Simonde de Sismondi, J. C. L.

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Simonde de Sismondi, J. C. L.



Jean Charles Leonard Simonde de Sismondi (1773-1842), historian and economist, was born in Geneva, Switzerland. His father was a Protestant clergyman who had married the daughter of a well-to-do Genevan family. At the age of 16, when Sismondi was a clerk in Eynard’s Bank at Lyons, he witnessed the first tremors of the French Revolution. The revolution had repercussions in Geneva, and the family sought refuge in England, returning in 1794 but moving again soon afterward to a farm at Pescia, Italy. After his return to Geneva in 1800, Sismondi wrote his Tableau de fagriculture toscane, which appeared the following year. In 1803 he published his book De la richesse commerciale, as a result of which he was offered the chair of political economy at the University of Vilna, with a salary of 6,000 francs. Sismondi declined the offer, having decided to devote his energies to his great Histoire des republiques italiennes du moyen age, the 16 volumes of which appeared over the period 1809-1818.

In 1804/1805, Sismondi accompanied Madame de Stael on her voyage to Italy, along with August Wilhelm von Schlegel and other celebrities who frequented her chateau at Coppet, eight miles northeast of Geneva. In 1807/1808, the same group traveled in Germany and Austria, where the baroness took pleasure in introducing Sismondi to her aristocratic friends. Before long, he began to receive handsome royalties for his history of the Italian republics as well as fees for his numerous articles. The Geneva aristocracy, which had earlier turned its back on Sismondi because, during the Revolution, his father had been seen taking the milk of his cows to market (Fragments . . ., p. 70), now offered him a professorship at the university. Again, Sismondi declined.

Unfortunately, a valuable source of information on Sismondi’s life and opinions seems to have been lost. It is believed that after his death some of his correspondence was burned by his widow and by the marquess of Bossi, his executor.

Sismondi’s reputation as a historian and political writer spread rapidly, and during the Hundred Days he had an interview with Napoleon himself, whose constitutional program he defended. After the Restoration, Sismondi resumed work on his history of the Italian republics and, having seen the last volume through the press, threw himself at once into a still vaster project, his Histoire des Frangais; by the time of his death in 1842, 29 volumes had appeared, and two more were published posthumously.

For the modern student, Sismondi’s most important work is his Nouveaux principes d’economie politique (1819). Jettisoning the viewpoint he had adopted earlier in his Richesse commerciale (1803), Sismondi pointed out in his new book that the supporters of the free-trade doctrine were in pursuit of a false prosperity: the laissez-faire policy recommended by Say, Ricardo, Malthus, and McCulloch, and followed by the British government, while increasing material wealth, diminished the amount of enjoyment at the disposal of each individual, and as a result of this policy the wealthy grew wealthier and the poor grew poorer, more dependent, even destitute. The book was translated at once into Italian, but reaction elsewhere in Europe was slow, except in England, where it took a rather unexpected form.

There is ample evidence that at the time that Sismondi released his Nouveaux principes, in the spring of 1819, Malthus had been working on his Principles of Political Economy for years, without being sure whether, or when, he was going to be able to finish it. The volume was to have been ready in December 1817 but did not come off the press until April 1820. What speeded up Malthus’ work between these two dates was surely the publication of Sismondi’s book. A comparison of the two books shows that all of Sismondi’s important ideas reappear, sometimes in a slightly different garb, in Malthus’ Principles, which contains references both to Sismondi and to John Barton, a young British economist who, working independently, had reached similar conclusions [see the biography of BARTON]. Ricardo read Malthus’ work as soon as it was available. He noticed the name of Barton, remembered the correspondence he had previously exchanged with him, and revised his own doctrine in the light of the arguments originally presented by Sismondi and Barton and now by Malthus. This resulted in the addition to Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (see 1817) of the famous 31st chapter “On Machinery” (added in the 1821 edition), in which the author virtually abandoned the free-trade doctrine he had advocated until then. However, Ricardo was not aware of the full significance of his change of mind, for after a meeting he had with Sismondi at Coppet in 1822 he wrote that “after a long battle we each of us, I believe, remained in the same opinion that we commenced the discussion in” (Works, vol. 9, p. 248).

Sismondi was respected by men like Ricardo and Barton; but according to Cavour, who made his acquaintance while in Geneva, Sismondi was not a strong debater and could not put up an effective defense against the attacks of men like the economist Antoine E. Cherbuliez. In later years, bourgeois writers usually commented favorably on Sismondi’s literary talent, while glossing over his criticism of free-trade doctrine. Socialist writers made use of this criticism, sometimes without giving credit where it was due. Karl Marx, while borrowing copiously from Sismondi’s critical analysis of free trade, attacked him as an “economic romanticist.” Lenin also attacked Sismondi, and more violently than Marx did.

From the perspective of the twentieth century Sismondi has proved to have been more perceptive than most free-traders and more realistic than most nineteenth-century socialists.

G. Sotiroff

[For the historical context of Sismondi’s work, seeLaissez-faire; and the biographies ofMalthus; Ricardo; Say; for discussion of the subsequent development of Sismondi’s ideas, see the biography ofMarx.]


1801 Tableau de I’agriculture toscane. Geneva: Paschoud.

1803 De la richesse commerciale: Ou, principes d’econ-oraie politique, appliques a la legislation du commerce. 2 vols. Geneva: Paschoud.

(1809-1818) 1815-1818 Histoire des republiques ital-iennes du moyen age. 2d ed. 16 vols. Paris: Treuttel.

(1819) 1951-1953 Nouveaux principes d’economie politique: Ou, de la richesse dans ses rapports avec la population. 3d ed. 2 vols. Geneva: Jeheber.

1821-1844 Histoire des francais. 31 vols. Paris.

Fragments de son journal et correspondence. Geneva: Cherbuliez, 1857.

Political Economy, and the Philosophy of Government: A Series of Essays. Selected and translated by M. Mignet. London: Chapman, 1847. → Contains an account of Sismondi’s life and writings.


Amonn, Alfred 1945-1949 Simonde de Sismondi ah Nationalokonom: Darstellung seiner Lehren mit ein-er Einfiihrung und Erlauterungen. 2 vols. Bern: Francke.

Grossmann, Henryk 1924 Simonde de Sismondi et ses theories economiques (Une nouvelle interpretation de sa pensee). Warsaw: Universitas Liberae Poloniae.

Lenin, Vladimir I. (1896) 1951 A Characterization of Economic Romanticism: Sismondi and Our Native Sismondists. Moscow: Foreign Language Publishing House. → First published as “Sotsial’no-ekonomi-cheskiia vozreniia Simonda de-Sismondi” in Russkoe bogatstvo.

Ricardo, David (1817) 1962 Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. London: Dent; New York: Dutton. → A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Irwin.

Ricardo, DavidWorks. Volumes 6-9. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1951-1952.

Salis, Jean R. DE 1932 Sismondi, 1773-1842: La vie et I’oeuvre d’un cosmopolite philosophe. Paris: Champion.

Sotiroff, Georges 1945 Ricardo und Sismondi: Eine aktuelle Auseinandersetzung iiber Nachkriegswirtschaft vor 120 Jahren. Zurich and New York: Europa.

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Simonde de Sismondi, J. C. L.

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