Monday, August 9, 2010

Jefferson, Voltaire, and Turgot

When I visited Monticello, I noticed two busts prominently displayed above the front door in the Entrance Hall, but I did not recognize the figures. Surely, whoever Jefferson might have chosen to grace his entry must be vital. The tour guide informed me that one bust was Voltaire, the quintessential man of the Enlightenment. No surprise there. The other bust, I was told, is Turgot. Hmmmm.

Well, it shouldn't surprise me that in a lecture I recently heard on the history of economic thought, the late Austrian economist and historian, Murray Rothbard, held Turgot to be among the seminal economists of the Enlightenment period, a pre-Austrian whose work and insights championing free markets and laissez faire pre-dated other Austrians by almost a century. Rothbard's paper on Turgot can be found
here and in more detail in the two volume set, An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought. Rothbard considers Turgot superior to Adam Smith and his work to be within an intellectual tradition linking Cantillon, Say and the Austrian tradition beginning with Menger and Bohm-Bawerk in the 19th century through Von Mises and continuing today. That Jefferson had pretty good taste...

The two busts are modern plaster copies of the originals by the famed sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. The originals have not been located, but notes found after Jefferson's death indicate their location to have been the Entrance Hall. Jefferson's home also contained busts of Washington, Marquis de Lafayette, Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones, and others. I highly recommend a book titled The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, which is a beautifully illustrated encyclopedia of the works located there. The Monticello site has a virtual tour of the home including the Entrance Hall.


  1. I'd never heard of Turgot before. Interesting!

    Houdon is terrific, and his clientele is a laundry list of the great minds and personalities of the Enlightenment. I didn't really appreciate him until an exhibition came to Denver and I could see the work in person all together:

  2. Thanks for this interesting bit of research. I hope to follow up sometime in the future with the link you have provided.

  3. For a less flattering view of Turgot and the influence he had in laying the foundation for the Reign of Terror, see C. Bradley Thompson's book on John Adams.

  4. Jim, curious, what's his essential claim?

  5. Does anyone know any other blogs on art from the objectivist perspective?

  6. @Jim: I too would be interested in what C. Bradley says about Turgot. My reading suggests this is one of those few occasions Rothbard got something right. (His history of the cause and early years of the Great Depression is another.)

    @ Doug: Thanks for the info about Jefferson's busts, Doug.

    @johnbranflake: May I humbly submit my own blog's art and architecture posts for your delectation. And there is an 'Art & Architecture blogroll down the sidebar, where you will a few others. Though it does need updating.