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La Force du commerce

Jane Marcet’s lessons to the lesser educated about the political economy of foreign trade

Alexandra Sippel


Cet article propose une analyse de la façon dont Jane Marcet enseigne les principes de l’économie politique appliqués au commerce international (et à la consommation de biens de luxe) dans deux ouvrages pédagogiques, dont l’un était destiné aux dames, et l’autre aux classes laborieuses. Jane Marcet connaissait bien les théoriciens de cette nouvelle science, ce qui faisait d’elle un parfait relai auprès des moins éduqués. E.P. Thompson et d’autres ont évoqué la façon dont les radicaux du début du XIXe siècle, ont accusé Malthus d’avoir dé-moralisé l’économie. Je souhaite montrer que Jane Marcet s’inscrit dans la continuité de son mentor et qu’en extrayant le commerce international de la sphère morale, elle prive du même coup les femmes et les ouvriers du rôle de consommateurs militants qu’ils avaient découvert dans les années 1790. Enseigner l’économie politique revenait donc à la fois à reconnaître leurs capacités intellectuelles et à disqualifier leurs revendications.

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  • 1 Michael Perelman provides an interesting study of the circulation of ideas between Scottish philoso (...)

1Donald Winch has written extensively on political economy and he remarks in the prologue to his Riches and Poverty that “it was [in the 1790s] that Smith’s political economy achieved its first major victory as a guide to [William Pitt’s] political action. This triumph,” he adds, “has also been described as marking the end of a paternalistic moral economy” (5). Although political economy developed as a science with and after the publication of Adam Smith’s Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776, it had been developing since the days of William Petty (1623-1687) and the French Physiocrats. In the last decades of the eighteenth century, political economists proposed a scientific resolution to the heated controversy over luxury that had erupted with Bernard Mandeville’s praise of self-interest as more conducive to economic success and hence, to the public good, than the civic humanist virtues of frugality and self-sacrifice. It is not my object here to delve into the details of this controversy, but suffice it to say that several luminaries of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume and Adam Smith not the least among them, rehabilitated luxury consumption as indicative of, and necessary to, a civilised society. Interestingly enough, while luxury (and hence the consumption of imported goods) had been suspected of fostering “effeminacy” in both Tory and Patriot Whig circles, this concern waned over the century.1 Dana Harrington sheds light on how closely entangled were the processes that took out luxury outside the moral sphere while secluding upper- and upper-middle-class ladies in their homes:

The emergence of a privatized, domestic view of virtue, I argue, served to legitimize middle-class concepts of citizenship by resolving the traditional antagonism between civic virtue and commerce that had long served as a means to limit female participation in the political sphere. The representation of women as compassionate, ‘civilizing’ agents in early modern texts, in effect, ‘moralized’ the private sphere and in so doing provided an ethical anchor for middle-class values and practices, including the pursuit of economic interests. (34)

  • 2 It is not my object here to dwell too much on the debate over female education though I will addres (...)

2At the end of the eighteenth century, the notion that women should be educated had gained ground, even though what made this education desirable was still debated. Many thinkers resolutely sided with Rousseau, insisting that women had to be educated mostly in order to prove good educationists for their offspring: for their sons until they were sent to boarding schools to learn the masculine qualities of emulation and self-confidence, and for their daughters so they would become respectable wives and mothers in later life.2

  • 3 On early socialism, Gregory Claeys’s monographs Citizens and Saints, Politics and Anti-Politics in (...)

3Although interest in political economy was spreading among the intellectual elite and could rely on such influential figures as Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo and many others, the new-born science remained the preserve of an élite. It was nevertheless soon to become the target of equally charismatic leaders on the opposite side of the political spectrum as Jacobin radicals and their offspring, notably William Godwin, Thomas Spence and the Spencean societies, and later on early socialists like Thomas Hodgskin, retaliated by promoting cooperation rather than competition as the path to a fairer society.3 This intellectual competition rendered it necessary for political economists to popularise the basics of what is now called “classical economic liberalism” to a wider public: first the ladies in charge of educating the next generations of decision-makers, and then the working classes who might grow restive when confronted with inequalities of fortunes. James Mill lamented as early as 1808 that the science should not be better-known (Thompson 56-57). Foreign trade, because it entailed the consumption of luxury goods by the most affluent, was at the core of this teaching: proving that it was in the end beneficial to all in the land was one way of overcoming popular grudges against inequalities. Thompson highlights this rampant anxiety:

Charles Knight claimed that there existed at the time many ‘pretended teachers of political economy who [were] ranting in popular assemblies about the unequal allotment of riches’, while James Mill complained similarly of such ‘rascals at work’ and fulminated against writers like Thomas Hodgskin who propagated ‘with the zeal of perfect fanaticism’ the ‘mad nonsense’ of the ‘rights of the labourer to the whole produce of the country’. Mill believed that such ideas must be immediately countered for ‘if they were to spread […] [they] would be the subversion of civilised society, worse than the overwhelming deluge of Huns and Tartars.’” (153)

4Jane Haldimand Marcet (1769-1858) was the perfect person to perform this challenging mission. In an early review of her and Harriet Martineau’s early works, William Empson stressed that political economy had now entered its “missionary era” and he rejoiced that these women should have accepted the task of preaching the economic gospel “to all classes and more especially to the poor” (Empson 2). Born to a well-off Swiss family established in London, and educated after the Swiss fashion in all subjects taught to her male and female siblings, Jane Haldimand was interested in all sciences. She married a successful medical doctor who had a passion for chemistry, which enabled her to have her first educational manual published in 1806: Conversations on Chemistry, Intended More Particularly for the Female Sex. Her younger brother stayed at her home. When he became a director of the Bank of England (at the young age of 25), many of the guests she entertained were political economists, which enabled her to become familiar with the science, to listen to, and sometimes take part in, complex debates in which the issue of foreign trade often cropped up. Having written about a science few women mastered, Marcet was invited by the men she met with at the Political Economy Club (of which she was the only female member at the time) to write about economics. In 1816, her Conversations on Political Economy were published to educate the ladies, and some fifteen years later she drafted tales entitled John Hopkins’s Notions of Political Economy at the behest of Lord Brougham who had founded the Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge and who hoped to include them in the curriculum taught to the working classes.

5Jane Marcet and her works are not entirely unknown, but comparatively little attention has been paid to the details of her economic writings. Her biography is rather well-known and her role as a “knowledge broker” – to borrow from the title of Evelyn Forget’s 2016 paper – has been highlighted by several scholars; the particulars of her economic writings have, however, not hitherto received the attention they deserve. This paper aims at shedding some light on the reasons why Marcet’s readership had to be taught foreign trade as part of the science of political economy. I intend to study how Marcet, like her male counterparts, transcended the debate over luxury and virtue. Two full chapters of her Conversations on Political Economy are devoted to foreign trade alone, and other passages mention it in passing. Similarly, two chapters of John Hopkins’s Notions broach the issue. As was mentioned earlier on, Marcet’s many Conversations were written for women. Though John Hopkins’s Notions is geared towards the working classes, foreign trade is addressed from a feminine perspective: the chapter’s subtitle reads “or the Wedding Gown”.

6This paper will raise the question of how Marcet, like Malthus shortly beforehand, lifted economics, and foreign trade in particular, out of the ethical debate over luxury and virtue and placed it on the side of an incontrovertible, a-moral scientific field of study.

7I will first examine what the likes of Caroline and the Hopkins family knew about foreign trade in order to shed light on the prejudices that had to be dispelled, and that rendered education on the subject of political economy so necessary. One of the sources of their (empirical) knowledge was the various consumer boycott movements that had inspired “sentimental” ladies in Britain, Ireland and America as they empathised with slaves for example. Women found themselves in several double-binds that will be questioned in the second part of this article. Female consumerism was a thorny issue and the reasons why ladies and women bought or abstained from buying certain imported luxury goods were scrutinised. When addressing Caroline, or the Hopkins mother and daughter, Marcet tries to uproot ill-informed sentimental prejudices and replace them with sound science. In doing so, though, Marcet strips women of an important dimension of their awakening to political and social issues. Dislodging the allegedly superficial sentimentality that prompted women to boycott goods to express their patriotism or their anti-slavery feelings was a way of de-politicising their consumer choices.

On the urgency of dispelling economic misconceptions

  • 4 Michèle Cohen addresses this question: Locke’s empiricism “did not recognise gender distinctions,” (...)

8In many ways, Jane Marcet is heir to the long progress of female education in the eighteenth century. The education she had received equipped her to be an educationist in her turn and in many ways, she was a latter-day Bluestocking. She belonged to middle/upper-class sociable conservative circles where men were welcome (Guest 60-62). Despite her manifest opposition to anything radical, she also followed in Mary Wollstonecraft’s footsteps as she proposed to educate women (and later on the working classes) to things deemed out of their reach only a few years earlier4. Yet she makes it clear that this education is mostly intended to equip women for their main natural duty: that of educating their children instead of filling their heads with nonsense that would have to be uprooted before anything proper could grow in its stead. “Would you teach political economy to children?” Caroline asks in the introduction. Mrs B. replies: “I would wish that mothers were so far competent to teach it, that their children should not have anything to unlearn [italics hers]” (Conversations 9).

9Until then, political economy, and foreign trade, had been deemed both too abstract, and too remote from domestic concerns to be of any interest to women. In his influential sermon about female education, John Brown declared in 1765 that “the female mind is not naturally fitted for the tedium of long continued and plodding disquisitions” (9). Four decades later and while some complained that political economy had become a fashionable topic, Thomas Gisborne wrote about female education as having to secure first their eternal salvation, and then provide skills useful to the domestic sphere:

The science of legislation, of jurisprudence, of political economy; the conduct of government in all its executive functions; the abstruse researches of erudition; the inexhaustible depths of philosophy; the knowledge indispensable in the field of commercial enterprise demand the efforts of mind endued with the power of close and comprehensive reasoning […] in a degree to which they are not requisite for the discharge of the customary offices of female duties. (21)

10Gisborne, in a most traditional way, only celebrated feminine virtues in women: “modesty, delicacy, sympathising sensibility, prompt and active benevolence, tenderness of attachment” were the preserve of “the sister, the daughter, the wife” (23). Caroline is the perfect epitome of all the young ladies Mrs Marcet hoped to educate thanks to her Conversations. She quite candidly admits that political economy is both too complex and too boring to interest her, and that she would gladly remain ignorant of it and stick to lady-like small talk about fashion in dress (7). Mrs. B. retorts: “So many things are connected with the science of political economy, that if you persevere in your resolution, you might almost as well condemn yourself to perpetual silence. […] I have heard no trifling degree of ignorance of political economy betrayed in a conversation on dress” (7). To wear or not to wear French lace or silk, and therefore to condone or not to condone imports of foreign luxury goods, was at the heart of that conversation.

  • 5 I chose to use the neutral plural they/their here, but as can be seen in the following quotation, e (...)

11Caroline cannot but admit that she is ignorant and that her ignorance might be the source of ill-advised decisions. Mrs. B. can then focus on her pupil’s misconceptions and their origin before she imparts sound scientific economics to her. Caroline is an upper-middle class young lady and the beginning of the Conversations provides readers with an insight into the education she had received until then. Her understanding of foreign trade is based on a reading of Fénelon’s Telemachus praising frugality and sobriety in self-supporting cities as conducive to abundant labour, and hence virtue and harmony among all citizens. As Telemachus comes back to Salentum and finds it transformed, Mentor asks: “And which is best, a superb city, abounding with marble, gold, and silver, with a steril (sic.) and neglected country; or a country in a state of high cultivation, and fruitful as a garden, with a city where decency has taken place of pomp? […] The genuine strength and true riches of a kingdom consist in the innumerable people, and the plenty of provisions” (2). This passage, which Caroline had correctly understood, reveals that she knew about the basic tenets of mercantilism and agrarianism. She had been taught the morals of civic humanism that presented luxury, and especially imported luxury goods, as the origin of a rampant fear that all the nation might become “effeminate” (Harrington 35). Another source of Caroline’s reflections regarding economics is The Deserted Village, a long poem by the Irish-born Oliver Goldsmith who bemoaned illegal enclosures and the pursuit of wealth (Miner 126-27). Mrs. B. immediately undertakes her mission of doing away with these outdated and/or poetic ideas. About Fénelon, she declares: “[…] [A]lthough some of the sentiments in this passage are perfectly just, yet the general principle on which they are founded, that town and country thrive at the expense of each other is quite erroneous” (Conversations 2). And just as town and country do not thrive at the expense of each other, trading nations do so to their mutual advantage, which all obeys the principle of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand of the market” thanks to which seemingly conflicting individual interests actually work together for the general good. As for Goldsmith, she concedes that his poems are of immense literary value, but should not be taken at face value when it comes to understanding economics: “You should recollect that we do not admit poets to be very good authority on political economy” (142). Caroline was educated to the values of Tory civic humanism that were consonant with the mercantilism that prevailed in the previous century. Mrs. B. aims at proving that, unlike what her pupil was led to conclude, luxury consumption and foreign trade are exempt of any moral stain and that learning political economy will allow her to better understand the new commercial era they lived in. A more fundamental question, though, might be that of “sentiments”. Sentimentality was one of the paramount qualities that women were expected to display, and yet, when Caroline shares her reflections regarding foreign trade, Mrs. B. discards them as the mere product of “just sentiments” that excite her moral sense. But morals are beside the point, even when it comes to the consumption of luxurious foreign goods. For Marcet, only the consumers’ ability to pay for their purchases5 makes them moral or immoral, which makes any kind of regulation, let alone sumptuary legislation, unnecessary:

Excess depends not so much on the quantity or nature of the luxury, as upon its relative proportion to the means of the individual. A daily meal of meat is an excess of luxury to the family of a common labourer, because they are not used to it, and their wages will not, in general, enable them to command it; whilst a table abounding with expensive delicacies can scarcely be called excess of luxury in a man whose income is so large that such gratifications do not prevent his making considerable savings. (Conversations 393)

  • 6 E.P. Thompson too pondered on this question, notably in his article entitled “The Moral Economy Rev (...)

12In the words of Donald Winch, what Caroline displays is “Tory humanitarianism” (6). But Mrs. B., Marcet’s mouthpiece, is a disciple of Malthus who “would be dismayed to discover that he is now held to be responsible for de-moralising political economy.”6(6) Claudia L. Klaver concludes about Marcet (and then about Martineau, too), that they reconciled morality with political economy thanks to utilitarianism: as political economy created a climate favourable to all by increasing the capital in the land, then, it was justified because it added to the general happiness of the nation (56).

The rehabilitation of luxury consumption

13More often than not, “luxury” was a by-word for imported goods – quite frequently from France, too. Gold, gems, silks, sugar, spices and other goods all originated from remote lands. Luxury consumption entailed foreign trade. Taking her cue from political economists, Mrs. B. argues that it is not an evil in itself because individual aspirations to enjoy as much luxury as possible are a sane impetus to individual industry:

The desire of increasing our enjoyments, and of improving our situation in life, as it is one of the strongest sentiments implanted in our nature, so I conceive it to be essentially conducive to the general welfare. It is the active zeal of each individual exerted in his own cause, which, in the aggregate, gives an impulse to the progressive improvement of the world at large. […] [A]nd a growing capital is, you know, an increase in the subsistence of the poor. (394)

14So, unlike what Caroline had been educated to believe, not only was the consumption of luxury goods not immoral, but it benefited even those who could not afford them for themselves. In today’s words, Mrs. B. teaches Caroline the benefits of trickle-down economics, what Samuel Johnson had called “the secret concatenation”: the “hidden bonds uniting the fortunes of the rich and poor in commercial societies that were beginning to enjoy the benefits of an extensive division of labour” (Winch 1). This passage is also reminiscent of Adam Smith’s vindication of individual interests: “By pursuing his own interest [the merchant] frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it” (572). What Mrs. B. demonstrates is how this phenomenon is replicated from the smallest to the largest scale: between individuals, between urban and rural areas, and between trading nations.

15This lesson, however, required Marcet’s pupils to unlearn principles they had gathered either in their formal education or in their informal knowledge of topical issues. As has already been pointed out, women had been expected to act out of sentimentality and they had been warned against the consumption of luxury goods. Sentimentality and moral abstinence from consuming luxury goods had come in conjunction in women’s sociable circles in earlier decades, under several guises. At the time of the American War of Independence, some ladies in the American colonies and in Ireland had initiated a militant boycott movement and had pledged not to consume goods from Britain, and instead had engaged in breeding silk worms or making linen cloth. They hoped to display their virtuous, patriotic feelings and to support their homeland’s economy that was being threatened by an aggressive metropolis (O’Dowd passim). Patriotism was, however, predominantly a male virtue, and Philip Hicks’s study of “The Roman Matron” highlights how the ideal of a woman patriot was silenced over the eighteenth century.

  • 7 “She thought French laces and silks, and all French goods, should be totally prohibited; she was de (...)
  • 8 It is not my object here to detail the theories of comparative and absolute advantage. Farhad Rasse (...)

16Though the example of sugar itself is not to be found in Marcet’s books, the notion of consumer boycott resurfaces with the issue of French silks and laces. Both Caroline and Mrs. Hopkins are to be taught why such actions reveal their lack of knowledge of how political economy works. One of the mistakes about foreign trade that Mrs. B. overheard in a conversation between two ladies was precisely that one of them had emphatically resolved not to wear anything French ever again,7 while the other playfully confessed that she quite happily consumed (smuggled) French lace and silks. As Marcet’s Conversations were published in 1816, it is quite likely that she wrote the first pages of her book at the time of the Continental Blockade, and when smuggling was a common subject in contemporary debates. Caroline is both indignant that some ladies should accept the product of illegal trade, and quite sympathetic to the lady who commits to boycotting French products: “Surely you can find no fault with the latter opinion? It appears to me to be full of humanity and patriotism” (8). Dame Hopkins is equally outraged when her daughter rejoices over the French lace gown her fiancé has just given her for her to wear on their wedding day. In the Conversations, the older woman speaks the voice of sense, while the younger one expresses good-natured humanity; in John Hopkins’s Notions, the mother, who is an epitome of the women who partook in the 1792 boycott, severely condemns imports of foreign luxury whereas the more modern and pragmatic daughter rejoices that her fiancé should afford to pay for a lace gown, regardless of its origin. No smuggling is involved in this later text, but the Napoleonic Wars still loomed large in British memories. The likeness of opinion between the lady (in the conversation Mrs. B. overheard) and “Dame Hopkins” shows how political awareness percolated from the upper classes into the lower ones. Though not written in so many words, it also stresses the necessity of educating both classes of women to make sure that they would no longer give in to superficial sensibility and instead rely on sound scientific principles. In John Hopkins’s Notions, the educators are Mr. Hopkins’s brother, a middle-aged sailor who embodies the voice of experience, and the Hopkins’s landlord himself. Jane Marcet draws on both Adam Smith and Ricardo’s theories of absolute and comparative advantage for her vindication of foreign trade.8

17While in the mercantilist era, foreign trade was construed as economic warfare that ended up in a zero-sum game, political economists demonstrated that it was actually mutually beneficial. By doing so, Marcet yet again strips foreign trade of ethical concerns as “We cannot expect that the French, or any other foreigners, should send over such goods as we want just for the pleasure of obliging us: their view is to make money” (John Hopkins’s Notions 160). So, they derive profits from the sale of their goods, while the British enjoy the advantage of affording lace and silks at a lower price than if they were produced in Britain.

  • 9 Samuel Hollander provides insights on this question in his article “Malthus and Classical Economies (...)

18Marcet follows Smith, Malthus and Ricardo when she insists that the cost of commodities depends on the quantity and value of labour needed for their production.9 An interesting example in this regard is the point she makes concerning the commercial exchanges between Britain and the young American republic, more specifically with the state of Virginia:

Let us examine what quantity of labour is bestowed upon the production of these commodities [English broad cloth and Virginian tobacco]. If the broad cloth which we send to Virginia cost us the labour of one man for one thousand days, while the tobacco which we receive in exchange would have cost us two thousand days of labour to produce at home, do we not save a thousand days’ labour? (343)

19Mrs. B.’s demonstration is twofold: in Conversations, Caroline is easily convinced that foreign trade is mutually beneficial when one nation cannot produce the goods it imports from another one: “I confess that before this explanation, I never could comprehend how foreign trade could be a mutual advantage, for I imagined that what was gained by the one was lost by the other” (345). In John Hopkins’s Notions, the characters eventually accept that laissez-faire is the best policy in that instance: after having suggested that it would be wise to ban Irish projects of growing tobacco or breeding silk worms, she soon accepts that Nature itself will make it impossible as the Irish climate is improper to both these activities. The landlord explains: “The best way would be to pass no law at all, either for or against. Let men have their own way, and plant and sow, buy and sell, just where and how they like; they will soon find out what will answer best” (163). He further provides a down-to-earth conclusion to this conversation: “Foreign trade has two advantages; for it not only procures things better and cheaper, but things which our climate renders impossible for us to produce at home; such as wine, sugar, tobacco, plums, currants, rice, spices, cotton, silks, and other things without number.” Which enables Mrs. Hopkins (and all the readers) to exclaim: “I could not even treat my children with a plum pudding at Christmas without foreign trade; for there’s no making it without plums and spices.” Having understood the benefits of foreign trade, she rejoices over her daughter’s dress too: “Patty smiled, and cast a look upon her wedding gown, which her mother observing, said, - ‘Well, child, take it up and make it up. I should be loth to say or think ill of it, after all the squire has told us’ ” (164).

20By allowing Britons to buy foreign goods at a cheaper price, foreign trade frees up capital that can be ploughed back into British manufactures, thus creating jobs at home. Mrs. Hopkins at first resented fine ladies’ thirst for imported ribbons and lace because she saw it as the cause of her younger daughter’s being made redundant: by importing these goods, they contributed to the depletion of the stock of labour available in Britain, and British ribbon manufacturers no longer could afford to pay wages. However, both manuals build on the idea that “a shilling saved is a shilling gained” (John Hopkins’s Notions 157), and that this shilling will be “spent in cotton gowns, perhaps, for the children, or on shoes and stockings, or pots and pans and […] it will have employed people to produce it; and there is so much the more work for the labouring classes” (157). So, importing foreign luxury goods is not hurtful to domestic morality or domestic employment, quite the contrary. Caroline then understands that “the interests of nations, as well as those of individuals, so far from being opposed to each other, are in the most perfect unison” (363). Mrs. B. takes her cue from Nassau Senior for her final conclusion, confirming that political economy is a branch of natural philosophy: “Nature seems to have intended that mutual dependence should unite all the inhabitants of the earth into one commercial family. For this purpose, she has indefinitely diversified her own products in every climate and almost in every district. For this purpose, also, she seems to have varied extensively the wants and productive powers of the different races of men” (Conversations, 314).

21Marcet’s demonstrations in both books lead to the same conclusion: foreign trade is beneficial to the poorest and consumer boycott is by no means an acceptable means of action as it would only do a disservice to the British economy it was intended to serve. Thus, ladies and the working classes are also stripped of one of their early forms of political awakening. Teaching political economy is not only a way of de-moralising debates over economic issues, it is also a way of de-politicising them, which results in actually curtailing the political agency of those who are being educated. The “squire” cajoles John Hopkins, congratulating him for his interest in his country: “I am very far from thinking,” said the landlord, “that it is not your business to reflect and consider what is or what is not good for your country. It is not only the right but the duty of every free-born Englishman to do so to the best of his abilities” (John Hopkins’s Notions 155). But as he accepts the lesson that is taught to him, he also recognises his own foolishness of having earlier on wished for the end of social and economic inequalities (155). Women have to accept that their lofty ideas of patriotic consumer boycotts were ill-advised: in the end Mrs Hopkins is happy to be able to bake her plum puddings and her daughter is delighted to wear her French lace gown – and both are sent back to the domestic sphere.

Foreign trade, sentimentality and anti-slavery consumer boycotts

  • 10 This aspect is analysed at more length in Brycchan Carey’s British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of (...)

22In the 1790s, another mass consumer boycott movement had emerged in Britain. It appealed to the ladies’ innate sensibility and encouraged them to take part in anti-slavery activism by refraining from consuming sugar in their tea (Holcomb). This was prompted by William Fox’s pamphlet An Address to the People of Great Britain on the Utility of Refraining from the Use of West India Sugar and Rum (1791). In her paper, Holcomb analyses “the tea table” as “a liminal zone where ideas about gender, commerce and abolitionism interacted in a dynamic relationship” (613). Fox had computed that one person abstaining from eating sugar for twenty-one months would save one slave’s life, which clearly was intended to trigger women’s empathy.10 It was quite successful as it is estimated that half a million Britons joined in the boycott (522). Women of all classes (because the lower orders mimicked their betters in both sugar consumption and tea drinking, and then in the consumer boycott) then became aware of the possibility of using their consumption (or absence thereof) as a militant gesture indicative of their political awakening.

23As was manifest in the excerpts quoted above, Jane Marcet did not take slavery into account when discussing the comparative cost of Virginian tobacco. As the two volumes under consideration were published in 1816 and 1833, though, the peculiar institution was still at the heart of the planter economy of Virginia and other slave states. At no point does Marcet suggest that the British should abstain from tobacco because of its mode of production (even when she uses the cost of labour as the cornerstone of her explanation of comparative advantage). That she should quote Senior writing that “different races of men” have “different productive powers” suggests that she did not oppose slavery for moral reasons. She does bring up slavery earlier on in Conversations, in the chapter devoted to “capital.” All forms of slavery, whether the contemporary one in American southern states, or in medieval Europe and Russia, are considered one and the same phenomenon, and she sees no difference in the plight of the Africans who had been transported across the Atlantic. If slavery has to be abolished, it is solely for economic reasons: slaves, like cattle are “fixed capital”: “The value of the cattle themselves is fixed capital: and if labourers, like cattle, were purchased, instead of being hired, thus becoming the property of their employers, they also would be fixed capital” (90). Caroline retorts in a typically sentimental way with superficial empathy: “And this was formerly the case with the poor Africans in the West Indies” (90). Mrs. B. then goes on to explain that in the West Indies, as in medieval Russia, “the value of an estate is not estimated by the number of acres, but the number of slaves upon it” (90). Free labourers on the other hand are circulating capital that proves profitable to their employers and to the nation at large. Slavery is therefore not economically viable: “experience [has] proved that the more free and independent men are, the more industrious they become, and the better the land is cultivated” (91). Like Smith, Marcet does not voice a moral condemnation of slavery, but, in keeping with laissez-faire principles, she suggests that slavery is set to die out as the invisible hand of the market will ultimately favour the more profitable modes of employment. Here again, by suggesting that legislative action is not requisite, she strips Caroline (and the ladies and women she represents) from consumer boycotts as a means of political action. There is no need to influence parliamentarians (whether through domestic conversations or public declarations) into voting measures to abolish slavery.

24Foreign trade is not to be condemned for the appetites it fosters, nor for ruining domestic employment, nor for requiring slave labour. All the moral reasons women had appropriated in previous decades were therefore null and void. I would like to argue that this lesson did not only have an impact on the present, but also on the future role of the newly educated women as members of municipal, school, or Poor Law boards. Holmond’s study of the 1792 consumer boycott highlights the fact that pro-slavery ladies used what Brycchan Carey described as a “hierarchy of suffering” to switch the focus from the living and working conditions of slaves to the unbearable plight of British workers of all ages (Holmond 622). Carey writes:

Proslavery writers had very little in common with sentimental readers, but they realised that in order to win the minds – and hearts – of their audience they must invoke sympathy for suffering. A key strategy was to create a hierarchy of suffering and to try to persuade their readers that slavery was low down on that list, far behind coal miners, chimney sweeps, and underemployed agricultural labourers. By the 1780s, it was no longer sufficient for a proslavery writer to appeal merely to logic, economics, or scriptural authority: he had to be a man of feeling as well as a man of common sense. (Carey 130)

25My contention here is to argue that Marcet retraces those steps in the reverse direction. By taking slavery itself outside of the sentimental realm and back into sound economic science to prove that it would die away on its own, it also quenches the need for “sentimental activism” (Carey 619). In doing so, it also places the many difficulties of British workers (under- or unemployment, wages kept at subsistence level, long working hours, child labour…) out of the sentimental sphere. The ladies who were to learn economics from her Conversations, and the working classes who would be educated thanks to her tales in John Hopkins’s Notions were to address these matters as they did foreign trade, admitting, like Caroline, “the propriety of leaving all trade whatever perfectly free and open” (Conversations 359). In other words, of leaving it to the market to best adjust wages and working hours, as well as exchanges of goods within the country and between the country and its trading partners, trusting that in the process, increased capital in Britain would prove beneficial to all in society. Ladies and workers have to be educated to the new science, but Marcet’s two manuals suggest that this is intended to make them concur with their betters’ analyses, and, to a certain extent at least to teach sense to their children without trying to influence their husbands who might be tempted to alter the legislation in Parliament in the ladies’ cases, or to resort to petitions or rioting in the lower orders.


  • 11 “I think that great people ought to give a turn to their own country folks, and encourage home manu (...)

26Although political economy had been deemed beyond the intellectual reach of some categories of the British population, the ladies’ and the working classes’ minds were not blank slates. By the early nineteenth century, and as political economy solidified into a respected scientific corpus, many among the ladies and the working classes had become aware of their powers as consumers or boycotters of certain products. As civic humanist morals still cast a long shadow, these new readers of economic treatises proved suspicious of luxury consumption: ladies had been educated to believe that it led to a general weakening of society, and the working classes, embodied by Mrs. Hopkins, blamed their own poverty on their landladies’ seemingly endless appetite for foreign fashion that threw their children out of employment.11 Education on the subject of foreign trade was a legacy of eighteenth-century educationists, both conservative (like the Bluestocking women), and radical (like Wollstonecraft) insofar as it no longer denied women and workers the ability to understand these questions. But though contemporary socialist societies, especially Owenite societies, ascribed to education the twofold mission of enlightening the mind and empowering the citizen (Cohen 224-42), Marcet’s lessons of political economy taught sense over sensibility, but curtailed individual agency and blossoming political consciousness in the process. At not point are women or artisans (let alone workers) encouraged to use their newly-acquired knowledge to engage in the public debate and it is made crystal-clear in Conversations that women are not to take part in law-making for example (Conversations 9).

27Far from putting an end to the debate, though, the popularisation of political economy was opposed by early Ricardian and Owenite socialists who published their own educational texts, resorting to both elaborate scientific treatises and highly readable tales or novels to spread cooperative socialism and challenge the scientific value of their opponents’ writings. John Minter Morgan resorted to prose to popularise Robert Owen’s and William Thompson’s theoretical works. In Hampden in the Nineteenth Century, a British character expresses his doubts as to the intentions of political economists regarding education to their doctrines:

Chiefly for the purpose of enabling the people to comprehend their own notions respecting free trade and French silks. While the ancient Universities of the land prohibit all teaching of the people that does not inform them that their present condition is ordained by Divine Providence, the London University assumes to itself the privilege of informing them that the present rules of production and distribution are founded in the laws of human nature, and that unless competition, with separate individual interests, prevails, all the arts and sciences must languish. (Vol. 2, 211-12)

28In the same book, Morgan has another character encourage a socialist Lady M. to write her own treatises, specifically to prove Jane Marcet wrong. The same is the target of William Thompson’s scathing remarks in the preliminary observations of his utilitarian socialist Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth Most Conducive to Human Happiness; Applied to the Newly Proposed System of Voluntary Equality of Wealth (1824).

The author of the “Conversations on Political Economy” (as well as of those on Chemistry and Natural Philosophy) would lead us to believe, that such an inequality as we see in England in the distribution of wealth, that such luxury as we see concentrated in capital cities and elsewhere, is necessary to give employment and food to the great bulk of the industrious and productive classes of society, and that the poor must starve if there were not to be found masses of wealth and hundreds of thousands of pounds per annum concentrated in single hands to set the people to work, by means of its expenditure. Much of abuse as may take place in the expenditure of these enormous masses, she still thinks that the state of things producing them, is necessary, even for the employment of the productive laborers themselves. The necessary inference is, that this mode of distribution being so excellent, our efforts in legislation and otherwise should be directed to its support and continuance, if not to its increase. (xi)

29Marcet, like Morgan and Thompson wrote in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, when unemployment shot up, causing social and civil unrest (such as the Swing and Luddite riots on the one hand, or demonstrations like the one that led to the 1819 Peterloo massacre on the other). The passing of the 1832 Reform Bill and of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act were further sources of political agitation, and if the early socialist movement fell silent with the death of William Thompson in 1833, the Chartist movement that spanned the mid-1830s and the 1840s was also characterised by the lampooning of political economy, especially of its justification of luxury. This was especially illustrated by Feargus O’Connor’s (failed) Land Plan and by the spade husbandry movement that both aimed at securing to honest labourers a patch of land guaranteeing their economic independence. Opposing scientific economics, O’Connor and his friends also celebrated this return to agrarian simplicity and virtue as “scientific arrangements”. In the words of the late Malcolm Chase:

[The] emphasis on scientific husbandry, with the explicit corollary that considerable skill was assumed in its execution, may have helped overcome prejudice among skilled industrial workers against agricultural work. No less attractive was the manner in which spade husbandry conformed to the Lockean paradigm of dignity in labour. Feargus O’Connor’s Practical Work on the Management of Small Farms, written in 1843 but drawing heavily on the technical and political literature of the previous two decades, captured this sentiment vividly: ‘When I see a man with his foot upon his spade, I think I recognise the image of his God, and in him that character which even the Malthusian deigns to assign him – a man standing on his own resources […] In his own little holding he recognises the miniature of nature.” (121)

30The egalitarianism (between rich and poor, and between men and women) that prevailed in these circles reinforced their attachment to a defence of universalist virtues pertaining to civic humanism (Scriven 44-71; Taylor 19-56). It collided quite frontally with political economy’s relative sense of virtue defined by an individual’s means rather than by their belonging to the human kind. Radicals, early socialists and chartists saw their educational mission as one of empowerment for the labouring classes, while the de-moralisation of economics rather led to a silencing of political claims in the name of science.

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1 Michael Perelman provides an interesting study of the circulation of ideas between Scottish philosophers and political economists from the mid-seventeenth century onwards in his The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation. The fifth chapter delves into the complex ideas of James Steuart and the ways in which they resounded with Smith’s, Hume’s and Young’s economic writings (139-70). Dana Harrington’s article “Gender, Commerce and the Transformation of Virtue in Eighteenth-Century Britain” is another priceless source of information and reflections on the de-moralisation of luxury.

2 It is not my object here to dwell too much on the debate over female education though I will address some of its aspects when it comes to political economy. This topic has received ample attention from scholars, as Women, Gender and Enlightenment, a collection of essays edited by Barbara Taylor and Sarah Knot illustrates. The essay by Michèle Cohen (“‘To think, to compare, to combine, to methodise’: Girls’ Education in Enlightenment Britain”, 224-42) proves particularly interesting in this respect. On Wollstonecraft and Rousseau, “‘Like a Fanciful Kind of Half Being’: Mary Wollstonecraft’s Criticism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau” written by Martina Reuter in 2014 is quite insightful and replete with bibliographical references.

3 On early socialism, Gregory Claeys’s monographs Citizens and Saints, Politics and Anti-Politics in Early British Socialism, as well as Money, Machinery and the Millennium: from moral economy to socialism 1815-1860 are still very enlightening sources.

4 Michèle Cohen addresses this question: Locke’s empiricism “did not recognise gender distinctions,” yet, she stresses, “that women were capable of being educated like men did not mean that it was desirable” – whether for themselves, or for society at large (233). Hannah More, she adds, also bemoaned that girls should only be granted access to abridged versions rather than full-length volumes but Wollstonecraft was the only one who “unequivocally asserted that if properly educated, women had a methodical mind” (234).

5 I chose to use the neutral plural they/their here, but as can be seen in the following quotation, economic actors are rather masculine in Marcet’s books: labourers and consumers are men. In John Hopkins’s Notions the wedding gown is bought by the fiancé and not by the bride herself. The question of how Marcet envisions female economic agency would require closer analyses, but learning economics as a science is not presented as a way of allowing them into the public world of trade, even as mere consumers.

6 E.P. Thompson too pondered on this question, notably in his article entitled “The Moral Economy Reviewed”, in his Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture.

7 “She thought French laces and silks, and all French goods, should be totally prohibited; she was determined never to wear anything from foreign countries, let it be ever so beautiful; and that it was shameful to encourage foreign manufacture whilst our own poor were starving” (Conversations 7-8). François Crouzet wrote at length on these questions, and his 1964 paper entitled “Wars Blockade, and Economic Change in Europe, 1792-1815” is most informative. In his “Napoleon and the ‘City of Smugglers’ ”, Gavin Daly provides the following details: “During this period, the English smugglers left with goods to the value of 4,579,346 francs. Lace, silk and leather products comprised 62.5 per cent of the total value. Of these, the single most important was lace (1,052,460 francs), followed by silk fabric (794,508 francs) and leather gloves (585,954 francs). Given France’s tradition in silk making, it is not surprising that all silk products, including fabric, shawls, bonnets, and ribbons, made up just over a quarter of the total export value “ (350).

8 It is not my object here to detail the theories of comparative and absolute advantage. Farhad Rassekh’s article “Comparative Advantage in Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Ricardo’s Principles: A Brief History of its Early Developments” provides a good introduction to these questions.

9 Samuel Hollander provides insights on this question in his article “Malthus and Classical Economies: The Malthus-Ricardo Relationship.”

10 This aspect is analysed at more length in Brycchan Carey’s British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility.

11 “I think that great people ought to give a turn to their own country folks, and encourage home manufactures instead of having all their finery made by foreign hands, and sent from foreign parts. I’ve heard Lady Charlotte’s maid, up at the castle, say, there’s no end to the loads of silks, and laces, and ribands, and flowers, her Ladyship gets from beyond the seas” (John Hopkins’s Notions 159).

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Alexandra Sippel, « Jane Marcet’s lessons to the lesser educated about the political economy of foreign trade  »XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 77 | 2020, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2020, consulté le 13 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Alexandra Sippel

Alexandra Sippel is a Lecturer in British intellectual history at the Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès. After a PhD on labour in eighteenth-century utopias, her current research now focuses on how early socialists and political economists competed for the hearts and minds of the working class in the first decades of the nineteenth century. She co-organised the SEAA XVII-XVIII’s 2015 annual conference entitled Aurea Mediocritas. She co-founded and now co-animates the ATHIP workshop in Toulouse. With Rachel Rogers she co-organised conferences about early nineteenth-century radicalism: in 2014 they commemorated the bicentennial of Thomas Spence’s passing, and, more recently, the anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre. They are currently planning an event on the revolts that erupted across the British Isles in 1820. Her latest papers discussed “William Thompson, a British cooperative socialist against slavery” (“Slavery, Anti-Slavery and Abolitionism in the Transatlantic World, 18th-19th century” one-day conference held at Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès in November 2018), and “Les revendications économiques des manifestants de St Peter’s Field”, (“Peterloo, l'histoire d'un espoir, le souvenir d'un massacre (1819)” one-day conference held at Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès in March 2020). Her latest article is entitled “Women’s Rights in John Minter Morgan’s Hampden in the Nineteenth Century, 1834,” in Le suffrage féminin dans l’art, la littérature, et l’histoire britannique du dix-huitième au vingt-et-unième siècle / Female Suffrage in British Art, Literature and History from the 18th to the 21st Century, Catherine Delyfer and Catherine Puzzo (ed.), Caliban 62 (2020).

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