Étienne Clavière – the revolutionary who hated revolution

The Genevan-born French financier was a political visionary, fomenting radical reform whilst battling the forces of globalisation, capitalism and extremism.
Étienne Clavière, c. 1792. Credit: Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images.
Étienne Clavière, c. 1792. Credit: Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images.
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Etienne Clavière was convinced that the world was ending. A new dark age was imminent. Tyrants were rising and likely to overrun free states. Once commercial nations went bankrupt across western Europe, invaders would come from the east.

Clavière blamed rich and largely hidden merchants and bankers who secretly controlled politicians. His hero Adam Smith called their influence ‘the mercantile system’ (today, we see Smith as the greatest fan of capitalism but for Clavière he was its greatest critic). Clavière was a bourgeois (the rank just below full citizen) from the little independent republic of Geneva. He felt he was experiencing the crushing of Genevan culture by globalisation. Clavière devoted his life to battling the consequences – lost liberty, ubiquitous war, expanding empire and cultural homogeneity. Although he avoided the limelight, Clavière was once notorious across Europe for articulating key principles of radical reform that we should return to today.

Clavière was born in born in January 1735. His mother, Marthe Louise Garnier, was a member of the Moravian Brethren, the austere and devout Protestant sect noted for their intense religiosity, often spending 24 hours in prayer. When he was a boy she was stoned outside Geneva by the Calvinists who ran the city. Although not a member of the cult himself, Clavière was educated in the Christian town of Erlangen founded by the Moravian Brethren in Bavaria. Inhabitants were taught that generating trade and wealth served God but also that everything they did had to be open, honest and moral. This attitude marked Clavière for life. He became incredibly rich but considered himself never to have violated a strict moral creed, which also entailed serving the poor in society.

Clavière’s friends said he had a mind akin to an uncut diamond, so sharp and elegant were the ideas he enunciated. He has been overlooked by history because he despised fame, preferring to pay famous authors to write up his ideas in ‘their’ books. Clavière lived through the first crisis of capitalism and globalisation, when commercial states battling for empire were enforcing their culture upon weaker nations, eating them up, spreading slavery, and themselves experiencing civil war and revolution.

Although a facility with numbers made him one of the wealthiest speculators on national stock markets, Clavière detested capitalism. He spent much of his life seeking an alternative to the corrupt capitalist mercantile system that allowed merchants and bankers to buy politicians to pass legislation for their own profit rather than the public good.

Clavière was dedicated to ending the slave trade. He was horrified at accounts of the short and terrible lives of slaves in the French sugar plantations on the islands of Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), Guadeloupe, and Martinique. By the 1770s British merchants alone were trafficking 42,000 slaves from Africa across the Atlantic each year. All commercial states across the Arab world and Europe had interests in the trade. Clavière was largely responsible for founding the French Société des Amis des Noirs [Society of the Friends of the Blacks] which worked with abolitionists across Europe and the United States to free slaves. Calling himself a citizen of the world, Clavière argued that nationalism and xenophobia were corrosive poisons in any society.

Having led an opposition movement to establish a democratic constitution in his home city of Geneva since the 1760s, Clavière had no faith in revolution. Violence, he said, like shouting in an argument, represented political failure because violence was likely to spread and revolutions could easily be captured by populist demagogues and tyrants. When the people of Geneva took to the streets and demanded the removal of the corrupt ruling magistrates, however, he was forced to take charge of the revolution, in order to prevent extremism. Another reason Clavière did not want revolution was that he knew the French would not allow Geneva to become a democracy. When a French army invaded, he and his friends were forced to flee. They ended up in Ireland, given a fortune by the London government to build a new city at Waterford, and Clavière became British. Clavière’s plan was to move the moral and industrious workers still living in Geneva, now dominated by France, to Ireland, thereby sticking two fingers up at French imperialism.

The Waterford experiment ultimately failed. The Anglo-Irish Protestants who owned the land stole the funds allocated to Clavière and his Genevans.  He moved to Paris, keen to make up the losses he had suffered. Once again he found himself a central player in a system he despised, speculating on the shares of companies he believed to be fraudulent. In those days the best way of influencing the share price of a company was to write a popular book, and Clavière employed two impoverished hack-writers to do this who were soon to become globally-famous revolutionaries, Jacques-Pierre Brissot and Victor Riqueti, the Comte de Mirabeau. So despondent did he become about European prospects that Clavière became a major investor in land in the United States. He purchased a ticket for Brissot, who travelled by ship to the new republic to meet leading politicians and create a new Geneva across the Atlantic. Everything turned upside down when the most enormous upheaval occurred in the history of politics in Paris, when starving men and women initiated revolution, broke down the walls of the Bastille prison and decapitated its governor, parading his bloody head through the streets as an emblem of liberty.

Recognised by key players in the French Revolution as an economic theorist of genius, Clavière once more found himself at the centre of events, with his own salon, newspaper and journal. His old employee Mirabeau was now, by the autumn of 1789, the leader of the revolution. As Mirabeau lived a debauched life and did not have time to work, Clavière and other Genevans wrote his speeches. Clavière is reputed to have drafted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, although he had no faith in such binding manifestos actually changing the way people behaved. He also created the system of paper money known as the assignats, which was based on the ownership of land confiscated from the church and the aristocracy. Clavière believed that if you owned land you could not run away from political crises. People in politics who could liquidate their assets were never to be trusted. Clavière was so venerated as a political economist that he became Louis XIV’s last chancellor, and then the first finance minister of the First French Republic created in 1792. Thomas Jefferson asked him to help to increase commerce with the United States of America, seeing him as having complete control over French trade policy.

The French Revolution then did what Clavière had anticipated, turning its wrath against its own heroes. Clavière’s ministry was kicked out of office. Robespierre and the Jacobins took power, dispensing ‘justice’ through their Committee of Public Safety. They took the decision to murder their political opponents, generating popular support for the revolution by routing out so-called enemies. The resulting Reign of Terror was brutal; 16,594 official death sentences were dispensed throughout France, and an additional 10,000 people died in prison without trial. We do not know why Clavière failed to run away. He was placed under house arrest in September 1793 and then was imprisoned in the Conciergerie goal – the old palace of French kings. Marie Antoinette had been imprisoned there too. Bound for the guillotine, Claviere wanted to avoid the confiscation of his assets and property so he could leave them to his wife, whom he adored. He committed suicide, reputedly by slitting his throat with an ivory dagger he had hidden on his person, late one night, keeping silent as he lay bleeding to death in order to avoid waking the guards stationed outside the doors, who would have dragged him to the execution block. His wife, on learning the news by letter the next day, committed suicide by throwing herself into the River Seine.

The great tragedy of Clavière’s life was not his death, political failure or neglect by history. None of this would have perturbed him. Rather, he would have been saddened that subsequent generations failed to generate tactics capable of halting the growth of capitalism and globalisation.

During his life Clavière enunciated four key principles of radical reform. The first was that the economy itself had to be moralised. Any act that could not be justified morally in the pursuit of wealth had to be outlawed. Clavière was one of the most successful entrepreneurs of his time but refused to be seen as having special powers or beyond the rule of law. Business was like any other branch of life. This was why slavery made no sense to Clavière and turned all those involved in the trade into monsters whose evil deeds would infect the whole of society. Free markets – which Clavière advocated everywhere – could only be said to be free if the practices they legitimised could be seen to be moral.

Clavière’s second principle was that all persons in a society should enjoy moderate wealth. There was nothing wrong with trade per se, but when capitalist states were captured by the rich the result, whether they realised it or not, would be the ruin and neglect of the poor. Clavière was obsessed with life assurance and general insurance schemes to protect people in time of crisis or adversity. What we now call a welfare state was, to Clavière, an obvious need in any society. He did not believe this could ever be established, or survive, if some individuals were so rich normal laws did not apply to them. He worried that in times of turbulence the rich could liquidise their assets and cross national borders, often getting away from the disasters they themselves had caused. Laws to perpetuate aristocracy, such as primogeniture and entail in Britain, had to be abolished.

The third principle of Clavière’s political philosophy was the most radical of all. He saw global trade conducted by a mercantile elite generating vast profits for individuals and for the state that supported them. Both the rich and the state became addicted, he said, to wars in the service of empire. This was the condition of modern Europe, with commercial states exploiting the rest of the globe in order to generate revenues to pay for an ever-escalating arms race. The hardest task of any legislator, statesman or politician was to abolish empire and war in the service of the economic dominion of another nation or community. Clavière knew that empire and economic control destroyed local cultures. The homogenisation of modern culture was for Clavière one of the worst effects of global capitalism. Clavière believed he had seen the process in Geneva, where a simple society of peaceable Calvinists living without luxury had been seduced into superficiality by the attractions of French hedonism and the lust of the rich for ever more gold.

The fourth and final principle is the one that makes least sense today. Through bitter experience Clavière confirmed his longstanding view that popular violence was the worst possible political tactic because it fostered extremism. He belonged to a longer tradition of radicalism that we have entirely lost sight of, because both our right and our left today see rapid revolution or transformation as a valid political tactic. Clavière’s view was that revolution made no sense unless a populace was ready for it. Change needed to be planned. Education had to come first, for everyone. Clavière was a rare person who believed in republican ideology before the French Revolution. But he said it would take at least twenty years to get the education right before change could take effect, otherwise fanatics would take control of the process, rebellion would descend into terror, and a tyrant promising the restoration of order would emerge, most likely from the ranks of the military. In short, Clavière would have been unsurprised by history since 1789 with its perpetual cycles of rebellion, revolution, civil war, and tyranny against a background of growing globalisation and rampant capitalism.

Richard Whatmore

Richard Whatmore is Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews and Director of the Institute of Intellectual History. His books include: Republicanism and the French Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2000), Against War and Empire: Geneva, Britain and France in the Eighteenth Century (Yale University Press, 2012), What is Intellectual History? (Polity Press, 2015) and Terrorists, Anarchists, and Republicans. The Genevans and the Irish in time of Revolution (Princeton University Press, 2019).

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