14. A Special Copy of Richard Cantillon’s ‘Essai sur la Nature du Commerce’

By Alec Israeli

While studying a modern edition of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, I came across editorial footnotes citing Smith’s quotations from Essai sur la Nature du Commerce en Général, a 1755 treatise by French political economist Richard Cantillon.[1] Wanting to consult the original source, I requested a copy to read at the Wren Library at Trinity College. Multiple copies of the Essai were available; I chose this particular copy pictured here completely at random.[2] This copy, as it turned out, contains some unique archival extras.

Attached to the cover is a 1957 typed letter (Fig. 1) from one GVM Heap, a Somerset bookstore owner, explaining the immediate provenance of the book: Heap had purchased it from a house in Cardiff. He further noted that the book belonged to “Jevons”—that is, William Stanley Jevons, the late-nineteenth century economist notable for his development of mathematical economics and marginal utility theory. This book on political economy, encountered by pure chance, belonged to one of the luminaries of the field.

Fig. 1

Penciled notes at the bottom of Heap’s letter indicate that its recipient had done some further accessional sleuthing: the first refers to H.S. Jevons, son of William and an economist in his own right. He could have been a potential contact, but, as the note relays, he passed away two years before Heap’s letter. The next note points to John Maynard Keynes’ Essays in Biography for an account of “the disposal of Jevons’ library” Here, the trail of provenance is unclear—Keynes writes that Jevons’ massive library was widely dispersed.[3] Somehow, then, this Essai had ended up in an old Cardiff house; from there, Heap’s bookstore, and from there, the Wren.

The last note cites Jevons’ own 1881 discussion of the copy of Cantillon, reproduced in a 1959 reprint of the Essai edited by Henry Higgs.[4] On the next page in the front matter of this Cantillon copy, there is a pasted note quoting Jevons’ original 1881 account of “accidentally” purchasing the book in Paris (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2

Opposite this pasted note is a note about the Essai signed in Jevons’ own hand, corroborating this account, and alluding to Cantillon’s influence on “A. Smith” (Fig. 3). Jevons made note of this in the course of his reading: in the pages of the Cantillon referenced by Smith, Jevons made a note indicating the location of Smith’s citation (Fig. 4).

Fig. 3
Fig. 4

Cantillon, it seems, brought Jevons back to Smith. In my case, it was Smith who brought me to Cantillon, and then forward some 120 years to Jevons. Marginal notes have the potential to expand the temporal scope of an archival document far beyond the superficial content of its original markings.[5] This book was no longer yet another copy of Cantillon’s Essai, but a heuristic object through which one might trace a particular lineage of influence in the history of economic thought.


[1] Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, ed. Edwin Cannan (New York: Modern Library, 2000), 77-78.

[2] Richard Cantillon, Essai Sur La Nature du Commerce En Général (London: Fletcher Gyles, 1755). Wren

[3] John Maynard Keynes, Essays in Biography (New York: Norton, 1951), 296-298.

[4] Richard Cantillon, Essai sur la Nature du Commerce en Général, ed. Henry Higgs (London: Frank Cass and Company, 1959), 335.

[5] I have written on this elsewhere. See “‘Subsequently Came to Grief”: Evidence and Stories of Corruption in the Autograph Book of Charles P. Stratton, Class of 1848,” Mudd Manuscript Library Blog, part I, 25 September 2019, https://rb.gy/k7o8uh; part II, 2 October 2019, https://rb.gy/hlvqs6.

Image credits: author’s own photographs.

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