Oliver Cussen

History

Award Information

2016 IDRF Program

HistoryUniversity of Chicago

Experiments in Empire: The Global Civil Society of Old Regime France

How did old regime France, with a weakly integrated state and an economy that struggled to sustain growth, manage to achieve a prominent position in the competitive world economy of the eighteenth century? And what was the relationship between this commercial expansion and the growing prominence of political economic discourse in the enlightened public sphere? This dissertation will answer these questions by focussing on the contribution of France's "global civil society" to the management of its commercial empire. In doing so, it will in turn seek to understand how the French mercantile state engaged with commercial society in an increasingly public debate over the management of a globalized economy. The dissertation is structured by case studies that trace how members of France's global civil society negotiated with the French state, rival European empires, and shifting geopolitical concerns to strategically manage important colonial commodities. Encompassing the prosperous 1730s, the mid-century decades of war and reform, and the onset of the "age of global revolutions" in the 1780s, the case studies reveal the processes by which French capital was put to use in overseas commerce, and explain how commodities were cultivated, smuggled, and transferred within and between increasingly powerful European empires. These colonial experiments—by turns strategic, speculative, and wildly ambitious—were carried out by networks of agents that were distinct but not autonomous from the metropolitan state. Comprising colonial administrators, naturalists, merchants, and financiers, this global civil society connected the dynamic periphery of the French global economy to its political and economic center through the management of exotic and highly valuable commodities. Their projects fundamentally changed the nature of global commerce, and in turn influenced the way people thought about France's commercial empire.