief, futile epilogue of the Hundred Days that concluded at Waterloo in June 1815, that period which some historians have termed the Second Hundred Years War, of 1689 to 1815, was indeed at an end. Since then, the two countries have never been overtly at war with each other and have never even engaged in military operations against each other – at least if one subscribes to the comforting Gaullist myth that the Vichy government of 1940-1944 was not really France. This was a momentous reconciliation, with ambivalent consequences, ranging from the preservation of relative peace within Europe for a century to the rise of a more cooperative style of European colonial expansion at the expense of many polities and peoples in nineteenth-century Africa and Asia – on these imperial aspects, see my forthcoming book, A Velvet Empire: French Informal Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton University Press, January 2021). It was a crucial moment in the making of the modern West, for better and worse.
From the perspective of late December 2020, it is not only the experience of lockdown, and the anticipation that vaccines will bring them to an end as swiftly as British and Russian armies brought down Napoleon’s blockade, which make Say’s diary so poignant. On the eve of actual Brexit day, 1 January 2021, it is striking how Say’s journal speaks to the longue durée of Anglo-European relations and the broader sense of a crisis of the modern West. At the time of writing this piece, the fog of pandemic and geopolitical uncertainty is still extremely thick: will the vaccines really work, and when will life go back to normal? Will a sustainable and amicable solution to the British divorce from the European Union be found? To what extent can a new American administration revive transatlantic harmony and the earlier style of global governance? Of course, I don’t know. But the experience of Say, and that of hundreds of thousands of others in the Age of Revolutions, teach me two useful things to manage uncertainty in times of disruption: firstly, upheavals often come in clusters, so more shocks may yet take place; and secondly, the restoration of the status quo ante is impossible, so a return to stability will require changes to the world we lost.
Sobering caution is compatible with optimism. The other lesson I draw from the excitement revealed by Say’s notes during his tour of Britain is that one can and should remain confident about the future. Say’s own life was immensely interesting but it was also a succession of disappointments. He believed in a French Revolution that would bring about moderate republican institutions. He enthusiastically supported France’s ill-fated expedition to Egypt and Palestine, during which his own brother, Horace, a military engineer to whom he was very close, died at the siege of Acre in 1799. He even believed in Napoleon, until, in 1803, he had Say removed from the Tribunat (a legislative bastion of liberal ideas, which Napoleon abolished in 1807) and silenced by censorship after the publication of his Treatise. He also had faith in his spinning factory, until the huge variations in the tariff on raw cotton caused by the Continental Blockade ruined his business in the 1810s. The increasingly reactionary policies of the Bourbon Restoration would bring more disappointments. But wasn’t Say right to seize the respite of 1814 to forge new transnational friendships and explore as extraordinary a society as industrializing Britain? In any case, he lived to see the partial triumph of his ideas, with the liberal July Revolution of 1830, followed by his election to a new chair of political economy at the Collège de France. And he outlived, by two months, the first great cholera pandemic in Europe, which killed nearly 20,000 Parisians between March and September 1832; earlier pandemic times, so close on the heels of the Age of Revolutions.
A small gain of turmoil and hardship – and perhaps not only for historians – is that they can increase our powers of empathy. At least it helps me appreciate Say and his ideas in a more humane light. His intellectual optimism, I now feel, wasn’t so blithe after all. And I can’t help sharing, by anticipation, his excitement about the end of the blockade. I especially look forward to crossing the Channel again – in the opposite direction, and with the hope that France won’t have changed in such astonishing ways as Britain did between the 1780s and the 1810s.