Levasseur, Émile

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Levasseur, Émile



Émile Levasseur (1828–1911) was the father of modern economic history in France. He was born into a family of jewelers in Paris, and he himself worked at the jeweler’s trade. It was this experience which aroused his interest in economic history. After the revolution of 1848, as he put it, “I became interested in political and social problems and, with the eagerness of youth I embraced the republican idea” (quoted in Hauser 1911, p. 88).

He received his secondary schooling in a Paris lycée and then attended the École Normale Supérieure and passed the agrégation des lettres; it may be worth noting that he never received a degree in history. He advanced rapidly in his academic career. Initially he taught rhetoric at Alengon and Besançon, but in 1868 he was asked to introduce economic history into the curriculum of the College de France, and in 1872 a chair of economic history and geography was created for him. In 1871 he succeeded Louis Wolowski at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers, and in the very same year he founded, with Æmile Boutmy and Ernest Renan, the Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques, where he taught until his death.

Levasseur’s concern with incorporating the material, concepts, and methods of the social and economic sciences into the study of history represented a break with the historical tradition of his time. And not only did he broaden the traditional concept of history; he also brought history into the field of economics, following in the footsteps of the German historical school of economists in general and of Wilhelm Roscher in particular. Until the publication of Levasseur’s Recherches historiques sur le systéme de Law (1854) and his Histoire des classes ouvrières . . . avant 1789 (1859), political economy in France had been an abstract and speculative science; after Levasseur it became an area of historical research. He substituted historical criticism for theorizing and replaced abstractions with data derived from documents and the analysis of statistics.

To be sure, Levasseur made a fundamental distinction between what he called pure political economy, or economic science, and applied political economy, or ’economic art’ his own sphere, economic history, was economic art. However, he saw the two aspects of political economy as interrelated: “Economic history is one of the branches of the history of civilization; it protects economic science from the errors of judgment that can result from abstraction, just as experience is a safeguard against the dangers of the mathematical method. In a way, economic history is political economy in action; it teaches, more or less clearly, the lesson of experience, and it is also ancillary to theory’ (see Liesse 1914, pp. 348-349). Thus defined, political economy becomes a moral science, focused on man as the center of the whole economic process; he is both active principle and goal.

Of all the related sciences that Levasseur brought to bear on economic history, he singled out statistics as the most important. The publication of La population française (1889-1892) was, therefore, an even more important event in historiography than that of Histoire des classes ouvriéres. For Levasseur, the object of statistics as a science was to make numerical data available to historians and economists. Indeed, he believed that statistics had become an indispensable tool for the historian.

Geography was another discipline Levasseur wished to see more closely connected with history. More than that, he made important contributions to the reorientation of the discipline and is considered one of the precursors of the great French geographers of the beginning of the twentieth century. In place of nomenclature and description, he substituted analysis of both present and future conditions. His 1879 report on the prospects of the proposed Panama Canal, made at the request of Ferdinand de Lesseps, is characteristic of this type of analysis: he calculated the traffic that could be expected and estimated the financial returns.

Finally, Levasseur considered what is now called sociology to be indispensable to the historian.

Levasseur made the following programmatic statement about the ways in which the economic historian should proceed:

Economic history, using documents from the past, statistics, archival material, and the descriptions of contemporaries, etc. aims to explain either a single aspect of the economy of a particular nation, or successive manifestations of such a single aspect in the economies of several nations, or else to present a comprehensive picture of all aspects of a particular national economy. . . . Economic history enables us to observe and follow the progress of economic phenomena in their social milieu, and to determine as accurately as possible the causes and effects of each nation’s economic activity. .. . It shows how economic development is an integral part of the general evolution of all societies. (1898, pp. 25-26)

Levasseur’s conception of economic history was humanistic, rather than mechanistic. Thus, in a lecture at the College de France in 1898, he considered the reasons why once-flourishing empires declined. The soil and climate had remained the same. It was man who had changed. Either he no longer had the skill to raise the produce that had made him rich, or social conditions had diverted him from his original goal. Levasseur explored this humanistic and synthetic concept in the five volumes of his Histoire des classes ouvrières et de rindustrie (1867a), which is his masterpiece and which after a century remains in large part valid.

Levasseur’s economic concepts are no longer accepted, and sociology and statistics have undergone rapid transformations since his death. However, Levasseur was an important innovator and one who laid the groundwork for, and to some degree directly inspired, such important scholars as Francois Simiand, Henri Hauser, Marc Bloch, and Ernest Labrousse. French economic historians today still revere him.

Claude Fohlen

[For the historical context of Levasseur’s work, see

Economic thought,article on The historical school; history,article on Economic history;and the biography of Roscher;for discussion of the subsequent development of Levasseur’s ideas, see the biographies of Blockand Simiand.]


1854 Recherches historiques sur le systeme de Law.

Paris: Guillaumin.

1858 La question de I’or: Les mines de Californie et d’Australie, les anciennes mines d’or et d’argent, .... Paris: Guillaumin.

(1859) 1900-1901 Histoire des classes ouvrieres et de I’industrie en France avant 1789. 2d ed., 2 vols. Paris: Rousseau. → First published as Histoire des classes ouvrieres en France depuis la conquete de Jules Cesar jusqu’a la Revolution.

1865 La France industrielle en 1789. Paris: Durand.

1866 La prévoyance et I’s epargne. Paris: Hachette.

(1867a) 1903-1904 Histoire des classes ouvrières et de I’industrie en France de 1789 à 1870. 2d ed., 2 vols. Paris: Rousseau. → First published as Histoire des classes ouvrières en France depuis 1789 jusqu’à nos jours.

1867b Du rôle de I’intelligence dans la production. Paris: Hachette.

(1869) 1892 Géographic de la France et de ses colonies (cours moyen). 12th ed. Paris: Delagrave.

1872 L’étude et I’enseignement de la géographic. Paris: Delagrave.

1879 Rapport sur le commerce et le tonnage relatifs an canal interocéanique. Paris: Martinet.

1885 La statistique officielle en France: Organisation, travaux, et publications des services de statistique des différents ministères, précédée d’un apercu historique. Nancy (France): Berger-Levrault.

1889-1892 La population francaise: Histoire de la population avant 1789 et demographic de la France comparée á celle des autres nations au XIXe siècle, précé dée d’une introduction sur la statistique. 3 vols. Paris: Rousseau.

(1898) 1900 The American Workman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. → First published as L’ouvrier américain: L’ouvrier au travail, Vouvrier chez lui, les questions ouvrieres.

1899 L’organisation des metiers dans I’Empire Romain. Paris: Giard & Briére.

1901 L’enseignement de l’economic politique au Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers. Paris: Chevalier-Marescq.

1902 Les etudes sociales sous la Restauration: Saint-Simon et le saint-simonisme, Fourier et le fouriérisme. Paris: Giard & Brière.

1907 Questions ouvrières et industrielles en France sous la Troisieme Republique. Paris: Rousseau.

1911-1912 Histoire du commerce de la France. 2 vols. Paris: Rousseau. → Volume 1:Avant 1789. Volume 2: De 1789 a nos jours.


Hauser, henri 1911 Émile Levasseur. Revue historique 108:88-91.

LÉvy, Raphael-georges 1911 Levasseur. Revue des deux mondes 5:96-131.

Liesse, andre 1914 Notice sur la vie et les travaux de M. Émile Levasseur. Academic des Sciences Morales et Politiques, Seances et travaux 181:337-361.

La vie scientifique: P. E. Levasseur. 1911 Revue économique internationale 3:396-418. → Contains a comprehensive bibliography.