The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Comte, Charles (1782-1887)

François-Louis-Charles Comte was born in Sainte-Enimie in Lozère on August 25, 1782, and he died in Paris on April 13, 1837. He was a journalist; an academic (a professor of natural law); the author of works on law, political economy, and history; a member of the French Parliament; and a key participant in the classical liberal movement in France in the first half of the 19th century.

Comte met the man with whom his name is commonly linked, Charles Dunoyer, in Paris around 1807 when they were both studying law. They later coedited the influential liberal periodical, Le Censeur (1814–1815), and its successor, Le Censeur européen (1817–1819), which irritated both Napoleon and the restored Bourbon King Louis XVIII by criticizing the authoritarian nature of their regimes. Issues of the journal were seized by the police, and Comte was sentenced to a heavy fine and 2 months’ imprisonment. He sought refuge in Switzerland, where he secured an academic post in Lausanne (1820–1823) and then in England (1823–1826). It was while in England that he met Jeremy Bentham. Comte eventually returned to Paris to turn his Swiss lectures on law and economics into the prize-winning book Traité de législation (1827), which was to have a profound impact on an entire generation of French liberals, including Frédéric Bastiat.

Comte, with Dunoyer, had discovered liberal political economy as a result of the closure of their journal in 1815. Temporarily without a job, Comte was able to spend his time reading voraciously, and he eventually came across a new edition of Jean-Baptiste Say’s classic Treatise on Political Economy. As a result of this encounter with Say, Comte not only expanded his primarily political notion of liberty into one that included an economic and sociological dimension, but also ended up marrying Say’s daughter. The new kind of classical liberalism jointly developed by Comte and Dunoyer informs Comte’s Traité de legislation (1827), where he explores, among other things, the class structure of slave societies and the nature of exploitation.

In the later 1820s, Comte became involved in a number of public debates, among them opposing government schemes to heavily subsidize public works to catch up with more economically developed countries such as Britain and defending the National Guard in the face of government efforts to dissolve the citizen militia.

After the July Revolution of 1830, Comte briefly served as the political representative of the Sarthe in the Chamber of Deputies. He resigned his political post to pursue an academic career in the reconstituted Academy of Moral and Political Sciences. Comte edited collections of the works of his father-in-law Say and Thomas Malthus for the liberal publishing firm of Guillaumin. His last substantial work before his death was a lengthy defense of property rights and a history of the evolution of property in Traité de la propriété (1834).

 

Further Readings

Comte, Charles. Traité de législation, ou exposition des lois générales suivant lesquelles les peuples prospèrent, dépérissent ou restent stationnaire [Treatise on Legislation, Or, Exposition of the General Laws According to Which Peoples Prosper, Perish, or Remain Stationary]. 4 vols. Paris: A. Sautelet et Cie, 1827.

———. Traité de la propriété. 2 vols. Paris: Chamerot, Ducollet, 1834.

Hart, David M. Class Analysis, Slavery and the Industrialist Theory of History in French Liberal Thought, 1814–1830: The Radical Liberalism of Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, King’s College, Cambridge, 1994.

Liggio, Leonard P. “Charles Dunoyer and French Classical Liberalism.” Journal of Libertarian Studies 1 no. 3 (1977): 153–178.

Weinburg, Mark. “The Social Analysis of Three Early 19th Century French Liberals: Say, Comte, and Dunoyer.” Journal of Libertarian Studies 2 no. 1 (1978): 45–63.

Originally published .