History of European Ideas 29 (2):141-157 (2003)

This article seeks to explore the European debate on commercial nobility at the beginning of the Seven Years War in the light of the intense reform debates over French absolutism in the 1730s and 1740s and Montesquieu's rigid refutation of noble trade in The Spirit of the Laws. In early 1756, Montesquieu's position against noble trade had come under severe attack by Gabriel François Coyer's Noblesse Commerçante. Claiming that the royal absolutist system had transformed the nobles into an idle class without any political, economic, or military function that stood in sharp contrast to the dynamism of modern commercial society, Coyer perceived noble enterprises in maritime, wholesale, and even retail trade as a necessary means to help France compete with commercially more advanced states such as England and Holland. Coyer's pamphlet roused heated controversies in Paris and beyond and soon engaged the leading minds of the time in debates over the actual and desired role of the hereditary aristocracy in monarchies. Coyer's strongest opponents, like the Chevalier d’Arc, vehemently defended Montesquieu's contention that the upkeep of the non-commercial status of the nobility was a political necessity. Yet they, too, conceded that the nobility had to undergo severe reforms not to hamper France's military standing and future economic success. The article finally turns to Johann Heinrich Gottlob von Justi, the most interesting commentator on the debate in Germany, who, by October 1756, had translated Coyer's and d’Arc's texts into German and written an own treatise on the same issue. Justi's pamphlet reveals that his political theory was deeply shaped by the debate and thus disproves the long-held assumption in the literature that German cameralism, with Justi as its main representative, was an allegedly isolated current of thought that neither received significant external influences, nor exerted any considerable impact beyond the boundaries of the Germanic world.
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DOI 10.1016/S0191-6599(02)00108-0
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