Jean Charles Leonard Simonde de Sismondi

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Jean Charles Léonard Simonde de Sismondi

Jean Charles Léonard Simonde de Sismondi (1773-1842) was a Swiss-born historian and political economist. In his histories of France and Italy he placed particular emphasis on the development of constitutional government.

Born on May 9, 1773, Simonde de Sismondi spent a happy childhood on the Swiss country estate of his wealthy aristocratic family. He was educated by his family and by tutors to an ideal of noble service for his fellowman. The family's money had been invested in French public bonds, however, and the collapse of these funds before and during the French Revolution brought about the family's financial ruin. Sismondi worked as a clerk in a countinghouse in Lyons and proved to be a highly competent economist until the fervor of the Revolution drove the family back to Geneva in 1792. Briefly imprisoned there as aristocrats, although they had strong republican sympathies, the Sismondi family fled to England.

During these years of intense financial and political turmoil, Sismondi was constantly at work compiling a vast amount of material collected in notebooks under the title "Researches on the Constitutions of Free Peoples." While in England, he was an industrious student of English constitutional and economic practice and, for a brief time, an advocate of Adam Smith's laissez-faire policies.

Forced back to the warmer climate of the Continent by the illness of his mother, Sismondi settled his family on a farm in Italy, and from 1795 to 1800 he worked by day as a farmer and by night continued his scholarly research. Cognizant now of the periodic unemployment and urban misery brought about by the first and second generations of the industrial revolution in England, Sismondi focused his attention on how free governments, preferably constitutional monarchies, could maintain political and economic freedom.

These years of difficult and strenuous labor resulted in a remarkable series of works. Sismondi published numerous studies of "The Italian Republic" (1807-1820), The Literature of the South of Europe (1813), New Principles of Political Economy (1819), and the first volume of History of the French (1821). In his Political Economy, for which he is most famous, he tried to confront the problems created by the industrial revolution. He did not blame technology for the evils of industrialism, nor did he think that socialist proposals were realistic. He recommended that governments, preferably constitutional monarchies, assist the economically weak and poor by legalizing trade unions, establishing standards and wages, abolishing child labor, and requiring factories to provide pensions.

Sismondi spent the last years of his life in Geneva preparing new editions of his writings, finishing his study of the French, and serving as a member of the Geneva Assembly, always a spokesman for freedom with order. He died of stomach cancer on June 25, 1842.

Further Reading

A study of Sismondi's work is Mao-Lan Tuan, Simonde de Sismondi as an Economist (1927). A discussion of his life and work is in George P. Gooch, History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (1913; rev. ed. 1952; new preface 1959). □

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