A Book Review of Adam Smith in Toulouse and Occitania: The Unknown Years, by Alain Alcouffe and Philippe Massot-Bordenave.
Adam Smith in Toulouse and Occitania: The Unknown Years is not a book for everyone. It is not an introduction to the life or the works of Adam Smith. It is not even a traditional biography of Smith. I would say it is more a way to be a tourist with Adam Smith.
The book is dotted with mistakes and hyperbolic conclusions, from, say, the use of son-in-law rather than stepson, to unsupported claims of influences on Smith’s work. And yet is it a fascinating journey in 18th century Southern French culture and in the ways in which one may imagine Smith would travel through it.
“The influence that the tour of France had on Smith is through his observation and study of the culture, economy, politics, and society of France.”
Adam Smith accompanied the Duke of Buccleuch on a Grand Tour of Europe, as was customary for young aristocrats coming of age at the time. They started in France in February 1764. That the sojourn in France may have influenced Smith is a common trope in the literature. But Smith’s French influences are mostly identified with the Physiocrats. Not here. In Adam Smith in Toulouse and Occitania, the Physiocrats are a sort of afterthought at the very end of volume. The influence that the tour of France had on Smith is through his observation and study of the culture, economy, politics, and society of France. I said earlier this book feels like being a tourist in France with Adam Smith because Alcouffe and Massot-Bordenave do not leave any details unaccounted, as one would imagine Smith would have done. It is not a superficial account of the people and the places Smith visited. Instead, each person introduced is introduced with his or her full family history, and connections with other people. Each town or place mentioned is presented in its complete history, from foundation to current state. In my imagination this is how Smith would have prepared for his travels, studying in detail all aspects of a place and its people before or as he would visit.
Alcouffe and Massot-Bordenave immediately tell us that Smith’s Grand Tour was a bit atypical. Rather than travelling through the major capitals of Europe and to the Mediterranean countries, Smith’s Grand Tour did not include Italy. The main base was not Paris, but Toulouse, the eighth largest city in France by population size, and it would have included Germany and Northern Europe, had the tour continued according to plan. (It did not, due to the sudden death of the Duke’s younger brother who had joined Smith and the Duke in France). The authors speculate that the unusual itinerary may have been dictated by the understanding that the center of influence was moving from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean.
The choice of Toulouse is also progressively justified as the book advances. The future Duke was to be educated in the arts of living with the prospect of becoming not only one of the largest landowners in Britain, but also a great “statesman.” He was expected to learn about politics, to meet and interact with people of his rank, and to be accustomed to their presence.
Toulouse may not have been Paris, but it was the home of the second largest parliament in the country and, in a sense, the ideal place to study the complexity and diversity of the French political system, away from the chaos of Paris. In France, some provinces were administered by Estates, a form of limited democratically elected body (like Toulouse), and others by Intendants and Governors, a sort of viceroy (like the neighboring Guyenne, where Bordeaux is located).
Toulouse was the home of the Abbé Colbert who chaperoned Smith and the young Duke around the South of France. The Abbé had Scottish origins, which underlined the tight relations between those two nations. Before the Union, France and Scotland had strong ties as “an enemy of my enemy is my friend,” as the saying goes. And Toulouse, and especially the near-by Bordeaux, was now the home of several Jacobites. Despite the Parliament of Toulouse closing Jesuit Colleges in 1764, it tried to give space to Protestants under false certification of Catholicity. The authors claim that “the development of Masonic lodges was another indication that religion was losing its monopoly on the organization of social and intellectual life” (111).
And yet, religious conflicts that intertwined with conflicts between the judicial and royal power were still center stage in Toulouse when Smith was there. Mr. Calas, a Protestant, was put on the rack and tortured to death because he was accused (without proof) of murdering his son because he wanted to convert to Catholicism. With Voltaire’s help, the Calas family achieved final justice with the proclamation of innocence of Mr. Calas and compensation for damages—directly from Paris. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith uses this example to claim that the accusation of guilt of an innocent man is one of the most horrendous accusations one can make.
The tensions with the center of power are also exemplified by the local Parliament’s refusal to register a royal edict to implement a new tax. When the Governor tried to arrest the parliamentarians, they went ahead and arrested him. At the time of Smith’s arrival in Toulouse, the Parliament was no longer active, and left the city in a crisis. Smith had to wait for formal introductions. He was bored there. But, according to Alcouffe and Massot-Bordenave, the exposure to the tensions between center and periphery and between different powers would be a good lesson for visitors, like Smith, from a country newly unified and still with some struggles on how to handle the unification of power.
Bordeaux proved to be a welcome distraction from the social dullness of Toulouse. Not only did it have a very active theater, it was also a great commercial port—a slave trade port, to be precise. And again our authors bring us through the history and all the connections of this city, from Montesquieu, the Baron de Segondat, President of the Parliament who denounced slavery while promoting it his financial participation in the Compagnie des Indes, whose son Smith and the young Duke would meet, to Marchal de Richelieu, a military hero and great statesmen, and Colonel Barré, an advocate of the “sons of freedom”—the denomination of the north American settlers fighting against British oppression, also companions of Smith and the Duke.
All this is always presented in a detailed account of all the overlaps of family and economic connections.
A thorough history of the thermal resort of Bagneres-de-Bigorre accompanies the account of Smith’s time there. According to the authors this sojourn was a turning point in Smith’s travels. All the important people of Toulouse and Bordeaux, as well as nobles of France and Spain, would come to “take the waters.” Most accommodations in the town were similar to each other. Housing could no longer be a criterion of social discrimination, and thus formalities of introductions and hosting were much reduced. Smith was able to build the network of acquaintances needed for him and the Duke.
Then in Montpellier, doors were open, and the Parliament was in session. They traveled there by canal. Our authors speculate that the majestic Languedoc canal, and the 328 engineering structures along it, was one of the reasons for choosing Toulouse as the base for this part of the Grand Tour. Smith became quite close with the Riquet family, related to the builder and owners of the canal. Smith’s understanding of the importance of water communication is well documented in his works, and according to the authors, was enhanced by his experience in the South of France. And when the Duke took possession of his land, he dedicated a lot of resources to the development of a vast system of canals.
Alcouffe and Massot-Bordenave again offer the rich socio-political-economic context in which Smith and the Duke traveled. The richness of their description brings to life the richness of the experience for both Smith and the Duke.
In April 1765, the Duke’s stepfather authorized their departure from Toulouse to Paris. They did not leave until October, with the following recommendation from the Abbé Colbert: “if you did not fear God be at least afraid of the Syph.”