France is not known today for its vigorous support of free markets, and yet it was France that gave the world the term most used by advocates of free trade: laissez-faire. The development of modern economics included many famous French writers. Among them was the famous classical school economist and Adam Smith enthusiast Jean-Baptiste Say (1767–1832).

Say was born in Lyons. He was well educated in schools there, then sent by his father to London for two years to study business practices. He rejoined his family in 1787 at their new home in Paris. There, he worked for an insurance company run by Etienne Claviere, who played an important role in the French Revolution that eventually cost him his life. Say was luckier. His marriage in 1793 exempted him from France’s universal conscription laws. Just prior to his marriage, he did serve briefly in a volunteer battalion, but after marrying he was never again involved with the military. Say first began writing for public consumption during this period of unrest and war, 1789–95. His initial work was a pamphlet on press freedom published in 1789. It had little immediate influence.

Say retreated to the countryside during the height of Robespierre’s revolutionary terror, becoming part owner and co-editor of a new philosophical journal, Decade philosophique, litteraire et politique . He managed to avoid any serious negative consequences from the revolutionary period’s late, murderous frenzy. His first book, Olbie, was published in 1800 and addressed the question: “What are the means of establishing moral behavior among a people?” Readers can see in this work the sort of moral arguments that infused early writing in political economy and the germ of Say’s famous A Treatise on Political Economy. But his first foray into political economy was not well timed.

Between 1800 and 1814, France was ruled by Napoleon Bonaparte, who disliked much of Say’s Treatise when it first appeared in 1803. For that reason, the book was not reprinted, although German and Spanish editions came out shortly after it was published. Napoleon demanded revisions before the book would be allowed a second printing, and even offered Say employment at court. Say declined his offers and instead went into business by opening a cotton-spinning factory. (Many years later, in 1815, Say would once again deny Napoleon supporters their request for a document that argued that the former emperor—then seeking to return to power after escaping exile on Elba—was fiscally responsible.)

Say pursued his business interests for eight years, all but abandoning hope of being an economist. He was discouraged by what had happened politically to France. Originally a Napoleon supporter, Say became one of his many critics. During this period, the works of France’s early 18th century free trade advocates had a declining influence on their nation’s trade policies, although their beliefs generally prevailed in places such as Great Britain and America. Schumpeter (1954, pp. 392–93) argues that this forced entrepreneurial period benefited Say because he learned more than economic theoretical abstractions as he dealt with real-world business decisions.

During this time, Say wrote to Thomas Jefferson about possible emigration to America. Say had become a successful factory owner, employing 400 people by 1810. When he wrote Jefferson, the U.S. was at war with Great Britain, so such a move would have been difficult, if not impossible. And slavery was an issue if Say was to be a Virginia planter like Jefferson. Say adamantly opposed slavery (Palmer 1997, pp. 85–87; Say 1971, pp. 206–09). For these reasons, Jefferson sought to dissuade Say from attempting to emigrate. At the same time, Napoleon was suffering his final defeat at Waterloo. With Napoleon’s departure, the French monarchy was restored in the person of Louis XVIII, and Say decided to remain in France.

In 1815, he began giving lectures at the Athenaeum that were anthologized into a short book. Say tried to educate the general public, just as he had with his Treatise in 1803, about what he considered the “laws of scientific economics.” He had revisited England in 1814, commissioned by France’s new government to write a report on England’s economic and social development.

During the four months he spent in England, Say was conflicted about what he saw, admiring some things while deploring others. But he formed important friendships with such economic notables as Thomas Malthus, James Mill, Jeremy Benthem and David Ricardo. While visiting Glasgow, he sat in Adam Smith’s professorial chair, a very emotional moment for Say. His views of England were no doubt affected by the criticisms and observations of his new acquaintances, especially their opinions on the monopoly grant to the East India Company and England’s agricultural protectionism through the Corn Laws. Both these problems would eventually end, the former through bankruptcy and the latter through repeal, ushering in England’s free trade years during the late 19th century. But Say would not live to see these beneficial changes.

Three editions of his Treatise had been published by 1820, and Say was internationally known. He was asked to provide extensive commentaries on Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817) and Malthus’ Principles of Political Economy (1820). Given his increasing fame, Say was offered a chair in industrial economy at the Conservatory of Arts and Trades. This name was chosen because some in the French government were afraid that the term “political economy” gave too much prestige to teachers outside the government, creating a platform from which they would criticize state decisions. Say lectured at the conservatory for 10 years, coexisting with a government suspicious of academic critics. Some who said things that displeased the state had their courses closed. Finally, a little more than a year before his death, Say was awarded a chair in political economy at the College of France. Say thought his discipline ought to have been called “social economy” because economic laws and economic policies affected all society.

Although in poor health during the final years of his life, Say remained productive with lecturing, writing and overseeing the fifth edition of his Treatise, published in 1826. His wife died in 1830, leaving him lonely and depressed. In 1832, at age 65, a few weeks after giving his opening lecture at the College of France for the new term, he followed her in death.

Say has been credited with much more than what came to be called Say’s Law of Markets. He was either the first, or among the first, to introduce into the classical school paradigm such concepts as utility, services and entrepreneur. Because he was fluent in English, knew his British classical school contemporaries well and corresponded with them frequently, he was able to facilitate the international flow of ideas. By 1826, his own major work had been translated into German, English, Swedish, Danish, Italian and Spanish.

Unwittingly, John Maynard Keynes might be primarily responsible for the reassessment of Say’s place in the history of economic thought. By attacking Say’s Law, Keynes forced this reexamination on the profession, although that was probably not his intention. The reassessment has, on balance, enhanced Say’s place in history.