1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sismondi, Jean Charles Leonard de

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1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 25
Sismondi, Jean Charles Leonard de
4071101911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 25 — Sismondi, Jean Charles Leonard de

SISMONDI, JEAN CHARLES LEONARD DE (1773-1842), whose real name was Simonde, was born at Geneva, on the 9th of May 1773. His father and all his ancestors seem to have borne the name Simonde, at least from the time when they migrated from Dauphiné to Switzerland at the revocation of the edict of Nantes. It was not till after Sismondi had become an author that, observing the identity of his family arms with those of the once flourishing Pisan house of the Sismondi, and finding that some members of that house had migrated to France, he assumed the connexion without further proof and called himself De Sismondi. The Simondes, however, were themselves citizens of Geneva of the upper class, and possessed both rank and property, though the father was also a village pastor. The future historian was well educated, but his family wished him to devote himself to commerce rather than literature, and he became a banker's clerk at Lyons. Then the Revolution broke out, and as it affected Geneva the Simonde family took refuge in England, where they stayed for eighteen months (1793-1794). Disliking, it is said, the climate, they returned to Geneva, but found the state of affairs still unfavourable; there is even a legend that the head of the family was reduced to sell milk himself in the town. The greater part of the family property was sold, and with the proceeds they emigrated to Italy, bought a small farm at Pescia near Lucca, and set to work to cultivate it themselves. Sismondi worked hard here, both with his hands and his mind, and his experiences gave him the material of his first book, Tableau de l'agriculture toscane, which, after returning to Geneva, he published there in 1801. In 1803 he published his Traité de la richesse commercial, his first work on the subject of political economy, which, with some differences of view, continued to interest him to the end of his life.

As an economist, Sismondi represented a humanitarian protest against the dominant orthodoxy of his time. In his first book he followed Adam Smith, but in his principal subsequent economic work, Nouveaux Principes d'économie politique (1819), he insisted on the fact that economic science studied the means of increasing wealth too much, and the use of wealth for producing happiness too little. He was not a socialist; but, in protesting against laisser faire and invoking the intervention of government “to regulate the progress of wealth,” he was an interesting precursor of the German “socialists of the chair.”

Meanwhile he began to compile his great Histoire des Republiques Italiennes du moyen âge, and was introduced to Madame de Stael. With her he became very intimate, and after being regularly enrolled in the society of Coppet he was invited or commanded (for Madame de Stael's invitations had something of command) to form one of the suite with which the future Corinne made the journey into Italy, resulting in Corinne itself during the years 1804-1805. Sismondi was not altogether at his ease here, and he particularly disliked Schlegel, who was also of the company. But during this journey he made the acquaintance of the countess of Albany, Louisa of Stolberg, widow of Charles Edward, and all her life long gifted with a singular faculty of attracting the affection (Platonic and other) of men of letters. She was now an old woman, and Sismondi's relations with her were of the strictly friendly character, but they were close and lasted long, and they produced much valuable and interesting correspondence. In 1807 appeared the first volumes of the above mentioned book on the Italian republics, which (though his essay in political economy had brought him some reputation and the offer of a Russian professorship) first made Sismondi prominent among European men of letters. The completion of this book, which extended to sixteen volumes, occupied him, though by no means entirely, for the next eleven years. He lived at first at Geneva, and delivered there some interesting lectures on the literature of the south of Europe, which were continued from time to time and finally published; and he held an official post — that of secretary of the chamber of commerce for the then department of Leman. In 1813 he visited Paris for the first time, and abode there for some time, mixing much in literary society. Although a Liberal and in his earlier days almost an Anglomaniac, he did not welcome the fall of the empire. During the Hundred Days he defended Napoleon's constitutional schemes or promises, and had an interview with the emperor himself, which is one of the chief events of a not very eventful life. After the Restoration he left Paris. On completing (1817) his great book on the Italian republics, he undertook (1818) a still greater, the Histoire des Français, which he planned on a vast scale, and of which during the remaining twenty-three years of his life he published twenty-nine volumes. His untiring industry enabled him to compile many other books, but it is on these two that his fame chiefly rests. The earlier displays his qualities in the most favourable light, and has been least injuriously affected by subsequent writings and investigations; but the Histoire des Français, as a careful and accurate sketch on the great scale, has now been superseded. Sainte-Beuve has with benevolent sarcasm surnamed the author “the Rollin of French History,” and the praise and the blame implied in the comparison are both perfectly well deserved. In April 1819 Sismondi married an English lady, Miss Allen, whose sister was the wife of Sir James Mackintosh, and the marriage appears to have been a very happy one. His later years were chiefly spent at Geneva, in the politics of which city he took a great, though as time and changes went on a more and more chagrined, interest. Indeed, in his later days he became a kind of reactionary. He died at Geneva on the 25th of June 1842.

Besides the works above mentioned he had executed many others, his custom for a long period of years being never to work less than eight hours a day. The chief of these are Littérature du midi de l'Europe (1813), an historical novel entitled Julia Severa ou l'an 492 (1822), Histoire de la Renaissance de la liberté en Italie (1832), Histoire de la chute de l'empire romain (1835), Précis de l'histoire des Français, an abridgment of his own book (1839), with several others, chiefly political pamphlets.

Sismondi's journals and his correspondence with Channing, with the countess of Albany and others have been published chiefly by Mlle. Mongolfier (Paris, 1843) and M. de Saint-René Taillandier (Paris, 1863). The latter work serves as the chief text of two admirable Lundis of Sainte-Beuye (September 1863), republished in the Nouveaux Lundis, vol. vi.