The Politics of Friendship: Du Pont, Jefferson, Madison, and the Physiocratic Dream for the New World

Article excerpt

ALTHOUGH the name of his family's company is now recognized around the world, the pater familias of the Du Pont clan, Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours, remains little known outside of his native France. When he is mentioned at all within the context of American history, it is usually just to identify him as one of Thomas Jefferson's many friends with a penchant for political economy. As we shall see, his connection to and interest in the United States ran much deeper, and his desire to play a major role in pushing America in a distinctly physiocratic direction was much greater than has hitherto been recognized. Du Pont, in fact, viewed the United States in its infancy as a tabula rasa, a place where the best ideas from Europe might win acceptance.1 Through his friendship with Thomas Jefferson, which dated from the 1780s, and the latter's influence over his presidential successor, James Madison, he hoped, even expected, to be able to bring to fruition in America projects that were both near and dear to his heart.

By closely examining three works - Du Pont's plan for a system of national education in the United States, which was written in 1800 and published in Paris in 1812, but not translated into English for more than a century; the treatise on taxation, which he sent to Jefferson in the summer of 1810; and his essay on American agriculture and manufacturing, which he submitted to President Madison in January 1816 - we will be able to determine both the nature and impact of his plans for the New World. The first of these works has long been known to scholars interested either in Du Pont or in educational reform. Although the second was translated into English and published in a Philadelphia newspaper in 1815, it has received scant attention from the scholarly community. Indeed, to date, the only recognition of its existence is contained in a brief article printed in the short-lived French-American Review in the fall of 1982.2 The third has been published, albeit only in French, and is a part of a well-known collection, the James Madison Papers at the Library of Congress; even so, historians have taken little notice of it.3


Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours, the eldest son of a Parisian watchmaker and related, through his mother, to an impoverished noble family, was born in December 1739.4 He attended the school of a M. Viard in Paris as a young man, but was removed from it when his practicalminded father learned that he was spending much of his time writing poetry. The termination of his formal education did nothing to restrain Du Pont's love of learning, however. During the years that followed, he diligently studied everything from agriculture and political economy to medicine and military science.5 By the time he reached his early twenties, Du Pont had begun putting his ideas down on paper and seeing them into print. Two of his earliest publications, Réflexions sur l'écrit intitulé: Richesse de l'Etat and De l'exportation et l'importation des Grains, published in 1763 and 1764 respectively, came to the attention of the noted French economists François Quesnay and Anne Robert Jacques Turgot. Impressed by his skill as a writer and recognizing that his opinions dovetailed neatly with their own, Quesnay convinced Du Pont to join their attempt to bring their ideas into the French mainstream.6

The most important principles of "physiocracy," the name given by Quesnay, Turgot, and Du Pont to their particular brand of political economy, may be summarized briefly. According to the physiocrats, value comes from what we now call primary production: the raising of crops, harvesting of timber, catching of fish, and extraction of minerals from the earth. Wealth, therefore, is increased only by making agriculture, forestry, fishing, and mining more efficient. Growing out of this basic belief is the notion that the only just tax is one levied on the net revenue from cultivated land. …


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