Letter to Joseph Milligan

Letter to Joseph Milligan, April 6, 1816 (On political economy)

Sir--Your favor of March 6th did not come to hand until the 15th. I then expected I should finish revising the translation of Tracy's book within a week, and could send the whole together. I got through it, but, on further consideration, thought I ought to read it over again, lest any errors should have been left in it. It was fortunate I did so, for I found several little errors. The whole is now done and forwarded by this mail, with a title, and something I have written which may serve for a Prospectus, and indeed for a Preface also, with a little alteration. You will see from the face of the work what a horrible job I have had in the revisal. It is so defaced that it is absolutely necessary you should have a fair copy taken, and by a person of good understanding, for that will be necessary to decipher the erasures, interlineations, etc., of the translation. The translator's orthography, too, will need great correction, as you will find a multitude of words shamefully misspelt; and he seems to have had no idea of the use of stops: he uses the comma very commonly for a full stop; and as often the full stop, followed by a capital letter, for a comma. Your copyist will, therefore, have to stop it properly quite through the work. Still, there will be places where it cannot be stopped correctly without reference to the original; for I observed many instances where a member of a sentence might be given either to the preceding or following one, grammatically, which would yet make the sense very different, and could, therefore, be rectified only by the original. I have, therefore, thought it would be better for you to send me the proof sheets as they come out of the press. We have two mails a week, which leave this Wednesdays and Saturdays, and you should always receive it by return of the first mail. Only observe that I set out for Bedford in five or six days, and shall not be back till the first week in May.

The original construction of the style of the translation was so bungling, that although I have made it render the author's sense faithfully, yet it was impossible to change the structure of the sentences to anything good. I have endeavored to apologize for it in the Prospectus; as also to prepare the reader for the dry, and to most of them, uninteresting character of the preliminary tracts, advising him to pass at once to the beginning of the main work, where, also, you will see I have recommended the beginning the principal series of pages. In this I have departed from the order of pages adopted by the author.

My name must in nowise appear connected with the work. I have no objection to your naming me in conversation, but not in print, as the person to whom the original was communicated. Although the author puts his name to the work, yet, if called to account for it by his government, he means to disavow it, which its publication at such a distance will enable him to do. But he would not think himself at liberty to do this if avowedly sanctioned by me here. The best open mark of approbation I can give is to subscribe for a dozen copies; or if you would prefer it, you may place on your subscription paper a letter in these words: “Sir, I subscribe with pleasure for a dozen copies of the invaluable book you are about to publish on Political Economy. I should be happy to see it in the hands of every American citizen.”

The Ainsworth, Ovid, Cornelius Nepos and Virgil, as also of the two books below mentioned, and formerly written for, I fear I shall not get, the Ovid and Nepos I sent to be bound, in time for the pocket in my Bedford trip. Accept my best wishes and respects.

TITLE.--“A Treatise on Political Economy by the Count Destutt Tracy, member of the Senate and Institute of France, and of the American Philosophical Society, to which is prefixed a supplement to a preceding work on the Understanding or Elements of Ideology, by the same author, with an analytical table, and an introduction on the faculty of the will, translated from the unpublished French original.”

Prospectus.--Political Economy in modem times assumed the form of a regular science first in the hands of the political sect in France, called the Economists. They made it a branch only of a comprehensive system on the natural order of societies. Quesnai first, Gournay, Le Frosne, Turgot and DuPont de Nemours, the enlightened, philanthropic, and venerable citizen, now of the United States, led the way in these developments, and gave to our inquiries the direction they have since observed.Many sound and valuable principles established by them, have received the sanction of general approbation. Some, as in the infancy of a science might be expected, have been brought into question, and have furnished occasion for much discussion. Their opinions on production, and on the proper subjects of taxation, have been particularly controverted; and whatever may be the merit of their principles of taxation, it is not wonderful they have not prevailed; not on the questioned score of correctness, but because not acceptable to the people, whose will must be the supreme law. Taxation is in fact the most difficult function of government--and that against which their citizens are most apt to be refractory. The general aim is therefore to adopt the mode most consonant with the circumstances and sentiments of the country.

Adam Smith, first in England, published a rational and systematic work on Political Economy, adopting generally the ground of the Economists, but differing on the subjects before specified. The system being novel, much argument and detail seemed then necessary to establish principles which now are assented to as soon as proposed. Hence his book, admitted to be able, and of the first degree of merit, has yet been considered as prolix and tedious.
In France, John Baptist Say has the merit of producing a very superior work on the subject of Political Economy. His arrangement is luminous, ideas clear, style perspicuous, and the whole subject brought within half the volume of Smith's work. Add to this considerable advances in correctness and extension of principles.

The work of Senator Tracy, now announced, comes forward with all the lights of his predecessors in the science, and with the advantages of further experience, more discussion, and greater maturity of subjects. It is certainly distinguished by important traits; a cogency of logic which has never been exceeded in any work, a rigorous enchainment of ideas, and constant recurrence to it to keep it in the reader's view, a fearless pursuit of truth whithersoever it leads, and a diction so correct that not a word can be changed but for the worse; and, as happens in other cases, that the more a subject is understood, the more briefly it may be explained, he has reduced, not indeed all the details, but all the elements and the system of principles within the compass of an 8vo, of about 400 pages. Indeed we might say within two-thirds of that space, the one-third being taken up with some preliminary pieces now to be noticed.

Mr. Tracy is the author of a treatise on the Elements of Ideology, justly considered as a production of the first order in the science of our thinking faculty, or of the understanding. Considering the present work but as a second section to those Elements under the titles of Analytical Table, Supplement, and Introduction, he gives in these preliminary pieces a supplement to the Elements, shows how the present work stands on that as its basis, presents a summary view of it, and, before entering on the formation, distribution, and employment of property and personality, a question not new indeed, yet one which has not hitherto been satisfactorily settled. These investigations are very metaphysical, profound, and demonstrative, and will give satisfaction to minds in the habit of abstract speculation. Readers, however, not disposed to enter into them, after reading the summary view, entitled, “on our actions,” will probably pass on at once to the commencement of the main subject of the work, which is treated of under the following heads:
Of Society.
Of Production, or the formation of our riches.
Of Value, or the measure of utility.
Of change of form, or fabrication.
Of change of place, or commerce.
Of Money.
Of the distribution of our riches.
Of Population.
Of the employment of our riches, or consumption.
Of public revenue, expenses and debts.

Although the work now offered is but a translation, it may be considered in some degree as the original, that having never been published in the country in which it was written. The author would there have been submitted to the unpleasant alternative either of mutilating his sentiments, where they were either free or doubtful, or of risking himself under the unsettled regimen of the press. A manuscript copy communicated to a friend here has enabled him to give it to a country which is afraid to read nothing, and which may be trusted with anything, so long as its reason remains unfettered by law.

In the translation, fidelity has been chiefly consulted. A more correct style would sometimes have given a shade of sentiment which was not the author's, and which, in a work standing in the place of the original, would have been unjust towards him. Some Gallicisms have, therefore, been admitted, where a single word gives an idea which would require a whole phrase of dictionary English. Indeed, the horrors of Neologism, which startle the purist, have given no alarm to the translator. Where brevity, perspicuity, and even euphony can be promoted by the introduction of a new word, it is an improvement to the language. It is thus the English language has been brought to what it is; one-half of it having been innovations, made at different times, from the Greek, Latin, French, and other languages. And is it the worse for these? Had the preposterous idea of fixing the language been adopted by our Saxon ancestors, of Pierce Plowman, of Chaucer, of Spenser, the progress of ideas must have stopped with that of the language. On the contrary, nothing is more evident than that as we advance in the knowledge of new things, and of new combinations of old ones, we must have new words to express them. Were Van Helmont, Stane, Scheele, to rise from the dead at this time, they would scarcely understand one word of their own science.. Would it have been better, then, to have abandoned the science of Chemistry, rather than admit innovations in its terms? What a wonderful accession of copiousness and force has the French language attained, by the innovations of the last thirty years! And what do we not owe to Shakespeare for the enrichment of the language, by his free and magical creation of words? In giving a loose to Neologism, indeed, uncouth words will sometimes be offered; but the public will judge them, and receive or reject, as sense or sound shall suggest, and authors will be approved or condemned according to the use they make of this license, as they now are from their use of the present vocabulary. The claim of the present translation, however, is limited to its duties of fidelity and justice to the sense of its original; adopting the author's own word only where no term of our own language would convey his meaning.

(A Note communicated to the Editor.)
Our author's classification of taxes being taken from those practised in France, will scarcely be intelligible to an American reader, to whom the nature as well as names of some of them must be unknown. The taxes with which we are familiar, class themselves readily according to the basis on which they rest. 1. Capital. 2. Income. 3. Consumption. These may be considered as commensurate; Consumption being generally equal to Income, and Income the annual profit of Capital. A government may select either of these bases for the establishment of its system of taxation, and so frame it as to reach the faculties of every member of the society, and to draw from him his equal proportion of the public contributions; and, if this be correctly obtained, it is the perfection of the function of taxation. But when once a government has assumed its basis, to select and tax special articles from either of the other classes, is double taxation. For example, if the system be established on the basis of Income, and his just proportion on that scale has been already drawn from every one, to step into the field of Consumption, and tax special articles in that, as broadcloth or homespun, wine or whiskey, a coach or a wagon, is doubly taxing the same article. For that portion of Income with which these articles are purchased, having already paid its tax as Income, to pay another tax on the thing it purchased, is paying twice for the same thing; it is an aggrievance on the citizens who use these articles in exoneration of those who do not, contrary to the most sacred of the duties of a government, to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens.

How far it may be the interest and the duty of all to submit to this sacrifice on other grounds, for instance, to pay for a time an impost on the importation of certain articles, in order to encourage their manufacture at home, or an excise on others injurious to the morals or health of the citizens, will depend on a series of considerations of another order, and beyond the proper limits of this note. The reader, in deciding which basis of taxation is most eligible for the local circumstances of his country, will, of course, avail himself of the weighty observations of our author.

To this a single observation shall yet be added. Whether property alone, and the whole of what each citizen possesses, shall be subject to contribution, or only its surplus after satisfying his first wants, or whether the faculties of body and mind shall contribute also from their annual earnings, is a question to be decided. But, when decided, and the principle settled, it is to be equally and fairly applied to all. To take from one, because it is thought that his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, “the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry, and the fruits acquired by it.” If the overgrown wealth of an individual be deemed dangerous to the State, the best corrective is the law of equal inheritance to all in equal degree; and the better, as this enforces a law of nature, while extra-taxation violates it.